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Posts Tagged ‘Seattle Opera’

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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Does Rossini’s “Cinderella” Opera from 1817 Play Well in 2013?

Posted by glennled on January 22, 2013

On Sunday, 13 January, it was time for my wife and me (opera novices) to be re-introduced to Gioachino Antonio Rossini, the blog_poster_cinderella, 1-13-13composer whose nickname was “The Italian Mozart.” We were both familiar with The Barber of Seville, but it was so long ago, we can hardly be sure of when, where and what. So off we drove to McCaw Hall not knowing what to expect to see and hear at the Seattle Opera’s matinee performance of Cinderella (La Cenerentola)—almost 200 years after it premiered at Teatro Valle, Rome, 25 January 1817.

The prince wins Cinderella in Seattle Opera’s La Cenerentola, with sets and costumes designed by Joan Guillén - Photo © Elise Bakketun

Prince Ramiro wins Cinderella in Seattle Opera’s “La Cenerentola,” with sets and costumes designed by Joan Guillén – Photo © Elise Bakketun

It turns out that Rossini’s Cinderella is a romantic comedy of the bel canto (“Beautiful Singing”) kind. The story was altered by librettist Jacopo Ferretti both in characters and in plot, but yes, in the end, the prince does get the lovely, virtuous Cinderella as his bride. This takes two acts stretched over three hours (including a half-hour intermission). During the pursuit, there are lots of laughs and some extraordinary singing.

The basic premise of the opera, writes Spreight Jenkins, General Director of the Seattle Opera, is that the prince wants to marry someone who loves him for himself, not his position, power or wealth.  That romantic ideal still plays well in 2013 in Western society, does it not? Cinderella, called Angelina in this opera, is a forward-looking person who also will marry only for love but wants respect, too. She is not a male-dominated person, and she is not ambitious to become a princess. She stands up for herself, knows what she wants, and wins it fair and square on her terms—her man must be willing to make an effort to win her. This idea of feminity is still modern and plays well in 2013 in America and elsewhere, does it not? Jenkins writes in Encore, “There’s a lot of humor, but we see in Angelina a far more recognizable and believable young woman than many created in the nineteenth century. She is generous when she wins, and altogether she is a really charming person who might fit very well into the twenty-first century.”

Here’s what the bel canto style meant when it was dominant from the 18th century until about 1840, according to the experts at Wikipedia:

  • an impeccable legato production throughout the singer’s (seamless) range
  • the use of a light tone in the higher registers
  • an agile, flexible technique capable of dispatching ornate embellishments
  • the ability to execute fast, accurate divisions
  • the avoidance of aspirates and eschewing a loose vibrato
  • a pleasing, well-focused timbre
  • a clean attack
  • limpid diction
  • graceful phrasing rooted in a complete mastery of breath control

    Alidoro (Arthur Woodleyj), tutor to Prince Ramiro, has other plans for Cinderella - Photo by Alan Alabastro.

    Alidoro (Arthur Woodleyj), tutor to Prince Ramiro, has other plans for Cinderella – Photo by Alan Alabastro.

The music was written to show off the exceptional quality of the singers’ voices. I especially enjoyed the various ensembles. The precision of the attacks, phrasing, and breath control were remarkable and often, as intended, funny! I imagine it would be quite challenging and possibly exhausting to sing for so long in that style. Among the voices I enjoyed the most were those of Angelina (Cinderella), mezzo-soprano; Alidoro, bass; Dandini, baritone; and Don Magnifico, bass.

Courtesy of Seattle Symphony & Opera Players' Organization

Courtesy of Seattle Symphony & Opera Players’ Organization

I enjoyed listening to the orchestra, too, hearing and watching how the music from the pit matched the action on stage. It’s great fun to play trumpet in the orchestra of a musical or an opera. I did both long ago on the college level—but now I’m just a happy spectator. I wonder if any of my trumpet students will ever have that wonderful experience. I hope so. That would please me, as did this .  😉  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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The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” Opera at McCaw Hall in Seattle

Posted by glennled on August 15, 2011

George and Ira Gershwin

Porgy and Bess premiered in New York in 1935 during the Great Depression and in Seattle in 1987. My wife and I finally saw it for the first time yesterday in McCaw Hall, home of Seattle Opera. It was my gift to her for her birthday.

Yes, we knew many of the hit songs from this most famous American opera: “Summertime,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Got Plenty O Nuttin’,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” But no, we had no idea of the content, storyline, and plot. I was simply expecting a love story with some hard times; the ending might be happy or sad, I did not know. This folk/jazz opera was that and much, much more.

I learned that the uncut opera is almost four hours long. This version (including a 30-minute intermission) lasted almost three hours. It is set in Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1935, it was quite radical—an all-black cast using authentic dialogue. It’s based on a 1925 novel, Porgy,by DuBose Heyward. To me, the love story is turned tragic by addiction to sex and drugs. And yet, Bess’ love for the

Ruby Elzy, the original Serena, performed the role more than 800 times.

beggar and congenital cripple, Porgy, would not have happened were it not for her addiction and his disability. He is her means from a dissolute to a decent life; she is his means out of rejection, isolation, and loneliness. The opera is filled with conflicts: striving for good—survival, love, a better life, God and Jesus—and falling into evil—gambling, drinking, racism, promiscuity, prostitution, pimping, drug dealing, cocaine (“happy dust”), abuse, and murder. The ending is ambiguous. For all this, it is said that the show is born from a love of black people.

The star performer was Gordon Hawkins (baritone) as Porgy, paired with Lisa Daltirus (soprano) as Bess. Among my favorites were Angel Blue (soprano) as Clara, Jermaine Smith (tenor) as Sportin’ Life, and Mary Elizabeth Williams (soprano) as Serena.

And how exciting would it be to play in the ~60-piece Seattle Opera Orchestra? That must feel so special and so fun! For Porgy and Bess, there were three trumpeters: Justin Emerich, principal, Vince Green, and Brian Chin. Emerich is former solo/first trumpet with the Canadian Brass and is now a faculty member at the Cornish College of the Arts. Green is on the faculty of Western Washington University and often performs with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Opera, and the Seattle Symphony. Chin teaches full-time at Seattle Pacific University and is principal trumpet at the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra.

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