Toward the end of Gregory LaCava’s divine 1937 film Stage Door, which chronicles the lives of a crew of down-and-out actresses living together in a theatrical boarding house during the Depression, the not-so-bright Southern ingénue Mary Lou floats in ecstatic to have finally won a part. Her cronies, who include Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Eve Arden, tease her mercilessly when they learn that the part consists of a single line: “Let’s go up to Westchester!” I suspect more than a few New York City residents have borrowed that line when searching for opera each summer and since the mid-90s that Westchester destination has been “Bel Canto at Caramoor.”
The Caramoor Festival takes place from June to August at an estate in Katonah, New York purchased in the 1920s by Walter and Lucie Rosen. By the 1950s the musical performances presided over by the Rosens had become so successful that a larger venue had to be built, and the Venetian Theater where most of the Festival’s concerts now take place opened in 1958. Although all kinds of music is performed, from symphonic to chamber to musical theater, its annual opera presentations under the leadership of conductor-scholar-critic Will Crutchfield have won worldwide attention.
Although “Bel Canto at Caramoor” has occasionally ventured into the 18th century with operas by Handel, Gluck and Francesco Conti, its focus naturally remains Italian operas of the 19th century. For the Verdi bicentenary Crutchfield and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s have assembled perhaps their most ambitious season yet: in addition to two programs of the complete songs and other smaller-scale works, “Verdi in Paris” will present semi-staged performances of the composer’s two grand operas written for the French capital, Les Vêpres Siciliennes on July 6 and Don Carlos on July 20.
Having made her acclaimed Vienna Staatsoper debut as Elena in I Vespri Siciliani, Angela Meade sings her first Hélène in Vêpres at Caramoor, the scene of her great successes in the title roles of Rossini’s Semiramide and Bellini’s Norma. Celebrated for his Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, tenor John Osborn—who sang Elvino to Sumi Jo’s Amina in La Sonnambula in 2005 there—returns as Henri, whose father Monfort will be sung by Marco Nisticò, 2008’s Fra Melitone in La Forza del Destino. Last year’s Capellio in I Capuleti e i Montecchi, bass Burak Bilgili, is Procida.
Best known as a Rossini and Handel singer, newlywed Jennifer Larmore–who has been exploring a more dramatic repertoire recently singing Lady Macbeth in Geneva and Bologna– will portray La Princesse Eboli for the first time, joined by Jennifer Check, who recently sang her first Lady Macbeth in Nancy, as Elisabeth. James Valenti and Stephen Powell portray Carlos and Rodrigue, with Christophorus Stamboglis, a recent Met Ferrando, as Philippe II.
During early rehearsals, Crutchfield was kind enough to take time to answer a few questions from Parterre
DeCaffarelli: Although you’ve done La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Otello and La Forza del Destino, “Bel Canto at Caramoor” is perhaps less well known for its Verdi than for its Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti. With 2013 the bicentenary of the composer’s birth, it makes sense that you would turn your attention to Verdi again this year. Yet I think when the season was announced there was some surprise that you had programmed his two grand operas Les vêpres siciliennes and Don Carlos, instead of, say, Oberto and Alzira or La Battaglia di Legnano. What factors went into the decision to do “Verdi in Paris” this year?
Crutchfield: Actually we had two different plans prepared. One of them was more along the lines you imagine in your question – early operas from the time when Verdi was writing in a more Donizettian vein – and the other was what we’re doing. The decisive factor was simply raising enough money to do the more expensive plan, the two French grand operas, and thanks to generous donors we managed to do that.
But the reason this was even on our wish list has to do with Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, which we did in 2011 with what everybody seems to think were extremely good results. The preparations for that coincided with drawing up the plans for 2013, and it occurred to me that there couldn’t be any better preparation for our team to tackle Vêpres and/or Don Carlos. Big, long operas in French with particular choral and orchestral challenges, a particular scope and style – the fit is obvious. The Parisian scene was enormously important to all the “bel canto” composers – Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini all finished their careers concentrating on Paris, and in fact so did Verdi (the last two shows he supervised in rehearsal were the Paris performances, in French, of Otello and Falstaff). So even if the choice might seem surprising, to us it feels like a central aspect of the bel canto tradition.
DeCaffarrelli: The commonplace is that both these operas work much better in their original language—French—than in the Italian translations in which they are nearly always heard, even today. What made you choose to do Verdi’s originals rather than the versions most audiences—and most singers—are familiar with?
Crutchfield: The easy part of the answer is this: audiences deserve to know these works with their actual librettos, plain and simple. I don’t look down on the long tradition of doing them in Italian, because I understand the reasons it came into being. But a translation always compromises the work in one way or another. That compromise is worth making for the sake of immediate stage-to-public communication, but presenting a translation from one “foreign” language to another makes very little sense. The only sense it ever made had to do with the international presence of native Italian Verdi singers who were convincing in these operas, and who functioned best in their own language. To do them in Italian with mixed-nationality casts who would sing Carmen or Faust in French has no merit except convenience.
There are some subtler issues in the background. One that has to be acknowledged is that Verdi set Italian verse-forms more naturally than he did French ones, and so occasionally the Italian translations – which were made to fit music already written – actually fit it somewhat better. The Italian poets could easily find the phrase-shapes that Verdi was accustomed to, and that he sometimes imposed awkwardly on the French verses.
But basically the above applies only to a few melodic passages, and it applies only to a very specific poetic form, the octosyllable. (In Italian, this line is called a novenario, because the French count syllables in verse only up to the last accent, while the Italians count them up to last-accent-plus-one, which reflects the higher proportion in Italian of words with feminine endings.) Italian poets in Verdi’s time simply didn’t use the novenario, and so he had no experience setting it to music, while French poets constantly used the equivalent. And that’s where the occasional problems in Verdi’s French settings arise. But in my opinion, any advantage there is far outweighed by the moment-to-moment dramatic specificity of the text for which Verdi actually wrote his music. There are several important moments in which the motivations and actions are crystal-clear in French and fuzzy in translation. And there are several other important moments where the music really does fit the French words perfectly, and where the translation creates awkwardness.
DeCaffarrelli: I was speaking about your upcoming season with an opera-loving, francophone friend of mine, and we commiserated over the often inadequate French we’ve heard in some Verdi productions and recordings, in particular the much-heralded Abbado Don Carlos on DG, where a very traditional Italianate cast struggled mightily with the language. Did the language present any particular difficulties in your casting these operas and what do you imagine will be the challenges and rewards for your singers and chorus as they come to these operas, probably all for the first time in French?
Crutchfield: I shouldn’t comment on this beyond saying that we’re aware of the issue, and have sought out singers who either speak French fluently or have long experience singing it well. We also have a native Frenchwoman on staff to help those who are not French-speakers. I certainly agree with the criticism of the Abbado recording – it does not make the case for performing in the original language at all. We intend to do better in that regard.
DeCaffarrelli: There are many options available these days when presenting Don Carlos. What factors influenced your decision to do the later four-act 1884 revision, rather than the original five acts (which includes the Fontainebleau scene)? Why do the ballet in Vêpres and what can you tell us about the rare tenor aria you are including for Henri?
Crutchfield: Okay, that’s three questions – Don Carlos first. I really think the final revision is better. What we hear nowadays when we hear five acts is (in most cases, though not quite all) the unaltered 1867 first act grafted onto the 1883-4 revision of the other acts. I find it a poor fit. The essential quality of Carlos’s love for Elisabeth is that it is unreasonable, neurotic, based on a fantasy. In Schiller, as in Verdi’s final revision of the opera, their contact as prospective spouses is presented exclusively as something that happened in the past, not something we see for ourselves on the stage. The only part of the Fontainebleau act that I really love is the part Verdi had to cut out before the premiere – the opening scene of the peasants and Elisabeth. In my opinion it is a particularly weak act when that part is left out, because without it there is no emotional weight to the moment when the chorus urges Elisabeth to accept the proposal from Philip. So I think Verdi had the right instinct when he sacrificed the whole scene, and left the opera framed by the two somber scenes at the monastery of San Yuste. “More nerve and more concision,” he said of the shortened version, and I agree.
Vêpres: the ballet should be played because it has some musical charm, and it is fun to hear Verdi trying his hand at a great Parisian tradition. It is full of waltzes, and Verdi was a big fan of the waltzes of the Strausses, father and son. He also got to know Paris while Chopin was still alive and active there, and those waltzes contributed something too. La traviata, one of Verdi’s two most “Parisian” operas written for Italy, is similarly dominated by waltzes. The alternate tenor aria we have decided to move to a concert – in the opera performance, Osborn will sing the aria that appears in the main score. There are good reasons for doing either one, and our tenor is more convinced by the earlier one. Noah Baetge (Osborn’s cover) will sing the later aria in one of the afternoon recitals on the same day as the Vêpres performance.
DeCaffarrelli: After you finish up with Verdi in July, your thoughts will presumably turn to future festival programming. Without giving away any plans in process, do you have a dream list of works or composers that you’d love to conduct? Might “Bel Canto at Caramoor” ever present an opera by Cherubini, perhaps, or Mercadante or Pacini, etc.?
Crutchfield: I have never yet found a Cherubini opera whose music I like enough to want to put it on. I love some of his string quartets – I may keep looking… Of the six or seven Mercadante operas I’ve studied, two are tempting: I briganti and La vestale. One is luxuriously florid and the other aims for Gluck-like severity, and both have some compelling scenes. I haven’t found anything tempting in Pacini so far.
I think it’s really important, when you’re proposing a little-known opera, to choose only the ones you have strong feelings for – the ones for which you want to be an advocate. You have to feel a strong desire to show people what a good piece you think it is….so the first step has to be falling in love with the piece yourself. That is what has kept me from doing operas by Haydn and Schubert – I love their music, and spend a lot of time on it, but none of their operas that I know seems to me a real music-drama that I need to propose to the public. Whereas with Handel, the more I study them the more it seems to me that they are all real music-dramas. I think we are still only in the first stages of the Handel revival, even though it’s been going on for a while – I think we still feel a need to pump them up or trick them out dramatically, and that eventually that will come to seem frivolous.
As for future Caramoor seasons – we have our plans already in place through 2015, but you never know when things might need to change for one reason or another, so we have to wait patiently for the right moment to announce.
French grand opera traces its history back to Lully through Rameau and onto Gluck. Its nineteenth century paradigm entailed serious historical subjects (no longer drawn from antiquity) often tackling religious or political struggles presented in five acts with large forces—soloists, a large orchestra and chorus–and featuring elaborate spectacle and a lengthy ballet. The German-born Meyerbeer became the dominant composer whose works received thousands of performances at the Palais Garnier alone. Wagner tried his hand with his third opera Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen which with Meyerbeer’s support was eventually mounted in Dresden in 1842 but never arrived at its intended Parisian destination, the Opéra.
In the late 18th century, Paris also became a magnet for Italian opera composers, including Piccinni and Cherubini. Spontini’s operas for Paris—La Vestale, Fernand Cortez ou La Conquête de Mexique,
and Olimpie—led the way to French grand opera which usually considered to have arrived with the premiere in 1828 of Auber’s La Muette de Portici, revived just last year in Paris–ironically at the Opéra-Comique–with American tenor Michael Spyres (who starred in last summer’s revival of Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia at Caramoor) as its hero Masaniello.
Donizetti arrived in Paris to rework Poliuto into Les Martyrs and then composed new grand operas La Favorite and Dom Sébastien, his final work. Rossini too revised Maometto Secondo and Mosè in Egitto (seen this season at New York City Opera) into Le Siège de Corinthe (a new recording starring Spyres is released by Naxos this month) and Moïse et Pharaon. His final opera Guillaume Tell premiered in 1829, the year after La Muette. Rumors suggest that both Favorite and Tell are returning during upcoming seasons for the first time since 1978 and 1931 respectively to the Metropolitan Opera where they have heretofore been performed either in German or Italian.
After the retirement of Rossini and the early deaths of Bellini and Donizetti, Verdi, as the preeminent Italian composer of his generation, naturally turned his attention to Paris. Like his predecessors, his first venture there was a reworking of an earlier opera; he fashioned his 1843 I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata into Jérusalem, which premiered at the Paris Opera in late 1847.
An 1852 commission for a new opera for Paris aimed for a premiere two years later. Verdi requested a libretto from Eugène Scribe, best known for his texts for Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and Robert le Diable, as well as Halévy’s La Juive. Apparently Scribe tried to pawn off several old or rejected plays on Verdi who eventually accepted Les Vêpres Siciliennes, apparently unaware it was a revision of Le Duc d’Albe, the opera Donizetti didn’t live to complete.
Verdi seized on this story of the French occupation of Sicily and completed four of the five acts by the fall of 1854, but Sophie Cruvelli, the soprano chosen to create the role of Hélène whose love for the son of the French governor precipitates the massacre that concludes the opera, disappeared for nearly two months throwing initial rehearsals into chaos. The Paris opening was eventually pushed to June of the following year, and due to interference of censors, the opera was renamed Giovanna da Guzman for its Italian premiere simultaneously in Parma and Turin the day after Christmas 1855.
Though it reached both London and New York by 1859, it never achieved the popularity of the trio that immediately preceded it: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata. Despite the two famous revivals in Italian in 1951 starring Maria Callas in one of her greatest roles, first in Florence with Erich Kleiber…
and then at La Scala under Victor de Sabata, the work still waited nearly 20 more years to begin to enter the repertoire–often in the John Dexter/Josef Svoboda production for Hamburg 1969 which later moved on to the Met, Paris and London.
A sweeping work of fire and pathos, Vêpres is still not performed nearly as often as other major Verdi works, but it is increasingly being mounted in the original French as in Paris in 2003 and in Geneva and Naples in 2011. The North American premiere came only in 1994 at Victor DeRenzi’s Sarasota Opera, and while the New York Grand Opera gave a performance in Central Park in 1999, Caramoor’s may well be the first in the US this century. In the fall Antonio Pappano will conduct Stefan Herheim’s new Vêpres production at Covent Garden where surprisingly neither the Italian nor French version has ever been performed before.
For his second Paris commission over a decade later, Verdi turned to an adaptation of a work by a writer who had already served him well, Friedrich Schiller whose plays Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Die Räuber and Kabale und Liebe had become Giovanna d’Arco, I Masnadieri and Luisa Miller. Librettists Camille du Locle and Joseph Méry did a masterful job of focusing Schillers’s enormous work Don Karlos, Infant von Spanien, omitting the characters of Domingo and Alba as well as Elisabeth’s daughter by Philippe, for example, but it still proved too massive for the Opéra: Verdi had to make slashing cuts at the last minute to his sprawling new work–Don Carlos–prior to its 1867 premiere. Despite the work’s challenged introduction, it prompted Rossini in a letter shortly before his death to proclaim Verdi the only composer capable of writing a great grand opera. But he never did again, although some argue that Aïda follows many of its conventions.
Yet Don Carlos—I believe Verdi’s greatest work and my favorite of all his operas—continues to be deviled by its complex history. Although it appeared in Italian translation at Covent Garden less than three months after its Paris premiere, this enthralling, darkly complex work which so intently examines its characters’ personal, political and religious worlds failed to win over its early audiences. But Verdi didn’t give up; he went to Paris in 1882 to begin work on a French 4-act revision which eventually premiered at La Scala (in Italian) in 1884 and which became the basis for most Don Carlo performances until fairly recently.
With the success of the Margaret Webster/Fritz Stiedry production that opened the Bing regime at the Metropolitan Opera in 1950 and the Luchino Visconti/Carlo Maria Giulini version that followed eight years later at Covent Garden and which was one of the first to restore the first act set at Fontainebleau that Verdi had discarded in 1884, the challenging work was finally being programmed with regularity at the world’s major opera houses. Yet every production must ask: which version? which cuts? which language?
Don Carlos is not unknown in the US: it was produced by the San Francisco Opera in 1986 and just last year by the Houston Grand Opera. Another exciting rumor has surfaced that the Met will next revive its Nicholas Hytner production in French, and though I’m always eager to hear Don Carlo/s, I pray it won’t be led by Lorin Maazel whose monumentally lugubrious conducting nearly ruined this great work there last season.
Unfortunately those wanting to prepare for these Caramoor performances will find hearing Vêpres difficult: the excellent complete BBC performance under Mario Rossi released in a sumptuous CD edition by Opera Rara is out of print (but worth hunting down); however, a 2010 Christoph Loy production from Amsterdam is available on DVD. I’m not crazy about Loy’s work here and the Monfort is terrible, but Barbara Haveman and Burkhard Fritz give impressively committed performances as Hélène and Henri. The two commercial recordings of I Vespri Siciliani are far from ideal, but well worth hunting down are two live performances from the MET in 1974, both conducted by James Levine: the famed broadcast with Montserrat Caballé, Nicolai Gedda and Sherrill Milnes and an in-house capture of Renata Scotto’s electrifying Elena, joined by Placido Domingo and Milnes.
Don Carlos is a bit easier to find with the acclaimed Luc Bondy production conducted by Antonio Pappano available on both CD and DVD. In it, both Roberto Alagna’s and José van Dam’s beautifully idiomatic Carlos and Philippe are a particular joy.
Like the Rossi Vêpres, John Mattheson’s Don Carlos originated as a BBC production and has been released on Opera Rara, but it remains in print. While not the last word in full-blooded Verdi singing, it presents the best complete version of the opera available (the Pappano is not unabridged).
The wildly uneven but provocative Peter Konwitschny production is intriguing presenting many unfamiliar passages such Elisabeth’s duet with Eboli just before “O don fatal,” as well as Elisabeth’s appearance during the prison insurrection after the murder of Rodrigue. It too is also available both on CD and DVD.
Both Loy’s and Konwitschny’s productions feature Verdi’s rarely performed ballets which New York City Ballet retain in its repertoire. George Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina, his setting of Don Carlos’s ballet “La Péregrina,” is rarely done due to the virtuoso demands on its ballerina.
However, Jerome Robbins’s The Four Seasons drawn from Vêpres’s “Les Quatre Saisons” is being performed during City Ballet’s upcoming fall and winter seasons.
Opera presentations at Caramoor are preceded by lectures by noted commentators as well as programs by the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists preceding the performance. The symposia for Don Carlos look particularly interesting where participants will include Andrew Porter and Philip Gossett. These pre-performance programs still leave time for picnicking on the lush grounds of the estate which offers free parking. There is also a roundtrip bus leaving from Grand Central Station available for both Verdi operas.