Sunday, March 12, 2017


DON GIOVANNI: Don Ottavio “Dalla sua pace”
The character of Don Ottavio is one of the great mysteries of the opera repertoire. Is he a hero, is he a milquetoast, is he a pampered aristocrat, a hopeless lover?
The answer is all of the above, and much more. Though to call him a hero is quite an overstatement, as he is forced by circumstances and bullying by Donna Anna to put into reluctant action the skills he learned in officer training, though the poor dork must have been the butt of ridicule from his fellow recruits. Ottavio can be handsome, graceful, kind and loving, but he is also clueless.
Ottavio is a real personality, an amazingly original creation, whose facets are revealed in every line. He is also essentially a COMIC character. While his arias are not to be played for laughs, they too have a touch of humor, especially “Il mio tesoro”, in which Ottavio urges his allies to go into Anna’s house, then repeatedly calls them back for more exhortation, instead of going in himself. I suspect they give up and enter on their own, or simply leave. Ottavio repeated swears vengeance in this aria, but never really does anything much. Perhaps he is heeding basso Richard Cross’ wise words: “Opera is hard. You must swear eternal revenge, while keeping your jaw relaxed!”
The bulk of his part, especially in the recits, is plainly comical. Ottavio is rather useless in emergencies and endearingly clueless about the dark side of people, especially aristocrats. Mozart and Da Ponte are portraying the effete side of aristocracy, as they did the cruel side in the characters of Giovanni and Count Almaviva. But all three are portrayed with such human variety, that they rise beyond their social stereotypes.
Ottavio will seem to many to be the most, even the only, outrageous interpretation in this book. In directing (and playing) him, overwrought Ottavio sniffed the smelling salts before Anna in the first scene. I of course believe it’s all in the score, but even if the reader resists this slant, I hope it will inspire a unique and non-boring portrayal of this unique nobleman.
Even when Ottavio gets it right, it seems all wrong. He correctly exclaims before “Il mio tesoro” that Giovanni is the villain, but the preceding scene has made it clear to all the other characters that Leporello may well be the guy. Only the audience knows that Ottavio is correct at this point.
Ottavio need not be portrayed as the handsome buck as is the common practice, a Rodolfo in training. A character tenor with a fine voice would right in the part. Anna is clearly not attracted to Ottavio, especially after having tasted the white heat of Giovanni’s passion. The match may have been arranged by Anna’s father. And yet, in the final duet in the act II finale, after having gone through a terrible day together, and after Ottavio has accepted Anna’s pleas for a delay with such grace, the music of their little duet finally seems to suggest the possibility of marriage, mutual love, but not necessarily sex. Whether Anna was raped or ripened by Don Giovanni, it doesn't bode well for Ottavio's virginal state.
Ottavio could be compared to the cartoon mountie Dudley Doright or even to Flanders in THE SIMPSONS cartoons.  Well bred, sincerely in love, but innocent to the ways of the world, he is lovably funny. In the “movie version”, the cinematic Dudley, Brendan Fraser, might be the ideal Ottavio of the handsome type.
Ottavio may be older or noticeably younger than Anna. But he is certainly a virgin! And he is painfully anxious to lose his virginity, a prime motivation for his constant urgings to Anna. In their first scene and duet, he is clearly entranced by her, holding her unconscious and lightly clad, soft and fragrant in her nightgown. Take me as husband and father, he nobly but hornily exhorts her, quite inappropriately after her loss.  In all of his scenes following, he must be aching, and barely gallantly, for more than her hand. The sensual violence of Giovanni has awakened many things in that hot Seville night.
This aria is much more than an _expression of love. Ottavio is wisely reconsidering his commitment to Anna. Even in the best of times, she must be “high maintainance”, and now he is being asked to face violence, maybe death, and to rebel against one of his own class. Combine that with Anna’s usual treatment of him, probably a mixture of tolerance and impatience at his doting, Ottavio wonders if he’s up to it, and even if she’s worth it! Yet in the end, his love and devotion shine through.
[suggested subtext/actions in brackets]

Don Ottavio:
 Dalla sua pace la mia dipende. [sudden, quiet realization, emphasis on my]
Quel che a lei piace vita mi rende, [“piace” coloratura = “aha!”]
Quel che le incresce [growing anger]
morte mi
. [ He rashly pulls sword out halfway]
Morte!!?? [suddenly stops himself – wait a minute… death!!??]
Morte mi dà. [Replaces sword slowly. Do I really want to die for her?]
S'ella sospira, sospiro anch'io. [He paces, trying to work it out]
È mia  [She’s mine! he proudly exclaims.]
quell'ira, [Hmmmm, but so are her foul moods…]
quel pianto è mio. [I have to watch every word I say!]
E non ho bene, [he sits in confusion]
s’ella non ha.[She’s impossible to please! ]
E non ho bene, s'ella non l'ha. [(sighing) and yet I still  love that girl…]
E non ho bene, [He rises - but dammit, she’s such a handful!]
s'ella non
l'ha….. [Whatever shall I do?…]
Dalla sua pace la mia dipende. [sung piano - Who am I kidding?]
Quel che a lei piace vita mi rende! [Helpless chuckle - call me crazy, but I’m stuck on her]
Quel che le incresce morte mi dà!. [If anyone dares hurt her, I’ll kill him!]
Mor-te! Morte mi dà. [(piano) – and he could kill ME…]
Dalla sua pace la mia dipende. [paces, sums up, counting on his fingers the pros and cons, on four words in italics]
Quel che a lei piace vita mi rende,
Quel che le incresce morte mi dà,. [overwhelmed, throws hands up, it’s too much!]
Morte! [Wait! Am I ready to die?]
Morte mi dà. [Well, I’ve got to be!]
Morte mi dà. [So be it! -  he slowly draws his sword]
Quel che le incresce  [Bring it on! – slowly raises his sword valiantly]
morte mi ,. [salutes, pledges with sword across his chest]
[Postlude – Oops! Ottavio sees a spot on his sword. Exhales on sword and rubs it off with hankie while exiting quietly]
LA TRAVIATA: Alfredo “De miei bollenti spiriti
Alfredo is more impetuous than sensible. Even from his brief remarks when we meet him in act I, he appears to take himself a bit too seriously. His passionate, libidinous nature does not seem to include a sense of humor about himself. Add to all this his jealous nature, his “provencial”, country boy  mentality, which makes him both fascinated with and yet a bit contemptuous of the big city, and his willingness (with its accompanying guilt) to be supported by others including his father and mistress, and Alfredo becomes a complex and fascinating character.  He seems to be naïf about money and women, the perfect victim for Baron Douphol and Flora. We like him better than he likes himself. In short, he must be a writer. Like another French artiste, Rodolfo in BOHỀME, Alfredo exhibits a selfish streak and a quick temper.

Alfredo’s grateful vocal lines make this a perfect debut role for a heavy lyric tenor. His complex passions make him more than  a mere ingénue male.

Though at first sight, a simple declaration of love, his act II aria reveals great insecurity. Alfredo seems to be trying to convince himself of how contented he is, but jealousy and insecurity, suspicion and foreboding surge through the music.

In the production as directed by this writer, his entering with a hunting rifle, as indicated in the score, proved quite useful. The rifle served to illustrate his life of leisure, his volatile nature and it foreshadowed his upcoming (successful) duel. He left the weapon onstage, where Violetta later took it up to threaten suicide, before Germont easily wrenched the rifle from her hands. To add a touch of humor, Alfredo began the act by bursting on with a dead rabbit to scare Violetta. He’s taken aback that she’s not in the room.  After the aria, thinking he sees Violetta about to enter, our hero shoves the dead bunny into Annina’s face, scaring the daylights out of her.

Prelude:[Ottavio bursts in with his gun and a dead rabbit, hoping to surprise and scare Violetta. He presents the rabbit mischievously around the room and to the wings, but his spirits fall quickly as he realizes she’s not there. On the staccato chords, he throws the gun aside and let’s the rabbit drop, finally plopping down on a couch, clearly bothered by things.]
Lunge da lei per me non v'ha diletto! [With a touch of exasperation]
Volaron gia' tre lune [Lightens up, try to cheer himself up]
Dacche' la mia Violetta
Agi per me lascio',
dovizie, onori, [smiles, gloating of her sacrifices for him]
E le pompose feste [contemptuous in his “p’s” and “f’s”]
Ove, agli omaggi avvezza, [He rises, not calmly]
Vedea schiavo [sneers at her “love slaves”]
ciascun di sua
bellezza. [sudden mood change, helpless in her thrall, just like her other “slaves” were.]
Ed or contenta in questi ameni luoghi [With a shrug, paces, gestures]
Tutto scorda
per me. [freezes, with a victorious smile]
Qui presso a lei [Taken with the beauty of the place]
Io rinascer mi sento, [smiles, invigorated]
E dal soffio d'amor rigenerato [stretches, breathing in the healthy air, raising his fists)
Scordo ne' gaudii [laughs, dismissive hand gesture]
suoi [suddenly freezes in burst of fear or anger]
tutto il passato. [his haunted eyes finally reveal the apprehension that eats at him. Nervous laugh or shudder on the turn in “her past.”]
De' miei bollenti spiriti [suddenly a calm realization]
Il giovanile ardore [slyly referring to his prowess in bed]
Ella tempro' col placido [invigorated, proudly]
Sorriso dell'amor! [closes eyes, blessed]
dell'amor! [nods in certainty, eyes open]
Dal di' che disse: [Oh yes! Just today she said…]
“Vivere [shudders, truly moved]
Io voglio
Io voglio a te fedel” [astounded at her words, smile grows on “faithful”]
Dell'universo immemore [Arms raised outstretched like a god]
Io vivo [Alfredo casts “I live” to the world, tasting the first “v”]
Io vivo quasi [As if what?, he searches for the right word]
Io vivo quasi in ciel. [A shrug of delight. Why of course, I’m halfway to heaven!]
Io vivo in ciel. [eyes closed, like an eternal vow]
Dell'universo immemore [eyes open, to hell with the world!]
Io vivo quasi in ciel. [With defiant jubilation. Take THAT, Douphol!]
Ah si, Io vivo quasi in cielo. [ Surprised at himself. What am I so worried about?]
Io vivo quasi [A forced cry of joy]
in ciel.” [Smiling, but with a lingering doubt]

TOSCA: Mario Cavaradossi
Despite or because of its popularity, TOSCA is an underrated opera. This is due in part to its being taken for granted (familiarity breeds content), so that its varied musical and dramatic colors and subtleties (you heard me!) are often glossed over, or sensationalized, which is almost the same thing. 
But TOSCA is often miscast and the characters weakened by poor acting choices.
Tosca herself is often cast as a prize to veteran prima donnas, making her relationship to Mario Cavaradossi sometimes oedipal. She is all too often played as the volatile diva, which renders her unsympathetic and shrill. Tosca is a young, plainspoken country gal (read the play) of great talent, who moves between the world of Roman society and that of freethinking artists, political thinkers (and actors). Her passion for her art, her lover and the church are backed up with her life.  Yet she has style, charm and humor. Her jealousy in act I is well founded (he is a flirt, and she hears subdued conversation), but it is also a ruse to engage in sex play. Though he seems the atheist and she the pious one, Tosca’s the one who practically rips off her clothes and his right in the church. Then in “Vissi d’arte” she speaks for all humanity, asking God why evil befalls good people. Her range is wide and the audience must care for her.
Scarpia often appears as a sexy aristocrat, a sexual foil for Cavaradossi. This works better in theory than in practice. He is a tough, Sicilian (read the play) cop, not very young. He does have his creepy charms however, and keeps us off  balance by sudden, violent changes of mood, mostly calculated. Though his suave and brutal sides are usually evident, what is often missing is the “bigotto satiro”, as described by Mario in act I. The satyr must “get off” on Tosca’s writhing anguish so much that the audiences become engaged by his malicious, playful glee, and hate themselves for it!
Mario Cavaradossi is the most foolproof of the three principals in TOSCA. A sexy tenor with a ringing top (and a caressing piano!) can hardly miss. But, like Tosca (and Scarpia!), Mario must have humor. Upon his entrance, seeing the Sacristan at prayer, he can’t resist a sarcastic “Che fai?”, as if he didn’t know what a prayer was. Of Tosca’s devotion, he’s less contemptuous, but still gets a couple digs in. He handles the “high maintenance” Tosca with a light and amusing touch, warmed by genuine love and a healthy libido. Though his heart is in the right place, he is naïve politically, and makes some headstrong decisions, such as rushing out with Angelotti, that serve the plot better than him. He is an excellent artist. This director had him sketching Tosca’s face in act III during the clarinet solo of “E lucevan le stelle”, then continued drawing her hands on the last bars of “O dolci mani.” In the act I love duet, he shows her, to her delight,the locket, probably painted by him as well.
This aria is usually sung as a forte declaration of passion, which is quite wrong, though that may be more of a vocal decision than a dramatic one. Mario should begin piano, musing, quietly struck by the attractive differences between the faces in his painting (the Attavanti) and his locket (Floria Tosca).
To perform this soliloquy as a mere declaration of love is to underestimate Puccini’s genius. The aria “goes somewhere”. Taking the words and music at face value,  Mario is seriously deciding upon which woman to choose! He realizes with amused disappointment only in a later scene with Angelotti, that the Attavanti had been hanging around the church to aid her brother’s escape, and not to meet a lover or to flirt with a painter. Yet I’m sure that at one point, the Attavanti turned and smiled at Cavaradossi before leaving the chapel, so he has reason to believe there is hope for a flirtation at the least. Also his painting should be a traditional Magdalena, sensual of face, with a soft breast barely covered by a strand of hair or a diaphanous robe.
[In the prelude, Mario paints the Magdalena, then, struck by something in her face, takes a locket from his pocket showing Tosca’s face to the lady in the painting.]
Recondita armonia [looks to locket]
di bellezze diverse!... [now to painting]
È bruna Floria, [to locket]
l'ardente amante mia... [with sexual intent]
E te, beltade ignota, [Twirls to painting, accusing finger to her]
cinta di chiome bionde! [teasing mockery: you and your golden hair!]
Tu azzurro hai l'occhio, [Caressing the Attavanti intently with his voice with sexy "u" vowels]
Tosca ha l’occhio nero… [shows Tosca’s picture to the painting]
L'arte nel suo mistero
le diverse bellezze insiem confonde;  [looks from one to the other, pondering]
ma nel ritrar costei [Smiles. Resolute, but front! Which portrait has he chosen?]
il mio solo pensiero,
Ah, il mio sol pensier,
Sei tu! [finally on you, he looks to the locket. Only now do we know his choice!]
Tosca, sei tu!  [to locket, but it is raised enough for a great B-flat. As the “tu” dies out, Mario may cast a final wistful glance at the Attavanti in the painting.]

It is an error to perform this solo in tears and regret, save that for the final breakdown at the end of the aria. As Toscanini admonished his Radames: “Be happy! Yes, you are dying, but you are with her! You die happy!” (paraphrased) The painter holds Floria’s portrait in his mind,  even draws her face, and basks in the memory of her beauty. Carlos Castaneda’s Mexican sorceror, Don Juan, tells us that the man of action (“warrior”) can choose the place to die, an imaginary or remembered place. Mario chooses a serene death, in a revery, harkening back to a garden on the night when he first made love to Tosca. He will need no blindfold, as he begins in heaven already. But by the aria’s end he surrenders to grief. And yet even then, he declares his love of life. The repeat of “tanto la vita” could be sung resolutely, as a heroic rejection of self pity. Still, he should dissolve into tears on the postlude, as the libretto specifies, even if that is against his will. The opera is not over yet. In the finale, Cavaradossi and Tosca both actually do achieve a triumphant, noble, even humorous death (Mario’s joking about her coaching in acting technique.) They die as humans who have lived.

ed olezzava la terra...
e un passo sfiorava la rena...
Entrava ella, fragrante,
mi cadea fra le braccia... (PUTS PICTURE DOWN ON TABLE ON "BRACCIA")
(RISES) Oh! dolci baci, o languide carezze, (CROSS CENTER SLOWLY)
mentr'io fremente
Svanì per sempre il sogno mio d'amore...
L'ora è fuggita...
E muoio disperato!
E non ho amato mai tanto la vita!... (CROSS TO STOOL AND SIT, HEAD BURIED ON THE TABLE)
John Donne wrote that the cross was made of applewood, and that Jesus reversed the sin of Adam by becoming the apple nailed back to the tree. Perhaps he went beyond the limits of his mission and was punished by the Father for it. “Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?” is more than a cry of pain or a quoting of Elijah. It is a challenge. Lohengrin too fell in love with the client (like Jesus and the Maddelena) and her kind, but now must stick to the mission. Lohengrin had literally forgotten who he was. In the narration, he need not narrate, need not explain. What if Lohengin remembers, actually sees, as though through the fog on a mountain, where he comes from.
Using the magic wand called subtext, the tenor can lead the audience to a mythical place, even if the audience (or even the tenor) does not grasp all the meanings. 

Lohengrin: (pauses, cannot remember his name. Enters a trance, into a fog. His eyes close. Let the conductor follow him!)
In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten, (as if having a dream)
liegt eine Burg, die Montsalvat genannt;
ein lichter Tempel stehet dort inmitten, (smiles, where am I?)
so kostbar, als auf Erden nichts bekannt;
drin ein Gefäss von wundertät'gem Segen (wonders at the Cup)
wird dort als höchstes Heiligtum bewacht:
Es ward, dass sein der Menschen reinste pflegen, (gasps)
herab von einer Engelschar gebracht; (eyes open)
alljährlich naht vom Himmel eine Taube, (realizing that the dream is a memory)
um neu zu stärken seine Wunderkraft:
Es heisst der Gral, und selig reinster Glaube
erteilt durch ihn sich seiner Ritterschaft.
Wer nun dem Gral zu dienen ist erkoren, (to himself)
den rüstet er mit überird'scher Macht; (how do I know this?)
an dem ist jedes Bösen Trug verloren,
wenn ihn er sieht, weicht dem des Todes Nacht.
Selbst wer von ihm in ferne Land' entsendet, [I was a fool, I should have kept to my duty]
zum Streiter für der Tugend Recht ernannt,
dem wird nicht seine heil'ge Kraft entwendet, (people scatter at his rage)
bleibt als sein Ritter dort er unerkannt.
So hehrer Art doch ist des Grales Segen,
enthüllt - muss er des Laien Auge fliehn; (scornfully, meaning the crowd)
des Ritters drum sollt Zweifel ihr nicht hegen,
erkennt ihr ihn - dann muss er von euch ziehn. (to Elsa, suddenly)
Nun hört, wie ich verbotner Frage lohne! (looks out, decides to defy it)
Vom Gral ward ich zu euch daher gesandt: Mein Vater Parzival trägt seine Krone, (breaks an even bigger taboo, throws the sword away)
sein Ritter ich - bin Lohengrin genannt. (embraces Elsa joyfully)
(Lohengrin joyfully reveals himself, like Calaf recklessly exclaiming his own name. He chooses a crucifixion of sorts  by revealing the secret himself, in defiance of his mission. Perhaps he embraces Elsa, but she draws back, as do all the rest. He is not of them. He kneels to Parzival. Then suddenly he picks up the sword to threaten others or himself. Suddenly again Lohengrin pauses as the swan appears in the distance. He knows now. He is both damned and saved. He shall be reborn as the brother of Elsa. Lohengrin has achieved her love, but not the way we and he expected. He must foreswear sensual love.The swan will not take him home. This however he does not tell the people of Brabant. Does Elsa realize? She will die not only at the miracle of  her brother’s resurrection, but also at the realization of who he is now.)

1 comment:

  1. Your blog is so good. I'd forgotten what a great writer you are. And it's strange how the words of "Recondita armonia" spell out exactly what you describe, but are ignored in every production I've ever seen except ours.

    I have only one quibble with your stage director rules: No.23 should read "Preparation is important. Make sure you do not read the libretto, as it may interfere with your staging ideas. And it is essential that you not listen to a CD (if you can read music or play a piano/vocal score you belong in a different profession) because the composer is bound to contradict what you will show on stage."

    Italian directors are now just as bad as the Germans. I like the British best, because they are the best at theater in general and always have been.