Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’

Cooper’s London

January 17, 2016

Books

Mel snapshot 19Don Carlos’ Dad:
Father of Spain

 Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II.
(Geoffrey Parker, Yale University Press)

Anyone interested in Schiller’s play schiller_fDon verdiCarlos, or in the great Verdi opera based upon it, must be curious about the real historic background to these two major works of art. Anyone interested in the era of the Tudors or Spain’s years of developing an empire, will know of the huge shadow this man cast. There is no shortage of decent biographies of Philip II and also no shortage of his appearances in the biographies of Mary I or Elizabeth I of England, or in books about several of his contemporaries. But this new and parker 2013aextremely scholarly biography by Geoffrey Parker is now my “go-to” book for anyone who wants to know about this troubling, difficult monarch. And, if you weren’t interested in the subject previously, it’s easy to get hooked.

Prize-winning historian Parker has had access to a recent, astonishing archival discovery3,000 documents in the vaults of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City that have mostly not been read since the time of Philip II himself. Many of the documents confirm what is already the widely accepted interpretation of the of this king’s personality and also of his reign; but some require significant adjustments to our understanding of the man and his times. Dealing with Philip’s relationship to his own father, the Emperor Charles V, and ending with this religious king’s supposed ascent into heaven after his death, the book is a very well-written and compelling story.

The Don Carlo story is, of course, only an episode in the tale of Philip II; Carlos’ birth, his upbringing, his erratic behaviour, his arrest and horrifying demise are all thereand are very different from the ways Schiller (and thus Verdi) portrayed them. However, the book manages to examine and reveal Philip’s personality believeably, his likes, his dislikes and his psychological issues; it develops cogently and convincingly and is therefore the perfect place to find out the truth behind the myths and romanticizations. Of course, neither Schiller nor Verdi had access to most of the material that ParkerPhilip_II deals with and were also closer to the gossip and the distortions. Yet perhaps the most exciting thing about Imprudent King for those coming to it from the play and/or opera is that, even if they wildly romanticize the historical details of the man’s life and his relationship with his son, one also comes away from this book convinced that both dramatists instinctively understood the man’ himself.

The authoritarian self-belief, the religious narrowness and bigotry, and the immense loneliness and pain that you find in Verdi’s music and Schiller’s drama are all given greater credence here. Philip micro-managed everything, trusted no one, and wasted too much time on trivia in periods of real crisis when what he really needed was an understanding of the bigger issues and some real breadth and depth of vision. Also, of course, this book gives you the background to the Posa/King Philip friendship and so much more: Charles V’s abdication, the marriage to Mary Tudor, the various wars (including the troubles in the Netherlands), the wooing of Queen Elizabeth I, the terrible religious conflicts of this era which are now often perceived as the protracted and very bloody dawning of modernism; the Imperialism and stretch of Spain’s ambitions; the Armada. All of it is impeccably researched and Parker’s conclusions and understanding are strongly supported. It’s a rich and complex tale that and does require attention to detail. (Note to filmmakers: there is material here for three or four epic films..)

imprudent kingA friend of mine (to whom I gave the book because of his love of Verdi’s opera) complained to me that this wasn’t an easy read. It is meticulous in detailing Philip’s religious attitudes, the background of the period, and the administrative problems of his obsessive control of his empire. And it sets everything in scholarly context. But in the end my friend said it was worth the effort, even though he had previously preferred Alison Weir or Philippa Gregory for learning about the era’s history.

Personally, I felt the scholarship was immensely important in convincing me about the character of this somewhat dour but also sad monarch. There is material here for a long Freudian analysis in addition to the three or four films!

If you want a quick fix on the background of Philip’s life, there are no doubt easier and briefer ways to get it. I would have liked to have more in the book about his zeal for collecting and commissioning art and his use of it for propaganda; and I would have appreciated even more information about the Inquisition. But if you want really to understand the man, his nurture, his nature and the background thinking and conflicts of a time when the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment were being laid down, this is likely to remain the definitive study for some time to come.

Philip was isolated, tormented and, at times, very imprudent as well as wilfully narrow; this book makes it all clear. It also clarifies the great dramatized scene of Philip’s relationship with the Grand Inquisitor, so powerful in both the play and the opera. I recommend it very highly for anyone willing to take the trouble. And before you heave a sigh of satisfaction at the end, go back and see what Schiller and Verdi made of Philip, and their insights into his soul through their art.

Cooper’s London

October 3, 2014

MUSIC

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Spaghetti Western at the ENO

In some ways, you could think of Puccini’s opera La Fanciulla del West as the first spaghetti western. This idea is enhanced in the new and richard jonesextremely successful production of The Girl of the Golden West at the ENO by Richard Jones. Some of the signature visuals realized by Set Designer Miriam Buether (a certain amount of stylization, the use of neon lighting here and there to point things are arresting in themselves, but with the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the show is completely evocative of the Gold
Rush era in California and not of some arbitrary updating. The production constantly evokes the quintessentials of Western golden west setfilm design
the saloon, the heroine’s little log cabin. The final scene is set in front of the Sheriff’s office and you almost expect John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda to come on out and save the day.

Originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Fanciulla is a bit of a Cinderella among the Puccini operas because it’s Puccini at his most Giacomo_Puccini bowlerexperimental and modernistic. There are few “famous tune” moments; the score is constructed mainly from thematic cells and leitmotifs, rather than Big Moments. But it’s gorgeous and sonorous throughout. And when those moments do come (Jake Wallace’s ballad, various moments of narration by the main characters, the dance sequence in Act I, Jack Rance or Dick Johnson telling about their lives, and above all Dick Johnson’s “Ch’ella mi creda” in Act III) they have huge impact. The translation by Kelley Rourke is fine, fits the music, and allows the singers to sound American. The moods evoked by the score are consistent and emotionally suggestive throughoutthe sonorities and orchestrations are astonishing.

Richard Jones is not afraid of the great melodramatic swatches of this tale; indeed, he often almost sends them up by having them overacted, causing laughter from the audience, but also reminding one of the early cinematic acting styles contemporary with the opera’s first performances. This, ironically, makes the whole evening feel more authentic because of the way it plays into our experience of Hollywood Westerns. At times the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, but you come out feeling this has, somehow, brought to life the Wild West of the California gold rush. The story remains credible right through the rescue of her lover by Minnie at the end. There’s also a terrific recreation of the kind of mountain snow storms and avalanches that you remember from The Gold Rush or even Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

The entire cast sings and acts with exemplary commitment; the sense of the community in which Minnie is a kind of sister of mercy and mentor, a mother figure who is an object of both love and lust among the miners, is strongly conveyed. Craig Colclough makes a slightly one-dimensional Jack Rance– Sherriff and bully–and Peter Auty is a sympathetic Dick Johnson (he’s really– gasp!–the Bandit Ramerrez). Both have fine voices, while Graham Clark’s Nick, Nicholas Masters’ Ashby, Leigh Melrose’s Sonora, Clare Presland’s Wowkle and George Humphreys’ Jake Wallace, the Minstrel, must be praised as standouts among a consistently strong cast.

But the evening truly belongs to the two principal women: susan bullockSusan Bullock’s tireless, appealing, vivid Minnie; and conductor keri-lynn wilsonKeri-Lynn Wilson, making her UK debut, who draws a brilliant performance from all the musical forces and makes something coherent and luscious of the score. Susan Bullock is a Minnie in the style of Birgit Nilsson; a clarion voice at times warm, at times laser-like; soft with emotion at some moments, over-riding the orchestra at others. Her singing is tireless in a role that must be as demanding as singing Brunnhilde. Her acting’s also particularly finea gun-toting cross of Lillian Gish and Marie Dresslerbut above all her voice is simply a glorious, Puccinian instrument.

If you are new to this opera, this notable production, cast and conductor will convince you that you need to get to know it better; and if you already know it, it will please you as an excellent and extremely satisfying presentation of an often under-rated work of art. So try to see this new Golden Girl. It’s dramatically and musically practically perfect in every way. October 14 – November 1.

Modernizing the Moor

To mark his 30th work anniversary with the English National Opera, David Alden has been given Otello (celebrating 450 years since Shakespeare’s birth) and has come up with a compelling and evocative production. It is also, for Alden, fairly uncluttered and quite coherent. There are fewer chairs than usual; and the lines of the plot and action are well conveyed. The sets and costumes are contemporary, yet somehow evocative of the original era of the play, so that (for once) the double focus and contemporary references actually work tp enhance what is going on; also, the blocking is somewhat stylized ,yet perfectly clear. So Alden’s fantasies and obsessions do not really get in the way.

This is a good thing because the edward gardnermusical direction by Edward Gardner is exemplary and superbly sonorous. Gardner has a great feeling for this score and its harmonies and a wonderful sense of individual detail, as well as the whole constructed arch of music contrived by Verdi. The orchestra is completely with him; he inspires some brilliant playing. It must also be said that the work of the chorus is exemplary throughout and at times even thrilling.

Gardner also has some wonderful singers to work with. Leah Crocetto, making her company debut, is a sweet-voiced and charming Desdemona; Jonathan Summers is a cold, calculating and powerfully voiced Iago. But the dominant character, as it stuart sheltonshould be, is the Otello of Stuart Skelton. His timbre is clarion-like when required for the bigger moments yet he can pull back the sound to a moan, a sigh, a taut string-like whine, to express love, misery, jealousy or (when going full blast), his rage and pain. From the opening storm to the murder of Desdemona by Otello and his discovery of how he has been tricked, it is a superb performance and I would certainly like to hear him do the role again. Jonathan Summers’ voice and acting are also both mightily impressive and there is a real contest—as there should bebetween this Otello and Iago.

The highlights of the opera are superlatively pointed and performed; the opening storm is dazzling; getting Roderigo drunk a fine love duet; a scary and definitive “Credo”; a powerful ending to Act II from Iago’s Dream Narration onwards.

I took a friend (who once performed as Iago in the play, but had never seen the opera) to see this Otello, and he was bowled over by Summers’ interpretation of the role, and seeing both Summers and Skelton really inhabit their parts. But the full glory of the opera is so richly conveyed because of Gardner’s sensitive, intuitive conducting. Making the play/opera more contemporary in guise worked, finally, because the point of the tale—like so many of Shakespeare’s storiesis ageless. And because Verdi, in his music, offers us a great and convincing interpretation of the many layers of this very great play, while Gardner and his team of singers simply do justice to every nuance of what Verdi has achieved. It’s a triple treat, not to be missed. In repertory at the ENO playing 4, 8, 11, 14, 17 October http://www.eno.org/whats-on/otello


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