Sunday, December 09, 2012

Seeking Mommsen

Verdi’s 1881 revision of “Simon Boccanegra” contains the composer’s most sophisticated part-writing for strings. In no other Verdi work—including the Requiem—are the parts for violas, cellos and basses so intricate and so subtle, and play such a vital role in the opera’s realization.

Lower strings carry much of the musical argument in “Boccanegra”. They are intended to recreate in sound the special light of Genoa, darker and more diffuse than in most of Italy, and they are meant to evoke the ever-deepening gloom that pervades the opera after its brilliant—and deceptive—Act I conclusion.

Despite being required to produce a dark coloration, the strings in “Boccanegra” must be extremely transparent and translucent—because, in addition to their other burdens, the strings are called upon to represent the sea. Everything from stormy gales to sunset-laden calm is in the score, and the strings must create an amazing number of muted colors and varied textures for a performance of “Boccanegra” to be satisfying.

From an orchestration standpoint, “Boccanegra” is Verdi’s subtlest and most learned score—and the most difficult to realize. Only a great orchestra, with a great string section, under a great conductor, can bring “Boccanegra” alive. I would love to hear the score played by the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst—“Boccanegra” is, I believe, the one Verdi opera that would play to Welser-Möst’s strengths—and I would love to hear it played by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly.

Over Veterans Day Weekend, we attended a performance of “Boccanegra” at Lyric Opera Of Chicago, with Andrew Davis in the pit.

Davis is not a Verdi conductor, and the orchestra of Lyric Opera Of Chicago is no more than a serviceable ensemble, so we did not hear “Boccanegra” under ideal conditions (and we had not expected to).

The casting, however, was a different matter. Chicago had assembled a cast worthy of the Wiener Staatsoper—in fact, I believe all principal singers in Chicago’s “Boccanegra” have appeared at one time or another in the very same roles in Vienna—and we were pleased to hear an international-level cast in an opera we do not expect to witness in Minneapolis any time soon.

Thomas Hampson was the Boccanegra. Hampson does not have the right tinctura for Verdi, and his voice has lost most of its bloom, yet he gave a serious and admirable performance of the Doge—if one could get beyond Hampson’s fundamental phoniness.

I have never been a Hampson admirer. Hampson suffers from a pronounced narcissistic streak that I find off-putting; his narcissistic streak is always in evidence, more so even on the stage than on the concert platform. Hampson’s relentless onstage posing has always rubbed me the wrong way, and I prefer to hear him as little as possible. Hampson’s card-trick assortment of Boccanegra poses in Chicago was from the same book of playacting as his Onegin poses, which I have experienced twice at the Metropolitan Opera, in 2002 and 2009, as well as his Renato poses in “Ballo”, which I endured at Covent Garden in 2005. I suspect Hampson must study D.W. Griffith movies in his spare time.

The other principal singers were much more satisfying.

Ferruccio Furlanetto, probably the reigning Fiesco of our day, gave the most accomplished performance of the evening. Furlanetto’s voice is right for the part, he understands Verdi’s music at a deep level, he knows how to present the text and he knows how to present a character in the theater with dignity and conviction. Furlanetto is a most valuable and admirable artist.

Frank Lopardo sang Adorno. Lopardo does not possess a glamorous tenor voice, and many persons are not taken by his voice or his artistry. I thought Lopardo was perfectly acceptable if not necessarily winning. One must be mindful that the role of Adorno will not, as a general rule, attract high-fee, star tenors—unless a major house such as La Scala mounts a major new production and intends to televise the production throughout Europe. Absent such conditions, Lopardo was about as good as anyone has a right to expect in the role.

Adorno’s arias are the only portions of the 1857 version of the score that Verdi did not revise; the composer left Adorno’s arias unchanged, not even bothering to reharmonize and reorchestrate them so as to make them consistent with the rest of the 1881 revision. As a result, Adorno’s arias stand out from the rest of the score—and not in a positive sense.

The Amelia was Krassimira Stoyanova, whom I very much liked. Stoyanova has amazing color in her voice, not necessarily an advantage in “Boccanegra”, where Amelia is called upon above all to ride the ensembles and otherwise more or less to remain out of the way. I very much respond to dark, smoky, luxuriant Eastern European voices such as Stoyanova’s, and I responded heartily to Stoyanova’s Amelia—but I can understand why many others prefer a purer, more lyrical voice in the role of Amelia.

An array of voice types has been successful as Amelia. Victoria de los Angeles, Mirella Freni, Kiri Te Kanawa and Angela Gheorghiu, among many others, have triumphed in the part. The role allows a wide variety of weight and coloration.

The physical production of “Boccanegra” used in Chicago had been borrowed from The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It was the Elijah Moshinsky production, devised in 1991 for Georg Solti. The production has been frequently revived in London in the last two decades, reappearing in 1995, 1997, 2002, 2004 and 2010—and scheduled to make yet another appearance next summer. (The production has also been loaned to other companies; earlier this year, it appeared in Los Angeles.) Moshinsky was on hand personally to guide the Chicago presentation.

There was nothing bizarre or offensive about the physical production, yet I cannot say it was particularly imaginative or telling. I have never seen anything directed by Moshinsky that made me think he was an important director—and the Chicago “Boccanegra” did not cause me to change my mind. In the middle 1970s, Moshinsky was viewed as a director with great promise; within twenty years, he was viewed as a director largely washed out. I would characterize Moshinsky’s “Boccanegra” production as from his Early Washed-Out Period (as opposed to his Late Washed-Out Period, which is far worse). However, I acknowledge that many persons over the years have admired this particular production, especially when it was new—although just as many persons wrote it off on day one.

Michael Yeargan’s stage design was not handsome, but it was not cluttered or cumbersome. It allotted plentiful open space for large numbers of performers to move on and off the stage—there is a large chorus in “Boccanegra” that comes and goes with more than a little frequency—and it allowed the big public moments of the opera to “tell”.

The costumes were rich and colorful from afar; as soon as one examined them through field glasses, one could see that materials and construction were cheap.

The most overtly dramatic moment of the opera is the great Council Scene that ends Act I. The final two acts depict psychology more than action—the listener is treated to a succession of intimate portraits of Boccanegra, Fiesco and Amelia, all offered amid mounting gloom and despair.

The opera ends with the death of Boccanegra. Before dying, he has resolved his decades-long battle with Fiesco, and arranged for what he believes will be a happy life for Amelia.

The ending is profoundly sad. It is, I believe, the saddest—as well as the greatest—ending of any Verdi opera. The work ends very softly, with the strings portraying the gentle lapping of water against the shores of Genoa as the sun recedes and all sounds die away. This moment represents Boccanegra’s death, and it is both solemn and tender—and deeply moving.

None of this came across in the Chicago production. Conductor and orchestra were unable to bring the opera to a fitting conclusion—any more than conductor and orchestra were able to realize and sustain the psychological narrative and tension of the final two acts, both of which passed without incident or interest.

The Chicago “Boccanegra”, excellent cast aside, was the kind of “Boccanegra” one encounters in third-tier European houses such as Frankfurt or Tolouse: one is always glad that the house made the effort, but one is generally disappointed that the performance did not rise to a higher level, most often because conductor and orchestra were inadequate to the task at hand.

If Furlanetto and Stoyanova had not been in the Chicago cast, I might have had trouble sitting through the thing.

Joshua was bored out of his mind. At the conclusion of Act I, he announced he was going to circulate among the crowd at intermission, and inquire whether anyone was carrying a copy of Mommsen—any volume—so that he might borrow it for the rest of the evening. (My father was thoughtful enough to point out that Chicago’s was an opera audience that not only did not read Mommsen, but had never even HEARD of Mommsen.)

Josh’s sister was mildly intrigued by “Boccanegra”, generally finding something to listen to or to look at. She did not truly enjoy the opera, but she was pleased that she had attended the presentation.

My parents expressed disappointment in the performance and production.

My parents say the finest opera performance they have ever witnessed was a performance of “Simon Boccanegra” they attended before I was born. In 1976, they caught a performance of the legendary Giorgio Strehler production, with equally-legendary designs by Ezio Frigerio, that had been mounted for La Scala in 1971—and brought to the U.S. five years later in La Scala’s only visit to America. Claudio Abbado had been the conductor that night, and Piero Cappuccilli had been the Boccanegra. My parents say they never experienced anything similar before or since; it was the signal opera event of their lives. They are still talking about that “Boccanegra” thirty-six years later.

I doubt, thirty-six years from now, anyone will remember this year’s Chicago “Boccanegra”.

However, thirty-six years after the fact, people everywhere still listen to the Abbado studio recording of “Boccanegra”, made only a few months after La Scala embarked on its historic visit to North America.

About a month before the Chicago “Boccanegra” performance, we listened to the Abbado recording again, mostly so that Josh could familiarize himself with the work.

That may have been a mistake.


  1. I sympathize with Josh’s position on Verdi. Had I been at this performance of "Simon Boccanegra" I would have sought solace in any conveniently lendable copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s "The Prime of Life."

    Which brings me to what I call “the Verdi Problem.” But understand that the “Problem” is quite personal: I cannot abide Verdi’s music – at ALL.

    I can run a number of full operas and symphonies through my head from beginning to end without looking at a score; I would hope that such abilities would identify me as a music lover among music lovers’ circles. That said, I cannot cite at this hour a single musical PHRASE written by Verdi that is memorable.

    I have always thought that there was something wrong with me in this regard. Perhaps my brain is not wired correctly.

    During intermission at a Verdi performance in La Scala several years ago I was “that guy over there who hate[ed] music.” (Yes, that was me.) Indeed, in that predicament I was no more equipped to palaver than a hillbilly whose only musical experience was watching forty years’ worth of Hee Haw reruns.

    My “Verdi Problem” is rooted in this composer’s musical textures, I believe. While I may certainly appreciate his skills as an orchestrator, Andrew, even if I were to hear this opera conducted in Cleveland under Welser-Moest, I would be stupefied into incrustation.

    Verdi’s textures do not affect my HEART . . . in the slightest. Perhaps this has more to do with the way I personally listen to music: “vertically,” rather than the more common “horizontal” approach. In other words, I am much more interested in what sounds “below” the melodic line than the melodic line itself.

    Let me attend a performance of "Moses und Aron," "Elektra," or "Die Goetterdaemmerung" and I’ll be riveted.

    But I must say also that I find Verdi’s harmonies less affecting than anything hearable in an Andrew Lloyd Webber show.

    Moreover, my “Verdi Problem” has nothing to with my obvious love of German music, for I would easily list "Tosca" alongside "Elektra" and "Die Meistersinger" as the three greatest operas ever written by anyone.

    I suppose my personal “Verdi Problem” just underlines the untraceable mystery of music itself.

  2. I am not big on Verdi, either. I am sort of with Pierre Boulez, who said something alone the lines, “The music is so second-rate, I can’t understand why people bother.”

    Have you read Andrew Porter’s one-volume Verdi compilation from Grove? Porter makes a very compelling pro-Verdi argument, beautifully written and beautifully presented, in a couple of hundred pages. However, I was never convinced, although Porter is valuable for tracing Verdi’s growth over the course of the composer’s career.

    Robert Craft makes an even more elegant argument in a couple of his Verdi essays, more insightful and more original than Porter—and the Craft essays are only a dozen pages or so.

    I think Verdi’s music is extremely dependent on performers. Very few musicians know how to put the music across today.

    Re Puccini: Do you have Lorin Maazel’s “Suor Angelica” recording on Sony, with Renata Scotto?

  3. Yes, I have the 3-disc "Il Trittico" on Sony. These sit right next to both the Callas/de Sabata's AND the Davis/Caballe "Tosca"s. I wouldn't be without those recordings.

    I've read Craft's "Down a Path of Wonder," but I haven't read anything by Porter outside his New Yorker contributions. I enjoy Craft much more than Porter, I confess: Craft is a genuine prose stylist, while Porter is not - not REALLY, at least, when compared to the mind of Stravinsky's legendary companion.

    (I acquired Craft's book, by the way, based partially on your recommendation to seek out this author's thoughts on Shostakovich.)

    Aside from my enjoyment of reading Craft's essays on Verdi (and many other things), the end result of said experience(s) turned out to be the opposite of what I had expected: I'm sorry to say that I continued to think afterward, as a music lover, that it would have been better if Giuseppe Verdi had never been born.

    (Digression: I'm now reminded how I felt about Robert Craft's writing as compared to that of Alex Ross, whose "The Rest is Noise" - yes, yes, such strange bedfellows! - I finally finished at about the same time I'd completed "Wonder". I remember pondering an amusing analogy: Craft was to Ross as "David Copperfield" was to "Tristram Shandy.")

    Anyway, the only thing I WAS convinced of after reading these essays of Craft was that there was simply something wrong with ME, not with Craft or with such a stalwart champion of Verdi as Toscanini.

    I have since felt indisposed to investigate Andrew Porter's opinions about Verdi.

    What's the use?

  4. I’m glad you liked the Craft. I have always believed Craft was the finest writer on music in the English language, with the finest and most original mind, the most penetrating judgments, and the most exalted writing skills.

    If I were you, I would get EVERYTHING of Craft’s you can get your hands on—his comprehensive bibliography is on his website—and enjoy weeks and weeks of luxurious reading. I suspect you might be able to pick up at least half of Craft’s output for a song at second-hand bookshops in Orlando.

    It is my understanding that Craft is in very poor health, and that he may not be around much longer.

    I don’t think I could live without Porter’s volumes of criticism. I return to them over and over—and always make allowances for his misjudgments (which, I think, are few). No one writing today in English possesses one-tenth of Porter’s grasp of his subject—or his taste, better even than Craft’s.

    Did you know that Porter’s twin sister, Sheila, was for many years Anne-Sophie Mutter’s publicist?

    1. I didn't know about that Porter-Mutter nexus. Interesting. Maybe I'm not being fair to Mr. Porter. I suppose I should examine him. I only realized just now that I had harbored a subconscious association in my mind between Porter and his successor at the New Yorker; hence my analogy between Craft and Ross.

      But the analogy is actually quite polite to Mr. Ross: The protagonist of "David Copperfield," after all, is born in the first sentence of the book, whereas the hero of "Tristram Shandy" isn't born until Book Nine. By contrast, at the end of "'Roids" one discovers that its author is stillborn.

      There is just SO much to read. I wish I could retire now and finally have the time.

  5. I think you would enjoy the Porter. He writes for an educated audience—and he does write well, if not with the brilliance of Craft. His collections are essential for the lengthy introductions alone.

    I think there are a total of seven volumes of criticism. I suspect you might be able to locate most in Orlando’s second-hand bookshops. I would try to get all volumes, and read them in sequence.

    His primary topics are new music and opera.

    He wrote about Boulez’s music constantly, as well as the music of Carter and Sessions and Berio and Tippett and Birtwistle and Stockhausen and Henze. He appreciated the Modernists most of all, but he had interesting things to say about the music of Bernstein and Diamond and Harbison and Glass and Reich and Adams (Porter’s writing about Reich is very penetrating; his is the most insightful writing about Reich I have ever encountered).

    He covered the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala in great detail, for years, and paid some attention to other houses such as Paris, Chicago and San Francisco. He always covered Salzburg and Glyndebourne, but ignored Bayreuth because standards at Bayreuth had slipped. (He also covered Florence frequently, explicable only if he possessed a great love for the city and took advantage of any excuse to go there.)

    He wrote far less about orchestras, and covered only important ones. He wrote regularly about Philadelphia (and loved Ormandy, but not Muti) as well as Boston (which he dropped around 1980). He covered Chicago/Solti constantly. He wrote several profound essays about the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, and at least one profound essay about Dresden and another about Amsterdam.

    For the first two seasons, he disliked Cleveland under Dohnanyi—and then he changed his mind, and started writing about the partnership in the most glowing of terms.

    I think you would find Porter interesting simply because of what he wrote about Karajan. He wrote about Karajan often, and frequently compared Karajan’s work in great detail to that of Haitink, whom Porter viewed as a comparable figure until the mid-1980s. (Haitink suffered a crisis in the mid-1980s, and emerged from that crisis a much lesser conductor—and Porter, charitably, stopped covering Haitink after the crisis.)

    One of the amusing things about Porter’s writings is his notorious forty-year feud with Beverly Sills. The reader may pick up glimpses of the feud over and over between the lines. On her deathbed, I suspect Sills was still muttering, “And I continue to hate Andrew Porter’s guts!”

  6. I remember when Mr. Porter changed his mind about Dohnanyi. The critic was swayed by a Carnegie Hall performance of the Bruckner Seventh. It was in that New Yorker article that he promoted the Cleveland back to the #1 spot.