Let me quickly — well, maybe not; I tend to write long — summarize my thoughts about the Met Opera season opening. Old news by now, maybe.But…
I read reviews full of comments on James Levine’s energy, his thoughtful, savvy approach to a score he hadn’t conducted before, in a style he doesn’t like. It would be fascinating to get a recording of the performance, and go over it with some of the people who wrote those reviews. As I said earlier, I heard an orchestra that for most of the first two acts seemed to be sleepwalking. In dotted rhythms, for instance I often couldn’t hear two distinct notes, articulated at close enough to the same moment, by everyone playing them, so that they sounded distinct. That’s a sure sign that an orchestra isn’t paying attention. And since these rhythms jump out forcefully at dramatic moments, it wasn’t just the music that suffered; it was the performance’s dramatic force.
I heard other signs of sloppiness. I didn’t think, for instance, that short, very loud, dramatic chords (a big feature of Italian opera) were played in tune. It’s amazing how much difference this makes, though when the chords aren’t in tune, the out of tuneness may not register as such. Instead, the chords just don’t sound very focused. Quick passages often weren’t precisely together. And I’d swear I heard something truly sloppy, in the instrumental introduction to the second-act Lucia-Enrico duet, “Soffriva nel piano.” The horns play the melody, in this introduction, and the first violins double the last two notes of the first two phrases. This is a very simple rhythm, just a quarter note followed by an eighth, but I’d swear the violins weren’t together with the horns. This is so elementary, though, that I might be wrong. Maybe it was some acoustical peculiarity, affecting the seat I happened to be in. As I said in my last post, things picked up at the very end of the second act, and suddenly the music was alive and exciting.
Levine did three things I didn’t understand. These were definite choices on his part. One was to take the cabaletta of the Lucia-Edgardo duet — “Verrano a te” — very slowly. To me, this was a mistake because the singers seemed strained by the slow tempo. There’s also no justification I can find either in the score or the performance practice of Donizetti’s time for such slowness, though I’ll readily grant that conductors are free to reinterpret, if they make it work.But, for whatever it’s worth, I don’t think that a performance in Donizetti’s time could have achieved so slow a tempo, because they didn’t really have conductors (Donizetti would have led the first three performances from the keyboard, and after that the principal violinist would have been in charge). They also didn’t have much rehearsal, and finally it would have been hard to enforce anything the singers didn’t want to do. Any extreme effect, like this slow tempo, would probably have been unachievable, and so I doubt Donizetti would have asked for it. (He suffered enough when he asked the soprano in Lucrezia Borgia to make her first entrance wearing a mask. She hated that. “How will anyone know it is moi?” Not an actual quote; I’m imagining how someone now might have stated her objection.) In the score, “Veranno a te” is marked Moderato assai. I’d have to study a lot of Donizetti scores before I could say I was sure what that means. Literally, it translates as “rather moderately.” Why “rather”? Does that mean, “I don’t want this to go slowly, but take it only moderately fast”? Or does it mean, “I’d like ” this to move along at a moderate speed, but don’t go too quickly”? Is it, in other words, a caution against going too slowly, or against going too fast? But one thing it certainly doesn’t mean is to take the piece very slowly. That’s ruled out.
Second peculiarity. The cabaletta of the Lucia-Enrico duet, “Se tradirmi,” seemed to start way too fast. The singers and orchestra weren’t together. I couldn’t even make out exactly where the downbeats in each measure were supposed to be. After a few bars, it all settled down (at a tempo a bit slower than the initial one, if I remember correctly). But this happened three times, each time the melody comes in! That is, it happened when Enrico sang the melody, then when Lucia sang it, and then, in the cabaletta repeat, when they share it. One messup like this seems like normal human error. But three of them?
Of course, this — and some of the other problems I’ve mentioned — might settle down in future performances. (Though I don’t remember the Butterfly at the start of last season being so sloppy.) But the final peculiarity I want to cite is, like the tempo in “Veranno a te,” definitely something Levine did on purpose. He started both statements of the final, repeated section of the sextet — the one the baritone leads, singing “Ah, é mio sangue, l’ho tradita!” (“She’s my family, I’ve betrayed her!”) — in a pianissimo hush, even forcing the baritone to stay quiet on a phrase that arches through a high F. This sounded unnatural to me, and the phrase didn’t make any effect. The baritone at this point has the melody, doubled by the first violins in octaves, along with the first flute flute, and, when the high F comes in, by the first oboe. One would have thought, first, that Donizetti would have wanted the baritone’s line to come out more strongly, and also that he wouldn’t have written anything that goes so high in the baritone’s voice without expecting it to be sung with at least a little emphasis. Besides, the added oboe doubling in the higher part of the phrase would seem to indicate some strengthening of the sound.
And then the phrase isn’t marked pianissimo, but only piano. The opening of the sextet, interestingly, is marked pianissimo, something I’d never noticed before. This would mean then, that — however soft you take the beginning — that the baritone’s phrase should be louder. But how soft should the beginning be? I can imagine a conductor reading the score, seeing the pianissimo, and thinking, perhaps understandably, that Donizetti wanted the kind of true pianissimo hush that Mahler, let’s say, would have wanted when he wrote pp. I don’t think that’s right for Donizetti, though.
First there’s the circumstance that I noted before, that nothing in the performance conditions of the time would probably allow such an effect. Yes, maybe, with a lot of insistence from the composer, you might get a true pianissimo in a short passage, when something really notable is happening onstage. (You can read accounts of the rehearsals for the premiere of Verdi’s Macbeth to see how hard he had to work to get things like that.) And second is something that happened to Toscanini, when he played in the cello section at the premiere of Verdi’s Otello. Toscanini was one of the four solo cellists in the passage that starts the love duet at the end of the first act. This music is marked to be played very softly. I don’t have my score with me just now, but I think the marking might be ppp, not an uncommon marking in Verdi’s later scores. So Toscanini played what he saw in the score, and Verdi corrected him. “Second cello, you’re playing too softly!” “But, maestro, you marked the music triple piano!” (Or whatever it is.) “Yes, but it always must be played with a singing tone.”
So the extremely soft marking isn’t quite to be taken literally. It means “yes, I really mean this to be soft,” but it doesn’t mean, “play this extremely softly.” The singing tone is more important, and this would be lost if the music were played in a true hush. Toscanini never forgot this, and if you compare his Verdi performances with a score, you’ll see that he doesn’t take piano or pianissimo passages as softly as you’d expect. I think the same applies to the Lucia sextet. It’s marked pianissimo, and later piano, but if you interpret this too literally, you lose the flow of the vocal melody. At that, I think, is what happened in Levine’s performance.
Some musical things that worked wonderfully:
The glass harmonica in the mad scene, which Donizetti had wanted to use, but hadn’t been able to. One caveat: the instrument is very quiet for such a big house, and more might have been done, with both the staging and the playing, to underline the hush that inevitably fell over everything when the glass harmonica played.
Also the Mad Scene cadenza, shorn of the flute.Very touching. A brilliant decision.
And finally the long harp solo at the start of the second scene of the first act. This isn’t written in the score, but traditionally harp players are allowed to play an unmarked solo. (Interesting, in performances when the singers aren’t given or don’t want to take equivalent freedom, which they certainly would have had in Donizetti’s time.) This solo was a wonderful one, and wonderfully played. I wanted to applaud, and I wish the audience had somehow been signaled that applause was welcome. In Donizetti’s time, there weren’t any orchestra pits. The orchestra simply sat on the floor in front of the stage. So the harpist would have been visible, and very likely would have been applaused.
I said that, according to gossip, the director hadn’t done much with the singers. And I also said that the scenes that depended only on the soloists seemed incoherent on stage. Here’s an example. The Wolfscrag scene, at the start of the third act, is a ferocious confrontation between two mortal enemies, Edgardo and Enrico. To me, it looked as if the singers had staged the scene by themselves, with no director to refine and shape what they came up with. The evidence for this, for me, was that three times they got directly in each other’s faces. On stage, this is a powerful thing, and shouldn’t be overused. In this performance, it happened way too much in this scene, and therefore lost its force. But it also fell flat because it never had any force in the first place. You can’t just, as an actor, stick your face in somebody else’s face. The moment has to read, in every way, like the powerful confrontation it is. The tension has to be shown in body language, and also in the way you get into the confrontation, and then in the way you get out of it. Nothing like that happened here. Take the final clinch (if I can use that expression, metaphorically). It happened right at the end of the scene. And it ended with Enrico calmly putting his hat on, and walking out the door. (The opera was updated to the high Victorian era, and everyone was costumed appropriately.)
I won’t deny that such a thing could happen, someone breaking a tense confrontation by walking away. But the tension has to be visible. Enrico might have covered his fury with an affected icy calm, so that when he puts his hat on, he’s showing the utmost defiance. Or he might slam his hat on his head, unable to hide his fury. Or something else might happen — but something has to register. You can’t just say, in effect, “Well, it’s time for my exit, so I’ll put my hat on and walk out.”
One other moment worth noting: the wedding photograph that took place during the sextet. The execution here was perfect; obviously, the director’s strength is in the kind of formally avant-darde theater we’d normally see at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where over longish stretches of time, wonderful movements can evolve. This was like that. While the singers sang the sextet, a photographer motioned for everyone on stage (except Edgardo, of course) to pose for a photograph, which he finally took just as the music ended. This was striking., and beautifully executed.
But unfortunately it made no sense! First, imagine that you’re at a large, politically important wedding, and suddenly the family’s worst enemy shows up, the man the bride really loves. Do you think anyone would elaborately set up a photo at just that moment? No way. Then, afterward, as the opera is written, Edgardo won’t believe that Lucia is marrying someone else, until he’s shown the marriage contract. But this now seemed silly, because he’s already seen Lucia posed for the photo, holding hands with her intended, with her family and all the wedding guests gathered round. Why, after that, would Edgardo be so shocked to see the contract?
Maybe if the whole thing had taken place in some kind of dream, this would have worked. But it didn’t seem to. The staging of the photo was utterly realistic, as was the staging of the rest of the scene. (Including a terrific moment — great credit to the director here — where in the stretta the men in the chorus surround Edgardo and use prominent phrases in their music to threaten him. Except then I had to wonder why, since he’d pulled his sword, they didn’t grab him from behind and disarm him.) So we apparently were supposed to believe that the photo was taking place in real time, which, as I’ve said, made no sense at all.
For anyone who cares, and who’s stayed with me this long, here’s a listing of the cuts taken in this performance. Cuts are always an issue in bel canto opera. A few weeks ago I found myself at a party with a conductor who’d soon be leading a production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolenain Europe. That’s a lengthy, sprawling opera, and she and I had a delightful time discussing what the cuts should be. But these decisions are rarely, if ever, critiqued in public after a production premieres. So let me try it. I’m doing this from memory, and of course wasn’t sitting at the performance reading the score, so I might be mistaken here and there.
Still, here are the cuts I remember noticing:
In the baritone’s cabaletta in scene one, they used the really drastic cut familiar from 1950s recordings. The cabaletta has, as written, an initial statement of the melody, a noisy interlude, a repeat of the melody, a long, interestingly ruminative coda, and then a very noisy conclusion. At the Met, they jumped from the first statement of the melody right to the noisy conclusion.
Scene two: In the coda of Lucia’s cabaletta, there’s a wildly florid passage that begins with C major arpeggios, and is repeated. Dessay sang only one statement of it, and very interestingly rewrote the music (or had it rewritten for her), to make it easier to sing. I don’t mind that at all; it’s what any 19th century singer might have done, if she felt the original version wasn’t suited to her voice.
Then, after the repeat of “Veranno a te,” they cut one of my favorite moments in the score, a crazy cadenza that starts with the soprano on high C, and the tenor on a hard-to-believe high E flat. On records, I’ve heard this done with the voices reversed, the soprano on E flat and the tenor on C. I’ll grant that this is a lot for the singers to dare to try live, but it makes a stupendous effect, at least on records; it’s like a sonic starburst. I wish, instead of cutting it, that they’d try to replace it with something similar, if not so difficult.
Act two, scene one: they included the scene for Raimondo and Lucia, which is often cut entirely, but only did the first statement of Raimondo’s cabaletta. Quite reasonable, in my view. I don’t even see much point in doing the scene at all.
Act three: in the Wolfscrag scene (also sometimes cut entirely), they did only one statement of the cabaletta. Again, that’s perfectly reasonable. Though I notice, in the score, that Donizetti has something notable happen during the repeat. The entire scene is supposed to take place during a storm. In fact, the orchestral introduction is called “Uragono” (hurricane). So midway through the cabaletta repeat, Donizetti says in the score, “the storm reaches its height.” It might be exciting to see a performance where stormy excitement built all through the cabaletta, though that would raise the question of how to show that. The orchestration for the repeat is exactly the same as it is in the first statement. Do you show the storm building with lightning, and with thunder conveyed as a sound effect? If I were conducting, I might be tempted to add a bass drum to the timpani part in the repeat, to convey the extra power of the storm (though this might not be enough).
And, finally, the short recitative after the Mad Scene was cut, as it always is. I can understand why. Surely it was written only to cover a scene change, and surely it’s going to come as a tremendous anticlimax. Still, it’s not entirely dispensable. For one thing, Donizetti scores it very carefully, at one point toward the end putting the cellos higher than the violas, apparently to make a chord progression in the strings more poignant. He didn’t treat this recitative, in other words, as simply a throwaway.
And something fascinating happens in the drama. Raimondo, who’d most decisively persuaded Lucia to go through with her fatal marriage, now blames the whole thing on Normanno, the head of the family’s little group of armed men, who’d initially discovered that Lucia was secretly seeing the family’s enemy, Edgardo. But Normanno, surely, was only doing his job. This little moment, in which Raimondo expresses himself with notable force. “You, evil one, are the cause of all this bloodshed! This blood accuses you to heaven, and now the Supreme Hand inscribes your sentence. Go now, and tremble!” Which is stunningly hypocritical, since Raimondo is a thousand times more guilty.
Of all these cuts, the one I most regret, though, is the one in the baritone’s cabaletta. It robs the piece of all its dignity. Couldn’t we at least reinstate the ruminative coda?
I’ll end — again assuming anyone has read this far — with a quiz question. The stretta of the second act finale was performed complete, which I like very much. It’s a surprising piece, with a development section in place of the usual repeat. But here’s the question. When the old-fashioned cut is opened, and we hear every note of the stretta, which singer gains the most notable music?