Archive for April, 2014

Great moments in opera: L’Elisir d’Amore

April 28, 2014

After a full year of focusing on the operas of Britten and Verdi, it was with some considerable relief that I turned this month to the Italian bel canto and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) for refreshment and relaxation. I had not heard the opera before, and it fell on my ears like dew upon the grass. There is really nothing like a bel canto comedy for effervescent loveliness. L’Elisir d’Amore has that in abundance, and is furthermore graced with at least one aria that has become a permanent part of the repertoire, but more on that below.

The story is ridiculous: Nemorino is a young man who, spurned by Adina, the young woman on whom his heart has fixed, seeks from a quack physician a love potion that will make him irresistable to her. The potion is worthless, of course, but his guileless and dogged efforts to obtain it convince Adina of his love, and win her heart in the end.

The opera is cast in just two acts. Right away in the first scene we have a lovely aria, Quanto e’ bella (How beautiful she is), in which Nemorino sings of his love for Adina. He laments the fact that she gives him no attention, and wonders how she can be brought around to return his love. Here is Luciano Pavarotti, though without subtitles [Translation]:

A little later in the same scene, Adina sings a nice little aria, Della crudele Isotta (Of the cruel Isolde), in which she reads to the assembled villagers the story of Tristan and Isolde, and of the love potion which drove them both mad with passion. Hearing the tale, which the somewhat rustic Nemorino takes for truth, he is inspired with the thought of obtaining the same potion for himself. Here is the aria, sung by Kathleen Battle, again without subtitles [Text]:

In the next scene we are introduced to Dr Dulcamara, a travelling salesman who pedals marvellous elixirs to gullible peasants. Dulcamara is a con-man and a buffoon, but a somewhat amiable one.

Nemorino approaches Dulcamara and asks for a bottle of Isolde’s love potion. At first Dulcamara doesn’t know what he is asking for, but he catches on quickly enough and sells him the “potion” he seeks (actually, diluted wine). Nemorino drinks it, and waits for its effects to manifest. (In his charming naivete, it doesn’t occur to him that he really ought to get Adina to drink the potion.) The first act closes with a lovely duet for Nemorino and Adina, Esulti pur la barbara (loosely, Let her mock me). Here are Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, with English subtitles:

The action of the second act is mainly concerned with bringing the story to a happy conclusion, albeit with a few bumps along the way. Nemorino is initially disappointed to find that the potion doesn’t seem to be working. His response? To get more of it, of course. To do so, he has to enrol in the army (to get some money), and on and on. There is a comical deus ex machina in the form of a windfall inheritance that comes to Nemorino, but, in a nice twist, neither he nor Adina know about it. The other village girls know, however, and in this chorus, Sara possibile? (Is it possible?), they each decide that they’d like to be his wife. Thus we get a funny sequence in which every village girl except Adina is falling all over Nemorino, much to his confusion and disgust.

Adina sees the affection which the other women are lavishing on Nemorino, and, to her surprise, finds herself feeling jealous. She realizes she loves him, and she turns away in sorrow. He sees her sadness, and with joy realizes the cause. Thus it is that we come to the biggest hit from this opera, the romanza Una furtiva lagrima (A secret tear), in which he gives full voice to his happiness, in glorious fashion. Here is Pavarotti [Translation]:

Needless to say, the two soon find one another’s arms, and the opera comes to a happy conclusion.

Children’s books, briefly noted

April 24, 2014

Over the past few months I’ve read a number of children’s books set in medieval Europe. Here are brief notes on several of them:

The Quest of the Grail Knight
Katherine Paterson
(Puffin, 1998) 127 p.

This is a brief re-telling, based on Wolfram von Eschenbach, of the story of Parsifal (Parzival) and his adventures in quest of the Holy Grail. I’ve not read von Eschenbach’s version, but I did note numerous differences from Chretien de Troyes’ earlier version of the story. Paterson’s tale moves quickly, and it told clearly but a little dryly in this unillustrated edition. There is a firm moral center to the story, and a strong Christian element. Suitable for young listeners aged 6 and up, and for somewhat older young readers. 3.5 stars.

Dragon Slayersutcliff-dragonslayer
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Penguin, 1961) 107 p.

A prose re-telling of the Beowulf story. All of the essential plot points are included, and atmospheric touches are added. The writing is strong, with a pleasing directness and raw vigour. Some violence, obviously, but the virtues of loyalty and courage are stressed. The grammar would be challenging for an early reader. Age 8-12? 4.5 stars.

good-mastersGood Masters! Sweet Ladies!
Voices from a Medieval Village
Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd
(Candlewick, 2007) 85 p.

An interesting premise for a book: a series of loosely connected dramatic monologues intended for performance, each in the voice of a child from a medieval English village circa 1225. The monologues (plus two inventive dialogues) run about 2-4 pages each, and were originally written for the author’s own students. The language is solid, and doesn’t avoid obsolete words. There is an earthy quality to the whole. The historical accuracy is reasonable, although I do quarrel with a few of the marginal notes. (Villeins were not quite the same as slaves.) Age 10-16? 4 stars.

The Door in the Wallangeli-door
Marguerite de Angeli
(Yearling, 1949) 128 p.

This Newbery Medal winning book was recommended to me by a friend, and a good recommendation it was. Young Robin falls ill and becomes lame, but is befriended by a monk and taught a trade. Eventually, by a series of courageous and resourceful actions, he is able to save his friends from peril during a seige. The book paints an attractive picture of the Middle Ages. Age 8-12. 4 stars.

gray-adamAdam of the Road
Elizabeth Janet Gray
Illustrated by Robert Lawson
(Viking, 1943) 320 p.

This is a superb adventure story set in thirteenth-century England. Adam is an 11-year old boy, the son of a distinguished minstrel, who aspires to practice the same art. Adam’s beloved dog is stolen and he sets out on a quest to retrieve him, becoming separated from his father in the process. Adam must rely on his own resourcefulness, courage, and wit — and the kindness of strangers — to find his dog and re-unite with his father. The medieval world portrayed here is one of gaiety and gallantry, and the religious character of that society is woven naturally into the story. A splendid book for boys, especially. Winner of the Newbery Medal in the year of its publication.  Age 8-12? 4 stars.


I’ve just now noticed that all of these books were written by women.

How probably not to promote classical music

April 23, 2014

In the wake of yesterday’s “classical crossover” mishap, allow me to offer something to cleanse the palate: here is Mary Schneider, in a more innocent time.

How not to promote classical music

April 22, 2014

Dvorak’s “New World” symphony gets the MTV treatment. I can’t actually recommend that anyone watch this.

(Hat-tip: Booty shake: The Music Salon)

Easter Sunday, 2014

April 20, 2014

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Here is the joyful opening section of Bach’s Easter Oratorio. Happy Easter to one and all!

Holy Week with Fra Angelico

April 17, 2014

At her blog The Three Prayers, my friend Janet has been writing this Holy Week about Fra Angelico, and specifically about the panels he painted for the Armadio degli Argenti which depict many scenes from Holy Week. The pictures are wonderful, and Janet’s remarks on them are very much worth reading.

You can find posts on this topic here, here, here, here, and here, or you could just try the home page, since she may well write more posts between now and Easter.

Contrariwise, things will be quiet around here for a few more days. If it is not precipitant to do so, I wish everyone a very happy Easter.

Lenten reading: Traherne III

April 9, 2014

Wants are the bands and cements between God and us. Had we not wanted we could never have been obliged. Whereas now we are infinitely obliged, because we want infinitely. From Eternity it was requisite that we should want. We could never else have enjoyed anything: Our own wants are treasures. And if want be a treasure, sure everything is so.

— Thomas Traherne, Centuries, I.51.

Great moments in opera: Falstaff

April 6, 2014

Falstaff was Verdi’s final opera, written six years after the triumph of Otello, when he was in his late 70s. The subject came as a surprise: it was, if I am not mistaken, Verdi’s first comedy. Although it has not been as popular with audiences as his great tragedies, it is generally considered to be a masterpiece on its own terms.

This opera is prodigiously inventive — indeed, it is almost too full of ideas, restless and fleet of foot as it leaps nimbly from one thing to the next. A beautiful musical line will come up, the sort of thing that in another opera would be lingered over and savoured, but here it makes its appearance and is dropped. The music dashes off to something else. The opera is also notable for the number of ensemble pieces it contains. Mozart, whose comedies had (and still do) set the standard to meet, had laid down an implicit challenge to later composers in his marvellous ensembles, especially the famous septet in Le Nozze di Figaro. Verdi accepts the challenge in Falstaff: there is at least one nonet, and also, if I remember rightly, an octet. They are a lot of fun, full of complicated rhythms banging up against one another.

Something which immediately strikes the listener, maybe especially the non-Italian-speaking listener, is how very wordy this opera is. It is not quite patter songs all the way through, but there is a lot of rapid dialogue, very few melismas, and the rhythms are brisk.

A big question about Falstaff is how faithful its central character is to Shakespeare’s original. Granted, it takes a kind of mad courage to even attempt to adapt this character, widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most miraculous creations, to another medium. If I tried it, I should surely fail. I am not convinced that Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, entirely succeeded either. The basic lineaments are there: Falstaff is a drunk, a womanizer, a spendthrift, with a passion for life and adventure. But Falstaff the invincible comic spirit, the magnanimous heart, the man whom Chesterton described as “shaking with hilarity like a huge jelly, full of the broad farce of the London streets” — I am not sure that he makes an appearance in Verdi’s version. In the DVD performance I watched, I did not see him — this Falstaff was more of a buffoon, rather sadly fallen prey to his own follies — but I am not sure how much of that impression to attribute to the particular production I saw and how much to the opera itself. It’s a question that I leave open for now.

After that rather long preamble, let’s hear a few excerpts from the opera.

Although most of the music of Falstaff is jaunty and hasty and doesn’t try to ravish the listener’s ear, there are two characters, young lovers named Fenton and Nannetta, whose music is always lyrical and romantic. Whenever they open their mouths, and especially when they are together, it is as though we are transported into another world, or another opera (and Verdi has some fun with this later, as we’ll see). But, as with almost every musical idea Falstaff, even these lovely interludes don’t last long. Here are Fenton and Nanetta singing a duet called Bocca baciata non perde ventura; it is over in about 40 s.

The basic story of Act I is that Falstaff, who owes a large tab at the tavern and finds himself penniless, sends love letters to several local women with the hope of seducing them and getting their money. The trouble is that the women in question all know about his duplicity. In this section, which closes Act I, they — and their husbands — all swear to revenge themselves on Falstaff. This nonet is one of the big ensemble numbers of the opera. I apologize that the quality is not great; it goes on for about 2 minutes.

In Act II the women plan to trick Falstaff and they hatch a strategy. The action eventually results in Falstaff’s hiding in a laundry basket which is carried out and dumped into the river, much to Falstaff’s chagrin and everyone else’s amusement.

In the final act, Falstaff is tricked again in an elaborate scheme that involves dressing up as fairies and much besides; I confess I didn’t quite follow all the details. The action takes place outside the town, by an old oak tree, and before Falstaff and the others arrive we have a nice little scene with Fenton and Nannetta. Fenton arrives first, and sings a beautiful aria, as though he were in a bel canto romance and not a Verdian comedy. He sings Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola / (“From my lips, a song of ecstasy flies”), dilating at length on his love for Nannetta. When he finally sings “Lips that are kissed lose none of their allure,” Nannetta enters with a charming answer: “Indeed, they renew it, like the moon.” The two join in a ravishing duet that seems to be building to a glorious climax but — and this is a really nice comic moment — they are interrupted at the last moment by the entrance of another character. The interruption is so abrupt that it is as though the music falls off a cliff. Here it is (with Spanish subtitles, alas); the interruption occurs at 3:30 in this clip:

In the same act Nannetta has a ravishing solo aria, Sul fil d’un soffio etesio, which she sings in the guise of the Fairy Queen, calling the fairies to a dance. Here it is sung by an unnamed soprano, with English subtitles:

But Verdi saves his best for last: the most famous section of Falstaff is the finale, Tutto nel mundo (Everyone in the world). The composer has one final trick up his sleeve: a fugue! I do not know if there are fugues in any of Verdi’s other operas; right now I cannot think of one. In any case, it is a form that is not associated with Italian opera, to put it mildly, and the fact that Verdi reached for it in the final section of his last opera strikes me as quite remarkable. Is it a tribute to Bach, one master to another? Or merely a sparkling musical witticism? Here it is: