Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Classics: Mozart understood that empathy was as useful a quality for a composer as for a Supreme Court justice (with Domingo update)


UPDATE: Stop the presses! We've got a Domingo performance of "Frisch zum Kampfe"!

In large part, Don Giovanni is about the effect Don Giovanni has on the lives of the people he comes in contact with. In the darkness of Act II, his servant Leporello (Otto Edelmann), whom the Don has made swap clothes with him, tries frantically to escape from Donna Elvira (Lisa della Casa), who believes she's glommed onto the man who married and then unaccountably abandoned her. Eventually they hook up with our other night wanderers: Donna Anna and Don Ottavio (Elisabeth Grümmer, Anton Dermota) and Zerlina and Masetto (Erna Berger, Walter Berry), who turn into the world's least probable lynch mob, until they're let off the hook by the discovery that their captive is not the Don, but Leporello. The film was made at the 1954 Salzburg Festival, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. (Warning: The grating Edelmann is emphatically not my kind of Leporello, vocally or temperamentally.)

"Good temper triumphed in his face,
And in his heart he found a place
For all the erring human race
And every wretched fellow."

-- the Grand Inquisitor, in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers, Act II

by Ken

As we heard in last night's preview, these lines of the Grand Inquisitor's (written by W. S. Gilbert and set to music by Arthur Sullivan) are properly meant to apply to the king who lived "as I've been told, in the wonder-working days of old." But to me, inescapably, they say "Mozart."

I'm sure I must have made this comparison before, but I imagine that if you found yourself in a bar after work moaning about how tough life is while knocking back your third or fourth beer, and you happened to be sitting next to Beethoven, I expect he would nod sympathetically but would wonder, if you ever shut up long enough to suggest the expectation of him saying something, what ever made you expect that any of this would be easy? Whereas if you returned to the bar the next night (as I'm guessing you likely would) and happened to have Mozart sitting beside you, I expect he would throw his arm around you and console and exhort, in a manner that you would find utterly believable: "I know, I know. But I'm sure you can do it."

The littler the little guy, the more downtrodden the underdog, the more certainly it seems to me that Mozart is on the case. The one thing he insists on from "all the erring human race and every wretched fellow," though, is good faith. In the face of bad faith he generally stands as a mortal foe, but he is almost infinitely forgiving as long as the desire for forgiveness is sincere.

Perhaps most notably, his portrait of the debonair but psychologically savage Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, who so casually abuses the privileges and prerogatives of his aristocratic birth, is scathing, and his compassion for the emotionally battered Countess runs as deep as the mind of man can express. Even ordinary performances of her "Porgi, amor" and "Dove sono" are heart-rending; great performances are almost unbearable. But when, at the end of the opera, the Count falls humiliatingly into a trap laid for him by Figaro in cahoots with his wife, and is forced to beg humbly (if no doubt temporarily) for her pardon, Mozart found for that repeated "Contessa, perdono" some of his most searingly eloquent phrases, and the Countess's prompt and gracious granting of forgiveness provides a rare degree of emotional satisfaction.

The poster apologizes for the sound, which is indeed dim, and the staging of this late '80s Salzburg performance is a bad joke, and yet something comes through as Pedrillo (Heinz Zednik) reaches down -- literally, in Mozart's musical setting -- for some source of courage inside himself.

I thought maybe among the expectable gazillions of YouTube versions there might be a serviceable performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "I Whistle a Happy Tune" (from The King and I). Surely, if nothing else, I would find the appropriate scene from the film. Nuh-uh. What I found in fact exceeded my most frightened imaginings. It appears that a healthy sense of shame truly needs to be taught. So here is Julie Andrews's performance from the Phiips King and I CD she recorded in 1992 with Ben Kingsley as the King of Siam. Anna's son Louis, overwhelmed by the strangeness of this unrecognizable world to which he has been brought, and with whom she is sharing this trick she uses for controlling her own terrors, is played here by Edmund Kingsley (Kingsley, eh? hmm), and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra is conducted by John Mauceri.

In Mozart's Abduction, plucky young Pedrillo has reconnected with his former master, Belmonte, who has come to Turkey to rescue his abducted fiancée Constanze from the seraglio of the wicked Pasha Selim. (Of course the pasha turns out to be not wicked at all, and is in fact quite benevolent, a stark contrast with the conventional Turkophobia so common in Europe at the time, with the feared Turks knocking at its doorstep. The lesson that you can't always believe what you've been told about wicked abducting-type persons is one that might later have stood Prince Tamino in good stead in The Magic Flute.) To accomplish the rescue of Constanze, they have come up with a plot worthy of Lucy and Ethel. Improbable as it seems, though, it still requires an enormous amount of courage ("bisogna aver coraggio," as Donna Elvira would say), more than Pedrillo customarily commands -- or, I suspect, than most of us do. And so he has to psych himself up for this extraordinary undertaking.

And there, arm thrown around his shoulder, is Mozart. "Nur ein feiger Tropf versagt." ("Only a cowardly twit refuses," though "versagt," alas, can also mean "fails," which is equally appropriate.) And note how Pedrillo digs into the depths of his soul, dipping into the bottom of the tenor range, for this insight.

MOZART: Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), K. 384: Act II, "Frisch zum Kampfe"
Boldy into battle!
Boldly into the fight!
Only a cowardly twit refuses.
Only a cowardly twit refuses.
Should I tremble? Should I quake?
Not bravely risk my life?
No, ah no! Let it be daring!

Murray Dickie (t), Pedrillo; Vienna Philharmonic, George Szell, cond. Recorded live at the Salzburg Festival, July 25, 1956

The Scottish tenor Murray Dickie (1924-1995), whom we last heard as the gently supportive Shepherd in Act III of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, made an unexpected career as one of the foremost character tenors of the German repertory in the '50s and '60s, and in particular a mainstay of the Vienna State Opera. (He is probably best known for singing the tenor songs in the EMI recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde conducted by Paul Kletzki, available for download here,in which Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was the first baritone on records to exercise Mahler's option of singing the crucial alto solos an octave down. His Dance Master in the Prologue of the Leinsdorf-conducted RCA/Decca Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos, which also features the incomparable Music Master of Walter Berry, is one of the great character performances I've heard.) He was a singularly bold and bright-voiced exponent of roles like Pedrillo and David in Wagner's Meistersinger (he was in fact my first Met David), but you'll notice that even he, a fairly competent vocalist for a supporting singer, has difficulties at both the top and the bottom of this aria, which isn't at all easy.

Gerhard Unger (t), Pedrillo; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. EMI, recorded May 9-25, 1956

During basically the same time that Murray Dickie was active, Gerhard Unger (born 1916) was probably the reigning German Spieltenor -- another wonderful singer.

Robert Gambill (t), Pedrillo; Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Weil, cond. CBS, recorded Apr. 2-10, 1991

But Pedrillo really isn't quite within the compass of a "supporting" singer. The American tenor Robert Gambill (born 1955) was only 26 at the time of this recording, and went on to sing larger and larger repertory, on up to some of the heaviest roles in the tenor repertory, like Wagner's Tannhäuser and Siegmund. I'm not saying he sang them well (I've never heard him do them), but he's sung them. Whereas for Murray Dickie it's noteworthy that along with his 149 Vienna State Opera performances of Pedrillo there's a single one of the opera's principal tenor role, Belmonte.
UPDATE: Domingo sings "Frisch zum Kampfe"!

I was sitting minding my own business, trying to catch up on some important DVR-stored TV, when it suddenly occurred to me that Plácido Domingo did a CD of Mozart arias for EMI which sure enough includes "Frisch zum Kampfe." If ever there was a time to hear it, surely now is it. You'll notice that the piece is hardly easy even for Domingo, though it's also true that most of the way, in a piece that's intentionally meant to stretch the singer, it involves less struggle for him than it does for a more natural-born Pedrillo like Murray Dickie or Gerhard Unger.

Plácido Domingo, tenor; Munich Radio Orchestra, Eugene Kohn, cond. EMI, recorded January 1991


I think it's no accident that Mozart and his great librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (who had previously collaborated on their adaptation of Beaumarchais's play The Marriage of Figaro, and would collaborate again, though regrettably only once more, on Così fan tutte) raised their curtain on Don Giovanni's servant Leporello alone, waiting for his master during one of his "conquests," as we heard last night, and as he presumably has done so many times before. Mozart, you'll recall, went so far as to tie Leporello's opening aria, "Notte e giorno faticar," directly into the Overture.

Leporello, provided he's sympathetically cast and enacted, as I think he was in our examples last night, the great comic bass Fernando Corena (at his sober best in the great 1955 Don Giovanni recording conducted by Josef Krips) and the ever-so-sympathetic bass-baritone José van Dam), functions as a sort of Everyman, providing one of the opera's two direct pipelines to the audience.

Let's listen again, skipping over the Overture in the two mono Met performances, but picking it up again in the Barenboim-Erato recording. Today we're not stopping at the end of the opera but continuing on with Donna Anna, the daughter of the mighty Commendatore (outside whose home Leporello is camped waiting for his philandering master), chasing the intruder -- whom she doesn't know yet is Don Giovanni -- out of her home, after an incident that's never satisfactorily explained. (The story Anna tells her wishy-woshy fiancé Don Ottavio later in Act I explaining how she suddenly found the intruder in her bedroom is so full of holes as to be almost worthless. The idea of the Don as an ordinary rapist seems preposterous on its face.)

Soon enough the Commendatore himself appears, in full Defender of the Sanctity of My Home and My Daughter's Virtue vengeance mode; he knows even less of the actual facts than we do, but to a DSMH&MDV type, facts hardly matter.

I don't know why it's so little noted, in the general verdict that Don Giovanni is guilty of the "murder" of the Commendatore, that he does just about everything humanly possible to avoid the Commendatore's challenge, until the old man makes it absolutely clear that there is no possibility of departing without fighting him, and the Don plays the script out, of course mortally wounding the DSMH&MDV. You can say that the old man does what he has to do, and is prepared to die if that's what circumstances dictate. I say that in his arrogance and overinflated self-image he doesn't even consider that he can be outdueled.

One thing our performances have in common is pretty decent trios of basses for Don Giovanni, Leporello, and the Commendatore. Of course ideally for the Commendatore you'd want a huge, rolling, thundering bass -- say, an Alexander Kipnis in his prime -- especially for the opera's final scene, possibly the most remarkable scene ever put on a stage, in which the statue of the Commendatore, having accepted Don Giovanni's mocking invitation to join him for dinner, shows up to wreak his earthly vengeance. Unfortunately, given the rarity of such voices, this doesn't happen often, even on records. Martti Talvela was pretty impressive in Karl Böhm's DG studio recording, and Franz Crass was pretty good in Otto Klemperer's EMI studio recording; otherwise, the pickings are on the slim side.

We're covering much too much ground to make it feasible to incorporate translations into this post. Instead, you'll find an Italian-English libretto here:

Opening Scene: pg. 1, no. 2
Quartet, "Non ti fidar": pg. 57, no. 18
Mask Scene: in Finale, pg. 91, no. 8
Sextet: pg. 143, no. 24

MOZART: Don Giovanni, K. 527: Opening Scene

Alexander Kipnis (bs), Leporello; Rose Bampton (s), Donna Anna; Ezio Pinza (bs), Don Giovanni; Norman Cordon (bs), the Commendatore; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Live performance, March 7, 1942

Fernando Corena (bs), Leporello; Eleanor Steber (s), Donna Anna; Cesare Siepi (bs), Don Giovanni; Giorgio Tozzi (bs), the Commendatore; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, Dec. 14, 1957

Including the Overture: John Tomlinson (bs), Leporello; Lella Cuberli (s), Donna Anna; Ferruccio Furlanetto (bs), Don Giovanni; Matti Salminen (bs), the Commendatore; Berlin Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim, cond. Erato, recorded April 1991

Now it's time for us to meet that other "pipeline" to the audience I mentioned (one or the other of them is usually onstage), and she is a most unlikely figure. Unsympathetically performed, in fact, Donna Elvira can be as big a nuisance to the audience as she is to Don Giovanni, who went so far in his seduction of her as to actually marry her (at least she seems persuaded that he did). Her remarkable response to his abandonment of her is to chase after him, not to exact vengeance, as you might imagine (and as most everybody else in the opera winds up trying to do), but to get him back, and will continue to do so literally up to his very end. The poor creature is still hopelessly in love with him. This could easily make her a figure of ridicule or even scorn, but that would be without reckoning on the music Mozart composed for her.

We're going to listen now to Elvira's "refinding" of the Don (the line that precedes the quartet is "Ah, ti ritrovo ancor, perfido mostro" -- "Ah, I find you yet again perfidious monster"), in the company of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, who have come to enlist his help, ironically, in tracking down the intruder responsible for the death of Anna's father. And Mozart takes full advantage of the witnesses da Ponte has furnished him; we learn as much about Elvira from their response to her anguish, "Cieli, che aspetto nobile! che dolce maestà" ("Heavens, what noble bearing! what gentle majesty!"), as we do from anything she herself says or sings. Against Elivra's grace, even under the crushing circumstances ordained for her by fate, or her own romantic foolishness (something the rest of us are way too smart to succumb to), even the Don's legendary charm, working at full capacity (especially from the throat of Ezio Pinza), is powerless.

Elvira is a role you try to cast with a singer who doesn't just sing beautifully but has that special magnetism and innocence to have an audience instantly on her side, and we're going to hear four rightly famous Elviras: Jarmila Novotna, Lisa della Casa, Sena Jurinac, and Kiri Te Kanawa.

MOZART: Don Giovanni: Act I, Quartet, "Non ti fidar, o misera"

Jarmila Novotna (s), Donna Elvira; Rose Bampton (s), Donna Anna; Charles Kullman (t), Don Ottavio; Ezio Pinza (bs), Don Giovanni; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Live performance, March 7, 1942

Lisa della Casa (s), Donna Elvira; Suzanne Danco (s), Donna Anna; Anton Dermota (t), Don Ottavio; Cesare Siepi (bs), Don Giovanni; Vienna Philharmonic, Josef Krips, cond. Decca, recorded June 1955

Sena Jurinac (s), Donna Elvira; Gundula Janowitz (s), Donna Anna; Alfredo Kraus (t), Don Ottavio; Nicolai Ghiaurov (bs), Don Giovanni; Orchestra of RAI Rome, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. Recorded live, May 12, 1970

Kiri Te Kanawa (s), Donna Elvira; Edda Moser (s), Donna Anna; Kenneth Riegel (t), Don Ottavio; Ruggero Raimondi (bs), Don Giovanni; Paris Opera Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded June 22-July 6, 1978

Curiously, it appears to be Giovanni's maximum effort at charm that triggers Anna's horrible realization that the Don and her mystery intruder are one and the same person. When we encounter her still later in the act, arriving for the party to which Don Giovanni has invited one and all, she of course has the hapless Ottavio safely in tow, but they're also in the company of Donna Elvira, all three masked. They have formed a team of sorts, which gets us to what for me is probably the most powerful aspect of an opera that functions on a bunch of levels: the effect on the other characters of their unfortunate interactions with Don Giovanni. It's a cold, cruel world out there, and in the end all we have is one another. Eventually this huddling-for-warmth principle will extend across a vast class chasm to encompass the peasants Zerlina and Masetto.

In what I'm calling the Mask Scene, note in particular how Ottavio frames his response to Elvira's exhortation to courage: "L'amica dice bene" -- our friend is right. The very casualness of that "l'amica" underlines the singularity of the bond so quickly formed between these up-till-now strangers.

MOZART: Don Giovanni: Act I, "Bisogna aver coraggio" (Mask Scene)

Jarmila Novotna (s), Donna Elvira; Charles Kullman (t), Don Ottavio; Rose Bampton (s), Donna Anna; Alexander Kipnis (bs), Leporello; Ezio Pinza (bs), Don Giovanni; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Live performance, March 7, 1942

Lisa della Casa (s), Donna Elvira; Anton Dermota (t), Don Ottavio; Suzanne Danco (s), Donna Anna; Fernando Corena (bs), Leporello; Cesare Siepi (bs), Don Giovanni; Vienna Philharmonic, Josef Krips, cond. Decca, recorded June 1955

Kiri Te Kanawa (s), Donna Elvira; Kenneth Riegel (t), Don Ottavio; Edda Moser (s), Donna Anna; Teresa Berganza (ms), Zerlina; Malcolm King (bs-b), Masetto; Paris Opera Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded June 22-July 6, 1978

We come finally to the second of Mozart's sublime sextets, following the one in Act III of The Marriage of Figaro in which Marzellina is transformed, as if by magic, from a hideous old crone who is Figaro's nemesis (and the Count's last best hope for delaying the marriage of Figaro and Susanna) into his long-lost but nevertheless now-fiercely adoring and protective mother, and his sworn enemy Dr. Bartolo into his owning-up papa. (There would be more glorious sextetting ahead in Così fan tutte.)

Significantly, the sextet is made up, basically, of everybody but Don Giovanni, although Elvira, Anna, Ottavio, Zerlina, and Masetto think it's the Don they have in their clutches, because Leporello has been forced by his master, who wants to do some afternoon seducing in down-classed disguise, to swap clothes. What I love more than anything about the sextet, and there's a lot that I love about it, is what seems to me the false bravado of The Gang, which now imagines itself as a lynch mob. Mozart does his best to make them sound like a convincing band of avengers, but there's something in the music -- is it the squareness and rhythmic regularity of their rage? -- that gives the lie to their bravado.

These people, to their eternal credit, would probably be hard put to lynch a housefly. The more seriously they vent their fury, the more amusing it becomes, reaching a peak when they find out they've been tricked and their captive isn't Don Giovanni but Leporello, pleading a mile a minute for pity, until he can do what he does best: escape. I don't think it's my imagination that the collective rage becomes more believable after this revelation. They're safe now, no longer faced with the prospect of offing their victim, and the formerly stilted quality to their anger is magically gone.

MOZART: Don Giovanni: Act II, Sextet, "Sola, sola, in buio loco"

Jarmila Novotna (s), Donna Elvira; Alexander Kipnis (bs), Leporello; Charles Kullman (t), Don Ottavio; Rose Bampton (s), Donna Anna; Bidú Sayão (s), Zerlina; Mack Harrell (b), Masetto; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Live performance, March 7, 1942

Lisa della Casa (s), Donna Elvira; Fernando Corena (bs), Leporello; Anton Dermota (t), Don Ottavio; Suzanne Danco (s), Donna Anna; Hilde Gueden (s), Zerlina; Walter Berry (bs-b), Masetto; Vienna Philharmonic, Josef Krips, cond. Decca, recorded June 1955

Kiri Te Kanawa (s), Donna Elvira; José van Dam (bs-b), Leporello; Kenneth Riegel (t), Don Ottavio; Edda Moser (s), Donna Anna; Teresa Berganza (ms), Zerlina; Malcolm King (bs-b), Masetto; Paris Opera Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded June 22-July 6, 1978


I should have mentioned that, as promised, the identifications for the works and perfomers for Friday's quiz-contest as well as the answers to last night's remaining mysteries have been provided in updates to those posts. If I missed something, please let me know.


The current list is here.

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