Thursday, July 30, 2009

Performance Practice, or Falling in Love...

Earlier this week I had the privilege of leading a series of conducting workshops for the Sacred Music Conference at Virginia Wesleyan College. The workshops fell under the heading "Performance Practice: Style and sound from page to presentation" and featured a session each devoted to the periods of Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic and 20th Century music, concluding with a reading session of vibrant 21st century composers like Robert Convery, John Dixon, Adolphus Hailstork, Eleanor Daley and Amy Scurria.

I opened the sessions by quoting Robert Shaw's observation that falling in love requires being in the right place at the right time for a long enough period of time. We need to spend time with Bach and Beethoven to fall in love with them, and if we do not study and perform them, we cannot expect to meet them, much less fall in love.

In the outline below I am making some first stabs at getting at a philosophy or m.o. that attempts to incorporate the tenets of the "performance practice" movement with the concept of a holistic/contextual/integrated/multi-layered approach to music-making (from the conductor's background work to the rehearsal process to the performance). In this context, "performance practice" means integrating every aspect of that process into the rehearsal, engaging the participants on a variety of levels, and approaching the work from a variety of perspectives. As such, the nuts and bolts of notes and rhythms are surface level representations--signs and guideposts indicating the direction where meaning and significance are found.

Performance Practice: Style and sound from page to presentation

3 stages of “homework” (1. Selection, 2. Preparation, 3. Presentation):

1. Selection of rep (Background)=”homework” of research—history, biography, context, style, trends/developments, etc

2. Preparation (Middle-ground)=”homework” of score study (on every level—see above), rehearsal prep, etc

3. Presentation (Foreground)=”nuts & bolts” of rehearsal and ultimately, performance

Our challenge and temptation is always focusing on step 3 at the expense of the time-consuming—and engaging/stimulating/nourishing—preliminary steps of preparation.

I believe authentic “performance practice” occurs when all three phases are in balance, with each step in the process informing the others.

Performance Practice: Overview of a concept

1. In the academy & concert hall, we are referring to “period” performances, using “authentic” historical instruments or an interpretation informed by such.

2. In addition to the above-mentioned concerns for historically informed preparation & presentation, I submit performance practice as a concept that can enliven every aspect of the process, by

*engaging all of the conductor’s faculties, from the background forward…
*presenting a living & organic model via the notion of “recreating” a composition
* challenging singers to engage more fully through this multi-layered approach

Performance Practice: Nuts & Bolts

1. Skipping ahead to the 2nd step in our 3-step outline above (Preparation), the Middle-ground consists of these well-known fundamentals:

tempo, articulation, phrasing, intonation, style & interpretation.

2. An historically “authentic” performance factors in the considerations from the background, making “appropriate” stylistic & interpretive decisions (ie: non vibrato for much 16th century music, speech &/or dance-like articulation for much of the Baroque, molto schmaltzy rubato for 19th c., etc)*

3. Performance practice as an organic concept* for rehearsal engages the singers in interpretation, enlists their participation in discovering and recreating the “authentic” performance, and infuses the process with meaning and significance.

*Each period has distinctive stylistic & interpretive characteristics, thus Bach should not be performed in the same style as Brahms, etc. The concept of performance practice in rehearsal, however, seeks to engage the conductor and singers on these intersecting levels regardless of the style of music.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"Is it my fault or the singers? Time will tell."

My title refers to a comment Verdi made about the infamous opening night fiasco of La Traviata at La Fenice in 1853.

As would happen throughout his storied career, time proved Verdi right.

I have been musing about Verdi's letters in conjunction with a week of seminars on the operas at Washington & Lee University. And if some of what follows finds me repeating myself, I hope you'll agree that Verdi's letters bear as many readings as we have time and attention to give.

As I've already mentioned, his letters are a gold mine of insight & wit, and genuine wisdom from one who knew the craft of opera better than anyone. His characters have rightly been described as Shakespearean, and this is as true of the non-Bard characters-- like Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Philippo & Don Carlos--as it is of the Macbeths, Otello and Falstaff. It is worth recalling an oft-cited observation on his thoughts on "Papa" Shakespeare:

"To copy the truth can be a good thing, but to invent the truth is better, much better. It seems there is a contradiction in these three words: invent the truth; but ask Papa [Shakespeare] about it. Maybe he encountered some Falstaff, but he would have had a hard time finding a villain as villainous as Iago, and never, absolutely never, angels like Cordelia, Imogen, Desdemona, and yet they are so true! To copy the truth is a beautiful thing; but it is a photograph, not a painting."

And how grateful are we to have the canvasses of such richly drawn characters. Writing of the tenor who would become the successful creator of Otello, Verdi expressed his misgivings and spelled out exactly how the final scene should be sung AND played. It is not just singers & conductors who do well to plumb these letters, but directors, producers, patrons and amateurs alike:

"In many respects Tamagno would be well suited to the part, but in many others not! There are broad, long legato phrases to be sung mezza voce, which is impossible for him…when he realizes that Desdemona has died guiltless, Otello can no longer breathe; he is exhausted, physically and morally at the end of his tether; he can and may still sing with only a half-extinguished, muffled voice…Of this last quality Tamagno is surely incapable. He must always sing out in full voice, otherwise his tone becomes ugly and the pitch uncertain."

Throughout his near 60-year career in the theatre, Verdi continued to work to raise the bar in every aspect of operatic production. An area of particular attention was the power and clout given to singers and impresarios, often at the expense of the composers & their operas. Even as late as the 1870's, Verdi was railing against singers who re-wrote their parts, omitting difficult passages or inserting alternate arias to suit their whims or cast themselves in a better light. The following excerpt is one such rant from the composer who did more to change this trend and elevate the status of the score to the respected status it deserves:

"Alboni too sang La Gazza Ladra, and I think La Sonnambula, and even the part of Carlo in Ernani! But what of it? All this means is that singers and managements have no scruples about tampering with or allowing others to tamper with an author’s creations."

Intimately involved in casting, Verdi wanted not only singers, but actors. And while music is the driving force in opera--with melody the "prima donna" of Italian opera--Verdi's priority was the authenticity of the dramatic situation, and if it required subordinating the music to the action on stage, so be it. Of the baritone and bass leads for the La Scala premiere of Don Carlo, Verdi wrote to his publisher, Ricordi:

"As far as Squarcia and Colini are concerned, people tell me not very favourable things about them; do you really think they will be able to sing Filippo and Posa? Set aside all your interests, sympathies, your desire (if indeed you have any) to see this opera now, and give me your whole opinion. Tell me about the quality and strength of their voices, intonation, style of singing, pronunciation, and above all, how they act. Be careful, because a stupid Filippo is impossible…"

One could make the same observation about the remaining 4 principal characters, such is the importance of every one of the 6 complex individuals that shape the chiaroscuro drama that make Don Carlo(s) the grandest of Verdi's operas.

As is so often the case, the simplest statement can be the best. I'll end with advice anyone involved in opera or music-making would do well to follow:

"Study the situation and the words scrupulously; the music will then follow entirely of its own accord.”


Saturday, July 11, 2009

I love art when it is presented in a dignified way...

Since I ended my last entry with a reference to Shakespeare, vis-a-vis the two greatest operatic Bardolators, Berlioz and Verdi, it seems natural to pick up the exploration of Verdi "in his own words" with some of his thoughts on his first Shakespearean masterpiece, Macbeth. The first excerpt offers insight into everything from academic practice to the difference in trumpet timbres in 19th century Europe. The fine points of National schools of musical interpretation are both too broad and too specialized for my aims here; nevertheless, this a classic example of why Verdi's letters are indispensable.

[on the 1865 revision of Macbeth, for Paris] "I beg you, keep my instrumentation exactly as it is…You will laugh when you hear I did a fugue for the battle scene!!! A fugue? I, who hate everything that stinks of school, and it is almost thirty years since I last wrote one!!! But I will tell you that in this case, even that musical form can be just right. The themes & counterthemes that rush after each other, the shock of the dissonances, the racket, etc. etc. can express a battle rather well. Ah, if you only had our trumpets that are so full and brilliant!!! Those piston trumpets of yours [in Paris] are neither fish nor fowl…"

One of Verdi's defining characteristics as a musical dramatist is his knack for adapting the form to suit the content. Macbeth is a classic case in point. If we were to ascribe to primo ottocento norms (1st 1/2 of the 19th c), then we would need to cast a Prima Donna soprano, a Primo Uomo Tenore, etc, etc. If Verdi did not entirely dispense with these norms, again, he expanded, enlarged, and revitalized them. Thus we can marvel, in Verdi scholar Roger Parker's words: "as ever with Verdi, the alterations make the model change before our very ears." Macbeth is one of the first great "Verdi baritone" roles. An operatic hero replete with the Shakespearean "tragic flaw." But wait! is manifestation of said tragic flaw--ie: ambition--really that of Lady MacBeth?

[insert deconstructionalist/Derridaen/feminist/post-modern/new-musicology papers here]. In addition to the great baritone title role, Verdi creates a dramatic soprano role in Lady M that has defied category and stretched the boundaries of leading operatic ladies since its inception. But let's hear what Verdi had to say about his Macbeth:

"Take it as a rule there are three roles in this opera, and there can only be three: Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, the Chorus of Witches…No matter what you do, you will never create anything very important out of the role of Macduff [the Primo Tenore]. On the contrary, the more one emphasizes him, the more obvious one makes his vacuousness. He only becomes a hero when the opera is over. However, he has enough music to make his mark if he has a beautiful voice, but there is no need to give him one extra note."

Interesting to note Verdi settled on Macbeth and tabled (the much less enduring) I Masnadieri when he learned his tenor, Fraschini (see previous entry) was not available. Thus another example of how a creative genius attended to the practical of the everyday, made aesthetic decisions based on prosaic realities, and adapted to his environment without compromising his standards and ideals.

Yet, as is always the case, the standards of taste, popularity, and thus critical approval are subject to compromise and any such change in the proverbial weather. Verdi found himself caught in the shifting currents of the 19th century, as the Bel Canto style receded into obsolescence while the rising tide of Wagner and the new Gesanftkunstwerk spread to all corners of the European musical globe. As Verdi's career progressed, so did he: while never a revolutionary, he continued to work within the tradition of 19th c. Italian opera, constantly expanding and exploding its borders to create an original and enduring body of work.

[on the critic’s dismissal of the “passé” cabalettas]: "It’s merely that it’s now become the fashion to shout that we don’t want to listen to cabalettas. That’s just as much a mistake as when people wanted only cabalettas. They cry out against conventionality only to give up one sort for another. Oh, what utter sheep!"

[on the Don Carlos reviews] "So I am an almost perfect Wagnerite! But if the reviewers had paid a bit of attention, they would have recognized that the same intent was there in the Ernani trio, the sleepwalking scene of Macbeth, and in many other pieces. But the question is not whether Don Carlos belongs to the same system, but whether the music is good or bad. That question is neat, simple, and above all, just."

Yet to the end, he was micromanaging details, vigilant on the practical details and decisions he rarely entrusted to others, and always trenchant and insightful where the creation & production of opera was concerned:

[to Ricordi, on the La Scala premiere of Don Carlo]: "As far as Squarcia and Colini [bass & baritone principals] are concerned, people tell me not very favourable things about them; do you really think they will be able to sing Filippo and Posa? Set aside all your interests, sympathies, your desire (if indeed you have any) to see this opera now, and give me your whole opinion. Tell me about the quality and strength of their voices, intonation, style of singing, pronunciation, and above all, how they act. Be careful, because a stupid Filippo is impossible…Add to this the fact that if Mefistofele [Boito’s opera in rehearsal for an imminent premiere] is so difficult to learn, that means it is badly written for voices (that does not detract in any way from the gifts of the composer: Beethoven wrote extremely poorly for voices…)"

Why not end with a diatribe. To every artist who has been exasperated by producers, directors, audiences, the government, the economy, the Pope, (& so on & so forth), who has wanted to write the pithy "mot juste" and verbally eviscerate the ignoramuses responsible for the ubiquitous frustrations said ambitious artist faces in the midst of realizing the dream (& so on & so forth), why not let Verdi speak for us:

"The time is right?!! Imbeciles! What? Am I made to gloat over other people’s ruin? I am one of those men who walk straight along the road, never looking to the right or to the left, who do as much as they can, when they think they can, who don’t want either the right time or support, or protection, or claques, or publicity, or cliques. I love art when it is presented in a dignified way, not the scandals that have just gone on at La Scala."

Inventing the Truth: Verdi in (mostly) his own words

Amy and I are preparing to spend a week with the Washington and Lee University Alumni College singing and talking about Verdi. I have collected too many excerpts from the letters to possibly share in the five lectures I will give daily next Monday-Friday, so I thought I'd share them here.

My first talk will be on Verdi's "sound and style as revealed in the early operas." My colleague Tim Gaylard, a wonderful pianist and Columbia trained musicologist, will be setting the tenor of each day with an introductory talk.

I mused last month about our trip to Aix-en-Provence and the riveting Picasso-Cézanne exhibit. I find Verdi in a similar symbiotic relationship to the great bel canto composers as Picasso is to Cézanne. And if Verdi was not the revolutionary Picasso was, it is fair to say he not only reshaped & invigorated the tradition he inherited but he refashioned it into the greatest single body of work in Italian opera. His 60-year, 28-opera career contributed more works to the cannon than anyone ever has. Puccini and Wagner have a higher percentage of their works in the repertoire, and Mozart a remarkable record in such a truncated span, but Verdi, the "Attila of the Lungs" is the operatic king.

In addition to Verdi's trademark iron will and biting wit, the letters offer insight into the creative process and every aspect of opera production, and are indispensable references for performers, scholars, and amateur alike.

Advice to any cast of singers:
“study the situation and the words scrupulously; the music will then follow entirely of its own accord”

Verdi worked throughout his career to raise standards, to improve conditions for producing opera, and to elevate the opera score to the near-sacrosanct level the symphony attained from Beethoven forward. His letters are full of scathing attacks on the whims of singers, the indiscretions of conductors, directors, and impresarios. They offer an insider's look at the struggles facing an Italian opera composer in the wake of the Bel Canto period, before Wagner & his successors helped complete the mission to establish opera as the "high art" form it deserved to be.

One can easily infer some of those very issues of interpretation and the inconsistent standards, and thus better locate Verdi within the primo ottocento (first half of the 19th century) in the following excerpts:

[On Ernani] "if you pay attention to the dramatic situation and to the words, you could hardly make a mistake with a tempo. I only point out that I do not like slow tempos; it is better to sin on the side of liveliness than to drag…I ask that you see that the roles are entrusted to singers that the audience likes the most and that the performance be accurate…I beg you not to allow cuts."

[On Rigoletto]: "Good secondary singers, and not taken from the chorus—see that the old Castiglione [Monterone] is a beautiful, strong baritone voice: not a second-rate singer—"

(The premiere of La Traviata was a famous fiasco, largely because of miscast singers).

[On the opening night fiasco of Traviata]: "Is it my fault or the singers? Time will tell."

[On the prima donna Basseggio – in Aroldo] "I hope she won’t ruin any other opera in the future! She has absolutely no voice nor talent nor style of singing! Imagine delicate, heartfelt, sentimental music such as that of Traviata meowed by a voice that is neither sop nor mezzo-soprano nor contralto..."

It was common practice, from the dawn of the "diva" before the Bel Canto period to the twilight of Verdi's career for singers to request changes in their music and be obliged. It was just as common for leads to simply disregard the composer and insert a personal favorite aria where desired. From another of the composer's operas, or from another composer altogether. Verdi would have none of it (though he did write for specific singers, and did tailor to their strengths & needs, if not their whims).

[On a request by the soprano Barbieri to change Leonora’s music]: "…tell her that I believe that the cavatina of Trovatore is good…I cannot and must not change it. It would be suicide!...Why is Barbieri singing that role, if it does not suit her? And, if she wishes to do Trovatore, there is another role, that of the Gypsy. Put tradition aside: they say it is a secondary role: No, truly: it is a leading role—even the very most important role, more beautiful, more dramatic, more original than the other one [Leonora]. If I were a prima donna (fine thing!) I would want to sing the role of the Gypsy in Trovatore"

One needn't read that excerpt to know that Azucena has show-stealing power in Trovatore, a trait that her niece, Eboli, would inherit in Don Carlo. Because we are so familiar with them, it is easy to forget the "Verdi Mezzo" and Verdi Baritone" did not exist before him!

Verdi expanded the dramatic range and musical scope of the baritones & mezzos (nieces of the dramatic lyrc soprano like Abigaille in Nabucco and Bellini's Norma, among others) AND from Nabucco on, wrote fully lyric, "tenore di forza" roles for his heroes. The Rossinian "tenore di grazia" was gradually phased out for the Italian version of the Heldentenor. Rossini was none too pleased with the changing techniques and styles as tenors began to sing the note which would crown Pavarotti as the "king of the high c's." On hearing the first exponent of the "do di petto" (high c in the chest voice), Gilbert Duprez, Rossini complained he sounded like the shriek of a "capon with it's throat slit." Nevertheless, the high c was there to stay for the tenor.

Verdi eventually swapped dramatic weight and color for brilliance & the stratosphere, and after his middle period, the tenors rarely venture above b-flat. This is yet another example of how Verdi inherited and then reinvented the tradition.

Gaetano Fraschini was one of the first of these tenors, whose voice was described as "a giant silver platter being struck with a giant silver hammer." Fraschini was one of the composer's early favorites, and the creator of Stiffelio and Riccardo (Ballo). One of the next tenors in this vein was Enrico Tamberlik, who created Alvaro in La Forza del Destino. He was also responsible for the ossia high c’s in “Di quella pira," the most famous appearance of that note in Verdi's operas. Asked whether or not the Maestro approved of his interpolation, Verdi replied to the tenor:

"sing as many of them as you like, as long as they are all good high c’s!"

I will sign off with a quote from one of Verdi's esteemed colleagues, and a fellow devotee of Shakespeare. The title of my essay today refers to Verdi's observation that it is better to invent the truth than copy it. Verdi cites Shakespeare as the "Papa" of this principal, using Iago & Desdemona as characters that could only be invented and yet appear so true. Hector Berlioz' words on the Paris premiere of Les Vêpres Siciliennes in June, 1855, also appear so true, and apply to any number of Verdi's operas:

" …the penetrating intensity of the melodic expression, the sumptuous variety and wisdom of the instrumentation, the vastness, the poetic sonority of the ensemble pieces, the colorful warmth that shines everywhere, and that passionate but deliberate force...the characteristic traits of Verdi’s genius give the entire opera a greatness, a kind of sovereign majesty…"

(most quotations courtesy of the excellent monograph of Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Verdi: A Biography. Oxford. 1993)