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Posts Tagged ‘La Boheme’

Surprise Response to Puccini’s “La Boheme” at Seattle Opera

Posted by glennled on March 5, 2013

blog_poster_bohemeWhat does it mean when you cry in Act I of Puccini’s opera, La Boheme, and not when Mimi dies at the end of Act IV? Well, it must have a little to do with the fact that this is the second time my wife and I have seen La Boheme at the Seattle Opera. And it must have a lot to do with the singers and the music itself—there are a couple of outstandingly beautiful arias and a duet in Act I, sung by the lead soprano (Jennifer Black) and tenor (Michael Fabiano) when we attended on 24 February. And finally, it must have something to do with me, myself, and I.

Two trumpeters lead the parade by Cafe Momus in Act II. Photo by Elise Bakketun.

Two trumpeters lead the parade by Cafe Momus in Act II. Photo by Elise Bakketun.

In Act I, young Mimi and Rodolfo fall in love. Mimi is a seamstress and courtesan, and Rodolfo is a poor poet, living in the same cheap apartment house in Paris. She is ill, but their love is strong. Their future brims with hope and promise. Who does not remember an intense, dreamy, romantic love in one’s youth? A tear sneaks down from the corner of my right eye.

They nearly break up in Act III. and then in the climax of Act IV, Mimi passes away after a long bout with consumption. Rodolfo is the last in the room to realize that she is dead. And out in seat E-2, a pair of dry eyes watch. Whazat? Most people cry in all the right places. Not me, not this time. Surprise.

Love is born—tears. Love is lost—no tears. I’ve seen it before—I know this love will die. But we never let tragic love stories, beautifully told, die. This great opera should always remain one of the world’s most popular. It premiered 117 years ago at Teatro Regio in Turin, northern Italy on 1 February 1896. The opera is “about young people caught in a difficult economic situation in desperate and conflicted love,” writes Speight Jenkins, General Director of the Seattle Opera. “There is no opera that so immediately speaks to everyone’s youth, even to those very young.”

Please click on any photo to enlarge it.

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Puccini’s Grandest Opera, “Turandot,” is Different

Posted by glennled on August 31, 2012

Emperor (upper center), Turandot (middle center), and Prince Calaf (lower right)

Yes, I’m an opera novice—I’ve seen only three other operas by Giacomo Puccini: La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly (see my post of 31 May 2012). None of these prepared me for the showy spectacle of Turandot by the Seattle Opera which my wife and I attended on 5 August at McCaw Hall. And the three others set me up to expect Turandot to end in a very different way.

Speight Jenkins is my opposite. He’s been attending opera for more than 60 years and is General Director of the Seattle Opera. In the August edition of “Encore Arts Programs,” he writes that Turandot was a smash hit when it premiered at Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, Italy on 25 April 1026, sixteen months after Puccini’s death. It scored successes everywhere it was performed, but inexplicably, it disappeared from New York opera after 1930 until it was resurrected in 1961 by the Metropolitan Opera. Nine performances were given that season, evoking ovation after ovation, and “suddenly Turandot leapt onto the gold standard.” According to orchestra conductor Asher Fisch, Puccini operas are so popular that the composer accounts for 25 percent of all the operas produced today (see http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/thearts/2018771976_opera29.html).

Then in 1990, writes Jenkins, to celebrate the World Cup of soccer, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras (Spaniards), and Luciano Pavarotti (Italian) created The Three Tenors. They first performed a concert together on 7 July that year at the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome. At the climax, Pavarotti’s sang the aria, “Nessun dorma,” from Act III of Turandot. This became his signature aria. That, coupled with the success of that concert and the tremendous sale of their recording, made the aria synonymous with opera. “Fifty years ago, ‘Nessun dorma’ was just another aria in the Puccini canon, not even one that most opera lovers could recognize,” writes Jenkins. “Now it is clearly the most well known aria in opera to those who have never set foot in an opera house.” See the following performances:

Timur, dethroned king of Tartary, mourns the death of Liu, a slave girl who commits suicide rather than betray Prince Calaf

Puccini died in December, 1924, before finishing Turandot. He left few notes about how he intended to end it. Others finished both the music and libretto. Hence, for me, the surprise ending.

Turandot, based on a Persian fairy tale and set in China, is the story of an icy, man-hating princess named Turandot (soprano). No man shall possess me, she declares, yet there is pressure from the emperor and the people for her to marry. So, if any man of royal blood can solve three riddles, she agrees to marry him. If a man tries and fails, he will be killed. By the time Prince Calaf (tenor) arrives, 40 suitors have been decapitated. He is confident, in love with her, and determined to succeed. He solves the riddles. She still resists, however, so he gives her a means of escape: if by the next dawn she cannot give his name, he will tell it to her and become her 41st victim. Lui, the self-effacing, sacrificing woman who is caretaker of Calaf’s father, is tortured during the night to make her reveal his name. Such is her love for Calaf that she dies rather than do so.  Dawn comes and Calaf tells Turandot his name. Meanwhile, she admits to being attracted to him, unlike any of the others, and in the climax, declares her love and agrees to marry him.  The emperor and the people rejoice!

A Puccini opera ends with a happy marriage? I would never have believed it. My friend John, one of my trumpet students and frequently an extra in numerous operas in Seattle, agrees. “If Puccini had written the ending,” writes John, “I am sure Prince Calaf would have realized his true love was Liu (the slave girl) and then killed Turandot and then killed himself. That’s an Italian ending.”

So, to me, Turandot is different. Not only is it a grand spectacle in which the heroine doesn’t die in a tragic ending, but musically, Puccini pushes the soprano and tenor toward the limits of the range of the human voice. The roles require a full, dramatic, powerful, heroic sound. I may be wrong, but it seems to me there also is more dissonance in the orchestra, which can be almost overpowering at times, and fewer melodies in the score. Here, Puccini is more akin to Wagner than in the other three Puccini operas I’ve attended.

Afterwards, my wife and I talked things over at an outdoor table at Ponti’s Seagood Grill along the Ship Canal near the Fremont Bridge. It’s a favorite restaurant of ours, one we seem to save for special occasions. The opera and dinner were her gifts to me to celebrate my recent birthday. What could be better?  😉

Performance photos are courtesy of the Seattle Opera. Please click on any picture to enlarge it.

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“Madama Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini at Seattle Opera

Posted by glennled on May 31, 2012

Cio-Cio-San

“No more Puccini!” I told my wife after the Seattle Opera’s performance of Madama Butterfly at McCaw Hall on 20 May. “He’s just too powerful. He gets too close, the way he writes about romantic love. The music just rips your heart. It’s too much.” In the back of my mind was the memory of a very similar feeling when we attended Puccini’s La Boheme in 2007 (see http://www.seattleopera.org/discover/archive/production.aspx?productionID=44).

The final version of Madama Butterfly premiered in Paris, France on 28 December 1906—106 years ago—and premiered by Seattle Opera on 15 March 1966. It now ranks #8 in the Operabase list of most-performed operas worldwide (see http://operabase.com/top.cgi?lang=en&). People have always liked beautiful tragedies.

My wife and I talked over Madama Butterfly as we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Modello Italian Restaurant in Magnolia (see www.mondelloristorante.com). The whole event was my birthday gift to her.

The story occurs in Nagasaki, Japan at the turn of the 20th century. Madama Butterfly is also known in the opera as Cio-Cio-San. When she “weds” B.F. Pinkerton, an American naval lieutenant, and converts to his religion, she is renounced and abandoned by her family.  She is a geisha and comes with the house he leases, but he has the option to cancel the whole arrangement on a month’s notice. His long-term plan is to take an American wife. Meanwhile, he enjoys bliss with Butterfly.

“Throughout the first Act,” I told my wife at dinner while sipping my Sangiovese, “I was thinking, ‘Cad! Cad!'”

Eventually, his ship departs, and he has the American consulate continue paying the rent. Three years later, Cio-Cio-San is running out of money. She spurns a marriage proposal from a wealthy Japanese man, certain of Pinkerton’s love and eventual return. Sure enough, his ship again sails into Nagasaki, but he has brought his American wife. He then learns that his Butterfly bore him a son. His American wife offers to raise the son as their own. Pinkerton is overcome by remorse and is unable to confront Cio-Cio-San. She gives up her son and commits jigai, the ritual suicide for  Japanese women which is performed by plunging a knife into the neck.

“Early in the third Act,” I told my wife, “I was thinking, ‘Coward! Coward!'” Later, Pinkerton even calls himself that. Puccini is just too much. The pathos is extraordinary. So—aaarrrgghhh!—yes, we’ll probably go again to another of his operas. But his heroines always seem to die in tragedy. “He who has lived for love, has died for love.”—from Il tabaro (The Cloak), 1918.

Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini, 1858-1924

Hmmm…today, I received a mailer showing that in August, the Seattle Opera will perform Puccini’s Turandot. Isn’t the fabulous, soaring tenor aria, “Nessun dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”), from that opera? I looked it up. Yes. And the Turandot orchestration calls for three trumpets in F and six onstage trumpets in B-Flat—how can I miss that? I am the moth drawn to the flame. In “Nessun dorma,” once again, Puccini makes one’s heart ache and eyes brim. Just watch and listen to Pavoritti sing this aria: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTFUM4Uh_6Y&feature=related.

Seattle performance photos are by Elise Bakketun, courtesy of the Seattle Opera. Please click on any photo to enlarge it.

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My Trumpet Student Stars in Bizet’s “Carmen” at Seattle Opera

Posted by glennled on November 1, 2011

Anita Rachvelishvili (Carmen) with ensemble; © Elise Bakketun photo, courtesy of Seattle Opera, http://www.seattleopera.org.

My trumpet student, John (51), may cringe when he sees that headline, but that’s too bad—to me, he’s a Star! No, he doesn’t play in the orchestra. No, he doesn’t sing a major role in any opera. No, he doesn’t sing in the opera chorus. He’s simply a “super”—an “extra.”

In Carmen, just finished at the Seattle Opera House, he was a banderillero at the bullring in Seville, Spain. Wearing the traditional black and silver costume and carrying his bright yellow banderilla, he lead the parade of bullfighters into the ring. Banderillas are sharp,

Planting the banderillas

barbed sticks which are planted into the bull’s shoulders to weaken it for the kill.

On 4 October, he appeared in full costume on King 5 TV during a segment of the New Day Northwest show, promoting Carmen for the Seattle Opera (see http://www.king5.com/new-day-northwest/The-Seattle-Opera-Performs-131056473.html  toward the end of the segment). He was on stage only twice per performance in this opera.

John has been a faithful and competent extra in enough operas so that the opera company gave him a couple of complimentary tickets for the Friday night performance on 28 October. The seats were outstanding—right in the center section on the Orchestra Level (main floor) of McCall Hall . He kindly offered them to me and my wife, and we quickly and gratefully accepted. We usually attend one or two operas per season. We just saw Porgy and Bess last August (see my post of 15 August 2011).

Georges Bizet, 1838-1875

Carmen is now our favorite, supplanting La Boheme by Puccini. Both are consistently among the top 10 operas performed annually throughout the world. Carmen was first performed 136 years ago in Paris on 3 March 1875. It struggled to survive, and Georges Bizet, composer, died on 3 June just after its 30th performance. He could never have guessed its prominence today in operatic lore. In 1962, I was lucky enough to play second trumpet in a production in the old Meany Hall at the University of Washington. The Dean of the School of Music, Dr. Stanley Chapple, was the conductor.

John, originally from New York, commenced trumpet lessons with me almost two years ago (see my post of 7 January 2010). Carmen is John’s fourth opera, all in Seattle. In 2008, he was a soldier in the grand processional march in Verdi’s Aida. In 2009, he was a lackey/servant in Verdi’s La Traviata.  In 2010, he was a Normano guard/soldier in

Poster, American Production, 1896

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. He did it the first time because it sounded like so much fun. It was, so two of his good friends decided to do it also. He says he keeps doing it because he loves opera—the acting, singing, orchestral music, and (sometimes) dancing. “Being on stage with some of this incandescent talent is a very special experience [and that gives him] “the best seats in the house! Someone asked me what I get paid to do it, and I told them that when I interviewed for the role, I asked if I had to pay.”

When Carmen ended Saturday night, another “super” (a Microsoft corporate Vice President) hosted an after-hours party at Ten Mercer in Lower Queen Anne, about a block from Seattle Center. John contributed some wine. “Just about everyone showed up, including all the principals,” he says, and “we didn’t get outta there until 2:30 a.m.”

Somehow, I think that if he could, Georges Bizet would have been there, too, happy and proud.

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