Archive for October, 2018

Little-known Gem Kicks off Opera Season

Friday, October 5th, 2018 | Permalink

Some fine musical works are initially overshadowed by more illustrious creations by the same artist. For example, “Michelle” and “NoWhere Man” from the Beatles’ 1965 Rubber Soul album are excellent songs that were far more famous than “In My Life” which Rolling Stone magazine listed as the 23rd greatest song of all time in 2004.

A similar case can be made for Giacomo Puccini‘s opera, La Rondine. Perhaps the least known and performed of his mature works, its troubled creative origins and indifferent premiere reception relegated it to anonymity compared to La Boheme and Turandot. But the Minnesota Opera’s final dress rehearsal Thursday evening revealed an opera brimming with nostalgic love music and modern (for 1916) dance rhythms such as the tango.

Parisian high society at Magda’s apartment.

Dismissed by one critic as “bad Lehar” for its “lilting waltz tunes, pop-styled melodies, and nostalgic love music, La Rondine contains one of Puccini’s more accessible and melodic scores which befits the heroine Magda’s dilemma. This Parisian courtesan’s encounter with a naive young poet reawakens her desire for a life filled with genuine affection (the life she wants) versus a successful and secure existence in the highest realms of Parisian society (the life she has). Magda’s conflict might resemble Violetta’s in Verdi’s La Traviata, but the decision she makes isn’t adulterated by the melodramatic complication of tuberculosis.

The cast provides splendid singing and nuanced interpretation to their roles regardless. Celine Byrne is glorious as Magda in revealing the pathos and longing for a life she can never have. Leonardo Capalbo is equally fine as her beleaguered and bewildered young lover. Levi Hernandez (Magda’s protector, Rambaldo), Lisa Marie Rogali (Magda’s flirty maid Lisette) and Christian Sanders (the cynical poet, Prunier) provide excellent counterpoints both musically and thematically as secondary characters. The rest of the cast embody hedonistic Parisian society during the First World War with sonic gusto.

La Rondine may be derivative and a bit under-formulated (Puccini was rewriting the third act at the time of his death), but its glorious score and soaring arias make the five presentations (October 6, 9, 11, 13-14) more than worthwhile viewing for opera and music lovers alike. Congratulations to you, Minnesota Opera, for taking a chance in my lifetime to kick off the 2018-19 season with this under-appreciated gem.

Soul and Inspiration from Central Asia

Thursday, October 4th, 2018 | Permalink

Entrance to Tamerlane the Great’s tomb.

As stated on my Facebook page, my wife and I returned from a two week trip to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan last Friday evening. After answering our friends’ initial question “Where is that?” (Central Asia), their follow-up is some variant of “What prompted you to go there?”

My wife’s reply usually centers around the mystery and romance that surround the Silk Road, the caravan route that connected China with the eastern Mediterranean in Roman and medieval times. Mine is a little more nuanced and esoteric: Marlowe’s mighty line.

Let me explain. The term arises from Elizabethan author, Ben Jonson, who in assessing the poets and playwrights of his day, was referring to the language and style of the most prominent among them, Christopher Marlowe. At this point, in 1593, William Shakespeare had some theatrical successes, but pre-eminent among contemporary playwrights was Marlowe who sought to rid his plays “From jigging veins of riming mother wits” and replace the dialogue with more natural language, what we’ve come to know as iambic pentameter or blank verse.

To accomplish this transformation, his plays featured bold, assertive, and iconic protagonists like Edward II and Doctor Faustus. The most famous of these heroes appears in his Tamburlaine The Great, the play about the Scythian shepherd who tempts Fortune’s wheel (What today we would call beating the house) by “Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms/ And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.”

The extent of Tamerlane’s empire.

Like Marlowe’s other protagonists, Tamburlaine would succumb to the Wheel’s turning and be brought low (see Tamburlaine, Part II). But, for the entirety of the first part, Marlowe’s avatar sweeps all before him–like his central Asian counterpart who restored most of Genghis Khan’s empire established a century and a half earlier.

For a 20-old undergraduate English major facing an uncertain future (the selective service draft for the Vietnam War had just been established), this play was a revelation. Instead of novels depicting niceties of British etiquette and table manners, here was a story with a red-blooded character who swept all before him. Reading Marlowe’s epic may have been a form of wish fulfillment much as contemporary young men find solace and inspiration in the exploits of superheroes, but Tamburlaine’s exploits, more important his strength of character, provided a model for the inspiration and resolution needed to face the unknown terrors that may and did lay ahead of me.

Tamerlane’s sarcophagus in the center is made of dark green jade.

For those reasons, I thought then that some day I’d like to visit the origins of the real-life person who inspired Marlowe’s creation. Visiting Tamerlane’s tomb and birthplace 50 years later fulfilled that ambition to experience the environment hammered by the sun which forged the steel will of his conqueror’s soul and made the world tremble at his name.