Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto

In 1975, my first long-term girlfriend, Lacy, and I had a fairly comfortable relationship. We shared very similar tastes in art, literature and music, and this fact made us pretty compatible. That is why we stayed together for around two years. At the beginning at least we just liked hanging out with each other.


The artsy campy crowd in my dorm that I hung out with seemed to approve of our relationship. At least we were still included in invitations to parties, excursions to our local favorite bar, “Bear’s Place,” and outings to symphony and opera performances.

Indiana University, as I have mentioned before, has a huge music school. To give you an idea of how big, in 1975 they had five full student orchestras, ranging from so-so to superb. The school also mounted a full opera season of works not only from the standard repertoire, but also modern works as well. And they didn’t just focus on Baroque to Early Modern. They had a serious Jazz studies program with its own orchestra, an early music ensemble, an electronic music studio, and they premiered a number of works by contemporary composers.

Once Lacy, who played the upright bass, came back from class very angry. Her orchestra had been rehearsing a work by some modern composer. She said they all turned the page in one section and the composer’s instructions were something like “improvise.” “That’s cheating!” she yelled.  “That’s not composing.”

So Lacy and I probably went out to see a concert at least once a week. The people in the French House read the daily listing of concerts and student recitals in the student newspaper, and we also went out en masse. Once we all organized an outing to go see the school’s production of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” The school announced that they would break up the five-hour performance with a two-hour intermission and start a bit early. That way, people could watch the first half of the opera, go to dinner, and come back for the conclusion. Our group decided to go to a posh restaurant in Bloomington called Sully’s Oaken Bucket and regale ourselves with a fine meal.

The sets for the opera had been done by a German professor in the school of music or theater. His claim to fame was having done the set for some opera at the Met in New York. He had tried a German Expressionist approach and had used virtually no props, creating an inward-looking mood by using only blue lighting.

What a bore! Someone had once told me that what made Wagner so great was that he had merged music with drama and–as director of his own opera house in Bayreuth–he had created a perfect multi-media event. Well for this production they had stripped it down to just three elements–voice, orchestra, and lighting. Part of the charm of opera, for me at least, is the pomp and theatricality and pageantry of it all. Even if one part, say the acting, is bad, you still have the singing, the costumes, the sets, and the music to stimulate you. This production of Parsifal was almost abstract and you were held captive by the hours and hours of sung dramatic text without any melody.

By the time intermission came, we bolted for the door and headed for our restaurant. This was the first time I eaten in a fancy restaurant as an adult with a group of my peers, and I must confess to being a little put off by the prices. Being the child of parents who’d lived through the Great Depression, I was used to always pinching pennies, looking for bargains, scrounging at garage sales and rarely splurging on something so extravagant and ephemeral as a fancy meal. I did manage to find a dish which fell in my price range–a shrimp curry, I believe–which wasn’t spectacular but did the job. I enjoyed the company however, the conversation and maybe even a glass of wine. Oddly enough we didn’t hurry back to the opera and ended up arriving about ½ hour late for the second part. The meal and the hour both conspired against me and I have to confess to falling asleep.

Fortunately, the school that year also produced Verdi’s Rigoletto and they went all out on the sets and costumes. One scene took place in the Duke’s palace and they had constructed a huge raised dance floor with a grand staircase leading up to it that was painted to look like marble with gold leaf. I think that one of the guys in my dorm, who was majoring in dance or theatre, auditioned and got a part as one of the dancer during the ballroom scene. The singing was superb and the orchestra on top form that night and it met all my criteria for a great production.

Verdi received a commission early in his career to write an opera for the Fenice theatre in Venice. He had been influenced by tragedies like Hamlet and King Lear but eventually settled on Victor Hugo’s play, Le Roi S’Amuse. Verdi and his librettist had to rework the story several times in order to get past the censors who did not take kindly to the portrayal of kings as scoundrels or suffer things like curses on stage, which might inflame the clergy. They changed the king to a Duke but left him a cad. The court jester is one Rigoletto, who though he plays the buffoon, sees the debauchery of the Duke and his court.  Because he is deformed, he justifies his own intriguing to pit the different male characters against one another. He has a beautiful daughter named Gilda, whom he keeps sequestered far away from the influence of the Duke.

This opera has several famous arias. In “Questa o Quella” the Duke sings about his amorous adventures and how one girl is just as good as another. Later, he sings the famous, “La Donna e Mobile” in which he describes all women as fickle and only good for one thing. Eventually it turns out that the Duke has managed to seduce Rigoletto’s daughter.  Rigoletto plots revenge. By a strange twist of fate, the thugs Rigoletto sends to murder the Duke accidentally kill his daughter instead, and deliver the body to him in a sack. He opens the bag to find his dying daughter and realize the curse that he has brought on himself.

Verdi wrote this opera in something like 40 days at the age of 37. Though over 150 years old, the base motivations for power and conquest still seem as applicable to our modern world as it was to Verdi’s.  These days, I think the modern malaise is is the desire to make excuses for dropping one’s own morals in the face of those in power who do so.  Nice guys finish last also has become a mantra in my home country.  Maybe so, but once you compromise your morals, it’s over.

<a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000041Q2/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0000041Q2&linkCode=as2&tag=themusalm-20″>Buy CD or MP3s of Verdi – Rigoletto / Sutherland, Pavarotti, Milnes, LSO, Bonynge</a><img src=”http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=themusalm-20&l=as2&o=1&a=B0000041Q2&#8243; width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />

 

Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore

Hooray for libraries! Had I grown up in France, where they didn’t have lending libraries until about 30 years ago, I probably would only have discovered half the classical pieces I love. My small hometown public library in Mishawaka, Indiana (pop. 33,000 circa 1972) had quite a respectable collection of classical albums. Whenever I heard a new piece on the local classical music station, I’d write the name down and pay a visit to the library to check it out.

In the olden days, when you checked records out from the library often they were in less than pristine condition. Back then most everybody had these huge old console stereos with tone arms that weighted about 12 pounds. True, when hi-fis were in vogue, the records were made of pretty strong plastic. When the next generation of stereos hit, with feather-weight arms that held magnetic, not ceramic, cartridges, record labels started to scrimp on the plastic and then things became really bad. You’d check out one of these flimsy records and it would sound like a hail storm. I swear you could hold these disks up to the light and see through them from where the old steel styli had worn through them. Okay, so I’m exaggerating a bit. Only Deutsche Grammophon continued to use high-quality, thick plastic right up to the end. These were the Mercedes of LPs.

When CDs arrived on the scene, they were a big improvement. True, if you abused a CD it might end up skipping about a 1000 times a second, so that Brahms ends up sounding like it’s performed by a Rap group. But a problem with checking out CDs from the library is that the staff aren’t diligent about finding people who do not return them with the liner notes and booklets. Often, therefore, you don’t even know what the names of the tracks are if they aren’t printed on the disk itself. Of course, even more annoying are record labels that scrimp on the booklet, which are often pathetic advertisements for other records on the label. They don’t have any meaningful text in them or description of the music in them.

Again, in the era of LPs, you could actually learn something from the liner notes. True sometimes these were written by pompous gas bags, but most of the time they included some biographical information or anecdote about the composer or the orchestra or even interesting facts about the piece itself. Sometimes, they actually hired someone who understood music theory to explain the piece. Not being a music major, a lot of this information–about keys, chord progression, etc.–went over my head, but it was nice to know it was there anyway. And I’m sure some people understood it.

Rock albums on CDs also have been hit by this cost-saving measure, or else record companies just spend their money on artsy advertising. That’s not such a loss, as rock critics/journalists sometimes can’t string two sentences together, or they gush in flowery or gonzo-type prose, which is really ghastly. For example, here is an excerpt from a recent album review I found in Rolling Stone:

The whole album thumps like the soundtrack to a lost Eddie and the Cruisers sequel, one where Eddie gets crucified by Roman soldiers, while Gaga stands under the cross weeping and sending dirty texts to the DJ..

Which brings us back to today’s piece. One of the albums I used to check out from my hometown library was Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Il Travatore (The Trubador). As in the case of many pieces during this period, I was drawn to it for a particularly rousing section that had been used in some film or commercial. This was the “Anvil Chorus.” It appears in Act II, scene one, in which a band of gypsies sing a chorus about a beautiful gypsy maid while bashing away on their anvils. The sound of crashing metal worked into a classical piece excited the little boy in me, no doubt. That leads into a soprano solo, in which the gypsy woman, Azucena, sings an ominous aria.

One time a friend of mine and I went to see a revival of the Marx Brothers’ film, A Night at the Opera. In one part, Harpo is chased onstage during a performance of an opera, which turns out to be Il Travatore. He dresses in the costume of a gypsy woman, and when Azucena starts to sing, he rises up next to her an makes his trade mark ugly face, the “Gookie.”

This of course has nothing to do with the opera, but I found it hilarious, and it only served to make me appreciate the piece more. (Not to mention how intellectual comedies used to be.)

I include a link here to the plot of Il Trovatore. It involves the rivalry between a Count and a gypsy Troubador. The Count has sworn to revenge the death of his infant brother, who supposedly was burnt to death by the gypsies in a vendetta. Only today have I read the synopsis, and I am surprised to find out how complex and powerful is the story line. You’d never guess listening to the “Anvil Chorus.” But it turns out to be almost as moving as Romeo and Juliet with an evil character on a par with Iago in Othello.

Thirty-nine years ago, when I discovered Il Travatore at the local library, I would have laughed at the plot. It’s too melodramatic. How many people burn babies and kill to revenge themselves of events that happened generations previously? Since then, however, we’ve seen continued fighting between Jews and Arabs; Iraqis and Iranians; Serbs, Croatians, and Muslims; and countless other toil, strife and genocide, the roots of which go back for centuries. The plot of Il Travatore, unfortunately, seems much more plausible and contemporary to me now than it did all those years ago.

Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto

In 1975, my first long-term girlfriend, Lacy, and I had a fairly comfortable relationship. We shared very similar tastes in art, literature and music, and this fact made us pretty compatible. That is why we stayed together for around two years. At the beginning at least we just liked hanging out with each other.


The artsy campy crowd seemed to approve of our relationship. At least we were still included in invitations to parties, excursions to our local favorite bar, “Bear’s Place,” and outings to symphony and opera performances.

Indiana University, as I have mentioned before, has a huge music school. To give you an idea of how big, in 1975 they had five full student orchestras, ranging from so-so to superb. The school also mounted a full opera season of works not only from the standard repertoire, but also modern works as well. And they didn’t just focus on Baroque to Early Modern. They had a serious Jazz studies program with its own orchestra, an early music ensemble, an electronic music studio, and they premiered a number of works by contemporary composers.

Once Lacy, who played the upright bass came back very angry. Her orchestra had been rehearsing a work by some modern composer. She said they all turned the page in one section and the composer’s instructions were something like “improvise.” “That’s cheating! That’s not composing.”

So Lacy and I probably went out to see a concert at least once a week. The people in the French House read the daily listing of concerts and student recitals in the student newspaper, and we also went out en masse. Once we all organized an outing to go see the school’s production of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” The school announced that they would break up the five-hour performance with a two-hour intermission and start a bit early. That way, people could watch the first half of the opera, go to dinner, and come back for the conclusion. Our group decided to go to a posh restaurant in Bloomington called Sully’s Oaken Bucket and regale ourselves with a fine meal.

The sets for the opera had been done by a German professor in the school of music or theater. His claim to fame was having done the set for some opera at the Met in New York. He had tried a German Expressionist approach and had used virtually no props, creating an inward-looking mood by using only blue lighting.

What a bore! Someone had once told me that what made Wagner so great was that he had merged music with drama and–as director of his own opera house in Bayreuth–he had created a perfect multi-media event. Well for this production they had stripped it down to just three elements–voice, orchestra, and lighting. Part of the charm of opera, for me at least, is the pomp and theatricality and pageantry of it all. Even if one part, say the acting, is bad, you still have the singing, the costumes, the sets, and the music to stimulate you. This production of Parsifal was almost abstract and you were held captive by the hours and hours of sung dramatic text without any melody.

By the time intermission came, we bolted for the door and headed for our restaurant. This was the first time I eaten in a fancy restaurant as an adult with a group of my peers, and I must confess to being a little put off by the prices. Being the child of parents who’d lived through the Great Depression, I was used to always pinching pennies, looking for bargains, scrounging at garage sales and rarely splurging on something so extravagant and ephemeral as a fancy meal. I did manage to find a dish which fell in my price range–a shrimp curry, I believe–which wasn’t spectacular but did the job. I enjoyed the company however, the conversation and maybe even a glass of wine. Oddly enough we didn’t hurry back to the opera and ended up arriving about ½ hour late for the second part. The meal and the hour both conspired against me and I have to confess to falling asleep.

Fortunately, the school that year also produced Verdi’s Rigoletto and they went all out on the sets and costumes. One scene took place in the Duke’s palace and they had constructed a huge raised dance floor with a grand staircase leading up to it that was painted to look like marble with gold leaf. I think that one of the guys in my dorm, who was majoring in dance or theatre, auditioned and got a part as one of the dancer during the ballroom scene. The singing was superb and the orchestra on top form that night and it met all my criteria for a great production.

Verdi received a commission early in his career to write an opera for the Fenice theatre in Venice. He had been influenced by tragedies like Hamlet and King Lear but eventually settled on Victor Hugo’s play, Le Roi S’Amuse. Verdi and his librettist had to rework the story several times in order to get past the censors who did not take kindly to the portrayal of Kings as scoundrels or suffer things like curses on stage, which might inflame the clergy. They changed the King to a Duke but left him a cad. The court jester is one Rigoletto, who though he plays the buffoon, seeing the debauchery of the Duke and his court, because he is deformed justifies his own intriguing to pit the different male characters against one another. He has a beautiful daughter named Gilda, whom he keeps sequestered far away from the influence of the Duke.

This opera has several famous arias. In “Questa o Quella” the Duke sings about his amorous adventures and how one girl is just as good as another. Later, he sings the famous, “La Donna e Mobile” in which he describes all women as fickle and only good for one thing. Eventually it turns out that the Duke has managed to seduce Rigoletto’s daughter who plots revenge. By a strange twist of fate, the thugs Rigoletto sends to murder the Duke accidentally kill his daughter instead, and deliver the body to him in a sack. He opens the bag to find his dying daughter and realize the curse that he has brought on himself.

Verdi wrote this opera in something like 40 days at the age of 37. Though over 150 years old, the base motivations for power and conquest still seem as applicable to our modern world as it was to Verdi’s.

<a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000041Q2/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0000041Q2&linkCode=as2&tag=themusalm-20″>Buy CD or MP3s of Verdi – Rigoletto / Sutherland, Pavarotti, Milnes, LSO, Bonynge</a><img src=”http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=themusalm-20&l=as2&o=1&a=B0000041Q2&#8243; width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />

 

Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore

Hooray for libraries! Had I grown up in France, where they didn’t have lending libraries until about 30 years ago, I probably would only have discovered half the classical pieces I love. My small hometown public library in Mishawaka, Indiana (pop. 33,000 circa 1972) had quite a respectable collection of classical albums. Whenever I heard a new piece on the local classical music station, I’d write the name down and pay a visit to the library to check it out.

Which leads me to my next thing to be thankful for, namely CDs. In the olden days, when you checked records out often they were in less than pristine condition. Back then most everybody had these huge old console stereos with tone arms that weighted about 12 pounds. True, when hi-fis were in vogue, the records were made of pretty strong plastic. When the next generation of stereos hit, with feather-weight arms that held magnetic, not ceramic, cartridges, record labels started to scrimp on the plastic and then things became really bad. You’d check out one of these flimsy records and it would sound like a hail storm. I swear you could hold these disks up to the light and see through them from where the old steel styli had worn through them. Okay, so I’m exaggerating a bit. Only Deutsche Grammophon continued to use high-quality, thick plastic right up to the end. These were the Mercedes of LPs.

When CDs arrived on the scene, I heaved a sigh of relief. True, if you abuse a CD it might end up skipping about a 1000 times a second, so that Brahms ends up sounding like it’s performed by a Rap group. The really annoying thing about the CDs you check out from the library nowadays, that the staff aren’t diligent about finding people who do not turn back in the liner notes and booklets. Often, therefore, you don’t even know what the names of the tracks are if they aren’t printed on the disk itself. Of course, even more annoying are record labels that scrimp on the booklet, which are often pathetic advertisements for other records on the label. They don’t have any meaningful text in them or description of the music in them.

Again, in the era of LPs, you could actually learn something from the liner notes. True sometimes these were written by pompous gas bags, but most of the time they included some biographical information or anecdote about the composer or the orchestra or even interesting facts about the piece itself. Sometimes, they actually hired someone who understood music theory to explain the piece. Not being a music major, a lot of this information–about keys, chord progression, etc.–went over my head, but it was nice to know it was there anyway. And I’m sure some people understood it.

On the plus side, rock albums also have been hit by this cost-saving measure, or else they just spend it on artsy advertising. Rock critics sometimes can’t string two sentences together, or they gush in flowery or gonzo-type prose, which is really ghastly. For example, here is an excerpt from a recent album review found in Rolling Stone:

The whole album thumps like the soundtrack to a lost Eddie and the Cruisers sequel, one where Eddie gets crucified by Roman soldiers, while Gaga stands under the cross weeping and sending dirty texts to the DJ..

Which brings us back to today’s piece. One of the albums I used to check out from my hometown library was Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Il Travatore (The Trubador). As in the case of many pieces during this period, I was drawn to it for a particularly rousing section that had been used in some film or commercial. This was the “Anvil Chorus.” It appears in Act II, scene one, in which a band of gypsies sing a chorus about a beautiful gypsy maid while bashing away on their anvils. The sound of crashing metal worked into a classical piece excited the little boy in me, no doubt. That leads into a soprano solo, in which the gypsy woman, Azucena, sings an ominous aria.

One time a friend of mine and I went to see a revival of the Marx Brothers’ film, A Night at the Opera. In one part, Harpo is chased onstage during a performance of an opera, which turns out to be Il Travatore. He dresses in the costume of a gypsy woman, and when Azucena starts to sing, he rises up next to her an makes his trade mark ugly face, the “Gookie.”

This of course has nothing to do with the opera, but I found it hilarious, and it only served to make me appreciate the piece more. (Not to mention how intellectual comedies used to be.)

I include a link here to the plot of Il Trovatore. It involves the rivalry between a Count and a gypsy Troubador. The Count has sworn to revenge the death of his infant brother, who supposedly was burnt to death by the gypsies in a vendetta. Only today have I read the synopsis, and I am surprised to find out how complex and powerful is the story line. You’d never guess listening to the “Anvil Chorus.” But it turns out to be almost as moving as Romeo and Juliet with an evil character on a par with Iago in Othello.

Thirty-nine years ago, when I discovered Il Travatore at the local library, I would have laughed at the plot. It’s too melodramatic. How many people burn babies and kill to revenge themselves of events that happened generations previously? Since then, however, we’ve seen continued fighting between Jews and Arabs; Iraqis and Iranians; Serbs, Croatians, and Muslims; and countless other toil, strife and genocide, the roots of which go back for centuries. The plot of Il Travatore, unfortunately, seems much more plausible and contemporary to me now than it did all those years ago.

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