Leonard Rosmarin

Author and Speaker

Blog

view:  full / summary

ACTEON AND PYGMALION

Posted by leonardrosmarin on November 14, 2018 at 11:50 AM Comments comments (0)



At first glance, the two one-act operas that you will be hearing today seem to have very little in common, aside from the fact that they were both written by French composers. The first, Actéon, by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, performed for the first time in 1684, begins as a light-hearted work called a "pastorale," evoking nymphs, goddesses, and people in a bucolic setting, and ends as a gruesome tragedy. Pygmalion, by Jean-Philippe Rameau, created in 1748, described as an "opéra ballet," namely a lyric drama interspersed with multiple ballet numbers, begins with the hero lamenting his inability to breath life into the gorgeous statue he has produced, and ends in an atmosphere of jubilant triumph.


Yet when one probes beneath the surface, one uncovers remarkable similarities. Both operas were inspired by the Roman poet Ovid's impressive text Metamorphoses, and are linked organically by the same theme of transformation, either in sorrow or joy. The heroes of both operas, Actéon in the first, and Pygmalion in the second, find themselves subjugated by the very passion they had promised themselves to resist. Finally, both works underscore in their individual ways the paradox of opera. It is an art of escalation and magnification which nevertheless reveals, through the incomparable eloquence of music, emotional and spiritual truths about our human condition. I'd like to explore the two works with you from this perspective.


We will have a fuller appreciation of the miniature tragedy that the opera Actéon is if we place the work within the French literary context of the late 17th century when Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed it. Outstanding writers like Mme de Lafayette in her novel La Princesse de Clèves and Jean Racine in his play Phèdre depicted sensual passion in terms remarkably similar to the ones used by the composer. It is as though the same cultural DNA was circulating silently among the finest French artists of the time. For them, passion represents a fascinating yet very dangerous elemental force. It swoops down on its unsuspecting victims with a devastating swiftness. It plunges their souls into chaos. It feeds off their flesh and blood; and yet it acquires an autonomous existence within them that compels them, often without their being conscious of what they are doing, to submit to its tyrannical rule.


In Racine's play, Phèdre, just as in Charpentier's Actéon, it is the very act of seeing the object of desire that arouses passion. At the same time this act provokes bewilderment and confusion within the individual experiencing the attraction, paralyzing his/her reason and willpower. From the very instant the heroine, Phèdre lays eyes on her stepson, Hyppolite, her fate is sealed. A cataclysm is unleashed within her heart and mind. An internal night descends on her consciousness and blots out the light of her reason. Her sensual passion for Hyppolite becomes a fixation. Allow me to recite the four lines of verse in which she describes the turmoil she is enduring. For sheer musicality they have never been surpassed, at least for me:


Je le vis, je rougis, je pâlis à sa vue.

Un trouble s'empara de mon âme éperdue.

Mes yeux ne voyaient plus, je ne pouvais parler.

Je sentis tout mon corps et transir et brûler.


Now for my rather prosaic English translation: "I saw him, I reddened, I paled at his sight/ A commotion took hold of my disordered soul/ My eyes could no longer see, I could no longer speak/ I felt my whole body freezing and burning in turn."


This is exactly what happens to the hero, Actéon, in the first opera we will hear today. A young nobleman on a hunting expedition, he had prided himself on being invulnerable to passion. In fact, he despised it as a form of weakness and servitude. He was enamoured of his freedom, until the fateful moment when he contemplated the goddess Diane (Diana) bathing in a secluded stream with her retinue of nymphs. Actéon had wandered away from his hunting companions to enjoy the shade of the forest. He unwittingly comes upon the goddess in her naked splendour. He is transfixed, indeed enslaved by the beautiful vision before him. In her embarrassed fury, Diane resolves to punish him ruthlessly. Actéon protests his innocence. And indeed he is innocent. It was never his intention to peer through the branches and witness the scene. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Diane remains unmoved by his pleading, transforms him into a stag, and Actéon's own hunting dogs devour their master. Thus, in an ironic twist of fate, the hunter becomes the hunted.


A hero is considered tragic to the extent that he is engaged in an unequal struggle against a cruel fate, and remains agonizingly lucid and courageous in the face of his powerlessness. The words Actéon utters as he sees himself being progressively dehumanized by being transformed into a stag underscore his stature as a tragic hero. The heartrending music Charpentier has provided for him intensifies even further the horrid and unjust punishment meted out to him: "What do I see in this liquid mirror?/ My face is becoming wrinkled,/ Ugly hairs cover my body/ I have practically nothing of my human form/ My words are nothing more than an obscure sound/ Ah! In my present state, you Gods who created me from the noble blood of kings,/Remove me from the light to spare my shame."


Towards the end of the opera we discover that the goddess Diane was only the instrument or the "hit woman" in Actéon's death. The order to destroy him came from higher up, from the goddess Junon, or Juno. Outraged and humiliated over having been betrayed by her consort, the god Jupiter, she was determined to wreck vengeance on the whole family of King Cadmus, including his grandson Actéon, because the king's sister, Semele, had enjoyed at one time the favours of the god, as did another relative, Europa. Since Juno could not kill her husband, the ruler of the gods, she could at least annihilate the family of the women who had inflicted shame upon her. This involvement of Juno in Actéon's tragic fate emphasizes even more the vulnerability of the human creature in a universe seemingly devoid of justice. The tragedy becomes almost unbearable when Actéon's hunting companions, unaware of his demise, rejoice in seeing their friend, now a stag, being torn apart by his own dogs. When they finally learn that he has been victimized by the gods, they, too, voice their horror, anger and sorrow at the idea of living in a world where innocence is persecuted. The music that accompanies their lamentations is deeply moving.


Some well-meaning feminists may want to murder me after hearing what I'm going to say, but I couldn't help thinking that Actéon's horrible death can be viewed as the metaphor for the destruction of the reputation of more than a few blameless men as a result of the Me Too movement. Now please understand. There have been sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein who thoroughly deserved to be castigated and disgraced. But not all men accused by the movement have been guilty of similar crimes. In fact, the reputations of some, including a former professor at UBC, have been torn to shreds, just like Actéon by his own dogs, and undeservedly so. Our own great Margaret Attwood has compared the persecution of these people in the name of a noble principle of justice to the mob violence found in the Salem Witch hunts of the 17th century, the reign of terror unleashed during the French Revolution, and the degradation inflicted on innocent victims when Mao's Red Brigades held power.


Another thought occurred to me when perusing this opera. Actéon's fate is sealed in the name of a sacrosanct taboo: he supposedly violated the private space of a goddess when he dared gaze on her naked splendour. But this taboo is relative to a particular culture. As for Diane's stature as a goddess, anyone who has studied Greek mythology will realize that the gods of Olympus are simply extrapolations of certain human vices as well as virtues. They are more often than not no better than ordinary mortals. In fact their behaviour can often be much worse. They are capable of committing acts of vindictive, hair-raising cruelty. In this context of Greek mythology in which Marc-Antoine Charpentier's opera unfolds, the hero is the victim of an unjust verdict and is utterly powerless to prove his innocence. In radically different circumstances, Actéon's unintentional transgression would not have been considered a crime at all. It would not even have raised an eyebrow. If Actéon and Diane had by chance been members of the same nudist colony in our 21st century, he could have admired her beauty to his heart's content. In all sincerity, I never could have imagined before studying this one-act opera of a 17th century French composer that it would be so thought-provoking and relevant to our times.


As we move from the devastating tragedy of Charpentier's Actéon to our second one-act opera, Jean-Philippe Rameau's Pygmalion, the atmosphere lightens considerably. This little gem of a work is life-affirming. It forms a stunning contrast with its predecessor. The story, one of the most famous in ancient Greco- Roman mythology and literature, deals with a sculptor who has fallen desperately in love with the statue of the divinely beautiful woman he created. He yearns to bring this inert matter to life, so enamoured is he of his creation. Suddenly the god of Love, Amour, descends from the heavens, transforms Pygmalion's work of art into a live human being. The former statue, now vitally alive, declares her love to her creator. The God of Love's retinue, "les Grâces," or the Graces, initiate Pygmalion's ideal companion into the art of the dance, and Amour invites the people to join the sculptor in celebrating his new-found happiness. Naturally, Pygmalion's former girlfriend, Céphise, is understandably indignant at being ditched for a woman with whom she could not possibly compete. But we can hope that the god of Love will make her sadness vanish by finding her a new romance. And so the opera ends with general rejoicing.


Opera's detractors could point to this extravagant story to justify their criticism of the art form. Two of Jean-Philippe Rameau's British contemporaries were probably thinking of works just like his when voicing their contempt for the genre. Dr. Samuel Johnson branded opera as "an exotik and irrational entertainment, which has always been combated and always has prevailed." Lord Chesterfield was even more excoriating when he rejected it as "essentially too absurd and extravagant to mention." Yet this is precisely why opera continues to thrive. It excels in depicting not what we are, but what we could be if we were ever able to go to the full extent of our wildest yearnings, longings, and aspirations.


In other words, an opera like Pygmalion holds up to us not a mirror where we can see our every-day personalities faithfully reflected, but a magic, aggrandizing one where finally our most secret, sometimes repressed tendencies can expand, untrammelled. Aided and abetted by the visceral intensity and immediacy that only music can bring to the expression of our deepest emotions, opera encourages us to suspend our disbelief and enter into the exciting and sometimes frightening realm of dreams. In the case of Jean-Philippe Rameau's Pygmalion, we are in an atmosphere of joyous wish-fulfillment: a statue representing an ideal of feminine beauty becomes a live human being and returns the love of its creator. As though in anticipation of this fanciful, extravagant dream coming true, the overture suggests the sculptor's use of the chisel and the rhythmic hammering effects that amplify as the music unfolds.


This apotheosis of love and beauty clamours for the participation of the ballet. Indeed, in Pygmalion dance is an integral component of Rameau's artistic vision. The composer described his opera as an "acte de ballet," meaning a short work bringing together spectacle, music and dance around a plot inspired by mythology and driven by the emotion of love. In our modern times we consider it perfectly normal for dance to be organically integrated into the plot. Some of Broadway's greatest musicals like Carousel, Oklahoma and West Side Story have been brilliantly successful in using dance as a means of moving the action forward. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, this collaboration between dance, plot and music was quite an innovation. I will endeavour to show, when discussing this short opera, how the three work together to make the story come alive in a powerful way.


Unlike the hero Actéon of the first opera, Pygmalion does not appear carefree at all when the curtain rises. Actéon prided himself on being unassailable as far as passion was concerned. In very buoyant spirits, he was looking forward to a continuation of the hunt, and many more to come. Pygmalion appears disconsolate, distressed, because he finds himself subjugated by the very passion that he, too, had taken pride in shunning. He is lamenting the loss of his once cherished freedom. As he sings in French, "Fatal amour, cruel vainqueur,/Quels traits as-tu choisi pour me percer le coeur." (Fatal love, cruel conqueror/What darts have you chosen to pierce my heart?)


Yet there is an essential difference here. Far from being smitten by a hostile goddess and being condemned to a tragic end, Pygmalion, as a sculptor, is vanquished by his own creation. His indifference to passion resulted not so much from a fear of losing his freedom as from a yearning for the kind of perfection and uniqueness that no living woman could possibly embody. In this respect he resembles other great artists whose dissatisfaction with the status quo impels them to create grippingly original works. Pygmalion's beloved, in the form of a statue, represents the tangible realization of an ideal of beauty so sublime that nothing earthly can rival it. His sorrow, then, at the beginning of this opera, stems not so much from being enslaved by passion as from his agonizing awareness that his love for an inanimate object cannot ever be reciprocated. His fixation is based on an ideal of esthetic beauty that nothing earthly could ever measure up to. His girlfriend, Céphise, ends up seeing through him. Outraged, she accuses him of being a pervert. She realizes that she cannot compete with a dream of esthetic perfection.


Only divine intervention, then, in the person of the god of love, Amour, can effect the transformation of a statue into a living, breathing, human being who can return Pygmalion's ardent sentiments. Amour is the supernatural power that instills throbbing life into inert matter. So far, despite our marvellous technology, we haven't reached this stage yet. If this day ever comes--and being rather pessimistic about the mess mortals can often make when they endeavour to transform matter-- I fervently hope and pray that the purely human creators of life will show the same wisdom as the god of love in this little opera. As Pygmalion emphasizes in his virtuoso and jubilantly triumphant arias that bring the work to its conclusion, Amour exists to bring mortals happiness. This is his raison d'être. Hence the glowing tribute that the hero pays the god after his adored statue miraculously comes to life.


Through his wonderfully evocative music, the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau traces Pygmalion's emotional trajectory from despair to unbridled joy. In the very first scene, Pygmalion voices his helpless anguish. But in Scene 3, his emotions move from G minor to G major, as he travels from the deepest sadness over his inability to make his creation pulsate with life, to astonishment when his dream becomes a reality. And they culminate in a radiant E major when his beloved statue, now vitally alive, returns his love unconditionally.


The operas closes with a "divertissement," or balletic entertainment. This is perfectly logical within its framework. The dances flow organically from the story and represent its culmination. After coming to life, it is only natural that the god of Love's helpers, or Grâces, initiate Pygmalion's beloved into the intricacies of the human emotional network so that she may enjoy a full flowering of her humanity. After the god's charming ariette "Jeux et ris qui me suivez" (Games and mirth that follow in my footsteps), the Graces draw Pygmalion's beloved into a series of dances that run through the gamut of tender feelings. As they succeed one another, the listener perceives through the music the newly awakened woman's consciousness expanding, and we can sense that she is even experiencing eroticism pulsating through her body in the very sensuous and mysterious Sarabande in the key of F minor. Just as music represents sound in movement, dance is the exteriorization of this movement in tangible form. The more Pygmalion's beloved participates in the dance, the more she discovers her human potential for pleasure.


As the curtain falls on the second of our two short French operas, we can reflect again on the paradox and power of the art. Opera thrills us because it uses fancifulness to take us to a place where we hadn't been before. It conjures up our deepest emotions with a sharpness of focus and stunning relief that compels us to view them as though they were entirely new. Detractors of the art have dismissed it as an escape from reality. And in a way it is. Nevertheless this is the kind of escape that invites us to turn inward and thus enables us to better understand who we are as human beings. A statement my late mother once made seems so appropriate here. When I was very young, way back in the previous century, I once asked her why most of the leading actors and actresses in Hollywood movies were so handsome and beautiful. I pointed out that in ordinary life this was not so. And she replied, "Why shouldn't they be beautiful in the movies? We have more than enough ugliness in real life!" I couldn't have said it better myself. Have a wonderful time at the performance today.


Thank you for joining me again. 


Leonard

THAIS, OR THE SUBLIMATION OF EROS

Posted by leonardrosmarin on June 27, 2018 at 9:35 AM Comments comments (1)



During the previous century, and especially during the 1970s, it took considerable courage to confess that one admired Jules Massenet's music. His many detractors dismissed it as overly saccharine. His most ferocious critics referred to him derisively as "Mlle Wagner," accusing him of striving for grandiose effects and failing to deliver. I have always luxuriated in his sheer melodiousness and in the mauve-lit iridescence of his music. I have always admired the way his vocal line, and its orchestral undergirding are so attentive to the modifications in a character's personality. I have chosen to speak on Thaïs because it reveals his multi-facetted talent. This courtesan is infinitely more than a tart with a heart, as I hope to demonstrate to you.


Thaïs is not frequently performed because the title role demands attributes which few singing actresses possess. She must have a diaphanous voice, yet powerful enough to surf on the orchestra's tidal waves, and she must have the body of a strip tease queen. Beverly Sills was splendid in the role in the 1970s; Renée Fleming, as you will see, truly embodied the part in 2008. The monk Athanaël also demands a singing actor of exceptional talent. Sherrill Milnes was outstanding in the 1970s, suggesting a man tortured by sexual lust while deluding himself into believing that he was a man of God. Thomas Hampson, whom you will hear and see soon, excels in portraying messed-up characters. In fact, as he says himself, this is one of his specialties.


Massenet's opera Thaïs was inspired by a novel bearing the same title, and written by the French author, Anatole France, who would receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 1921. With its singular mixture of sensuality and austerity, religion and paganism, eroticism and chastity, France's novel reflects the "fin-de-siècle" ambiance in which he wrote it (1890). Based on a drama by the tenth-century German nun Hrostwitha, his text describes how the cenobite monk, Paphnuce succeeds in converting Thaïs, a courtesan living in Alexandria in the fourth century A.D., celebrated as much for the qualities of her mind as for her dazzling beauty. The French novelist follows the storyline of his pious source up to the courtesan's conversion, but what happens afterwards is far from edifying. Anatole France is reported to have remarked: "I have only two enemies: Christ and chastity." He makes this attitude unmistakably clear as his novel unfolds. His hero, Paphnuce, appears to incarnate Christian virtue but is secretly torn apart by carnal lusts. Recalling an episode of his youth, he decides to convert the actress Thaïs whose lascivious performance had aroused him at the age of fifteen.


The truth of the matter is that the monk has been obsessed by the woman ever since. He harbours a jealous hatred toward her former lover, the epicurean philosopher Nicias, and vows that he will not leave Alexandria until Thaïs agrees to follow him to a convent in the desert. Convinced that Paphnuce possesses magical powers which will guarantee eternal youth, the courtesan offers herself to him. He resists her advances but agrees to accompany her to a banquet. At this point (the halfway mark in the novel), the action is interrupted for about fifty pages while a philosophical discussion takes place in dialogue form. As the participants get steadily drunker, they expound a very bold and sacrilegious thesis. God, they insist, having made a mess of creation, sought to atone for all the suffering He had indirectly inflicted on mankind. Thus He created in Helen of Troy, and not Christ, the saviour who would take upon herself the wickedness of the world.


After Helen's death, her immortal spirit was incarnated in new forms, and at this very moment, the world's redeemer is none other than Thaïs. Before the evening is over, the men are eyeing her covetously, one guest commits suicide, and various people are copulating under the banquet table. Thaïs leaves the hall in disgust, convinced that men in general are nothing but satyrs. Having already been profoundly affected by Paphnuce's promise of eternal life, she now becomes an easy prey to his proselytizing zeal.


The monk's victory over so-called sin is short-lived, however. Devoured by sexual jealousy as he imagines the men whom Thaïs has welcomed into her bed, he treats her cruelly as they make their way to the convent under the scorching desert sun. Once converted, she becomes a veritable angel. Her presence irradiates the convent where she finds peace and fulfillment. Paphnuce, on the other hand, goes downhill. He is increasingly tormented by erotic fantasies involving Thaïs in spite of (because of?) the mortifications he imposes on his flesh. When he realizes that divine grace has deserted him, he takes refuge on top of a tall column in an abandoned city. He is such a tourist attraction that the city is rebuilt around him and begins to flourish again. In a desperate attempt to escape from himseslf, Paphnuce abandons his column and finds shelter far away in a tomb. But even here his obsessions pursue him. In a hallucination, he imagines that the beauteous instrumentalist painted on the wall of his new dwelling has come to life and taunts him about his chastity. No longer able to endure these torments, the sex-crazed monk seeks out Thaïs in her convent where she is dying in the odour of sanctity. His face has become so hideous that the nuns who are watching over her recoil in horror, crying out, "A vampire! A vampire!"


f the reader at any point in the story were tempted to feel even the slightest twinge of pity or sympathy for this preposterous hero, the all-pervading tone of irony would dissolve it at once. In his own nonchalant, refined, and serenely provocative way, Anatole France has drawn up in his novel an indictment of the Christian faith worthy of Voltaire and Renan. At least some aspects of Christianity's moral law are denounced here because, in the opinion of the author, they are life-denying, engender morbid fixations and dangerous delusions. One example will suffice to illustrate the author's insidiously corrosive style. Running like a leitmotif through the novel is the theme of carnal lust symbolized by the presence of little jackals which disappear whenever Paphnuce makes the sign of the cross: "At night, in the moonlight, seven little jackals waited in front of his cell, sitting on their rear ends, immobile, silent, pricking their ears. And it is believed that they were seven demons whom he kept at bay at this doorstep by the strength of his saintliness." As his sexual obsessions intensify, the little jackals multiply until they become as numerous as the grains of sand in the desert.


Needless to say, this ironic tone had to be eliminated when the novel was refashioned into an opera. Music by its very nature cannot lie. When Massenet placed his two protagonists on the lyric stage, he invited audiences to take them seriously. Other elements had to be discarded as well. The simplification of the novel which resulted explains the adverse reaction of many critics when the opera was first produced in 1894. It was generally agreed at the time that Massenet's Thaïs was quite unworthy of France's original work. Obviously, the operatic genre has unavoidable constraints. It must project a vision through sung dialogues, arias and ensembles. But the composer was sufficiently gifted to be able to capture in his music the profound emotional resonances of the novelist's text and thereby enhance the stripped-down libretto. Besides, his librettist, Louis Gallet, performed some very skillful surgery when adapting the original work. His "script" is made up to a large extent of passages quoted almost textually. These are adroitly connected. Those parts of the novel which were discarded simply did not lend themselves to a musical treatment. They are: Thaïs' oppressed childhood and baptism, the philosophical banquet (only the most superficial aspects of it are retained in the second scene of the first act) as well as the monk's bizarre sojourn on top of the column. Other parts were rearranged or modified to ensure the smooth flow of the plot.


In the novel, the hero attends a performance of Thaïs in the amphitheatre once he arrives in Alexandria whereas in the opera she haunts him in an erotic dream. In the novel, he meets the courtesan for the first time at her sumptuous dwelling before accompanying her to the banquet. It is her disgust with the revelries she sees there that prompts her decision to convert. In the opera, he encounters her first at the banquet, then has the decisive confrontation with her at her home. The words uttered by the instrumentalist in the latter part of the novel to Paphnuce are sung provocatively by Thaïs at the banquet in the opera. An alluring vision of Thaïs in the third act of the opera replaces the hallucination the monk experiences in the tomb episode of the novel. Finally, the monk learns of Thaïs' imminent death in the opera through another vision whereas in the novel this information is revealed by the clairvoyant simpleton, Paul.


All this pruning and refashioning enabled Gallet and Massenet to concentrate on what was for them the heart of the novel: the extremely dramatic confrontation between Eros and the Christian faith. To evoke it, the composer and his librettist based the action of the opera on two lines of destiny which move toward one another from opposite directions in the first act, cross in the second act only to diverge irreversibly in the third. The monk was renamed Athanaël in the opera for euphonic reasons, but also to discourage impudent detractors of Massenet from composing satirical verses and making the name "Paphnuce" rhyme with the word "prépuce", meaning in French the foreskin of the male sex organ. He and Thaïs spar with one another in the first act, each representing an ideal which appears anathema to the other. Before meeting the courtesan in the palace of his former fellow-reveller, Nicias, the monk, a victim of his overweening pride and repressed libido, works himself up to a frenzy of exaltation as he vows to conquer her for the greater glory of the Almighty. When they come face to face, Thaïs very perceptively senses in Athanaël a very ardent nature trapped in a strait-jacket of austere morality. She accuses him of blindness. She even dares him to approach her as she prepares to perform a kind of strip-tease.


What makes you so severe

And why do you belie the fire in your eyes?

What wretched madness makes you

Renounce your destiny?

You are a man born to love, what a mistake you have made.

Sit down beside us, adorn yourself with roses,

nothing is true except love, open your arms to love.


Thaïs uncovers intuitively a burningly erotic nature at the core of this man who has consecrated his whole being to God. So, at the end of the first act, Thaïs and Athanaël fight each other to a draw.


In the first scene of the second act the decisive confrontation between the two protagonists occurs. Their lengthy duet crackles with dramatic excitement precisely because each one advances and retreats in turn, neither is able to claim total victory. Athanaël visits Thaïs that very evening, pretending to be a potential lover eager to enhance his self-image by conquering a woman of her illustrious reputation. He promises her delights hitherto unknown. It is not necessary to be an expert in Freudian psychology to perceive the eroticism lurking under his ambiguously spiritual words: "I promise you more than delightful inebriation--and dreams of a fleeting night;--this felicity I bring you today will never end!... At first Thaïs mocks his presumptuousness, then takes offense at his aggressive denunciation of her hedonism, but is suddenly subjugated when Athanaël promises her eternal life. For a woman still radiantly beautiful but terrified at the thought of aging, this prospect is indeed fascinating. As she prepares to offer herself to the monk, Thaïs invokes the blessing of Venus. Afraid that he will succumb to the courtesan's charms, Athanaël prays to his God for assistance.


This moment of intense physical attraction is one of the only two points where the itineraries of the two protagonists intersect. The spell is broken, however, when Athanaël, exerting Herculean will-power, reveals himself as a cenobite monk who execrates everything Thaïs stands for. He appears, then, to have triumphed, because the courtesan, fearing for her life, sinks to her knees and begs for mercy. His victory seems assured the moment he promises Thaïs an eternity of bliss through the love of God. But she suddenly revolts against his growing ascendancy. Still torn between her hedonistic past and the promise of an exalting yet totally different future, she hurls her defiance at him before breaking out into hysterical laughter and sobbing.


From this point onward, their spiritual trajectories, united for a few fleeting moments, follow diametrically opposite paths. Thaïs begins her irreversible ascent toward sainthood whereas Athanaël plummets vertically into the very lusts from which he had vowed to save her. The famous orchestral interlude, the Meditation, performed immediately after their confrontation, expresses the courtesan's new-found beatitude. In his masterful analysis of the opera, Gérard Condé suggests that the main thrust of the philosophical discussions held during the banquet in Anatole France's novel finds a most appropriate expression in Massesnet's music. I fully agree. During the symposium, the Gnostic, Zénothémis, puts forward the heretical view that Eve, in addition to Helen, was a redeemer of mankind precisely because she had the courage to taste the fruit from the tree of Knowledge. The Meditation which ascends toward ecstasy expresses in musical terms this double redemptive role woman can play. Exalted by her aspiration to eternal life, Thaïs gains an illumination that gives her immediate access to pure knowledge and guarantees her salvation. She does not so much renounce Eros as sublimate it in order to experience infinitely greater joys. Athanaël, on the contrary had made a spiritual commitment which was ultimately incompatible with his burningly sensual nature, and from the second scene of the second act till the end of the opera, he will pay dearly for it.


When Thaïs seeks out Athanaël at the beginning of the second scene of Act II and defers humbly to his authority, the power he wields over her seems total. But this is an illusion. From now until Thaïs' death, the monk will be more and more the slave of a libido exacerbated by non-stop repression and mortification, and the former courtesan will serve as the catalyst of his sexual torture. Every one of his actions demonstrates his involontary enslavement to the vital force he supposedly execrates. He smashes the exquisite statue of Eros, the one possession Thaïs cherishes, the only one she wished to preserve from her past. It was a gift from Nicias, the admirer who had spent a fortune to enjoy her exclusive favour for one whole week. This is reason enough for Athanaël to want to destroy it. In Act III, he vents his jealous rage and sexual frustrations on the woman he unconsciously craves as they wend their way through the desert. "Break your body," "annihilate your flesh," Walk, expiate," he commands her sadistically, relenting only when he notices blood covering her lovely feet which he then kisses adoringly (here again, a Freudian psychologist would have a field-day). He is overcome with sadness when he bids her farewell at the convent where she will spend the rest of her life in penitence. Then come the erotic hallucinations, blasphemous words against the God and the religion he had served so faithfully. Finally, having returned to the convent where Thaïs is dying, he cries out longingly for her physical presence. But the former courtesan, now a saint and enthralled by a holy vision, is oblivious to his torments.


Thus the dramatic irony is complete. Athanaël has accomplished his mission, that is, the conversion of a sinful woman, but discovers only too late that what he thought he wanted above all else to achieve was the very opposite of what he unconsciously yearned to possess all along. No one listening attentively to Massenet's score can fail to discern the irony of this situation in the music. As I emphasized a little while ago, the composer could not reproduce the sardonic tone prevalent in Anatole France's style. Instead he evokes eloquently in his opera the tragedy of a man who discovers only too late what he really desired of life. And it is around the Meditation theme that Athanaël's despair crystallizes. We hear it at the end of the first scene of the third act where he bids farewell at the entrance of the convent to the woman he loves. His vocal line expressing deep emotion, then anguish, shatters against the melody as the latter unfolds in its impassive serenity. Then in the final scene of the opera, the monk's impassioned outcries fall on deaf ears as Thaïs' voice soars ecstatically on the poignant theme as we hear it for the last time. And so, through the beauty of his music, Massenet injected into Anatole France's story emotions which were probably furthest from the author's mind when he wrote it: pity and compassion.


There exists an unwritten law in nineteenth-century operatic tradition according to which sopranos and baritones can never find fulfilment in a love relationship. Sopranos gravitate towards tenors. Their encounters may be marked by tragedy, but soprano heroines generally prefer to suffer with their beloved tenors rather than escape danger in the arms of the baritones who covet them. Tosca stabs Scarpia rather than submit to his advance. In Il trovatore Leonora maintains an aloof, disdainful attitude towards the Count di Luna who would go to any lengths to win her heart. And Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, although overwhelmed by guilt, is on the verge of committing adultery with the tenor, King Gustave of Sweden, whom she finds far more appealing than her baritone husband, the loyal Ankerström. Carmen illustrates this vocal misalliance in reverse. Here we have the female equivalent of the baritone, a mezzo-soprano heroine, who brings doom to herself and the unfortunate tenor she snares. This is not to say that sopranos and baritones are always at loggerheads. They can experience very tender father-daughter relationships. But when circumstances bring them together as lovers or potential lovers, their attitudes toward one another are more often than not very ambivalent.


This ambivalence prevails in Jules Massenet's Thaïs. The beguiling courtesan, Thaïs of Alexandria, and the monk, Athanaël come from worlds so radically different and represent philosophies of life so diametrically opposed that the singular attraction they feel for one another cries out for the gripping contrast provided by the soprano and baritone vocal categories. The moments in the second act and in the oasis scene of the third act where their souls seem to merge are but fleeting. Immediately afterwards, the paths of their destinies diverge again, thus necessitating more than ever the soprano-baritone opposition. The most expensive whore in the Middle East becomes, in the words of David Little john, "Saint Thaïs of the Bleeding Feet," whereas the priest who converts her eventually realizes that he had been pursuing a mirage of spiritual purity all along. The two protagonists, then, make ideal exemplary figures, because they embody dominant tendencies which emerge powerfully during the course of the opera.


According to Jean-Michel Brèque, Anatole France charts the evolution of Thaïs from sinner to saint far more convincingly than does Jules Massenet. Unconstrained by considerations of time and space, the French novelist has ample opportunity to prepare us for the heroine's spiritual crisis. Obviously, Louis Gallet, Massenet's librettist, could not possibly have squeezed so many events into the relatively rigid structure of an opera. He counted on the composer's music to give tangible form to the courtesan's spiritual yearnings. In his own way, Massenet, with the able assistance of his librettist, does succeed in filling in the psychological gaps. Through the immediacy and intensity of his music, the composer gives life to a character far more complex than would appear at first glance. In other words, Thaïs is infinitely more than the stereotyped "Tart with a heart."


Guided by Louis Gallet's libretto, the attentive listener will perceive an all-pervading weariness in the music Thaïs sings at her very first appearance in the second scene of the first act. This taedium vitae does not manifest itself in bitter or anguished accents. It finds expression in a diaphanous melody, half recitative, half air, rising and falling by turns, that she sings, as though smiling sadly and ironically, to Nicias, the wealthy epicurean who has spent a fortune to enjoy her favours for one whole week. Thaïs reminds him that the week is coming to an end:


I am Thaïs, the fragile idol/Who comes to sit for the last time/at your flower-laden table.../Tomorrow, I will be nothing more to you than a name.


Then she echoes in a minor key Nicias' wistful phrase acknowledging the evanescent nature of their relationship, as though she were resigned to the fragility and eventual disappearance of all things human:


We have loved one another for one long week.../Let the blessed hours bloom and pass,/and let us ask this night for nothing more/than a little intoxication and divine oblivion.


In the introduction to Thaïs' "Mirror" aria at the beginning of the second act, her awareness of life's essential emptiness finds expression in a very different kind of music. The brilliantly superficial theme associated with the company of actors that signaled the courtesan's entrance in the first act reappears, but the orchestra erases it, so to speak, by a series of perpetually changing modulations suggesting her agitation and anxiety. As she decries the heartlessness of men and the mean-spiritedness of women, the orchestration that winds itself around the motif of her sensual beauty suggests a sense of bitterness verging on despair.


The succession of disappointing relationships upon which Thaïs had embarked long before her affair with Nicias betrays a subconscious quest for a spiritual absolute. For a woman like Thaïs, it can be none other than Love to the infinite degree. Until Athanaël irrupts into her existence, this longing for fulfilment takes on the imperfect form of the worship of the goddes Venus and her accomplice, Eros. In the eyes of the courtesan, they represent the mysterious yet all-powerful, all-encompassing life-force, the veritable ground of being. Although physical in its manifestation, this life-force remains nevertheless luminous and pure. Unquestioning and unconditional obedience to Love leads to the expansion of the imagination and the senses. This, in turn, engenders euphoria. I base my interpretation on the heroine's two invocations to the goddess sung to the same softly entrancing melody. The first occurs in the middle of her mirror aria after she has voiced her fear of growing old, the second takes place just as she is about to offer herself to the monk whom, she suspects, possesses magical powers to arrest the again process.


If we bear in mind the fervor with which Thaïs celebrates the cult of Eros before her conversion, we can better understand her obsession with preserving her beauty. We can sympathize and even feel compassion for her when she gives vent, in her mirror aria, to her feelings of dread at the prospect of growing old, of no longer being Thaïs, the queen of love. The words she sings at the beginning of the second act, "Dis-moi que je suis belle et que je serai belle éternellement" (Tell me that I am beautiful and will remain so for all eternity), born aloft on a melody by turns whispered and searingly intense, cannot in all fairness be reduced to the expression of an aging woman's vanity. Before a mystical illumination draws her upward to a higher form of love, Thaïs believes that physical beauty is the indispensable catalyst of passion and, consequently, that without it there can be no exaltation of life-force, no triumph over the void. If old age and death were to destroy that which makes her so alluring to men, the Eros she worships, inseparable from her finite, physical existence, would perish as well. As we have seen, she cowers in terror before the fanatical Athanaël when she thinks he wants to kill her, because Eros and the life-force it enhances represent the transcendent dimension for her. As long as she is alive and in possession of her beauty, she remains in contact with that which, before her conversion, she is convinced constitutes the divine.


Later, the melting, caressing phrases of the violin solo in the Meditation, rising over the orchestra's shimmering modulations evoke the courtesan's spiritual voyage as she moves from a purely earthly conception of love to the all-embracing, infinite one promised by the Christian faith.


What is startling in Thaïs's conversion is the effortless transition she makes from sexual love to Christian love. It's as though there were no fundamental difference between the two. Her commitment to God is simply the sublimation of Eros and its extrapolation to the infinite degree. Thaïs moves from whoredom to self-abnegation because, having enjoyed to the full and exhausted all earthly forms of pleasure, she is now drawn to the far more exciting new ones which await her in the desert convent. Her excruciatingly painful trek across the burning sands to the convent as well as the mortifications she imposes on herself once she arrives there constitute the sacrifices necessary to reach the state of spiritual ecstasy she longs for even before her soul leaves her body for good. Herein lies the significance of the final duet between Thaïs and Athanaël. As she is dying, the heroine has a celestial vision. She sees (imagines?) the saints, the heavenly hosts and the Almighty himself welcoming her into the realm of eternal beatitude.


The music she sings at this moment is the very same theme Massenet had given to the monk in the opening scene of the opera where he expressed his resolve to save the courtesan from damnation. But whereas it had an almost martial rhythm when Athanaël sang it, the music reappears as a rapturously sensual outpouring on Thaïs' lips. It is irrefutable proof that, for her, the issue of redemption after a sinful existence is quite irrelevant. Thaïs never considers herself an immoral creature. It is only Athanaël who fulminates against her. Once she embraces Christian virtue, she is as innocent in her new state as she had been in so-called sin. Thaïs simply sacrifices fleeting erotic delights to an infinitely higher form of pleasure: an eternity of spiritual love guaranteed by God.


The courtesan, then, has had from the beginning a vague idea at least of what she wants out of life. Although she cannot pinpoint the source of her eventual fulfilment, she acquires a sharp awareness of the direction in which she would like to move after the promise the monk holds out to her. He, on the other hand, as I have emphasized, is torn apart between what he thinks he is and what he would really like to be. Only towards the end of the opera does Athanaël fully accept his ardently erotic nature. I would agree with David Littlejohn who considers Athanaël as being "almost as demonic in his unholy lust as Claude Frollo, the evil priest of Hugo's novel Notre Dame de Paris. The monk's carnal lusts are all the more frightening because they camouflage themselves behind a proselytizing aggressiveness. He sincerely believes that he must save the sin-infested city of Alexandria from Thaïs and Thaïs from herself.


What he does not understand is the insidious working on the subconscious level of his all-pervading libido. Unbeknown to him, he is propelled by two very unholy motives: craving for sole possession of the woman whose lifestyle he thinks he despises and jealousy towards her innumerable admirers. While Anatole France treats the monk as an object of derision, Jules Massenet and Louis Gallet depict him as a tormented man whose tragedy consists in accepting his true nature too late. We have music by turns chromatic, vituperative, expansive and intensely moving which conveys Athanaël's inner turmoil as he goes from brooding to exalted self-righteousness, and from there to utter agony and despair.


It is as though Eros takes revenge on him for his attempts to repress it by triumphing over him at the very moment he thinks he has vanquished it, namely, when he converts Thaïs to his faith. His whole life, from the time he resisted temptation as an adolescent at the courtesan's doorstep to his final, anguishing encounter with her at the end of the opera , is one needless, non-stop guilt trip.


Naturally, as soon as Thaïs enters the convent for good, Athanaël begins to feel the pain of irreparable loss. Although he will not yet dare admit it, he has been conquered by the woman he had sworn to capture for the greater glory of God. The purely human love he feels for Thaïs is now fed by his un-sublimated Eros. It bursts forth in another vision occurring in the third act where she taunts him with the same words sung to the same theme that had marked their confrontation at the end of Act I. And his erotic passion acquires a lacerating intensity in the final scene of the opera. As his beloved is dying and oblivious to his grief, Athanaël becomes fully aware at last that he was a pseudo-saint all along, and that he has destroyed his one chance for happiness which could have redeemed him as a human being. The music eloquently accentuates Athanaël's agony. The Meditation theme as well as the melody of the first act in which he had voiced his determination to save the sinning courtesan rise up again like some invisible barrier. The voice of the now saintly Thaïs soars heaven-bound on these phrases while Athanaël's anguished supplications break against them and fall.


Here you have further proof, if more were necessary, that, in the operatic love relationship, baritones and sopranos really don't mix.

Until next time,

Leonard Rosmarin


AIDA: THE TRAGEDY OF A CONDEMNED LOVE

Posted by leonardrosmarin on April 26, 2018 at 10:25 AM Comments comments (2)



The term “grand opera” denotes lyric drama that unfolds in a context of sumptuous décors, costumes, choral masses as well as dancers and hordes of supernumeraries. When people think of grand opera, they almost invariably think of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. And the opera does seem to clamour for the Hollywood treatment. Some directors in places like the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, the arena in Verona and the Palais des sports in Paris go overboard. They put on eye-popping spectacles that even Cecil B. DeMille would have admired, replete with horses, camels and even elephants, all the while hoping and praying that these animals will not perform their imperious biological necessities at the most inopportune moments.


When one looks at the score carefully, however, one realizes that Aida is a very intimate drama, and the COC’s new production emphasizes this. Verdi focuses on the heartrending conflict between love and duty, a conflict made all the more tragic because the protagonists are victims of a ruthless totalitarian régime that is determined to crush their fragile chances for happiness. I would like to view the opera with you in this light.


The two lovers, Aida and Radames, strive to resolve this conflict. They long to transcend the nationalist, religious and political hatreds generated by the war between their opposing sides, but are vanquished by insurmountable odds. Verdi informs us at the very beginning of his opera that the struggle is hopeless. In the prelude, the supplicating, plaintive theme associated with the enslaved Aida is pitted against the stern, implacable motive of the high priest. Even before the curtain rises, then, a climate of tragedy is created.


Now some scholars have given these characters a rather rough ride. Joseph Kerman declared that Aida lives in a state of confusion, and William Berger remarked that of all Radames’ vital organs, his brain is the only one not functioning properly. These comments, I think, are grossly unfair. Granted, neither Radames nor Aida is a multidimensional protagonist, unlike Amneris, and I’ll get to her later. But why should all operatic heroes be psychologically complex? They are more often than not embodiments of a dominant attitude towards existence. Both Aida and Radames exemplify a noble struggle that is doomed to failure, and we can believe in them because Verdi succeeds in breathing intense emotional life into their characters through the marvellous eloquence of his music.


Of the two heroes, Aida is the most conflicted—not confused, as Mr. Kerman asserted—but agonizingly conscious of the fact that there is no way out for her in this life, at least. Indeed, she is drawn and quartered mentally and emotionally between her desperate love for the general who must wage war against her people and her loyalty towards them. This comes out in her famous narrative, “Ritorna Vincitor” (“Return victorious”). How can she urge her lover, Radames, to slaughter her father, brothers, and countrymen who are battling to free Aida from slavery and restore her regal dignity?


Yet how can she exult in the possible death of Radames at the hands of her father’s army? His loving presence has been the only factor that has made her slavery bearable. Her aria resembles a dialogue, with its contrasts of tempo and key modulations describing Aida’s inner struggle between love and duty. Neither of them wins. They are both pulling her apart. Only death can end her anguish. At this point in her narrative, she sings an exceedingly beautiful and plangent melody, “Numi, pieta,” (“Gods, have mercy”) where she begs the gods to release her from suffering. Her prayer foreshadows the conclusion of the opera in which only death will enable the lovers to be united forever. Even the triumphal scene that, in too many productions, degenerates into gratuitous pageantry, underscores the dilemma in which Aida is trapped. In the COC’s production, the scene unfolds like a nightmare that she is living fully awake.


Aida’s other great aria, “O patria mia,” (“My beloved land”) that occurs in the third act also reflects her anguish and belief that a cruel fate has banished joy from her heart forever. Throughout this aria her lines are introduced, echoed and occasionally doubled by a long plaintive melody for solo oboe. Here again is a dialogue, this time between Aida and the sweet memories of her homeland represented by the oboe: the verdant mountains, forests, cool valleys and perfumed streams. This is a splendid opportunity for the soprano to show her full range, both musically and emotionally.


What would have happened to Aida had her father, Amonasro, not appeared to confront her at that moment? Would it ever have occurred to her to betray Radames by asking him to reveal a crucial military secret? Amonasro acts as a catalyst by exploiting his daughter’s lacerating nostalgia for her country. He is the living embodiment of the spiritual, religious and moral values Aida cherishes. He represents her visceral attachment to her land, her very selfhood. To subordinate these values to her love for Radames would be tantamount to repudiating herself. Although Aida recoils in horror at the thought of dishonouring her lover, she capitulates. The curses Amonasro spews out at her in short, fierce, fortissimo phrases are too much for her to endure. “You are no longer my daughter,” he thunders, “You are the slave of the Pharaohs.”


In the fourth act Aida will prove the immensity of her love for Radames by choosing to die with him. But at this particular moment, as a result of her father’s relentless pressure, her loyalty towards her homeland silences her feelings of guilt. And so she seduces Radames by conjuring up an entrancing vision of their life together if only he will flee with her. “Let us run away from this inhospitable desert,” she urges. “Let us take refuge in my homeland with its cool breezes and virgin forests.” The melody she sings is caressing, sinuous, languorous, and erotically very alluring. A choir of three flutes accompany her. They weave their magic around her voice just as they enchant our ears.


Why does Radames hesitate before resolving to flee with his beloved? Why doesn’t he simply escape with her right then and there? The answer is that he, too, is torn between conflicting loyalties. The scene in the Temple of Vulcan where he is invested with the sacred sword leaves an indelible impression on him. Just as Aida cannot repudiate her people and the values they represent, neither can Radames. Only when Aida orders him into the arms of Amneris is he finally persuaded to run off with her


Poor Radames! He always seems to be reacting to situations rather than acting on them. This is probably why the character has been judged the least interesting of all four protagonists in the opera. I would like to try to rehabilitate him with a bit of help from Verdi. One must remember that although he is hailed as a brilliant general, Radames is a very young man and a dreamer. Which means that he can be very unrealistic. The aria he sings at the beginning of the opera, “Celeste Aida,” (“Heavenly Aida”) gives us insights into his nature. This aria has often been described as a the terror of all tenors because it requires the utmost vocal refinement to be really successful. It should not be an exercise in stentorian bellowing; it is an ecstatic reverie.


The tenor must negotiate the “portamenti,” or transitions from the lower to higher registers, effortlessly, otherwise he will sound like a tomcat in mating season. The high b flat at the end must be sung piano (softly) and taper off into silence. Not all tenors can pull this off. But it is necessary to pull this off in order to project Radames’ character to the audience from the very outset. This warrior, an optimist by nature, dreams of a world that simply does not exist. In the third act, he waxes enthusiastic as he tells Aida how he intends to ensure their happiness. Once he defeats her people’s army in a decisive battle, the King of Egypt will not be able to refuse him anything. He will ask for Aida’s hand despite the fact that the King has just betrothed Radames to his daughter, Amneris. Being far more lucid than he is, Aida knows that the plan will fail. Amneris’ ferocious jealousy will see to it that they are both destroyed.


But even Radames, who has blinded himself for so long about the tragic conflict in which he is imprisoned, is forced eventually to acknowledge the hopelessness of his situation. When he does, the intensity of his suffering confers upon him the dignity of a true hero. In the first scene of the fourth act, called the Judgment Scene, Radames possesses the unalterable serenity of a man already beyond life and prepared to die for the woman he adores. The music Verdi gives him here underlines this new magnificent strength of character. Amneris’ pleading and threats leave him totally indifferent.


This brings us finally to Amneris, the proud, haughty princess who is instrumental in the tragedy that befalls Aida and Radames. By and large, Verdi scholars agree that she is the most interesting protagonist in the opera. As far as I’m concerned, if someone could wave a magic wand and transform me for one night into a great diva, this is the role I would probably want to perform.


Amneris has no blockbuster arias to sing. Her vocal line is often declamatory and pugnacious rather than lyrical. In the first scene of the second act, when she worms a confession out of a distraught Aida, Amneris is a conniving, self-righteous, malevolent woman fixated on the notion of entitlement. Yet by the end of the judgment scene in the fourth act, Amneris elicits not only the audience’s pity but sympathy. When performed by a great singing actress, she can bring down the house and sometimes even steal the show.


Why do we find her so fascinating? There are several reasons. In the first place, she is the last in an illustrious line of characters in Verdi’s operas that I would call the Verdian Hellcat. All these women are vengeful furies. This in itself combined with the music the Italian master gives them makes them very exciting indeed. They either want to redress a wrong of which they feel they have been victims or to lash out at those who have grievously wounded their hearts. Some self-destruct in the process. This is what happens to Amneris. When the opera ends, she is crushed by the realization that even her royal power has limits. She will have to live forever with the knowledge that the man she worshipped is happier in death without her than he ever could be in life with her. Secondly, of the four principal protagonists, Amneris is by far the most complex.


This is obvious in her relationship with Aida. I have found a great deal of ambivalence here. Granted, she seethes with jealous fury in the first act when she suspects the young general of being in love with her slave. And her volcanic jealousy fairly erupts in the second act when the hapless Aida inadvertently betrays herself. Yet there exists at the same time a real respect and affection on her part for her rival. Genuine pity seems to cross her heart when she sees Aida’s suffering in both the first and second acts. Unfortunately, it is quickly neutralized by her all-pervading jealousy. Amneris’ complexity also manifests itself in the contrast between her haughtiness as a woman of royal rank and her love for Radames.


When she addresses him in the first act, when she revels in her amorous reverie in the second and expresses her feelings about him just before entering the temple in the third, Verdi gives her a meltingly lyrical vocal line. These moments are fleeting, certainly, but they do exist, and a great singer will not fail to emphasize them. The outstanding Amnerises I have seen in my lifetime have skilfully invested the role with a “soupçon de tendresse” as we say in French, a touch of tenderness that it really deserves. Amneris may be a vengeful fury, but she is also a vulnerable young girl hero-worshipping a warrior who will never be hers.


Finally, even more than her complexity, what intrigues us in her character is her ability to evolve. Radames and Aida do not change appreciably during the course of the opera. They are constantly torn between their passion for one another and their loyalty towards their respective homelands. Amneris, on the other hand, executes a quantum leap in the fourth act. At first she demands of the man she loves that he renounce Aida forever as her condition for saving his life. When he refuses, she furiously orders the guards to lead him back to his cell. But then an upheaval takes place within her heart and mind with a tsunami-like force. Overcome by guilt and remorse, she becomes aware of the fact that she has abused her power, and now it will boomerang back and devastate her. Another revelation comes soon afterwards.


As the priests accuse Radames of treason and condemn him to be buried alive, Amneris knows that she cannot eradicate the passion she feels for him even though he has rejected her outright. Her cries of horror and her supplications to the gods as she hears Radames’ sentence being pronounced by the priests testifies to this. But Amneris has yet another illumination. She discovers, aghast, that the social and political system of which she is an integral part is cruel, even inhuman. It functions like a steamroller that will crush any opposition to it in the name of an equally heartless form of religion. Hence her furious outburst against the priests when they condemn Radames to death: “Empia razza, anatema su voi. La vendetta del ciel scendera.” (“Impious band, I curse you. May the vengeance of Heaven descend upon you all.”) Here she is haemorrhaging emotionally!


Thus, of the three protagonists, Amneris is also the most tragic. At the end of the opera Aida and Radames are entombed. But at least they die together. Despite their suffering not once do they doubt their love for one another. Amneris’ immurement is far worse. She is entombed in her sorrow and her solitude. She will be tormented forever by her nostalgia for a deep love that could never be reciprocated. The peace that she implores of the gods for Radames’ soul will never be hers.


This grand opera ends, then, as quietly as it had begun. The tragedy that was adumbrated in the prelude has taken place. The voices of Aida and Radames soar in an ineffably beautiful, ethereal melody expressing their conviction that they will be united beyond death in a realm of eternal happiness while Amneris, prostrate with grief, softly utters the word “pace” (“peace”) over their tomb.


Thank you for joining me,

Leonard Rosmarin


IL RITORNO D'ULISSE IN PATRIA

Posted by leonardrosmarin on February 20, 2018 at 2:35 PM Comments comments (1)



For the casual opera goers, a performance of Claudio Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria might seem like a very redoubtable challenge. It was first performed in 1640 and is not composed in the kind of musical language with which they are familiar. It would probably be the equivalent of inviting an agnostic friend to attend an early morning Sunday church service whereas he or she might feel that they could spend their time much more profitably in bed. But that would be a most unfortunate reaction. The libretto by Giacomo Badoaro is inspired by one of the most exciting narratives in Western civilization, The Odyssey, written by the ancient Greek bard Homer. And the music captures eloquently the powerful drama of the story as well as evoking complex characters with whom we can easily identify in our 21st century. I would like to concentrate on these two aspects now.


To my everlasting shame, I must confess that I had never read The Odyssey before being invited by Opera Atelier to present this pre-performance chat. As soon as I plunged into it, however, I was as hooked and enthralled as a teenager watching his first Star Wars movie. The hero, Odysseus, or Ulisse in the opera, goes through adventures as hair raising as any that Luke Skywalker lives through, if not more so. He encounters witches, nymphs and cyclopes. He journeys to the land of the dead. With his shrewd, fast-witted mind and quick-tongue, he outsmarts all of the terrors in his path as he strives for a decade to reach his home after the sack of Troy. He drags his crew bodily away from the island where the inhabitants gorge themselves on the memory-wiping, pleasure-giving lotus; he withstands the enticing song of the Sirens, who strive to lure him to his death, by having himself lashed to the mast by his crew, whose ears he has stopped with wax. He outwits the glamorous enchantress Circe, who turns his men into pigs. He steers his ship between the man-eating, many-headed Scylla and the deadly whirlpool Charybdis. He is the original unlikely survivor, the man who always struggles free from the car crash and walks clear of the wreckage just as the flames are spewing out. And I must say that Ulisses' victory over the suitors who had been tormenting his wife Penelope for many years was as thrilling as the best Hollywood western-style shoot outs. The only difference is that instead of guns, the hero and his supporters used arrows, spears and swords to slaughter the enemy. And one should remember that Homer invented this confrontation thousands of years before Hollywood existed!


The universe in which Ulysses moves is filled with disquieting, frightening presences called the gods. The latter wield terrifying power, and often wreck vengeance on fragile mortals for the most irrational of reasons. They may be omnipotent but they are not necessarily loving. In fact, they can be cruelly and unjustly vindictive. The god Neptune wants to destroy Ulysses because the latter blinded his son Polyphemus. What Neptune conveniently forgets is that this son of his is a repulsive, sadistic S.O.B. who thoroughly deserved the punishment the Greek hero meted out to him. This same mysterious, dangerous atmosphere prevails in the opera until the goddess Minerva, who is unswervingly supportive of Ulysses, persuades Jupiter and Neptune to finally allow the Greek hero to enjoy his hard-won, newly found happiness.


But The Odyssey bowled me over for another, more important reason. It affected me deeply. It denounces the murderous insanity of war, and describes the excruciating pain the war veteran experiences when he attempts to reinsert himself into civil life after a lengthy absence from it. Claudio Monteverdi and his skillful librettist, Giacomo Badoaro, express these issues admirably. Since they were creating an opera, however, they couldn't possibly encompass the whole complex scope of Homer's epic poem. They very wisely and judiciously concentrated on the final, crucial chapters (Chapters 13-23) in the text, namely Ulisse's return to his kingdom in Ithaca after twenty years of wandering, his vanquishing of his greedy, cynical rivals, and his extremely moving reunion with his wife, Penelope, when they joyfully discover that their love for one another has triumphed over the ravages of time and the cruelty of fate. I would like to dwell on the trajectories of their lives as conjured up in the opera. For most of the opera, their destinies seem to unfold separately until the final act when Penelope, finally overcoming her distrust, realizes that her desperately longed-for husband has returned to her for good.


When one listens to the Prologue, though, it is hard to imagine that Il ritorno d'Ulisse will have a triumphant conclusion. Monteverdi launches his opera with a brief, dramatically charged D minor sinfonia, plunging his performers and audience into the center of the drama's emotional and thematic concerns. The use and reuse of this sinfonia during the prologue suggests that this instrumental passage is associated with our precarious human condition. Four allegorical figures emerge here, each representing a different aspect of our humanity: L'Humana Fragilità, or Fragile Humanity, Tempo (Time), Amore (Love) and Fortuna (Fortune). L'Humana Fragilità sings an arioso that she will repeat throughout the Prologue with telling variations: "Mortal cosa son io, fattura humana." ( I am a mortal being, fashioned human). L'Humana Fragilità's words and their stark musical setting introduce a sense of pathos within the opening seconds of the vocal writing. The languishing ornaments on the word "humana" which stretch over four bars, suggest humanity's painful vulnerability. This vulnerability is underscored further by her three adversaries, Tempo, Amore, and Fortuna. They all boast about the nefarious power they can wield over a helpless humanity. Tempo is the ultimate destroyer of mankind. Amore is irrational and capricious, and Fortuna is irrational and cruel. Yet the opera will show us that despite their human fragility, Penelope and Ulisse will succeed in using Time as a great healer, Love as a source of strength, and will make Fortune do their bidding.


But before we chart the spiritual and moral triumphs of our protagonists, I should emphasize the importance of the whole constellation of secondary characters surrounding them. They perform a very crucial function in the opera. By their very presences they sharpen the focus on the two main characters. They either enhance the stature of Penelope and Ulisse by their unconditional commitment to them, or throw the heroes' virtues into even more striking relief in contrast to their rather unattractive natures. In depicting these personages, Monteverdi reveals himself as a democrat in the Shakespearean sense. They do not appear as stock, two-dimensional characters. They are living, breathing human beings with wills of their own.


The virtuous ones who win our sympathies from the start are Penelope's loyal, elderly maid Ericlea, Eumete the old shepherd, and Telemaco, the son Penelope bore when Ulisse was fighting in the Trojan war. Telemaco had never seen his father before the latter's return to his homeland. Ericlea had recognized Ulisse despite his disguise as an aged beggar. She had noticed the scar on his shoulder when he was taking a bath. She never mentioned this to Penelope because Ulisse had sworn her to secrecy. But when Ericlea sees Penelope persist in stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that the hero appearing before her is indeed her long-lost husband, Ericlea breaks her vow of silence to ensure her mistress' happiness. Eumete has an immense decency and a stainless steel-like integrity that saved him from being corrupted all the time that his master, Ulisse, was in exile. The music he sings when Ulisse, disguised as a vagabond, promises him the imminent return of his former king, is one of the opera's most beautiful passages. It radiates Eumete's gentle humanity.


As for Telemaco, how could he not inherit the lofty traits of his parents? Both Monteverdi and Homer agree that the spiritual DNA of a hero can never be irreversibly contaminated. When father and son meet for the first time, Telemaco's ascending vocalization on "O" in his phrase "O padre sospirato!" (O longed-for father!) is disarming in its frank suggestion of emotional release. The two tenors, father and son, sing a love duet almost as affecting as the later reunion of Ulisse and Penelope. Seldom in the ensuing operatic heritage has the filial relationship been portrayed with such tenderness. Of course, being a very young man, Telemaco can be temporarily blinded by sensual attraction. After his return from Sparta during a voyage in search of his lost father, Telemaco relates to his mother his encounter with Helen, the Greek woman whose face launched the thousand ships that eventually led to the destruction of Troy. Still dazzled by her beauty, he exclaims with impetuous youthful enthusiasm, "The beautiful Greek woman bears in her lovely face all the excuses for the Trojans' sins." Here Monteverdi conjures up through his music the ferocity of newly awakened adolescent ardor, when sensuality can rise to a point of religious exhilaration. But Penelope sets him straight immediately. She will not stand for Telemaco's naive praise for the woman who led to so much sorrow, including her own. "Ché mostro è quell'amor che nuota in sangue", she says, "What a monster is that love that swims in blood." She disabuses her son, rebukes him, and he abides by her judgment.


In comparison to these noble spirits, the other secondary characters do not hold up very well. Melanto and Eurimaco are prime examples. Melanto is one of Penelope's female attendants. Although ostensibly devoted to her mistress, she is working in favour of the latter's unwanted suitors. Eurimaco, her lover, an ethically challenged and rather cold-blooded hypocrite, is a servant attached to the degenerate troops of suitors who have encroached upon the Ithacan court in Ulisse's absence. Melanto strives to undermine her mistress's resolve by insisting that for her own emotional self-preservation she should stop mourning her husband's disappearance and start living again by playing the game of love. "No one looses in love who plays out the game," she insists. She is quite vivacious and smart at times, but remains something of an airhead, too. She is too superficial a character to even remotely comprehend the depth of her mistress' commitment to her husband. I'm convinced that if she were in Penelope's situation, not only would she choose one of the suitors as her spouse, but she would probably try them all out in advance to determine which one would provide the most comfortable fit.


As for the suitors themselves, it would be difficult to find a more despicable band of creeps. Monteverdi's genius consists in giving them exactly the kind of music that conjures up their lawless characters. Antinoo, the ringleader, is a bass; Anfinomo is cast as a tenor, and Pisandro is an alto. These three men menacingly surround Penelope. The words they sing vividly suggest their corruption, duplicity and latent violence. They are arrogant, self-absorbed, self-righteous, and delusional, believing that an accident of birth makes them intrinsically superior to people of humble origins like Eumete, who is worth infinitely more than they are. Yet they are craven cowards. At one point, they seriously contemplate murdering Telemaco to improve their chances of snaring Penelope. But when they catch sight of Jupiter's eagle flying above them, their bravery collapses. The music they then sing suggests three completely deflated fools reduced to palpably chattering terror. Having failed as assassins, they try to seduce Penelope with sumptuous presents. Of course this stratagem doesn't work either. If anything, her contempt for them becomes even stronger.


Although living daily under these harrowing threats, Penelope maintains a majestic, queenly presence. She is the embodiment of wounded dignity. Her immense love for her husband, Ulisse, gives her the strength to endure. But this love in turn causes her excruciating emotional pain. She wills herself never to give up the hope of being reunited with him again. Nevertheless, as time moves forward inexorably, the doubts she entertains about Ulisse ever returning to his kingdom and his beloved wife gnaw at her more and more, causing unspeakable anguish. By some singular paradox, this anguish only serves to intensify the love she bears her husband and strengthens her resolve to remain unassailable against all threats. The sorrow imprinted on her personality is evident in the heartrending lament she sings in the first scene of the first act. Penelope narrrates the story of Helen and of Ulisse's departure to punish her adultery, a narration portrayed by bold recitative declamation suggesting Penelope is a woman of unshakable moral conviction. The unfairness of her situation, the chaste wife suffering "because of the crime of others," reenergizes the iterative note patterns and the sighing-figure cadence on the words "Per l'altrui fallo condannata innocente" (Though innocent, I am condemned to suffer.)


As her longing for Ulisse increases in intensity, so too does the lyrical impulse of her declamation: "Ogni partenza attende desiato ritorno" (Every departure attends on a desired return). The abrupt leap from G to B-flat on "desiato" (desired) is as simple as it is striking. Desire is truly the operative element in Penelope's character, and the setting of this word lifts her musical discourse to a new level of expressiveness. It serves to launch the first of Penelope's two lyric refrains, "Tu sol del tuo tornar perdesti il giorno" (You alone have lost your day of return). Lost in her reverie of a happier future, she imagines Ulisse's return as an integral part of nature's cycle. Just as tranquility returns to the sea, the breeze to the meadow and dawn to the land, one day, perhaps, her beloved husband will come home again. For all the human and divine forces arrayed against Human frailty, this opera--like Homer's epic before it--will offer deliverance.


Penelope's ability to love unconditionally and to continue hoping even against all reasons for hope give her the courage to confront her aggressive suitors in the second act. Their melodic vigor is matched by Penelope's feisty aria response, "Non voglio amar, no, no, ch'amando penerò." (I don't want to love, no, no, for love is painful.) The repeated "no" signal her regal, dignified refusal with a descending five-note scale. Perhaps the idea of a contest which her three suitors would enter in order to win her hand and her kingdom occurs to her as a way of getting rid of them permanently. It is, of course, the kind of competition in which all three of them would be disqualified. She orders Melanto to bring the mighty Ulisse's bow, the very one that enabled him to show his incomparable prowess as a warrior. She then informs her three suitors that the one who succeeds in stringing this bow will have her hand in marriage and inherit Ulisse's realm. What inspires her to think of this contest? Is it the presence of Minerva, Ulisse's godly protector? Is it the presence of Ulisse himself in his disguise as the old beggar? One senses a growing sympathy on the part of Penelope for him. Does some trans-rational intuition lead her to believe that this ragged vagabond might indeed be her champion?


In any event, the stratagem works beautifully. None of the three succeed in stringing the bow. They are way beyond their depth. But Ulisse in his disguise as the beggar accomplishes this task effortlessly. Whereupon he immediately slaughters his rivals, thereby ridding his wife of these dangerous enemies and reclaiming his kingdom.


Now that we have Penelope and Ulisse sharing the same physical space together after twenty long years, let's return to the first act of the opera where the long-lost warrior finally comes home. Monteverdi and his librettists Badoaro construct Ulisse's character the same way they do Penelope's. They depict him as a larger-than-life embodiment of courage and constancy. Yet he remains profoundly human to the extent that he is capable, like his beloved wife, of suffering severe emotional pain. This is obvious in his first appearance in Scene 7 of Act I. The generous Phaeacian sailors have just brought him, still in a deep sleep, to the shores of Ithaca. They, of course, will be punished by Neptune for having aided an enemy. They and their ships will be transformed into stone.


As he wakens from slumber, his music betrays emotional turmoil. This can be heard in the steady climb of his vocal line from the bottom to near the top of its compass in "Chi fece in me, chi fece il sempre dolce e lusinghevol sonno ministro di tormenti?" (Who causes my sweet and gratifying sleep always to change into an instrument of torture?) His awareness of betrayal compels his vocal line upward to his fanciful denunciation of sleep as "father of errors" (padre d'errori), but as he meditates on his own supposed culpability in his misfortunes, his voice sinks down again, mirroring his self-disgust. In his anguish he even accuses his generous Phaecian friends of having dumped him off on some strange shore, thus condemning him to a continuation of his misery.


Fortunately, the goddess Minerva will remain unswervingly loyal towards him and will enable him to regain his kingdom. Now how should we sceptical if not cynical people of the 21st century interpret the presence of this goddess by his side as his champion? We can view Minerva as the metaphor for the hero's intrepidness, immense strength of character and intelligence, as well as good fortune which has finally aligned itself in his favour after so many years of overwhelming misfortune.


Ulisse disguised himself as a bedraggled beggar in order to move around in his kingdom unnoticed and to exploit the element of surprise when confronting his adversaries. Yet even when he appears in the final scene in normal attire as the legitimate king, in a way that his wife will have no trouble recognizing him, her distrust, fed by two decades of bitter disappointment, still prevents her from rushing into his arms. It is as though her scepticism, intensifying her love for Ulisse over two decades, is preventing her from responding to him, even though she appears deeply affected by his presence. Only when he describes the embroidered cloth with the image of the goddess Diana she would place over their bed, is Penelope finally convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt. Now the floodgates of her long-repressed emotions open wide, and she joins Ulisse in one of the most rapturous, life-affirming love duets in the whole operatic literature.


Ulisse initiates the duet, singing a lyrical phrase, "Sospirato mio sole" (My longed-for sun). Penelope responds, "Rinnovata mia luce! ("My renewed light). They sing a gentle minor key tune with solo and overlapping lines that changes the emotional temperature from extroverted rapture to a more private, glowing tenderness, and the duet ends in a climate of radiant confidence.


You can understand now why Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, one of the very first real operas ever composed, is considered one of the finest ever written. It has everything: a very strong dramatic pulse, larger-than-life protagonists who remain credible human beings, engrossing secondary characters, and music that conjures up the drama with a visceral impact and immediate intensity that words alone could never muster. So, just like the child in a television commercial for Italian pasta, I entreat Opera Atelier, "More Monteverdi, please!"


Until next time...


Leonard Rosmarin

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO

Posted by leonardrosmarin on October 23, 2017 at 9:55 AM Comments comments (1)




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

 

 

 

 


Rss_feed