Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Opera Guide 6: Alcina

I can't believe that I've waited until the sixth entry in this series to discuss my favorite opera composer, Handel, and my favorite of his operas, Alcina (1735). The plot of Alcina is taken from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1532) and concerns the knight Ruggiero, who finds himself on the enchanted island of the beautiful sorceress Alcina. (The painting to the left is a detail from Niccolo dell'Abbate's "Alcina greeting Ruggiero," c. 1550). Ruggiero is lured--it's not entirely clear whether he's bewitched, or merely overwhelmed with desire--into abandoning his knight-errant quest and staying with Alcina in a delirium of sensual pleasure. Before long, though, his betrothed, Bradamante--in disguise as her brother, Ricciardo--and the sorcerer Melisso show up hoping to drag Ruggiero back to his martial (and marital) duties.

It turns out that Ruggiero is far from the first knight to have frolicked with Alcina; his predecessors have been turned into the rocks, trees, fountains, and animals that populate her lush island. Not only is Melisso out to rescue Ruggiero and liberate the other enchanted knights, he means to destroy Alcina's power as well.

In the 1999 Robert Carsen staging for the Opéra National de Paris, Alcina's former conquests remain as physical presences surrounding her and Ruggiero as they revel in their love during "Di cor mio, quanto t'amai."* The orchestra is the early-music ensemble Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. The chemistry between Renée Fleming (Alcina) and Susan Graham (Ruggiero) is palpable, and is key to the success of this production. Because in Handel’s telling Alcina has changed; she's no longer the evil sorceress dallying with and discarding men at whim. She has truly fallen in love with Ruggiero, and in a departure from Ariosto, it is the diminishment of his love for her, rather than any counter-spell by Melisso, that causes her power to begin to wane. It's not hard to see her magic power as a metaphor for erotic power; and her sense of helplessness as Ruggiero's love inexorably slips away is anguishing.

In "Si, son quella!" Alcina has just been accused by Ruggiero of unfaithfulness, and is deeply hurt. And Alcina's great aria “Ah! mio cor” is sung just after she has learned that Ruggiero is planning to leave her. “Traditore! T'amo tanto,” she cries; “Betrayer, I love you so much.” Fleming gives an impassioned performance; the opening (A) and second (B) sections can be seen here, and the da capo repeat of the A section here.

Handel's portrait of Alcina is immensely sympathetic. I won't speculate on whether Handel, a life-long bachelor, had any personal experience of the agonies of a failing love affair that may have informed it. I will suggest, though, that at the time he wrote Alcina Handel may have been aware of another impending loss. His opera company was struggling; just a few years later he would stop writing Italian operas altogether and shift to English-language oratorios based on properly moral biblical stories. There would be far fewer roles for Italian castrati (who sang in English with difficulty) and much less of opera's splendid artifice: the spectacular scenery, the uncannily beautiful voices, the playful gender-bending plot devices. Perhaps Alcina is such an affecting character because Handel could see that his own “magic island” was disappearing, and through her he was mourning its loss.

"Verdi prati" is Ruggiero's farewell to the sensuous paradise that he's now leaving--only he sounds dismayed, if not despondent, at its imminent destruction. This is not the sort of heroic renunciation that might have been expected, especially if we think that Ruggiero feels that he's been deceived by Alcina. No: his sense of loss is all too palpable. Nonetheless, he proceeds with Melisso's plan to destroy Alcina's power, liberate the men she has transformed, return her lush island to desert, and leave her abandoned. “Verdi prati” was written to be sung by the castrato Carestini, who supposedly complained that this aria didn't offer enough opportunities for virtuoso vocal display. It's hard to imagine, though, any singer complaining about being asked to sing a song of such beauty.

As I mentioned in my post on Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, in recent years countertenors such as Andreas Scholl and David Daniels have begun to take on roles originally written for castrati. The only problem with this idea in a Handel opera is that Handel himself never used countertenors. When he couldn't get a castrato for a male role, he would cast a woman instead--inventing the so-called “trouser role,” a convention that went on to be used by Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Offenbach, and both Johann and Richard Strauss, among many others.

Apparently for Handel sound trumped gender in determining who should play a male role, and to his ears, a woman sounded more like a castrato than a countertenor did. That may be somewhat less true now than in the 18th century: certainly on a first hearing you wouldn't necessarily identify Scholl or Daniels as a man singing falsetto. They have developed their technique to a very high level, and don't have the hooty sound that used to characterize countertenors. But I have to say that, while I very much enjoy the eerily androgynous singing of countertenors, I think that having the “correct” gender isn't sufficient to qualify them to play high-pitched male roles. Where possible, we should continue to honor Handel's intentions. Insisting that male characters be played by men is impossibly dull and literal. Unlike Ruggiero (and some opera directors), we should value opera's magic island of artifice.

The Opéra National de Paris production has never been released on DVD, alas. The live audio recording (which includes Natalie Dessay as Alcina's sister Morgana, Kathleen Kuhlmann as Bradamante, and Laurent Naouri as Melisso) has been issued on the Erato label, and has divided opinion. Many early music purists are appalled by the vibrato-rich voices of the principals and their supposedly inauthentic ornamentation in the cadenzas and da capo aria repeats. For me those aspects pale into insignificance next to the singers' emotional commitment to their roles--I think that this is a superbly dramatic recording that truly brings the dilemmas of the characters to life.

Recently, a studio recording has been issued on the Arkiv label featuring the early-music ensemble Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis, with Joyce DiDonato in the title role, supported by Maite Beaumont (Ruggiero), Sonia Prina (Bradamante), Karina Gauvin (Morgana), and Vito Priante (Melisso). The excerpts I've heard seem to be sprightlier in tempo than those of Christie--and less dramatically compelling. I haven't heard the entire recording, though, so all judgement should be suspended. (You can hear DiDonato's "Ah! mio cor" here.)

On video, the only version currently available in the US is the Staatsoper Stuttgart production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. While it is well performed, the appalling staging undermines Handel's drama at every turn. Even playing it with the picture off isn't an option, as several arias are disrupted with noisy stage business. Wieler and Morabito are guilty of many crimes against Handel--why two people who could not make more clear their disdain for Baroque opera in general and Alcina in particular should have been put in charge of directing it is anyone's guess. Avoid at all costs, and hope that someday the Carsen version will finally be released.

* All the audience videos I've linked to and several others from this production can be found here. But I have to ask again: where is the official DVD release of this production?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sita Sings the Blues

In the Ramayana, Sita is abducted by the demon Ravana, and Ram assaults Ravana's island stronghold with an army of monkeys in order to free her. Once Ravana is defeated, Ram repudiates Sita because she has lived with another man, and Sita undergoes a trial by fire to prove her faithfulness. Later, after Sita and Ram have returned to his ancestral city Ayodhya and Ram has been crowned king, he banishes the pregnant Sita to the forest because his subjects are whispering about how she lived with Ravana. Both of Ram's repudiations, of course, are entirely unjust.

Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues (2008) is an animated film that combines a retelling of the Sita-Ram story and a (presumably autobiographical) frame story about two lovers named "Nina" and "Dave" who have a messy breakup when Dave gets a job posting in India.

Memsaab has written an excellent review of Sita Sings the Blues. So I won't do a full review here, but I did want to comment on a couple of aspects of the film that worked particularly well, at least for me.

The first is its very creative mix of different animation styles. The Ramayana is related in a brilliantly colorful style that evokes in turn Indian miniature paintings, shadow puppetry and popular posters. When early jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw's songs are picturized as part of the Sita-Ram story, Sita is depicted with the comically exaggerated features of an Indian Betty Boop, while Ram looks something like a blue-skinned Dudley Do-Right. Meanwhile, the frame story is portrayed in washed-out colors an almost freehand style, in contrast to the Ramayana scenes that explode with color and detail.

Another element that works (hilariously) is the narration of the Sita-Ram story by Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally and Manish Acharya. It reminded me of the narration of Wagner's Ring by the opera house stagehands in Sing Faster! The Stagehands' Ring Cycle (1999). The Sita-Ram narrators exemplify two key aspects of the Ramayana--first, that it originated and is sustained as an oral tradition; and second, that there are many Ramayanas. Each teller has his or her own interpretation of the story. In fact, there are versions of the tale in which the demon Ravana is viewed sympathetically, or even as a hero. The narrators seem to be aware of these alternative traditions, and are constantly raising questions about how each of the characters should be viewed.

The final element is the incorporation of Annette Hanshaw's songs into the telling of the Ramayana. I'd been unaware of Hanshaw before Sita Sings the Blues, but thanks to Paley's film I've discovered just how fabulous she is. A friend has sent me a disc of her songs, and I've been listening obsessively to her versions of many 20s and 30s standards. She's a straightforward vocalist--she doesn't employ the sort of deliberately idiosyncratic style that singers like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone or Sarah Vaughn would later bring to these same songs--but there's something deeply appealing about her frank, unadorned singing style. And endearingly she ends almost every song with an offhand, "That's all." Paley's use of Hanshaw's music in this context is sheer genius.

But...what doesn't work so well, at least for me, is the frame story. For one thing, the trajectory of Nina and Dave's relationship is pretty predictable. I mean, you don't accept a job offer in India and leave your lover behind for months on end (as Dave does) if you are totally committed to a future together. And frankly, neither Dave nor Nina is a very appealing character: he's noncommital, opportunistic, and basically a weasel; she's too clingy and dependent (though, which of us hasn't been in the position of being more in love with someone than they are with us?).

For another, the parallels between Nina-Dave and Sita-Ram are dubious, to say the least. What we're supposed to understand is that each woman exhibits utter devotion to a man that's not worthy of her. Dave dumps Nina by e-mail, while Ram repudiates Sita twice, despite her chaste rejection of Ravana while she was his captive. But as a king, Ram must take into account factors beyond his own personal happiness. In fact, my understanding of Indian culture is that fulfillment of one's obligations is considered the highest virtue. This may strike us individualistic Westerners as odd, since for us there is no greater good than maximizing our personal happiness. But it makes me skeptical of cross-cultural affinities that are claimed too easily. While Paley clearly intends the film as a critique of the figure of the long-suffering woman, there are too many differences between the cultures in which Sita and Nina's narratives are embedded for Sita to be "a woman like me," as the skipping record during the opening sequence has it. (Of course, Paley might claim that culture is a patriarchal construct that obscures correspondences between women's experiences; while I don't deny that those correspondences exist, I think the parallels Paley's trying to draw are a just bit too forced.)

But despite my reservations about the frame story, I strongly recommend Sita Sings the Blues. Nina Paley is distributing the film for free under a Creative Commons license, and asking for donations to help recoup her substantial costs. If you watch the film on YouTube or via one of the other free distribution channels, please send Paley a donation through the Sita Sings the Blues website (click on the "donate" link on the menu, or send a check to the address she supplies). And for a fuller discussion of the film and the issues it raises, I recommend Memsaab's review.

Update 27 August 2011: Unfortunately, the delightful video clip of Annette Hanshaw performing Harry Woods' "We Just Couldn't Say Goodbye" on something called "Captain Henry's Showboat" has been taken down.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Opera Guide 5: L'incoronazione di Poppea

Bust of PoppeaClaudio Monteverdi didn't invent opera, but with librettist Alessandro Striggio he did create its first masterpiece, L'Orfeo (Orpheus, 1607), and with librettist Ottavio Rinuccini its first hit song, Arianna's lament from L'Arianna (Ariadne, 1608). What's even more remarkable, though, is that at the end of his long life he returned to opera and surpassed his previous achievements, composing two of the greatest operas ever written: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland, 1640) and his final work, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642). (I will write about Il ritorno d'Ulisse in a future Opera Guide.)

L'incoronazione di Poppea ends with "Pur ti miro" ("I gaze at you"), one of the most gorgeous love duets in all opera. It’s also one of the most perverse. The two characters involved are the Emperor Nero (yes, that one) and his new Empress, Poppea. Even without knowing anything more about the opera or Roman history, this duet might make you feel a bit uneasy. Nero was evidently not a good guy, and your awareness of this doesn’t make this beautiful duet less beautiful, exactly, but does give it a strikingly dark undertone.

Of course, Poppea isn't the only opera in which beautiful melodies are the vehicle for words or situations that are anything but. This disjunction is especially apparent in Poppea, though, which features a set of perhaps the most cynical and corrupt characters in all opera. Poppea herself is a ruthless minx who uses her lovers as mere stepping-stones to achieve her true aim: becoming Empress of Rome. Her elderly nurse Arnalta (usually played by a male tenor in drag) gives her comic and highly graphic advice about sleeping her way to the top. Even the relatively sympathetic characters, Ottavia (Nerone’s current, but by the end of the opera ex-, wife), Ottone (Poppea’s ex-boyfriend, dumped for Nero), and Drusilla (Ottone’s ex-girlfriend, dumped for Poppea), are brought together in a conspiracy to murder Poppea.

And then, of course, there's Nerone (the Italian form of Nero). He sleeps with his subordinate Ottone’s lover Poppea, orders his disapproving advisor Seneca to commit suicide, and banishes Ottavia, Ottone, and Drusilla to exile. So the loving triumph of Nerone and Poppea at the end of the opera is complicated, to say the least, by everything that we’ve seen come before--and everything that Roman history tells us will come later. If the classical sources such as Tacitus are to be believed, the historical Nero killed his mother Agrippina, whose murderous machinations had made him emperor at 16; poisoned his stepbrother and rival for the throne Britannicus; ordered his wife Ottavia to be slain by the soldiers who were escorting her to exile; kicked Poppea to death while she was pregnant with his child; and fiddled--or rather, played the lyre, the violin not having been invented yet--as the fires set on his orders burned vast areas of Rome to the ground. Figuratively, as they sing so gloriously of their love, Nerone and Poppea are surrounded by the bodies of their victims, and this moment of Poppea's triumph is shadowed by our knowledge of her later violent death.

Knowing that listeners couldn’t help but experience some cognitive dissonance, Monteverdi* included some musical dissonance to underline it. As Nerone and Poppea sing “Più non peno, più non moro” (“No more pain, no more death”) their voices clash on “pain” and “death.” The opera may be ending “happily” but there will be plenty of pain and death to follow.

That dark undertone is emphasized by director Klaus-Michael Grüber in this version of the final duet from the 2000 Festival d'Aix-en Provence. In a debatable choice, Grüber drains the interaction of Poppea and Nero of all sensuality or passion; nonetheless, the music remains ravishing. Poppea is sung by soprano Mireille Delunsch, Nerone by mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter; Marc Minkowski conducts Les Musiciens du Louvre:



You might wonder why Nerone is being sung by a woman in the video clip posted above. The part of Nerone, like almost every other leading male role in opera for the next 100 years, was written to be sung by a castrato--a singer who, as boy, had been castrated before his voice changed. Castrati were the heroes in opera because their voices combined the high, pure pitch of a female soprano or alto with the lung power of an adult man. In fact, castrati could sing louder and sustain notes longer than unaltered adults; there’s a famous and probably apocryphal story about the eighteenth-century castrato Farinelli outdueling a trumpet. Castrati were the most skilled singers of their day, capable not only of rapid, intricate runs and breathtaking high notes, but of lyrical, affecting slow singing. Castrati also tended to grow quite tall, and so had suitably heroic stature.

While it may seem odd to us that Nero and other operatic villans and heroes were sung by men with high voices, it wasn’t incongruous at all to early operagoers. If opera is designed to showcase great voices, castrati had the most astonishing voices ever. The Baroque obsession with soprano and alto voices meant that both male and female characters sang in that range, and so all sorts of gender-bending took place onstage. Women often played men: when, for example, Handel was unable to find a castrato for the male title role of Radamisto (1720), he cast the soprano Margherita Durastanti in the role. So having a woman sing a male castrato role accords with the practice of the time more faithfully than using a male counter-tenor or transposing the role into the tenor or baritone range.

Opera may depend for effect primarily on the music, but one of the things I find most compelling about Poppea is how good the words are. Over the course of the opera librettist Giovanni Busenello gives every character their due: we see flashes of magnanimity in Nerone, murderous jealousy in the “good” characters Ottavia and Ottone, and the delightful shamelessness of Poppea herself. There’s a scene where Ottone, who has discovered that he’s now Poppea’s ex-lover and is being blackmailed by Ottavia to kill her, asks his former girlfriend Drusilla for help. Drusilla has kept a torch burning for Ottone, and she’s overjoyed when he comes back to her. But she can’t quite believe it: “Do you really love me?” she keeps asking, and Ottone, unwilling to disabuse her, replies “I need you, I need you.” After Drusilla leaves, he confesses, “Drusilla’s name is on my lips, but Poppea’s is in my heart.” If you’ve ever been in the position of choosing to believe a romantic declaration that you knew deep down was insincere (or have ever been in the position of offering one) that scene can be pretty uncomfortable.

Painting of PoppeaI haven't yet seen a fully satisfying video version of Poppea. The Peter Hall/Raymond Leppard production, the sumptuous Jean-Pierre Ponnelle/Nicolas Harnoncourt version, and the Michael Hampe/René Jacobs version all feature tenors, not sopranos, in the role of Nerone. Transposition plays havoc with Monteverdi's harmonies, particularly in the all-important Nerone-Poppea duets, and so I can't fully recommend any of them. Despite its deliberately passionless final duet, the Grüber/Minkowski version seen above at least promises some excellent singing. And the 2008 Robert Carsen/Emmanuelle Haïm production from Glyndebourne which has just been released on DVD looks very promising; it features Danielle de Niese, a singer who seems born to play the kittenish Poppea.

On CD, Gabriel Garrido conducts the Ensemble Elyma in a lushly recorded version on the K617 label. His cast is packed with early music luminaries such as Guillemette Laurens (Poppea), Gloria Banditelli (Ottavia) and Emanuela Galli (Drusilla), and to my ears they offer a strikingly beautiful if somewhat emotionally cool performance. My first choice might be the live recording with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner on Archiv, featuring Sylvia McNair as Poppea, Dana Hanchard as a fierce, masculine-sounding Nerone, and Anne-Sofie von Otter as Ottavia. It has a leaner, sparer sound than the Garrido version, but Gardiner turns the emotional temperature up a notch. You won't be disappointed by either version.

* Early music conductor and scholar Alan Curtis has researched the provenance of “Pur ti miro” exhaustively, and come to the conclusion that it is probably not by Monteverdi at all. Instead, Curtis thinks that portions of the existing scores of Poppea were written or revised by younger composers, possibly including Francesco Cavalli, Benedetto Ferrari, and Francesco Sacrati. It is Sacrati who Curtis nominates as the most likely composer of Poppea’s final scene, including “Pur ti miro.” However, who contributed exactly what to the final opera may never be known. Since the vast majority of the music of the opera seems to be by Monteverdi, and there is no definitive answer to the question of whether or how other composers were involved, I’ve continued to attribute this aria and the opera as a whole to Monteverdi.

Update 25 August 2009: We've just seen the DVD of the 2008 Glyndebourne production, and it's excellent. Danielle de Niese is an exceptional Poppea--she not only sings the part beautifully, but the camera catches her many subtle and telling shifts of expression. Alice Coote convincingly portrays a particularly brutal Nero. The historical Nero was only in his 20s when the events of the opera took place, and Coote plays Nero as a tyrant who has never outgrown his adolescent petulance. Emmanuelle Haïm leads the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a thoughtful and beautiful realization of Monteverdi's score. Finally, Robert Carsen's production is simple but effective--particularly in the closing moments. Highly recommended.