Two Beers And Verdi On an Empty Stomach

The nineteenth century has relatively few redeeming qualities, as centuries go. (Among them: Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, Victoria Woodhull, Charles Darwin, railroads, sewing machines, and a few other things.) Otherwise, the 1800s are basically an epically saccharine crapfest. I will categorically state that the whole thing is in the worst possible taste – between the mourning rings (hair of dead people! in jewelry!) and the cult of domesticity I think we can all be sort of glad about WWI. Certainly the first world war killed many people. But at least it put paid to a great deal of bullshit.

There is a reason behind this particular rant. Verdi. After watching Mozart operas for a week or two, it’s nice to have a change in pace. And Verdi is great. Late Verdi, performed well, is like having someone go down on your brain. (That sounded a lot better in my head than it does on paper.)

But there are drawbacks to Verdi. Some of his heroines? I want to punch them. Aida, for example. She doesn’t DO anything. She’s just endlessly put upon, and at the end, the only thing she decides to do is die. She doesn’t, say, spring Radames from the tomb and help him escape. No, she gets herself locked IN the tomb with him so that they can die together. The girl is useless. Radames is also, when you get down to it, sort of useless. The two of them deserve each other. Amneris deserves better – and, fortunately, she is the last person left standing at the end, so maybe Verdi is on to something with that. (But this is true of so many of Verdi’s mezzo roles. Eboli in Don Carlos, for example. She is a character that deserves a much better story than she gets. “Going to a convent” my ass. Whereas Elisabetta is sort of useless in the approved nineteenth century manner. I have seen precisely one production of Don Carlos, this one, where the singer made me care one way or another about her. Props to Iano Tamar for that.)

Things were better in the eighteenth century. Take Handel. Rodelinda gets shit done, even if she doesn’t want to. Cleopatra likewise. Bradamante stalks around Alcina’s magic island with a sword, and even at the end, when her fiance is dis-enchanted, and ready to kill Alcina with his bare hands, and Bradamante no longer is absolutely obligated to pretend to be her own brother, she’s along for the ride with her sword, and no one seems in the least perturbed about it. Even the operas that appear to say some fairly nasty things about women, like Cosi Fan Tutte (but on examination, the music/story indicates something more complicated than that) at least admit that a girl might, sometimes, want to fuck someone just for the hell of it — which is far more than was allowed after 1800 or so.

Thursday Evening Musical Complaint

I think I am, at heart, one of those closed-minded Met patrons who hate it when directors fuck with operas.

No, this is not actually true. I was fine with the Cosi Fan Tutte that was set in the 1970s (Berlin Staatsoper, 2002) and I rather liked the Don Giovanni set basically in the woods near a bus station (Salzburg 2008 and apparently again this year). Both of these sound weird, but they worked.

But I have just seen the Most Depressing Figaro Ever, and I will admit to not liking it. It’s a DVD of a Salzburg 06 production set in a dilapidated house with an extra silent Cupid-like character who goes around tossing apples and dropping feathers. Susanna really is having an affair with the Count, and there are a lot of crows. The count demonstrates the Art of the Nasty Domineering Grope on his wife. There is nothing wrong with the cast (highlight: Bo Skovhus and Dorothea Roschmann compete for Sweatiest Opera Singer – I think Skovhus won, but not by much.) but the whole thing sort of left a bad taste in my mouth. Also, w/r/t the little ‘making of’ documentary that is included: Anna Netrebko makes charming mistakes when she speaks English (e.g. ‘erotical’ for ‘erotic’) but I think she would be one of those people who is really annoying if you have to talk to them at a party.

Saturday Evening Obscure Italian Vocabulary

Word I learned today: drudo, meaning lover or sweetheart. I learned this via watching this version of Handel’s Rodelinda. There is a part in Act II where Grimoaldo declares that Rodelinda’s drudo is his enemy, and the first time I heard it (I didn’t have the subtitles on) my brain processed the word as ‘druido’ and my first thought was: what druid is this? Where did this druid come from? Was he in Act I? (I do not even know if ‘druido’ means ‘druid’ in Italian. It probably means, if it means anything at all, something else entirely.)

But there you have it. (As it turns out, Rodelinda’s drudo is 1) actually her husband, who everyone else thinks is dead, so all the amplessi are totally casti, and 2) this is a woman whose death threats people take seriously, so if you are her drudo, or even druido, and she has your back, you will emerge alive from whatever business is at hand.)

Things I Wish I Had On My CV

So I was reading the last page of the liner notes of a recording of a Handel opera that about three people have ever heard of and, after “engineer” and “harpsichord technician” and all that, guess what there was? “Bear growl advisor” ! (There was a part in the opera where the hero saves a lady from a bear. This is different from the part where he saves another lady from a sea monster. It is that sort of opera.)

But anyway. If you work hard, study your bears, and hang about the fringes of the baroque opera scene, you too, boys and girls, can be Bear Growl Advisors! You will probably out-earn all of your friends with PhDs.

Not Total Recall

For reasons that are quite boring, I am in New York this week. I always forget how much I enjoy the music that is available here and how much the city stinks in the summer (and is bitterly, awfully cold in the winter, and also stinks then too) and how dirty the streets are. The NY Philharmonic and/or the Met or the City Opera are worth the dirt and/or biting cold, but I do not think I am cut out for living in this city, even if I could afford it.

I had lunch with my friend S. and then we hung around for a few hours and then went to a concert (Cleveland Orchestra playing Bruckner, who is one of those composers, like Mahler or Wagner, that I am happy to hear live because it’s LOUD but don’t own any recordings of). S and I went to grad school together in New Jersey, and grad school being what it was, we could both number on two hands the times we had been to New York. It’s further than you think.

The trips I remember are:

Carnegie Hall – but what was the program? I can’t remember. There was a violin concerto, but whose it was, and who performed it, are lost in the mists of time.

City Opera – Carmen (first year in graduate school; there was a bus organized for us)

City Opera – Le Nozze di Figaro

Met – I think there was a Met Figaro and possibly a Met Carmen in her somewhere (I had a friend who liked this opera) but I can’t recall.

Met – Die Zauberflöte (this was that production that they had in I think both 04 and 08; I think I may have heard either Roschmann or Damrau without knowing at the time who either of them was; yes, I am an idiot)

Met – Don Giovanni

Met – Cosi fan tutte (Kozena!)

Met – La Clemenza di Tito (I was happy to hear Anne Sofie von Otter sing Sesto, but was sort of underwhelmed at the actual performance; good but not viscerally gripping; Susan Graham is much better.)

NY Philharmonic — Mahler. My mother was visiting; it was the best I could do, and she really wanted to hear the NYP.

Met – Rodelinda (Fleming and Scholl. This was pretty awesome, and I would like to hear it again.)

Either City Opera or Met – Rameau’s Platee. This was fun, and extremely French. They had dancers.

Fun with Scalpels

I was talking with a friend of mine, A, about castrati — the question was why (other than the brutality of the practice) castrati singers pretty much vanished in the 19th century. (My theory, and I know nothing about this, is that the economics of music changed. Churches and church choirs were employing a smaller percentage of professional art-music singers by the 19th century. The percentage of professional singers who needed to be male and high-voiced dropped; there were increasingly large amounts of money to made by female singers. And musical styles changed; the identification of high voices with moral purity that had led to a lot of male parts being written for castrati and counter-tenors was definitely on the wane by the late 1700s/early 1800s. 19th century opera writers wanted their men to sound ‘manly’.)

But anyhow, I also added that whoever castrated anyone now would lose their medical license, if they had one. But one could probably do it oneself, if one was sufficiently desperate.

A. There could be like a CastratoKit – “Make Yourself an Opera Star!”

Me. It would come with a rubber band, a scalpel, a towel and some sheet music.

A. For ages twelve and under.

Imaginary Operas

Four operas that were never written.

1. Donizetti’s Lady Jane Grey. It sounded like a good idea at first, what with Jane being a vulnerable young girl who ends up dead (and as Poe once said, nothing is more romantic than a beautiful woman who dies! Nothing!), but Donizetti and his librettist ran into conflict as to how much of Jane’s education to leave out of the story. Also it made usurpers (sort of) the (sort of) heroes of the story, and the Italian censors didn’t like this concept. Reducing early modern politics to early nineteenth-century sentimental conventions is tougher than it looks.

2. Handel, Bradamante e Ruggiero. Version of Alcina in which Ruggiero actually is a girl rather than just being played by one. Epic sapphistry. Interestingly enough, this opera, despite being performed widely in the eighteenth century and after, disappeared in the early 1980s after Michel Foucault pointed out that the category of ‘lesbian’ as we now understand it was not operative in Handel’s day, and therefore the opera was in fact impossible. No one has seen it since.

3. Mozart, Der Bassa und Ich, a sort of suppressed first draft of Entführung in which Selim puts Konstanze in charge of his children. Hilarity ensues.

4. [technically a musical, but who cares] Rogers and Hammerstein, Jamestown! Sort of like Oklahoma! but nearly everyone dies of dysentery.

Always Proofread

I was reading reviews on Amazon today of a DVD of the Marriage of Figaro (if anyone cares, it’s the Harnoncourt / Guth one with Anna Netrebko and some freakish staging/directorial decisions*) and came across the statement that in act one, Figaro finds a dead cow on the floor and tosses it out of the window, which statement was followed by the observation that this did not bode well for the opera.

Well, no, probably not.

(I think the writer meant “crow”.)

*including a version of “venite, inginocciatevi” in which Susanna, the Countess and Cherubino all end up rolling around together on a rug on the floor, which, oddly enough, comes across as much less appealing than you would think.

Signs of National Character

I think it’s because I’m American, but I have found that I notice when opera singers have crooked or otherwise not USA-style straight and blinding white teeth. I find it annoying in myself that I notice this. (For example: Dorothea Röschmann has a lovely voice, sings a riveting Pamina, and in the particular production of the Magic Flute that I just watched was costumed such that she looked pretty much adorable, but her lower front teeth are out of alignment. This in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the performance. Also, it is none of my business.)


I just finished watching a DVD of La Clemenza di Tito (Opera National de Paris, Susan Graham et al.) and was reminded of just how weird a character Tito is. He’s so nice it’s a little bit freaky. It’s like he’s turned his secret CLEMENCY BEAM on his subjects once or twice two often and perhaps himself suffered some collateral damage. (Also, question for the production designers: what was with that red rubber muscle suit thing in the beginning? That was weird.)

[Edit, 2/21/12: discussion of the potato.]

Hillbilly Motets

I used to have a lot of bluegrass music on my computer. Some of the songs were performed by Bill Monroe, and on one track an old-timey host/announcer introduces the band at the beginning as “Bill Monroe and his bluegrass boys!”

Somehow this introduction has gotten so lodged in my brain that when I see a CD on my shelf of the Early Music Consort of London, directed by David Munrow, performing (you guessed it!) early music, the first thing that goes through my head is, “And, here’s Dave Monroe and his Early Music Boys!”

Music Meme!

Nothing like LJ memes for putting off cooking dinner. This one is deceptively easy. The meme appears to be a simple “list five songs that begin with the letter you have been assigned.” angevin2 assigned me B. But there is also a second rule that I have followed in my song selection. If you can figure it out, I will give you a letter! (if you want a letter, of course.)

1. The Basse-Dance movement from Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. We played this suite in orchestra in high school, and I have always liked it. This version is taken a little faster than I think is ideal, but you get the idea.

2. “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Rossini’s opera Semiramide, as sung by Teresa Berganza (two B’s for one!). It was listening to Teresa Berganza’s singing that got me listening to opera — I love her voice.

3. “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation” from a Purcell recital disc by Christine Brandes. I first heard this CD when I was in college. I borrowed it from the library and copied it, and later I coughed up the cash and bought it. It isn’t the be best recital in the history of the world, but there is something about it that has always charmed me. It’s still in print after 10+ years, so I know at least a few people agree with me.

4.”By the time you’re twenty-five,” by Sleater-Kinney. Because they were like the best rock band in ages and ages. (This one I could not find on Youtube)

5. Darius Milhaud’s “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” performed by the French National Orchestra. This clip isn’t the whole thing, but you get the idea. Milhaud was a sort of French George Gershwin, as far as I can tell.