Leonard Rosmarin

Author and Speaker

Blog

view:  full / summary

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO

Posted by leonardrosmarin on October 23, 2017 at 9:55 AM Comments comments (0)




When lecturing on a book or an opera with which I'm very familiar, I try to flush out of my mind everything I know about it and view it with fresh eyes. I also try to clear my mind of all the ideas other commentators have expressed about the work. I endeavour, in other words, to approach it as though I were experiencing it for the first time. Easier said than done, of course!


On perusing the libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte and listening to Mozart's music in order to prepare this chat, I was immediately struck by the fact that this opera is all about hormones going ballistic. The Marriage of Figaro evokes erotic attractions and repulsions from one end of the score to the other. Susanna loves Figaro deeply, but can't help being titillated by the roguish presence of the page Cherubino. The Countess is heartbroken over her husband, the Count's, faithlessness, but is also drawn to Cherubino who worships her. The Count is genuinely fond of his wife but is a non-stop philanderer. Figaro adores Susanna but is devastated in the fourth act when he suspects she might be flattered by the Count's attentions. The elderly woman Marcellina is more than ready and willing to marry Figaro, despite his obvious disgust, until she discovers in the nick of time that he is her long-lost son! A comment my late mother once made is so appropriate for this context that I have to quote her for you right now, because it really illustrates what I am saying. Many years ago when a cousin of mine in his early forties married a young girl of barely 17, my mother gave the following interpretation: "It might have been sex that attracted them to one another. Some people go for it, you know."


Now various commentators, while agreeing with me, would still reproach Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, for toning down the original French play by Beaumarchais on which the opera is based. They regret that the composer and librettist de-emphasized the social criticism and the virulent attacks against the Old Regime in order to concentrate on the love/lust relationships instead. This criticism strikes me as very unfair. In the first place, Mozart and Da Ponte couldn't reproduce Beaumarchais' corrosive diatribes against the aristocratic order because the authorities in Vienna would not have allowed them to get away with it. The main reason why I disagree with them, however, is that retaining this social criticism in the operas was not at all necessary. Count Almaviva, the impenitent womanizer who thinks that deflowering the virgins on his estate is his God-given prerogative, is constantly mocked, bamboozled and even humiliated not only by his servants but by his own wife.


Let me give you some examples: Figaro kicks aristocratic ass in his first aria in the first act, "Se vuol ballare." (If you want to dance). The subversive second-beat accents cutting across the rhythms of the minuet are like a kick in the aristocratic rear end. Figaro hatches a plot to humiliate the Count. Even though it backfires, this plotting underscores the fact that he has no respect for his master. Indeed, his attitude towards his master is often so brazen that I wondered why Almaviva didn't demote him and assign him to cleaning the latrines! Susanna foils the Count's attempt to humiliate the Countess in the Second act; Figaro aids and abets her by lying insolently to him. When the Count accuses Figaro of lying, Figaro replies that it is his face that is lying, not him. Barbarina, the gardener's daughter, publicly and inadvertently embarrasses the Count in the presence of his wife in the third act by describing his attempts at seducing her. Susanna plays the Count like a yoyo in the third act when she seems to promise everything one moment only to withdraw her offer a second later. Finally, Susanna and the Countess successfully plot against him: he'll be taken in by the Countess disguised as her chamber maid and will be forced to beg her forgiveness in public.


It is obvious, then, that the action in The Marriage of Figaro is driven on the one hand by the Count's insatiable libido, and on the other by the determination of Figaro, Susanna and the Countess to thwart and re-channel it. The subtitle of the French play Le Mariage de Figaro that inspired the opera, is La Folle journée or The Crazy Day. But there would be no "Folle journée" or Crazy Day were it not for the Count's dogged determination to enjoy Susanna's sexual favours on her wedding night. When you bear in mind that all this frenzy of activity takes place within less than 24 hours, you realize how appropriate the subtitle is. Moreover the overture conjures up splendidly the whirlwind of activity, the feverishness and mayhem that have descended on the Almaviva castle.


As you can now surmise, the whole plot in The Marriage of Figaro is set in motion as a result of the Count's regret over having abrogated the "Droit du seigneur." (The nobleman's right). He is so fixated on deflowering his wife's chamber maid on her wedding night that he will use blackmail, if necessary, to achieve his ends, i.e., forcing Figaro to honour his contract with the elderly lady Marcellina to whom he owes money. And so, Figaro, Susanna and the Countess will strive through the course of the opera not only to prevent the Count from reaching his goal, but to rekindle the latter's love for his neglected wife.


As I mentioned, Figaro's initial strategy ultimately backfires: his plan was to send the Count an anonymous letter implying that his wife is carrying on an affair, get him agitated, destabilized, then get Cherubino the page dressed up as Susanna, delude the Count into believing that Susanna will agree to a secret rendezvous, and then expose the Count to ridicule. It fails because Cherubino has the knack of being in the wrong place at the right time (I say "the right time" because his inopportune presence always provokes mayhem). When the Count believes Cherubino is hiding in his wife's boudoir, he is all the more furious because he has already found Cherubino hiding in places where the young page could view his master's penchant for adultery.


The Countess, Susanna and Figaro thus have to practice damage control in the second act. The Countess first denies to the Count that someone is in her boudoir. Then she asserts that her maid, Susanna is there, trying on her wedding dress. Her husband, of course, is convinced she is hiding a lover there. Susanna is quick-witted enough to assess the situation instantly when she returns to the Countess's apartment. The conflicting emotions give rise here to a magnificent trio: we have a blustering, bulling Count; a Countess courageous and defiant even though she is terrified of the consequences for Cherubino; and Susanna astounded by the way her masters are going at each other.


The second strategy is infinitely more successful, and eventually brings the opera to its happy and moving conclusion. It works beautifully because here the women are exclusively in charge. They know how to master the erotic whirlwind that the Count had unleashed and re-direct this energy back to the Countess.


You will see for yourselves during the course of the opera that the women are more intelligent than the men. This will become obvious as we compare their characters. Let's begin with the men.


For Count Almaviva, amorous conquest is a fixation: In The Barber of Seville, the play and opera that preceded The Marriage of Figaro, he fell in love with Rosina, his future Countess, because rescuing her from the home of her elderly guardian where she was held a virtual prisoner implied an exciting adventure that inflamed his passion. He could imagine himself as a knight in shining armour saving a damsel in distress. Now that Rosina is his wife, the passion seems to have petered out. There remains, however, a residual tenderness that can be reactivated. This appears evident when, after reading the anonymous letter Figaro has sent him, he becomes convinced his wife may be dallying with someone else, In other words, he again takes an interest in her when he fears she may no longer be his exclusive possession.


Rather than being in love with particular women, Almaviva is enthralled by the prospect of new adventures. The individual women are the screens on which he projects his yearning for erotic excitement. Hence his infatuation with Susanna. Not that she lacks charm and vivaciousness. She possesses these qualities in overabundance. But Susanna is the goal of an insatiable erotic desire that always needs new incentives to get the Count aroused. This tendency of his nature is clear in the 4th act when he declares his passion to his wife disguised as Susanna. The features in his wife that no longer seemed to interest him suddenly become alluring and exciting when he is under the illusion of making out with her maid: "What slender fingers," he exclaims, "What delicate skin!/They pierce me through and through/And fill me with new ardour." This particular scene is very funny because the Count is projecting on his wife in disguise the sexual fantasies Susanna had aroused in him.


The Count is also a man of overweening pride. His mind is infected by the notion of entitlement. This pride is founded on a fallacy. As an aristocrat, he feels intrinsically superior to his servants, and therefore considers it his inalienable right to take what he wants even if the consequences might be very hurtful to them. His third act aria snarls with the powerless rage of a man who believes that his subalterns have taken control of his life. Despite his sincere attempts to act as an enlightened aristocrat, he remains a despot at heart. Why should Figaro, a low-class servant, have the right to enjoy the love of a beautiful woman whose possession should be his, Almaviva's, God-given right? Speaking to an imaginary Figaro, he explodes: "No, I will not allow you this enjoyment! You were not born, bold fellow, to cause me torment and to laugh at my discomfiture.


The target of Almaviva's wrath, Figaro, is a very cunning individual , an unshatterably self-assured man for the most part, used to living by his wits to survive. There is in Figaro resentment towards members of the aristocracy who have had it easy whereas for him life has been a struggle for survival. Hence the delight he takes in deriding Cherubino at the end of the first act when the Count orders the latter to join his regiment with a military commission.


Figaro has lots of chutzpah, as one would say in Yiddish. Although much more intelligent than the Count, he is not quite as brilliant and resourceful as he likes to think he is. Susanna has figured out by the first scene of the first act why the Count has given them a particular room in the chateau. Moreover the music assures us that Susanna is indeed the dominant partner in this relationship. At the end of their first duet in the first act, Figaro is singing her melody, too.


Despite his belief in his ability to dominate every situation, Figaro needs prompting by Susanna and the Countess to extricate himself from his jam in the second act. They are the ones who whisper the words "the Commission" and "the Seal" in his ears. At least he know how to react swiftly and appropriately when he gets the information. He can certainly think on his feet.


But he also shows a singular lack of lucidity in the fourth act when he jumps to conclusions about Susanna's willingness to commit adultery with the Count on her wedding night. He is so furious and despairing that in his great aria he depicts the nature of woman simplistically as uniformly deceitful, self-centered and heartless. In a sense he is paying them a supreme backhand tribute by depicting them in such powerfully negative terms. But Mozart disagrees with his self-righteously incensed hero. He show this by having the French horns in the orchestra whoop and chortle in light-hearted mockery. The notes they produce here are the musical equivalent of the sign of the cuckold. In the mythology of the time, the betrayed or cuckolded husband wore antler horns. We see here that Mozart in his infinite humanity can both love and make fun of a character. When Figaro finally figures out that Susanna has been masquerading as the Countess and had always been loyal to him, he is overjoyed to receive her physical blows, a sign of her love for him.


If I place Cherubino after Figaro, it's because for me he functions in an intermediary zone between the men and the women in this opera. He is in a transitional stage from adolescence to manhood. Although obviously enamoured of women in just about any size, shape and form, and brazen in his amorous enterprises, he still has a child-like, almost feminine sensibility and comeliness that gives palpitations to Susanna and makes the Countess's heart skip a beat. In Cherubino Mozart has drawn an entrancing portrait of befuddled adolescence. I use the term "befuddled" because his libido, fully aroused by feminine presence, is surging, whirling and racing within him, restlessly and ceaselessly seeking a place to land or a precise target to hit. As Cherubino himself declares, "I no longer know what I am and what I'm doing, every lady gets me excited." Freezing and burning almost simultaneously, his torment causes his rapture, and he wouldn't trade places with anyone. One wonders whether he will be one day as insatiably hooked on amorous adventure as the Count is now. Bold with Susanna, he is awe-struck in the presence of the Countess. Since his libido is constantly goading him on, it is not surprising he always seems to be where he shouldn't and that the Count would want to get rid of him.


It is obvious that Susanna is very attracted to this adolescent rogue with his mixture of innocence and insolence as well as sheer physical beauty. She comments to the Countess in the 2nd act on the sheer whiteness of his skin! If she is attracted to him, however, she is not invincibly drawn to the point of wanting to consummate their relationship. Far from it. What is significant to note here is that being aroused by this adolescent although she is about to marry Figaro doesn't perturb Susanna in the least. She is so solidly anchored, so well balanced, so sure of her identity that she can cope with any contradictions within her nature and resolve them without going into anguished soul-searching. Susanna assumes her whole being, including her sexuality, without any hang-ups, qualms, guilt or complexes. She is one of the most perfectly adjusted protagonists in all opera, along with the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. She has remarkable presence of mind and so can react swiftly to difficult or potentially dangerous situations. We've seen in the second act how she adroitly defuses a very dangerous time-bomb, saving the Countess's reputation, and neutralizing the Count's vengeful fury.


In the fourth act she performs a tour de force. She succeeds in exciting both the Count and the man she loves simultaneously in her aria "Come now, Do not delay." This aria is a fascinating exploration of her soul. Although still ostensibly a virgin, Susanna depicts the joys of sensual love as though she were already an expert. In the enchanting nocturnal atmosphere of the garden, she evokes the erotic élan as coinciding with the very heartbeat of the cosmos. At the beginning, she sheds any timid scruples she might entertain about physical love, knowing that it is an integral part of life and is a fully appropriate expression of it. As her aria unfolds, her life force seems to expand in a voluptuous languor.


On the surface, the Countess seems far less self-assured than her chambermaid, so sorrowful and vulnerable is she during the whole second act. But this melancholy can be explained by her husband's non-stop philandering and his potential for violence. These have devastated her, and her poignant aria, "God of Love" attests to the state of her soul. Although she is not that much older than Susanna, she is suffering from disillusionment. Here is a woman who has been deeply wounded, because her idealistic vision of love with the Count has been shattered. Her vulnerability in the second act can also be explained by her compassion. She is anxious to protect Cherubino from her husband's fury, which, she knows, can be murderous. And, as I pointed out, she does stand up to him.


Yet despite her deep, aching sadness, she does not wallow in self-pity. In her aria, "Where have these beautiful moments gone?", one notices a remarkable progression at the end of which the old, determined, strong and enterprising Rosina of The Barber of Seville that she once was re-emerges, pulls her out of her sadness, and prompts her to action


In the first part of the aria, the Countess expresses her yearning to transform a beautiful past into a high octane fuel to revitalize a moribund relationship. Extremely lucid, she acknowledges the fact that despite her husband's multiple betrayals, she still loves him. Can she not do more than just evoke, through affective memory, the precious moments when he loved her sincerely and passionately? Is there no way to go beyond the heartbreaking recollection of precious moments that now seem to have been consigned to an irretrievable past? Has time swallowed them up in its irreversible flow? Is affective memory the only way for her to resurrect her love? Will it remain, then, an unrequited one?


Yet in the second part of her aria, she suddenly recaptures her old energy, self-confidence and optimism. She will use the love she still feels for the Count as a positive force that will transform their relationship. Mozart expresses this eloquently by having the Countess suspend rather than complete her long, slow, poignant phrase. The phrase stops dead in its tracks. Then the aria launches suddenly into a melody expressing jubilant determination and hope. The old Rosina has triumphed over the Countess' sorrow and will now take over.


The Countess succeeds brilliantly thanks to the help of Susanna. One senses a sisterhood between them that becomes obvious in the third act. The delicious duet in which they plot to shame the Count has their voices singing in unison to such a degree that one can barely differentiate between them. In musical terms, Mozart has made them absolute equals. It is significant to note that this idea of feminine solidarity or sisterhood applies also to Marcellina's relationship with Susanna. Once Marcellina discovers that Figaro is her son, all her bitchiness towards Susanna disappears. She embraces her son's future wife as her own daughter.


This time, the plot concocted by Susanna and the Countess to shame the Count works beautifully. Disguised as Susanna, the Countess finally arouses her husband to passion and forces him to acknowledge how utterly contemptible and delusional he has been. The sublime music with which Almaviva begs his wife's forgiveness, and her equally moving musical reply, persuades us, at that particular moment, that a reconciliation between the estranged partners has finally occurred, and that it will indeed endure. This is the way Mozart wanted it. He fervently believed in the superiority of woman as an agent of harmony and reconciliation. In the magical world that is his opera we can believe that Almaviva will finally cease being the impenitent skirt-chasing husband. Music doesn't lie, and the music here is overwhelmingly persuasive. Besides, the Countess has finally beat her husband at his own game and has rekindled her attractiveness for him.


But, realistically speaking, will this reconciliation endure? Not if we are to believe the sequel to the play The Marriage of Figaro (1784) that Beaumarchais wrote eight years later, La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother), his third play dealing with the couple. There, we learn that the Countess has indeed had an affair with Cherubino and has born his illegitimate child.


Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro in its original Italian) is not, however, identical to Beaumarchais' play Le Marriage de Figaro, even though the action in both works deserves the subtitle, "La Folle journée." Mozart's opera represents a realm of enchantment. So let us be uplifted by the opera's sublime ending and believe that the Count and Countess Almaviva will really make their marriage work this time around.

Leonard Rosmarin


MEDEE - The Woman Who Killed For Love

Posted by leonardrosmarin on August 10, 2017 at 10:55 AM Comments comments (0)


It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to Marc-Antoine Charpentier's almost forgotten masterpiece Médée. In order to appreciate his incredibly beautiful music, we have to understand how Charpentier created this opera. We will look into specific creative musical strategies he used to charm and attract us. There is no magic here, but an impressive grasp of the human psyche and how it functions.


Why did Marc-Antoine Charpentier's first and only tragédie en musique, Médée, provoke such controversy in 1693? It ran for only ten performances, notwithstanding the fact that its portrayal of intense emotions, its presentation of vivid characters, and Charpentier's haunting music were praised by the most important art newspaper of the time, Le Mercure Galant. Even King Louis XIV made a rare journey from Versailles to Paris to see the production, and his nephew Philippe saw the opera at least twice. Each complimented both the composer, Charpentier, and the librettist Thomas Corneille. Despite such high praise from important quarters, the public's reaction to this opera was unenthusiastic. Consequently it was rapidly consigned to relative oblivion and languished in obscurity for a very long time.


The story of the sorceress Médée (or Medea in English) is multi-faceted, multi-layered, and pretty gruesome. This is perhaps what created so much controversy. Let me review her story for you very quickly. It comes with a warning. This is not for the faint of heart. But before I do, have you heard of the Argonauts lately? No, no, not the Toronto football team, something entirely different. The captain of the team in this opera was the handsome hero Jason. The Argonauts in his time were a band of heroes in Greek mythology who, in the years before the Trojan War, accompanied Jason to Colchis (modern day western Georgia) in his quest for the Golden Fleece. Their name comes from their ship, the Argo, named after its builder, Argus. Therefore, the "Argonauts" literally means "Argo sailors." By the way, the Golden Fleece has many interpretations:


It could mean the symbol of authority and royal power, or a book on alchemy, or a technique for writing in gold on parchment, or the forgiveness of God, a rain cloud, a land of golden rain, riches imported from the east, etc. No wonder Jason coveted it so much.


Médée, the powerful sorceress of Greek myth, betrays her country and her family in order to assist Jason, with whom she is desperately in love, in his quest for the famous Golden Fleece. She literally helps him fleece her father, King Aeetes of Pontus who had no intention of handing over the Golden Fleece, but pretended that he would do so if Jason successfully performed a series of dangerous tasks:


1. He was to yoke fire-breathing bulls to a plow

2. He was to sow a field with dragon's teeth, and then

3. Fight the armed warriors who grew from those teeth. In return for his promise to marry her, Médée gave Jason a magic ointment to protect him from the bulls' fiery breath, and told him how to confuse the warriors so that they would fight among themselves. Following Médée's instructions, Jason completed the three tasks successfully.


What happens next is NOT surprising... or is it? When Médée is no longer of use to him, Jason abandons her for a prestigious political marriage to King Créon's daughter, Créusa. In so doing, Jason has vastly underestimated Médée's power as well as her ferocious jealousy. She exacts a terrible vengeance that envelopes everyone closest to him.


But first a bit more background on the story: The librettist Thomas Corneille launches the action in the opera just after Médée has arrived in Corinth, after she and her family have fled Colchis for murdering her brother. The family seeks refuge with King Créon. In Corinth, Jason falls in love with Créon's daughter, Princess Créusa. Créon banishes Médée from Corinth, and promises asylum to Médée's children. He also promises his daughter Créusa in marriage to Jason.


When the curtain rises, Médée suspects Jason's disloyalty and confronts him, but Jason denies any betrayal. He requests of Médée that she offer an enchanted gown as a present for Créusa to thank her for taking care of their children while she will be in exile. But before Créusa receives the gift, Médée bewitches the robe and conjures up demons to torment Créon. This drives the king insane. Créusa begs Médée to save her father, but the sorceress does not yield. Créon commits suicide and Créusa dies from the poison in Médée's gown. In other versions of this tale, the gown ignites and burns Créusa to death. In a final act of jealous rage, Médée murders her two children and escapes on a dragon. Jason is left broken and alone.


Now for the fall-out after this opera was performed... The première of Médée unleashed hostility among musicians and intellectuals who venerated the composer of operas, Jean-Baptiste Lulli. He had reigned in France during the second part of the 17th century, and had invented what was called "la tragédie en musique." These admirers of Lully objected to what they perceived as Charpentier's anti-French musical features: excessive dissonances, complex characters and a tendency to subordinate the text to musical effects. The critics, then, maligned the elements within Charpentier's opera that seemed to break with Lully's conventions. They refused to recognize and appreciate his assertion of an original musical style.


Lully's approach to opera was far more sedate. He had developed a style that emphasized the importance of the French language. His harmonies and melodies illustrated the principles of clarity, stability and decorum. According to these principles, Good must triumph over Evil, Kings must behave bravely, and most importantly, Love must conquer all. Now Charpentier's opera Médée breaks all of these rules:


Médéee destroys not only her rival, Créusa, but also the King and her husband, Jason. Jason and Créon act selfishly and in a cowardly fashion. Love causes only pain and suffering. Médée's music, especially in her arias, is as unstable as her situation. Her music is fraught with dissonances and vigorous expressiveness rather than following a straightforward cadential progression and clear rhythmic declamation. No wonder Lully's admirers were so upset!


Just to give you an example of the originality of their endeavour, Charpentier and Corneille fused internal musical and dramatic structures to generate a terrific dramatic impact. This characteristic is especially evident in Médée's arias.


These pieces occur at moments of heightened dramatic tension and employ musical rhetoric to enlist the audience's sympathies. Médée's arias chart her character's inner struggles. They make her downfall more tragic by highlighting her qualities of love, compassion and sincerity, rather than concentrating exclusively on her supernatural powers and sinister malevolence.


Charpentier gave Médée a progressive musical language that provides for an emotionally complex interpretation of her character. He used elements of musical style that Lully loyalists vilified: dissonance, melodies that obscure the text, and ambiguity in the musical form. All of these were designed to make Médée seem more sympathetic and tragic.


So what kind of a heroine is she? Médée is one of the most complex female characters to have ever appeared on the stage. Thomas Corneille drew from a number of sources, including the tragedies of Euripides, Seneca, and of his brother, Pierre Corneille. This resulted in the portrayal of a tormented personality in Charpentier's opera. Each of these authors treats the most violent and tragic episodes in Médée's life by focusing on her sorcery, the horrible deaths she inflicts on Créon and Créusa, and her acts of infanticide. Bloodshed, adultery and revenge saturate Thomas Corneille's sources. As you can well imagine, this is the stuff of theatrical excitement. Charpentier and Corneille dwell rather on Médée's persecution and her ultimate downfall, thereby creating a heroine who is not only a victim of the dark underside of her own nature but of circumstances and the actions of others.


As an outcast, Charpentier's Médée struggles to find her place in a society that condemns her. This struggle between her various roles as a wife, mother and sorceress makes for a fascinating personality that is reflected in both text and music. Médée becomes a tragic heroine to the extent that she is goaded by forces that ultimately destroy her. It is her transformation from a vulnerable human being into a vengeance-crazed monster that sustains the dramatic tension and ultimately drives the drama to its horrific conclusion.


The emotional power of the tragedy comes from the plight of a woman who is dominated by her destructive rage while believing that she is directing it. Yet she remains sympathetic to the extent that she has vulnerability, wants to belong to the human condition but, when repulsed, falls prey to the evil forces within her. This is how Thomas Corneille and Marc-Antoine Charpentier as well as Euripides see her.


In Pre-Euripidean versions of the myth, Medea was viewed not as a sorceress but as a woman with human powers. She was an innocent bystander rather than a vengeful witch, who witnessed her children's deaths rather than committing infanticide. Euripides created a balanced portrait of Médea by depicting her as an agent of both good and evil, simultaneously worthy of our pity and inspiring horror.


Charpentier's music gives life and distinctiveness to Médée; he distinguishes her from her opponents through her music which teams with dissonant harmonies, organic musical gestures and melodies that highlight the importance of her music rather than the words accompanying them. I will analyze briefly two of Médée's arias to illustrate the innovations in Charpentier's musical style as they related to character development and dramatic form.


In Act II, Médée sings her most dramatically charged scene, lamenting her exile and her loss of Jason: "Princesse, c'est sur vous que je me fonde." (Princess, I appeal to you) This aria emphasizes musical over textual expression, thus embodying the different dramatic conceptions of Charpentier and Lully.


Charpentier provides barely an introduction to Médée's heartfelt plea. The piece opens with only three beats in the orchestra to set the tone. Her entrance garners sympathy through its intimate display of emotion, as if she cannot restrain her feelings, exposing her tenderness as well as her sincerity.


The lack of a firm structure to undergird the words and music reflects the turbulence in Médée's heart. She pours out her thoughts as they rush through her mind. Charpentier stimulates his audiences through harmony and orchestration. He builds up tension by juxtaposing keys and staggering instrumental accompaniment entrances while sustaining an atmosphere of pathos and remorse. Throughout the aria the orchestra moves through the vocal cadences immediately in order to set up the next key for the next vocal entrance. This technique underscores the continuous tension between the vocal line and the orchestra that accompanies it. Cadences are fleeting, which undermines any sense of a long-range tonal plan. Each vocal phrase begins in one key but cadences follow in another key, and consequently reflect the instability of the situation and of the heroine.


Although the music is based in G minor and its related keys, Charpentier highlights MAJOR keys during the heightened dramatic moments. Charpentier's treatment of keys in this scene is clearly as unstable as Médée's own feeling towards Jason, their children and her situation.


Although the overall progression of this aria is not chromatic, the frequency of modulations through so many different keys as well as the lack of musical repetition emphasize unpredictability, the musical equivalent of dramatic ambivalence and uncertainty. This aria is Médée's final appearance in Act II; it suspends any resolution of her situation. Moreover, we, the audience, hear of Médée's sorcery only through other characters who clearly despise her. This aria illustrates Médée's sincerity and her love for her children, although possibly hinting at conflicts to come.


Her next great aria occurs in Act III, Scene 3. This is the heart of the opera: "Quel prix de mon amour" (What price have I paid for my love). In this soliloquy, Médée is alone on stage and expresses her grief without restraint. Médée returns to the opening lines of the text as to a musical and emotional anchor, thus providing Charpentier with the opportunity of using it as a refrain. The repetitions of "Quel prix de mon amour" divide the soliloquy into sections, and Charpentier sets each one up differently in order to highlight Médée's conflicting emotions. The piece is fully scored, with five part strings (as in Lully's operas), although here all orchestral parts are marked "sourdine" (muted), and the muting of the strings lends an air of mystery before Médée starts to sing.


In this aria "Quel prix de mon amour," Charpentier plays with musical expectations of tension and release in a battle between minor and major keys, which reflects Médée's own battle with self-identity and underscores again the dramatic tensions of uncertainty and anticipation present throughout the opera. As Médée continues to struggle with her own feelings of love and betrayal, the home key changes between major and minor, as if the orchestral harmonies were encompassing both sides of her consciousness: her decency on the one hand, and her vengeful fury on the other.


In the first statement of "Quel prix", Charpentier represents Médée's longing and her immense effort to control her emotions by composing heart-wrenching 9-8 suspensions, short musical delays lasting a full measure. The 9-8 suspensions provide harmonic color for the word "amour" but the effect continues beyond word painting. The delayed resolution of the G minor ninth chord until the next measure underlines Médée's extensive suffering that still has no resolution. When the chord resolves deceptively to a minor triad on E and then moves directly to another suspension, Médée's suffering appears tangible..


This carefully crafted, dissonant harmonic progression, which lasts almost entirely throughout her lines "Quel prix de mon amour/Quel fruit de mes forfaits" ("This is the price of my love, these are the fruits of my crimes!) signifies Médée's inability to reconcile her feeling for Jason and her suffering. Médée is lost in expressive dissonance. The first repetition of "Quel prix" is similar to the first statement, but Charpentier again plays with tensions of dramatic and musical expectations.


Rather than the resolution to D minor as before, the orchestra plays a D major chord. Even though the D major resolution lasts only for a bar, the subtle harmonic difference lends fleeting relief to the melancholic mood of the aria and makes us wonder: Does Médée now feel hope? or are we to interpret it simply as a fragile respite in her destructive fury that will explode at the end of the opera?


These questions arise again during the final repetition of "Quel prix." Here Médée's torment is at its height, and the melodic changes in her vocal line reflect her desperation. This time, Médée begins "Quel prix" on its original note, but immediately the intensity of her emotions carries her to a new melody. Charpentier extends this passage by repeating "Quel prix" in a rising sequence that stresses the turbulence in Médée's soul. The battle to control her feelings becomes most apparent on her final note, which begins on a D minor chord and immediately changes to D major as the orchestra proceeds to the final cadence.


The subtle conflict between major and minor provides an evanescent glimmer of hope at the end of the aria that Médée will perhaps not seek vengeance. The nobility of her anguish is evident in the special treatment that Charpentier reserves for this piece. "Quel prix de mon amour" becomes the centerpiece of the opera, and despite the devastating ending expected by the audience, Charpentier imbues his heroine with a vulnerability and anguish that elicit the audience's compasion. For Charpentier, drama resides in the development of Médée instead of in the evocation of her supernatural powers as in Lully's work.


Thus Charpentier's innovative musical language breaks with Lully's conventions for the tragédie en musique, both in style and content. It adumbrates the direction in which French opera would go in the 18th century.


But however interesting these changes are from the point of view of musical history, the relevance of Médée cannot be denied in our own 21st century. Charpentier's opera can still move us today because it presents Médée as a woman whose suffering is timeless. Whether in 17th century Paris or Toronto in 2017, Médée's power lies in her ability to speak to her audience as a tormented woman retelling her tragic yet familiar story.


By Leonard Rosmarin

MOVING BEYOND THE HOLOCAUST

Posted by leonardrosmarin on January 19, 2017 at 9:35 AM Comments comments (4)

FROM NIGHT TO A BEGGAR IN JERUSALEM



Back in 1998, I had the pleasure and the honor of interviewing Elie Wiesel for a book that I was in the process of completing on his works of fiction. During the course of our conversation he confirmed what I had surmised from reading his Memoirs, namely, that without the traumatic experience of the Holocaust he probably would have never become a novelist. As he assured me, after traversing the interminable night of flames and horror, he needed to create imaginary destinies in order to see more clearly within himself

His first great text, Nuit, or "Night" (1958 , is not a novel per se. It is rather a heartbreakingly terse account of the year he spent with his father in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Yet it explains why he absolutely had to write works of fiction afterwards in order to free himself from that emotional and spiritual hell. "Night" resembles the book of Exodus unfolding backwards. Whereas the brutally oppressed Hebrew slaves, once liberated by Moses, could look forward to a future as free men and women, the Jewish community in the town of Sighet, at that time part of Hungary, were enjoying a peaceful, reassuring existence until the Nazis dragged them into an unspeakable nightmare. When young Elie emerged from captivity, he was a living corpse and his soul had been stripped of all of its religious fervor.

Writing novels eventually became the only way for him to thrash through this incomprehensible tragedy and seek out solutions that would restore his faith in mankind and replenish his spiritual oxygen. At the beginning of this journey, the first two solutions his heroes hit upon are illusory ones. In the novel L'Aube, or "Dawn" (1960), the young man Elisha embarks on terrorism to help create the state of Israel, even though he knows full well that by committing murder he is violating one of Judaism's founding principles, the sacredness of human life. In the next work, Le Jour or "Day" (1961), the hero imprisons himself in an asphyxiating worship of Holocaust martyrs.

Beginning with the next two novels, despair gives way to hope. The heroes of La Ville de la chance, "The Town behind the Wall" (1962), and Les Portes de la forêt, "The Gates of the Forest" (1964), succeed in moving beyond the Holocaust without ever forgetting it. Michael breaks free from his isolation thanks to friendship and is drawn towards his fellow-man in a surge of fraternal love. Grégor opens his heart more and more to compassion, embodies the messianic ideal and reconnects through it to the faith of his childhood. These tendencies becomes even more marked in the novel that follows, Le Mendiant de Jérusalem, "A Beggar in Jerusalem" (1968 , one of Elie Wiesel's finest works on which I will now dwell. During the course of this narrative, the hero becomes acutely conscious of participating in a spatio-temporal continuum that transcends normal time, and commits himself to a splendid mission: safeguarding the centuries-old memory of his people.

Elie Wiesel didn't intend to write Le Mendiant de Jérusalem immediately after Les Portes de la forêt. He was thinking, rather, of devoting a novel to the dilemma of the Jews in the Soviet Union. But then there occurred very stressful historical events over which he, as a writer, had no control. In 1967 the Six-Day war broke out. Like many Jews, during the weeks that preceded the conflict, the author's heart was weighted down with anguish. He feared another Holocaust. The Arab armies enjoyed a crushing numerical superiority. The western nations remained passive. But for once, the worst didn't happen. The Israelis' incredible intrepidness, unconditionally supported by Jewish communities around the world, ensured the survival of Israel. Inspired by this completely unexpected reversal of a situation the consequences of which had appeared as tragic as they were unavoidable, Elie Wiesel composed Le Mendiant de Jérusalem at a dizzying speed.

As the author readily admits, this novel of his is the most difficult to decipher. It is neither a novel nor an anti-novel, neither a work of fiction not an autobiography, neither poem nor prose, but here Wiesel navigates between all these forms without restricting himself to any one of them. Narratives, lyrical outburst, aphorisms, conversations, newspaper reports and parables follow one another at a breathless rhythm. Behind this chaotic surface, however, the novel has a strong organic unity based on two main themes. The first encompasses the text itself. It is the mystic solidarity that links Jews both as individuals and communities across time, space and legends. Hence the author's need to expand the framework of the conventional novel in order to suggest this centuries-old continuum which takes root in the imagination as well as in history. The second theme is orchestrated within the first. It evokes the death in the figurative sense and self-regeneration of a Holocaust survivor who was trapped in a tragic past.

If these two themes undergird the novel, they in turn derive their raison d'être from the city of Jerusalem itself. A spiritual centre of gravity for religious Jews from time immemorial, a fabulous realm where history and legend become inseparable, Jerusalem is surrounded by an extra-temporal aura. As an adolescent, the hero, David, dreamt of the city long before he could contemplate it. He wanted very much to emigrate there as soon as the Jewish communities in Central Europe were threatened by the Nazi scourge. Supported by his mother, he had entreated his father to take the whole family to the Holy Land before they would become the victims of Hitler's final solution. But as an unconquerably optimistic humanist, his father refused to believe that even Nazis could act so barbarously. David was the only one to remain alive after the Second World War and to make that trip.

According to the hero, all Jews come to Jerusalem as beggars. They are embarked on a quest for spiritual plenitude necessary to fill the void in their existences. Some of them don't even have to search very long to find it. Since they inhabit the holy city, they are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are connected to the fourth dimension, that of legend which encompasses all centuries. From the point of view of common sense, these beggars resemble the mentally sick. They gorge themselves on illusions the way a dope addict gets high on drugs. They float around in a state of mythomania with hair-raising ease. Yet on the poetic level, the conduct of these crazies is not devoid of meaning, and David empathizes with them. By believing literally that they are on intimate terms with the great personages of the Bible, by proudly proclaiming that they have lived in every era of the Jewish people's history, they show their unconditional solidarity with their coreligionists.

Thus Zalman the beggar astounds a young Israeli aviator by maintaining that he discussed military strategy with two legendary biblical heroes, Yehuda, leader of the Maccabees, and Bar Kochba, the fearless warrior who revolted against Rome. One of his comrades, Schlomo, just as insane, relates a conversation he had with Jesus, warning him against the monstrous perversion that future Christians would make of his message of love, and predicting, to Christ's horror, that his crucifixion would eventually bring about untold tragedy for his fellow-Jews.

The connection of these beggars and of the Jews of the Diaspora to the city of Jerusalem is reinforced on the eve of the Six Day War. Their anxiety for the survival of Israel is all the more intense because they have long memories. They remember that thirty years earlier, Hitler's irresistible rise to power was accompanied by the cowardly and hypocritical silence of the western powers. They remember God's immobility during that period, His inability to defend his people when they faced systematic extermination.

David, just like his creator, Elie Wiesel, is troubled by a sinister premonition concerning the security of Israel. By means of short journalistic reports incorporated into the narrative, Wiesel demonstrates that the many appeals to Israel for caution and patience launched by the major world powers dissimulated their hypocritical cynicism and their intention of allowing the Jews to perish yet again. They would shed tears over the fate of the Israelis only when the tragedy of the latter was consummated.

Fortunately, 1967 did not completely resemble 1940. The author does not fail to emphasize that something essential had changed in the Jewish mentality in twenty-seven years. The Israelis of the new generation would not allow themselves to be led to the slaughter. Moreover, the Jews of the Diaspora were galvanized in favour of their brothers and sisters in danger. The narrative describes the tidal wave of sympathy and solidarity that flowed over Israel on the eve of the conflict, as though the Jewish communities dispersed throughout the world had suddenly become one, were speaking with one voice, and were sharing a unique identity: "Writers and artists, impoverished students and easy-going merchants, believers and atheists, all found themselves in the same camp, carried along by the same wave. As a result, each one realized he was responsible for the collective survival of all, each one felt threatened, targeted."

At the very moment that the Diaspora is galvanized, the hero senses within himself a resurgence of moral energy. Running parallel to the narrative of the victory that the state of Israel achieves over enemies determined to destroy it, is another story: that of David's liberation from a past that was suffocating him and preventing his self-reconstruction. He becomes a new being capable of welcoming the future and experiencing joy. Before the outbreak of the Six Day war, this survivor of the death camps felt he was a prisoner, just like other characters that Wiesel created, of a traumatic past. At various points in the novel he evokes episodes from that period which left an indelible imprint on his consciousness. He remembers the day when his father, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in a central European city, came home looking haggard, after a meeting with the Nazi authorities, and announced the dreadful news that the convoys taking his coreligionists to the concentration camps would be leaving the next morning. He also recalls Iléana, his non-Jewish lover who sacrificed her own life to save him during the occupation. Finally, after Jerusalem has been liberated by the Israeli army, David, as though hallucinated, sees his mother and little sister, tortured by thirst, just as they were the day of their deportation thirty years earlier, walking past the Wailing Wall. This sorrowful past he drags behind him explains his irreducible pessimism. If he has come back to Israel on the eve of the conflict with the Arab states, it is to die while fighting alongside his people, so persuaded is he that the world will allow another catastrophe to happen again, that the Jewish nation is condemned to disappear.

This epic struggle for Israel's survival to which David commits himself will transform his existence. He meets a soldier named Katriel. The latter relates to him a strange parable that keeps reverberating in his consciousness. At first the story arouses his anger. Later on, it will help him understand himself better. According to the story, a man leaves his home to seek out adventures and a magical city. At night he sleeps in a forest, and in order not to take the wrong path, turns his shoes in the direction he is to follow the next day. During the night a prankster turns his shoes in the opposite direction. Thus, when the traveler reaches the city of his dreams the following day, it bears an astonishing resemblance to the one from which he had just departed. He enters a home that looks exactly like the one he used to live in, finds there a woman and children who seem the very embodiments of the family he thought he had left behind. When they entreat him to stay, he is so moved that he agrees.

This story plagues David. Even though it sounds familiar to him, he can't recall where he had heard it. He begins to understand the distress the parable has touched off within him when he remembers what a beggar had said to him at one moment in his childhood: "Remember, little one, that the day someone tells you your story, you will not have much longer to live." This warning will be repeated twice more in an elliptical form by two other beggars, the last repetition occurring just before the end of the novel. The story Katriel had told him forces David to take cognizance of the fact that he is perhaps that traveler. Even though he survived the concentration camp hell, he is still its prisoner. His tragic past remains an integral part of his present life and is devouring it. The David in 1967 has still not acquired existential density. He has never left the dead, and the dead have never left him either: "The living person that I was, that I thought I was, had perhaps lived a lie; I was only the echo of voices silenced long ago. As a shadow, far from the other shadows, I was still bumping into them day after day, these were the ones I was deceiving, the ones I was betraying by moving forward. I thought I was living my life, I was only inventing it. I thought I could escape from the phantoms, I was simply extending their power. And now, it was too late to change directions." When he hears the third warning, on the verge of getting married, David fully understands the meaning of the parable. The death that was prophesized for him was not physical in nature but figurative. The David who was still a prisoner of the death camps long after being liberated physically from them, finally leaves his past behind him without, however, forgetting it, and the new man he has become can now recommit himself to life and love.

Discarding his pessimism, David now plugs into the centuries-old history of his people as though it were some kind of spiritual hydro-electric power station capable of revitalizing his existence, and composed of fabulous legends as well as real events. Hence the indescribable emotion he experiences once he reaches the Wailing Wall. These remnants of the Temple symbolize the whole body of Judaism's spiritual and ethical values. As a result, the ancient stones of this legendary piece of architecture represent an urgent invitation, indeed an exhortation, to every man and woman to realize his or her potential for nobility and beauty, of which the extrapolation to the infinite coincides with the presence of God Himself.

Because of the legends and the exalting aspirations invested in it, the Wall transcends the present to encompass all epochs. On contemplating it, David feels he is suspended between reality and a conscious dream. He finds it perfectly natural at that particular moment that all those for whom Judaism signified the ceaseless struggle to make humanity constantly more human, should be standing in front of these venerable stones. As he tells us, "The kings and the prophets, the warriors and priests, the poets and thinkers, the rich and poor who, throughout the ages, everywhere, had begged for a little more tolerance, a little more brotherhood: here is where they came to speak about it." And adding to his sense of astonishment, he suddenly sees--or imagines that he sees-- the unburied dead from the extermination camps joining all the others in front of the Wall. Far from crushing the living under the weight of their reproaches and terrorizing them as they had done in the novels "Dawn" and "Day," these martyrs had also come to help defend Israel. Just then David is startled by a stunning vision: a biblical prophet explains to him that Israel won the war because the ranks of its army and people were suddenly increased by six million more names.

Consequently, the breakthrough glimpsed in the novel "The Gates of the Forest" has now become an immense, open perspective. The Holocaust survivors can henceforth move definitively out of the moral tunnel where they risked asphyxiation. The dead have become their allies. Remembering them no longer means being imprisoned in a tragic past. Safeguarding the memory of the dead can give the living the courage to make a renewed commitment to life and love.

Obviously, the Judaism of his childhood was instrumental in saving David from despair. But one can sense yet another reason that is present in filigree within the text. It is never expressed explicitly. It is, however, everywhere: an elemental will to live. And so in conclusion, I would like to quote the words of another great Franco-Jewish writer, Liliane Atlan, for whom Elie Wiesel had great admiration. What she says could serve as an epigraph for "A Beggar in Jerusalem": "There are times when the burden of one's pain seems so overwhelming that one feels life can no longer go on. Yet it does go on. And that, perhaps, is the greatest miracle of all."

 

CRIME, PUNISHMENT AND JUSTICE IN ELIE WIESEL'S THE FIFTH SON

Posted by leonardrosmarin on May 16, 2016 at 10:50 AM Comments comments (1)

 

 

 



When Jews assemble to celebrate Passover, they direct the service of gratitude towards the God of Israel with the help of a little book of prayers and legends called the Haggadah. One of the stories narrated concerns four sons of the same family and their attitude toward the question to ask about the relationship between God and His people. The first son understands the question and accepts its consequences. The second understands it but refuses to assume his responsibilities. The third remains completely indifferent toward it. As for the fourth, he does not understand it at all. But what about the fifth? The fifth is not present in the Passover narrative, but for the father, Reuven Tamiroff in Elie Wiesel's novel, The Fifth Son, he is more alive than the child in flesh and blood seated at the table by his side. Herein lies the tragedy that is tearing apart the heart and soul of this former inmate of a Nazi death camp. Herein lies as well the tragedy of his son born in the United States after the Second World War, and who is the narrator of the novel. It is significant that we never know the first name of this main character. The omission is deliberate. Elie Wiesel wishes to emphasize that his hero lacks a distinctive sense of self.


The reader must get through two thirds of the book before discovering the identity of the absent and enigmatic child to whom the one born after the Holocaust has been subordinated. Only then does he/she realize to what extent that child dominates the text. Indeed, Ariel, the six-year old brutally executed by an SS officer remains omnipresent. We meet him at the very beginning of the book in a series of poignant letters that his father, Reuven Tamiroff, addresses to him. The power the child still exerts over this man, beyond the grave, explains the secret sorrow that had been torturing the latter for over twenty years. The quest for identity anxiously and desperately undertaken by the son born in the States after the horrors of the death camps becomes fully understandable only in relationship to the little brother he will never know, but for whom he feels, as do his parents, a lacerating tenderness.


The extreme skillfulness of Elie Wiesel as a storyteller consists in making us aware of the narrator's dead brother, Ariel, at the very beginning of the narrative while maintaining our uncertainty about Ariel's identity. But the author is not interested essentially in keeping up our suspense. We realize retrospectively that this delay is indispensable in order to focus the novel on the parents' moral torment and the anguish of their living son fortunate to have been born after the nightmare they had endured. A barrier gets thrown up between the narrator and his parents. The narrator is instinctively conscious of it without being able to put his finger on the cause of his malaise. The discovery he'll make much later of the phantom prowling around within the minds of his father and mother will represent the last piece of a puzzle reconstructed with great difficulty. It will prompt his bizarre decision to take justice into his own hands in order to exorcize the curse that had been hovering over his family for so long. And so the novel traces the narrator's spiritual itinerary and growth from the moment he determines to satisfy his curiosity about his parents' past to the time he vows to punish the former SS officer responsible for their tragedy, and indirectly, for his as well. While evoking the fight the hero wages to acquire a personal destiny, Wiesel orchestrates a very grave and moving meditation on crime, punishment and justice.


Between the narrator and his father are woven some very complex emotional strands. He adores Reuven Tamiroff, yearns to get closer to him, but always comes up against an invisible wall. This is because Reuven Tamiroff is not at all eager to open up. Indeed, he cannot pour out his heart. A terrible secret deprives him of the joy of sharing the intimacy of his soul with another human being. His son finds him all the more fascinating because of the aura of tragic taciturnity and opaqueness in which he envelops himself. As soon as the narrator broaches the subject of the war, Reuven Tamiroff withdraws into himself. As his son notices with resignation: "He wouldn't budge. He would become distant. Subjugated by a great sadness from the past in which mingled an unnameable anguish. All right, I would give up right away. I would change the subject, thinking: I'll try next time."


Walled up thus in his sorrow, Reuven Tamiroff never stops ruminating over his tragic past and, as a result, never ceases to disconcert, fascinate, exasperate or deeply trouble his living son. The unnamed protagonist of the novel strives to lead a normal adult life, first as a university student, then as an intellectual. But it appears that the main and even obsessive purpose of his existence consists in breaking through the silence surrounding his father, in ferreting out the secret that the latter persists in wanting to repress. Only when these conditions are met will the son be able to put an end to his emotional turmoil and become an individual with his own distinctive existence. Since he suffers so much from an event that he never lived, he feels he absolutely must get to the bottom of it in order to exorcize it once and for all.


Before crossing the threshold of adolescence, the hero must be content with secrets relating to his father's past that come to him in fits and spurts. During one Passover dinner, Reuven Tamiroff's close friend, Simha, urges him not to treat his living son like the fifth son of the Haggadah and to talk to him about his past. Sensitive to his argument, the father begins telling his son about the beginning of his brilliant career as a scholar and university professor, his progressive dejudaization in the name of social conformism, and the renewal of his faith under the spiritual tutelage of a rabbi. On the eve of his son's Bar-Mitzvah, he opens up his soul to the latter by describing the ambiguous feelings he still has about having made the decision with his wife to start a new family life in the States after the war. Having survived the horrors of the Holocaust, the Tamiroffs deemed it necessary to create life to ensure that Hitler did not triumph over the Jews beyond death. But having brought their son into the world in New York, the narrator's father continues asking himself the same anguished question. He wonders whether he and his wife had the right to crush their child under the weight of an accursed past simply by engendering him.


The protagonist will discover only much later under exactly what kind of curse he has been living. When Bonchek, a friend of his father from the time of the Ghetto, enters his life, light is finally shed on many shadowy zones. Bonchek remains in awe of Reuven Tamiroff, and he loves to talk. Reuven's son is an insatiable listener. Thus he learns about unsuspected aspects of his father's character: his exceptional kindness that borders on saintliness, his intrepidness in situations that would shatter even nerves of steel, his consummate talent as a diplomat in the face of the sinister SS commandant.


But this information, however precious it may be, does not really help the son build a bridge between himself and his father. In fact, the repressed anger the young man feels on coming up continuously against his father's wall of silence explodes at the end of the 1960's. Swept up in the whirlwind of systematic confrontation like so many people of his age at the time, the narrator revolts against the father whom he nevertheless worships, and goes so far as to accuse the man of being responsible for his wife's nervous depression. No doubt the son seeks in this way to heap guilt upon himself, and suffer horribly in order to share, albeit indirectly, the pain of his ungraspable father. That road leads nowhere, just like his attempt to better understand Reuven Tamiroff's soul by experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs.


The big breakthrough, however, comes only when the living son who feels unloved discovers by chance the series of letters written by his father to Ariel. The question he asks of this man normally so withdrawn, "Who is Ariel", provokes an emotional cataclysm in the latter. The son sees his father cry for the first time in his life. Obviously, these tears betray the incurable wound already mentioned. This time, however, the father's sorrow will be life-giving, because his son's question tears him away from an ossifying past. No longer enclosed within his terrible secret, he can at last pour out his heart to another human being. His emotional growth, arrested for decades, can finally resume. Having shown himself to be vulnerable, he can henceforth receive the filial love the narrator brings him in a sudden surge of compassion. Knowing that his distraught father needs him, the narrator agrees to assume the identity of the child who perished in the death camp. The very moving dialogue that follows marks the new stage in their relationship:


-Ariel, my little Ariel, he said whispering like some guilty, unhappy child.

-Yes, father, I replied.

His eyes became misty, his breath became heavier as he repeated:

-Ariel.

-Yes, father.


Through his father's sorrow, the living son not only draws closer to him but becomes, in turn, obsessed by Ariel's killer. The narrator had learned about the sinister commandant by listening to Bonchek's stories. But now there is an essential difference. Beforehand, the SS officer, nicknamed by his victims "The Angel of Death" had just been for him the tormentor of the oppressed Jews in the ghetto of Davarowsk. At present, he is the sadistic murderer of his little brother. The hatred he feels toward this German whom he never knew, galvanizes him. When he finds out that the man who was called Richard Lander is still alive under the name of Wolfgang Berger, a desire for vengeance takes on the proportions of an "idée fixe" or fixation. Even more, the narrator sees in this craving for revenge the opportunity to liberate himself from his father's tragic past and acquire his own destiny. In a letter that he, too, writes to Ariel, he describes this new sense of exaltation that has overcome him: "In truth, hatred attracts me. The Angel attracts me. I need to hate. Hatred seems to me an immediate solution; it blinds, it inebriates, in short: it gives me a purpose".


But who is this former Nazi commandant reconverted into the president of a large German corporation and a philanthropist under a new identity? Is he a third-rate actor puffed up with conceit and ferociously egocentric? Is he pure Evil devoid of the slightest sentiment of pity toward his victims in the ghetto? He is rather a narcissist rotten to the core with cynical opportunism and endowed with a remarkable ability to adapt to new situations. When the circumstances were favourable during the Second World War, his sinister narcissism was embodied in the role of an SS commandant. He could at that time use the terrorized Jewish prisoners as magnifying mirrors that sent him back the ultra-flattering image of an unlimited diabolical power. In front of his powerless prisoners, he could delude himself into thinking he was a god. Did he not proclaim himself the God of Death in relation to the Jewish inmates? After the war, circumstances having changed radically, Richard Lander recycled himself into a respectable and honoured citizen of a formerly reviled country that now strove to present a brand new moral persona to the world. The narrator's tour de force will be to unmask the hypocrite, to strip him of his trappings of civic and moral respectability, and to reveal him as a piece of filth.


But once Reuven Tamiroff's living son has the former SS commandant in his power, why doesn't he assassinate the latter? After all, he had sworn to himself to avenge Ariel and the Jews in the ghetto of Davarowsk. His decision to spare the former Angel of Death can be explained in part by the impulsive and vacillating temperament he inherited from his father. There comes a moment during his conversation with Berger where the narrator is on the verge of committing murder. If Berger had tried to justify his sadism in the presence of Ariel's living brother, he would have been killed right on the spot. But the narrator's impulsiveness provides only a partial explanation. The profound motive that prevents him from murdering the former Nazi is his Judaism. Despite half-hearted attempts at acting the rebel of the sixties, he remains attached to the faith of his ancestors. Now, according to the Jewish faith, every human life is infinitely precious because God has created it. He alone has the right to make a decision on an individual's fate. Consequently, man is forbidden from transgressing the divine Law by putting himself in its place. Even if one transposed this Law on a purely metaphorical plane, it would still signify that killing was strictly forbidden in order not to debase the human being.


The theme of justice, indissolubly linked in the novel to those of crime and punishment, manifests itself for the first time after the Angel of Death orders the massacre of two hundred Jews in the ghetto. Rabbi Aharon-Asher is adamantly opposed to the act of vengeance planned by Reuven Tamiroff and his friends. Citing Jewish law, he reminds them that the guilty person must be judged by a court of twenty-three members. In addition, the accused has the right to defend himself. About thirty years later, at the very moment the protagonist is getting ready to fly to Germany to commit the assassination, Rabbi Tzvi-Hersh of New York refuses to bless him when he guesses the young man's intentions. From now on, this theme of justice will acquire a magnificent orchestration. Reinforcing and even going beyond the words uttered by Aharon-Asher in 1942, Tzvi-Hersh solemnly declares that the Torah forbids murder in all circumstances. Naturally, the Old Testament teaches us that we have the right to kill someone who wants to threaten us with death. But that does not give us the right to put an end to the life of a person who seems threatening to us. It is necessary first to prove that our aggressor really intends to murder us, and how can one plumb the labyrinthine depths of the human heart to pinpoint the motive that impels him to act? Even if a man utters threats, they are perhaps only verbal and psychological.


When the hero arrives in Germany, this issue of judging others is formulated with a renewed intensity. Despite his determination to remain fair-minded, he has trouble overcoming his antipathy towards and distrust of the nation that had been responsible for his family tragedy as well as the extermination of six million of his fellow-Jews. His ambivalent attitude is revealed first in his reaction to a German woman of about thirty, called Thérèse, whom he encounters on the train taking him to Reshastadt where he plans to kill Berger. He acknowledges the validity of her reasoning when she protests against the world's tendency to tar all Germans with the same brush, whether or not they participated in Hitler's diabolical scheme and however young they may have been when the Holocaust occurred. Nevertheless he politely rejects her attempt to express her sympathy to him. And while he awaits his connecting train at Graustadt, he has a bizarre, dream-like vision. He imagines himself present at the funeral of a German who is a total stranger to him. For reasons that escape him, the widow of the deceased invites the narrator to deliver the eulogy. She showers praise on the young Jewish man, declares that he is the only real friend her husband ever had and insults, one after another, all of the people who had known the dead man for a long time. But as soon as the narrator announces to the crowd that he is Jewish, the people forget the widow's insults and become a solid mass of hostility.


He finally confronts Ariel's killer in an atmosphere of profound uneasiness. Having succeeded in passing himself off as an American journalist eager to do a story on Reshastadt, the hero has no trouble getting an interview with the former SS commandant who has recycled himself into a model citizen. On reading the beginning of the novel where Ariel's living brother relates his failed attempt to assassinate Richard Lander alias Wolfgang Berger, the reader would be inclined to believe that this weird venture has been an abysmal failure. The narrator seems to despise his vacillating nature, his congenital inability to carry out to the very end a plan that had been so close to his heart. When he gets back on the train to return to the States, the Angel of Death is still alive. But as one remarks at the end of the novel, Wolfgang Berger will never be the same again. On the moral level, Ariel's brother has achieved a splendid triumph. His vengeance has been exemplary.


Having come as an emissary of the Jews massacred in the ghetto as well as of the little brother he never knew, the narrator arouses in Wolfgang Berger an emotion he was not used to experiencing: fear. Fear of being unmasked and denounced in the media; fear of being reported to the police as a notorious criminal. A fear all the more terrible because his new identity as a respectable, civic-minded citizen is in danger of crumbling under the weight of his infamous past. But that is not all. By underscoring the abyss separating the sadistic criminal that the respected industrialist had been from his present stature as a citizen above suspicions, the narrator exposes not only Berger's hypocrisy but his cowardice. Lander alias Berger used to take delight in torturing thousands of helpless victims and did not even have the courage to acknowledge his evil. The only thing that has changed in this man from whose soul emanates a stench of death is the shroud of respectability covering it. It suffices to read the narrator's description of the fear encroaching on the former killer's face to realize that he is being executed in the figurative sense:


"As I speak, his facial traits become more pronounced and gaunt, his pallor increases from minute to minute, from one episode to the other. He is afraid, oh yes, the Angel of Fear is dominated by fear, pierced through and through by fear; Death has finally caught up with the Angel of Death. For a brief instant, I feel a mute jubilation arising within me: bravo, Ariel! So now you are capable of inspiring, of inflicting terror! Are you satisfied, Ariel? Are you proud of my deed?"


Having torn off the mask of civic and moral virtue worn by the former butcher, all that is left for the narrator to do is to hurl Berger back down into his spiritual void. And the whole ghetto of Davarowsk will sweep into this void with its thousands of innocents that the sadistic brute thought he had crushed under his boot. This is why Ariel's brother leaves Berger's office without having murdered him, without feeling the slightest hatred or even interest in him. What purpose would have been served by taking his life? The worst punishment for the former Nazi is to have to spend his remaining years in the Jewish ghetto that Ariel's brother has resurrected for him: "The Angel no longer aroused in me either hatred or thirst for vengeance: I had destabilized his existence, refreshed his memory, spoiled his future joys, that was enough for me. He would no longer be able to carry on, or live, or laugh as though the ghetto of Davarowsk had not functioned as a stage for him."


Ten years after his confrontation with the former SS commandant, the narrator draws up the balance sheet of his existence. He considers it "not as a failure but as a defeat". Certainly, his relationship with his father has been reinforced. He feels for Reuven Tamiroff "an undivided love" and accepts being for him the son lost during the nightmare of the Holocaust. Hence his feeling of being incomplete as an individual. Almost forty years after Ariel's death the hero of The Fifth Son remains convinced that he does not have an existence of his own. To this sadness is added his sorrowful awareness that less than twenty years before the twenty-first century, the world has already entered "the catastrophe predicted by George Orwell." But being Jewish, he refuses, like so many other heroes imagined by Elie Wiesel, to succumb to despair. He continues to celebrate life. To continue believing in the coming of the Messiah, despite all evidence proving the contrary, constitutes in itself a kind of redemptive faith. And I will close with the hero's final remark: "The Messiah may arrive too late; he will come when there are no longer any people to save. So much the worse; I'll wait for him nonetheless." Like Elie Wiesel himself, the unnamed narrator of this novel prefers to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.


Thank you for joining me today. 


Leonard Rosmarin

 

CRIME, PUNISHMENT AND JUSTICE IN ELIE WIESEL'S THE FIFTH SON

Posted by leonardrosmarin on January 29, 2016 at 4:10 PM Comments comments (1)


When Jews assemble to celebrate Passover, they direct the service of gratitude towards the God of Israel with the help of a little book of prayers and legends called the Haggadah. One of the stories narrated concerns four sons of the same family and their attitude toward the question to ask about the relationship between God and His people. The first son understands the question and accepts its consequences. The second understands it but refuses to assume his responsibilities. The third remains completely indifferent toward it. As for the fourth, he does not understand it at all. But what about the fifth? The fifth is not present in the Passover narrative, but for the father, Reuven Tamiroff in Elie Wiesel's novel, The Fifth Son, he is more alive than the child in flesh and blood seated at the table by his side. Herein lies the tragedy that is tearing apart the heart and soul of this former inmate of a Nazi death camp. Herein lies as well the tragedy of his son born in the United States after the Second World War, and who is the narrator of the novel. It is significant that we never know the first name of this main character. The omission is deliberate. Elie Wiesel wishes to emphasize that his hero lacks a distinctive sense of self.


The reader must get through two thirds of the book before discovering the identity of the absent and enigmatic child to whom the one born after the Holocaust has been subordinated. Only then does he/she realize to what extent that child dominates the text. indeed, Ariel, the six-year old brutally executed by an SS officer remains omnipresent. We meet him at the very beginning of the book in a series of poignant letters that his father, Reuven Tamiroff, addresses to him. The power the child still exerts over this man, beyond the grave, explains the secret sorrow that had been torturing the latter for over twenty years. The quest for identity anxiously and desperately undertaken by the son born in the States after the horrors of the death camps becomes fully understandable only in relationship to the little brother he will never know, but for whom he feels, as do his parents, a lacerating tenderness.


The extreme skillfulness of Elie Wiesel as a storyteller consists in making us aware of the narrator's dead brother, Ariel, at the very beginning of the narrative while maintaining our uncertainty about Ariel's identity. But the author is not interested essentially in keeping up our suspense. We realize retrospectively that this delay is indispensable in order to focus the novel on the parents' moral torment and the anguish of their living son fortunate to have been born after the nightmare they had endured. A barrier gets thrown up between the narrator and his parents. The narrator is instinctively conscious of it without being able to put his finger on the cause of his malaise. The discovery he'll make much later of the phantom prowling around within the minds of his father and mother will represent the last piece of a puzzle reconstructed with great difficulty. It will prompt his bizarre decision to take justice into his own hands in order to exorcize the curse that had been hovering over his family for so long. And so the novel traces the narrator's spiritual itinerary and growth from the moment he determines to satisfy his curiosity about his parents' past to the time he vows to punish the former SS officer responsible for their tragedy, and indirectly, for his as well. While evoking the fight the hero wages to acquire a personal destiny, Wiesel orchestrates a very grave and moving meditation on crime, punishment and justice.


Between the narrator and his father are woven some very complex emotional strands. He adores Reuven Tamiroff, yearns to get closer to him, but always comes up against an invisible wall. This is because Reuven Tamiroff is not at all eager to open up. Indeed, he cannot pour out his heart. A terrible secret deprives him forever of the joy of sharing the intimacy of his soul with another human being. His son finds him all the more fascinating because of the auro of tragic taciturnity and opaqueness in which he envelops himself. As soon as the narrator broaches the subject of the war, Reuven Tamiroff withdraws into himself. As his son notices with resignation: "He wouldn't budge. He would become distant. Subjugated by a great sadness from the past in which mingled an unnameable anguish. All right, I would give up right away. I would change the subject, thinking: I'll try next time."


Walled up thus in his sorrow, Reuven Tamiroff never stops ruminating over his tragic past and, as a result, never ceases to disconcert, fascinate, exasperate or deeply trouble his living son. The unnamed protagonist of the novel strives to lead a normal adult life, first as a university student, then as an intellectual. But it appears that the main and even obsessive purpose of his existence consists in breaking through the silence surrounding his father, in ferreting out the secret that the latter persists in wanting to repress. Only when these conditions are met will the son be able to put an end to his emotional disarray and become an individual with his own distinctive existence. Since he suffers so much from an event that he never lived, he feels he absolutely must get to the bottom of it in order to exorcize it once and for all.

 


Before crossing the threshold of adolescence, the hero must be content with secrets relating to his father's past that come to him in fits and spurts. During one Passover dinner, Reuven Tamiroff's close friend, Simha, urges him not to treat his living son like the fifth son of the Haggadah and to talk to him about his past. Sensitive to his argument, the father begins telling his son about the beginning of his briliant career as a scholar and university professor, his progressive de-judaisation in the name of social conformism, and the renewal of his faith under the spiritual tutelage of a rabbi. On the eve of his son's Bar-Mitzvah, he opens up his soul to the latter by describing the ambiguous feelings he still has about having made the decision with his wife to start a new family life in the States after the war. Having survived the horrors of the Holocaust, the Tamiroffs deemed it necessary to create life to ensure that Hitler did not triumph over the Jews beyond death. But having brought their son into the world in New York, the narrator's father continues asking himself the same anguished question. He wonders whether he and his wife had the right to crush their child under the weight of an accursed past simply by engendering him.


The protagonist will discover only much later under exactly what kind of curse he has been living. When Bonchek, a friend of his father from the time of the Ghetto, enters his life, light is finally shed on many shadowy zones. Bonchek remains in awe of Reuven Tamiroff, and he loves to talk. Reuven's son is an insatiable listener. Thus he learns about unsuspected aspects of his father's character: his exceptional kindness that borders on saintliness, his intrepidness in situations that would shatter even nerves of steel, his consummate talent as a diplomat in the face of the sinister SS commandant.


But this information, however precious it may be, does not really help the son build a bridge between himself and his father. In fact, the repressed anger the young man feels on coming up continuously against his father's wall of silence explodes at the end of the 1960's. Swept up in the whirlwind of systematic confrontation like so many people of his age at the time, the narrator revolts against the father whom he nevertheless worships, and goes so far as to accuse the man of being responsible for his wife's nervous depression. No doubt the son seeks in this way to heap guilt upon himself, and suffer horribly in order to share, albeit indirectly, the pain of his ungraspable father. That road leads nowhere, just like his attempt to better understand Reuven Tamiroff's soul by experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs.


The big breakthrough, however, comes only when the living son who feels unloved discovers by chance the series of letters written by his father to Ariel. The question he asks of this man normally so withdrawn, "Who is Ariel", provokes an emotional cataclysm in the latter. The son sees his father cry for the first time in his life. Obviously, these tears betray the incurable wound already mentioned. This time, however, the father's sorrow will be life-giving, because his son's question tears him away from an ossifying past. No longer enclosed within his terrible secret, he can at last pour out his heart to another human being. His emotional growth, arrested for decades, can finally resume. Having shown himself to be vulnerable, he can henceforth receive the filial love the narrator brings him in a sudden surge of compassion. Knowing that his distraught father needs him, the narrator agrees to assume the identity of the child who perished in the death camp. The very moving dialogue that follows marks the new stage in their relationship:


-Ariel, my little Ariel, he said whispering like some guilty, unhappy child.

-Yes, father, I replied.

His eyes became misty, his breath became heavier as he repeated:

-Ariel.

-Yes, father.


Through his father's sorrow, the living son not only draws closer to him but becomes, in turn, obsessed by Ariel's killer. The narrator had learned about the sinister commandant by listening to Bonchek's stories. But now there is an essential difference. Beforehand, the SS officer, nicknamed by his victims "The Angel of Death" had just been for him the tormentor of the oppressed Jews in the ghetto of Davarowsk. At present, he is the sadistic murderer of his little brother. The hatred he feels toward this German whom he never knew, galvanizes him. When he finds out that the man who was called Richard Lander is still alive under the name of Wolfgang Berger, a desire for vengeance takes on the proportions of an "idée fixe". Even more, the narrator sees in this craving for revenge the opportunity to liberate himself from his father's tragic past and acquire his own destiny. In a letter that he, too, writes to Ariel, he describes this new sense of exaltation that has overcome him: "In truth, hatred attracts me. The Angel attracts me. I need to hate. Hatred seems to me an immediate solution; it blinds, it inebriates, in short: it gives me a purpose".

 


But who is this former Nazi commandant reconverted into the president of a large German corporation and a philanthropist under a new identity? Is he a third-rate actor puffed up with conceit and ferociously egocentric? Is he pure Evil devoid of the slightest sentiment of pity toward his victims in the ghetto? He is rather a narcissist rotten to the core with cynical opportunism and endowed with a remarkable ability to adapt to new situations. When the circumstances were favourable during the Second World War, his sinister narcissism was embodied in the role of an SS commandant. He could at that time use the terrorized Jewish prisoners as magnifying mirrors that sent him back the ultra-flattering image of an unlimited diabolical power. In front of his powerless prisoners, he could delude himself into thinking he was a god. Did he not proclaim himself the God of Death in relation to the Jewish inmates? After the war, circumstances having changed radically, Richard Lander recycled himself into a respectable and honoured citizen of a formerly reviled country that now strived to present a brand new moral persona to the world. The narrator's tour de force will be to unmask the hypocrite, to strip him of his trappings of civic and moral respectability, and to reveal him as a piece of filth.


But once Reuven Tamiroff's living son has the former SS commandant in his power, why doesn't he assassinate the latter? After all, he had sworn to himself to avenge Ariel and the Jews in the ghetto of Davarowsk. His decision to spare the former Angel of Death can be explained in part by the impulsive and vacillating temperament he inherited from his father. There comes a moment during his conversation with Berger where the narrator is on the verge of committing murder. If Berger had tried to justify his sadism before Ariel's living brother, he would have been killed right on the spot. But the narrator's impulsiveness provides only a partial explanation. The profound motive that prevents him from murdering the former Nazi is his Judaism. Despite half-hearted attempts at acting the rebel of the sixties, he remains attached to the faith of his ancestors. Now, according to the Jewish faith, every human life is infinitely precious because God has created it. He alone has the right to make a decision on an individual's fate. Consequently, man is forbidden from transgressing the divine Law by putting himself in its place. Even if one transposed this Law on a purely metaphorical plane, it would still signify that killing was strictly forbidden in order not to debase the human being.


The theme of justice, indissolubly linked in the novel to those of crime and punishment, manifests itself for the first time after the Angel of Death orders the massacre of two hundred Jews in the ghetto. Rabbi Aharon-Asher is adamantly opposed to the act of vengeance planned by Reuven Tamiroff and his friends. Citing Jewish law, he reminds them that the guilty person must be judged by a court of twenty-three members. In addition, the accused has the right to defend himself. About thirty years later, at the very moment the protagonist is getting ready to fly to Germany to commit the assassination, Rabbi Tzvi-Hersh of New York refuses to bless him when he guesses the young man's intentions. From now on, this theme of justice will acquire a magnificent orchestration. Reinforcing and even going beyond the words uttered by Aharon-Asher in 1942, Tzvi-Hersh solemnly declares that the Torah forbids murder in all circumstances. Naturally, the Old Testament teaches us that we have the right to kill someone who wants to threaten us with death. But that does not give us the right to put an end to the life of a person who seems threatening to us. It is necessary first to prove that our aggressor really intends to murder us, and how can one plumb the labyrinthine depths of the human heart to ferret out the motive that impels him to act? Even if a man utters threats, they are perhaps only verbal and psychological.


When the hero arrives in Germany, this issue of judging others is formulated with a renewed intensity. Despite his determination to remain fair-minded, he has trouble overcoming his antipathy towards and distrust of the nation that had been responsible for his family tragedy as well as the extermination of six million of his fellow-Jews. His ambivalent attitude is revealed first in his reaction to a German woman of about thirty, called Thérèse, whom he encounters on the train taking him to Reshastadt where he plans to kill Berger. He acknowledges the validity of her reasoning when she protests against the world's tendency to tar all Germans with the same brush, whether or not they participated in Hitler's diabolical scheme and however young they may have been when the Holocaust occurred. Nevertheless he politely rejects her attempt to express her sympathy to him. And while he awaits his connecting train at Graustadt, he has a bizarre, dream-like vision. He imagines himself present at the funeral of a German who is a total stranger to him. For reasons that escape him, the widow of the deceased invites the narrator to deliver the eulogy. She showers praise on the young Jewish man, declares that he is the only real friend her husband ever had and insults, one after another, all of the people who had known the dead man for a long time. But as soon as the narrator announces to the crowd that he is Jewish, the people forget the widow's insults and become a solid mass of hostility.


He finally confronts Ariel's killer in an atmosphere of profound uneasiness. Having succeeded in passing himself off as an American journalist eager to do a story on Reshastadt, the hero has no trouble getting an interview with the former SS commandant who has recycled himself into a model citizen. On reading the beginning of the novel where Ariel's living brother relates his failed attempt to assassinate Richard Lander alias Wolfgang Berger, the reader would be inclined to believe that this weird venture has been an abysmal failure. The narrator seems to despise his vacillating nature, his congenital inability to carry out to the very end a plan that had been so close to his heart. When he gets back on the train to return to the States, the Angel of Death is still alive. But as one remarks at the end of the novel, Wolfgang Berger will never be the same again. On the moral level, Ariel's brother has achieved a splendid triumph. His vengeance has been exemplary.


Having come as an emissary of the Jews massacred in the ghetto as well as of the little brother he never knew, the narrator arouses in Wolfgang Berger an emotion he was not used to experiencing: fear. Fear of being unmasked and denounced in the media; fear of being reported to the police as a notorious criminal. A fear all the more terrible because his new identity as a respectable, civic-minded citizen is in danger of crumbling under the weight of his infamous past. But that is not all. By underscoring the abyss separating the sadistic criminal that the respected industrialist had been from his present stature as a citizen above suspicions, the narrator exposes not only Berger's hypocrisy but his cowardice. Lander alias Berger used to take delight in torturing thousands of helpless victims and did not even have the courage to acknowledge his evil. The only thing that has changed in this man from whose soul emanates a stench of death is the shroud of respectability covering it. It suffices to read the narrator's description of the fear encroaching on the former killer's face to realize that he is being executed in the figurative sense:


"As I speak, his facial traits become more pronounced and gaunt, his pallor increases from minute to minute, from one episode to the other. He is afraid, oh yes, the Angel of Fear is dominated by fear, pierced through and through by fear; Death has finally caught up with the Angel of Death. For a brief instant, I feel a mute jubilation rising within me: bravo, Ariel! So now you are capable of inspiring, of inflicting terror! Are you satisfied, Ariel? Are you proud of my deed?"


Having torn off the mask of civic and moral virtue worn by the former butcher, all that is left for the narrator to do is to hurl Berger back down into his spiritual void. And the whole ghetto of Davarowsk will sweep into this void with its thousands of innocents that the sadistic brute thought he had crushed under his boot. This is why Ariel's brother leaves Berger's office without having murdered him, without feeling the slightest hatred or even interest in him. What purpose would have been served by taking his life? The worst punishment for the former Nazi is to have to spend his remaining years in the Jewish ghetto that Ariel's brother has resurrected for him: "The Angel no longer aroused in me either hatred or thirst for vengeance: I had destabilized his existence, refreshed his memory, spoiled his future joys, that was enough for me. He would no longer be able to carry on, or live, or laugh as though the ghetto of Davarowsk had not functioned as a stage for him."


Ten years after his confrontation with the former SS commandant, the narrator draws up the balance sheet of his existence. He considers it "not as a failure but as a defeat". Certainly, his relationship with his father has been reinforced. He feels for Reuven Tamiroff "an undivided love" and accepts being for him the son lost during the nightmare of the Holocaust. Hence his feeling of being incomplete as an individual. Almost forty years after Ariel's death the hero of The Fifth Son remains convinced that he does not have an existence of his own. To this sadness is added his sorrowful awareness that less than twenty years before the twenty-first century, the world has already entered "the catastrophe predicted by George Orwell". But being Jewish, he refuses, like so many other heroes imagined by Elie Wiesel, to succumb to despair. He continues to celebrate life. To continue believing in the coming of the Messiah, despite all evidence proving the contrary, constitutes in itself a kind of redemptive faith. And I will close with the hero's final remark: "The Messiah may arrive too late; he will come when there are no longer any people to save. So much the worse; I'll wait for him nonetheless." Like Elie Wiesel himself, the unnamed narrator of this novel prefers to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.


Leonard Rosmarin

 

Il Barbiere di Siviglia chat by Léonard Rosmarin

Posted by leonardrosmarin on May 4, 2015 at 9:30 AM Comments comments (1)



It’s hard to believe that Giaochino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, one of the most popular comic operas of all time, was an abysmal failure at its first performance in Rome in 1816. A combination of circumstances can explain this. Fans of a rival composer, Paisiello, who himself had written a highly successful Barber of Seville, were determined to see it flop. Then the performance was plagued by all kinds of hitches that represent every singer’s nightmare: Manuel Garcia, the tenor playing Count Almaviva, used a guitar that was badly out of tune; Zenobio Vitarelli, singing the slimy music master, Basilio, fell and bloodied himself; then a stray cat bounded on the stage, causing mayhem and provoking gales of laughter in the audience when it got entangled in the prima donna’s skirts. Rossini did not blow his cool. He did not respond with outraged contempt to his public’s gross conduct. He reworked his score carefully, and six months later mounted the opera again in Bologna. With a stupefying immediacy it was hailed by audiences there and everywhere else as a summit of comic and lyrical theatre.


It does not often happen that a literary text and the opera inspired by it are completely worthy of one another. For example, Victorien Sardou’s play, La Tosca would have sunk into oblivion were it not for the crackling electricity of Puccini’s opera by the same name. Even a high quality piece of literature like the novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée owes a good part of its fame today to Georges Bizet’s celebrated opera about the wanton Gypsy. Without the French composer’s glorious music, Carmen would probably be little more than the story of a one-night stand gone wrong rather than a confrontation between two elemental forces programmed by a malevolent fate to destroy one another. We have no such reservations as concerns the original subversive play by Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais, Le Barbier de Séville, produced in 1775, that is, four years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, and its operatic equivalent, Il barbiere. Here we have a perfect fit. In his own inimitable way, Rossini, with the help of his astute librettist, Cesare Sterbini, succeeded in conveying through music the effervescent, infectious spirit of the original comedy. And so, I would like to demonstrate to you why Le Barbier de Séville and Il barbiere di Siviglia complement one another beautifully.


Let’s look first of all at the principal characters. In both the play and the opera, they have the same vividness and individuality. Rossini brilliantly effects their reincarnation in musical terms, starting with the undisputed hero, Figaro. His inexhaustible energy, exuberant love of life, quick-wittedness, talent for plotting, wheedling, wheeling and dealing fairly clamour for a musical treatment. In the French play, Figaro is Beaumarchais’ transparent spokesman denouncing an unjust social and political order. He voices the same kind of subversive revolutionary ideas that would lead to the eventual collapse of the Old Regime. Since music unfolds more slowly than the spoken word, Rossini and his librettist simply did not have the time at their disposal to allow their hero to express these views. But this isn’t necessary. Through his actions Figaro proves that he deserves to be at the top rather than near the bottom of the existing social hierarchy.


Figaro is clearly superior in resourcefulness to his former master, Count Almaviva. Without his assistance, the ardent young Count would never have been able to penetrate the otherwise unassailable fortress in which the paranoid Dr. Bartolo has imprisoned his ward, the lovely Rosina, and marry her in less than 24 hours. It is Figaro who urges Almaviva to dress up as a drunken soldier in the first act and get himself billeted in Bartolo’s home in order to declare his love to the lady of his heart. It is Figaro, as Bartolo’s barber, who insists on shaving the suspicious guardian in the second act while Almaviva, disguised this time as a fake, obsequious music master, is giving a singing lesson to his beloved. Thanks to his ingeniousness, Figaro provokes pandemonium in order to distract Bartolo and allow the lovers to plot their escape. Finally, it is Figaro who saves the day in extremis when it seems as though the lovers’ dream of a happy married life is doomed.


Rossini draws a stunning musical portrait of his high-octane hero in one of the most famous arias ever written, “Largo al factotum,” that I translate freely as “Make way for the fixer!” Here one cannot help but be astounded by the skill with which Rossini mixes farcical accents and the expression of a complex and deep humanity. With its prancing musical accompaniment, its witty imitative effects, the clarity of its harmonic texture, its brilliant ornamentation and inexhaustible melodic invention, it’s not surprising that “Largo al factotum” has become the very emblem of Rossini’s genius.


Rosina is the only other character in the opera who can compete with Figaro as far as plotting is concerned. In fact, in the first act he is astounded to discover that she is several steps ahead of him when she hands him the letter of encouragement he was going to ask her to write to the Count. Just like Figaro, Rosina derives an intellectual pleasure from causing mischief. She will not willingly allow herself to be trampled on. In our 21st century, we consider it perfectly normal and natural for women to combat male tyranny in all its forms. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, adolescent girls like Rosina (she is only 16) were expected to be docile, demur and submissive. It was not uncommon for them to be married off against their will to unattractive rich men old enough to be their grandfathers, in which case if they were spunky like Rosina, they could only hope that their elderly husbands would drop dead shortly afterwards from obvious causes, and leave them with lots of money and the freedom to finally lead the life they wanted. Even a man as enlightened as the 19th century French novelist, Stendahl, stated à propos of the duet “Dunque io son?” that Rosina sings with Figaro: ‘I will never believe that a girl’s love, even in Rome, could be devoid of melancholy and, I dare to say it, of a certain bloom of delicacy and shyness…’. He likened Rosina to a “lively widow” rather than a young girl. Clearly, just like the arrogant and disrespectful Figaro, Rosina had awakened sleeping fears and deep-rooted anxieties in so-called “public opinion” of the time. Her famous aria, “Una voce poco fa,” (A voice resonates in my heart) reveals a vivacious girl who is also a cunning piece of baggage. The rather sharp flavour of the E major Andante instrumental introduction, with its trills and runs, puts to rest any misgivings we might have about Rosina being naïve. The flashing coloratura passages with which her aria is laced evoke a very self-assured, even cocky young lady who would not hesitate to act like a viper if provoked.


Count Almaviva is worthy of the unconditional love Rosina feels for him, at least in this particular opera. In the sequel, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), we will see how his predilection for adventure leads to philandering on an unbridled scale. But in Il barbiere di Siviglia, we perceive in him a purity and nobility of heart that are truly admirable. He passes himself off as a poor student by the name of Lindoro precisely because he wants to be loved for himself rather than for his aristocratic stature, power, and fortune. In fact he does not reveal his identity to Rosina until he feels compelled to do so in order to negate the false accusation, levelled by Bartolo, that he has betrayed her. The Count is irresistibly attracted to Rosina because of the mystery that surrounds her and the drama involved in winning her hand. He is excited by the prospect of penetrating into the building where she is sequestered, liberating her from her tyrannical guardian, and conquering her love. His courtship unfolds like a roller-coaster novel of chivalry, and he sees himself as the knight designated by Providence to rescue a beautiful damsel in distress. The two arias he sings in the first act, inspired by his love for Rosina, reflect the sentiments dominating his heart: ardent longing and jubilation.


To achieve their ends, however, Figaro, Rosina and the Count must contend with two redoubtable enemies: the oily, smarmy priest, Basilio, who is Rosina’s music master, and the lecherous old curmudgeon Bartolo, who is determined to marry her with Basilio’s help. Of the two, Basilio is the less despicable. Like Figaro and Rosina, he derives an intellectual pleasure from engaging in intrigue. But whereas Figaro and Rosina are fighting for a noble cause, Basilio would sell himself to the devil (or anyone else for that matter) if there were lots of money to be made during the transaction. His famous aria, La calunia (Slander), depicts his sleeplessly scheming nature. In it he describes to Bartolo how he can utterly ruin the Count’s reputation by spreading false rumours about him. Basilio seems to imply that slander acts like an insidious poison, leeching its way through the collective consciousness, acquiring more and more strength and virulence as it spreads. The music in this aria evokes endlessly expanding concentric circles of fallacies that feed on one another until the perfect storm of hatred is created. It then irrupts with a cyclonic violence: “Come colpo di canone” (Like a canon blast), he exclaims triumphantly. In the final analysis, what saves Basilio from being utterly contemptible is his pragmatism. He knows when the game is over. When the Count orders him to be a witness to the signing of the marriage contract and gives him the choice of a purse of gold or two bullets through his head, Basilio doesn’t hesitate for a second.


Bartolo would be a merely laughable figure if he weren’t so intelligent. It is very difficult for Figaro and the two lovers to outwit him because he is so very perspicacious. Being paranoid simply heightens this perspicacity. In his aria, a long-winded, self-righteous rant, “Un dottore della mia sorte” (A doctor of my vintage), he warns Rosina that he will take whatever action he deems necessary in order to safeguard her virtue, including locking her up in her room in such a way that not even air will be able to filter in. As I deciphered his statement, I discovered in it a very revealing subtext: Bartolo finds his ward all the more fascinating because she does not conform to his ideal of the docile, submissive female that he can completely dominate. He is really hung up between the kind of woman he thinks he wants and the brazen little hussy he accuses Rosina of being but who alone can still, at his advanced age, excite him sexually.


These two opposing camps, Basilio and Bartolo on one side, Figaro, Rosina and the Count on the other, are constantly striving to outwit one another. It is inevitable, then that the action in Il barbiere, just like in the play that inspired it, resembles a revved up racing car skidding wildly across the roadway and coming perilously close to careening into the ditch. The situations in which the characters find themselves appear quite implausible when judged by the standard of ordinary reality. But opera does not depict ordinary reality. Opera thrives on poetic fantasy and we find it here in bountiful abundance. Taking his cue from Beaumarchais, Rossini and his librettist create rapports de force between the various personages in their opera that reveal the potential for anarchy, chaos and even insanity in human existence. In the first scene of the first act we see the musicians unleashing an infernal racket in their desire to express their gratitude to the Count. Later on in this act, when the militia enters Bartolo’s house to quell what they think is a riot, the characters burst into near-cacophonous chatter, followed by stunned silence as soon as Almaviva reveals his identity to the police, then, utterly bewildered, are drawn into a musical vortex as the act ends. In Act II, Rosina, Figaro, Almaviva and Bartolo all want to get rid of Basilio for different reasons. For once in complete agreement, and all lying brazenly, they tell him he has the symptoms of scarlet fever and practically push him out of the house. In this quintet, a most cynically delicious piece, the phrase “Buona sera, mio signore (“Good night, Sir), recurs again and again to side splitting effect. No wonder Berta, Bartolo.s servant, complains bitterly that she is living in a madhouse!


To conjure up this atmosphere of whimsy bordering on madness, director Joan Font, choreographer Xevi Dorca and lighting designer, Albert Faura, give the opera a mind-boggling cartoonish interpretation. In the opening scene, the men’s chorus has a large assortment of multicoloured guitars, with an oversized pink-and-green one that doubles as a platform for Count Almaviva to serenade Rosina. Later on, the singers climb aboard a massive pink piano that doubles as a writing desk, banquet table, and boudoir for the young lovers. All through the opera, the designs are unstable, that is, you never know what they are going to turn into next. And just outside Bartolo’s house stands an archetypal tree, symbolizing the irrepressible force of life and youth. It is often framed in vivid, warm colours. If this were not enough, as though to underscore the power of money in achieving happiness, 100 dollar bills rain down on the audience at the end of the performance.


As the good-humoured turbulence of Il barbiere di Siviglia comes to an end, Rosina and the Count are wed, and the whole entourage showers blessings upon them. But will their relationship endure? Those of you who are familiar with the French literary sequel, Le Mariage de Figaro and its operatic version, Le Nozze di Figaro, know that it will be severely tested. As I emphasized earlier, the Count’s penchant for amorous adventures will lead to non-stop skirt chasing. Even though Rosina will eventually forgive him, one senses that she will need the patience of a saint to put up with her roving husband. But why worry about what will happen to the lovers once the curtain falls? Let’s stay in the euphoric mood this opera generates and let’s believe that Rosina and her adoring Count will indeed live happily ever after.


Thank you for joining me for another chat on opera!


Leonard Rosmarin

 

 

 

 

Il Barbiere di Siviglia chat by Léonard Rosmarin

Posted by leonardrosmarin on May 4, 2015 at 9:30 AM Comments comments (0)



It’s hard to believe that Giaochino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, one of the most popular comic operas of all time, was an abysmal failure at its first performance in Rome in 1816. A combination of circumstances can explain this. Fans of a rival composer, Paisiello, who himself had written a highly successful Barber of Seville, were determined to see it flop. Then the performance was plagued by all kinds of hitches that represent every singer’s nightmare: Manuel Garcia, the tenor playing Count Almaviva, used a guitar that was badly out of tune; Zenobio Vitarelli, singing the slimy music master, Basilio, fell and bloodied himself; then a stray cat bounded on the stage, causing mayhem and provoking gales of laughter in the audience when it got entangled in the prima donna’s skirts. Rossini did not blow his cool. He did not respond with outraged contempt to his public’s gross conduct. He reworked his score carefully, and six months later mounted the opera again in Bologna. With a stupefying immediacy it was hailed by audiences there and everywhere else as a summit of comic and lyrical theatre.


It does not often happen that a literary text and the opera inspired by it are completely worthy of one another. For example, Victorien Sardou’s play, La Tosca would have sunk into oblivion were it not for the crackling electricity of Puccini’s opera by the same name. Even a high quality piece of literature like the novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée owes a good part of its fame today to Georges Bizet’s celebrated opera about the wanton Gypsy. Without the French composer’s glorious music, Carmen would probably be little more than the story of a one-night stand gone wrong rather than a confrontation between two elemental forces programmed by a malevolent fate to destroy one another. We have no such reservations as concerns the original subversive play by Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais, Le Barbier de Séville, produced in 1775, that is, four years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, and its operatic equivalent, Il barbiere. Here we have a perfect fit. In his own inimitable way, Rossini, with the help of his astute librettist, Cesare Sterbini, succeeded in conveying through music the effervescent, infectious spirit of the original comedy. And so, I would like to demonstrate to you why Le Barbier de Séville and Il barbiere di Siviglia complement one another beautifully.


Let’s look first of all at the principal characters. In both the play and the opera, they have the same vividness and individuality. Rossini brilliantly effects their reincarnation in musical terms, starting with the undisputed hero, Figaro. His inexhaustible energy, exuberant love of life, quick-wittedness, talent for plotting, wheedling, wheeling and dealing fairly clamour for a musical treatment. In the French play, Figaro is Beaumarchais’ transparent spokesman denouncing an unjust social and political order. He voices the same kind of subversive revolutionary ideas that would lead to the eventual collapse of the Old Regime. Since music unfolds more slowly than the spoken word, Rossini and his librettist simply did not have the time at their disposal to allow their hero to express these views. But this isn’t necessary. Through his actions Figaro proves that he deserves to be at the top rather than near the bottom of the existing social hierarchy.


Figaro is clearly superior in resourcefulness to his former master, Count Almaviva. Without his assistance, the ardent young Count would never have been able to penetrate the otherwise unassailable fortress in which the paranoid Dr. Bartolo has imprisoned his ward, the lovely Rosina, and marry her in less than 24 hours. It is Figaro who urges Almaviva to dress up as a drunken soldier in the first act and get himself billeted in Bartolo’s home in order to declare his love to the lady of his heart. It is Figaro, as Bartolo’s barber, who insists on shaving the suspicious guardian in the second act while Almaviva, disguised this time as a fake, obsequious music master, is giving a singing lesson to his beloved. Thanks to his ingeniousness, Figaro provokes pandemonium in order to distract Bartolo and allow the lovers to plot their escape. Finally, it is Figaro who saves the day in extremis when it seems as though the lovers’ dream of a happy married life is doomed.


Rossini draws a stunning musical portrait of his high-octane hero in one of the most famous arias ever written, “Largo al factotum,” that I translate freely as “Make way for the fixer!” Here one cannot help but be astounded by the skill with which Rossini mixes farcical accents and the expression of a complex and deep humanity. With its prancing musical accompaniment, its witty imitative effects, the clarity of its harmonic texture, its brilliant ornamentation and inexhaustible melodic invention, it’s not surprising that “Largo al factotum” has become the very emblem of Rossini’s genius.


Rosina is the only other character in the opera who can compete with Figaro as far as plotting is concerned. In fact, in the first act he is astounded to discover that she is several steps ahead of him when she hands him the letter of encouragement he was going to ask her to write to the Count. Just like Figaro, Rosina derives an intellectual pleasure from causing mischief. She will not willingly allow herself to be trampled on. In our 21st century, we consider it perfectly normal and natural for women to combat male tyranny in all its forms. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, adolescent girls like Rosina (she is only 16) were expected to be docile, demur and submissive. It was not uncommon for them to be married off against their will to unattractive rich men old enough to be their grandfathers, in which case if they were spunky like Rosina, they could only hope that their elderly husbands would drop dead shortly afterwards from obvious causes, and leave them with lots of money and the freedom to finally lead the life they wanted. Even a man as enlightened as the 19th century French novelist, Stendahl, stated à propos of the duet “Dunque io son?” that Rosina sings with Figaro: ‘I will never believe that a girl’s love, even in Rome, could be devoid of melancholy and, I dare to say it, of a certain bloom of delicacy and shyness…’. He likened Rosina to a “lively widow” rather than a young girl. Clearly, just like the arrogant and disrespectful Figaro, Rosina had awakened sleeping fears and deep-rooted anxieties in so-called “public opinion” of the time. Her famous aria, “Una voce poco fa,” (A voice resonates in my heart) reveals a vivacious girl who is also a cunning piece of baggage. The rather sharp flavour of the E major Andante instrumental introduction, with its trills and runs, puts to rest any misgivings we might have about Rosina being naïve. The flashing coloratura passages with which her aria is laced evoke a very self-assured, even cocky young lady who would not hesitate to act like a viper if provoked.


Count Almaviva is worthy of the unconditional love Rosina feels for him, at least in this particular opera. In the sequel, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), we will see how his predilection for adventure leads to philandering on an unbridled scale. But in Il barbiere di Siviglia, we perceive in him a purity and nobility of heart that are truly admirable. He passes himself off as a poor student by the name of Lindoro precisely because he wants to be loved for himself rather than for his aristocratic stature, power, and fortune. In fact he does not reveal his identity to Rosina until he feels compelled to do so in order to negate the false accusation, levelled by Bartolo, that he has betrayed her. The Count is irresistibly attracted to Rosina because of the mystery that surrounds her and the drama involved in winning her hand. He is excited by the prospect of penetrating into the building where she is sequestered, liberating her from her tyrannical guardian, and conquering her love. His courtship unfolds like a roller-coaster novel of chivalry, and he sees himself as the knight designated by Providence to rescue a beautiful damsel in distress. The two arias he sings in the first act, inspired by his love for Rosina, reflect the sentiments dominating his heart: ardent longing and jubilation.


To achieve their ends, however, Figaro, Rosina and the Count must contend with two redoubtable enemies: the oily, smarmy priest, Basilio, who is Rosina’s music master, and the lecherous old curmudgeon Bartolo, who is determined to marry her with Basilio’s help. Of the two, Basilio is the less despicable. Like Figaro and Rosina, he derives an intellectual pleasure from engaging in intrigue. But whereas Figaro and Rosina are fighting for a noble cause, Basilio would sell himself to the devil (or anyone else for that matter) if there were lots of money to be made during the transaction. His famous aria, La calunia (Slander), depicts his sleeplessly scheming nature. In it he describes to Bartolo how he can utterly ruin the Count’s reputation by spreading false rumours about him. Basilio seems to imply that slander acts like an insidious poison, leeching its way through the collective consciousness, acquiring more and more strength and virulence as it spreads. The music in this aria evokes endlessly expanding concentric circles of fallacies that feed on one another until the perfect storm of hatred is created. It then irrupts with a cyclonic violence: “Come colpo di canone” (Like a canon blast), he exclaims triumphantly. In the final analysis, what saves Basilio from being utterly contemptible is his pragmatism. He knows when the game is over. When the Count orders him to be a witness to the signing of the marriage contract and gives him the choice of a purse of gold or two bullets through his head, Basilio doesn’t hesitate for a second.


Bartolo would be a merely laughable figure if he weren’t so intelligent. It is very difficult for Figaro and the two lovers to outwit him because he is so very perspicacious. Being paranoid simply heightens this perspicacity. In his aria, a long-winded, self-righteous rant, “Un dottore della mia sorte” (A doctor of my vintage), he warns Rosina that he will take whatever action he deems necessary in order to safeguard her virtue, including locking her up in her room in such a way that not even air will be able to filter in. As I deciphered his statement, I discovered in it a very revealing subtext: Bartolo finds his ward all the more fascinating because she does not conform to his ideal of the docile, submissive female that he can completely dominate. He is really hung up between the kind of woman he thinks he wants and the brazen little hussy he accuses Rosina of being but who alone can still, at his advanced age, excite him sexually.


These two opposing camps, Basilio and Bartolo on one side, Figaro, Rosina and the Count on the other, are constantly striving to outwit one another. It is inevitable, then that the action in Il barbiere, just like in the play that inspired it, resembles a revved up racing car skidding wildly across the roadway and coming perilously close to careening into the ditch. The situations in which the characters find themselves appear quite implausible when judged by the standard of ordinary reality. But opera does not depict ordinary reality. Opera thrives on poetic fantasy and we find it here in bountiful abundance. Taking his cue from Beaumarchais, Rossini and his librettist create rapports de force between the various personages in their opera that reveal the potential for anarchy, chaos and even insanity in human existence. In the first scene of the first act we see the musicians unleashing an infernal racket in their desire to express their gratitude to the Count. Later on in this act, when the militia enters Bartolo’s house to quell what they think is a riot, the characters burst into near-cacophonous chatter, followed by stunned silence as soon as Almaviva reveals his identity to the police, then, utterly bewildered, are drawn into a musical vortex as the act ends. In Act II, Rosina, Figaro, Almaviva and Bartolo all want to get rid of Basilio for different reasons. For once in complete agreement, and all lying brazenly, they tell him he has the symptoms of scarlet fever and practically push him out of the house. In this quintet, a most cynically delicious piece, the phrase “Buona sera, mio signore (“Good night, Sir), recurs again and again to side splitting effect. No wonder Berta, Bartolo.s servant, complains bitterly that she is living in a madhouse!


To conjure up this atmosphere of whimsy bordering on madness, director Joan Font, choreographer Xevi Dorca and lighting designer, Albert Faura, give the opera a mind-boggling cartoonish interpretation. In the opening scene, the men’s chorus has a large assortment of multicoloured guitars, with an oversized pink-and-green one that doubles as a platform for Count Almaviva to serenade Rosina. Later on, the singers climb aboard a massive pink piano that doubles as a writing desk, banquet table, and boudoir for the young lovers. All through the opera, the designs are unstable, that is, you never know what they are going to turn into next. And just outside Bartolo’s house stands an archetypal tree, symbolizing the irrepressible force of life and youth. It is often framed in vivid, warm colours. If this were not enough, as though to underscore the power of money in achieving happiness, 100 dollar bills rain down on the audience at the end of the performance.


As the good-humoured turbulence of Il barbiere di Siviglia comes to an end, Rosina and the Count are wed, and the whole entourage showers blessings upon them. But will their relationship endure? Those of you who are familiar with the French literary sequel, Le Mariage de Figaro and its operatic version, Le Nozze di Figaro, know that it will be severely tested. As I emphasized earlier, the Count’s penchant for amorous adventures will lead to non-stop skirt chasing. Even though Rosina will eventually forgive him, one senses that she will need the patience of a saint to put up with her roving husband. But why worry about what will happen to the lovers once the curtain falls? Let’s stay in the euphoric mood this opera generates and let’s believe that Rosina and her adoring Count will indeed live happily ever after.


Thank you for joining me for another chat on opera!


Leonard Rosmarin

 

 

 

 

Fallstaff by Giuseppe Verdi

Posted by leonardrosmarin on November 3, 2014 at 10:10 AM Comments comments (1)


Falstaff is a wonderful yet strange work that has aroused all kinds of contradictory interpretations. This last opera by Giuseppe Verdi, written when the venerable composer was close to 80 years old, seems in many respects to be a comedy and, in some productions, can provoke the audience’s mirth. Yet one rarely laughs uproariously here. “It’s too nasty,” say some people. “It’s too subtle,” assert others. This apparent contradiction bothers certain commentators. But for Verdi the danger lay elsewhere. It resided in the discontinuity of the plot. He worried about the third act. He was afraid that it would appear cold or anti-climatic after the excitement and thrilling pace of the previous scene that closes the second act. How could one move from the solid, bourgeois reality of Alice Ford’s home to the diaphanous atmosphere of the nocturnal revelries that illuminate the final act? How could one make Falstaff’s triumph at the end of the opera seem plausible after the audience sees him being constantly ridiculed and humiliated? Verdi and his extremely astute librettist, Arrigo Boito, resolved this dilemma by exploiting this very discontinuity and turning their opera into a protean substance. In other words, they created a lyric comedy that is in a perpetual state of metamorphosis.


But perpetual change does not mean incoherence. There are two unifying threads in this opera. They unfold along parallel lines and—although this may sound preposterous from the purely mathematical point of view—they do intersect at crucial moments in the plot. I would describe the first as “feminine inventiveness.” The second is Falstaff’s multi-facetted personality that enables him to bounce back from every successive setback (some would say like a far more intelligent Rob Ford!), and that fully justifies his right to have this opera named after him. I’d like to explore these two threads with you now.


Even for someone who is seeing this opera for the first time, it is obvious that it is the women—Alice Ford, Meg Page, and Dame Quickly—who are running the show from start to finish. Indeed, in Falstaff Verdi creates a polarization between the foresight and wisdom of the women on the one hand, and the folly of the men on the other. Of course comedy has always been the place where women take revenge for the insults they endure in drama, but this triumph is particularly striking in Falstaff, even at the expense of some unfaithfulness to Shakespeare. In the original play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Ann Page (who will become Nannetta in the opera) wants to marry Fenton but comes up against the opposition of her father who want her to marry Slender as well as of her mother who wants her to wed Dr. Caius, whereas Mistress Quickly, the servant of Dr. Caius, plays the rather dubious role of the go-between, promising everyone to work for their cause. In other words, Ann and Fenton can count only on their own resources to overcome the obstacles that thwart their love. On the contrary, in the libretto, only Nannetta’s father, Ford, wants to marry her off to that doddering old pedant, Caius, and, the women (Alice Ford, Meg Page and Mistress Quickly), band together to help the young people fulfill their dream. Thus, the cleavage which, in the Shakespeare play, separates the young and the old divides Verdi’s characters into two distinct camps: the men on one side and the young, aided by the women, on the other.


Because of this change in perspective, the women become the prime movers of the plot. They are the ones who set up the farces, devise the traps destined to thwart Ford’s plans, and stage-manage the final phantasmagoria. As Verdi stated, they keep stirring the porridge and make not only Falstaff but Ford and Caius look ludicrous. This reshaping of the play was essentially the work of Boito, who also was inspired by King Henry IV, parts 1 and 2; but Verdi enthusiastically approved the new orientation and always insisted on the importance of Alice Ford, calling her a devil of a woman. He even went so far as to declare her the principal character of his opera.


Through his music, the composer does a marvellous job of differentiating the men and the women, and he does so by emphasizing the latter’s verve. The first tableau, where only the men appear, is dominated by a measure in 4/4 time so that, when the women come on stage in the second scene, their characteristic 6/8 time appears sharper, more piquant and sparkling. The lovers’ entrance is marked by ¾ time, to underscore their solidarity with the three ladies. The grand ensemble bringing Act 1 to a close provides for a stunning contrast between the women’s group and the men’s: Alice, Meg and Quickly sing in 6/8 time (“Quell’otre, quell tino” whereas the men express their self-righteous and comical indignation in 2/2 time:“È un ribaldo, un furbo, un ladro”( Play no. 3). In Act 2, the “Merry Wives of Windsor” refrain is also heard in 6/8 time, while the arrival of Alice’s husband, at first pretend and then real, takes us back to 2/4. During the great ensemble that precedes Falstaff being dumped in the Thames River, the men’s aggressive sixteenth notes contrast with the elegant eight-note triplets of the women. Verdi does not use these rhythmic variations systematically, but succeeds in indicating that the ladies are light-hearted and fun-loving, whereas the men appear half-crazy and clumsy, if not utterly stupid.


The ladies’ superiority and controlling power are clearly in evidence when compared to the self-righteous illusions under which most of the men in this opera labour. For example, Ford’s inner insecurity disguises itself as jealous rage in his honour monologue in the second act; in the third, he still imagines he can wield his full paternal authority whereas he has already been bamboozled by his wife, Alice, with a precious assist from Dame Quickly. Bardolfo and Pistola flaunt their respectability in the face of Falstaff, but the reality of their lives negates it. And Falstaff, a caricatural version of the hero, deludes himself into believing that he is an irresistible seducer, forgetting that he is, in the eyes of Alice and Meg, nothing more than a huge mass of ambulating venison. Not that the women escape the charm of illusion, but the big difference is that they know how to master it. There is a certain melancholy in Alice’s flight of fancy as she reads Sir John’s flattering letter, but an infectious burst of laughter dispels this temporary nostalgia. The most magical moment of the opera is the great invocation of the Fairy Queen, that is, Nannetta, but this enchanting scene beneath the oak of Herne has been organized by the three Merry Wives of Windsor. The men are the victims of their illusions, while the women are constantly manipulating them. Shakespeare’s solid, middle-class ladies become, in the hands of Boito and Verdi, graceful, cunning creatures who know how to surrender to the charms of fantasy without becoming its prisoners. They stage-manage the whirlwind carnival at the end of the opera but are never taken in by it. In many respects, this is a feminist opera!


And yet, in extremis, it is Falstaff who appears to accede to an apotheosis-like state. After being duped, cruelly mocked, humiliated, poked and pinched, forced to confess just about every sin in the Christian catalogue, he proclaims towards the end of the opera that everyone taking part in the Windsor forest revelry owes him a debt of gratitude. His wit, he insists, creates the wit of others. And his former tormentors readily agree as they hail him as a sage. How come? Simply because despite some pretty despicable traits of character, Verdi genuinely loved his last hero or, should we say, anti-hero. Just like the Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff, in his own way, anchors this opera. I mentioned earlier that Sir John is a protean personage, exhibiting traits that contradict one another. But it is precisely these contradictions that help give this opera its organic unity. As the plot unfolds, Falstaff reveals the conflicting aspects of his nature one after the other or even simultaneously.


I have always seen him as a larger-than-life embodiment of man the disillusioned philosopher and man the ludicrous buffoon who, nevertheless, is propelled by an irrepressible will to live. Falstaff reveals the gloomily pessimistic aspect of his nature in his diatribe against the ideal of honour. In the very first scene of the opera, his servants, Bardolfo and Pistola, refuse to carry his two identical love letters to Alice Ford and Meg Page on the pretext that their honour forbids them from acting like panderers. Falstaff explodes in fury. For him, the term “honour” has been voided of its substance by being invoked by cynical people as a pretext to legitimize all forms of moral vice, including flattery, pride and slander. He seems to imply that language takes revenge on the people who abuse it by emptying itself of its contents, somewhat like the word “awesome” has been debased in our 21st century by being applied indiscriminately to everything from Bloody Marys to chicken pizza. As a former professor of literature, I cringe every time I hear the word abused!


And yet this old sage, who can be ruthlessly lucid about human nature, is himself trapped in a monumental delusion: as I emphasized, he believes he is irresistibly attractive to women. He is convinced Alice Ford and Meg Page can hardly wait for him to lavish his attentions, sexual and other, on them. In fact, when he meets Alice’s husband disguised as Master Fontana prior to his rendezvous with the latter’s wife, Falstaff boasts of how he will cuckold the unfortunate wretch. Even after he has been humiliated by being dumped unceremoniously into the Thames River in a laundry hamper, his super-sized vanity again falls for Dame Quickly’s assurances that Alice Ford is still madly in love with him. How, then, you may ask, can the same individual be both so wise and stupid? The answer probably lies in the elemental life-affirming force within Falstaff that prevents him from dwelling too long on his glaring inadequacies or wallowing in self-pity. Indeed, this force saves him after he emerges, drenched and shivering, from the Thames River. At first he is ready to consign all of mankind to hell. “Mondo ladro, reo mondo!” he snarls in disgust. Nevertheless, the minute he starts savouring the hot wine he had ordered, this melancholy old man, afraid of death and comically cynical, bounces back. His body tingles excitedly as the precious liquid flows through it. The orchestra mirrors this excitement eloquently. The strings shimmer as we imagine Falstaff tasting the wine. He describes the process deliciously. The wine is a cricket (“grillo” that flits in the body of a drinker (“brillo”, creating a trill (“trillo”. The flute begins a cricket-like trilling theme, which passes to the violins at “brillo;” they augment it one at a time until the whole orchestra is subsumed into the trill.


Falstaff’s life-affirming energy also enables him, as I mentioned earlier, to wrest a last-minute victory over the jeering denizens of Windsor Forest. At the end of the opera, it is he who leads everyone in the whirlwind fugue to the words “Tutto nel mondo è burla./ L’uomo è nato burlon” (Everything in the world’s a jest./Man is born a jester). In all probability Alice, Meg and Quickly had arrived at a similar conclusion as well, but it is Falstaff who crystallizes this truth when their mad Windsor Forest adventure is happily resolved. Life is an insane merry-go-round, but why not enjoy the ride? Sooner or later we are all figures of fun (“Tutti Gabàti”;). So what? Our ability to laugh at ourselves constitutes our nobility. And when we can laugh at ourselves, we have the laughers on our side, too, just like Falstaff does in the end. (Play no. 4)


Robert Carsen could have provided us with an Elizabethan setting for this opera. But he has done something audacious. We are still in Windsor, England. The Merry Wives have lost none of their capacity for mischief. But he has transposed the action to the 1950’s. At the outset, this concept may seem jarring for traditionalists. But it works beautifully, because the stage direction and decors always remain faithful to the spirit of Boito’s text and Verdi’s music. In this particular production the aristocracy, of which Falstaff is a member, is loosing its lustre. It is on its way down. The middle class, of which the Merry Wives and Mr. Ford are representatives, are on their way up on a wave of material prosperity.


The Garter Inn, where Falstaff resides, is no longer a seedy, run-down place. It is a luxurious hotel that also includes social club facilities and a dining area. Falstaff has embedded himself there where he runs up endless bills with a total insouciance as to how he will ever pay them. Instead of meeting in the garden of the Ford’s dwelling to discuss the identitcal letters sent by Falstaff, Meg, Quickly, Alice and Nannetta meet for a ladies lunch at the sumptuous restaurant in the Garter Inn, while the agitated men discuss their business at the other end of the room. Fenton, Nannetta’s sweetheart, is a waiter in the dining hall. This is a very telling touch, because it helps explain why Ford is so opposed to a young man belonging to a much lower social class than his daughter. The two lovers exchange endearments under a table rather than among the flowerbeds. Why not? Love always finds a way. When Falstaff comes to court Alice in the second act, she receives him in an immense, gaudily painted yellow kitchen replete with every conceivable new appliance. She pops a turkey in the oven that she will then share with her admirer. Falstaff, of course, will take the biggest portion for himself, leaving very little for the lady of his heart. Before he arrives, Nannetta bemoans her impending marriage to Dr. Caius while scooping ice cream out of a big container. I won’t tell you anything more in order not to spoil your fun.


In his way, then, Robert Carsen conjures up a very funny yet potentially sad clash between representatives of two very different social classes and mentalities. Just as Verdi intended, merriment prevails and then triumphs in the Windsor Forest tableau. And If Verdi could have attended a performance of this production, I dare say he would have smiled. Because here the passions of desire, pride, jealousy, hatred and revenge that Verdi depicted seriously in just about all of his other operas are gently mocked, just as the great composer intended them to be.


Thank you for reading!


Leonard

CHAT ON DON QUICHOTTE

Posted by leonardrosmarin on June 9, 2014 at 8:00 AM Comments comments (2)



Back in the 1950s and ‘60s it was considered almost shameful to admit that one admired the music of Jules Massenet, the most prolific of French operatic composers in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. So-called connoisseurs would stare at you with a mixture of pity and contempt, as though you were irremediably trapped in a misguided, kitch-ridden notion of what art was supposed to be. The noted musicologist, Andrew Porter, encountered this reaction when asked by the then editor of the Master Musicians series of biographies, on which composer he would prefer to contribute a volume. Porter proposed Massenet, for whom he felt a genuine admiration. His distinguished editor, Eric Blom, also in charge of the famous Groves Dictionary, never quite took him seriously ever again. Fortunately this snobbishly unfair attitude is disappearing. Massenet can now decently be praised not only as a charmer, a skillful and extremely conscientious craftsman, or a purveyor of delightfully perfumed sweets, but as the creator of some ambitious and powerfully emotional music, much of it conceived on a very large scale. The term “heroic” is not an adjective often applied to Massenet, but it can be applied without exaggeration to more than a few passages in one of his final works staged in 1910, Don Quichotte.


Massenet’s opera bears only a tangential relationship to the illustrious Spanish novel, Don Quijote, by the 16th century author Miguel de Cervantes, its original source of inspiration. The composer’s musical imagination was fired up, rather, by the play Don Quichotte, written by a contemporary dramatist by the name of Jacques Le Lorrain, an extremely picturesque character in his own right who, in more than one respect, appeared like the living incarnation of the derisory yet strangely moving and highly dysfunctional Knight of the Doleful Countenance that Cervantes had made famous. The composer was delighted by the transformation of the character of Don Quichotte who Cervantes treated with irony and sarcasm, understandably so, since the novel, Don Quijote is, among many other things, a satire on the literature of medieval chivalry. In the hands of Le Lorrain the Knight becomes a tragic hero. Massenet also welcomed the sophisticated courtesan, Dulcinée, a far cry from the scullery wench and vulgar village tart, Aldonza, depicted in the Spanish novel. In Cervantes’ text Don Quijote refuses steadfastly to see her as she is, persists in worshipping her and calls her Dulcinea.


Massenet sympathized deeply with the hero of Le Lorrain’s play, Don Quichotte, the poor and defeated old man equipped with toy weapons, who sets out to redress the wrongs of the world in the name of his unbreakable idealism and his lady-love. Massenet must have recognized many elements of his own personality in the tragic character of Le Lorrain’s chivalrous knight: his gentility, his craving for true love, his struggle against a creeping and crippling old age coupled with the knowledge that he was dying of cancer, and his struggle against the new harmonies of yet another new school of music already capturing the minds of younger composers. Massenet found the character of Dulcinée equally attractive, because she was brought to life in his opera by a very beautiful young mezzo-soprano, Lucy Arbell with whom he was infatuated. Mlle Arbel’s voice had the texture of dark, molten chocolate; she was a fiery and accomplished dancer, and could even accompany herself creditably on the guitar in her fourth-act aria.


Yet despite the sadness, regrets and sorrow that pervade his opera, Massenet called it a Comédie-héroïque, meaning a heroic comedy. In the light of the composer’s definition of his work, I would like to explore the nature of Don Quichotte with you by analyzing the character of the hero himself, then by showing how the two other protagonists, his squire Sancho Panza, and his beloved Dulcinée, relate to him.


More than a few commentators have wondered whether Massenet’s Don Quichotte is a hero, or a comic facsimile of one. At the beginning the composer provides his title character with an entrance worthy of royalty. Distant acclamations herald a personage of seemingly great stature. Fanfare figures alternate with stately march rhythms. Yet in the same breath the crowd also acclaims Sancho, Don Quichotte’s page,  Rossinante, his horse, as well as Sancho’s donkey! It would appear that his fellow-Spaniards are celebrating an illusion. But hasn’t the frail Don Quichotte been cheered by readers throughout history precisely because of the comical extravagance of his imagination?


All is not comical, however, in this madman. With a mystic Christian invocation to “les Séraphins, les Archanges, les Trônes,” (The Seraphims, the Archangels, the Thrones) the hero orders Sancho to distribute their few remaining coins to the crowd. Hence the essence of the title character: despite his self-aggrandizement he is fundamentally altruistic and virtuous. He seeks not only to imitate the exterior actions of the medieval knights whose exploits have addled his brain after many hours of voracious reading, but also to embody their morality (or what he imagines it to have been). A combination of a crazed imagination with heartfelt virtue makes for a very moving protagonist.


Massenet’s opera, then, strikes a delicate balance between the serious and the comic. In Act II the weight shifts to humour. Here the librettist, Henri Cain, skips over Le Lorrain’s play to refer back to the novel in order to include a light-hearted scene at the beginning of the act where Don Quichotte attempts unsuccessfully to compose a poem for the lady of his heart. Then Sancho makes a denigrating reference to his master’s pugnacious encounter with sheep and pigs that the latter mistakes for heathen enemies. But the most conspicuous return to Cervantes in this act is the episode of the windmill that in the popular imagination has assumed almost iconic status as an example of Don Quichotte’s delusions. The knight leads his charge against these so-called giants to motoric rhythms and musical textures such as one might find in a serious episode of a Gluck or Rameau opera, a musical anachronism that obviously pokes fun at our hero.


The oscillation between the serious and the comic occurs again in the third act. Dulcinée had requested of her knight errant that he retrieve a very expensive pearl necklace that a band of infamous robbers had stolen from her. This courageous action, she insists, will be proof of his devotion to her. Because the bandits are reputed to be ruthless, the assignment appears somewhat cruel. With its threatening trombone chromaticism, the beginning of Act III where Don Quichotte encounters the robbers seems terrifying enough. But how frightening can these criminals be when Massenet illustrates their footsteps with a light scherzando motif? To extricate himself from a dangerous situation Don Quichotte plays the role of a Christian martyr and, what seems improbable, generates enough physical strength to break his fetters. Because of the improbability that the skinny knight can call upon such force, it is hard to gauge whether the intended effect is tongue-in-cheek, a caricature of those brawny heroes who perform superhuman feats in medieval romance. Catholic mysticism may also be subject to a lampooning here. Indeed, the sudden sound of the organ on the Spanish Sierra seems incongruous. Don Quichotte appears to win over the bandits almost too effortlessly, as though he were a saint performing a miracle. The magic of Massenet’s music, however, persuades us to suspend our disbelief. We realize that in real life such a transformation of evil into good through the spiritual power of an elderly, self-deluding man would be well-nigh impossible. Nevertheless this event is so exalting through the eloquence of the composer’s music that we might well say to ourselves, “If it doesn’t and can’t happen in real life, then perhaps it should! The world would be a much better place to live in.”


The staging and decors in the production I saw emphasize splendidly this disconnect between Don Quichotte’s inflamed imagination and the reality surrounding him. The stage space is filled with massive, leather-bound old storybooks. They symbolize the distorted, indeed, hopelessly fantastical vision our hero has acquired of the world by absorbing and believing literally the tales of chivalry he had been devouring. They explain instantly and vividly why Don Quichotte has become a comical yet endearing madman. 


Sancho, too, moves from the comic to the sublime. During the first three acts he resembles Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He has a very prosaic mind, seems interested only in food, drink, and staying out of danger. He is a coward from the word go, fleeing into the forest in the third act and leaving his old master to cope with the evil robbers all alone. But he appears as an antithetical Leporello. Mozart’s character spins out hyperbole about male virility. Sancho, disapproving of his master’s devotion to Dulcinée, pours out hyperbole about male victimisation by the opposite sex in the longest aria of the opera. For all the comedy in the role, however, by the end of the fourth act Sancho turns into a courageous, selfless defender of Don Quichotte. With a soaring and sonorous melody he bids his knight to leave the unworthy Dulcinée who has refused his marriage proposal, and her retinue of cruelly mocking admirers. The jeering of Dulcinée’s guests provokes Sancho’s fury. He rebuffs the elegant and shallow ladies and their gentlemen companions because they are incapable of understanding the one fact he now understands: the innocent generosity and heartfelt commitment to humanity of this self-deluding old man.


It is very significant that from this moment till the end of the opera Sancho uses the familiar rather than the formal form of address when speaking to his master. We no longer have this distinction in the English language, but in French it is still of paramount importance. One does not cross this boundary lightly either in France or Québec even today. One uses “Tu” or “Thou” when addressing close friends, “Vous” for people with whom one either does not have or does not want to have an intimate relationship. The surge of compassion and admiration for his master that overwhelms Sancho here is underscored by his sudden recourse to the familiar form of address. Sancho no longer considers himself his master’s servant. The unconditional and protective love he now feels for the half-insane yet noble old man has made him Don Quichotte’s best friend and adopted son as well. The words he sings here are deeply moving: “Viens, mon grand! Viens! Viens!” (Come, my great one! Come! Come!) It is not that Sancho has forgotten to what insane extremes Don Quichotte’s wild imagination has led both of them. But now all this has become irrelevant. Given the ugliness of the real world, the only thing that counts for Sancho at present is the lofty idealism of his master, however insane it might be, because in the mind of Don Quichotte at least, it remains real. The squire speaks now as though he had become a clone of his master: “We have work to do. Let us strike out against the cruelty of the world.”  In the fifth and final act, the radical change in Sancho’s relationship to Don Quichotte is confirmed. He views the latter as a Christ-like figure, expressing for the elderly knight a filial love bordering on veneration. Needless to say, when Don Quichotte dies, Sancho is heartbroken, crying out in despair, “Mon maître adoré”(My beloved master).


Unlike Sancho, Dulcinée remains unwilling and unable to embark with Don Quichotte on wild adventures with a view to saving humanity, despite the strange fascination she experiences in the presence of the sublime madman. Being intelligent, she can comprehend in her own manner the spiritual exaltation that impels her aged knight errant to act the way he does. But she has too elemental a temperament, she has her feet too much on the ground to ever entertain the notion of wedding her destiny to that of her elderly worshipper.


Dulcinée belongs to a long line of Massenet heroines like Manon and Thaïs for whom love in its physical as well as spiritual sense is as necessary for her as the air she breathes. Neither she nor they can be described as femmes fatales. One of Massenet’s great accomplishments as a composer was the creation of sexy female protagonists, alluring ladies who can excite men without arousing in them subliminal castration anxieties. She charms men without devouring them. Dulcinée’s music encompasses a wide range. Both her Act I aria “Quand la femme a vingt ans” (When a woman is twenty years old), and “Lorsque le temps d’amour a fui” (When the time for loving has vanished) in Act IV overflow with a melancholy bordering on despair. Much like the better-known Thaïs standing before her mirror, Dulcinée reflects upon the waning of beauty and pleasure. The mezzo range enhances the wistful effect with resonant cadences in the dark low register of the voice. Dulcinée senses that the very qualities that make her irresistible to her panting, salivating suitors will one day fade the same way an exquisite flower quickly looses its bloom. She longs for something more substantial, perhaps an elusive spiritual plenitude. She yearns for a relationship that can resist the vicissitudes of time, yet her centre of gravity seems to be her carnal instinct. In Act IV she informs her four feckless suitors that she is bored with them because she craves, as she says in French, “d’inconnus frissons mordant ma chair gourmande.” (unknown thrills biting into my greedy flesh). Massenet’s erotic manner shines in this passage. In her aria, Dulcinée’s voice leaps down from a high note to execute sinuous chromatic turns low in the register. Then the voice reveals a sudden brightening of the harmony to emphasize these as yet “unknown thrills,” and the words “chair gourmande” are lasciviously drawn out at the cadence.


Don Quichotte is devastated when the lady of his heart refuses his hand in marriage. But how could it be otherwise? Dulcinée is what we would call, in hyper politically correct language, a horizontally accessible lady. There’s no way the half-emaciated, worn out, elderly knight could ever satisfy such a ravenous consumer. All he can offer her is sex in the head rather than sex in the bed. Later in the same act she displays heartfelt musical empathy to the knight whom she so bitterly disappoints, and more or less echoes the audiences reaction when she says of him, “Peut-être est-il fou, mais c’est un fou sublime.” (He is perhaps a madman, but a sublime one.)


Having failed to win the hand and heart of the woman he so worshipped, exhausted now both physically and emotionally after so many hair-raising adventures prompted by his delusional yet deeply moving idealism, there is nothing left for Don Quichotte except to die. While comforting Sancho, he hears Dulcinée’s voice, imagining her to be a star calling out to him. Just like another, much more recent reincarnation of the Don Quijote legend, Broadway’s Man of La Mancha, Massenet’s Don Quichotte also strove to live the impossible dream, and to reach for the unreachable star. At the end of the opera one can’t help thinking that perhaps certain failures are worth infinitely more than many forms of success.   

    

       

 

 

CHAT ON LA BOHEME

Posted by leonardrosmarin on September 29, 2013 at 12:25 AM Comments comments (9)


On March 19, 1893 Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of I Pagliacci, and Giacomo Puccini met by chance at a Milan café. Before that meeting, they thought they were friends. When they left the café, they were sworn enemies. During the course of their conversation Puccini mentioned casually that he was working on a new opera based on the French writer, Henri Mürger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, a loosely-linked series of autobiographical episodes nearly half-a-century old, and thus in the public domain. Leoncavallo was outraged. He reminded Puccini that he, Leoncavallo, was already composing a Bohème, and that before beginning to work on the story he had offered it to Puccini, who had refused it!


The row between the two composers moved from the café to the newspapers, whereupon it degenerated into a typical Italian melodrama. Finally Puccini proposed himself as a peacemaker. Let Leoncavallo write his opera, he said in effect, and I shall write mine. Then the public will decide. And decide it did. Leoncavallo’s Bohème is a charming work in many ways, but pales in comparison to Puccini’s. It has never caught on; the public’s choice has been judicious and implacable.


I have heard and seen many performances of La Bohème over the past half-century, some good, some bad, and some sublime. I have striven in the past ten years or so to view this opera objectively, to resist being mesmerized by its emotional impact, but to no avail. By the end of the third act I find myself weeping like a fountain, regardless of how good or bad the performance is. By the time the final curtain falls I’m an emotional wreck. The question I would like to explore with you, then, is the following: What is there about this opera that has succeeded in thrilling and shaking up audiences for more than a century? What accounts for its evergreen popularity?


First of all, Puccini had a good story and a good libretto. William Ashbrook talks about the unifying idea of cold that runs through all four acts: the first two take place on Christmas eve, in Act 3 we actually see snow falling, in the final act Mimi’s hands are cold, just as they were in act one when Rodolfo sang to her his famous aria, “che gelida manina.” Accompanying this wintry atmosphere is the unifying theme of hunger and poverty. But at the same time, in each act there is the warmth of love, of youthful exuberance, of “joie de vivre.” Puccini and his librettists fashioned a text that is marvellously subtle and balanced. The flamboyant, extrovert love of Musetta and Marcello contrasts with the more delicate and perhaps more profound love of Mimi and Rodolfo, even though theirs is equally marred by jealousy and quarrels discreetly taking place offstage. Schaunard and Colline are not just colourful extras: Schaunard’s first-act supply of provisions and his comical explanation of how he got them balance Colline’s sacrifice of his beloved overcoat in the final act to alleviate Mimi’s suffering. The outer acts, in the same setting, both begin with Bohemian horseplay and end seriously. The middle acts are set outdoors. The second act with its Latin Quarters ambiance has a festive boisterousness about it whereas the third, unfolding on the outskirts of Paris, reveals a tenderness and wistfulness that contrasts with the Musetta-Marcello spat taking place in the background.


The director and designer of this new production have conferred on Puccini’s opera an exciting new dimension by updating the action by almost fifty year to “La Belle Époque,” a period of intense artistic creativity in France towards the end of the 19th century. Marcello, the painter, could easily be the famous artist Toulouse-Lautrec who depicted in his works one of the most vibrant, vivid and dynamic moments in the life of the City of Light. This updating with its explosion of colours and impressions will certainly enhance your enjoyment of La Bohème.


But there is another reason that explains the opera’s perennial popularity: the warm-heartedness and winsome humanity of its principal characters. At first glance, Rodolfo and Mimi would appear to be an ill-assorted pair of lovers. He is a dreamer whose flights of imagination materialize in works of poetry. His temperament has an impetuousness and romantic irrationality that Puccini captures superbly by having him sing much of the time in triplets. She, on the other hand, is much more down to earth: a demure seamstress who earns her living by embroidering artificial flowers. She is also afflicted with one of the most dreaded diseases in the nineteenth century, tuberculosis. Thus Mimi corresponds to the image of the femme fragile. She is as beautiful and delicate as some exotic flower, but like the flower, needs the appropriate atmosphere in which to survive. The chronically impecunious Rodolfo can hardly create for her the ambiance necessary for her survival. Yet the two fall in love because of a profound spiritual affinity they discover in one another during the course of the first act. They both yearn for beauty and fulfilment through love.


An analysis of their autobiographical arias will bear this out. Both “Che gelida manina” (Your tiny hand is frozen) and “Michiamano Mimi” (They call me Mimi) unfold according to a circular movement. They begin rooted in reality, then soar into the realm of the ideal, and finally return to the humble circumstances from which they took flight. Being a verbal craftsman, Rodolfo is far more concise, articulate and self-assured than Mimi. After expressing gentle solicitousness towards the sickly young woman in one of the most fragrant melodies Puccini ever penned, he portrays himself by using intransitive verbs to answer his own rhetorical questions:


Who am I? I’m a poet.

What do I do? I write.

How do I live? I live.


Although Rodolfo is impoverished, his imagination, he assures Mimi, creates the dreams of a “millionaire’s soul.” The lovely Mimi, he insists, has just robbed him of all his spiritual treasures. He doesn’t mind in the least, however, because her presence has filled him with sweet hope for the future. After rising on an inspired melodic outburst up to a high C, the poet’s voice tapers down to a gently cajoling phrase as he requests that the young lady now tell him something about herself.


The autobiographical portrait Mimi draws of herself is rather prosaic atfirst:

Yes. They call me Mimi,

but my name is Lucia.

My story

is brief. I embroider on linen or silk, at home or outside.


Insecure and lacking in verbal smoothness, she offers Rodolfo a rather humdrum description of her work and private life. But all is not prosaic in her aria. The seamstress can dream, too. She yearns for escape from her isolated existence as an embroiderer of artificial flowers. After a tentative start, the first half of Mimi’s aria takes flight poetically as she tells Rodolfo that she has a predilection for things whose “sweet magic” speaks of love, springtime, dreams and chimeras. The second half of her autobiographical statement positively soars as she sings of the first “kiss” of April that belongs to her when she gazes up into the heavens from her attic window after the first thaw. Thus she echoes in her own way the vague yearnings Rodolfo expressed at the beginning of the opera as he, too, looked out the window at the grey skies.


During the course of the love duet that follows their autobiographical arias, it dawns on them progressively that they are meant for one another. Their encounter began innocently enough when Mimi knocked on Rodolfo’s door, requesting he relight her candle that had blown out in the draught on the staircase. Or did it really? There is doubt in some commentators’ minds, including mine, as to whether Mimi is really the wide-eyed, chaste and innocent creature she is often made out to be. It seems perfectly plausible that Puccini’s heroine could have invented the bit about the candle blowing out in order to have a legitimate excuse to knock on Rodolfo’s door, and this despite her natural shyness. After all, when he asks Mimi what they might do in his room once the Christmas Eve festivities are over, she does not consider him uncouth in the least and replies tantalizingly: “Wait and see.” Now I am not questioning the authenticity of Mimi’s fainting spell, even though it arouses in Rodolfo the first stirrings of protective tenderness towards her. Nor am I casting doubts on the genuineness of her agitation when she discovers that she has lost her key. I am simply suggesting that it is legitimate to see a certain ambivalence within Mimi which, far from detracting from her sweetness of temperament, makes her a much more interesting protagonist.


Whatever motives may have impelled Mimi to knock on Rodolfo’s door, it is apparent from their autobiographical statements that each one can provide for the other the kind of emotional and spiritual sustenance they both crave. As a poet, Rodolfo fascinates Mimi because he has the seemingly inexhaustible power to conjure up fabulous vistas towards which her imagination can take flight. She in turn arouses his ardour by the image of vulnerability and other-worldly beauty she projects. He sees her wreathed in moonlight within the window-frame like some pre-Raphaelite Madonna. The aesthetic ecstasy he experiences as he contemplates this sublime vision quickly transforms itself into the heightened emotional awareness that in Mimi he has found his soul mate. It is inevitable, then, that they should fall in love with one another. And it is absolutely appropriate that Puccini should have the two lovers voice their mutual tenderness to the two main themes of Rodolfo’s aria expressing the inspiration he finds in feminine beauty and his gentle solicitude for her physical frailty.


Romantic idealism in itself is not enough, however, to preserve their harmony. Differences in temperament, aided and abetted by poverty, doom their relationship. Signs of future conflicts appear as early as the joyous Christmas Eve scene of the second act. Rodolfo does not at all appreciate Mimi’s roving eye (she looks over a group of male students). His idealistic conception of love makes him jealous and possessive. Indeed, it seems to legitimize his jealousy and possessiveness. Mimi also seems to secretly crave luxury. She casts a longing glance at some coral jewellery in a store window that Rodolfo is obviously too poor to purchase for her. She even sympathizes with the brazen flirt Musetta despite the fact that the latter had abandoned Marcello in favour of greener pastures. By the third act, poverty has eaten away the capital of confidence and illusions without which young love cannot survive. Although Rodolfo is insanely jealous, his secret motive for wanting to break off his relationship with Mimi is his realization that the squalid conditions in which they are living are literally bringing her closer and closer to death. For her part, Mimi can no longer endure constantly being the victim of paranoid suspicions even if they are not entirely groundless (in the fourth act, we learn that she has gone off with avis count). Surprisingly enough, although Mimi is frail physically, it is she who has the strength of character to formally terminate their relationship. Rodolfo is too impetuous and irrational to make a firm decision.


The tragedy of these two young people is that, despite their bitter recriminations and antagonisms, they are still very much in love. Mimi reveals all of the tenderness she still feels for Rodolfo in her third act aria, “Addio, senza rancor” (“Goodby, no bitterness”;). The words she utters are rather banal. But through his music, Puccini evokes the heartbreak of separation. He suffuses Mimi’s words with an affecting sweetness and resignation, having the flutes of his orchestra wreathe her vocal line in places with strands of her first-act aria. Then Rodolfo joins her in a very moving duet sung against the obligato of Marcello’s and Musetta’s virulent bickering. It reflects their acute awareness of the dead end their relationship has reached despite their need for one another. They realize that unlike the recurring spring, their love cannot renew itself indefinitely. To stave off the loneliness they dread during the winter season, all they can do is place their relationship temporarily within parentheses and pretend that time has suspended its inexorable onslaught. But the brutal chord with which Act 3 ends is a sobering reminder that time will stop for nothing and no one. And yet, when time manifests its cruel presence in the fourth act through the imminence of death, the lovers manage to transcend strife by withdrawing into the most tender of reminiscences. And just as the sun descends progressively below the horizon and disappears, Mimi lapses into semi-consciousness before expiring.


Although the relationship between Marcello and Musetta does not have this emotional depth and fervour, it has a much better chance of survival (at least in the opera) because, unlike Mimi and Rodolfo, the flamboyant pair actually thrives on its bitching and bickering. Fighting with one another is like an electric charge that keeps their love vitally alive. On the surface, their temperaments would appear incompatible. Even though he is very soft-hearted, Marcello is trapped in a macho image of himself and likes to imagine he is always in control. Musetta, a typical lorette, views the pursuit of material well-being and pleasure as her inalienable right, even if it means committing infidelities repeatedly against the man she claims to love. The famous “waltz song” she performs at the Café Momusin the second act illustrates her philosophy of life. But it is precisely this apparent incompatibility of character and outlook on life that enables their variable-geometry relationship to continue indefinitely. When they get fed up with one another, they erupt and go their separate ways. Nevertheless, all the time they are estranged, they become each other’s idée fixe.


Yet even a character as juvenilely egocentric as Musetta’s is, jus tlike the other Bohemians, profoundly shaken by Mimi’s death. Musetta was wont to assert her freedom in a most trenchant manner in the second and third acts. She would yell at Alcindoro and Marcello statements such as: “I want to do what I please,” I want to do what I like,” I’ll make love with whomever I please,” “I want complete freedom.” In the final act, however, we find her praying to the Madonna, imploring the Mother of God to save the life of the frail Mimi who, she is convinced, is worth far more than her. It seems, then, that for Musetta, too, the time has finally come to grow up, to break out of the bohemian model that had shaped her youth as well as that of her friends.


Thus Mimi’s death is not just simply pathetic. It has its larger implications too. If one may be allowed to imagine what happens to the characters of an opera once the curtain falls for the last time, one can surmise that all of the remaining Bohemians will come out of this shattering experience sadder and wiser. It is significant that the orchestra repeats the very last measures of Colline’s sad little aria as the curtain falls. As I mentioned earlier, this is where he bids farewell to his beloved old overcoat. In the name of all of his bohemian friends, Colline has pronounced on a lovely but sorrowful spring day the valedictory of their youth. And by ending the opera with the last measures of Colline’s aria, Puccini seems to be telling us that the party is really over for the Bohemians. They will now have to grow up.


Thank you so much,

Leonard

 


Rss_feed