Editor's Desk

That Old Puccini Magic

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Cinema, Listening, Soundtracks) Permanent link

The other night, I attended a performance of La Bohème at the Met in the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production. For one of my companions, it was the very first time; for me, it is a familiar ritual by now — I think I must have seen this show a dozen times at least. It's always interesting to watch how differently the Bohemians play the comic shenanigans in Act I, and what new bits of shtick come and go over the years, depending on the artists' personalities and the amount of rehearsal time accorded to the production in a given year. It's also fun to feel the thrill of the newbies in the audience when the curtain opens on those amazing sets, which still draw bursts of applause and sighs of wonderment every night. (One amusing side note: the recent multiple blizzards in New York seemed to have dampened appreciation for the beautiful Act III snow scene outside the tavern, which was greeted with silence last week for the first time in my experience, though Acts I and III elicited as many gasps as ever.)

Over the years I have discovered something about this opera: no matter the variations — even with the occasional subpar exponents in the leading roles, lackluster conducting or staging miscues — the final moments never fail to make their effect. I mean NEVER. Of course, the Zeffirelli touch helps, as does the generally superlative level of casting at the Met, but they are really icing on the cake. Even on a bad day, when my mind is elsewhere, those last pages of the score invariably move me to tears. 

This phenomenon is born out strikingly by a perfectly dreadful old movie called Mimi, based on Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Its plot is only loosely connected to that of the opera, and despite a starry cast led by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as Rodolphe and Gertrude Lawrence in the title role, the characters here emerge as singularly self-centered, dippy and unsympathetic, so that by the time poor Mimi lies on the brink of death, one is ready to roll one's eyes and say, "Not a moment too soon" — until, somewhere in the background, rise the strains of that final scene from Puccini's score. For a brief second, I caught myself thinking cynically what an injustice is was to the composer to drag him into this mess of a film at the eleventh hour, but in the next moment, my face was streaming with tears. It didn't make the movie any better, but it certainly provided testimony to the extraordinary, enduring and instantaneous power of this masterly few measures of music. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

The Music of My Life

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Listening, Soundtracks) Permanent link

After a very trying week that has included watching over an aging parent in the hospital, waiting for the insurance inspectors to arrive in the tornado-torn streets of my hometown and enduring a plumbing crisis that will deprive me of my accustomed morning shower for weeks and cost half a year's salary to fix, I found myself trying to fend off insanity by contemplating my personal woes in terms of an operatic soundtrack that might distill immortal beauty from temporal madness as only the lyric art can do.

If I were to choose a composer to orchestrate the more tempestuous events of my life of late, it would have be Verdi, whose storm scenes so brilliantly capture the fascinating and humbling combination of terror and natural splendor evoked in the human breast by what the law and the insurance companies quaintly refer to as "Acts of God." Of course, the start of Wagner's Walküre belongs high on the list of torrential depictions, as does the wonderful Wolf's Crag scene in Lucia ("Orrida e questa notte," indeed!), not to mention Peter Grimes's hurricane-force seacoast monsoon. And no one but Verdi himself could have topped the magnificent tempest that precipitates Gilda's demise in Rigoletto. But given my druthers, I would go with Otello's electrifying opening as aural backdrop to the wild weather that overturned ancient oaks and sent trees crashing onto rooftops in my erstwhile shady and sheltered New York City neighborhood.

Verdi again takes the laurels for music that expresses the exquisite and lingering anguish of watching a loved one in failing health. Could one ask for a more moving accompaniment for gnawing filial worry than the finale of Simon Boccanegra, with poor Amelia murmuring in that inimitably melodious fashion of Verdi's, "No, non morrai, l'amore vinca di morte il gelo. Risponderà dal cielo pietade al mio dolor" .

As for something to help conquer the horror of the water pouring relentlessly through our kitchen ceiling for hours on end, well, do not Tamino and Pamina brave their watery trials with fortitude and even joy under the wondrous musical umbrella that issues from his magic flute, which transforms the deluge to a sparkling waterfall and stretches a kind of existential rainbow over their heads even in the face of disaster .

In the end, though, what one really needs to pull one through such a disheartening stretch is a sense of humor. So I think, really, the most appropriate soundtrack for my life at present would be found here — at Fawlty Towers. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bootlegger's Blues

(Observations, Tristan Kraft, Cinema, Soundtracks) Permanent link
Blogs Boardwalk Empire LG 10110
Paz de la Huerta and Anthony Laciura in Martin Scorsese's
Boardwalk Empire
Abbot Genser/HBO

Many opera fans probably first took note of director Martin Scorsese's taste in opera with Raging Bull, which employed Cavalleria Rusticana's Intermezzo as the soundtrack to its opening credits. Likewise, his 1993 period piece, The Age of Innocence — based on the novel by Edith Wharton — opened on a tableau of Gounod's Faust playing at the New York Academy of Music. In 2006, Scorsese had Jack Nicholson — portraying Irish-American mob boss Frank Costello in The Departed — throw a handful of cocaine at a prostitute, while the sextet from Lucia, "Chi mi frena in tal momento?" played in the background. (The tune is heard later in the movie as Costello's ringtone.)

Scorsese yet again demonstrated his interest in opera with Monday night's premiere of Boardwalk Empire, HBO's new drama about the woes of Prohibition in Atlantic City. Scorsese and Sopranos writer Terence Winter have assembled a fairly huge cast for the twelve-episode show, including Metropolitan Opera character-tenor Anthony Laciura. One thing is already apparent: the breadth of talent on the show ranges widely. Laciura, all opera-industry bias aside, is one of the most capable actors, and Paz de la Huerta is one of the least.

In a sequence at the end of the episode, two characters are knocked-off while Cavalleria Rusticana's "O Lola, ch'ai di latti"   plays in the background. One actor stands at the gramophone when the hit comes, and moments later his blood decorates the famous picture of Caruso, mid-drum-strike, dressed as Pagliaccio. Indeed, la commedia è finita. spacer 

TRISTAN KRAFT

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Sounds of Love

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Cinema, Listening, John Adams, Soundtracks) Permanent link

Luca Guadagnino's film Io Sono l’Amore, which is being billed in the U.S. as I Am Love, is an enchanting consideration of love in a modern Italian world.

The movie is a delight for the senses, and not just because of the shots of the ancient-seeming, lavishly appointed villas. The director cobbled together preexisting music composed by John Adams to create the film score. The results are anything but your typical, sentimental movie-music. The selections, including "The Chairman Dances" and excerpts from Harmonielehre, have the clear, ringing and invigorating sounds that mark Adams's early-career minimalist compositions — music that seems to awaken the movie's heroine, played by the magnificent Tilda Swinton, to the life-affirming power of love.

Below, Swinton calls it Adams's "unedited" sound, which is a nice way to put it. spacer 

—OUSSAMA ZAHR

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2