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I wrote this in April 2011 after going to see Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper when I was studying abroad in Vienna, Austria. Unfortunately, I was feeling ill in the middle of it and left early.

 

The final live musical performance I attended was Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper. It was a bittersweet experience in that I will rarely have the opportunity to witness music and productions of the quality that I have seen in the United States without having to pay a very large sum of money.

Mozart always had the flare for the dramatic, and he truly brings it out in the opening overture to Don Giovanni. It certainly reflects the story of the wooer of women and the melodrama, comedy, and supernatural elements that ensue. The backdrop of the stage consists of a screen with a picture of the cityscape in black and white. The bumbling and swooping of the low instruments brings about the loping manservant of Don Giovanni, Leporello, that sings of how he is tired of keeping watch while his master seduces women. It is a great musical portrayal of the “opera buffa” elements, as the listener feels a sense of rustic buffoonery. I thought that Leporello had a nice strong and comedic presence onstage with a resonating deep voice. Then Donna Anna appears, chasing a masked Don Giovanni and demanding to know his identity. Her voice was a bit lackluster and not too impressive, but she was attractive. Don Giovanni was also very good-looking and had a deep, powerful voice. The Commendatore appeared to defend his daughter’s honor and is killed by Don Giovanni while Donna Anna seeks help. Her grief really shines through with the music when she returns with her fiancé Don Ottavio, finding her father dead. In my opinion, Don Ottavio had the weakest and most inexperienced voice out of the entire ensemble. It was very weak, especially in the high register. They swear revenge on the unidentified man as the music swells dramatically into the scene change.

The next scene looks almost like a tavern where we see a woman, Donna Elvira, cursing Don Giovanni for leaving her and scorning her love. Leporello and Don Giovanni enter and find her, Giovanni taking some time to try to woo her until he realized she was a past conquest. A group of women gather there to celebrate perhaps the wedding shower of Zerlina, a beautiful country girl, and Leporello takes the time to brag of the large number of Giovanni’s conquests. This is one of my favourite arias in the opera, and it certainly drew laughter from the crowd. Don Giovanni arrives and is instantly taken with Zerlina and is set upon making her one of the notches on his belt. He offers to host the wedding celebration at his own lavish house, and Masetto, Zerlina’s fiancé, becomes suspicious and jealous. Elvira re-enters and tries to persuade them not to follow through with it and reveals Don Giovanni’s true nature.

Donna Anna and Don Ottavio come to the abode of Don Giovanni in an attempt to ask his help in finding the murderer of her father without realizing that they are right in front of him. Again, I was thwarted with the lackluster quality in voices. Elvira once again enters to reveal the seducing nature of Don Giovanni, and after those two depart Donna Anna realizes and recognizes Giovanni as her father’s killer.

The next scene takes place at the ball at Giovanni’s estate. I really enjoyed the elaborate costuming, but some of them just made me laugh. Leporello looked like a giant, frilly clown, and poor Masetto appeared as if he was in some kind of feathery bird costume. Masetto hides in a closet of sorts, trying to catch Zerlina with Giovanni in a compromising position. Upon discovering him there, Giovanni leads Zerlina to her fiancé and leaves them together. Meanwhile a group of masked ballgoers (Donna Elvira, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio) enter, hoping to catch Giovanni in foul play and are ushered in by Leporello. Leporello then distracts Masetto by dancing with him in an effort to distract him from Don Giovanni’s renewed pursuit of Zerlina. We are suddenly met with Zerlina’s cries for help as Giovanni tries to frame her distress on Leporello. The group of masked guests reveal themselves and exclaims how they know the truth. Guns are drawn as the music swells into a crescendo as the act ends in suspense.

I was unable to see the second act due to my feeling very ill throughout the first act. It distracted me somewhat from enjoying the performance fully, but I still wish that I could have experienced the entire production. It would have been great to see the dramatic conclusion of Don Giovanni being dragged down to Hell.

dongiovanni

 

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(I was fortunate to see Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle right around my birthday in April while I was studying in Vienna. The 20-plus hours of standing and experiencing one of opera’s master works was definitely worth it.)

 

Das Rheingold

I was very impressed with how large the orchestra was, but then again, this is Wagner at some of his most epic work. The music begins softly and slowly in the low instruments, emulating creation. There was a giant screen behind the actors that would be incorporated in all four works. It first projected an actual video of water flowing. I found the scenery and costumes to be very vivid. The Rhinemaidens rose up into view and rose up and down in steady waves like seaweed. Their voices blended together beautifully. The colour scheme of greens and blues brought you underwater with them in the scene. Alberich entered with a very deep and rich voice, swimming among the maidens and attempting to catch them to satisfy his lust. His movements to emulate swimming were a bit bizarre. However, his desires change as he sets eyes upon the gold that the Rhinemaidens are guarding, and he vows to forsake love in order to steal it into his possession. I was a little offended by the suggestive gestures that Alberich made with the gold. It was almost as if he was rubbing himself against it sexually.

I found it interesting and nice that the flow of the orchestral works was continuous through the scene changes, allowing the listener to not be interrupted in his or her visualizations brought forth by the music. Valhalla was set as a bright white area with settings of stones distributed throughout the stage. The costuming of the gods wasn’t very appealing to me. It looked as if they were dressed in fairly modern cocktail attire. Wotan is certainly gifted with an awesome, strong, and powerful voice. I thought Fricka’s sparkling dress was very distracting. Her voice was pretty good, but I thought her dress sparkled more in quality than her voice. The white suits of Donner and Froh looked almost like dentist uniforms. Freia’s voice was very bright and clear. When she was in her high register, it reminded me of what a colleague of mine’s voice could sound like in the future. When the giants appeared, I had to hold back a few laughs. It looked like their costumes were made out of rocks. But their voices matched the power and strength of their characters. Froh (the tenor brother) was weaker than the rest of the ensemble, and his voice really seemed to be strained. The giants demanded payment for the building of Valhalla, which was originally negotiated as to be Freia, but Wotan was attempting to find an alternative exchange for them. Loge appeared with news that nothing else could yet be found in exchange. The performer portraying him had a great trickster attitude, very nonchalant and sly. His voice is one of my favourites, as it was very smooth. It could use a little more body and power, but in the future his voice will mature very well. The giants end up taking Freia away with them and subsequently the golden apples that keep the gods youthful and beautiful. Loge tells of the theft of the Rheingold, and Wotan has the fervour and resolve to take the gold back and use that for ransom to save Freia.

As the scene changed once more everything turned red, and the orchestra morphed into a chorus of anvils to symbolize the slaving away of the Nibelungs underground. For the gold, mannequins and their body parts painted gold were used. Mime, Alberich’s brother was very expressive as well, but his voice was not very powerful. He forged the Tarnhelm which enables the wearer to become invisible or change shape at will. As I continued to hear Alberich, it seemed like his voice was directed too far back. Wotan and Loge fed Alberich’s conceit and self-worth and encouraged him to demonstrate the power of the Tarnhelm. He turned himself into a snake which was projected as a video of a snake on the screen. That seemed a little cheesy, but it was even worse how a little frog was tied to Alberich’s head and he hopped around onstage. Wotan and Loge quickly capture him and bring him to the surface.

Back on the mountaintop, Alberich is forced to give up his hoard of gold in exchange for his freedom. After much protesting, he uses the ring to summon the Nibelungs to bring up the gold from below. Wotan then asks for the ring, but Alberich refuses. The ring is then forcefully removed from his hand by Wotan as he cuts off the finger wearing it. Furious and in despair, Alberich curses the ring and whoever bears it to be doomed to eventual death. The giants then return and the exchange ensues. The gold they used to cover up the image of Freia was actually put together to form a mannequin. There is still more payment necessary, so the giants demand the ring in payment. Wotan refuses, and suddenly half of the goddess Erda appears to warn him that he must give up the ring or severely regret it. Her voice is very dramatic, and I’m not sure if I care for it. Eventually, Wotan conceded and gave up the ring as a very obvious spear leitmotif played. The giants fight over possession of the ring, and Fasolt is killed by his brother Fafner. The gods know it is time to leave, so Donner builds a thunderstorm to clear the air (in an unimpressive display). Froh creates a rainbow bridge for everyone to cross over into their new home. Loge tells of the ending of the gods drawing near and his hesitancy to follow them, but in this production he actually did accompany them. I was confused. Offstage, the Rhinemaidens mourned the loss of the gold, and there part one ended in a very strong orchestral finish.

 

Die Walküre

            In the next installment of the Ring Cycle, the orchestra bursts forth in dramatic sound, emulating the coming themes. The raging of the brass and low strings reflect the storm. The stage was set in Hunding’s house. I still don’t understand why there was a tree growing in the middle of the main hall. Sigmund enters, staggering in and seeking shelter, following the projection of a white wolf across the stage. Sieglinde also enters and paces the room, following the wolf’s projection. I wasn’t quite sure what that wolf meant, but I later learned that it was the form Wotan took when traveling in the mortal world. Sieglinde was virtually bursting forth in the bosom of her nightgown costume. I think she should have been re-fitted. They experience an unknown attraction to each other as she provides him hospitality. Hunding, Sieglinde’s abusive husband, enters and reluctantly accepts Siegmund into his home for shelter from the night. Hunding really had a deep and powerful voice that projected very well. It suited his character as a brooding and potentially violent man. Sieglinde’s voice was strong as well, but it could use more body. The two men discover they are enemies and vow to fight to the death in the morning. After Hunding falls into a drugged slumber, the other two meet secretly, and Sieglinde relates her sad fate and desire to be rescued by the man able to draw forth the sword lodged in the tree. As he releases the sword into his hands, the two realize they are twin brother and sister yet still declare their love for one another in an overly dramatic display of affection.

In the next Act, Wotan is seen in the forest with a wolf pelt at his feet. I thought it was interesting how they used an actual taxidermy wolf onstage. Brunnhilde enters in all of her fiery passionate glory as a Valkyrie, but I was quickly aghast when she opened her mouth to sing. It was not how I imagined Brunnhilde to sound, lacking the power, strength, and vocal ability. Her high notes screeched unpleasantly. Wotan calls her to protect Siegmund in battle. Fricka, however, is displeased how the ill-fated lovers are going against the sanctity of marriage and forbids Wotan to interfere in any way. I found that her voice improved greatly from Das Rheingold with much more body and spirit. Brunnhilde goes against her father’s wishes anyway and warns Siegmund. She also discovers that Sieglinde is carrying his child. It does not help his outcome in which his sword is shattered by Wotan, who learns of his daughter’s disobedience, and is then killed by Hunding. With one look from Wotan, Hunding also drops dead.

The famous flight of the Valkyries thunders through the orchestra as the entire audience is filled with buoyancy and vigour. I thought the ensemble of Valkyries was outstanding. They had great vocal quality and sang with a lot of bright energy. There were statues of horses all over the stage, making it appear as if they were in a stable. In relation to the actors, they were gigantic. Brunnhilde arrives and seeks sanctuary among them, but she cannot escape Wotan’s wrath. She loses her status as a Valkyrie and is to become a mortal woman. The scene with Brunnhilde and Wotan alone is absolutely heartbreaking, the motives of sanctuary, Brunnhilde’s plea, Wotan’s farewell all strike chords in my heart. He kisses her eyes and they linger together before he puts her into a deep slumber, surrounding her with fire so that only a true hero without fear can have her. The screens project images of fire surrounding the stage in a cool effect, but it would have been more convincing if the horses had been moved and not “consumed by fire” as well.

 

Siegfried

This portion of the cycle was my least favourite. The setting of Mime’s home and forge was interesting in a sense, very industrial and similar to a factory. I wonder if Mime was directed to be a buffoon character and annoying on purpose because his voice was extremely whiny and nasal. It was revealed in class that he was supposedly portraying a Jew with his hoarding, greedy tendencies focused on money and his own personal gain. Siegfried enters, and I was a bit taken aback by his appearance. I was expecting a young and trim man and instead was met with an overweight man with graying hair. Siegfried’s personality was nothing like I expected either. He was basically a self-absorbed asshole, his only heroic trait being pompous and obsessed with himself as many heroes are. The aspect of his character that I liked the most was his musical theme. He constantly verbally abuses Mime and pesters him for a new sword which he breaks. Wotan enters after Siegfried leaves and challenges Mime to a riddle contest, their heads on the line. Mime loses, and Wotan declares that “he who knows no fear” will be his executioner. Discovering that Siegfried is to be that arbiter, Mime is resolved to teach him fear. Upon learning that Mime is unable to re-forge the broken shards of his father’s sword, Siegfried takes it upon himself to do the job and is successful. He is then led to Fafner the dragon in order to learn fear.

The battle with the dragon was a bit odd. There was a screen that showed a giant lizard’s eye in which Siegfried ventured into, so you could see an image of the fighting Siegfried in the reflection of the eye as he waved and stabbed his sword, eventually stabbing and defeating him. He exits the cave with the Tarnhelm and ring in hand. With the taste of dragon’s blood, he is able to detect that Mime is trying to poison him and proceeds with killing him with the sword as well. He also learns the language of the birds. A beautiful voice echoes offstage, emulating a bird’s song. It was so exquisitely beautiful. She tells of a maiden asleep on a rock which intrigues Siegfried and inspires him to find her.

At the mountain, Siegfried and his grandfather (unbeknownst to him) meet and exchange words that quickly annoy Siegfried. Sometimes I really wanted to smack him because of his attitude. He even breaks the spear of Wotan and nonchalantly continues on his way. The final scene between Siegfried and Brunnhilde was extremely drawn-out, probably because of the drama that Wagner exudes. She was wrapped up with so many pieces of fabric that it was almost like unraveling a mummy. I found it well-staged as the timing between the orchestra and process of revealing Brunnhilde was in nearly perfect synchronization. Siegfried kisses her awake, and she is at first startled and reluctant to be possessed by someone. Their bantering back and forth and chasing about the stage was a bit cheesy. Finally they commit to loving one another, and the curtain closes on their heated embrace.

 

Götterdämmerung

            The final installment begins in an almost garden setting with little pine trees across the stage. Three women, the Norns, are onstage pulling string and winding it about the trees in a progression while they sing. Their voices were beautiful, but I don’t understand why Wagner felt it necessary to re-iterate the entire story thus far that had previously been performed. It seemed redundant. Maybe it was for the people that only desired to see the conclusion. Then Siegfried and Brunnhilde venture forth from the cave together. Brunnhilde sends him off to seek adventure, and Siegfried gives her the ring of power as a token of his love while she gives him her horse.

The next Act introduces an entirely new set of characters and location, the Gibichungs dwelling by the Rhine. Gunther is the lord of all of them, accompanied by Hagen, his half-brother and advisor who is actually the son of Alberich. You can guess his type of character based on his parentage. Hagen believes it best that Gunther finds a wife and his sister Gutrune finds a husband, suggesting Brunnhilde and Siegfried for them. He also gives Gutrune a potion that will enable Siegfried to lose his memory of Brunnhilde and fall in love with her instead. His ultimate goal is to get his hands on the ring of power. None of the voices in this grouping really stood out, in my opinion. All were pretty strong in their own ways but didn’t live up to my expectations. Siegfried arrives and is sucked into their lifestyle, drinking the love potion and forgetting Brunnhilde, swearing blood brotherhood to Gunther, and agreeing to venture to the fiery rock to win Gunther a wife.

Meanwhile on the rock, Brunnhilde is secretly visited by one of her sisters who warns her of the transpired events with Wotan and his shattered spear, along with his stacking of branches of the World Tree around Valhalla, waiting for the world to end. As her sister exited, she received many “Bravas” and applause from the audience. If she had a higher voice classification, I almost think that she would have made a better Brunnhilde than the current casting. Siegfried soon arrives under the guise of Gunther with the Tarnhelm and claims her as Gunther’s wife, taking away the ring. It made me uncomfortable how he forced himself on her and practically raped her, thankfully keeping the sword between the two of them as they slept.

In the next Act, Hagen in a half-dream state is visited by Alberich who urges him to kill Siegfried and acquire the ring. Alberich has the same oily and coercive voice as ever, and it is very effective. Siegfried arrives with Brunnhilde, and the war trumpets are sounded which surprise the soldiers upon discovering there is no battle but a wedding celebration. Brunnhilde’s tragic demeanor was powerful, and I admired how her strength in character grew. She was surprised to see Siegfried on the arm of Gutrune, wearing the ring and realizes that it was he who betrayed her, not Gunther. She publicly denounces him and accuses him of seducing her. Siegfried denies it, and an oath is made over a spear, whoever is found to be lying shall die by it. Hagen, Gunther, and Brunnhilde plot the death of Siegfried, and Brunnhilde reveals that his weakness lies in his back. They plan to murder him during a hunting trip.

The Rhinemaidens make another appearance in the next Act, still mourning the loss of their gold. They look a little amusing in their swimming caps. Siegfried comes across them, and they try to persuade him to return the ring to the river, warning him of treachery and death befalling him. He ignores their warnings of course, because of his pompous attitude. Rejoining the hunters, he tells stories of his youth and receives another potion which restores his memory. He recounts his discovery of Brunnhilde and their kiss which leads Hagen into stabbing him, saying that his oath had been false with Gunther. Siegfried’s death was perhaps the most tragic scene and musical portrayal in the entire cycle. I was almost moved to tears by the feeling evoked from the orchestra. Brunnhilde’s immolation scene was just as powerful, and I believe that her voice improved over the course of these productions, although it occaisionally became painful as she held the high notes. She sets fire to Siegfried’s funeral pyre and rides into the flames herself to join him. The ending montage was extremely powerful. The screen images of flames engulfed the stage once more in pulsing and revolving waves. Two nude figures (as far as I could tell) where shown embracing, which could have symbolized that advent of a new world and love beginning. Waves of water also surrounded everyone as Alberich attempted one last time to procure the ring that had now been returned to the Rhinemaidens but failed and drowned. Water and fire merged together as one in an amazing musical finale that I will never forget. I will certainly want to see this cycle again in the future. It is worth the hours of standing.

 

Brunnhilde

 

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Faust — Gounod

(Another opera review from when I was in Vienna, Austria!)

 

It was very refreshing to finally hear a French opera at the Staatsoper with it being my other degree. I really did enjoy this production of Gounod’s Faust. The opening was very dramatic and daunting in the orchestra which set the mood perfectly for what was to come in the plot. The curtain opened to the old man, Faust sitting in an armchair mourning his waste of life on scholarly pursuits and fervent desires for an opportunity yet to shine with vigour and love. Right from the beginning the tenor sounded strained, and the higher he climbed the more I cringed. He really incorporated the sob vocal technique which brought more character and drama to his arias. At one point, his voice did break. After two failed attempts at suicide, he renounces both science and faith and summons the devil. Méphistophélès was the most attractive man I had ever seen on the Staatsoper stage out of all of the productions I went to there. In my opinion, he had the best voice of the cast. So deep and rich, like velvet chocolate. It was a plus to see him without a shirt and in that black leather. His acting and stage presence was very well-thought out and embodied. He tempts Faust with an image of the saint-like Marguerite and offers him a second chance at youth with himself at Faust’s beck and whim in exchange for his soul in Hell to serve him when his death comes.

The next scene is in the town square where the military men meet to prepare for war with first a rousing drinking chorus. Valentin, Marguerite’s brother prepares to leave and sings a wonderful aria entrusting the care of his sister to Siébel, a young and endearing boy also in love with Marguerite. Valentin certainly merited the fervent applause after his song. Satan then approaches the crowd, provides them with wine and sings a song about a golden calf. The others suspect there is foulness and devilry in the air, and Valentin stands up to Méphistophélès, only to have his sword shattered. Faust enters the scene and declares his love to Marguerite who rejects his arm out of modesty. I was not impressed with her voice at all. It was very weak and not fully developed. I could barely hear her over the orchestra, and her French diction was not very precise at all.

I enjoyed the mezzo-soprano’s voice and her portrayal of the Siébel. In the third act he leaves a bouquet for Marguerite on the bench, and Faust creates a competition out of it, sending the Devil after a more impressive gift. He returns with a box of exquisite jewelry. Marguerite finds them and is enthralled by their brilliance. Unfortunately, the “Jewel Song” was very lackluster for me. I don’t think she was strong enough for this role. Faust and the Devil appear and put their charm on the women. I was really surprised when the Devil actually reached down and actually put his hand on the older woman’s breast as he was creating the illusion of romance. Faust and Marguerite finally kiss and declare their love to one another; the Devil is happy to see his plans being carried out well.

In the next act, we discover that Marguerite has been abandoned by Faust, carried his child, and is now a social outcast. But Siébel stands by her. Valentin returns with his company and learns of his sister’s faring, rejecting her outright. He seeks revenge upon Faust, but Méphistophélès guides Faust’s hand, leading to the death of Valentin who curses Marguerite to Hell.

The following act brings us to a prison cell where Marguerite is chained for having killed her child. The Devil helps Faust go to her and attempt to free her, but she refuses his aid, leaving it up to God and the angels to judge her. She rejects Faust and the Devil, fainting. The Devil tries to condemn her but finds her protected, so instead he drags Faust down to Hell. Marguerite rises and walks forward into the brilliant white light in the midst of Heavenly music.

I thoroughly enjoyed this production, but I almost felt that there wasn’t sufficient closure in the staging.

 

Yes, this is a picture of the gorgeous opera star that was Mephistopheles when I actually saw it in Vienna! So handsome!

Yes, this is a picture of the gorgeous opera star that was Mephistopheles when I actually saw it in Vienna! So handsome!

 

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(This was my term paper for my Music History I class in Fall 2009.)

 

When one thinks of classical vocal music, opera is one of the first subjects that enters the mind. Fantastical spectacles with brilliant scenery, costumes, and voices all come together as a form of memorable entertainment. What truly remains emblazoned in the memory of the viewer is the “virtuosa,” or principle female singer with the largest amount of arias in a particular work.[1]  She is the siren of the stage, a goddess, a Prima Donna. There are many preconceived notions of what type of singer is classified a Prima Donna. It was at first an assumption that female performers were prostitutes. Many think of them as lazy, greedy, and vain with excessive demands. In all actuality, through the stage was the only way for women to make notoriety at the time. The seventeenth-century was a period of the rise in opportunities for women to perform onstage, therefore the acceptance of them was gradual, and it was a constant battle for them to retain their dignity and respectability. Rosselli said:

Between [the court] and the nunnery lay an ambiguous zone where a woman might get occasional lucrative opera engagements at the cost of being deemed a courtesan or else having again and again to be certified as respectable. [2]

 

Not all women, however, remained in the background as perfect angels. Prima Donnas have made infamous names for themselves through their talents, rivalries, scandals, and dramatic lifestyles, causing them to be one of the most fascinating subjects of the musical world.

Prima Donnas in their prime lived with the world at their fingertips, but it was not an easy training process. Bontempi, in Historia Musica, wrote of the training students engaged in at a school in Rome around 1620:

The pupils had to give up one hour every day to the singing of difficult passages till they were well acquainted with them; another to the practice of the shake; another to the feats of agility [vocal agility, that is to say]; another to the study of literature; another to vocal exercises under the direction of a master, and before a looking glass, so that they might be certain they were making no disagreeable movement of the muscles of the face, of the forehead, of the eyes, or of the mouth. [3]

 

Those were the morning duties, and their afternoons consisted of thirty minutes of music theory, thirty minutes of counterpoint, one hour of hearing rules of composing and practice, and the rest of the day was devoted to the harpsichord, composing psalms, motets, canzonets, and other pieces.[4] They also performed in Roman Catholic churches and reported their observations.[5]

Prima Donnas had exquisite voices, emanating the spirit of “bel canto” (beautiful singing). Their voices were described as “a stream of sound…evenly produced over the full range of the voice…beauty and contrast of tone, with smoothness and expressiveness…accuracy with agility—and above all, with purity.”[6] It was also said that “the greatest singers were always recognized for their ability to make their inventions dramatically memorable and relevant, an intensification of the aria’s basic emotion.”[7] Impresarios, the people who manage public entertainment industry, were under immense pressure to compete for the most popular singers. They would judge the success of how well they invested in a particular artist by the number applausi, little packages of gifts and sonnets in praise of a vocalist, received. [8] It also placed high demands for composers and librettists to write elaborate arias. In 1640, the average number of arias written for a Venetian Opera was a dozen or less. Ten years later, the amount doubled, and in the 1670s there were as many as 60 written for an opera, according to Ellen Rosand, a learned historian of Venetian Opera.[9] Acting was not the most important aspect of the performance of a Prima Donna. Baroque opera houses were similar to what a nightclub could be considered today. The audience could leave or remain as they pleased, talking, eating and drinking, engaging in amorous acts, and not treating the performers with respect. In turn, the performers were required to work diligently to surprise the audience enough to maintain their interest and attention.[10] They relied on their voices, the music given, and their own ability to improvise and add embellishments.[11] The singers would express their demands of what they wanted to sing, who they would perform with, and how much would be acceptable for a salary. Sometimes if the prima donna did not care for a particular aria, they would replace it with another from a completely different opera and composer. Ultimately, it became more difficult for opera houses to remain open because of the exorbitant amounts of money spent, particularly the salaries demanded from the prima donnas. Cristoforo Ivanovich, one of the first opera historians, in 1681, blamed the singers:

Debts are incurred because of the excessive payment to singers. At the beginning, two exquisite voices, a small number of delightful arias, and a few scene changes sufficed to satisfy. Now, one objects if one hears a voice that is not up to European standards.[12]

 

Yet it was the performers that held the audiences, bringing in the money from viewers and thus supporting the management of the establishment. Prima Donnas were entitled to these special privileges.

Throughout the history of opera, there have always been particular women that have stood out on the forefront of the Prima Donna title. Vittoria Archilei, from Rome, was the first star of the Medici court. In 1588 she arrived in Florence where her husband, a composer and lutenist, performed with a group of musicians. Venturing to the opera stage, she had two principal roles, Harmony and Amphitrite, in which she exhibited her talents of embellishments and virtuosity.[13] Another notable figure is Francesca Caccini, elder daughter of the famous composer, who was a singer as well as a distinguished composer of opera who was influential in the development of the soprano voice. Caterina Martinelli had a gift that is often underrated and unacknowledged. Recognizing her remarkable talent, her family sent her at the age of thirteen to leave home and travel to Mantua, where she was to live in Monteverdi’s household. He composed the role of Arianna for her, but unfortunately, she succumbed to smallpox at the age of eighteen and died before she was able to perform it. “Her legend lived on, perpetuated in requiem masses that were said for her every month and that were endowed by the Duke of Mantua himself.”[14] In Venice, Anna Renzi with her role in La Finta Pazza made a profound impact on opera with new comedy introduced and her scenes of madness. Guilio Strozzi related that “Our Signora Anna is endowed with such lifelike expression that her responses and speeches seem not memorized but born at the very moment. In sum, she transforms herself completely into the person she represents.”[15] Poems were written in her honor, and even a book by several authors was devoted to her, Le glorie della signora Anna Renzi romana. Strozzi also said, “she truly stole not only the senses of common men, but also the souls of the most refined connoisseurs of musical theatre…”[16] Renzi also freely lent large sums of money, without interest, to her friends and acquaintances, which is a rare characteristic of prima donnas at the time.[17]

England experienced a slightly different evolution of opera than the continent. In the times of the Puritans, there was a difference between plays that were acted and those that were sung. Acting was seen as offensive with coarse language, and with opera, they believed that singing could not corrupt the morals of a person. In addition, women were not forbidden from the stage. With the performance of The Siege of Rhodes, Mrs. Coleman was the first dramatic singer and actress of England in 1656.[18] The great singers in the seventeenth century did not venture to England. Later, in the early eighteenth century, Margarita L’Epine became the first noted Italian singer to travel overseas to London and help establish Italian opera.[19] She arrived unable to speak English and refused to sing in anything other than Italian. In the originally Italian opera Camilla, she sang her role in Italian while the other performers sang in English.[20] L’Epine, despite being unattractive and not a very dramatic vocalist, remained sought after for 18 years performing at concerts. Despite her voice losing its original appeal, she continued to sing, settling down with her admirers for 34 years. No other Prima Donna has had such a long career.[21]

France was another country that set itself from other foreign operas. The French refused to follow the trends of Italian opera and instead brought new elements into the forefront. Jean-Baptiste Lully was the most prominent composer and leader of the unique style, establishing required elements such as a French libretto, designed for the king and court, always with dancing, and introducing more emphasis on the dramatic spectacle. More prominence was given to the orchestra and choir, as well as the melding of recits and arias, leaving less availability to improvise and fewer opportunities for the audience to be noisy in between pieces. French sopranos sang at the Académie Royale de Musique, later known as Paris Opéra. It was necessary for them to be in Lully’s favor and have an acceptable private life free from scandal. They often spent time in convents temporarily for little improprieties and sometimes were installed in them permanently for outrageous behavior.[22] Yet chansons were written celebrating their amorous behaviors, referring to the girls as “les filles de l’Opéra”. Fanchon Moreau was one of Lully’s last discoveries; she had talented opera credentials, but her biggest fame was a Couperin ballad, “La femme entre deux draps,” or (“The lady between the sheets”).[23] In contrast, Mademoiselle de Saint-Christophle was an admirable example of a soprano, referred to as “grande, bien faite, belle et vertueuse” (“tall, well-made, beautiful, and virtuous”). She eventually retired at a convent of her own free will.[24] However, life for French singers was not always admirable. It was a place of gossip and conspiracy. The performers did not have as much economic power and worked for Lully’s monopoly. They were poorly paid and had no choice but to share beds and rooms with other girls. It was no wonder that these singers dared to have affairs with the rich and powerful, despite the threat of an improper reputation.[25]

Mademoiselle de Maupin, a contralto, has one of the most infamous and controversial reputations of prima donnas of France in the eighteenth century. English music historian Dr. Burney said bluntly, “She was equally fond of both sexes, fought and loved like a man, resisted and fell like a woman.” After marrying young, she ran away with her fencing master. De Maupin had an untrained but beautiful voice. It is said that she fell in love with a girl whose family subsequently placed her in a convent. Sneaking in disguised as a novice, de Maupin set fire to the convent and escaped with the girl. Later she was captured and condemned to be burned alive, but she escaped. She was not afraid to defend herself against men. When she felt insulted by a man, she disguised herself as a man and injured him, causing him to beg for mercy. Other men would hide to avoid her wrath. One evening at a ball, de Maupin was dressed as a man, insulted the countess who was hostess, and was challenged to duels by three men. According to legend, she killed all three and returned inside, immediately being pardoned. At the age of 32, she retired from the stage and reunited with her husband, said to have become devout.[26] A French critic bluntly related how divas were treated in France, “On les adore quand elles sont belles, et on les jette a la voirie quand elles sont mortes.” (“We love them when they are beautiful and we throw them away when they are dead.”)[27] The statement exemplifies the critical air in which Prima Donnas are treated.

 

Women were not the only formidable forces of the opera stage. Castrati were known to draw more ticket sales to performances than women. An anonymous Englishman in 1718 described a castrato as someone with “unearthly beauty of tone, flexibility of a coloratura soprano, phenomenal breath control, and enormous power.”[28] This new form of singer was created by castrating boys at a young age to retain their vocal quality, “emasculated for musical purposes.”[29] It originated in the Church, possibly in fifteenth century Spain and later confined in Italy, prominent in churches requiring soprano voices in choir where women were forbidden to sing. The Church had to condemn the practice despite their desire for the use of castrato in their choirs. The operation was illegal, and those involved were killed, accomplices, even parents, were excommunicated.[30] By the mid-eighteenth century, 4,000 boys a year were castrated, their parents also compensated.[31] Pope Clement VIII formed a policy “damning the practice of castration” yet “recruiting best castrati into service,” authorized in honor of God.[32] Their “breath control was their greatest technical asset—their lung capacity allowed them to exhale for a minute or more.”[33] They could even span as much as three octaves.

The first internationally famous castrato was Baldassare Ferri (1610-1680). However, Carlo Broschi, otherwise referred to as Farinelli, was perhaps the greatest castrato of all time. Born in Apulia in 1705, he was taught by his brother and Nicolo Porpora, one of the greatest vocal teachers of the eighteenth century. His first public appearance came at the age of fifteen when he serenaded the Hapsburg Empress for her birthday, but it was in Rome with opera that he most became famous.[34] As an artist, he placed more emphasis on vocality and appearance than acting. Burney wrote of his London performances that, “without the assistance of significant gestures or graceful attitudes…enchanted and astonished his hearers…motionless as a statue…his voice was so active.”[35] His brother, Riccardo Broschi, wrote arias for him to sing. Patrick Barbier commented on Qual guerriero in campo armato, as it utilized all of Farinelli’s three octaves in leaps and trills. In addition, Son qual nave was performed with fourteen consecutive measures of vocalises ending with an “interminable trill…without any obvious signs of breathing.”[36] He earned approximately 5,000 pounds each year, nearly ruining Handel’s rival opera house.[37] It has been recounted that he revived Philip V of Spain from his withdrawn and declining state, and Farinelli subsequently remained in his court for over twenty years with a large salary but a monotonous assignment. “It was said that the King was only interested in hearing the four same arias…had to sing them all every night between midnight and 5 o’clock in the morning.” Yet he was diplomatic, unselfish, and self-respecting in a position where he could easily have taken advantage.[38] Overall, the mysterious persona of Farinelli continues to mystify, as there are no recordings available from castrati at their prime.

Not all castrati were polite and respectable. Mezzo-soprano castrati, Caffarelli fought duels, disturbed other performers, and conversed with spectators when the show was in progress. He refused to sing along with an ensemble and sulked in the lavatories, exerting his dislike for the nobility.[39] Popular castrati Antonio Cavagna in 1666 expressed his personal conditions for performing:

I intend to sing with the instruments tuned to Roman Pitch (a whole tone lower than Venetian Pitch)…[this aria is] mannered and beggarly, and unless you get [the composer] to write new music for it, I won’t sing it at all.[40]

 

Cavagna would also be concerned about which performers he sang between. The otherworldly voices of castrati remain in legend for the people of the present, for the practice is no longer used. The very last record of a castrato was made in approximately 1902 by an elderly and relatively ordinary castrato from the Sistine Choir, and it does not give proper justice to those that ruled the stage in the prime of their reign.[41]

 

For every Prima Donna, there is an equal and opposite rival with sworn groups of followers and partisans. Cuzzoni and Bordoni are the rivals first recorded in the early to mid-eighteenth century. The physical attributes of Cuzzoni were unattractive, but the power and fame were in her voice. She effortlessly sang difficult coloraturas naturally, moving the audience to tears, with a range of more than two octaves. Her trill was considered slow and sensuous, and her rubato, in which the singer temporarily ignores strict time, was effortless.[42] Handel specifically composed music for her; however, she was not always able to sing what was written and would make alterations in his music to suit her own desires. Quoted in Gattey, on one memorable occasion the composer Handel had enough, took her by the shoulders, and shaking her, threatened, “I know that you are a veritable devil, but I want you to know that I am Beelzebub, the chief of the devils—and I intend to throw you through that open window.”[43] Needless to say, Cuzzoni began to follow the music of the composer from that moment. Faustina Bordoni was the opposite of Cuzzoni, a noble, beautiful, and charming mezzo-soprano. With her lower voice, she was more of a dramatic artist, more flexible with music and able to improvise without detracting from the original piece’s integrity. A critic in 1721 said:

She always sang the first part of an aria exactly as the composer had written it but at the da capo repeat introduced all kinds of doublements and manière without taking the smallest liberties with the rhythm of the accompaniment.[44]

 

On the sixth of June, in the summer of 1727, during Handel’s Admeto, the two rivals were brought together for a performance. There is no evidence that Cuzzoni and Bordoni fought physically onstage, but an event occurred that roused the audience to a point where they were out of control, causing the opera to be suspended at the end of the second act. Everything else was omitted except for a poorly-performed final chorus. This event is parodied in The Beggar’s Opera in a fight between Lucy Lockit and Polly Peachum.[45] In the end, their rivalry eventually became so great that it was imperative that one of them leave the country. Therefore, the impresarios targeted the least attractive, Cuzzoni. They raised the salary of Bordoni by one guinea, and it subsequently drove Cuzzoni out of the theatre.[46]

Prima Donnas are one of the most complex figures of the theatre and musical arts. Their names and dramatic lifestyles live on, from the seventeenth century onward through the future, influencing the rise of new divas of the stage. It is virtually impossible to classify what makes a Prima Donna. However, one can agree that they are “women who refuse compromises…dedicated to their talents…refusing to work for less than their market value.”[47] A Prima Donna is a strong woman who knows her worth and strives to her most successful potential.

 

primadonna

 

Works Cited

Christiansen, Rupert. Prima Donna: A History. New York: Viking, 1984.

Edwards, H. Sullivan. The Prima Donna. London: Remington and Co, 1888.

Glixon, Beth L. “Private Lives of Public Women.” Music and Letters 7. London: OxfordUniversity Press, 2003. 509-531.

Leonardi, Susan J. and Rebecca A. Pope. The Diva’s Mouth. New Jersey: RutgersUniversity Press, 1996.

Somerset-Ward, Richard. Angels and Monsters. London: Yale University Press, 2004.


[1] Rupert Christiansen, Prima Donna: A History (New York: Viking, 1984), 9.

[2] Susan J. Leonardi and Rebecca A. Pope, The Diva’s Mouth (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 39.

[3] H. Sutherland Edwards, The Prima Donna (London: Remington and Co, 1888), 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 6-7.

[6] Richard Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters (London: Yale University Press, 2004), xi.

[7] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 20.

[8] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 21.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 20.

[11] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, x.

[12] Ibid, 22.

[13] Ibid, 5.

[14] Ibid, 13.

[15] Ibid, 21.

[16] Beth L. Glixon, “Private Lives of Public Women,” Music and Letters 76 (London: OxfordUniversity Press, 2003), 512.

[17] Ibid, 514-515.

[18] Edwards, The Prima Donna, 2.

[19] Ibid, 8.

[20] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 33.

[21] Edwards, The Prima Donna, 15.

[22] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 25.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, 26.

[25] Ibid, 27.

[26] Ibid, 28.

[27] Edwards, The Prima Donna, 52.

[28] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 27.

[29] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 14.

[30] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 28.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 15.

[33] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 29.

[34] Ibid, 31.

[35] Ibid, 32.

[36] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 73.

[37] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 32.

[38] Ibid, 32-33.

[39] Ibid, 34-35.

[40] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 22-23.

[41] Ibid, xii.

[42] Ibid, 40-41.

[43] Ibid, 36.

[44] Ibid, 41.

[45] Ibid, 38.

[46] Edwards, The Prima Donna, 50.

[47] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 10.

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When I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria, I took a course called Vienna and it’s Music Live. It was wonderful! Part of the requirements were to attend at least 8 performances and write a review as well as our thoughts about it. The majority of the performances I went to were at the Staatsoper (State Opera House). For 3-4 Euros, I could see a performance in standing areas. That is a phenomenal opportunity! Seats for the performances could be anywhere around 50+ Euros, so you understand why I saw so many shows even though my feet would be sore afterward!

Here is my little review of the first live opera I saw called La Sonnambula by Bellini:

April 1, 2011

La Sonnambula – Bellini

            La Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini is the endearing tale of a young woman with a secret unconscious habit of sleepwalking that gets her into serious trouble with the town. The light-hearted and fairly shallow plot fits perfectly with the bel canto singing style which embodies the music of this opera. In fact, I think Bellini focused on making the music outshine the actual plot of the story.

The opening overture is light and playful, setting the mood with its lack of depth. As the curtain opened, I exclaimed at the breathtaking staging that the Wiener Staatsoper chose. It really made me feel as if I was staying at a fancy hotel in Switzerland with the grand table and place settings and giant windows. The rousing Viva chorus had my spirits lifted. I wasn’t expecting Amina to be a maid of the hotel, though. She did have quite a beautiful voice, but I preferred Natalie Dessay’s vocal abilities and portrayal of the role personally. There were times when she was very forward in her sound production, and it almost sounded strained. Lisa, the hotel manager, had a good voice, but I didn’t believe it to be strong enough. She seemed like she might have been more comfortable as a mezzo-soprano. Elvino had a decent voice for opera, but I’m not sure he was ready to be cast in a style where so much relies on the vocal abilities that bel canto demands. Count Rodolfo had the strongest voice and character presence of the main cast in my opinion. His costumes were a bit over-the-top, and he must have been sweltering in all of the (faux) fur he was garbed in.

I expected there to be a scenery change into a bedroom setting when the second scene began, but the original set-up remained. The Count’s attempted seduction of Lisa in the empty dining hall didn’t seem as believable. Amina sleepwalked from the outside of the hotel into the main dining hall which also confused me. Where did she originally come from? The Count settled her down onto the floor and covered her with his massive cloak, which was the only indication that he could have been accused of being involved with her.  Morning arrives, and the townspeople catch her on the dining hall floor, and an uproar of accusations arises.  Elvino’s renouncing of his fiancé was a little too dramatic, accompanied by the sudden blowing in of a blizzard into the middle of the room from an open window.

In the beginning of the second act, the pile of snow was still in the middle of the floor along with a broken piano, and the hotel looked nearly deserted and out of business. This was another confusing aspect that I wish I knew the director’s motivation behind this. I did find the duet between Amina and Elvino to be very endearing as she pleads and he turns her away. In the next scene, Lisa redeemed herself with an aria, believing herself to soon be married to Elvino instead. This is not to be, unfortunately, because they find one of her stockings at the scene of the “crime” with the Count. Amina sleepwalked in through the window once more and down the snow pile, which was again strange and a bit dangerous because there were many obstacles in her way that she could have tripped over. It would have been cool to see her sleepwalk out into the audience as was shown in the production we saw in class. The finale was fairly celebratory, but I thought it to be a bit sparse. It would have been great to see dancing everywhere in a wedding celebration, but mainly it was Amina dancing on top of the table in a gaudy red dress. This was probably to put emphasis on the voice of the singers, but it seemed a little lackluster to me.

All in all, I enjoyed this opera as a light-hearted pursuit, but I didn’t experience anything monumental leaving it and was bored at some points. I may want to see it again in another venue with different voices before I pass a judgment on it.

 

 

❤ Me

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Yes, I just made a Katy Perry reference. I am not ashamed to admit that I have recently come obsessed with her Teenage Dream album. Pretty much every song I love. In fact, I have it on repeat right now as I’m writing this entry.


So… Yesterday was really fun! It was extremely busy! I had my first exam in College Algebra in the morning. I think it went okay, but who knows. I could think it and then find out I failed. Well, I know I didn’t fail because I was confident in most of my work. There were only about two or three problems that I was unsure about so I bs’d my way through them in a way that could make possible sense. We’ll see if I get them right.

I had a nice lunch time with S too. I do love spending time with her. She’s nice and awesome, and all around a good person. We don’t see each other much, but we shall remedy that fact and hang out more often. Promise.

Psychology was fun too. It had been a week since I read the material that the quiz was over, so I’m not sure I did so well on it. Oh well. I really enjoy that class. We get into great discussions. I even boggled a few people’s minds about the positive correlation between ice cream and homicides…

Chamber Singers was refreshingly short. I missed the rehearsal with the string quartet because I was in a class, but we rehearsed a beautiful version of Ave Maria for the Webster Reunion Mass. I’m looking forward to performing tomorrow in the September 11th Memorial Concert! It’ll be great! Time to whip out that concert dress and get all glamourous!

Later that evening, I went to the Pearson House for some play readings. It was great fun! I got to read the part of Cassie in S’s own creation, Don’t Look Back. It’s fantastic! I wish it could be performed for Surfacing… People would love it! It’s a cross between a scene between a couple set in real time and simultaneously following the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice! Genius! We just happen to be performing Gluck’s opera of it as well, so… it’s awesome! Let’s see if she can be convinced to submit it… All of this reading of plays awakened the actress inside me, making me remember how much I love drama and the stage. Someday I really do want to be in a production of some sort. It appears that the Opera stage doesn’t quite want to include me, but who knows what the future holds. I could show all past failures up and become a legend.

Then I spent the majority of the night writing, chatting, reading, etc until my roommate came back from working at Dairy Queen at 11:30, I think it was. She brought me back an Ooey Gooey Caramel Brownie Blizzard! It was scrumptious! I couldn’t finish it, it was so rich, and now it’s residing in the freezer until I want to eat more. Right after I put it in the freezer, this enormous craving for salty washed over me. I just had to have some! We were talking and suddenly it specified into McDonald’s fries. Unfortunately, there were no McDonald’s open after midnight… So we decided to head on over to Steak n Shake. I got chicken fingers, onion rings, and fries with ketchup and buffalo sauce. Talk about grease, fat, and yuckiness for my body. But it was gloriously good! I don’t know if it was because of cravings and hypersensitivity to taste and smell or what, but it was the best I ever had at Steak n Shake! A and I had good times talking and laughing about boys, sex, and theatre. Great times.

I didn’t get to bed until… let’s just say… really late. But I only slept in until 11:20 am today! My darn body clock doesn’t really let me sleep in until the afternoon. Oh well. I’ve spent my day being productively unproductive. And I don’t mind one bit.

It’s time for me to read some of my Psychology book for Monday. It’s interesting, so I don’t really mind so much.

Tomorrow is the really busy day; this is just the calm before the whirlwind of events to come!

Have a great evening!

❤ Me

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