November 25, 2012: It’s a gorgeous morning here in Atlanta. Cold air, blue sky, sunlight everywhere. I’m reading the Times, feeling grateful to have survived Thanksgiving again. Had my coffee, so I’m primed to find whatever I read next absolutely fascinating. And there it is, the Sunday Dialogue: a letter from Les Dreyer, literarily-inclined viola player (no jokes, please) in the Met orchestra, who throws down yet another gauntlet in the Death-of-Classical-Music wars.
Personally, I think reports of classical music’s demise are greatly exaggerated. But that may be due to my own investment in the Tinker Bell Syndrome. As a longtime classical fan, I believe. I believe that, in spite of all demographic evidence to the contrary, the world’s great symphonic organizations, opera houses, chamber ensembles, and conservatories will not only survive, they will prosper. I believe that the endless supply of young sopranos, violinists, and pianists will persist, delighting music lovers everywhere even as our collective hair turns white or disappears entirely. I also believe that the current flood of classical recordings in all formats, all style periods, all price points, will continue to gush forth from both boutique labels and the so-called “majors” for as long as serious collectors and Bocelli fans alike are willing to shell out.
Here’s something that’s either part of the problem (if there is a problem) or part of the solution (if we need solutions). Just before Christmas, I got a review copy of a new opera Blu-ray (Opus Arte BD 7088D). It’s from Covent Garden, otherwise known as The Royal Opera House. Their brilliant chief conductor Antonio Pappano led the performance, and principal roles were filled by the likes of Eva-Marie Westbroek, Gerald Finley, and Alan Oke. The performance was, as far as I could tell, everything it should have been. And the recorded sound? DTS-HD Master Audio, very impressive. In reviewing the original production Anthony Tommasini, chief classical critic of the New York Times, called it “entertaining and ultimately deeply moving.”
He also called it “outrageous.” That’s not surprising, because the opera was Anna Nicole, by youngish Brit composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. It’s a retelling of the tragic story of Anna Nicole Smith, the Playboy pinup who married an elderly Texas oil billionaire and then failed to inherit his fortune, although she gave it her best shot. But you probably remember reading all about it in Foreign Affairs, or possibly The New England Journal of Medicine.
This is what the new opera meant for me: From now on, every time the Tinker Bell Syndrome gets me in its grip, I will remember Anna Nicole, and I’ll say to myself, Maybe classical music is dying. All we need are a few more similarly misguided efforts, and it may finally give up the ghost.
Gentle readers, Happy New Year! Allow me to make this glass half-full for you by conducting a short tour through the annals of operatic Bad Girls more worthy of your attention. Along the way we may also come up with a few pointers on what makes a more satisfyingly wicked warbler than the one Mr. Turnage and his librettist Richard Thomas turned out. We’ll eventually get back to her, and to them.
When it comes to Bad Girls, even casual classical fans probably maintain a short list of favorites, with Violetta and Carmen right up at the top. I would further list Poppea, Semele, Bess, and Baby Doe Tabor among my most-beloved operatic slatterns. There’s a reason (or three or four) why these characters remain at the center of the operatic universe long after their débuts. Any or all of them are more interesting than poor Anna Nicole.
What makes a transgressive operatic heroine “interesting”? First, it helps if she’s complex and believably intelligent. When we first encounter Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s La Traviata, she is hosting a party for half of fashionable Paris. The music suggests her life’s mad whirl in an aggressive galop that sets the scene. It never stops, although she does. Still recovering from an unspecified illness, Violetta succumbs to vertigo and a coughing spasm. She waves her guests into the next room. One remains behind, a young man from a good family who has fallen hopelessly in love with her. After he pours out his heart (“Un di felice”), she good-naturedly dismisses his suit and rejoins her guests.
But when the party ends she can’t help remembering him. In a remarkable cavatina-cabaletta pairing (“È strano!/Ah, fors’ è lui” and “Follie!/Sempre libera”) she considers anew the emptiness of her existence and the force of young Alfredo Germont’s passion, then rejects the possibility of redemption through his love. His passionate declaration nevertheless continues to ring in her ears. Here are a couple of clips from the 2005 Salzburg production that, aided by Willy Decker’s minimalist staging and a phenomenal performance by Anna Netrebko, emphasize Violetta’s isolation, indecision, and altogether human welter of feelings. The tenor is Rolando Villazon.
Through a series of private encounters, we have discovered a Violetta with whom any emotionally functional person could identify. The process continues in Act 2, when Alfredo’s father intrudes upon the fairy-tale life the young lovers have created at a country home outside Paris. In a lengthy duet with devastating psychological impact, he asks her to give up Alfredo and so preserve his family’s reputation and daughter’s marriage prospects. Violetta is shocked and at first refuses to consider a permanent separation—she literally cannot live without Alfredo. So the elder Germont tries another tactic, suggesting to her that when her beauty fades, his son is likely to stray, to leave a relationship unblessed by the church and find fresh delights elsewhere. Undone by the savage pragmatism of his argument, she relents. Here is the scene, with baritone Thomas Hampson singing the part of Germont (and here is the complete English translation—scroll down to A10):
In the course of that duet, the moral balance has shifted. Germont, a caring father who wants to protect his family above all, ultimately resorts to a cynical ploy that demeans both his son and himself. Violetta gradually reveals her integrity and the depth of her commitment to Alfredo, astonishing Germont and leaving him ashamed of the bargain he has struck.
So yes, complexity and intelligence do matter. Here’s another paradox: Even if our Bad Girl isn’t extraordinarily complex or savvy, it helps if she seems basically decent. That often provides her with the requisite complexity right there. Consider the case of the eponymous heroine of Douglas Moore’s great American opera The Ballad of Baby Doe. This little gold-digger finds a lonely silver baron, comes between him and the wife who supported him through years of poverty, and leads him from the height of wealth and influence to a penniless, scandal-ridden ruin. And yet we can’t help liking her. At first she woos Horace Tabor unknowingly—or does she know?—by singing a simple parlor song in her hotel room, letting its Stephen-Foster-ish strains drift through an open window to Tabor’s ears as he sits outside. In this clip, Moore introduces Beverly Sills, who was the first Baby Doe:
Tabor is deeply moved; they exchange a few words. She flatters him (“No one ever mentioned you’re still a young man. . . . Eyes afire with dreaming / Like a boy of seventeen.”) He responds with an aria, “Warm as the autumn light,” describing what she has reawakened within him.
By the end of the opera, Tabor’s fortune is gone, his good name lost. Only Baby Doe has not deserted him. The last music we hear is her aria “Always through the changing,” sung at first to a dying Tabor and then, through the magic of stagecraft, by a white-haired Baby Doe who stands vigilant at the entrance of the Matchless Mine, ever faithful to Horace’s dream of silver and glory—ever faithful to Horace himself.
Always through the changing
Of sun and shadow, time and space,
I will walk beside my love
In a green and quiet place. . . .
Never shall the mourning dove
Weep for us in accents wild.
I shall walk beside my love
Who is husband, father, child.
As our earthly eyes grow dim,
Still the old song will be sung.
I shall change along with him
So that both are ever young,
Of course, not every Bad Girl can be as good as Baby Doe. That brings us to point three: If she can’t be good, she should at least make her bad self extremely desirable. Part of the appeal of these characters is vicarious—we want to be them or be with them, minus the STDs and other attendant dangers. Poppea and Carmen fall into this category, Poppea especially. Like Baby Doe and Anna Nicole (and not unlike Marie Duplessis, upon whom the character of Violetta was based), the central character of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea was an actual person, a courtesan who connived to seduce Emperor Nero and replace his wife Octavia as queen. Along the way, she saw to the murder or banishment of several other more-or-less innocent historical figures.
So, not a nice person. But watch and listen as she works her wiles on Nero early in the opera. They’ve just spent the night together, undoubtedly enjoying carnal delights on an imperial scale. But before Nero departs for the office, Poppea wants to persuade him to move just a bit more quickly with all that depose-Octavia-and-make-me-queen business. In this clip, soprano Corinna Reithuber (Poppea) and mezzo Regine Sturm (Nero) enact the duet (warning: nudity).
There we saw Poppea’s machinations in full swing. But she and Nero also have a big duet at the very end of the opera, when she’s triumphed and no more machinations are needed. And that duet is as radiant, as full of wonder as the nuptial celebration of any other young couple:
Danielle De Niese and Philippe Jaroussky sang; William Christie conducted. Monteverdi allows Poppea and Nero—and us—this last moment free of any remorse or fear. Ain’t love grand?
I hesitate to dwell on Carmen here, because her antics and accompanying music are already so well known. Suffice it to say that she celebrates her sensuality both publicly, in the famous Habañera, and privately, in the Act 1 Seguidilla and everywhere else. In case you haven’t seen it for a while, here is the Act 2 dance in which she convinces Don José to desert his regiment. All of Carmen’s solo numbers are dances, incidentally, making her music inseparable from her body. Elina Garanča and Roberto Alagna do the honors in the 2010 Metropolitan Opera production:
With all these operas, it helps enormously if the heroine sings music of such beauty that we are transported utterly out of temporal reality and are led to embrace her worldview: her passion, her physicality, her total commitment to the moment. We know that she will love Alfredo, or Nero, or Horace Tabor, forever. We know that nothing compares to the pleasure and fulfillment she feels when Jupiter is with her, or when she reduces Don José to panicky submission or forces Escamillo to think about something besides his next bull. We want that purity of feeling, and nothing is more gratifying than to be given it by one of the great Bad Girls of opera. That’s why the emotional high point of Porgy and Bess is the love duet between the two principals. Their music is so splendid that we never doubt for a moment the depth of their bond. He may be a disabled beggar and she an outcast with a drug problem, but when they sing together, we envy them. From the groundbreaking Glyndebourne production, here are Cynthia Haymon and Willard White:
I have only mentioned Semele, the title character in Handel’s sexy secular oratorio. Now seems the perfect moment to conclude our talk about transgression and fulfillment with her first aria, “Endless pleasure, endless love.” She sings it just after Jupiter—in the guise of a mighty eagle—has literally swept her off her feet and into the clouds, where they presumably enjoyed carnal delights on a godly scale. In any case, she’s ecstatic, and Handel captures her giddy joy perfectly. Rosemary Joshua sang the role in a recent English National Opera production (warning: nudity).
Well, that’s it. Our guided tour has ended. To sum up: Bad Girl opera is one of the most deeply satisfying fantasy experiences available. No one wants wholesale reality to intrude. Absolutely no one wants anything like reality television at the opera, because the “fantasies” it offers cannot be endured, let alone desired, except by the very young and stupid. That would seem to be the basic problem with Anna Nicole, which uses the media, i.e., a group of really annoying anchorpersons and talk-show hosts, as interlocutors for Smith’s story. There are no private moments. Every part of Anna’s tawdry rise and fall is kept entirely public and, well, tawdry. The pole dancers are a turn-off. The sex seems mechanical. The parties look pathetically dull. All the principals are foolish, grasping, deluded, and/or creepy. And the music, for all of Turnage’s vaunted skill at jazz and pop, sounds somewhat stale as well. John Paul Jones, who played bass in the production, seems faintly embarrassed when he takes his bow at the end. He knows this isn’t exactly Led Zep.
All of which makes me think that Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas weren’t actually aiming their work at the Bad Girl Canon in any case. Anna Nicole is not the next Poppea or Carmen. What it might be is the next Mahagonny or Threepenny Opera. The evidence suggests that Turnage and Thomas are 21st-century successors to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.
What does that mean? It means that if you are disgusted by what you see in Anna Nicole, its creators will have succeeded. In a series of innovative early-20th-century works, Brecht and Weill originated the theory of drama they called the Verfremdungseffekt, the “alienation effect.” Basically, they meant to shake up the audience, emotionally distancing them from the action so that they would have to think about what they were seeing. They wanted people to leave the theatre primed for social action, not merely satisfied through vicarious experience. No fantasy for us, please; we’re Marxists.
This trend in modern theatre had a strong influence on much 20th-century music. It’s part of what animates Wozzeck and Lulu (another Bad Girl opera) and it comes through clearly in some of Stephen Sondheim’s work.
But I’m going to leave it at that for now. And we’ll return to instrumental genres for the next couple of columns, lest you conclude that Classical Corner has turned into the Opera Channel. Best wishes for the New Year! Let’s see what we can do to keep Classical alive.
Featured Image: Eva-Marie Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith in the opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas. Courtesy Royal Opera House.