Articles by Paul Thomason



It is star­tling to real­ize that Leoš Janáček’s enchant­i­ng yet pro­found opera, The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vix­en, had its ori­gin in what was close to being a news­pa­per car­toon strip.

From April through June, 1920, Brno’s pop­u­lar lib­er­al dai­ly, Lidové noviny, pub­lished the illus­trat­ed sto­ry of a clever vix­en con­stant­ly out­wit­ting a forester. The 200 or so sketch­es had been drawn by the painter Stanislav Lolek (1873 – 1936) who had been appren­ticed as a forester before turn­ing to art. One of the paper’s edi­tors saw the sketch­es and assigned Rudolf Těs­nohlídek (1882 – 1928), the Lidové noviny’s law reporter, to come up with some text to accom­pa­ny the illus­tra­tions.

The print­er mis­took Těsnohlídek’s orig­i­nal title, “Liš­ka Bystronož­ka” (Vix­en Fleet­foot) for “Liš­ka Bystrouž­ka” (Vix­en Sharp-Ears”) — and so she has been ever since. Janáček’s title for his opera is Adven­tures of the Vix­en Bystroušky (Příhody Lišky Bystroušky). When Max Brod trans­lat­ed the opera into Ger­man, the title became Das schlaue Füch­slein or The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vix­en—the title by which the opera is known almost every­where out­side of Janáček’s home­land.

The dif­fer­ence in the word­ing of the title is not mere pedantry. As Michael Ewans has point­ed out in Janáček’s Trag­ic Operas, the Ger­man and Eng­lish trans­lat­ed titles “are sad­ly symp­to­matic: the West has shown too lit­tle abil­i­ty to inter­pret an opera whose vision is as far from Dis­ney as it is from the clum­sy sym­bol­ism of Max Brod’s ‘arrange­ment for the Ger­man stage.’ Janáček’s ani­mals are not patron­ized or sen­ti­men­tal­ized by the attri­bu­tion of human fea­tures: human singers and dancers, tak­ing on the masks and skins of insect, bird or ani­mal, find them­selves for the dura­tion of this opera mem­bers of an order nobler, by its deep humor and its sim­ple, amoral enjoy­ment of life, than that of human­i­ty. The par­tic­u­lar moments where ani­mals assume the man­ners of men sat­i­rize human rather than ani­mal behav­ior; no ani­mal is por­trayed iron­i­cal­ly, except the dog and hens who have suc­cumbed self-right­eous­ly to exploita­tion by mankind.”

This unsen­ti­men­tal view of the opera is shared by Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of Aspen Opera The­ater Cen­ter. “In our pro­duc­tion, the sense of char­ac­ter, in terms of ani­mals, is going to be strong, but it def­i­nite­ly is going to go away from ‘cute.’ The peri­od will be the 1920’s or ’30s with a Euro­pean fla­vor. It will be call­ing back to a time of aware­ness of the earth and the val­ues of the earth, a kind of re-find­ing one­self in nature.”

Through­out all the adven­tures the Vix­en has dur­ing the course of the opera, there is a strong under­ly­ing theme of the rela­tion­ship between humans and the world of nature. Janáček empha­sized this part of the work — as well as the cycli­cal nature of renew­al found in life itself — by the changes he made in Těsnohlídek’s orig­i­nal ver­sion.

Těsnohlídek’s sto­ry was large­ly devot­ed to the numer­ous adven­tures of Vix­en Sharp-Ears, cul­mi­nat­ing in her mar­riage to the Fox. Janáček, how­ev­er, used this end­ing to the orig­i­nal sto­ry as the finale to Act Two of his opera. For Act Three, the com­pos­er used a few inci­dents from ear­li­er in Těsnohlídek’s sto­ry, pri­mar­i­ly the inci­dent with Haraš­ta the poach­er — but with a major dif­fer­ence. In Janáček’s ver­sion, the poach­er kills the Vix­en, which com­plete­ly changes the nature of the work. How­ev­er, the pro­fun­di­ty of Janáček’s ver­sion is sealed by not end­ing the opera with Sharp-Ear’s death (which would be mere­ly sen­ti­men­tal), but by the last two scenes of the opera which are Janáček’s inven­tion.

The almost painful nos­tal­gia of the scene at the Inn where the School­mas­ter real­izes his beloved There­sa has mar­ried anoth­er man, and the Forester announces the Vix­en has left her bur­row and dis­ap­peared, gives way to the aston­ish­ing trans­for­ma­tion scene with which the opera ends.  The Forester enters the for­est with his gun, as he did at the begin­ning of the opera. But this time — because of his rela­tion­ship with the Vix­en, and because he has been open to learn from her — he sees Nature in all its beau­ty, and it renews him. He val­ues not only the mush­room he picks, but every­thing he sees. Unlike the mem­o­ries he has of his wed­ding day in the open­ing scene (“I feel as tired as I did on my wed­ding night. The next day I was dead to the world” — an obvi­ous metaphor to his being dead to the world of nature in which he found him­self) this time — as he rev­els in the splen­dor of nature all around him — he remem­bers the pas­sion of the love they had felt and the all con­sum­ing kiss­es they had shared.  As in the open­ing scene, the Forester falls asleep, and this time meets the descen­dants of the Vix­en and the Frog from Act One.

In an mar­velous touch, the huge dra­mat­ic arch the Forester has trav­eled since we first met him is deft­ly con­veyed by Janáček’s last stage direc­tion in the piece, the last words in the score: “Absent­mind­ed­ly, the Forester lets his gun slip to the ground.”  He no longer needs it. He is at peace with Nature.

When Max Brod want­ed Janáček to write some final words for the Forester “in which he could sink into rumi­na­tion,” the com­pos­er adamant­ly refused. “In the final scene the Forester’s gun sim­ply slips from his hand,” he insist­ed. “Noth­ing more; let every­one work out for him­self what he will.”

Vix­en is a life-giv­ing piece,” Berke­ley explains. “That sense of renew­al — that we don’t loose the past, but we grow by accept­ing it. By accept­ing the Vixen’s death, and then look­ing into the future, the shape of the opera says that death is a nat­ur­al part of things, and from that sense of renew­al we can learn and grow.

The work is a para­ble about what we should appre­ci­ate and learn from nature and the nat­ur­al cycle — and about male/female rela­tion­ship in gen­er­al.”  Berke­ley agrees with the crit­ic who said the Vix­en is the embod­i­ment of unre­strained fem­i­nin­i­ty. “The growth of the piece is toward her own dis­cov­ery of that — and the Forester dis­cov­er­ing that. The scene with the Fox, at the end of Act Two, is where it all comes out. That’s a glo­ri­ous moment!”

Aside from a few moments, such as the humor­ous polit­i­cal harangue the Vix­en gives the Hens in Act One, there are com­par­a­tive­ly few words in the opera’s libret­to. It is the music, by far, through which Janáček sub­tly con­veys the shift­ing rela­tion­ships. “The musi­cal insight lav­ished on the depic­tion of each suc­ces­sive stage of [the Vixen’s] life is intend­ed to have deep mean­ing for us,” writes Ewans. “Human beings, like vix­ens, are born, grow, mar­ry and die; those seen in the opera live lives poor in com­par­i­son with Bystrouška’s — except for the Forester, whose road to wis­dom is care­ful­ly chart­ed, and on whose clos­ing vision Janáček lav­ished some of his most inspired music.… Janáček illu­mi­nates for us the cycles of life and nature; and at the same time he shows us arche­types of the moral­i­ty of the humans who can­not accept those cycles — and the road by which one human even­tu­al­ly can.”

The orches­tral inter­ludes and mimes/dances were inte­gral parts of Janáček’s vision of the sto­ry from the very begin­ning, and he resist­ed all well-mean­ing sug­ges­tions to add con­ven­tion­al arias so the ani­mals could “explain” things.

The Vix­en is a for­est idyll; only a hint should sur­face of our cycle and that of ani­mal life,” he wrote to his pub­lish­er. “That is enough — it is true that for most this sym­bol­ism is too lit­tle. The Vix­en can only eat rab­bits, not romances and arias.”

I’m hop­ing the audi­ence will come away from the per­for­mances real­ly lov­ing the music,” says Berke­ley. “That sounds like such a cliché, but for me the piece is such a rev­e­la­tion of Janáček’s incred­i­ble musi­cal style that is real­ly a unique voice. It’s an impor­tant voice. It’s roman­tic, it’s very beau­ti­ful, and here it’s con­vey­ing a quite seri­ous vision of nature, and the impor­tance of nature in our lives.  As we destroy the envi­ron­ment, we should be learn­ing how to restore our­selves the way nature does, and renew our­selves, rather than destroy­ing each oth­er and destroy­ing nature.”


Janáček and Ani­mals

Janáček loved ani­mals and the fam­i­ly always had numer­ous pets: dogs, pigeons, a gold finch — and three hens.  Marie Ste­jskalová, the Janáček’s ser­vant for over 40 years, remem­bered, “Janáček talked to the hens as to chil­dren, they looked at him, answered some­thing and he under­stood. In the evening, when he sat down in the gar­den in his arm­chair to read the paper, he rapped on the table, like a school­mas­ter at school. The hens came run­ning at once, jumped up [onto the table] and kept him com­pa­ny.”

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1922, while he was work­ing on The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vix­en, Janáček and some friends went into the for­est near Huk­valdy to observe a fam­i­ly of fox­es. The game­keep­er, J. D. Sládek, lat­er wrote, “We reached Babí hora [Old Woman Moun­tain], and indeed, as if to order, the vixen’s fam­i­ly emerged from the den and began to show off and frisk about. Janáček start­ed twitch­ing with excite­ment until in the end he fright­ened the fox­es away.

‘Why couldn’t you keep still, Dr. Janáček? You could have gone on look­ing?’

Janáček, com­plete­ly exhil­a­rat­ed and hap­py, just brushed this aside. ‘I saw her! I saw her!’


This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the Aspen Opera The­ater pro­gram, 2005.

The pho­to at the top of the arti­cle is by Jonn Leff­mann.

The draw­ings in the arti­cle are Stanislav Lolek’s of “Vix­en Fleet­foot.”





Poulenc — Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano



Fran­cis Jean Mar­cel Poulenc (1899 – 1963) had an upbring­ing that could hard­ly have been more for­tu­nate, giv­en his even­tu­al career. He was born in Paris to a wealthy fam­i­ly of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal man­u­fac­tur­ers. The arts were an impor­tant part of the Poulenc house­hold, and the young boy’s inter­est in them was encour­aged, espe­cial­ly by his moth­er, her­self a pianist of some tal­ent. At the age of five, Poulenc began piano lessons with her. She steered him to the music of Mozart, Chopin, Scar­lat­ti, and Couperin and lat­er fos­tered his explo­rations of com­posers such a Debussy, Rav­el, and Stravin­sky. She also firm­ly resist­ed all attempts to force her son into the rigid, scholas­tic edu­ca­tion of the day. From her broth­er, Poulenc’s Uncle Papoum, young Fran­cis devel­oped a life­long delight in Parisian the­ater and café life in all its forms.

At six­teen, Poulenc began study­ing with Ricar­do Viñes, a pianist who often per­formed the works of his friends Rav­el and Debussy and who was a staunch sup­port­er of avant-garde music. It was through Viñes that Poulenc met Erik Satie, who would be a great influ­ence on him. While still a teenag­er, Poulenc met Auric, Honeg­ger, and Mil­haud, and to them he ded­i­cat­ed his first pub­lished com­po­si­tion, Rap­sodie négre. Writ­ten in 1917 and revised in 1933 Rap­sodie négre made it clear, once and for all, that Poulenc and the French musi­cal estab­lish­ment of the time were unsuit­ed to each oth­er. The direc­tor of the Paris Con­ser­va­to­ry told the eigh­teen-year-old com­pos­er, “Your music stinks, it is noth­ing but a load of balls. Are you try­ing to make a fool of me? Ah, I see you have joined the gang of Stravin­sky, Satie and com­pa­ny. Well then, I’ll say good­bye.”

Though Poulenc briefly stud­ied with Rav­el, Charles Koech­lin was the one who gave the young man the ground­ing he need­ed in order for his pro­found musi­cal indi­vid­u­al­i­ty to blos­som con­fi­dent­ly. Today, the indi­vid­u­al­i­ty of his music has made Poulenc the dom­i­nant mem­ber of Les Six, a com­pos­er whose stature seems to grow with time. While he was alive, how­ev­er, Poulenc’s works were often treat­ed dis­mis­sive­ly, lead­ing the com­pos­er to remark to a friend that though he was “not intox­i­cat­ed with the idea of being a Grand Musi­cian, it nonethe­less exas­per­ates me to be thought of by so many peo­ple as noth­ing more than a ‘petit maître éro­tique’.” His col­league Igor Stravin­sky thought oth­er­wise: “You are tru­ly good, and that is what I find again and again and again in your music.”

The wit, ebul­lience, and Gal­lic charm that mis­tak­en­ly led peo­ple to under­val­ue Poulenc’s music — as well as the superb crafts­man­ship which Stravin­sky and oth­er com­posers so admired — are ful­ly present in Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bas­soon, and Piano. Writ­ten in Cannes in 1926 and ded­i­cat­ed to Manuel de Fal­la, the Trio reflects the composer’s own con­sid­er­able abil­i­ties as a pianist (he often per­formed in con­cert and toured sev­er­al times with the bari­tone Pierre Bernac and lat­er with sopra­no Denise Duval) and his love of wind instru­ments.

The Trio is in three move­ments. The first (marked Presto) begins with a six­teen-mea­sure intro­duc­tion, slow — one might almost say por­ten­tous — and com­plete­ly oppo­site to the play­ful qual­i­ty of the rest of this move­ment, which one writer has called “roco­co crossed with Offen­bachi­an opéra bouffe.”  The more lyric sec­ond move­ment (Andante) demon­strates ful­ly the composer’s aston­ish­ing melod­ic gifts, cou­pled with his abil­i­ty to use sub­tle har­mon­ic shifts to alter the emo­tion­al col­or of the music. The last move­ment (Ron­do) is a rol­lick­ing mod­ern ver­sion of the baroque French gigue, mod­i­fied by Poulenc’s own sen­si­bil­i­ties. The entire work is delight­ful, potent, and sec.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nal­ly in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here with per­mis­sion.






[Adeli­na] Pat­ti con­tin­ued her new depar­ture into Wag­n­er­land by singing Elisabeth’s prayer from Tannhäuser,” wrote George Bernard Shaw on July 18, 1894. “Now, if I express some skep­ti­cism as to whether Pat­ti cares a snap of her fin­gers for Elis­a­beth or Wag­n­er, I may, after all these years of ‘Una voce’ and ‘Bel rag­gio,’ very well be par­doned. But it is beyond all doubt that Pat­ti cares most intense­ly for the beau­ty of her own voice and the per­fec­tion of her singing. What is the result? She attacks the prayer with the sin­gle aim of mak­ing it sound as beau­ti­ful as pos­si­ble; and this being pre­cise­ly what Wagner’s own musi­cal aim was, she goes straight to the right phras­ing, the right vocal touch, and the right turn of every musi­cal fig­ure, thus mak­ing her Ger­man rivals not only appear in com­par­i­son clum­sy as singers, but actu­al­ly obtuse to Wagner’s mean­ing.

If Pat­ti were to return to the stage and play Isol­de, though she might very pos­si­bly stop the dra­ma half a dozen times in each act to acknowl­edge applause and work in an encore…the pub­lic might learn a good deal about Isol­de from her which they will nev­er learn from any of the illus­tri­ous band of Ger­man Wag­n­er hero­ines who are queens at Bayreuth, but who can­not sing a grup­pet­to for all that.”

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw, who knew a great deal about the art of singing and spent much of his tenure as music crit­ic bul­ly­ing the best singers of his day into adding Wag­n­er to their reper­to­ry, ends with a cou­ple of sen­tences that should be post­ed above the desk of every­one respon­si­ble for cast­ing opera today: “Wag­n­er means his music to be sung with the most exquis­ite sen­si­tive­ness in point of qual­i­ty of tone and pre­ci­sion of pitch, exact­ly as Mozart did…I am real­ly tired of going to the the­ater to hear the best music asso­ci­at­ed with the worst singing, and the best singing in the worst music.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for most opera singers — to say noth­ing of audi­ences — Wag­n­er him­self often sab­o­taged the per­for­mance of his works with “exquis­ite qual­i­ty of tone” by mak­ing sheer sur­vival a pre­em­i­nent con­sid­er­a­tion in some of his best-known roles. If a singer is wor­ried pri­mar­i­ly about just get­ting out the notes, being heard above a roar­ing orches­tra, and mak­ing it to the end of the evening, vocal nuance and qual­i­ty of tone are like­ly to be jet­ti­soned ear­ly on, in the inter­est of stay­ing afloat through a per­for­mance of Brünnhilde, Siegfried, Isol­de, or Tris­tan. It is pos­si­ble to sing Wagner’s heav­i­est roles beau­ti­ful­ly and still be heard, but how often does God send along a Kirsten Flagstad?

In Lohen­grin, Wag­n­er wrote an entire opera for human-size singers. To bor­row an anal­o­gy from the world of sports: if Ami­na in La Son­nam­bu­la and many of her bel can­to cousins can be com­pared to a hun­dred-yard sprint­er, and Siegfried or Tris­tan to an Olympic weight lifter, then Lohen­grin might be an ice skater, who needs sta­mi­na and phys­i­cal strength, but also grace and poise, as well as the abil­i­ty to main­tain a flu­id, long line. In Lohen­grin, Wag­n­er wrote roles that make their great­est effect, not through sheer lung pow­er but with the abil­i­ty to infuse a beau­ti­ful vocal line with all the nuances and yes, charm, a singer would use to bring to life an opera by Belli­ni or Donizetti. This in the process of con­struct­ing an opera made up of arias, ensem­bles, cho­rus­es and finales, which — when prop­er­ly per­formed — send shiv­ers of delight down the spines of bel can­to fans.

Wag­n­er him­self was thor­ough­ly famil­iar with bel can­to opera. As a young con­duc­tor he had pre­pared and led count­less per­for­mances of the reper­to­ry. While con­duct­ing in Riga, he even went so far as to doc­tor up a per­for­mance of Bellini’s Nor­ma by writ­ing an addi­tion­al aria for bass and male cho­rus, “Nor­ma, il pre­desse.” (Dur­ing his ear­ly years in Paris, Wag­n­er tried to talk the great bass Lui­gi Lablache into adding the aria to his por­tray­al of Oroveso, but this idea was turned down on the grounds that Nor­ma was too well known by the pub­lic to insert extra music.) In Paris, Wag­n­er often heard the great singers of his time, such as the tenor Gio­van­ni Bat­tista Rubi­ni, and the per­for­mances left an indeli­ble impres­sion on the young com­pos­er.

R[ichard] sings a can­tile­na from I Puri­tani and remarks that Belli­ni wrote melodies love­li­er than one’s dreams,” Cosi­ma Wag­n­er wrote in her diary on August 3, 1872. “The melody recalls Rubi­ni to him, how won­der­ful­ly he sang it, and he observes: ‘Our Ger­man singers have to go about it in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent way, because they have not got this gift.’ ” In March 1878, Wag­n­er enter­tained guests by play­ing parts of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Mon­tec­chi, La Straniera, and Nor­ma. “There is real pas­sion and feel­ing here, and the right singer has only to get up and sing it for it to win all hearts,” Cosi­ma quotes her hus­band as say­ing, “I have learned things from them which Messrs. Brahms & Co. have nev­er learned, and they can be seen in my melodies.”

Indeed they can. Take Elsa’s entrance aria, “Ein­sam in trüben Tagen.” Like many bel can­to entrance arias (Lucrezia Borgia’s “Com’è bel­lo,” for instance), on paper it looks sim­ple, but to make its effect, it must be not only beau­ti­ful­ly sung but mined for every emo­tion­al and musi­cal nuance, a dif­fi­cult feat. Oth­er­wise the aria falls flat.

In the best bel can­to tra­di­tion, Wag­n­er uses the vocal line itself to describe Elsa’s char­ac­ter. Her pure, trust­ing nature and lack of world­ly expe­ri­ence is reflect­ed in her rather nar­row vocal range: only from E‑flat above mid­dle C to A‑flat at the top of the staff, a note she sings only twice dur­ing the entire aria. Yet her sim­ple vocal line is stud­ded with grace notes — begin­ning in the very first mea­sure — and Wag­n­er con­struct­ed the aria to pro­vide numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties for por­ta­men­to, and for a sopra­no to col­or phras­es by using crescen­do and dimin­u­en­do, as well as by tak­ing sub­tle lib­er­ties with the rhythm, to vary their shape.

Rosa Pon­selle

A prime exam­ple of a singer doing exact­ly what needs to be done to bring the aria to life is to be found at the end of Rosa Ponselle’s 1923 record­ing. Though Pon­selle nev­er sang the role onstage, she record­ed the aria in Ger­man and, on the basis of this excerpt, could have been a superb Elsa. In the last phrase, “was ich bin!,” Pon­selle lingers on the E‑flat at the top of the staff (“was”), then slow­ly reduces its vol­ume, before using a por­ta­men­to down to the G (“ich”) and gen­tly lean­ing into and caress­ing the last note (“bin”). With just these three notes, there can be no doubt that Elsa is already in love with her cham­pi­on, even though he has not yet appeared. It is superb dra­ma, con­veyed sole­ly through the voice.

Ortrud too gains con­sid­er­able pow­er when she approach­es her phras­ing from a bel can­to stand­point, rather than being con­tent mere­ly to be a vocal blow­torch. Lis­ten­ing to Lohen­grin excerpts per­formed by the Vien­na State Opera dur­ing a vis­it to Paris in 1933 (Vol­ume 16 of the Vien­na State Opera Live series from Koch/Schwann), I was stunned by Gertrude Rünger’s great Act II out­burst, “Entweite Göt­ter!” Where many Ortruds sim­ply bel­low the F‑sharps at “Wodan!” and “Freia!” in mono­chro­mat­ic fash­ion, leav­ing the depic­tion of the dra­ma to the orches­tra, Rünger hits the cli­mac­tic notes clean­ly, exact­ly on pitch, ele­gant­ly. (Remem­ber, Ortrud is a noble­woman, and her fam­i­ly ruled the coun­try for gen­er­a­tions before the upstart Chris­tians took over.) Rünger then bor­rows from Wagner’s dynam­ic mark­ing for the tim­pani, mak­ing grad­ual crescen­dos on both of the F‑sharps. This gives her per­for­mance an astound­ing sense of pow­er in reserve. Just by her vocal inflec­tion on those two notes, Rünger lets us know her Ortrud still has plen­ty of tricks up her sleeve.

In the operas of Rossi­ni, Belli­ni, and Donizetti, the singer’s voice was supreme. The orches­tra was used to sup­port and frame the voice, nev­er to com­pete with it, a method Wag­n­er incor­po­rat­ed in Lohen­grin to a sur­pris­ing degree. Of course, it is Wag­n­er, so the Lohen­grin orches­tra is an impor­tant part of the dra­ma. But even a cur­so­ry glance at the score shows a con­sid­er­able amount of a cap­pel­la singing, which Wag­n­er uses to great dra­mat­ic pur­pose.

Take Lohengrin’s entrance. After being her­ald­ed by a rous­ing eight-part cho­rus and for­tis­si­mo orches­tra, Lohengrin’s first phrase is sung — a cap­pel­la. In fact, most of his farewell to the swan is unac­com­pa­nied; what dis­creet orches­tral col­or Wag­n­er uses is marked pianis­si­mo and is sup­posed to dimin­u­en­do fur­ther from that pianis­si­mo. Clear­ly Wag­n­er meant to use Lohengrin’s first thir­teen mea­sures to seduce the audi­ence by pure­ly vocal means, by the way the tenor shapes his phras­es, by the ele­gance and grace with which he sings Wagner’s embell­ish­ments.

Anoth­er exam­ple of Wagner’s use of a cap­pel­la singing appears at the begin­ning of the Act I finale, short­ly before Lohen­grin and Tel­ra­mund fight their duel. Here, Wag­n­er had the audac­i­ty to write an a cap­pel­la quin­tet! As if it were not tough enough for the singers to stay square­ly on pitch, Wag­n­er makes it even tougher: Ortrud, who has been stand­ing around ever since the cur­tain went up (about fifty min­utes before), final­ly sings for the first time all evening — a cap­pel­la. When Wag­n­er brings in the first male cho­rus, then the orches­tra, the effect is noth­ing short of hair-rais­ing.

But then, Wag­n­er also clear­ly under­stood the won­der­ful bel can­to tra­di­tion of the two-part oper­at­ic finale, that mass­ing onstage of cho­rus and prin­ci­pals, all of whom give voice to their (sep­a­rate) feel­ings at that moment, first in slow tem­po, then much more quick­ly. One of the tricks bel can­to com­posers used to build excite­ment dur­ing the finale was to give one or two of the prin­ci­pal singers a long, flow­ing melody that would float ecsta­t­i­cal­ly above the pul­sat­ing rhythm of the cho­rus, orches­tra, and chop­pi­er vocal lines of the oth­er soloists. Donizetti used the device to great effect time after time — at the end of Act II of Lucia di Lam­mer­moor, for instance.

Wag­n­er fol­lows this exam­ple at the end of Act I, dur­ing the gen­er­al rejoic­ing that fol­lows Lohengrin’s defeat of Tel­ra­mund. He gives Elsa a broad vocal line (even embell­ish­ing her music at one point with a turn) that effec­tive­ly dom­i­nates the oth­er­wise intense­ly rhyth­mic finale. In per­fect Belli­ni or Donizetti fash­ion, Wag­n­er keeps stretch­ing the length of Elsa’s phras­es, final­ly ask­ing her to stretch one word, “Alles,” for sev­en and a half mea­sures as she holds a high B‑flat for four of the mea­sures, then moves step­wise (still singing the first syl­la­ble of  “Alles”) down to C. It’s all about beau­ti­ful singing, and an Elsa in radi­ant voice, cou­pled with the right con­duc­tor, can bring down the house every time.

Per­haps it is in the bridal-cham­ber scene of Act III that Wag­n­er wrote Lohen­grin’s most heart­felt music. The inti­ma­cy he wrote of the duet for Elsa and Lohen­grin, “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” calls for the purest bel can­to singing from the tenor and sopra­no. For the duet to make its max­i­mum effect, both singers must use the same sense of ruba­to that Maria Callas did in her 1949 record­ing of “Qui la voce.” It is the sub­tle speed­ing up or the slight hes­i­ta­tion a mas­ter singer uses that tru­ly brings the melody to life.

Franz Völk­er as Lohen­grin

There are two record­ings of “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt” that illus­trate this vivid­ly, both based on the deserved­ly leg­endary 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mances of Lohen­grin with Franz Völk­er and Maria Müller. The com­mer­cial record­ing (on Teldec CD) is con­duct­ed by Heinz Tiet­jen, and the sound is more than good, But to be real­ly swept away by the pow­er of Wag­n­er at his bel can­to best, lis­ten to the thir­ty min­utes worth of excerpts from the live July 19, 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mance (avail­able on var­i­ous labels). Under the mag­i­cal baton of Wil­helm Furtwän­gler, Völk­er and Müller sim­ply are Lohen­grin and Elsa, over­whelm­ing­ly in love. Their music pul­sates with emo­tion: the vocal lines have a truth and life that are almost unthink­able today. The care­ful­ly con­trolled, dreamy qual­i­ty of the per­for­mance reminds us pow­er­ful­ly that once upon a time the Ger­mans were viewed as a roman­tic peo­ple, not a bru­tal, mil­i­taris­tic soci­ety. Lis­ten­ing to Völk­er and Müller sing “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” one can eas­i­ly under­stand why tenors like Enri­co Caru­so, even Fer­nan­do De Lucia, would chose to sing the part of Lohen­grin — in Ital­ian, of course. (Though Caru­so nev­er record­ed any of the arias, De Lucia record­ed an Ital­ian ver­sion of “Mein lieber Schwan.”) One can also under­stand how Jean de Reszke could, and did, suc­cess­ful­ly alter­nate per­for­mances of Lohen­grin and Faust, or Lohen­grin and Roméo et Juli­ette, at the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House.

And lis­ten­ing to the ebb and flow of the melod­ic line as glo­ri­ous­ly spun out by Furtwän­gler, Völk­er, and Müller, one is also remind­ed of the sheer pow­er a melody can have — and how often in Lohen­grin Wag­n­er made his dra­mat­ic and emo­tion­al points by com­pos­ing some of the most beau­ti­ful bel can­to music ever writ­ten.

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the March 14, 1998 issue of Opera News mag­a­zine.

 The art at the top is The Arrival of Lohen­grin in Antwerp, a mur­al by August von Heck­el (1882 – 83).


W. A. Mozart — Quintet in D Major for Strings, K. 593



Wolf­gang Amadè Mozart (1756 – 91) was an invet­er­ate play­er of cham­ber music. Today, with 20/20 hind­sight, we might assume that such an august musi­cal genius would grav­i­tate to the first vio­lin parts when he played string quar­tets with his friends. But in fact Mozart much pre­ferred to play the vio­la on such occa­sions. He loved the instru­ment, with its warm, mel­low tim­bre, and he seems thor­ough­ly to have enjoyed being at the cen­ter of the music, rather than play­ing one of the more imme­di­ate­ly notice­able out­er voic­es.

By the time Mozart fin­ished writ­ing his first string quin­tet, in Decem­ber 1773, the sev­en­teen-year-old had already com­posed fif­teen string quar­tets. It is pos­si­ble that Mozart decid­ed to try his hand at the more unusu­al five-instru­ment form because Michael Haydn, younger broth­er of the com­pos­er Franz Joseph Haydn and a good friend of the Mozart fam­i­ly, had writ­ten what he called a “Not­turno” for two vio­lins, two vio­las, and cel­lo in Feb­ru­ary 1773. This must have been suc­cess­ful, because the younger Haydn soon fol­lowed it up with a sec­ond quin­tet, and in Mozart’s let­ters from that year he speaks of play­ing both works.

Odd­ly, Franz Joseph Haydn, who wrote so much cham­ber music and whom Mozart revered, nev­er wrote a string quin­tet. When asked why, he is said to have replied that no one ever com­mis­sioned one from him. A great excep­tion to the usu­al quin­tet instru­men­ta­tion of two vio­lins, two vio­las, and one cel­lo is Schubert’s sin­gle string quin­tet, D.956 in C major, where the cel­lo is dou­bled rather than the vio­la.

Though Mozart wrote far more string quar­tets (twen­ty-three) than quin­tets (six), he obvi­ous­ly had a great per­son­al affec­tion for the five-voice form. Two string quin­tets com­prise the last cham­ber works he wrote: K. 593 in D major, com­plet­ed in Decem­ber 1790, and K. 641 in E‑flat major, which he fin­ished on April 12, 1791. Both works were writ­ten on com­mis­sion, though exact­ly who com­mis­sioned them remains a mys­tery.

A cou­ple of years after Mozart’s death the quin­tets were pub­lished with the note: “Com­posed for a Hun­gar­i­an Ama­teur.” Since Mozart’s wife, long after the fact, said her hus­band had writ­ten some music for Johann Trost (a vio­lin­ist from Eszter­háza and a musi­cian to whom Haydn had ded­i­cat­ed some of his quar­tets), some writ­ers have spec­u­lat­ed that Trost was the “Hun­gar­i­an Ama­teur” in ques­tion. We know that, before Haydn left Vien­na on Decem­ber 15, 1790 for the first of his two vis­its to Lon­don, he joined Mozart in play­ing the younger man’s quin­tets, espe­cial­ly (accord­ing to Max­i­m­il­ian Stadler, a friend of Mozart’s and one of the oth­er string play­ers) the new Quin­tet in D major. Stadler added that, dur­ing these cham­ber music ses­sions, Haydn and Mozart took turns play­ing first vio­la.

Mozart’s D major String Quin­tet is in four move­ments. The first, one of the most unusu­al first move­ments in all of Mozart, begins with a twen­ty-one-mea­sure Larghet­to intro­duc­tion in ¾ time. This is — sur­pris­ing­ly — brought back in a slight­ly mod­i­fied form at the end of the movement’s main, duple-meter Alle­gro sec­tion. The first move­ment is then fin­ished off, rather abrupt­ly, by an eight-mea­sure restate­ment of the movement’s prin­ci­pal theme.

The Ada­gio is one of Mozart’s most beau­ti­ful lyric cre­ations, with the indi­vid­ual instru­ments jux­ta­posed with enor­mous skill. In the Menuet­to, the com­pos­er makes dra­mat­ic use of sud­den shifts in the dynam­ics, ask­ing the play­ers to go from forte to piano with­in one or two beats. The Alle­gro finale is in 6/8 time. The delight­ful, bounc­ing open­ing theme gives no hint of the aston­ish­ing polypho­ny that Mozart will employ before fin­ish­ing the Quin­tet.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nal­ly in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here with per­mis­sion.


The Devil Gets His Due


The world of opera is gen­er­ous­ly pop­u­lat­ed by an assort­ment of unsa­vory, even nasty and some­times down­right evil char­ac­ters, some of whom employ mag­ic and the super­nat­ur­al in their quest of wreak­ing hav­oc on the unsus­pect­ing. But even though opera as a genre does not flinch from explor­ing The Dark Side of life, there are remark­ably few operas in which the Dev­il him­self actu­al­ly appears onstage. Two of them — Gounod’s Faust and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress—enter the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera’s reper­toire this spring, offer­ing audi­ences the oppor­tu­ni­ty to pon­der what would seem to be a conun­drum, Why is it that the attain­ment of our heart’s deep­est desire is only pos­si­ble by enter­ing a pact with the Dev­il which, inevitably, leads to our eter­nal damna­tion? Why does it seem that behind every delight and plea­sure, ret­ri­bu­tion lurks in one form or anoth­er?

Faust pre­miered in 1859 and quick­ly became so extra­or­di­nar­i­ly pop­u­lar as to almost be ubiq­ui­tous, even inau­gu­rat­ing the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House on Octo­ber 22. 1883. For sev­er­al decades audi­ences could not get enough of watch­ing the aged philoso­pher Faust sell his soul to the Dev­il in exchange for a sec­ond chance at youth and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to expe­ri­ence the bliss of desire. (In Goethe’s orig­i­nal, more pro­found telling of the sto­ry, Faust bar­gains not specif­i­cal­ly for youth and young love but says,  “If to the moment I should say:/Abide, you are so fair – /Put me in fet­ters on that day,/I wish to per­ish then, I swear.” Per­haps Gounod’s libret­tists felt their audi­ence could more eas­i­ly relate to the desire for a sec­ond chance of youth and romance than to the more amor­phous quest for the sin­gle per­fect moment.)

A dev­il­ish Mar­cel Jour­net

The opera might be called Faust but the juici­est role is Méphistophélès who, sum­moned by Faust, makes his appear­ance to five for­tis­si­mo chords played by the entire orches­tra. “I am here. Is that so sur­pris­ing?” Méphistophélès asks the aston­ished Faust. “Does my appear­ance dis­please you?” And imme­di­ate­ly the orches­tra begins giv­ing us clues about what kind of guy this par­tic­u­lar Dev­il is. His first ques­tions are all fol­lowed by four soft, quick notes from the flutes, bas­soons and fourth horn, accom­pa­nied by two eighth notes by the strings. The music is play­ful, ele­gant, slight­ly mock­ing, the essence of a man very much in con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion and thor­ough­ly enjoy­ing it.

It is true that Faust takes the ini­tia­tive by sum­mon­ing Méphistophélès, and it is Faust who asks what the price will be for the Dev­il work­ing his super­nat­ur­al pow­ers on the philosopher’s behalf. He does not go blind­ly into the deal with Satan, he knows exact­ly what the price will be before he signs away his soul. He is ful­ly aware of the con­se­quences and even hes­i­tates at the cru­cial moment — Méphistophélès has to sum­mon a vision of Mar­guerite to nudge, or entice, Faust into the final step. But once Méphistophélès steps on stage, he dom­i­nates the action and delights in it, while seduc­ing us into enjoy­ing his delight.

Pol Plançon

There are bass­es who have tried to make Gounod’s Méphistophélès a car­i­ca­ture of loath­some evil, the vocal equiv­a­lent of the Bible’s descrip­tion of the Dev­il in I Peter 5:8 as being “like a roar­ing lion, [who] walketh about, seek­ing whom he may devour.” But how many peo­ple would will­ing­ly hang around a roar­ing lion set on devour­ing them? Far more entic­ing is the Apos­tle Paul’s ver­sion in II Corinthi­ans: “Satan him­self is trans­formed into an angle of light,” which is much clos­er to Gounod’s Dev­il. An “amal­gam of debonair grace and cyn­i­cal men­ace,” is the way crit­ic Paul Jack­son summed up the role, and lis­ten­ing to record­ings of great Méphistophélès like bass Pol Plançon (who sang the role 85 times at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan between 1893 and 1908) one can under­stand why every­one is so tak­en in by the guy. A crit­ic for The New York Times describes Plançon’s Méphistophélès as “a boule­vardier,” a man about town, the kind of guy Faust, actu­al­ly, would like to be in his sec­ond youth, which is why he leans on the Dev­il for help, advice and instruc­tions when it comes to woo­ing Mar­guerite.

This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion between the Dev­il and his vic­tim is even more close­ly drawn in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which pre­miered in 1951, almost a cen­tu­ry after Gounod’s Faust. In the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry opera there is no mag­ic potion, no overt sum­mon­ing of the Dev­il. Tom Rakewell mere­ly says, “I wish I had mon­ey,” and instant­ly a stranger appears and informs the young man he has been left a for­tune by an uncle Rakewell nev­er knew. Per­haps it is Rakewell’s unthink­ing youth which blinds him to the true iden­ti­ty this mes­sen­ger, but Stravinsky’s libret­tists W. H. Auden and Chester Kall­man give man the name “Nick Shad­ow,” which leaves no doubt in the minds of the audi­ence as to the man’s iden­ti­ty: “Old Nick” being one of the Devil’s many names, and “Shad­ow” being the dark side of every human being.

Those unpleas­ant and immoral aspects of our selves which we would like to pre­tend do not exist or have no effect on our lives — our infe­ri­or­i­ties, our unac­cept­able impuls­es, our shame­ful actions and wish­es — this shad­owy side of our per­son­al­i­ty is dif­fi­cult and painful to admit,” writes Rob Hopcke in A Guid­ed Tour of The Col­lect­ed Works of  C. G. Jung.

The shad­ow is, in truth, a dev­il­ish form,” observes June Singer in Bound­aries of the Soul, “and just when you think you know who he is, he changes his dis­guise and appears from anoth­er direc­tion.”

Igor Stravin­sky

Tom Rakewell, who has no desire to work for a liv­ing and plans to rely on the favor of For­tune, only has to express as wish and his shad­ow, Nick Shad­ow, grants it. Every wish appears, as if by mag­ic, just by the wish­ing itself. But none of the wish­es last, and Tom ends up dying insane in Bed­lam.

Per­haps one of the rea­sons our delights fade, and some­times have unpleas­ant con­se­quences, is to be found in the root of the word itself. “Delight” comes from the same root as “to snare” or “to bind,” and is close­ly relat­ed to “a noose.” Our delights can hang us, and we do it to our­selves by remain­ing uncon­scious of the roots of our desires, even if we blame it all on the Dev­il.

In the first scene of  The Rake’s Progress, Nick Shad­ow thanks Rakewell for tak­ing him on as guide and says, “for mas­ter­less should I abide/Too long, I soon would die.” What a con­cept, that the Dev­il needs us or he dies? In the Epi­logue, Shad­ow explains, “Day in, day out, poor Shadow/Must do as he is bid­den.”

Nick Shad­ow needs Tom Rakewell as much as Rakewell needs Shad­ow for the ful­fill­ment of his wish­es. Méphistophélès needs Faust as much as Faust needs him. What a para­dox. Or is it?

If I can stay with my con­flict­ing impuls­es long enough, the two oppos­ing forces will teach each oth­er some­thing and pro­duce an insight that serves them both,” notes Robert A. John­son in Own­ing Your Own Shad­ow. “This is not com­pro­mise but a depth of under­stand­ing that puts my life in per­spec­tive and allows me to know with cer­tain­ty what I should do. That cer­tain­ty is one of the most pre­cious qual­i­ties known to humankind.”

This arti­cle appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2003.

The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is Eugene Delacroix’s “Faust and Mephistophe­les,” 1826 – 27.