A New Take on “Tosca”

“Tosca”
Merrill Auditorium
July 28
by Christopher Hyde

PORTopera artistic director Dona Vaughn has done it again, with a fresh look at one of the most popular operas in the repertoire: Puccini’s “Tosca.” I attended the dress rehearsal Tuesday night, which went off (almost) without a hitch, providing a good sense of what can be expected from the final version on Thursday.
“Tosca” is not one of my favorite operas. Puccini seems to have taken a leaf from Wagner, with heavy brass, leit-motifs, high drama and few arias that one can go home whistling. The entire plot is an exercise in futility. Once the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo (and his chef’s invention of a new chicken dish), reaches Rome, Scarpia and his minions should have burned their papers and taken ship for the colonies instead of pursuing their victims to the death and beyond. But self-preservation is never a strong suit of tragic opera.
Vaughn, while faithful to to the libretto, emphasizes Tosca’s evolution from self-absorbed diva to tragic heroine, with religious overtones that echo the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s recent production of “Dialogs of the Carmelites.” During the first act, one is almost sorry for her lover Cavaradosi, to be burdened with a jealous, demanding, insecure and apparently insatiable partner. He certainly doesn’t seem that enthusiastic about another tryst at the cottage.
When things begin to go downhill, and she must overcome her religious scruples to kill Scarpia and save Cavaradosi, Tosca begins to show true strength of character and love rather than infatuation. Finally, her suicide becomes an act of faith, confident that God will judge in her favor over Scarpia.
Vaughn also emphasizes the point made by A.E. Housman in “To an Athlete Dying Young,” that after the height of bliss experienced by the lovers, any kind of everyday existence would be an anticlimax.
The opera is not fully staged, but in costume, with a few simple props placed in front of a full orchestra. A platform at stage right serves both as an artist’s studio and the parapet from which Tosca flings herself in the final scene.
In spite of a lack of stage settings, Vaughn has a lot to work with. Alexandra LoBianco, as Tosca, and Adam Diegel, as Cavaradosi, have powerful, well controlled voices offering a wide range of dynamics and a certain cutting edge. They are well matched and their final duet, a cappella, is marvelous.
The orchestra, under Stephen Lord, leaves nothing to be desired. It could be transferred to the pit of the Met and no one would know the difference. Members of the Choral Art Society and a children’s chorus under Sarah Bailey, gave fine performances.
James Morris, as Scarpia, provides an astonishingly good impression of the Devil as gentleman, expecting every snap of his fingers to be instantly obeyed. His lust for Tosca emphasizes the once-and-done nature of passion, while his physical approach reminds one of Dr. Johnson’s observation about sex: “The position is ridiculous, the pleasure fleeting and the expense damnable.”
The scene in which Tosca stabs him, twice, with a table knife, is worth the price of admission. As Scarpia begins to disrobe for his intended conquest, he seems to inflate, like a balloon or a tumescent organ, and then to deflate just as rapidly when punctured, as he mutters “Killed by a woman,” in sheer amazement.
The supertitles were good, in spite of some anachronisms, but they did not seem quite bright enough to be easily legible, at least from the side of the auditorium.
The single glitch in the dress rehearsal provided some comic relief, when the timing was off for Tosca’s discovery that Cavadarosi is really dead and not play-acting. To repeat the scene, the corpse had to roll over.
As of this writing, there were a few seats left for Thursday’s performance. Now would be a good time to snap them up. And it would also be a good time for an angel to step up and finance a fully-staged version of say, “Porgy and Bess.” What couldn’t Vaughn do with her own set designer?

The Role of the Critic

The Role of the Critic

“Still, I felt so deadly dull that I should hardly have survived to tell the tale had not a desperate expedient to wile away the time occurred to me. Why not telegraph to London, I thought, for some music to review? Reviewing has one advantage over suicide. In suicide you take it out of yourself; in reviewing you take it out of other people.”
That was George Bernard Shaw, the greatest music critic who ever lived, on one of the roles of the profession. H.L. Mencken is his American counterpart.
I have been thinking again about the duty of the music critic because of some unfavorable reviews I have written lately. Probably not enough, because unfavorable reviews have become rare indeed, in Maine and elsewhere.
I chose Shaw because the first duty of the critic is to entertain. (Dorothy Parker’s review of Christopher Isherwood’s play “I am a Camera” comes to mind: “No Leica.”) If he or she is not read with interest, nothing can be accomplished.
A long time ago, I went around like the Elephant’s Child asking impertinent questions about what a critic should do. The first to answer was my father, who was the book reviewer, among other things, for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His answer was “to set standards.” Old fashioned perhaps, but still relevant. Western classical music is the greatest achievment of the human race, and it’s important to decide where in the pantheon a new or old composition belongs.
Standards apply to performance even more. A score is a blueprint. Without a concrete performance it does not exist. Bad or mediocre performances can ruin a masterpiece, while exceptional ones, such as Sir Neville Marriner’s version of the Handel Fireworks Music, can make a believer out of the rankest philistine.
Noted American composer Ralph Shapey told me that a critic should be an advocate–to say to readers: “Hey, you’ve got to hear this!” In a world where there’s so much competition for time and attention, and in which contemporary music has received such a bad press, he has a point.
However, to advocate also means to protest degradation of the art. I cannot think of a more criminally ignorant act than playing classical music to keep children out of a park, something that was actually suggested in Portland a while back.
My wife thought that a critic should educate, which is true to an extent, but all the biographies and analyses of Beethoven cannot cannot take the place of the feeling created by the music itself, which must come before anything else.
All one can do here is what Edward Gibbon said of another critic: “He tells me his own feelings and tells them with so much energy that he communicates them.” People read reviews for the same reason that they read accounts of football games–to relive the experience.
It is also the duty of a critic to attack. “It is sometimes said that condemnatory criticism is illegitimate and if a composition or performer is bad the crfitic should ignore it, giving space only to what he can praise. This overlooks what may be called the double duty of the gardener, whose cultivation of the flowers will not be successsfull is he does not remove weeds. Schumann said: ‘The critic who dares not attack what is bad is but a half-hearted supporter of what is good.’ There is much composition and performance which every critic and every musician of experience knows to be vulgar and mere pretension and it is this which an idealist like Schumann would wish to see denounced for the public instruction.
“It is true that in the past a good deal of attack upon novel types of composition or idiom has been later proved mistaken, but it has at least promoted healthy discussion when critical silence would have failed to do so. At all events, a critic who is only expressing half his mind is only half a critic, and the constant repression of deeply felt opinion is bound in time to injure his critical facility.”(to say nothing of his credibility)– Sir Percy Scholes.
Mea culpa. Classical music in Maine is not so weak a plant that it cannot stand a little pruning now and then,

A Timely “Tosca”

A Timely “Tosca”

I’m looking forward to attending the dress rehearsal of PORTopera’s production of “Tosca,” on Tuesday, July 27. Knowing artistic director Dona Vaughn’s ability to breathe new life into old librettos, and to create more complex characters than usually strut the operatic stage, I’m wondering what she will do with an opera whose arch villain is a policeman, and whose plot echoes Shakespeare’s Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” (Scarpia continues to do harm even after his death at the hands of Tosca.)

It is not often that an opera can be this relevant to today’s news. In addition to police misbehavior, we have torture for political ends based on faulty information, lechery in high places, propaganda and the banality of evil. My guess is that Scarpia will remain a stage villain, but more realistically vicious, while Tosca may be a little more complex and less Diva-like. Can’t wait to find out.

BIMF Monday Showcase Disappoints

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Monday Showcase
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 20
by Christopher Hyde
The combined concert of the Ying and Pacifica String Quartets, Monday night at Studzinski Recital Hall, one of the premiere events of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, was sold out weeks in advance.
As often happens, the outcome was something of an anti-climax, in spite of two standing ovations from an audience determined to be entertained.
I had hoped, because of two works for octet on the program, that it would be possible to hear a kind of dueling banjos between two prominent string quartets with very different styles. Instead, eight very good musicians played individual parts that had nothing to do with their ordinary relationships in a family of four.
It would be educational, in some future concert, to hear quartets alternate movements within a well-known example of the repertoire, say Haydn’s “Lark” Quartet.
The first work on the program was certainly well-known— Mozart’s String Quintet in C Major (K.515), for which the Ying Quartet borrowed violist Masumi Per Rostad from the Pacifica. It was beautifully played, with a combination of clarity and ensemble that is rare, but occasionally differences in style made themselves felt, even leading to some slight mistakes of intonation during the andante.
After the Mozart, things went downhill, beginning with the Two Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11, by Dmitri Shostakovich, which began with a wailing gypsy violin and ended with a chromatic glissando leading to a gallop that sounded more like a drum solo than an octet.
The two pieces are part of a suite that was never completed, begun when the composer was 17. His teacher didn’t care for them and expressed the hope that when the composer was 30 he would no longer write such wild music. I love Shostakovich, but his teacher was right. The writing verges on the maniacal.
Another youthful effusion, the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Opus 20, written when the composer was 16, followed after intermission. The first two movements make one want to seize the young man by the scruff of the neck and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that it is okay to complete a phrase in a banal manner, as long as you complete it.
As for the scherzo and presto, St. Cecilia appeared to me in a dream and revealed that her protege had become infatuated with rapid triplets after playing the Haydn Sonata in C (Hob. XVI/32) too many times.
The combined string quartets performed the work as if they were the musicians assembled in the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy household for one of their musical afternoons, enjoying themselves while humoring their host. I was distracted from the excitement of the last two movements by the facial grimaces of the first violin, which exerted a morbid fascination.
Both the Shostakovich and the Mendelssohn received long standing ovations.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net or www.maineclassicalbeat.com.

Negro Spirituals

In the wake of last month’s Charleston, SC, tragedy, there has been a renewed interest in what used to be called Negro Spirituals. The a cappella choir, Vox Nova, sang two of them as encores after its recent concert in Yarmouth, in elaborate arrangements that nevertheless seemed to capture some of the flavor of the originals.
After deciding to write a column on the subject, I was surprised to discover that there is just as much controversy over the songs as there is about other aspects of race relations. There seems to be no consensus about their origin or definition, although most people think that they know one when they hear one. Unfortunately, what most white Americans have heard are adaptations written for public performance, which is not what spirituals are about.
I was fortunate enough as a boy to have heard what I consider to be the real thing, in some small churches of rural Maryland while visiting a friend there. Our parents not being church goers, we would take our bicycles on Sunday morning, ride to one or another of the local African-denomination churches and listen to the singing through the windows, open wide in the Maryland summer heat.
We found the music strange but exciting. We were often invited inside but were too frightened or embarrassed to accept. Perhaps that was a good thing, since the presence of strangers might have altered the songs (I didn’t think of them as hymns).
The primary controversy has to do with the origin of the Spiritual form, one major aspect of which is the call-and-response heard in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
One school maintains that it is entirely African in nature, another that it is an amalgam of African and protestant hymn forms, and a third that it is modeled entirely on Scotch-Irish hymns sung at popular religious revival events (camp meetings) in the 19th-century rural South.
The latter view was backed by some purportedly anthropological studies of the 1930s, which analyzed rhythm, meter, harmony and use of the pentatonic (all black keys on the piano) scale in spirituals versus those of camp meeting songs, and found them virtually identical. The same view was advocated by earlier musicologists after Dvorak’s favorable comments on the songs led to international recognition in the early 1900s. It is almost as if the academic community, or at least some parts of it, could not accept the idea of an original Black art form.
Maintaining the exact opposite was musicologist Henry Edward Krehbiel, who, after analyzing 529 songs, wrote in “Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music” (1913) “… while their combination into songs took place in this country, the essential elements came from Africa; in other words… while some of the material is foreign, the product is native; and, if native, then American.” (Krehbiel wrote this study while living in Blue Hill.)
The problem with the African origin theory is that Africa is not a single entity. The enslaved were from many different tribes or nations, each with its own musical traditions and forms. The Bantu may sing in parallel fifths, while some nomadic herders have a polyphonic tradition that would put Bach to shame. Still, there may be some universal characteristics in communal singing, and in widely played instruments, such as the banjo and the wooden xylophone, that could have contributed significantly to the form. African drumming is universal, but was forbidden by fearful slave owners because it was a form of communication that they could not understand.
A description of the Spiritual, which comes closest to what my friend and I heard long ago, is that of African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) in “The Sanctified Church:” “The jagged harmony is what makes it, and it ceases to be what it was when this is absent. Neither can any group be trained to produce it. Its truth dies under training like flowers under hot water. The harmony of the true spiritual is not regular. The dissonances are important and not to be ironed out by the trained musician. The various parts break in at any old time. Falsetto often takes the place of regular voices for short periods. Keys change. Moreover, each singing of the piece is a new creation. The congregation is bound by no rules. No two times singing is alike, so that we must consider the rendition of a song not a final thing, but as a mood. It will not be the same thing next Sunday. Negro songs to be heard truly must be sung by a group, and a group bent on expression of feelings and not on sound effects.”
Maybe Dvorak was prescient when he said: “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.” We’re still waiting.