Puccini, Giacomo: “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot

During my second semester of college at Indiana University at South Bend, I enrolled in a piano class. We met in the basement of the main complex and the room contained about 10 electric pianos. These were wired into the teacher’s console and we wore headphones so we could hear ourselves practice. From time to time, the teacher would flip a switch, listen to how we were doing, and give a few suggestions.

Our teacher was a rather flamboyant old Swedish gentleman named Eijnar Krantz. He probably was the only professor I think who ever taught me who wore a suit every day, and definitely the only one who had a silk handkerchief stuffed into his breast pocket. Professor Krantz had huge bushy salt and pepper eyebrows that matched the hair that he wore slicked back. Thin and moutstachioed, he looked a bit like someone out of a Fred Astaire film–kind of dapper, actually.

Next to me in class sat a guy about my age, who one day started a conversation with me. What struck me about him was his high, dramatic voice. In fact, he turned out to be a tenor who was studying voice. He had to take a piano proficiency class in fulfillment of his music degree. His name was Mike Snyder and we eventually became friends.

Of course, Mike loved opera and was very enthusiastic when I told him how much I liked classical music. “Well,” he said to me. “You must come to my house and hear Bjorling sing Nessun Dorma.” Before then the only tenors I knew by name were Mario Lanza and Enrico Caruso. “Who’s Bjorling?” I asked. “Why,” Mike responded, “he was only the greatest tenor of all time.”

I was quite happy to go along to Mike’s house. After all, until then, I’d never met anyone who shared my passion for music.

Mike lived in a middle class section of South Bend in a small bungalow with his parents. The day I paid him a visit, I found him in front of his house pitching a baseball to his little brother. That struck me a bit odd. Because most of the athletes in my high school were pretty much anti-intellectual, I thought that having a love of music precluded an interest in spectator sports. Of course, my swimming hundreds of laps in practice was probably as boring to him as his playing baseball was to me, so maybe Mike, like me, had used listening to music as a way of passing the time.

Mike had a prodigious collection of opera recordings and highlights. He had several recordings of Jussi Bjorling singing Nessun Dorma and he discussed the merits of each one and even played me other recordings of it by other singers.

This was in 1974, mind you, and Placido Domingo was just getting a reputation, and Pavarotti was almost unknown. Jan Pierce and Robert Merrill were still alive and dominated the American opera scene. So I had never heard “Nessun Dorma” before, and it sent shivers down my spine. Nowadays, because of the three tenors, it’s become pretty hackneyed, but Bjorling’s recording is still unique enough that I almost consider it a different piece of music altogether.

Mike was particularly cruel to Placido Domingo. He had a recording of some work that a very young Domingo sang with a very old Callas in which Domingo’s voice breaks. “Listen to that!” Mike shouted when he played it for me. “It sounds like he’s singing inside of a can or something. Or like his head is in a bag filled with cotton.” I guess Domingo’s voice has matured enough by now. He’s sought-after and is even featured in his own Rolex Oyster magazine advertisement.

I enjoyed hanging around with Mike. He introduced me to a lot of good vocal music and a number number of artistic acquaintances whom he had met through his music studies. It was hard to believe there was such a cultural elite in South Bend. Of course, some of them weren’t so elite. My dates are starting to blur a bit. Mike eventually moved in with another musician, named Jerry, and later they had a falling out. Mike said Jerry had started hanging out with some pretty rough “low-lifes.” About a year later, Mike told me that Jerry had been found stabbed in his apartment.

What I liked most about Mike was his complete lack of self-doubt. He knew he one day he would become a successful and famous tenor. He got odd jobs singing as a cantor and was not afraid at all of performing. In a way, he taught me that you can have a lot of talent, but you also need attitude.

Do I need to say anything about “Nessun Dorma?” It comes from the opera, “Turandot,” which is about a contest to guess three riddles proposed by a Chinese princess. Should a suitor try and fail, he would be executed. A prince named Calaf appears and answers the questions. Turandot does not want to marry Calaf, so he says that if she can guess his name by dawn, he will release her. The emperor announces that no one must sleep (nessun dorma) until the prince’s name is discovered. Calaf sings this aria in which he says that he will only reveal his identity when he is ready and will make Turandot love him. The last line, which is the piercing high note of the tenor’s aria is “Vincero” (I will win!).

To me what is so beautiful about this aria is the oriental feel to it. Puccini uses that to create a series of climaxes that never quite seem to resolve. The aria climbs and climbs and only finally resolves on the final line.

Unfortunately, I have lost track of Mike over the years. Were I to meet him now, I’d start by thanking him for introducing me to this piece. It would also be nice to know whether he “won” his dream as well.

Puccini Biography

Buy or Download The Very Best of Jussi Björling on Amazon

Giuseppe Verdi: “Celeste Aïda” from “Aïda”

In 2000, when I started The Musical Almanac, I couldn’t decide whether culturally, we were better or worse off than a during the 1800s. The US had just seen the impeachment of its president after a witch hunt of many years that exposed his amorous indiscretions.  The opposing party came in shortly after that and we had September 11, the War in Iraq, a global economic crisis, and what seems to be a tide of rising fundamentalism in the West.  Despite the fact that the ice caps are melting, there are stronger storms, worse droughts, and increase in certain disease, many people still deny climate change.

In other parts of the world the Internet has brought information and instantaneous communication to even the remotest parts of the globe.  As we have seen with the Arab Spring uprisings, this technology has caused an absolute explosion of ideas.  The times they are a changing.  Since it all started in North Africa, let’s look at an opera set in Pharaonic  Egypt.

Radames a young warrior in Pharaoh’s army sings the aria, Celeste Aïda (heavenly Aïda) at the beginning of the opera. The army is about to go to war with Ethiopia, and he will lead the campaign. In the aria, he declares his love for the slave girl Aïda, who is the captured daughter of the King of Ethiopia. Aïda serves Amneris, Pharaoh’s daughter, who is in love with Radames. (You can see where this is going.) In Radames’ aria he hopes that he can lead his troops well and win the battle so he can say to Aïda, “I’ve fought for you. I’ve won for you.” Then he sings:

Celeste Aïda, forma divina, Heavenly Aïda, divine shape,
Mistico serto di luce e fior,
Del mio pensiero tu sei regina
Tu di mia vita sei lo splendor.
Il tuo bel cielo vorrei ridarti,
Le dolci brezze del patrio suol :
Un regal serto sul crin posarti,
Ergerti un trono vicino al sol,
Mystic garland of light and flowers
you are queen of my thoughts
you are the splendor of my life
I would like to give you your sky back
the sweet breeze of the fatherland:
to put a regal garland on your heart
to build up a throne for you next to the sun

Such grand themes!

I wonder what connection this story had with the people of Verdi’s day.  Aïda is based on a story created by a leading Egyptologist of the day. The previous century Napoleon had campaigned in Egypt, and his troops discovered the Rosetta Stone. With the spoils he sent back and Champollion successfully translating hieroglyphics, Europe came under the spell of Egyptiana. Both England and France were busy building empires during the 19th century, which some might argue did more damage than any McDonalds at the foot of the Great wall of China.

Verdi wrote Aïda in 1871 for the Khedive of Egypt to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. Verdi was 58 at the time and of such a stature that he was able to command the equivalent of $200,000 in today’s money, to write the opera. It premiered in Cairo on Christmas Eve and in Milan about a month and a half later. It was met with immediate success and remains a standard of the repertoire.

When Verdi died in 1901, the entire population of Italy went into mourning for him. I used to marvel at this, until I moved to Naples in 1980. When I first arrived, a friend of a friend put me up in an old 18th century palazzo that had been turned into apartments. He had a daughter who was about 9 or 10 at the time. My room was next to the bathroom. One day, I awoke to the sound of this little girl, who during her morning ablutions, stopped to belt out a rousing popular Neapolitan song of the day. On another occasion, while sitting in a restaurant in the back streets of Naples one Sunday morning, a middle-aged man drove up on his Vespa on which he had affixed a crate for carrying the bottles of seltzer water he was delivering. When he alit, he stopped and suddenly burst into a beautiful love song that echoed throughout the narrow streets.

Sometimes artists put down the common people as being philistinic and unappreciative of their art, but the fact of the matter is that how technology and education is used and who uses it is a political decision with serious economic underpinnings. Before we go name calling, it’s important to figure out who’s pulling the strings.

Gioacchino Rossini: Mi par d’esser con la testa from The Barber of Seville

This, the last aria from the Barber of Seville that I’m going to write about never ceases to amaze me. It did so when I first heard it about 40 years ago in high school, and did today when I gave listened to it on Youtube. It makes me think of a line from the movie, Amadeus. Mozart, speaking about his opera Le Nozze di Figaro says that opera is the only art form in which you can have four different people speaking at the same time, each presenting a different point of view or even having an argument. What’s wonderful though is that what in real life would appear pandemonium, in opera sounds heavenly.

The piece in which Rossini illustrates this fact, Mi par d’essere con la testa is a quintet for Rosina, Almaviva, Figaro, Basilio and Bartolo. Almaviva has succeeded in infiltrating Don Bartolo’s house by pretending he is a drunken soldier who has been billeted there. Don Bartolo won’t have any of it: he says he has a letter that exempts him receiving billets. As he goes to produce it, Almaviva slips Rosina a love note. Bartolo catches sight of it. Almaviva makes Bartolo drop his letter and Rosina drops hers. He then manages to mix them up handing back to Bartolo nothing more than a laundry list.

Rosina’s presence inflames Almaviva which makes Bartolo suspicious. Now angry, the doctor again tries to get the count to leave. Almaviva starts to threaten him with a sword, telling him he will kill him when Figaro arrives. The barber and Rosina try to calm the two suitors down, but they all become so loud that the local police come knocking at the door. They enter and demand to know what is going on as the din has attracted a crowd in front of the house.

Bartolo explains that he is affronted in his own house by a drunken soldier. The police chief is about to cart Almaviva away, when the count secretly shows him a letter that reveal his true identity–Count Almaviva, a nobleman. At this, the police chief is thunderstruck. Back then, nobles were inviolate. The others sing in wonderment at how something suddenly struck dumb the police chief. When he comes to his senses, he tells them to stop arguing. When Bartolo tries to get him to arrest Almaviva, the chief implies that if he doesn’t drop it, he might have to arrest him. That would have been within his powers.

This confuses everyone even more and they begin to sing:

Mi par d’esser con la testa
in un orrida fucina.
alternando questo e quello
pesantissimo martello
fa con un barbara armonia
mure e volte rimbombar, si
I feel as if I’ve stuck my head
into some dreadful smithy
Alternating one with the other
The heavy hammer blows
Make a barbarous harmony
That shakes the walls and rafters

To me this piece demonstrates once and for all Rossini’s mastery of matching his music to the words. Again, like La Calunnia it starts out soft. In the background the violins play quick triplets, punctuated by a triangle which imitates the sound of the crashing hammers. It is funny, clever, upbeat, and incredible as each voice surfaces for an instant and then is drowned out by another.

You know how the opera ends: After more intrigue and humorous scenes in which he and Figaro dupe Bartolo, Almaviva gets the girl. Not because his is any better a person, but because he could pay more than Bartolo. Maybe it’s more fitting that he is younger than Bartolo, but that’s not the main theme. The theme is that Figaro–a common barber–is clearly more clever than any of them, and idea that was revolutionary for Rossini’s day.

When you think about all the people in positions of power–US generals involved in sex scandals, corporate executives like those in Enron whose greed brought the company down, politicians who line their pockets while shafting the polity–have become our new nobility, maybe it’s time once again for some revolutionary action.

Gioacchino Rossini: “Largo al Factotum” from The Barber of Seville

I’m going to shift gears from writing about the passionate and romantic piano concertos that formed the subject of the past several previous entries. Maybe this change results from a comment that my friend John Kim made, when I told him about all the gushing Romantic pieces that I listened to in high school. He said, “weren’t there any fun things you listened to?” In fact there was–The Barber of Seville. So this week, I’m going to write about several arias from this opera.

A while back, here, I wrote about its overture, which I first heard used in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. For some reason I was able to memorize it, and I would use it to break the monotony of the hundreds of laps we had to swim each day on the swim team. I used to be able to whistle it as well. I learned to whistle from my father, who always seemed to have a tune on his lips. I wonder if this is genetic: my daughter when she was in middle school was often reprimanded for whistling tunes in the hall and sometimes during class at school.

The Barber of Seville probably ranks as one of the most well known and popular of all operas. Rossini actually composed 36 operas from the age of 18 until 37, many of the overtures to which also get considerable airplay. (And which have been pirated–remember the theme from the Lone Ranger? It’s actually from the overture to his opera William Tell.) But the Barber which Rossini composed at the age of 24, was his ne plus ultra. Had he composed only this one piece, his reputation probably would the same.

Rossini started out as a cellist and composer, and was especially influenced by Mozart. He had a great ear for melody, of course, but he also understood the human voice. Nowhere does this show than in the The Barber of Seville in which the arias and grouping of the vocalists–duos, trios, quartets–are so masterfully composed that they soar and amaze.

What the Barber also shows is that Rossini additionally possessed a superb sense of humor coupled with a zest for life. Much of this comes out in his characters, but particularly in the pieces given to the role of Figaro, that is the barber of this work.

The aria Largo al Factotum introduces Figaro’s entrance on the stage. Figaro is a “fixer,” who by the end of the opera will help Count Almaviva, his old employer (from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro), capture the heart of the maiden, Rosina. We don’t know of the connection between the Figaro and the Count, who has just finished paying off some musician when the barber arrives. Figaro appears singing a perky, boasting aria in which he talks about how much he loves his job as a barber and go-between. The job keeps him hopping–he shaves the faces of the rich young bloods, prepares wigs for them and for the rich young ladies and bleeds everyone–but it has its perks, especially among the young ladies, “la, la, la, la!”
The words are funny, true, but what makes it so incredible is that the baritone must sing it faster and faster as he nears the end. You normally think of the deep bass voice as being serious, but at one point, he sings in falsetto, imitating the ladies calling him for his services. And of course, there is the familiar: “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” which, even if you know nothing about opera, you probably have sung once in your life.

My high school friend, Paul Ma***, whose family introduced me to many works of classical music, told me that the Barber of Seville was a good place to start listening to opera. He was the one who told me that this aria by Figaro was called Largo al Factotum, which means “make way for the jack-of-all-trades.” He also recommended a recording of it, which, since it costs a whopping $15.99 in 1972, I persuaded my parents to buy it for me as a birthday present that year. They were puzzled, but complied.

Around the time I received my copy of it, Paul told me he had recently heard the Barber on a Saturday broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco. During Largo al Factotum aria, the soloist actually started singing lines in English that made fun of the other singers. That caught my attention. It showed me that this serious stuff called “classical music” actually had some humorous soul who practiced it.

Needless to say, this was one of the best birthday presents I ever received, and giving it a spin today to refresh my memory, I find that it still makes me smile.

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