Saturday, July 29, 2023

The "Moberly-Raeburn" ordering in Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro", and a few observations on the Salzburg Festival 2023 production

 I had the opportunity to watch a livestream of the new "Figaro" production at the Salzburg Festival and will be seeing the performance in person next weekend.

A few quick observations on this new production. The director's conception, and the sets and state design, are edgy and modern -- far darker than Barrie Kosky's new production in Vienna, which I posted about some time back. In fact, the new Salzburg production is so dark it makes Kosky's look almost traditional by comparison.

The Vienna Philharmonic is stubbornly traditionalist in how they play Mozart (and the rest of their core repertoire). I was fascinating to see and hear to what extent a "HIP" conductor, in this case Raphaël Pichon, would be able to bend the orchestra to his will. In the end, it was a reasonable compromise, much like the new Mozart/Da Ponte productions at the Vienna State Opera, with the same orchestra, wearing their hats as the opera orchestra. In Vienna, outgoing music director Philippe Jordan conducts from the fortepiano, but does not join the musical numbers from the instrument. In Salzburg, Pichon has a separate fortepiano continuo, who contributes to the musical numbers. This being the VPO, there are no concessions to period brass or timpani -- although, arguably, the Viennese timpani currently in use by the VPO, which have goatskin parchments and manual tuning screws, are somewhat larger descendants of Classical era timps.

What I found a little problematic were the substantial cuts to the secco recitatives. There really is no need to do this, and the recits in the Mozart/Da Ponte operas are crucially important to plot advancement. Some of the recits are indeed long, and they're important. This production chose to foreshorten some of them considerably. Most notably, a crucial bit of recitative before the Count-Susanna duet in Act III was cut. The production suggested that the relationship just prior to the duet was (possibly?) consummated, which would seem to make nonsense of the Count's continued desire to meet Susanna in the garden. Of course, I may have misread this.

More troubling were actual and gratuitous changes to the text of the libretto. I couldn't pick up on all of them at one listening in a livestream, but, for instance, in Bartolo's Act I aria, "Siviglia" was replaced by "la terra". There were I believe a few other instances. Also, the English translation in the Medici livestream had very peculiar translations. Where "Conte", for instance, appeared in the libretto, it was rendered "Almaviva". It appeared to be an attempt to strip away the class dimension of the opera, which again seems strange.

Having said which, I look forward to seeing this in person in Salzburg, and perhaps I'll have a richer and deeper understanding of the director's intention that was possible on a livestream.

The production omits the Marcellina and Basilio arias in Act IV, which is a frequently made theatrical cut, but is regrettable. More interesting was its use of the "Moberly-Raeburn" ordering of the numbers in Act III. The conventional ordering, used in most productions and recordings, has the Countess's recitative and aria following the "recognition" sextet. M&R proposed in, a 1965 article which you can find here, that the correct ordering should place the Countess's aria after the Count's aria and before the sextet.

I don't want to get into all the detail here, but they have two main reasons for this view, which are related. First, at the premiere in Vienna on May 1, 1786, Antonio and Curzio were taken by the same singer. This means that, with M&R's preferred ordering, there wouldn't be enough time for the singer to change between the recognition sextet and the next scene, in which Antonio appears. They also argue that their preferred ordering makes greater dramatic sense. I happen to agree, but not everyone does. Please see their article for the detailed reasoning (the article is very short). They conclude, therefore, that Mozart and Da Ponte were forced to change the ordering at the last minute to accommodate the presumably unforeseen fact that one singer would double Antonio and Curzio. The article concludes: "If a piece of a jig-saw fits well in one place, and badly in another place, one does not assume that the jig-saw designer meant it to fit badly. The evidence of the score may, for once, be illusory."

 The M&R article appeared in 1965 and proved influential. For instance, in the celebrated Karajan recording of the opera with the Vienna Philharmonic, he uses the M&R ordering, not the conventional ordering.

The one difficulty with the M&R argument -- and it's a big one -- is that they really present no compelling evidence that their ordering is what Mozart actually intended. Their evidence is circumstantial: a role got doubled, necessitating the change, and their preferred ordering makes more sense. But this isn't by itself convincing proof.

In 1981, Alan Tyson wrote an article based on his analysis of the paper in Mozart's autograph MS. It's found here. His analysis of the paper and the MS. is quite detailed. His bottom line is that the evidence shows that is most likely that Mozart's MS. uses the conventional ordering, not the M&R proposed ordering. Why is this a problem for the M&R thesis? Because, it would require that Mozart and Da Ponte knew long in advance of the premiere, or at any rate before the MS. score was finalized, of the fact that one singer would take Antonio and Curzio, and therefore the autograph score reflects the conventional ordering. If, however, they learned after the MS. was completed and before the premiere, then presumably the MS. would contain the M&R ordering, if their hypothesis is correct -- because they wouldn't have known of the doubling before the score was completed -- and they would have made the re-ordering to the conventional order on the fly at the premiere. Is this fatal for M&R? Some believe it is, although Tyson himself concludes that analysis of paper isn't conclusive. It's possible that changes were made to the MS. after the premiere, for instance, which seems the best avenue to salvage the M&R hypothesis for its defenders.

I had a lot of fun delving into this. It reminded me of my time as a high school student, devouring John Dover Wilson's "What happens in 'Hamlet'?", trying to unravel the true significance of the play-within-the-play.

Which ordering do you prefer and do you find the Moberly-Raeburn thesis convincing? Share your replies in the comments below!

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Toxic Masculinity and Gender Fluidity in Mozart and Da Ponte's "Le Nozze di Figaro"

Here in Vienna, I attended, last night, a performance of the new Barrie Kosky production of "Figaro". This is the second in a triptych of the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas he's doing for Vienna over three seasons. First was "Don Giovanni", which I saw this past January (but which premiered the previous season, in the midst of a pandemic lockdown). Next season will see "Così fan tutte".

Now, this isn't a review, or even an erudite commentary, but some random but hopefully interesting observations, riffing off Kosky's production. His stage settings (except in the final act) are fairly conventional, but the stage business, often involving protracted silences (even in the middle of recitatives), or ad libbed Italian dialogue in between scenes to act as a segue, is quite fascinating.

Of course, the Count is an exemplar of toxic masculinity -- a model, in some ways, for Don Giovanni and even for Don Alfonso in the successor operas. It was prescient of Peter Sellars to set his Regietheater production of "Figaro" in Trump Tower, with the Count a putative Trump -- long before he was known to anyone outside New York, where he was widely seen at the time as just another New York schnorrer.

Kosky's Count takes the implied sexual violence of the opera to another level. In the crucial second act finale, where he's just banished the Countess from his sight, he attempts to rape her, before the action resumes. Is he chastened at the end? Mozart' sublime music of reconciliation seems to say so, yet doubts linger in the whirlwind final chorus, which seems more about forgetting and having fun than moving on to another reality of social organization in which the Count's actions are contained in a moral order absent from the ancien régime (and, of course, turns to be absent from what followed).

How about Figaro? Here's an interesting tale. In his Act I aria, he expresses his disdain of the Count, suggesting he'll have the little Count dancing to his tune, and so forth. But this is as far as the Viennese censors would permit Mozart and Da Ponte to follow Beaumarchais's original French play. In Act IV, with Susanna apparently having deceived Figaro (she's not, she knows he's watching, she plays him to get revenge) by acceding to the Count's demands, he breaks out into a political speech in the play. But, this was a bridge too far for Vienna. So, the anti-monarchist screed is converted into a misogynistic rant, so ferocious, that it's hard to imagine Figaro ever viewing Susanna the same way, even when he learns the facts. And he, too, plays her in reverse, to get his revenge, before the reconciliation scene.

(I want to thank Philippe Sly -- a brilliant Leporello in the Vienna "Don Giovanni" by Kosky -- for encouraging me to read the Beaumarchais play in its original French and compare it to Da Ponte's very sophisticated adaptation into an Italian opera libretto -- pointing out to me in particular what could be said in French but had to be censored in Italian. This, by the way, sort of turns on its head the adage, as applied to the play/opera, that "what cannot be said can be sung". Actually, quite a lot was said in Paris that couldn't be sung in Vienna. Yet, it's incredible that the opera could be performed at all. Relatedly, it's fascinating to compare a sophisticated opera libretto by a serious poet and dramatist -- for Lorenzo da Ponte was one as much as Hugo von Hofmannsthal -- to an original source, especially if it's a nearly contemporary play. I've done this sort of comparison previously, comparing Oscar Wilde's original French text of his play "Salome" to the text set by Strauss. This is a comparatively simple exercise, as Strauss essentially set an abridged version of the Hedwig Lachmann translation of the play into German. So it's more a question of what had to be omitted for reasons of space -- it takes a lot longer to sing a line of text than to speak it -- than of what was adapted.)

And here's the crux, something I've written about before, the reconciliation scene between Figaro and Susanna just seems fake -- or, at least, banal. And this was surely the intention of the poet and the composer. After all, Susanna has just delivered one of the most ravishing arias in all of opera -- politely called a "bridal song" in old-fashioned program notes, really an invitation to sexual union with her lover, disguised in classical metaphor (I'll crown you with roses, and that sort of thing). Listen for the orgasm in the woodwinds. And her Act III duet with the Count bubbles over with sexual tension. Yet, this reconciliation is pat, quick, and deliberately formulaic -- preparing the requisite "happy ending". As often in Mozart, what lies beneath the surface can flip the surface reality. (Or, as Sergiu Celibidache puts it, somewhat more poetically, "There is a reality for every level of observation.")

As Ruggero Raimondi -- himself a great Mozartian, who sang both Figaro and the Count with distinction, and once sang in and directed the Mozart/Da Ponte triptych -- has said, the end of the opera represents the end of a great love affair, that between Figaro and Susanna. And Figaro's own toxic masculinity -- as evidenced by his raging misogyny -- is a principal reason.

The other fascinating aspect of Kosky's production is the portrayal of Cherubino, here sung and acted brilliantly by the young Austrian mezzo, Patricia Nolz. Baroque opera, of course, is replete with "travestito" (from the same Latin root that gives us our English word transvestite) roles. In Baroque opera, female roles were often sung by castrati -- castrated males with high voices. But that never enters into the libretto in any meaningful way. They're just women who are sung by men.

Mozart and Da Ponte take the ambivalence to an entirely new level. Cherubino, a young man sung by a woman, is a travestito role (sometimes politely called a "trousers" or "breeches" role in English) that bends fixed, binary gender identity in a way never before seen in opera. In Act II, for instance, you have a woman playing and dressed as a man who is then undressed and dressed again as a woman. And, as they dress her, Susanna jokes that he (she) has fairer skin than she herself does, that sort of in joke, where we know that she's a woman all along. There's plenty of sexual banter and teasing. 

(Don't forget that Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal took a leaf from Mozart here in "Der Rosenkavalier", exploiting the ambivalence of the travestito role of Octavian. More generally, there are parallels between the three female leads, in class terms and in many other ways. The bourgeois born Countess becomes the Marschallin, to the manner born. Susanna, a servant, becomes the newly ennobled bourgeois Sophie. Cherubino, of uncertain social standing, becomes the aristocratic (but poor?) scion, Octavian. There's an essay for another time.)

So who, then, is Cherubino? Conventionally, of course, he's just a man played by a woman. But Mozart and Da Ponte, through the ambiguity in text and music, invite us to blow apart this convenient binary. Cherubino is always described in, for lack of a better word, "effeminate" (in terms of an 18th century aesthetic) terms -- as in Figaro's aria ending Act I, in which he mocks the fashion plate Cherubino's chances of success in the army. (We know, from Beaumarchais's sequel, "La mere coupable", that he actually does die in battle somewhat later.) And in the music in which he's teased by Susanna and the Countess and elsewhere. Is Cherubino gay? Or bisexual? Or, could Cherubino be transsexual? Someone who's transitioned socially, if not medically, and who transitions back in Act II and Act III as part of the elaborate scheme to take revenge on the Count? Someone who makes a half hearted attempt to seduce the Countess (actually Susanna in disguise) in Act IV? Mozart and Da Ponte certainly don't deny the possibility. Whatever is the case, and having said which, the character's peculiar interest has been remarked on by writers through the ages -- including, famously, by Kierkegaard. 

If you accept the plausibility of the hypothesis, a sexually and/or gender fluid Cherubino, then Mozart and Da Ponte provide a commentary in 1786 that looks ahead 230 and more years to our present contestation, and politicization, of questions of sexual, and especially, gender identity. At the very least, a strict interpretation of the law in a raft of US states could mean that minors would be barred from attending a public performance of "Figaro", which would be classified as a "drag show" -- because, whether Cherubino is transsexual or not, he/she/they are, at a minimum, a transvestite.

Peter Sellars once said, and I'm paraphrasing, that for opera to be relevant for us today, it shouldn't be embalmed in a sort of tradition that turns into a costume drama -- the sort of period piece by Merchant/Ivory that you see at art houses or on Masterpiece Theater. Rather, whilst remaining true to the music and the words, opera must speak to our contemporary reality. Sellars's own productions, of Mozart and other composers, consistently strive to and achieve this ambition. Here in Vienna, Kosky manages the feat with his production of "Figaro" that I would urge you to see if you can.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

To repeat or not to repeat? To divide or not to divide? Vexed questions in classical music performance

Anyone who knows me, knows that I'm fanatical about two things in the performance of Austro-German classical music, the question of repeats and of antiphonal placement of the violins. Both remain vexed questions, despite the fact that the historically informed performance (HIP) movement makes it clear that repeats ought to be observed and that the first and second violin desks ought to be divide antiphonally, that is, firsts on the conductor's left, seconds on the right.

Strangely, despite a half century or more of these insights, both precepts are honoured more in the breach than in the observance, especially in the non-German speaking world, and most certainly in the Anglophone and Francophone musical spheres. It's only recently (that is, in the last ten or fifteen years) that the Vienna Philharmonic, bastion of tradition if ever there was, has returned to antiphonal violin placement as the norm. This was the norm from the time of Haydn through to Richard Strauss, and is what composers would have expected. 

At some point after the Second World War, the norm on both sides of the Atlantic became to lump the violins on the conductor's left. In one variation, cellos were out to the right, and violas tucked in behind then; in another version, the somewhat less barbarous of the two, the reverse. There are all sorts of theories as to why this happened, and no one (including conductors themselves as well as scholars of music) has yet furnished a fully satisfying explanation. The most plausible account seems to be that with the increased premium place on accuracy, conductors felt that the first and seconds, who often, though, crucially, not always, play in unions in tuttis, could hear each other better and therefore play together more effectively. Certainly, this helps explain why martinet conductors who insisted on precision at all costs, such as Herbert von Karajan, preferred this to the pre-war seating arrangement. The next generation, such as Claudio Abbado, continued this tradition. Only in recent times has it been realized, and here the HIP movement deserves much credit, that this does a great disservice to the composer's intentions. Listen to just about any movement of a Mozart or Haydn symphony, or a passage from a Mozart opera, or a Beethoven symphony, and you'll hear what I mean.

I've spoken to many distinguished conductors about the orchestral placement question. Those who do it as a matter of course obviously agree with me (and the scholarship). Some take.a pragmatic view. A few told me that they suggest antiphonal violin placement, but, if they are guest conducting and an orchestra prefers the alternative, they will defer to the orchestra's choice. Others point to acoustical problems in certain venues, which make it difficult to hear the seconds (which play inward, rather than out to the audience), if violins are divided. Likewise, some orchestra musicians have told me that the firsts and seconds prefer to sit together, to better hear each other.

It's clear that these are pragmatic, rather than artistic, considerations. Most I spoke to agreed that the optimal situation be antiphonally placed violins.

There are some related questions I won't dwell on, such as where to place the cellos and violas. Typically, in Berlin or Vienna, if violins are divided, cellos are placed centre left, and violas tucked in behind the seconds on the right. In Vienna, at the Musikverein, the Philharmonic places the double basses lined up against the back below the organ. In Salzburg, they place the basses to the back left, behind the cellos and the firsts. Some conductors, such as Italian maestro Antonello Manacorda, prefer to divide cellos from basses, thus placing the basses on the far right. This is extremely effective -- listen to his recent recordings of Beethoven symphonies for evidence.

Now to repeats. A traditional view -- espoused, for instance, by the late Sergiu Celibidache -- is that repeat marks in Classical and early Romantic repertoire were a Baroque hangover, a convention that can safely be ignored, because the composer didn't expect it to be followed. A variant of this is that repeats are only useful for new and unfamiliar works. We hear the Mozart symphonies so often, on this view, that who needs a repeat?

This rather cavalier view has been challenged by the historically informed performance school, who argue that composers knew exactly what they were doing, and, if a repeat mark was placed in a score, the composer intended it to be observed. As the late Georg Tintner once told me, not observing a repeat is akin to making a cut, something he was very much against.

Clear evidence that composers intended a repeat is in those cases where there is a lead back to the repeat. No one would have written those extra bars of lead back if the intention was to skip the repeat, if it were there merely as a convention.

It's now largely agreed that omitting exposition repeats is an egregious error, but it still does happen. How often do you hear the Beethoven Seventh, for example, with the exposition repeat in the finale omitted? Far too often. However, when it comes to second half repeats --which are common in Haydn and in Mozart -- many conductors today make the strange decision to observe the exposition (or first half) repeat but omit the second half repeat -- such as, for example, in the outer movements of the "Prague" symphony, or in the second movement of the G minor symphony K. 550, or in the finale of all three of the last symphonies.

Now, this is peculiar indeed, as it distorts the structure of the movement, to observe the first repeat and to omit the second. A lesser evil, which is what was done by an older generation of conductor, is perhaps to omit both repeats altogether. Far from ideal, but at least the symmetry of the structure is preserved.

On the repeats questions, most conductors I've spoken to agree that in principle they should be taken, and some follow this approach. Others cite pragmatic reasons for omitting repeats. Some examples include the fact that playing all the repeats might make a concert too long, or require that musicians be paid overtime, for example. It's sometimes said that orchestral musicians don't like to play repeats, so conductors omit them so as not to antagonize orchestra members. Playing all repeats in a long program might be fatiguing for musicians and audience alike. And so on and so forth.

Again, it's pretty clear that all of these are pragmatic rather than musical reasons. In an ideal world, there is no good reason to omit repeats, nor to lump violins together. The former simply pays disrespect to the composer's intentions. The latter leads to a thick, occluded orchestral sound, robbing us of the greater transparency and the clear delineation of the antiphonal interplay between firsts and seconds that the composer intended us to hear.

To rest my case, here's a recording of the second movement of the Mozart K. 550, where the composer marks both halves for repeat, and, of course, expects antiphonally placed violins. Observing the repeats gives the movement its necessary breadth and importance in the work. With both repeats observed, the movement clocks in at 15 minutes or more -- about the length of a slow movement in a Bruckner or Mahler symphony -- providing the necessary repose (albeit, a troubled repose) before we turn to the minuet and finale, which drag us down into the looming abyss. Divided violins bring the necessary transparency. This is a Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by James Levine, and recorded at the Musikverein under ideal conditions.

Listen for yourself.

Monday, March 20, 2023

The Yellow Gash: Sartre on Tintoretto

 I was reminded recently of a beautiful British documentary film from the 1980s, exploring the works of Jacopo Tintoretto in the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice through the lens of the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. Of the "Crucification" -- see here -- -- Sartre, in Qu'est-ce que la littérature?, writes:

"Cette déchirure jaune du ciel au-dessus du Golgotha, le Tintoret ne l'a pas choisie pour signifier l'angoisse, ni non plus la provoquer; elle est angoisse, et ciel jaune en même temps." (italics are by Sartre)

This translates into English as follows:

"Tintoretto did not choose that yellow rift in the sky above Golgotha to signify anguish or to provoke it. It is anguish and yellow sky at the same time." 

(italics corrected from the English translation linked below, to match Sartre's French original) Note that this version translates the French original as "rift", whilst the documentary title uses the more evocative "gash". The most literal translation may be "tear" or "rip".

Meanwhile, commenting on "The Miracle of the Slave" (or the "Miracle of Saint Mark:) -- see here -- -- Sartre raises the very pertinent question (paraphrasing), how do we know that the saint won't come crashing down to the ground? If her were levitating, his garment would be wrapped around him. Here, he seems to be in free fall. So, it's only faith that would lead us to believe that he won't fall to his death. Tintoretto, the subversive, per Sartre.

The documentary has a beautiful soundtrack, including the "Kyre" from the Mozart C minor Mass, conducted by Ferenc Fricsay, appearing at the end. If you'd like to listen, it's available here. .

As the documentary film puts it aptly, "In Tintoretto, Sartre recognizes a kindred spirit."

Saturday, March 11, 2023

The French Revolution Distilled into a Single Word in a Mozart Opera (times two)

 Well, perhaps that was a slight exaggeration in the title, but not by much. I've been struck by how rich the content of the recitatives in Mozart operas actually are. In bad, or badly prepared, performances, they're rushed through at high speed, sometimes almost unintelligible. Sometimes, often for practical, logistical reasons, the conductor will depute a répétiteur to prepare the recitatives. Michael Haneke once remarked that it would be better to do away with them altogether, if that's how they are treated. His filmed performance of "Così fan tutte" makes much of the recitatives, proving that he practices what he preaches.

I sometimes am struck by small details in the recitatives. Signifying, perhaps nothing, perhaps everything.

In Act 3 of "Le Nozze di Figaro", the Countess bemoans her state, in the celebrated accompanied recitative and aria, "E Susanna non vien - Dove sono i biei momenti". The last line of the accompanied recitative reads thus:

"Che dopo avermi con un misto inaudito d'infedeltà, di gelosia, di sdegni - prima amata, indi offesa, ed alfin tradita - fammi or cercar da una mia serva aita!" 

In dense summary, she's unhappy that, due to the Count's infidelity, she's forced to rely on her servant for help. Now, most performers deliver this last line of the recitative, before jumping into the aria, without any particular emphasis. However, there's one (at least one that I know of) sparkling exception. The late, great Swiss soprano, Lisa della Casa, puts a special emphasis on the penultimate word of the recitative, "serva", literally pouring scorn into the word. Recall, this is the upper middle class young woman who married into aristocracy (think back to "The Barber of Seville"), and now she realizes that her class privilege is imperilled by her husband's bad behaviour. Listen to it here, in the classic Erich Kleiber recording from Vienna.

Very few performances, or recordings, pick up on this small interpretative nuance. Indeed, when della Casa recorded the role again, again in Vienna, with Erich Leinsdorf, she didn't repeat it. But this is unforgettable.


Here's the second case study. In Act 1 of "Don Giovanni", the eponymous protagonist is trying to convince the young peasant woman, Zerlina, that he should trust her and accompany him on a romantic tryst. She tells him that she's heard that noblemen aren't to be trusted. This is all before one of the most famous duets in all opera, "La ci darem la mano". But what interests us here is the secco recitative that precedes the duet. After Zerlina expresses her concerns, this is what Giovanni tells her:

È un impostura della gente plebea! La nobilità ha dipinta negli occhi l'onestà."

Roughly, this is a lie perpetrated by lower class folk, he tells her. Nobility can been seen in one's eyes. Many performers sing this bit of secco recitative without any particular emphasis. But, the great Italian bass-baritone, Ruggero Raimondi, gives this line particular emphasis. In particular, he (subtly) stresses the adjective "plebea". Listen here.

The scorn for the low born is evident. This was two years before the French Revolution.

Everyone, notably the late, great American scholar, Charles Rosen, rightly points to "Viva la liberta", towards the end of Act 1, as a signal of where the sympathies of Mozart and Da Ponte lay. But -- this little bit of secco recitative, from the Don, a little earlier in the act, tells us that the class war has been fully joined, by both sides. And, please remember, that the Bourbon dynasty, toppled in 1789, returned, "in the baggage train of the Allies", in 1814. Plus ça change...

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

But not quite...

 Dear Friends

As my academic and professional comments and writings will now appear on Substack (see last posting), I've decided to restore this page to its original purpose, reflections on culture, politics, and society. Watch our for such new postings here.

Be well.

Vivek Dehejia