By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
For Episode 27, the “Money Talks” edition, we welcome back arts journalist Catherine Kustanczy, Opera Canada editor,Wayne Gooding, and Jenna Douglas, a Toronto-based collaborative pianist and author of the opera blog, Schmopera. Gianmarco Segato, the COC’s Adult Programs Manager, is your host.
The MET and their chorus and orchestra unions have resolved matters, compromises coming from both sides — but will external financial monitoring work?
Mezzo soprano Jennifer Rivera’s eloquent take on the MET chorus salary controversy… it’s not that they get paid too much but that singers in general are paid much too little.
Another opera singer, Valerian Ruminski, gets into trouble with questionable comments on social media – the group shares their thoughts.
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Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is generally considered one of the greatest works to emerge from the Italian verismo movement – that is, the short, concentrated period in operatic history which lasted from just 1892 (the premiere of Catalani’s La Wally) through 1926 (when Puccini’s Turandot marked its end). Verismo was the Italian response to the naturalist movement that originated in French literature, notably in the working-class milieus presented by Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant. Italy found its equivalent in Giovanni Verga, author of the short story Cavalleria rusticana on which composer Pietro Mascagni based his 1890 verismo-defining opera of the same title.
Despite its origins in “realism” with stories based on contemporary, working-class life, the operatic iteration of the verismo movement soon shifted focus to explore more diverse subject matter which embraced the “exotic.” Consider this list of verismo heroines who emerged in the decades after 1892: noblewomen (Giordano’s Fedora; Cilea’s Gloria; and, the nobly born nun Angelica in Puccini’s Suor Angelica); courtesans (Stephana in Giordano’s Siberia; Puccini’s Magda in La rondine) and "oriental waifs" (Mascagni’s Iris and Puccini’s Liù in Turandot). So, it is an oversimplification to view verismo opera as dealing solely in subjects drawn from tawdry newspaper headlines (as did Verga’s and Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana). The proof is in Madama Butterfly, only the most famous example of how composers of this era, including Mascagni, strove to constantly expand and refine their art, searching for new and original subject matter to include such (then) “exotic” cultures like Japan’s.
Musical Excerpt #1
Act II, Aria: “Un bel dì vedremo” (“One fine day we’ll see”)
Connection to the Story
It has been three years since Butterfly’s husband, Pinkerton, left Nagasaki and only her maid, Suzuki, has stayed with her. The two women are desperately poor but Butterfly is content to remain in the house and wait, convinced that her husband will return.
“Un bel dì” is arguably the most recognizable aria in the entire operatic repertoire. While it is easy to be swept away by its intoxicating melody, this aria is much more than a pretty tune: its musical structure is complex and sheds light on Puccini’s skill in modifying Japanese musical style, blending it with the harmonic structure of the Western tradition. The opening melody in which Butterfly affirms her belief that Pinkerton will return is firmly within the realm of traditional Western harmony. This mirrors Cio-Cio San’s self-identification as an “American wife” who lives in what she calls an American house. There is a shift in the harmonic language at 1:15 however on the words “Io non gli scendo incontro. Io no.” (“I won’t go down to meet him. Not I.”) Here, the melodic pattern is inspired by what is believed to have been Puccini’s favourite Japanese tune. Then at 1:32, the Japanese Yang scale is heard while Butterfly sings “e aspetto gran tempo e non mi pesa, la lunga attesa” (“and wait for a long time, but I won’t mind this long waiting”). In both of these phrases, Puccini purposefully incorporates the more open tonality associated with Asian music to reveal that Cio-Cio San has never abandoned her Japanese identity. The composer copied and studied melodies from publications that contained transcriptions of Japanese songs. He also listened to records shipped from Tokyo. It is significant that Puccini inserts these melodies precisely when Butterfly exhibits what is, from a Western perspective, stereotypical Japanese female behaviour: reticence and patience. Musically, it is proof that despite her attempts to Westernize she does not become an American after all.
Musical Excerpt #2
Act I: “…E soffitto e pareti…” (“…And the ceiling and the walls…”)
Lt. B. F. Pinkerton of the US Navy, stationed in Nagasaki, Japan, is being shown the peculiarities of the Japanese house which he has just bought. He is joined by the US Consul, Sharpless, for drinks.
In the decades around 1900, the business of writing Italian opera had never been more difficult. The various traditional forms and situations that had sustained the genre through most of the 18th and 19th centuries had lost their significance: each work now had to define a unique aesthetic world. This new drive to discover the “exotic” inspired Puccini to search for subjects marked by some aspect of local colour which possessed a readily applicable musical connotation. For Madama Butterfly the result was a unique conflation of Eastern and Western musical traditions which introduced Puccini’s audiences to Japanese culture and music. This intriguing mix is introduced right from the start: the opera begins with a fugue (a composition in which a short melody or phrase is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others), one of the strictest musical forms in the Western tradition. The agitated, yet structured nature of the fugue immediately communicates American efficiency as Lt. Pinkerton surveys his new abode and servants scurry around, showing off its amenities. Puccini’s use of the fugue also served as a challenge to critics who questioned his harmonically advanced style. He may have felt the need to show off his “learnedness” and mastery of a traditional form before (almost immediately) heading into more musically progressive waters. This can be heard at 1:09 where, the very “Western”-sounding fugue is immediately followed by our first encounter with the more open harmonies Puccini uses throughout the opera to conjure a Japanese setting. One technique used by Western musicians of this period was to incorporate pentatonic scales (five notes per octave in contrast to the Western eight-note scale) which they associated with a rather broadly defined and exotic East.
Musical Excerpt #3
Act II: “Ebbene, che fareste, Madama Butterfly…E questo? E questo?” (“Well then, what would you do Madam Butterfly…And this one?”)
Sharpless asks Butterfly what she would do if Pinkerton were never to come back. She is appalled at the suggestion and brings in her son for him to see.
In this brutally honest, emotionally raw scene, Sharpless strips away any final illusions Butterfly might have of an idealized “American” family life with Pinkerton. Her response is equally blunt as she asks her servant Suzuki to quickly escort “his Honour” from their home. The mood of the scene is brilliantly conveyed by Puccini’s orchestration – listen at 0:52 to the low strings as they ominously creep up the scale starting softly, gradually increasing in volume, mirroring the increasing tension between Butterfly and Sharpless. The expanded use of orchestra is a defining feature of verismo opera – Puccini looked beyond the Italian tradition to other national schools, especially the German. The question of Germanic influence was a controversial subject in Puccini’s time and to confuse matters, he left clues supporting both sides of the issue. He was quoted as saying: “I am not a Wagnerian; my musical education was in the Italian school” but also remarked, “Although I may be a Germanophile, I have never wanted to show it publicly.” Whether or not Puccini wished to associate himself with Wagner, it is clear that the sound world of the Italian’s operas are miles away from the relatively understated, sonically less extravagant bel canto opera (the world of Donizetti and Bellini).
This excerpt also highlights one of verismo’s other distinguishing musical features: its reliance on short, simple yet overwhelmingly grand vocal climaxes to trigger emotional reactions in the listener and to define character. Listen at 2:41 to the grand orchestral fanfare with Cio-Cio San in full-cry, revealing to Sharpless that she has borne Pinkerton’s son (“E questo” – “And this one”). The vocal line here consists of a simple repeated rising interval, yet its placement in the soprano’s upper register and the richness of the scoring beneath it communicates intense emotion. The passage is powerful, heart-wrenching and musically concise. No lengthy aria is required to communicate a myriad of ideas and feelings: that for Butterfly, this triumphant moment represents the trump card which will ensure Pinkerton’s return yet we (through Sharpless) cannot help but be filled with an underlying sense of foreboding.
Musical Excerpt #4
Act II, Aria: “Tu? Tu?...Piccolo iddio!” (“You? You?...My little god!”)
As Cio-Cio San is about to commit suicide, her maid Suzuki pushes her child into the room. Butterfly says goodbye to him, blindfolds him, and leaving him to play, goes behind a screen to kill herself.
This aria marks the emotional climax of the entire opera. It is also the only moment in which Butterfly expresses herself entirely in a Western idiom without the addition of either authentic, Japanese folk tunes or Puccini’s manufactured “Japanese” melodies. She sings directly to her son in a tonal key based on a harmonic minor scale (one of the basic building blocks of Western music harmony). The implication seems to be that in killing herself, she is freeing her son of his Japanese identity (his father has returned to Japan with his American wife to claim his offspring), and so, for the only time in the opera, she is given music free of Japanese associations. In the aria’s postlude however, after we hear Pinkerton’s all-too late cry of “Butterfly, Butterfly,” Puccini purposely resorts to the Japanese folk tune which recurs throughout the opera (listen at 3:38). By committing suicide, Cio-Cio San in fact embraces her Japanese identity, preferring to die with honour than face the shame of being husband-less and giving up her child. Then, in a bold modernist move, Puccini ends the opera on a screaming, unresolved chord (4:25) thereby flouting one of Western music’s strictest rules - indeed, its most basic one - that of final tonal resolution (the listener’s ear is not given the satisfaction that musically at least, the piece has reached its final resting place). This brief brush with atonality not only suits the tragic conclusion but also acts as the final, conclusive break between mother and son; life and death; West and East.
Photo: (banner, left-right) Justin Welsh as Yakuside, Lilian Kilianski as Cio-Cio San's Mother, Yannick-Muriel Noah as Cio-Cio San, Michael Uloth as The Imperial Commissioner, Neil Craighead as The Official Registrar and John Kriter as Goro in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Madama Butterfly, 2009. Photo: Michael Cooper
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When Falstaff premiered at La Scala, Milan in 1893, it landed at the centre of a critical controversy raging between two opposing points of view.
On one side, there were those who saw the future of Italian opera as lying within the “Wagnerian” camp; that is, in compositions that veered in the direction of orchestral complexity, constant melodic development, a reduction of the role of the melodic line and, the subordination of music to the text – elements not generally associated with the great Italian bel canto tradition in which melody and the singing line dominated.
A second, opposing group of Italian critics asserted that Verdi did actually achieve perfection with Falstaff – that it stood at the summit of his career. They explained away the Wagnerian “problem” by attributing Falstaff’s musical innovation to the internal creative development of Verdi’s mind as opposed to any wholesale adoption of Germanic influences.
So, where does Verdi himself fall in this critical maelstrom? He did make it clear his last opera would be quite different from anything he’d previously written. It was to be the comedy he always wanted to compose and from a musical point of view, Verdi said he wrote it as much for his own amusement as for the public’s.
Verdi’s Falstaff is extremely rich, inventive, and fast-paced; the orchestration is sensitive to every shift in the language of Arrigo Boito’s libretto – so, when an image in the text changes, the music turns on a dime and adopts a different tempo and mood, befitting the tone of the text. Paradoxically, this extreme invention is probably also the reason why, at first, audiences did not embrace this opera in quite the same way as they had with Verdi’s earlier works. There is a fleeting quality about it. Falstaff contains an abundance of melody, without much repetition; tunes come and go almost before they can be grasped. The immediately memorable, hummable tunes of Rigoletto and La Traviata are no longer foremost on the composer’s agenda.
Excerpt #1 Act III: Aria: “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” (“Borne on the freshening breeze”)
Connection to the story:
As part of an elaborate plot to trick Falstaff at nighttime in the forest of Windsor Park, Nannetta is disguised as Queen of the Fairies and invokes the forest’s nocturnal magic.
This enchanting aria stands alone as the one number in Falstaff which retains the closest links to Verdi’s compositional past. It is constructed strophically (two stanzas, each with a choral response) and is unique within the opera as a self-contained, closed piece: it is clear where the first and second verses end (listen at 1:12 and 3:46); where the chorus makes their replies (1:16 and 3:49) and it has a distinct “ending” (cue applause!). Verdi’s use of a more conventional formal structure for this aria seems appropriate – after all, Nannetta is definitely taking on a “role” in this scene; a theatrical set-up meant to trick and torment Falstaff.
The structure may rely on tradition, but its orchestration shows Verdi at his most sophisticated, using harp and divided violins, a soft swirl of woodwinds (at 0:20), and the glow of horns to support Nannetta’s high, clear voice as it conjures up the moonlit park setting and the glimmering forms gliding and weaving within it. At 0:38, Nannetta (as the Queen) invites her fairies to dance and the pulse switches to a gentle 3/4 time, the accompaniment offering a serene, waltz-like dance rhythm on quiet chords played by harp, horns and strings.
Act I, Part 1: “So che se andiam, la notte, di taverna in taverna” (“True, as we go from tavern to tavern at night”)
Falstaff berates Bardolph and Pistol, angry that their exorbitant bar bills will impact his own ability to eat and drink and that if he becomes thin… no one will love him!
This excerpt demonstrates just how attuned Verdi was to Arrigo Boito’s text, his musical imagination spurred on by each twist and turn of the story. Listen at 0:04 as Falstaff reflects on all his years of drinking with Bardolph and Pistol which are expressed in a kind of weaving, zig-zaggy melody that mimics the trio’s wobbly path from tavern to tavern. This tune is quickly thrown over for another as Falstaff describes the brightness of Bardolph’s (decidedly sozzled) nose, comparing it to a guiding lantern. The original musical idea of the inebriated walk is therefore replaced at 0:14 by an upwardly shooting tune, almost like a lick of flame climbing upwards. Already, in only four lines of text, musical ideas shift at a rapid pace. This is a microcosm of what Verdi does throughout the opera, using the music to expand the meaning of the text, providing orchestration that’s very tightly coiled around the meaning and the shape of the words.
Next, Falstaff’s fear that Pistol and Bardolph’s spending habits will cause the eventual wasting away of his own substance is matched by a descriptive, admonishing, braying rhythm on all three trumpets (0:40). Contemplating a potentially debilitating loss of girth at 0:54, Falstaff sings of the importance of his paunch: “Se Falstaff s'assottiglia non è più lui” (“If Falstaff gets thin, he won’t be himself”). Verdi strategically orchestrates this line using piccolo (the highest pitched wind instrument) at one end of the range and cello (a lower-pitched string instrument) at the opposite end. Played together they musically telegraph Falstaff’s broad girth which is mirrored by the wide range between these two instruments. The passage ends with Falstaff proclaiming his paunch as a kind of royal kingdom in which a thousand tongues cry out his name, all to the strains of a triumphant fanfare (1:41). And so, in a brief 90 seconds, Verdi takes us through a quick, constantly shifting series of melodies in which the orchestra, vocal line and text travel together in locked step, very, very quickly!
Act I, Part 2, Ensemble: “Del tuo barbaro diagnostico?” (“Your barbaric diagnosis”)
Connection to the Story:
During this brilliant concertato (interaction of two or more groups of voices) the women and men plot against each other while Nannetta’s boyfriend, Fenton, soars above all the agitation saying he only has thoughts for his love!
This bravura, chattering ensemble presents a daunting challenge, demanding impeccable diction from the singers who must deliver their lines at lightning speed and with the utmost clarity. Nine voices are divided into three groups: the men (Dr. Caius, Bardolph, Pistol and Ford who start the ensemble); the women (Alice, Meg, Nannetta and Mistress Quickly joining in at 0:05); plus Fenton whose solo tenor line hovers above them all (heard for the first time at 0:22).
As the finale to Act I, this concertato (interaction of two or more groups of voices) hearkens back to the opera buffa (comic opera) tradition of Rossini who used similarly frantic, multiple-voice ensembles to conclude his acts in operas such as The Barber of Seville. Although often seen as the last great flower of buffa tradition, Falstaff far outstrips any such model both in terms of its form and substance. By this point in his development, Verdi’s relationship with his forebears, not to mention his own past, had grown extremely complex so that Falstaff neither looks back slavishly to 18th-century opera buffa, nor aggressively forward to the symphonism of Puccini. Instead, it embodies something nearer to chamber music and in this way, is completely unique.
One very clear marker which distinguishes this concertato from its potential historic models is its integration of short, vocal melodies (like Fenton’s solo line at 0:22) that possess an intense, sweet, heart-piercing freshness which Verdi sprinkles throughout the opera’s complex ensembles. This integrated type of lyricism provides an important countermeasure of seriousness to the opera’s predominant comedy, allowing Verdi to offer a more complete, realistic portrayal of the human condition.
Finally, the ensemble ends with perhaps the most gorgeous melody in the entire opera but, typically, it’s a fleeting moment. At 1:25 Alice launches “Ma il viso mio su lui risplenderà” (“But my face will shine upon him”): a glowing, surging melodic gem often claimed to be the most beautiful Verdi ever wrote. However, before we can be completely swept away by its gorgeousness, a measure of irony is added when the women continue “…come una stella sull’immensità!” (“…like a star over the bottomless deep!”). Here, the intentional pun on the word “immensity” refers not only to physical space, but to Falstaff’s girth, setting off peals of merry laughter in the women (at 1:54).
Act III, Part 2, Ensemble: “Tutto nel mondo è burla!” (“All the world’s a joke”)
Admitting that he has been duped, Falstaff insists on “a chorus to finish the play.” His subject: “All the world’s a joke” and man is borne to be made fool of, though he who laughs last laughs best!
Ending an opera with a big ensemble summarizing the piece’s moral lesson is not unusual – it’s a standard opera buffa (comic opera) convention. However in choosing a fugue (in which a short melody – the subject first heard at 0:06 – is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others), Verdi settled on a musical form which would not have sounded particularly beautiful to the 19th-century Italian ear, and was certainly not expected even in the framework of a 19th-century Italian opera buffa. The fugue is not usually found in operatic music; it’s a technique governed by strict rules and associated with the earlier Baroque era as exemplified by the works of Bach. In the context of Falstaff as a whole, Verdi’s decision to deploy the fugue is curious: just as the entire texture of the opera has been characterized by a very fluid musical expression of loose forms and rapid changes, at the final moment when everything is summed up, Verdi reaches back to a highly academic, traditional structure.
Verdi’s reasons for writing a fugue have been explained in various ways: that his perfect mastery of contrapuntal technique (writing for various voices which sing at the same time) was his way of getting back at those who in his youth refused to admit him into the Milan Conservatory. It has also been interpreted as a sort of call-out to the younger generation of Italian composers not to discount the basics; not to embrace uncritically the rise of a modern music that left no place for the old-fashioned fugue.
Despite its lofty, academic origins, Verdi insisted on calling his finale a “comic” fugue, working it into a climax which breaks off dramatically. After a silence Falstaff, alone and unaccompanied, utters a slow, mock-tragic “Tutti gabbati!” (“We all are fools!” at 2:30) to which the others dolefully reply the same (2:39), as though a sudden cloud were temporarily blocking the sun. That cloud disappears as quickly as it came; the tempo recovers; there is a rapid crescendo (increase in volume) and the opera ends as it began, with a great orchestral flourish (2:53).
Photo: (banner) Daniela Barcellona as Mistress Quickly and Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company/Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Metropolitan Opera/Teatro alla Scala/Dutch National Opera co-production of Falstaff, 2014, Dutch National Opera. Photo: Claerchen & Matthias Baus
All tracks listed are excerpted from Falstaff, Decca 4784167. Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera Chorus; Herbert von Karajan, conductor. Giuseppe Taddei, Ronaldo Panerai, Francisco Araiza, Piero de Palma, Heinz Zednik, Federico Davià, Raina Kabaivanska, Janet Perry, Trudeliese Schmidt and Christa Ludwig. You can also experience the Listening Guide online at coc.ca/COCRadio.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001