Category Archives: Opera Review

HE SINGS A CAPPELLA. THEN HE DESTROYS QUARTERBACKS. ·

(Andrew Beaton’s article appeared in The Wall Street Journal, 1/10/2024; Photo: The Wall Street Journal)

Before Kobie Turner emerged as standout defensive tackle for the Los  Angeles Rams, he was a multitalented musician and the star of his college a cappella group

Back when he was a standout defensive tackle on the University of Richmond football team, Kobie Turner spent the morning of homecoming reviewing his playbook, taping his joints and limbering up to play in the marquee game of the season.

Then came the performance where he really starred. Once the final whistle sounded, he raced home for a quick shower, hustled to the school chapel and arrived just in time to sing at a concert with his a cappella group.

It was the second time that day he had performed in front of a crowd, and he still laments that his second show suffered slightly because of the first one.

“A little bit less voice than I would have wanted,” Turner says. “You’re obviously screaming at a football game.” 

These days, Los Angeles Rams fans better know Turner as the rookie defensive tackle who strikes fear into opposing quarterbacks. He has a team-high nine sacks entering Sunday’s playoff game against the Detroit Lions, and his sensational play explains how the Rams have executed a rapid rebuild and returned to the postseason even after trading away all of their first-round draft picks for the better part of a decade. No team is better at finding hidden gems—including one who celebrates big plays by waving his arms like an orchestra conductor. 

But Turner isn’t an unlikely breakout star simply because he was a middle round draft pick. He was also a walk-on at a school that doesn’t even play at the highest level of college football. And that same school offered him a music scholarship before it finally gave him a football one. 

“I didn’t even know him at all as a football guy,” says Anna Tartline, who was in chorus and a cappella with Turner at Richmond. “He was a music guy.”

Turner learned to love music through his mother, a choir buff. Eventually, choir became a “huge, huge” part of his own life, he says. He learned how to play numerous instruments and believed those skills could be his ticket for a college scholarship and then a career in music. 

It turns out that the same intelligence and tireless work ethic that allowed him to pick up everything from the piano to the ukulele is what the football coaches at Centreville High School in Virginia noticed about Turner. While his football skills were rather raw, he was both quick to learn and willing to put in the necessary time to improve. 

And it wasn’t easy for Turner to spend hours in the weight room bulking up like the other players on the football team. He had to juggle his nascent football career with music classes, advanced math courses, and three a cappella groups. 

“I don’t know how he could be in all those places at once,” says Anthony Rozzoni, an assistant coach who ran Centreville’s weight room. “How do you find the time to do all that?” 

Rozzoni helped Turner make the time. Because Turner’s heavy course load meant that he couldn’t attend the team’s weightlifting sessions during the school day, Rozzoni trained him privately after school. 

Still, Turner’s highlights on the football field, which included singing the national anthem before one of the team’s games, didn’t have Division I college coaches clamoring to sign him up. It did strike a chord with the Richmond coaches, though, when they paid an in-home visit to one of his best friends and found Turner lurking in the corner of the room waiting for a chance to introduce himself. They studied Turner’s tape and eventually brought him on campus for a visit. That’s where he really blew their minds—when he spotted the organ in the university’s chapel.

“Can I go play that?” Turner asked. 

Soon, the empty chapel had attracted a small crowd of people who had emerged from their offices just to listen to him play. 

“He just starts playing,” says Justin Wood, the school’s defensive coordinator, “and it’s absolutely beautiful.”

Still, Richmond’s football team didn’t have a scholarship to offer for him, and there was another college staff vying for his services. It just happened to be Richmond’s music department. 

Turner was offered a music scholarship after he auditioned at the school, but after some hard thought, he turned it down. Taking it would have locked him into certain commitments that would have hamstrung him when he wanted to make football his main focus. Because of the cost of tuition at Richmond, his parents told him he had one year until he had to find a scholarship. 

It took him much less. After walking onto the team as a tight end, the Richmond coaches quickly realized he was a bad fit for the position. So they moved him to the defensive line, where he flashed enough promise to earn a scholarship before his sophomore year. To learn to play tackle, Turner studied tape of one player in particular: three-time defensive player of the year Aaron Donald.

Turner, who decided to double major in math because his passion for music wasn’t enough, was just as busy with his other pursuits. That sophomore year, he sprinted from the homecoming football game to perform in the concert with his a cappella group called “Choeur Du Roi.” In French, that means “King’s Choir.” In English, it means they all wear corduroys when they sing. At the concert, Turner sang a version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” that he arranged, and the performance ended with a rousing ovation from the crowd. 

Yuna Chung, Choeur Du Roi’s current president, says the group practiced three times a week and that Turner hardly ever missed a rehearsal. As a freshman, she looked up to him because he showed the same leadership musically as he did athletically. She also offered a scouting report on his vocal skills: He’s a strong beat boxer and a delightful bass. 

“Sometimes, he would add a high note out of nowhere and it would fit in perfectly,” Chung adds.

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AT CARNEGIE HALL: HANDEL’S MESSIAH BY THE ORATORIO SOCIETY OF NEW YORK ·

(Edward Kiszus’s article appeared on Opening Night Online, 12/19/2023; Photo: Handel’s Messiah performed by the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall.. Photo by Edward Kliszus.)

Handel’s Messiah performed by the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall.

Accompanied by a coterie of gifted solo artists, a bespoke Kent Tritle strode to center stage in a radiant, scarlet jacket to conduct Handel’s Messiah (1741) by the Oratorio Society of New York. The full house erupted into a resounding applause befitting the greatest historical luminaries of choral conducting, like Robert Shaw, Sir David Willcocks, and Sir George Solti.

The sublime opening intones of the opening Sinfonia, set in a stately French overture form, established the work’s overall pathos and foundation for the first Arioso performed by tenor Martin Bakari. With ‘Comfort Ye’ and ‘Ev’ry Valley,’ Bakari demonstrated his crisp diction, articulation, expressive power, and mastery of swift melismatic passages.

Tritle conducted with bravura, inspiration, and precision. His choices of dynamics and tempi built energy, excitement, urgency, and intensity. Messiah emerged as a living, breathing entity of vitality and passion. For audiences new and seasoned, Tritle reinvented and refreshed Messiah, crafting its musical treasures for heightened accessibility as he delivered glorious crescendi and decrescendi.

These variations of dynamics occurred within the scope of Tritle’s faithfulness to the precepts of Baroque Affektenlehre that masterfully characterized anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival, the sorrow of his crucifixion, and the glory of his resurrection. After all, Handel’s score markings are less about dynamics and more associated with tempo and atmosphere with terms like LargoLarghettoAllegro, and Andante. Tritle displayed his unwavering commitment to excellence and ability to connect with an audience through music’s expressive power.

Countertenor Daniel Moody demonstrated his dramatic vocal authority throughout the concert. Moody’s extended range projected ethereal beauty, while his vocal agility displayed a fluid and effortless musical flow. Moody’s vocal acrobatics and virtuosity conveyed a sense of passion and conviction essential to the interpretation of Messiah. We heard this and more in Moody’s performance of ‘O thou tellest good tidings to Zion.’

John Brancy, bass-baritone, projected a deep and powerful aural narrative. His strong presence conveyed a sense of solemnity and gravity as in the aria “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” Brancy also expressed triumph and joy, as noted in “The trumpet shall sound” with the addition of virtuoso trumpeter Maximilian Morel. Brancy’s role served as a key element in the work’s rich and dynamic sound tapestry.

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‘ENDGAME’ REVIEW – PROM 43, MUSIC BRINGS COMPASSION TO BECKETT’S AUSTERE DRAMA ·

(Tim Ashley’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/19; Dramatic pressure … Endgame. Photograph: Sisi Burn.)

Royal Albert Hall, London
For its UK premiere, György Kurtág’s opera faced a challenge summoning the play’s claustrophobia in this venue, but performances and players were superb

Michael Billington, writing about Endgame in these pages a while ago, once used the phrase “the terrible music of Beckett’s prose” to describe the bitter beauty of the play’s language. In György Kurtág’s opera, the words retain their fierce, lacerating power, though the music extends a deep and ambivalent compassion to Beckett’s characters even as their rebarbative sparring masks fears of decline, isolation, endings and loss. This is not, in essence, the bleak comedy we often find, but a work of pervasive sadness that continues to haunt us after its final notes have died away.

Considered a masterpiece by many at its 2018 Milan premiere, Endgame (more correctly Fin de Partie, as Kurtág uses the French text) has now been given its first UK performance at the Proms by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth, in a semi-staging by Victoria Newlyn. Playing and conducting, as one might expect, were superb. Wigglesworth dug deep into the score’s detail while maintaining the dramatic pressure throughout, and you couldn’t help but be struck both by Kurtág’s fastidious craftsmanship and the way every verbal and musical gesture tells, often through the sparest and simplest of means. Flaring brass suggested fury, futile or otherwise, and cimbalom taps quietly frayed the protagonists’ nerves. But there were also moments of quite extraordinary beauty, particularly as Nell (Hilary Summers) and Nagg (Leonardo Cortellazzi) lose themselves in memories of the past.

Available on BBC Sounds until 9 October. The Proms continue until 9 September.

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‘ICELAND’ AT LA MAMA (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Iceland, both the title and central metaphor for an opera by O-Lan Jones (director) and Emmet Tilley (music)–now playing at La MaMa through April 2–is like this year’s slow crawl out of winter in New York, as well as the country’s measured reawakening after COVID.  The show portrays heterosexual constraint,  the difficulties of forming social and physical relationships, oft standard musical theatre fare, to be sure, except that it gets stuck, like Stevie Nicks realizing that she has been singing the same song all night, at practice with Fleetwood Mac, none willing to finalize a song cut. Iceland, similarly, like the glaciers, echoes at the same emotional level for much of its 90 minutes; Act II does not evolve from the previous, where a young architect (Nancy McArthur), whose luggage is lost in a flight from Oslo, meets a mountaineer in Iceland (Oliver Demers), who has been caught in an avalanche (which might be more dramatic if it happens within the frame of the drama, instead of before it). All signs would point to a Rose-Marie or a hippy musical, set in the tundra (if not a show like Brigadoon; the cast includes characters of Icelandic legend, the hiddenfolk and landvaettir); here, though, the lyric is, “Come to me–I need your open arms” instead of “Come to me, Bend to Me.” The score is classically inspired, making use of four trained opera singers, as well as a chorus, with an eleven-piece live orchestra (music direction/conducting is by Robert Kahn).  Additionally, Iceland offers folk-pop songs, which may be reminiscent of the early music of Galt McDermot, Stephen Schwartz, Webber and Rice, and even Crosby, Stills & Nash.  Our time is clearly not that era, though, or the ‘40s and ‘50s and classic Broadway musicals, or of ‘20s operetta, but theatre-crafting, for now, despite incredible technological means, still must authentically find the wherewithal to figure itself out.

At times, an audience can only see how hard a show is trying and not its realization as dramatic art. Part of the issue, which may be affecting Iceland is that the tried-and-true boy-meets-girl formula does not automatically lend itself to the way life is being lived currently.  The show’s soulful self-seriousness is also reinforced by an October article in Psychology Today, by Greg Mattos, “Why Are So Many Young Men Single and Sexless,” which highlights Pew Research, indicating that “over 60 percent of young men are currently single, whereas only 30 percent of young women are.  Women, additionally, have prioritized “academic, professional, and financial goals” more firmly, solidifying men’s “generational inclination toward avoidance and withdrawal.” La MaMa has traditionally championed physical over language-based theatre, but here plot and story have been eclipsed by generalization, with lyrics that don’t automatically register. When they do, they seem sentimental, too generic, as if from a radio tune, on which anyone can be projected, and not from a character’s history and identity.  Yet, the setting, the movement and spiral dancing are well staged, with imaginative earth-toned costumes (Matsy Stinson) sets, lights, and stage pieces (Matthew Imhoff) and animation (Kayla Berry), even if they remain apart from accumulating, dramatic action. Trying to get so much right about a generation, the theatre-makers have not allowed themselves to be wrong enough to tell a specific human story.

Copyright © 2023 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Cast:

Ariel Andrew, Marieke de Koker, Oliver Demers, Perri di Christina, Clayton Matthews, Nancy McArthur, A.C. “Ace” McCarthy, Matthew Moron, Matt Mueller, Carlos Pedroza, Isabel Springer, Andrew Wannigman, Angela Yam, Daiyao Zhong

Creative Team:

Composer/Librettists: O-Lan Jones and Emmett Tinley

Director: O-Lan Jones

Music Director: Robert Kahn

Assistant Director: Livia Reiner; with production support from BARE opera

Lighting and Scenic Design: Matthew Imhoff

Costume Designer: Matsy Stinson

Projection Content Design: Melody (Mela) London

The piece is arranged for two leads with a contemporary singer-songwriter sound, four classically trained operatic vocalists, and an SATB ensemble. It is orchestrated for Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, Harp, Keyboards, French Horn, English Horn/Oboe, Flute, Guitar and Percussion.

Visit La MaMa

Publicity: Michelle Tabnick PR

Photo credits, from top: Bronwen Sharp (1, 3), Stacia French (2, 4)

UKRAINE’S NATIONAL OPERA LOSES MEMBERS TO RUSSIA’S WAR, SAYS ART IS ALWAYS POLITICAL ·

(Olena Makarenko’s reporting appeared in the Kyiv Independent, 2/2/23.)

Following a three-month break after the start of Russia’s all-out war, the National Opera of Ukraine resumed its performances. With some of its members serving in the army, and having dropped all Russian pieces from the repertoire, the theater team argues that art is always political.

Visit Ukraine National Opera

10 RUSSIAN OPERAS BEING STAGED AROUND THE WORLD IN THE NEW 2021–22 SEASON ·

Damir Yusupov/The Bolshoi Theater

(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the headlines, 10/21/2021.)

Russia gave the world not only ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘War and Peace’, but also some larger-than-life operas, as well. Don’t miss a chance to see them in the new season!

1. ‘Boris Godunov’ at the Metropolitan Opera (New York City, United States)

In terms of the depth and subtlety of psychological analysis, Modest Mussorgsky could definitely rival Fyodor Dostoevsky or Leo Tolstoy.

In ‘Boris Godunov’, he proved himself not only as a great composer and librettist, but also as a visionary far ahead of his time. Mussorgsky broke new ground in that he actually chose to highlight the dramatic conflict between the tsar and the people in this historical operatic blockbuster. The Russian composer went as far as to actually give the people the lead role in ‘Boris Godunov’. 

The Metropolitan Opera aptly describes Mussorgsky’s masterpiece as “a pillar of the Russian repertoire”, noting that the performance has been staged in its original 1869 version. Stephen Wadsworth’s production, with German bass René Pape as the title character in Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’, depicts the “hope and suffering of the Russian people as well as the tsar himself”.

2. ‘The Queen of Spades’ at La Scala (Milan, Italy)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s grim tale of passion and greed is widely considered the pinnacle of his artistic achievement. With the libretto composed by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, the masterwork is based on Alexander Pushkin’s mystical short story, ‘The Queen of Spades’.

It has it all: passion, obsession, fear and fire. 

The opera is set in 18th century St. Petersburg and revolves around an unfortunate young man named Herman, who is obsessed with gambling. Herman also seems to be in love with the charming Lisa, whose grandmother, an old Countess, knows the secret of the “three winning cards”. Herman takes his obsession with gambling too far and things quickly go off the rails. 

Staged by Matthias Hartmann, ‘The Queen of Spades’ stars mesmerizing Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as the Countess and Russian tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov as Herman.

Russian tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov

In the new season, Tchaikovsky’s grandest opera will be conducted by Maestro Valery Gergiev.

3. ‘Sadko’ at the Bolshoi Theater (Moscow, Russia)

‘Sadko’ is, by far and large, Russia’s musical answer to Homer’s ‘Odysseus’. All modesty aside, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov gave his work quite an unusual genre definition – an epic opera.

'Sadko' at the Bolshoi Theater

Indeed, the prolific composer created a musical score of epic proportions, which requires an exceptional cast of performers and a nontrivial solution to setting the blockbuster opera. In ‘Sadko’, dramatic mass scenes alternate with heartfelt lyrical episodes, characterized by the exquisite beauty of the melodies. The opera focuses on Sadko, a young musician who dreams about incredible adventures and overseas travel. Sadko decries wealthy merchants for boasting and bluster, but the wandering artist will have to put his words into action after the fateful with the Tsar of the Sea. Charismatic tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov, who has performed at the Royal Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, nails it as Sadko in the trailblazing production staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov.

4. ‘Eugene Onegin’ at the Vienna State Opera (Vienna, Austria)

Tchaikovsky was a true original, who never followed the crowd. So, instead of a story boasting “tsars, tsarinas, uprisings, battles and marches”. Tchaikovsky said he needed an intimate human drama with universal appeal. With the inner world of the characters in mind, Tchaikovsky created his signature “lyrical scenes in three acts”, featuring an ideal combination of pathos, drama and dignity.

‘Eugene Onegin’, based on Pushkin’s famous novel in verse, focuses on a young and sentimental woman, Tatiana Larina, who naively declares her love to a self-centered man. Eugene Onegin, who is cold as a fish, rejects Tatiana’s love and continues to live his life to the full. When he realizes that he might have missed the love of his life, it’s already too late. 

Andre Schuen as Onegin and Nicole Car as Tatyana.

Cutting-edge director and set designer Dmitri Tcherniakov creates an atmosphere of dramatic movement at the Vienna State Opera, with baritone Andre Schuen’s Onegin and Nicole Car’s Tatyana sharing charisma on stage.

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THE WONDER OF WAGNER ·

(Chilton Williamson, Jr.’s article appeared in The Spectator, 12/13.)

Laramie, Wyoming

Nearly all the famous artistic controversies in the aesthetic history of the western world — the Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns in France and the contest between the rococo and neoclassical schools across Europe in the middle of the 18th century; the subsequent rivalry between the Classicists and the Romantics and the contretemps in the late-19th century between the Realists and the Impressionists — are as dead, irrelevant and forgotten today as the wars between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The sole exception, so far as I know, is the once bloody and bitter opposition between the Wagnerians and the Italian operatic school, which, though a good deal attenuated, continues to burble on among the critici and appassionati of the operatic world. I was reminded of its longevity when, a year or so ago, I read an essay in The Spectator of London by Michael Tanner claiming that, while Giuseppe Verdi’s centennial in 2014 passed almost unremarked, Wagner’s reputation remains immense. Mr Tanner clearly believes the implied judgment of the relative merits of the two composers to be a solid one.

From the beginning Richard Wagner has been the intellectual operagoer’s Held: the heroic composer who wrote his own libretti, poetic dramas to accompany his musical masterpieces. Nietzsche was his great friend and admirer for years before breaking with the maestro for personal and artistic reasons; Wagner’s music lacked rhythm and melody, he decided, and left him physically ill. And after Nietzsche came Shaw, the author of The Perfect Wagnerite: A Commentary on the Niblung’s Ring (1898), who wrote the pamphlet, he said, ‘for the assistance of those who wish to be introduced to the work on equal terms with that inner circle of adepts…[Its] dramatic moments lie quite outside the consciousness of people whose joys and sorrows are all domestic and personal, and whose religious and political ideas are purely conventional and superstitious.’ Shaw, being Shaw, understood The Ring in Marxist terms, an interpretation that Wagner, who had died 15 years before, was unavailable to protest. Giuseppe Verdi, Wagner’s artistic nemesis, who lived until 1901 and thus had three years in which to claim a similarly exalted interpretation for his own operas, nevertheless failed to do so, thus giving the Perfect Wagnerites an excuse to insist that, by comparison with their man, the composer of Aïda, Otello and Falstaff had been a Piedmontese hurdy-gurdyist.

Though Wagner was no Marxist, he did hold the bourgeoisie in similar contempt — the minority of it that patronized the arts, anyway. Thus he viewed the Italian, French, and popular German composers of his day as vulgar tunesmiths eager to please the Jockey Club in Paris and the cafoni in the provincial opera-houses of Italy. He himself, Wagner determined, would single-handedly lift opera into the musical, philosophical and even religious stratosphere. This ambition, however, involved a confusion of critical terms.

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OPERA AT THE EDGE ·

Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

(Matthew Aucoin’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 5/14.)

 Lear

an opera by Aribert Reimann, at the Paris Opera, November 21–December 7, 2019

Orest

an opera by Manfred Trojahn, at the Vienna State Opera, November 14–20, 2019

Heart Chamber

an opera by Chaya Czernowin, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, November 15–December 6, 2019

 

Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

Last November, having just put the final touches on Eurydice, the opera I’d been working on for several years, I paid a visit to Europe to hear operas by three fellow composers, none of whose stage works are performed in America with any regularity. In spite of the uncanny ease with which music can be distributed online, and in spite of the popular notion of music as a “universal language,” contemporary opera in America can feel like an insular endeavor: the flip side of many American opera companies’ laudable support for homegrown composers is a cautiousness that verges on xenophobia. When it comes to new works, the thinking goes, why import a challenging piece in a foreign language when a local composer could write one in English? In past centuries, American companies almost exclusively imported European works; these days, new European operas are sometimes assumed to be excessively strong meat for the teeth of American audiences.

The chaos of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made the following essay, written before it began, feel suddenly like an artifact from a distant time. This crisis will wreak havoc in all sectors; for the world of the arts, it is already a devastation. Classical music has long been an art form centered on live performance, ever more so since the collapse of the classical recording industry, and it’s hard to imagine when music lovers will again be willing to form the human petri dish that is a concert audience.

Out of generosity, out of necessity, artists and institutions worldwide are broadcasting their work online, in many cases for free. An astonishingly rich world of music is more in evidence and more readily available than ever. It’s hard to imagine any positive side effects to our current state of emergency, but perhaps, in our newfound state of isolation, we can learn new ways to listen across borders, with open ears.

Composers who adapt Shakespeare must inevitably perform surgery on the Bard’s lengthy, poetically exuberant plays: Verdi cut an entire act to turn Othello into Otello; Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes condensed the winding rhythms of Shakespeare’s pentameter into clipped doggerel for their adaptation of The Tempest. The German composer Aribert Reimann, who composed his Lear in the late 1970s at the request of the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, performs his surgery with a sledgehammer. He and his librettist, Claus H. Henneberg, burn away nearly all traces of compassion and complexity from the play’s more sympathetic characters, including Lear, and abandon the play’s essential trajectory, of a tenuous political order unraveling into chaos, instead depicting a world that is darkly chaotic from the outset. The leveling winds of the heath blow all night through Reimann’s score.

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MAKING SHAKESPEARE SING: ON VERDI: CREATING “OTELLO” AND “FALSTAFF”—HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE RICORDI ARCHIVE ·

(Matthew Aucoin’s article appeared in the New York of Books 12/19.)

Verdi: Creating “Otello” and “Falstaff”—Highlights from the Ricordi Archive

an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, September 6, 2019–January 5, 2020

Osbert Lancaster/De Agostini/Bridgeman Images/© Clare Hastings

Scenography by Osbert Lancaster for a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff at the Edinburgh Festival, 1955

The process of adapting a play into an opera is a little like forcing the original text to drink a concoction out of Alice in Wonderland: some aspects of it will shrink or evaporate, others are magnified to unrecognizable dimensions, and the whole thing falls through music’s rabbit hole into a parallel world where very different laws apply. This fraught alchemy has bewildered many a composer. Sources that seem unimpeachably strong (classic plays, beloved movies, Great American Novels) can wilt or fail to catch fire when set to music, while material that might seem slight, simplistic, or impractical can, in the hands of an inventive composer, reveal unsuspected power and hidden depths. Sometimes, if seldom, one has the sense that a play, a novel, or even a real-life incident came into being mainly so that it could be reincarnated as an opera.

Giuseppe Verdi’s last two operas, the Shakespearean diptych of Otello and Falstaff, together constitute my favorite case study in what happens when a play is made to stand up and sing. Both the source material and the musical adaptations are works of singular beauty and power. To study these operas alongside their sources is to see what is gained and what is lost, what remains intact and what is transformed, when a complex human drama is adapted from speech into song. Otello is an exceedingly rare breed, practically a unicorn: a masterpiece based on a masterpiece. And Falstaff, a long-pent-up belly laugh of a piece that Verdi unleashed on the world after a lifetime of composing tragedies, achieves something rarer still: it is a love letter to Shakespeare that expands on Shakespeare’s work, putting Sir John Falstaff center stage in a work that’s big and bold enough for his irrepressible, irresponsible spirit.

These two operas are the subject of “Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff,” a gem of an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. Curated by Gabriele Dotto, the former director of publishing at Ricordi, Verdi’s publishing house, it affords an engrossing glimpse of the vast collaborative effort required to bring an opera into the world. By the time he wrote Otello and Falstaff, Verdi was a national icon, as famous and familiar as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and it is touching to see evidence of the care that a huge team—engravers, printers, costume designers, painters—put into the creation of this old man’s uncannily youthful last works.

Verdi loved Shakespeare throughout his life, but it took decades for his music to become Shakespearean. He came of age during what has become known as the bel canto period of Italian opera, during which the glorification of the human voice was composers’ fundamental priority; bel canto literally means “beautiful song” or “beautiful singing.” Works from this era—by composers such as Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti—are distinguished by long, sensuously unspooling melodies and passages of fast, florid vocal gymnastics; the harmonic palette is simple and the harmonic progressions few and familiar. An aesthetic whose central focus is the wonder of the beautifully produced voice inevitably lets some other aspects of the art form fall by the wayside: one generally doesn’t turn to a bel canto opera for an evening of taut, seamless drama.

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Photo: Osbert Lancaster/De Agostini/Bridgeman Images/© Clare Hastings

Visit the Morgan Library online  

BACK ON CATFISH ROW ·

Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera

(Geoffrey O’Brien’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 11/21.)  

Porgy and Bess

an opera by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, September 23, 2019–February 1, 2020

Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music

by Richard Crawford

Norton, 594 pp., $39.95

Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935, to mixed reviews and insufficient box office receipts, but I am unable to disassociate it from the musical culture I grew up with in the 1950s, a decade when George Gershwin’s opera seemed to be everywhere. In 1951, at the dawn of the LP era, the first ostensibly complete recording was released by Columbia Masterworks.1 Earlier recordings had consisted only of hit songs from the show—“Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Columbia’s lavish three-record set offered more music than the original Broadway version, which had been shortened by at least thirty minutes before the New York opening. More crucially, it presented Porgy and Bess as an opera of densely interwoven parts, unlike productions that in the decade following Gershwin’s death in 1937 had made drastic cuts and replaced recitatives with spoken dialogue, turning it into something more like a musical.2

For my oldest brother, Robert, a precocious student of musical theater and orchestral arrangement, the Columbia recording became a constant object of study. At mid-decade, when he was fourteen and I was seven, I had the benefit of hearing many passages played repeatedly, along with a running commentary on fine points of harmony and instrumentation often beyond my comprehension. Robert’s ultimate concern being formal, he impressed on me the sense of an invisible architecture beyond words, delineated by the baton he sometimes waved in accompaniment.

No technical explanation was needed to grasp the tidal power of Gershwin’s music in the choral surges and Porgy’s final departure, especially at the volume my brother preferred. At the same time, an intimacy of feeling throughout suggested a community, almost a household, of voices running through all the possible levels of speaking, singing, crying out. To listen closely was to be pulled into an encompassing sonic environment within which lives were being lived under constant stress, in the imaginary but very real space around the record player.

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Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera