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Traveling music

naxos setAndrea Andermann is a crazy man, we are twice told, admiringly, in supplemental materials for Naxos’s new four-DVD box set. 

Andermann is the veteran film producer who had the notion to assemble top-flight talent from the worlds of music and cinema for a generously funded film of Tosca. The action would unfold at the story’s specified locations (Sant’Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese, Castel Sant’Angelo), and the film would be broadcast live to 107 countries. After a lengthy period of planning and preparation for this risky undertaking, the live broadcast took place in three installments over a weekend in July 1992, at the story’s designated times of day.

In a typical opera film, singers or actors mouth to a prerecorded soundtrack. A similar Tosca of 1976 (with the same Cavaradossi) had followed that game plan. Here, the singing was done live on the locations. The cast followed the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale RAI and conductor Zubin Mehta via loudspeakers and television monitors kept from view of the cameras. Mehta, miles away, also conducted “live” while listening to the singers via headphones. After the live broadcasts, minor mishaps were edited out, the singing was perfected for posterity, and the episodes were stitched together for integral distribution.

Tosca: In the Settings and at the Times of Tosca (unwieldy title, that) received a 1993 video release on VHS and laser disc. Its success and acclaim, including television awards in several countries, led to similar Andermann productions: La traviata in Paris (2000) and Rigoletto in Mantova (2010).

Andermann kept together most of his team over 18 years, beginning with Maestro Mehta and the RAI players. All three films were photographed by three-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor). Director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi‘s death in 2005 put the third leg of the triptych in the hands of another distinguished Italian filmmaker, Marco Bellocchio.

Superstars Plácido Domingo and Ruggero Raimondi starred in Tosca but were absent from Traviata, Domingo by then being too old for the younger Germont and not yet covetous of the elder, Raimondi presumably being too much of a luxury for Grenvil. Both singers, now nearing 70, returned for the last film as Rigoletto and Sparafucile, respectively.

Naxos has collected all three films in a handsomely packaged set with a magnetic clasp, a 160-page book filled with photos and recollections (text in English and Italian), and a bonus disc with features adding up to 190 minutes.

The Tosca making-of is a retrospective affair dated 2008; those for Traviata and Rigoletto were contemporaneous with the films themselves. The documentaries will tell you everything you want to know and possibly more about the process of creating the films. We hear from Andermann, Mehta, Domingo and other singers, Storaro, Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (who worked on Traviata), sound technicians, musical authorities including Philip Gossett, Puccini’s granddaughter Simonetta, a priest at the Sant’Andrea della Valle who was thrilled when those movie/opera people were gone…it is an exhaustive overview, often enlightening but perhaps to be enjoyed over time.

There is much in Tosca about eyes, but also much about hands. Scarpia sings that his hand awaits Tosca’s delicate one, and of her lover’s hands bound. Tosca sings of beseeching Scarpia with clasped hands, and of the secret hand with which she sought to alleviate miseries. The hands of Tosca arrange flowers (she carries them at her first appearance), execute dramatic stage gestures, commit violent murder. Cavaradossi mourns her sweet hands, pure and gentle. The enlightened Cavaradossi is first seen working with his hands, creating his art. A ring is the bribe that unlocks his hands to write. Scarpia’s hand signs the fraudulent safe passage, and he metaphorically holds the lives of others.

There are many examples in Patroni Griffi’s film of the familiar story being directed in meaningful ways that go beyond coasting on visual splendor. The first that comes to mind is a little rhyme Patroni Griffi sets up on the “hands” motif. The bedraggled escapee Angelotti is behind a chapel grate, reaching through it toward Cavaradossi, imploring; we see the shot from both points of view. The decision that Cavaradossi makes in this moment will decide his fate. An echo comes later: the camera lingers on Scarpia’s hands sliding across the dinner table toward Tosca, imploring in another way. In both instances, the person being reached toward registers horror, indecision and a dawning awareness of consequences.

All three principal figures receive strong and persuasive characterization, and I have not seen their psychology and interactions handled better. This Tosca is spirited, high-strung, and childish. Her humor is “cute,” that of a young person–when she orders Cavaradossi to change Mary Magdalene’s eye color, she mimes dabbing at the painting. Once a temperamental squall has subsided, she has the wrung-out quality of a child who had been upset but will be on good behavior after reassurances. There is nothing arch or calculated about her. Her feelings are genuine, intense, primal.

Cavaradossi is much the stronger character, the adult in the relationship. Scarpia is a fascinating antagonist for them. Near the conclusion of the first act, he hovers over and behind the praying Tosca with what looks like real, unguarded tenderness, and draws ever closer to her. When Tosca leaves the church, this side of him vanishes. With a flip of the switch, he finds new vehemence for his remarks during the Te Deum. Both Tosca/Scarpia scenes are sexually charged, and the one at Palazzo Farnese is electric. When the bargain is struck, Scarpia lays a long kiss on Tosca, and her reactions are complex and disturbing, to her and to us. Revulsion does not appear to be one of the reactions. We may ask whether Scarpia himself is all Tosca is killing.

Tosca’s subsequent recounting of events for Cavaradossi, though factually accurate, has a flattened-out quality. The ambiguity we saw has been bleached out of it. Is she aspiring to Cavaradossi’s virtuousness, willing away recognition of her powerful attraction to the sinister, magnetic Scarpia? This Cavaradossi never for a moment believes he is going to be spared execution, or that Tosca will make it off that roof alive. His “Parlami ancor come dianzi parlavi, è cosi dolce il suon della tua voce!” is urgent and very sad.

Nothing Patroni Griffi finds is shocking, and nothing is inherently “right” or “wrong,” but he has made big decisions within a generally orthodox production, and what he has decided upon plays with power and conviction. Why is this so rare?

Catherine Malfitano makes an effective Tosca without having ideal equipment for the role, or at least without having completely worked it into her voice (she was singing it for the first time). She has a pretty middle register and some good chest tones, but often sounds whitened or puffed up, simulating Italianate grandeur. She compensates with a high-voltage personality and the right feeling, and is always interesting to look at–she actually has the irregular beauty of a stage idol of an earlier time.

Cavaradossi was one of Plácido Domingo‘s best and most frequent roles over many years. By 1992 he was deeper into Wagner, and it was getting close to time for him to set aside old standbys. The voice is bulkier, the tone less brilliant than in the 1985 Met video, with a tug on the top, but musical and dramatic responsibilities are handled with customary elegance and assurance.

The great performance is by Ruggero Raimondi, who is in good voice, is well recorded, and never oversells anything. Like all the best Scarpias, he knows the value of only hinting at menace. He is intelligent enough not to snarl and roar from the start and leave himself nowhere to go in the second act. The excellent Italian comprimari include a future Fiesco and Filippo, Giacomo Prestia, as Angelotti.

Television director Brian Large prefers to keep us very close to faces. There is some eccentric angling, providing good views of walls, ceilings, skies, and the principals’ dental restorations. In this as well the two films discussed below, subtitles are often helpfully shunted to the side so as not to cover faces or spoil compositions.

I had not seen any of the films in this box before receiving the set for review, and I finished Patroni Griffi’s Tosca believing Puccini’s opera a greater work than I had thought it to be two hours earlier. No higher compliment can be paid.

The strong start raises expectations for the rest of the trilogy. Unfortunately, the magic does not return for Traviata in Paris, shot at Hôtel de Boisgelin, Hameau de la Reine, the Petit Palais and the Île Saint-Louis. One problem is that Traviata does not adapt as well to this cinematic approach. It is inherently stagier, with its primo ottocènto holdovers.

The viewer is keenly aware of artificiality when, for example, Patroni Griffi has no better option than to shoot a chorus of guests walking toward the camera in mass exodus, singing about how much they have enjoyed themselves at the party now ending. Traviata has a greater number of extended arias to deal with, and Patroni Griffi’s visual solutions to them are standard choices.

That aside, the director seems less inspired by this story and these characters. There are only flashes of what elevated the Tosca, and what remains to be praised is just a good filmmaker’s shrewdness. For example, “O mio rimorso” is literally a “cabaletta,” with Alfredo bitterly musing in profile, having boarded a horse-drawn carriage. It is a smart way around the staginess of the character standing and singing at length about what he is preparing to do.

All of this would matter less if the Traviata cast members had matched the artistry of their Tosca counterparts. Tall and attractive young Siberian soprano Eteri Gvazava had been singing with a small German company when Andermann handpicked her from among hundreds of hopefuls. Per his account in a New York Times article of 2000, he then kept his discovery out of contact with the world for six months of Italian lessons and rehearsals, and he predicted the film would catapult her to a marvelous career.

Despite the exertions of those six months, it is hard to imagine anyone who has heard Traviata adequately sung getting enjoyment from this Violetta. Tone is shallow; rhythmic points are neglected; phrases droop. For all the lessons, Gvazava pronounces the words as if uncertain she can do it correctly, and hoping errors will not be noticed. Much is unintelligible or swallowed up by the orchestra, and this is a wan, one-note heroine. The first scene leaves an especially bad impression. A fragile Violetta is plausible and perhaps desirable, but one who fails to stand out in the crowd at her own party is not.

Rolando Panerai had been singing professionally for over 50 years. One is inclined to be charitable in evaluating late-career Giorgio Germonts from veteran baritones who have given a lot, but this is not a good example. Panerai widens his eyes and shouts his way through the part, but is not really an angry or severe Giorgio Germont. The prevailing quality is blandness. There are several options for this character, and I am stumped as to which one Panerai was pursuing. He delivers lines very deliberately, as if he wants to be sure he is understood by someone transcribing at a distance. When he pairs with Gvazava’s mewling Violetta, his “too much” and her “not enough” make an unappealing combination.

José Cura‘s Alfredo is worldlier and more knowing than Gvazava’s Violetta, which cannot be right, but he is the principal trio’s standout by default. He was considered an exciting prospect at the dawn of the millennium, and may have been expected to carry the film. With benefit of hindsight, one can hear warning signs, and maybe they were obvious in 2000–his burly tenorizing is pressured and full-throttle, bespeaking technical contrivance. He is good-looking and a good actor, with a divo’s presence, but his brooding, intense Alfredo suggests a duded-up Don Alvaro.

The artfully directed final act is a remarkable 28-minute uninterrupted take from Garrett Brown and his Steadicam. We begin in Violetta’s more modest surroundings, and at first we see only Violetta’s and Annina’s hands in close-up. Dottore Grenvil enters and we never see his face either, only his hands. Grenvil carries out his examination, says comforting things, and tension is evident in his grip on a stopwatch. Gradually the women come into fuller view (the face of the young Annina, Magali Léger, is a terrific camera subject). The Germont men and the returning Grenvil are folded into the deathbed party with virtuoso fluidity.

This act is the visual high point of the film and should be seen by anyone with an interest in filmmaking technique. Brown is justifiably proud of his contribution; this veteran of 70 films considers the sequence a career high point. But with a musical performance more croce than delizia, Traviata in Paris offers little else beyond pretty scenery. There are a dozen better Traviata videos to see…or, more to the point, to hear. Even a sworn note-completist may be grateful for the traditional cuts.

Rigoletto in Mantova, filmed at Palazzo Te, Palazzo Ducale and La Rocca di Sparafucile, represents a partial recovery. Of the three films, it is the smoothest, with the highest level of technical polish (Storaro’s lighting is especially beautiful this time), but also the the most straight-ahead in its choices. Bellocchio’s work lacks the surprise of Patroni Griffi’s in Tosca and, to a lesser extent, Traviata. For long stretches, we see a routine stage production of Rigoletto transferred to unusual locations. This may have introductory-level appeal to someone coming new to Rigoletto, but only the interventions of the liveliest performers rescue it from dullness.

Bellocchio is good with actors, and the Duke’s courtiers all have specific points of view. When Rigoletto pleads with and rages at them, the eye can wander from one face to another and take in different attitudes: cruelty, insolence, amusement, sympathy, shame, boredom. Gilda’s abduction, the business with the ladder and the blindfold, is better timed and more plausibly brought off than it usually is on the stage. Two scenes in which characters are spied upon through windows, and implausibly do not notice, may make a point. The observed characters are so lost in reverie that they are oblivious to danger.

At the time of this writing, Rigoletto remains a Verdi baritone role Domingo has not sung on stage. Perhaps singing it for the film convinced him it was not as congenial as others to which he has returned regularly: Nabucco, Foscari, Macbeth, Germont, Boccanegra.

Nevertheless, it hinted at the direction he would take in this decade, and a review of the performance applies to many of his others since 2010. This was once a magnificent voice, and he has more of it left than seems probable. He understands how the music is supposed to go; he knows what the words mean. Impressive singing alternates with blustery, strained singing. The dramatic performance is serviceable rather than finely detailed. There is a mass-marketed nobility more appropriate to kings, doges and gods; Rigoletto is deprived of shading. We may conclude feeling as though we should admire achievement and endurance (“At an age when…”) more than performance.

The other veteran, Raimondi, is credited with “special participation,” and his Sparafucile is a pleasant surprise. As recorded here, he makes more of low notes, never a strength, than I was expecting. He is again a clever actor, and he and the Maddalena, young Georgian mezzo Nino Surguladze, get a strong and interesting rapport going. Separated by 36 years, they would make a more likely father and daughter than brother and sister, and one can choose to view it that way–a warped mirror image of the father and daughter who observe them. Surguladze sings with authority and color and is a compellingly sexy figure for the camera, surely capable of luring marks into danger.

Russian soprano Julia Novikova was cast as Gilda shortly after her first-prize win in Domingo’s 2009 Operalia competition. Nerves are understandable, and hers is not a performance one would call “finished.” The Italian is muddy, a high note or two lands under pitch, and the phrasing needs sharper etching, but the vocal material is sound. She is not overmatched by Gilda as the previous film’s soprano was by Violetta, nor is so much of the opera’s weight resting on her; she can secure a draw. In dramatic terms, she is a satisfactory standard Gilda, with an accessible blond prettiness reminiscent of Michelle Williams’s.

Vittorio Grigolo was in 2010 another talked-about tenor who may or may not turn into something, and he has since cemented his status as a headliner. He convinces as the vain, immature, sexually harassing Duke of Mantua, and he can wear a puffy shirt. His relaxed, confident singing, with a pleasant, sun-dappled tone and quick vibrato, seems part of a package that would make him irresistible to the sheltered Gilda. Mehta’s brusque conducting keeps him coloring within the lines.

Mehta contributes to all three films what is needed above all: a steady hand. I find his approach more apposite in Puccini than in middle Verdi, but each time he gets an attractively burnished, weighty sound and holds singers and orchestra together in challenging circumstances.

Performances within collected sets, whether sets of Mahler symphonies or of Italian operas, rarely are of even quality across the board, making it difficult to render a verdict. Tosca in Rome (as it has been more concisely renamed) is the urgent recommendation, an outstanding filmed opera that wears its 25 years lightly. Traviata in Paris and Rigoletto in Mantova are, respectively, very disappointing and pretty good follow-ups. Neither would be my first choice for the opera under consideration.

Naxos’s box is attractive in presentation, with generous and interesting supplemental material. Ultimately, the call may come down to how intrigued someone is by the novelty of Traviata and Rigoletto as cinematic experiences, photographed by great technicians from another art form, separate from purely musical matters.

  • Armerjacquino

    I think if one wants Rigoletto-in-Mantova, then Ponnelle is a better choice, if only for Wixell’s stunning double as Rigoletto and Monterone. Pavarotti is Pavarotti, with all that entails, but Gruberova is on wonderful form as Gilda.

    • And, as you will know but some here might not, if you want Tosca-in-Rome, the earlier film brings you Raina Kabaivanska.

      • An even earlier Tosca film that I saw as a teenager in New York City starred Franca Duval, an actual soprano lipsynching to Maria Caniglia, Afro Poli, an actual baritone doing the same to the voice of Giangiacomo Guelfi, with the big surprise being a sensational tenor who was not much known in the U.S., named Franco Corelli who both acted and sang the part to enormous effect; his older brother Ubaldo has a small role in the performance. Oliviero de Fabritiis conducted.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    Thanks for this. I’ve been thinking a lot about Tosca lately, and your comments add a new dimension.

  • Porgy: Thanks for this wonderfully written piece and your many detailed observations.

    I think I saw parts of that Tosca when it originally aired. Your review makes me want to revisit it.

    I have seen the Rigoletto film more recently. Oddly, what stood out for me from a film-making perspective, was the lighting which I did not care for (and which you liked). The interior shots seemed over-exposed to me.

    • Porgy Amor

      I had heard some negative comments about the sound and the look of that one as shown on public television that I had a hard reconciling with what I saw on the DVD release. This was my first experience with it. It is possible it is getting its best presentation to date.

  • fletcher

    I suspect we’ll soon be seeing Domingo’s Rigoletto in Los Angeles, and eventually his Don Giovanni, before he decides he’s through.

    • Porgy Amor

      Rigoletto in Los Angeles makes me think of another concept production. The Duke as young casting-couch mogul. Countesses as wide-eyed starlets. Monterone as veteran character actor who now will never work in this town again. Rigoletto as…what would be the “jester” equivalent? A publicist? A screenwriter? Oh, and Sparafucile as an Anthony Pellicano type.

  • Nyssa of Traken

    I saw the Rigoletto when it was broadcast and had the distinct impression that Grigolo was miming during some of Parmi veder…

    • Armerjacquino

      They were lipsynching to recordings in all three, surely? Near impossible to get good operatic recorded sound in the open air.

      • Armerjacquino

        (to clarify: I know the claim is that all the singing was done live, but there must have been a backup?)

        • Delmonaco

          I taped the Tosca from the live broadcast at the time -- in Act One Domingo fell really badly just after Tosca leaves and he returns to Angelotti -- he tripped on the stairs and really went down ( I remember my mother gasping). When it was rebroadcast a few days later the fall had been edited out, so clearly there was post production work going on. I hope I still have the original, it would be interesting to compare with the current re-release.

          • Porgy Amor

            They mention editing out the famous fall, as well a visible camera in the second act, in the Tosca. There was also a brief blackout in the Traviata broadcast, which corrected itself just as they were about to go to the backup tape. I’m sure there was a lot of sweetening.

            • David Prosser

              I remember the fall from the original broadcast. I was really impressed that Domingo, old pro that he is, just got up and kept going. I would keep it in -- shows the urgency that Cavaradossi feels!

            • Porgy Amor

              Domingo is unflappable, yes. I guess he has to be, to have gotten through so many performances. He was once onstage in a Traviata and the comprimario singing the messenger (who delivers Violetta letter) did not show up. He made up some words on the spot. “Who’s there? No one is there.” Then he pretended to “find” the letter on a desk.

              He also kept going when Milnes knocked one of his teeth out in the Met Fanciulla. He carefully palmed it, though, for later reinsertion.

            • LOL! Did Milnes punch him??

            • Porgy Amor

              It was a pistol-whipping in the cabin scene, when Rance discovers Ramerrez.

              That was, at least originally, a fairly physical production (especially for a “Beautiful Old Production™” type of undertaking), and both Domingo and the premiere Minnie, Barbara Daniels, had some battle scars from it. Go to about 3:08 and then skip to 7:53 if you want the “bullet” (heh), but the whole interview is good. I suppose it’s only a coincidence that she seems to be giving a retrospective interview about Minnie in character.

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2epHp050vyo

            • Oh goodness, is there footage of this??
              As a side note, my is Ms. Daniels opinionated about the role of Minnie. Seems like it meant a lot for her. Thanks for sharing this :-).

            • Porgy Amor

              There was a good telecast (available at Met Opera on Demand and on DVD), but I don’t know if anyone got injured in that specific performance. That was nine in, so they probably had worked out most of the kinks by then.

            • There are clips on Youtube, presumably of that same telecast but I can’t be sure since I haven’t seen it. The clips aren’t of good quality but perhaps someone posted the whole thing….

        • Nyssa of Traken

          I recall in the publicity accompanying the live broadcast a great deal was made of the principals singing live. It was claimed that all were bodymiked. Because I had read in various interviews that Parmi veder was considered extremely difficult I paid special attention to it and at one point Grigolo turned away from the camera and for a moment it was clear he was not singing live. The artists must have recorded a standby track in advance for use in much the same way a click track is used in modern stage musicals. The transition from live to recorded sound is seamless but if one is watching the soloist closely it’s possible to make out when they aren’t singing. I’ve experienced that a couple of times in live theatre.

  • Honestly, based on your excellent review and the clips above, I think I’d enjoy watching these performances less than I enjoyed reading your excellent reviews Porgy. Except maybe the Rigoletto. I too really like the lighting in that one and Placido still had his high notes then. Had no idea Grigolo was the Duke in this and I had not heard of that soprano who sings Gilda…

    As far as Tosca… I honestly just don’t really care for the opera too much and so I’d see it again if it had singers I really really like, but it’s just not an opera I’d particularly seek out or wish to see more than a handful of times. Can someone recommend an interesting modern production of it? Maybe that will change my mind.

    • Porgy Amor

      Carsen’s Hitchcockian one with Magee, Kaufmann, and Hampson…but I think you may have seen that one on YouTube a few years ago. I recall a discussion.

      • Yes yes indeed, you recommended it to me. I saw it and enjoyed it ????. I meant a non-traditional production given that I’ve only seen traditional/straightforward ones. That didn’t work with Manon Lescaut though but I don’t dislike Tosca as much as I dislike ML from a dramatic pov.

        • Lohenfal

          I remember watching the New York City Opera staging of Tosca on TV a long time ago. It wasn’t radical, but did update the action to fascist Italy. Maybe that was radical at the time I watched it. Anyway, you might be able to hunt it down since it was televised and was probably preserved.

          I gather that you don’t have much affection for Puccini. I don’t listen to him that much now, except when the casting sounds appealing. The one that I especially avoid I forced myself to listen to on Saturday: little of musical or dramatic interest for me, and only one character I really like (a hint: she dies at the end). To me, Manon Lescaut and Tosca are definitely preferable: dramatic plots and exciting music. No, it’s not Verdi or Wagner, but still can hold my attention.

          • Yes you gathered right lol. I’ll try to look for that Tosca. Have Kusej, Herheim or Tcherniakov ever staged it do you know?

            • Porgy Amor

              I don’t believe any of those three has, antikitschychick. I would expect to have read about it, and a quick Google did not turn anything up. Nor, I believe, has Konwitschny.

              Most of the productions of this opera tend to be at least traditional”ish.” Carsen’s anachronistic ’50s “in the theater’ take, with Scarpia as a Gatti-Casazza-type administrator, is about as wild as things have gotten in my personal experience. I also saw a video of one from the ’90s that had the “distorted sets” look that was a fad for a while in those days (usually in an opera where a character was slowly going crazy, e.g., Gherman, Lucia, Otello, and not the case here), but otherwise there was nothing unusual about it. Then, of course, there was Bondy’s, which some Metgoers would have had us believe was an invasion by the dangerous radicals that Uncle Joe had long kept at bay, but it was actually pretty tame (and lackluster).

            • Lol having seen the Bondy production, I concur it was pretty tame. Although I did like how the last Act was staged (it was very minimalist).

              OK well that’s a shame. Hopefully one of them will give us a more ‘radical’ take on it soon. Thanks for looking.

            • In 2014 Paris launched one by Audi, but “it was a let-down. There was little passion in this production (‘on s’ennuie’ said a friend at the first interval), though as the evening went on and, act by act, the sets got uglier, there was some dramatic improvement. It was essentially a perfectly conventional production in new (but ugly) sets, the “big idea” being a (very big) wooden cross.”

            • Sorry to hear that production was a letdown. It seems that Tosca productions tend to be conventional more often that not, which I was somewhat surprised by given how popular it is. Did your friend leave after the first interval? :-P

            • We all stayed this time!

              I wonder why Tosca in particular is regie-proof?

              I just noticed the Eiiffel Tower in the Traviata bit of the picture!

            • Porgy Amor

              The Traviata was moved forward a few decades. Still “second half of 19th century”-looking, as most Traviatas are, so a negligible updating.

              To place the production even more firmly in Paris, Mr. Andermann and his director, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, set it in the Paris of the Universal Exhibition of 1900 and included live views of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower, shot from a boat traveling down the Seine.

              (NYT, 2000)

            • Porgy Amor

              I will say — probably unnecessarily, because I already wrote 700 words about it above — that Giuseppe Patroni Griffi makes something riveting out of his, in the expected milieu and indeed the actual locations. He makes Zeffirelli’s (Met ’85) look so juvenile and phony. I mean with respect to what the people are shown to do, not the designs. I wish I had been able to see Patroni Griffi get a crack at Fanciulla del West or the Trittico operas, those being my favorites by this composer.

            • I also really like Fancuilla and Butterfly, most of Boheme and Turandot except the ending (which we all know wasn’t Puccuni’s). Haven’t seen the Il Trittico operas yet (runs for cover…).

            • Leosweill

              Do you know the Berio ending to Turandot? I love love love it

            • Yes and me too!!! It’s much more Wagner-esque than the more often used version by Alfano imho. (Not trying to diss Alfano but I just prefer the Berio ending).

            • I think the reason Tosca isn’t updated as often is because there are so many specific references in terms of time and place. Doesn’t mean it can’t be updated but I think that’s why so many directors decide to go traditional with it. One day, I’ll have to check out the Carsen.

            • Our Own JJ

              I don’t know about that. There are a lot of “contemporary” Tosca productions. Beverly Sills sang the role in a strapless evening gown and spike heels as long ago as 1957, and even as dull and predictable as director as I had Tosca enter the Sant’Andrea in a chic black pantsuit amd oversized sunglasses, bearing bags from some of Rome’s more exclusive shops.

              What actual drama there is in Tosca IMO gets terribly muffled in all the luxurious “period” velours and gold leaf and croziers. If your goal is to present opera as a theme park ride, then in this case traditional is the way to go. If on the other hand you want to try to mine something of value from what is a rather ramshackle piece, then you need to strip it down.

            • Correct me if I’m wrong but the Tosca you describe with Beverly Sills just sounds like the costumes were updated, not necessarily that the production concept was…or was it?

              FWIW I totally agree with your statement that the drama (if any) of Tosca usually gets lost in “period velours”. Thats why I liked Act 3 of the Bondy production: it was stripped down.

            • jackoh

              Let me offer a
              perspective that may be vilified by some here ( but that doesn’t
              bother me because in the course of my career I have been regularly
              vilified and have survived it all). There seems to be a notion among
              some that operas have to be tied to a particular time and place,
              presumably that in the mind of the composer, otherwise the
              productions will not be faithful to the dramatic and musical
              conceptions underlying the work and will distort the integrity of the
              composition. But the fact of the matter is that operas, as is the
              case with all works of art, attempt to explore and express those
              things that are universal in human experience and, thus, transcend
              the immediate circumstances that provide a setting for their
              dramatization. If human creations in the form of art, which are
              nothing more than messages written with the assumption of
              communication to all and intended for all time, are simply prisoners
              of their immediate circumstances and speak to no one beyond that,
              then there is no incumbency for any of us to pay any attention to
              them. What needs to happen in the presentation of any art work, or in
              this case opera, is that whatever the universal message about the
              human condition is in that work, and presumably the medium in which
              it is expressed and conveyed, needs to be understood, preserved, and
              transmitted to the audience for that work and that message in a form
              that they (the audience) will understand and that will impact them
              even in the context of their different historical or social
              circumstances. I don’t know about you, but I can sit through operas
              written over 200 years ago and, if the conception in which it
              presented is effective (and often even if it is not) I can learn
              something about the things that I am living through today.

            • DonCarloFanatic

              Tosca has plenty to say to modern audiences. The artist as the self-defined exceptional person, for instance. Jealousy. Grandstanding. And, oh, yes, lust expressed in cruelty. It’s an exceptionally intimate opera.

            • jackoh

              I see that my post
              does not appear in the form in which it was written(one simple
              contiguous paragraph), which is somewhat annoying. Is there a reason
              for, or a solution to, this. (This didn’t seem to happen prior to
              the Disqus format.)

            • Luvtennis

              Jackoh:

              I agree with you. That is why “updating” has never bothered me. In fact, the first opera production that I paid attention to AS a production was the ENO Rigoletto which was still notorious during my early teen years. Unfortunately, your very well-argued point does not address the issues posed by truly “interventionist” productions.

              I saw a Don Carlo in Houston with things hanging from the rafters. I could never puzzle out put their significance. Or the toys in the Met ’99 Tristan. What was that all about. And those productions were not truly interventionist. Just…different.

            • jackoh

              I, I think,
              understand the issue with the “interventionist” position. It is
              that the “interventionists” either modify, reimagine, or distort
              the original work to suit their own view. . That is entirely
              possible. I have been engaged in arguments with a couple of people
              who have taken the position that their presentation of a work was
              based on the notion that the work confirmed “my idea” of things
              and that was how they were going to present it, as if the author of
              the work actually held precisely that viewpoint. But whether the
              restatement of a conception is actually faithful to the original
              conception, or whether particular aspects of the reconception can be
              seen as faithful, or as even making any kind of sense, is, to me,
              what makes the whole enterprise exiting and valuable. That’s
              because it engages us in the original work as something living and
              not just as an old or interesting form of entertainment. If opera
              were simply a form of entertainment, on a level with network tv, I
              would be elsewhere.

            • DonCarloFanatic

              Unfortunately, I find some of the interventionist “inventions” to be cliche, obnoxious, and very limited in their view of human relationships, as well as parochial in a vision I can’t share. There’s only so far a brothel analogy can be stretched, for instance.

          • Armerjacquino

            ‘only one character I really like’.

            What more does poor Colline have to do?

            Or Schaunard, come to that. He could easily have kept all the dead-parrot money for himself…

            • Lohenfal

              I didn’t say the other characters were incapable of benevolent actions. To me, however, they just aren’t interesting and seem rather juvenile. The subject matter, except for that one character I like, is very slight, too slight for a tragic opera. Some of the original reviews of 1896 implied the same viewpoint as mine. I would say that La rondine falls into the same category, but that was conceived as an operetta, so no one dies (except in Marta Domingo’s version).

            • Armerjacquino

              Well, I mean I was joking…

              In all seriousness, though, I think it’s the youth of the characters which is the most important thing about BOHEME for me. At the start of the opera they most certainly are juvenile, playing with big emotions the way we all do when we’re twenty. What makes the opera so moving is watching them grow up fast as they have to deal with something real, and finding the real hearts behind the juvenile posturing (‘E buona tua Musetta’ ‘lo so, lo so’).

              Processing mortality, wasted youth and the constant presence in our life of death is far from ‘slight’ to my taste. Although I will admit that nobody turns into a swan… ;-)

            • Lohenfal

              I’ll concede that the 3rd act and the 2nd part of the 4th are better musically, and I do find them moving. The 2nd act: could that be cut out entirely?

              Maybe my reactions are conditioned by the Met’s overblown and insensitive staging. Sure, it still pulls in the crowds, but there’s little of the intimacy that might help. The “cast of thousands” in Act 2 is probably the epitome of poor taste--and the applause when it begins is even worse. The similarly overblown Rondine they do is even more destructive of whatever that piece has to offer.

              “Nobody turns into a swan.” Much to my regret.

            • Well, I’m sure I’ll regret this. I don’t understand what you say. You are entitled to like or not like anything. But when you say “3rd act and the 2nd part of the 4th are better musically” what could you possibly mean? They are the same musically. Boheme is one of the most remarkable demonstrations of catch phrases, chords and tunes that are reused over and over. There isn’t a bar that isn’t related to every other bar in the work. Puccini learned a lot from Debussy and they both learned a lot from Massenet who uses this technique but Puccini’s achievement is the remarkable one for its musical logic and cumulative effect. “The music” isn’t “better” later. If it acquires a richer emotional connotation it is meant to, as the careful and joyous early experiences of the characters decay. The conciseness and economy with which this is done, the precision of music and emotional effect is devastating.

              Now, if you don’t find the subject matter of interest, fine. Puccini can’t be blamed for the idiotic Zeffirelli production, as usual utterly false, overblown, and trivial. But as an artistic achievement in opera, Boheme is one of the most remarkable in its late romantic style. He can’t help it that the work has been done to death often irresponsibly. Yes, its charms can run out with over-familiarity. But that doesn’t change the exceptional achievement of this particular work.

              You reference reviewers of the opera in its early years. When have such been right, EVER? In Anglo-Saxon countries the opera was called a “tuneless sewer”. It isn’t tuneless but its original way of treating leitmotifs and its economy means that one has to listen and of course they were too dumb to do that. And then of course there is their hypocrisy — as though no one EVER had had sex before marriage, casually, no woman had EVER traded boy friends or allowed herself to be kept. More significant is that within a decade of its world premiere the opera in a style some people found baffling and without the big grandiose vocal opportunities they expected, was one of the most produced operas in the world.

              The ridiculous posture about the Berio completion of Turandot is joined by someone who evidently wants to be the sub to a Ukrainian dom (well, who of us hasn’t wanted that? But some of us perhaps were less interested in a dom who was a clueless screamer.)

              But have you looked over the sketches that remain? Have you heard or read the complete Alfano completion as opposed to the crude cuts mandated by Toscanini? Have you read Puccini’s letters about what he wanted and felt he needed the end of this opera to be? Berio (in my opinion an interesting and amusing composer in his time but he seems very dated today) ducks away from the grandiosity the story and style of the piece demands. Alfano, who was quite a good composer, doesn’t and is truer to the work.

              However like the sub I mention, I am always very suspicious of people who “like” Turandot, especially more than the earlier work. Puccini was always a derivative composer. He was a clever lifter of ideas from elsewhere, but he had the knack of making them his own usually, as he does in Boheme. But Turandot, although it obviously entailed a lot of intellectual heavy lifting and sheer work, is made up of appliqued shreds and patches from elsewhere right down to Pierrot Lunaire, Mussorgsky’s Gopak, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and yes of Lehar in the tenor’s arias, and on and on and on. It is dramatically and musically false. It is false to the genius Puccini demonstrated in all his earlier works with greater and lesser effect. I am always sad listening to it. I don’t think he could have been happy about having recourse to the cheapest Tchaikovsky gimmick, the dogged use of sequences to build a melody as in “In questa reggia”. I happen to like Tchaikovsky too, but he overuses that trick.

              But I am sure I’ll wish I had kept my fingers in those thick gloves with which I was trained to approach a keyboard to avoid touching the keys.

            • Lohenfal

              There was nothing to regret in what you’re saying. I could’ve been clearer in explaining that I don’t particularly care for most of Act 1 and all of Act 2. In other words, the second half of this opera is more persuasive than the first half. Most of the comic material doesn’t really appeal to me--it’s just not amusing. The music which accompanies it likewise does nothing for me. That was true even when I was less familiar with it than I am now.

              The early reviewers I was thinking of were not Anglo-Saxon but Italian. Mosco Carner gives a good summary of their comments. I don’t agree with Hanslick’s reviews of Wagner or many other early reviews of pieces, but in this case I find the negative opinions more in line with my own. Perhaps I just prefer a “grander” type of opera than this one.

              I can’t understand why you bring up the Berio completion of Turandot. I’ve never written anything about it and am not familiar with it. I did write, a while ago, about how I think Turandot is on a higher level than its predecessors. In doing that, I was basically repeating the opinion of some well-known Puccini experts, like Carner. You’re entitled to your poor opinion of Turandot, just as I’m entitled to my favorable one.

              I’ll repeat what I said in my post to Antik. a few days ago: I don’t listen to him (Puccini) that much now, except when the casting sounds appealing. Yet, I don’t reject him completely. It’s simply that I would rather spend my time with my favorites, especially Wagner.

            • Lohenfal

              Now I see why you brought up the Berio ending to Turandot: it was in some other posts. Well, I have nothing to do with those favorable opinions of Berio. I’ve read about that ending but have never heard it, so I’m neutral on that point.

            • Well the subject of the Alfano vs the Berio ending in Turandot and what Puccini meant by the Tristan reference is certainly an interesting one and I’d love to actually engage in an intelligent exchange about the various differences in approach, as well as the dramatic possibilities that each entail, the latter being why I am inclined to prefer the Berio ending, as I have seen a production that employed it and I’ve also seen the standard version with the Alfano ending various times…

              but seeing as how you’ve concocted some warped mysogenistic sexual fantasy based on my admiration of an artist whom you dislike to discredit my opinions, and because they happen to be different from yours (I am just an ignorant millenial aftet all, so how dare I?? ????) I see that I won’t be having such a discussion with you.

              I want no part in your echo chamber of intellectual masturbation, thanks.

            • I’m surprised you thought I wanted to have a “discussion” with you. Curious.

            • I didn’t think you wanted to have a discussion with me or anyone whose opinion differs from yours. It’s quite clear that you don’t. Nor did I say I wanted to have a discussion with you. I said I wanted to have an intelligent discussion on the subject, period, which I would not be having with you….

              Anyone else though, I’d love to chat with/hear from :-).

            • Lohenfal

              That little “discussion” on Puccini and Bohème led to some unforeseen consequences. The reference to Turandot came about because of something I once wrote to MMII. Since this composer is so “controversial,” I’ll swear off any further comments on him and stick to my Wagner/Mahler/Schumann sphere from now on.

            • stevey

              Hi Anti! You mentioned that you had heard/seen the ‘standard Alfano ending’ several times… I was wondering if you meant the ACTUAL Alfano ending, or the standard (in my opinion- ‘butchered’) Alfano ending that Toscanini reduced to a mere shadow of its original self, and is what we normally hear in a Turandot performance.

              Here is the ACTUAL Alfano ending. As you will hear, it is both a lot more… uh… ‘involving’, as well as vocally demanding on the Turandot, who has to hurl her voice out over the chorus and orchestra time and again (the one exposed high C in particular stands out- you’ll know it when you hear it!), and this at the end of the night! I dunno… but after hearing this, I haven’t been able to listen to the ‘Toscanini butchered’ Alfano ending ever again (I personally loathe the Berio), sort of like how I felt when I first heard the original Act 2 ending for ‘La Traviata’… I haven’t been able to hear and enjoy the ‘standard’ version ever since (I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not!). Anyway, just for shits and giggles, I’ll include both here now:

              Here’s the Turandot, with the REAL Alfano ending. Shout out to Kruno here, in that Dame Josephine Barstow (NOT a Turandot), does a remarkably good job in trying to make us think she was one, sings the Turandot to Lando Bartolini’s Calaf. This was the first time the REAL ‘Alfano’ ending was ever recorded for the listening pleasure of we dolts:

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3M-lvEWlF4A

              AND… seeing as I mentioned it (and I just LOVE it), here’s the ORIGINAL end to Act 2 of Traviata… whenever I hear it, I wish Verdi had never bothered to fiddle with it and give us what we have now, as I just love the original SO much more (but I’m an admitted- and proud- Philistine and high-note queen anyway!! ;-)

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T215xfnvAck

              Best wishes to you, and all on here, as ever and always!!

            • Good Morning Stevey. Sorry for the delayed response. I couldnt access the site yesterday and judging from the lack of comments I’m guessing most others couldn’t as well. Thank you for your well wishes and for providing a video with the complete Alfano ending as opposed to the standard cut version. I have heard the standard cut version many times but I do believe I have heard the complete version as well given that we (though perhaps not you and me individually but some of us collectively on this site) have discussed this subject before. But I will listen again and let you know for sure.

            • Leosweill

              Maybe I’M supposed to be in search of a Ukrainian dom? In any case I find the Berio ending to be better, but that’s the beauty of everyone having their own set of ears! To me, it accomplishes more musically and dramatically. I do wish it was done more often, although I am glad there’s that Stemme/Antonenko recorded from La Scala so a complete performance with it is on tape.

              See how easy it is to prefer one thing to another without making wild psychosexual allegations?

            • Leosweill

              This was to Mrs Claggart, not the sempiternally lovely Antikitschychick

            • Luvtennis

              The full Alfano ending is different from the one cut at Toscanini’s insistence. The full Alfano is still rare right? Do you recall which one you heard?

            • Lohenfal

              Speaking as someone who definitely is not musically illiterate, I can fully agree with your assessment of GP. I haven’t yet exhausted RW or RS, however. They’re still in my pantheon of greats, but I can understand why you’ve abandoned them as well.

            • Hey Luvtennis (and Stevie thanks again for providing a video of the complete Alfano ending!). I think all of the staged versions of Turandot I’ve seen have employed the standard cut version, but I can confirm that I had listened to the uncut ending before, precisely because this has previously been discussed on this site and someone posted the complete version during one of those prior discussions, which piqued my interest, so I listened…and my impression is that the cuts really do alter the ending in a negative way.

              I would agree that the uncut version is superior to the standard/cut version because the shortened version which omits about 3 minutes, or 110 bars of music, according to the person who posted the video, makes Turandot’s transition from a “cold/inaccessible” murderess to a “conquered” woman, totally overwhelmed for her affection and “love” for Calaf too abrupt. And forgive the excessive use of air quotes but that ending has always seemed contrived to me, probably because for women in Italian Opera, and probably most works of western art, the idea of an “emotional surrendering” signifies more than just surrendering to human feelings of love and affection. It also means “giving yourself” to a man (and the problem is that it’s always framed from a man’s pov, which in this opera is literally played out in that she is the one who we see resisting and then giving in and when it’s the other way around and the woman “seduces” the man, that usually signifies sin, moral corruption, depravity or a degradation of societal norms/values) in the same way that an object, in this case an exotic object is seen as a thing to be desired and possessed, which I find sexist. All it took was one man who dared to, not just defy her but desire her, and it was ultimately that MALE desire, that male gaze which she had to succumb to. Of course there are other ways in which one can interpret the work but this is how I tend to see it, when the story is told in a straightforward way.

              The other reason the standard ending is problematic is because as we know Alfano understandably didn’t want to cut the ending. Toscanini made him and then refused to even perform it, so with the involuntary cuts, Turandot’s transition tends to sound premature and the final bars just sound bombastic because there is little in between the exchange between Turandot and Calaf and the preceding Puccini melodies which Alfano incorporated and the final chord resolutions. The vocal writing is also killer. Very high, sustained singing, esp for the tenor….

              I did say I liked Turandot but that doesn’t mean I don’t find it a problematic work. Batty Massetto wrote what I thought was a very articulate post once about precisely why the ending didn’t really work, i.e. it seemed contrived, etc. He/she also proposed an alternative ending that seemed interesting to me….

              I would like to delve more deeply into the musical aspects but I’m really exhausted and I need to look at the scores for that. But I will just say I found the Berio ending more interesting and congenial in terms of singing. It may not be as faithful to Puccini as the Alfano version is or attempts to be, but that doesn’t really bother me, given that at least he (Berio) didn’t resort to mimicry or bombast. His ending to me sounds more restrained, like a soft, almost cautious repose, again more Wagnerian sounding to me than Alfano, whose final chords sound like nails being hammered into a fancy coffin (because that’s what the melody sounds like to begin with, and many other of Puccini’s melodies in this opera sound puffed up to me in the sense that the vocal line keeps ascending to the point of almost sheer hysteria). Just to be clear though, I’m not saying that Alfano mimicked Puccini. He did his best under what were probably trying circumstances and I can certainly sympathize with that.

              I also just really liked how the last scene of this opera was staged in that fairly recent production from La Scala that used the Berio ending. It seemed more mystical, like the ending of the Met’s recent Tristan. In fact when I saw the latter I was immediately reminded of that performance from La Scala…and I recall that the director of the Met’s Tristan professed that his decision to have them sitting side by side holding hands, even after they’ve both presumably ‘died’ was decisively ‘unchristian’ and in that La Scala performance Turandot and Calaf hold hands and slowly walk to the back of the stage, holding hands in a very unified but unceremonious manner if that makes sense. Thus, I think, and this is just my opinion, that the Berio ending lends itself to that sort of mysticism (read: less prescriptive and celebratory in a heteronormative sense in that it was a union but one that didn’t signify marriage) than the Alfano one, which is more triumphant (it literally ends on various trumpeted high notes) and which Zeffirelli unfortunately turned into a kitschy an blindingly bright western royal wedding.

            • Luvtennis

              Thanks, AKC, for that detailed recounting of your thoughts. I have a different take on the opera. For me, the opera is entirely about Turandot and her internal struggle to reconcile two conflicting truths about humanity: 1) in a male dominated world, love requires women to surrender their personhood and thereby suffer spiritual and often physical death and 2) despite that fact, women still seek out union with men in a perhaps futile effort to achieve apotheosis or transcendence. These conflicting truths have driven Turandot, quite understandably, to reject this order and to turn it on its head (as it were). For her, the notion that men are takers and women are givers BY NATURE is deplorable and must be rectified. Unfortunately, Puccini could not or would not see that Turandot is right -- she is not broken -- the world is broken. This failure of vision on his part leads to the distasteful elevation of Liu to heroic status. We are lead to believe that Liu’s self sacrifice (which brings about Turandot’s ultimate submission) is a sign that she is morally superior to Turandot. Now I don’t see how any thoughtful person can see this outcome as anything but repugnant. Perhaps Puccini did too, but for whatever reason he could not show it and so the opera appears to resolve itself triumphantly when in fact the real conflict that drove Turandot remains unresolved. The world is not changed, and Turandot’s one woman revolution fails. For these reasons, it should be clear that the heroic ending is a sham. Calaf, who remains completely unaltered at the end of the opera, wins by simply being true to the selfish nature of men. Liu’s brutal death doesn’t move him or change him, and the end of the opera represents the triumph of the diseased order of things. Contrast this with say, Ariane et Barbe Bleu, where Ariane’s abandonment of all those “Liu’s” who have fallen in love with their chains is a truly heroic gesture. Ariane may have lost the battle to lead other women into the light of full and equal personhood, but she remains determined to win the war.

              I think on some level Puccini may have sensed that it was beyond him to achieve an ending to the opera that dealt adequately with these themes. Bitter irony rather than heroic apotheosis is the natural outcome of the story. And Puccini could not find a way to that ending before his death, and so we are left with an opera that turns on itself at the end. Turandot surrenders, nothing changes, and yet we are meant to celebrate a union consecrated by the death of the female. Ick!

              Just my two cents….

            • Thanks for your detailed interpretation of the opera as well Luv. I don’t think we are in disagreement in terms of those themes you discuss and about the ending. I think you have valid points as to your interpretation of the character of Liu as well. I just don’t think, and I may be wrong, that Puccini would have been thinking of the opera in terms of those particular themes, even though he was a 20th century composer who would have witnessed what we now consider the first wave of feminism. I think his health issues were what to a greater extent prevented him from finishing the opera and that these themes are perhaps more post-modern readings.

            • Luvtennis

              Not really. Recall that this was the era of Schreker (Die Gezeichneten premiered about a decade before Turandot) late middle Strauss (Die Frau Ohne Schatten premiered 5 years before Turandot) and a whole gaggle of composers and artists influenced by the radical thought and philosophy of an era that was challenging all sorts of norms both moral and sexual. Indeed, post modernism had its roots in this era.

            • Yes of course but what proof do we have that Puccini was influenced by said “radical thought and philosophy that was challenging all sorts of norms”? Certainly not in his personal life nor any of his works I would say. Strauss otoh I think you can argue was more progressive.

            • Luvtennis

              It would have been almost impossible for Puccini, who was very cosmopolitan, to have missed out on what his German and French contemporaries were up to…. Also, don’t you think it significant that Turandot, unlike most of his mature operas arises from the world of myth, legend and fairytale? I tnink he was trying to stretch as his brand of melodramatic realism was in danger of seeming old fashioned.

            • well but being aware of what his contemporaries were up to is different than being influenced by it and letting that ifluence be reflected in his work. And yes I do think he was trying to do something less conventional with Turandot but that doesn’t mean he was necessarily preoccupied with more feminist or subversive themes/ideas. Again just mho.

            • Armerjacquino

              Nobody’s ever going to cite TURANDOT as a great work of feminist art, but a feminist reading is perfectly possible. Turandot has been brought up to see herself as a chattel; whoever answers the riddle will win her. Her one model for male/female relationships is the rape and murder of her ancestor. She is viewed as a monster by most of the men that surround her, but when we finally get to hear her own voice she tells us that she will dedicate her life to avenging the violence done by men on Lou-a-Ling.

              Then Calaf solves the riddles. Turandot- who despite her commodified status has been encouraged to view herself as autonomous and powerful- is made aware of the fact that she’s been a prize in a patriarchy all along, and what does she do? She begs her father not to marry her off to a man, as women in patriarchal systems have done since the dawn of time, and he refuses.

              Calaf offers her an out: find out his name. Act Three is about how she tries to escape the marriage, and just as she is about to fail to do so, two things happen. One is that Liu takes agency: she says to Turandot ‘here’s what’s important to me, and I am making a decision based on that absolute’. The second thing that happens is that Calaf willingly allows himself to be defeated. He says ‘Here’s the information that will free you from the contract you didn’t want’ and he offers his life as collateral. She’s finally able to make a decision entirely and totally for herself, and she makes that decision based on what she’s learned about love as an emotional rather than a transactional entity.

              What I’ve outlined above is not the story the creators necessarily intended to tell, and it’s not necessarily my take on the opera, but there’s not one iota of it that goes against the text or the score. Art is protean. It contains multitudes. That’s why I always mistrust the ‘Tosca is a deeply religious woman’ brigade. Any text that allows only one interpretation is agitprop, not art.

            • Yes that’s certainly one possible interpretation and I agree that art is subjective and all that, but I disagree that Liu in killing herself ‘takes agency’. Her death was inconsequential as Luvtennis explained. Further, this reading also doesn’t really account for how abrupt Turandot’s transition is, although that is partly a limitation of the art form itself and its conventions. To me, Turandot’s reaction in “choosing love” comes across as forced because I don’t really get the sense that she has any other choice but to “surrender”. In the eyes of the audience and everyone else he’s earned it. There is no gray area; she has to choose between two extremes.

              I also think that perpetuating the violence that was done to her ancestor by committing similarly grotesque acts of violence against men is far from feminist. Violence against men as a means of avenging past and present patriarchal wrongs against women is still inherently patriarchal. It’s always been man’s m.o. to fight and subject others to physical violence and torture in order to conquer and cement their superior social status, so in doing the same thing to her potential suitors she is only propagating that same patriarchal mindset that celebrates and glorifies violence as a means of signifying power and status over others. After all, man’s ability to fight and die in a battlefield for for a cause is ultimately what separates us from animals isn’t it? Not procreation surely? So in subjugating men through violence, she is essentially perpetuating these ideas.

              Just to be clear though, I’m not trying to play devil’s advocate or invalidate that interpretation. I’m simply trying to point out that any feminist reading of this opera will, I think, have it’s problems and that’s why I said that I find it a problematic work. There are other operas which lend themselves more to a feminist reading without so many problems, like Eugene Onegin, which is probably my favorite opera for that very reason. I just don’t think Turandot is one of them, but ymmv.

            • Luvtennis

              I have to disagree!!!! The princes come to her despite full knowledge of her threat She even laments their foolishness at one point during In Questa Reggia! She pleads with Calaf to leave her be. I see no equivalence between her actions and those of men. They lose their heads of their own volition -- from arrogance, pride, lust or (sigh) human nature. Turandot is innocent of any crime. She is merely the rock upon which men hurl themselves like waves. Yes, by the start of the story she has wearied of the deaths, as rocks are worn down by waves.

              But she is not a monster!

            • Luvtennis

              Come on, my dear friends! Read the libretto (as painful as that often sadly is -- lol!).

              Very grateful for the wonderful discussion. ????

            • Armerjacquino

              Oh, don’t be the ‘read it again’ guy! That’s not a guy anyone wants to be. It should be pretty obvious from what both antik and I have said that we’ve done our reading.

            • Luvtennis

              Then what makes you think Turandot is chattel. She is the very opposite of chattel, Armer!!!! She refuses to be possessed. That is precisely the whole point.

              If I am missing something in the libretto, please tell me. I would hate to have misread the opera all these years!

            • Armerjacquino

              Ok, you still don’t seem to be getting it. Let’s spitball answers to your two objections.

              She refuses to be possessed. That is precisely the whole point.

              Her job is to be possessed. She hasn’t said ‘I will never marry anyone so there’,because she’s not allowed to do so. So she has finessed it into ‘ok, if I have to marry someone, it’ll be the guy who answers these questions’.

              Ping laments the golden days of order that ended when Turandot rejected that order and insisted upon the riddle test.

              When Ping laments the old order, all he’s lamenting is a time when women just shut up and got married like they were told to, rather than all this riddle stuff that Turandot has brought into play.

              See? Endless possibilities, all of which fit the libretto. Again, they’re not necessarily how I personally would interpret the story, or what my production would say. But they’re there and they fit. That’s the point.

            • Luvtennis

              I see your point but I strongly disagree. Turandot is the ultimate femme fatale -- from a man’s screwed up perspective -- but that is not how she sees herself. If the riddles were just a dodge then why is it that so many have failed? Why is her confession that she wants to live in a world of love but can’t because of her memory of Lou Ling? Why is Turandot reviled and feared by her own people? I believe it is because she is the reverse Cinderella. She chose the riddles because as a woman subterfuge was her weapon. I suppose she might have challenged them to mortal combat, but that never happen in opera -- except I guess the Valkries.

              While his failing health may be to blame, I can’t help but think that a man who made his fortune writing about women like Mimi and Butterfly and Manon was not capable of writing about a woman like Turandot. Interesting to speculate what his career might have been like had he developed along the lines of his earliest works. I fear the success of Boheme may have been his doom….

            • Luvtennis

              Now Verdi? He was a man of his times in some ways, but his relationship to women and his female characters was way very different. Even Gilda, whom some deride as a fool, was a victim. Not of her foolish emotions but of her father’s smothering love. Had she not been kept cloistered by her screwed up daddy, she might have recognized the Duke for the monstrous cad that he was. You know, the way Maddalena does….

              I am also reminded of Verdi’s brutal but polite “fuck off ” to the person who questioned the nature of his living arrangements. Paraphrase -- “She is a free person, independent and self sufficient, who chooses to live with me of her own accord. Get bent, fuckwad.” Lol! That last part was implicit.

            • Luvtennis

              And also, your interpretation of Ping’s lament only makes any sense if the emperors of China only had female heirs…. Right?

            • But it’s not about committing a crime or whether the men lose their heads of their own volition or not, it’s the act of violence itself that’s still a manifestation of an extreme and oppressive system. At least that’s the way I see it. So she’s not a monster but she’s ultimately not very different from men, because she wasn’t conceived to be. Le sigh.

            • Armerjacquino

              That is YOUR TAKE on the text. That’s YOUR TAKE on who she is. That’s how your production would go.

            • Luvtennis

              Ping laments the golden days of order that ended when Turandot rejected that order and insisted upon the riddle test.

            • Armerjacquino

              If you’re saying ‘I disagree with you about this thing that Liu does, and this thing that Turandot does’ then I obviously didn’t make myself clear. I was talking about how texts can be read. What you (or I, or luvtennis, or Uncle Tom Cobley) happen to think about Liu’s or Turandot’s actions isn’t the issue; the issue is that we can’t tie ourselves to our own single dogmatic interpretation of any work of art. That reading of TURANDOT I put forward fits the text very well and could form the basis for a production of the work.

              I could just as easily have argued that TURANDOT is the most misogynistic work ever written, and found evidence in the text to support a production putting forward that opinion. I wasn’t asking anyone to agree or disagree with the feminist reading of the text I outlined; just illustrating that it’s there.

            • Oh I see. Thanks for clarifying. I completely agree with you on that, and that’s the beauty of art, especially in a post-modern era :-).

            • Luvtennis

              Wait! I thought it was Turandot who chose the riddles!!!! why else would the three courtiers curse and the populace fear her. No, Turandot refused to be chattel. That’s the whole point, right!

            • but the end result of the riddle challenge, regardless of who chose them was that if a suitor guessed right he was entitled to marry her, so I think he’s right.

            • Mosco Carner (nee Cohen in Vienna) has often been discussed on Parterre. He had been in the Schoenberg circle and also worked as a Kapellmeister before fleeing. His best book is the volume he contributed to a larger work on harmony, A Study of Twentieth-Century Harmony, which was volume 2 in that series, from 1948. It is more cogent although a lot less fun than Schoenberg’s book, Harmonielehre. a wild and woolly fantasia of theories, written in 1910 but revised in 1922, and carefully edited by Roy Carter in English in 1978 (one of John Adams’ great pieces is called Harmonielehre). A book which is somewhat tangential is “Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey” by Allen Shawn, a very brilliant and witty book addressing some of the theories Carner describes with more distance and slightly greater clarity. Shawn is a talented composer and the brother of the gifted playwright, Wallace.

              The Puccini bio was originally published in 1954 but revised several times. It was a defiant signal since in effect he does the opposite of what you do. He makes a strong case for Puccini’s impressive musical growth and sophistication at a time when most others were dismissing his talent altogether (Joseph Kerman — better perhaps about the Beethoven quartets and really interesting about the Elizabethan Madrigal far ahead of his time in writing about that remarkable era — than about “Opera as Drama”) and worse, the Toscanini whore, B.H. Haggin, who influenced two generations of earnest but not very knowledgeable American intellectuals with what amounts to music appreciation books). Ironically the popularity of Puccini’s operas continued, extending eventually to works that had been less often done, such as Fanciulla, The Trittico and Turandot.

              However, Carner was indebted to William Lloyd Webber, a very capable composer and brilliant theorist who was among the first to give Puccini’s work a careful musical analysis, and to take the Italian’s artistic endeavors seriously. He reportedly played Puccini’s operas at the piano night and day for a number of years as he analyzed his effects. It’s not a surprise that his far more famous son, Andrew Lloyd Webber, ripped poor Giacomo off so much.

              I’m not aware of a “best book” about Puccini’s processes but the best researched is Julian Budden’s. He was fighting serious illness but doggedly investigated the Ricordi and Puccini archives. As much as I respect Carner, his lens is distorted by his own background and era. Budden at a considerable remove and more invested in the history of Italian opera, seems to me more insightful.

              However to shift to how much you prefer Wagner does not really answer my objection to your criticism of La Boheme. One assesses an artist by his or her achievements. If one’s dismissal is to be taken as more than just casual (oh, that Wagner, he’s the tits, but Puccini… eww!!!) then some insight into what is really going on, independent of preference is needed. I know a lot of idiots who have a Wagner fetish. They do that composer no credit. And there are idiots who only know Puccini, and not all of Puccini either. Likewise, their opinions are not to be taken seriously. Hierarchies of the “great” composers rarely lead anywhere.

              I don’t care who is the “greatest” according to somebody but I am interested in what makes something tick and how that is really different from what went before, however influenced the composer may be by others.

              Puccini was surely remarkable in taking examples and tactics of others and putting an extremely effective personal spin on them. Turandot is the opposite, it seems to me, the seams show, those he is imitating are too obvious and did it better (including Lehar). But dead horse time… I’ll have to limp off into the sunset without Trigger!

            • Luvtennis

              Hmmm. For me the age of the characters is not so important. I find that people can have Mimi-Rodolfo or Musetta-Marcello type relationships at any age. So long as they can convey passion and jealousy and emotional turmoil along with meeting the demands of the music, I am all good.

  • O Porgy Amor!! You are so wonderful “sei tutt’una fiamma!!!!” Can you identify what opera the Italian words are from and who sings them to whom? That is part one of a question with a reward. Part two: what is the REAL (not stage) name of someone who is quoted saying about two singers (identify them): “I was stunned at her dimensions. Not even XXXX, the nightingale in the body of a tank, had seemed so huge as (YYYY).” If you can answer the questions accurately you will be awarded ONE MILLION CLAGGARTS. That is enough for four years at a school in Camden but seven minutes thirty eight seconds in a major university. I am congratulating you late but you are so much fun to read, and I too liked this Tosca very much, given the video competition.

    • Porgy Amor

      I am woeful at trivia. “Nightingale in the body of a tank” was a description by Stoyanka Savova Nikolova (Elena Nicolai), right? I feel as though one of the targets was Lina Pagliughi, but whether Lina was XXXX or YYYY in the equation, I don’t know. If it were a test question, I would cross myself and put down XXXX as Tetrazzini and YYYY as Pagliughi. Or was there someone later whose hugeness dwarfed Pagliughi’s? La Nicolai did live into the 1990s; I’m sure she bore witness to a whole procession.

      “Sei tutt’una fiamma”….Mascagni’s Il piccolo Marat, Prince Fleury to Mariella?

      • YOU WIN!!! (almost). O Porgy Amor, divine, and an enrichment to my poor sad life (and I am so sweet how can it have ended like this?), you know MOST. I LOVE Il piccolo Marat. Once challenged by someone who had conducted it a lot to play it that instant, I DID. Starting with that duet IN FULL. He was stunned! I used to play those scores all the time at the piano in my sad late childhood early adolescent tower (then I went to a “special” high school full of entitled queens and never looked back!). I always say that of all those “secondo giovanni scuola” people, Mascagni was the genius. No one agrees. But that conductor did and so did someone named Gus Mahler who hated Puccini.

        Yes, it was Elena Nicolai who made that statement, and you got her real name right, too. But she who was worse looking than Pagliughi (Freni detected a resemblance between Lina and ME — “but you are tall and look like a human, deformed, but from this planet” she said. I knew her better than I should have, alas.) was — MARIA CALLAS!!!!

        Let me know where I can send your prize money, divo di Parterre! Just remember they don’t make quaaludes anymore. So don’t believe that street person. You have to go to England, fall over in the street, froth at the mouth and get the doctor at the NHS to prescribe Mandrax. And she may REFUSE.