Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Mozart's Mitridate, Re Di Ponto

The following was submitted today to Yahoo's Opera Study group (with some modification in the post)

One of the neat things about this group is that, as we follow each month's focus, we get exposed to operas that we might otherwise not see. I know this has been true for me. For each composer, I search through the DVD opera offerings in the Netflix service. Some I like (and sometimes actually purchase), and some I don't. If I don't like a production, I don't feel like I've spent too much money, just time. Either way, I pop the DVD back in the mail, Netflix pops the top DVD off my queue, and it arrives in my mailbox. It turns out that the nearest Netflix mailing facility is in White River Junction (about a 80-90 minute drive away), so DVD's are turned around pretty quickly.

(I don't work for Netflix and receive nothing from them I don't pay for, so I'm carrying on about them because I'm a very satisfied customer. Since the available opera recordings and videos at my library are few in number, Netflix does the trick.)

So this afternoon, I watched Mitridate, Re Di Ponto. This was written when Mozart was 14, during a trip through Italy. According to Charles Osborne, Mozart was given the commission to set the opera by the city of Milan (or some ruler thereof? I need to go back and read that part again). This was in 1769. Apparently the libretto had been set at least once previously, in 1767.

The production I saw was produced by the London Royal Opera House in 1991, as part of a Mozart Bicentennial Celebration (that would make it 200 years after his death, but I guess you get your bicentennials where you can). The DVD shows the parts and players during the opening overture. The sets were pretty simple, a lot of red lighting, with various centerpieces brought up through the stage floor. This included a small torch flush with the floor in the middle of the stage, which appeared as the opera opened. With the flowing cloth of the players, I began to have this morbid fascination about whether one or more of the players would have their costume catch on fire.

While I'm on the subject of costumes...I haven't seen a lot of theater productions of any type, so take the following with a grain of salt...these were the most outlandish, garish, and just plain ugly costumes I have ever seen anywhere. Mitridate and his sons wore shiny chrome armor over flowing tunics and...well, there's no other way to describe them...skirts under which it appeared they were trying to hide bongos, or some sort of drum, on each hip. But the most ridiculous of the bunch were Aspasia's outfits. These were drop bodice dresses, and it looked like, under her skirt, she was trying to hide a full bed mattress. While the other players were able, on occasion, to shed their bongos, poor Aspasia had to drag around that mattress, even kneeling on the floor now and then, and then getting up. It looked painful.

And then there were Mitridates' guards, who first appeared wearing Chinese (?) masks and weilding swords. The masks had a red cloth toungue hanging out of the mask. At the end of Mitridates entrance aria (and it was really, really good, sung by Bruce Ford), each of the half-dozen or so guards pulled on these tongues, and then commenced to pull foot after foot of cloth out of the mouth, as I'm sure we've all seen clowns and magicians do.

All the players had a lot of makeup, with their faces painted white and their lips painted black, as well as various features around the eyes. I'm wondering if this was the practice in Mozart's day.

The opera has a smarmy, slimy villain in Farnace, who has designs on his father's throne, as well as his father's main squeeze. Farnace has also been collaborating with the Romans, who are trying to unseat Mitridates. The king discovers the machinations of his son, and tosses him into the dungeon. Just before being taken into custody, he reveals that the "good" son, Sifari, has also carried on with Aspasia, who has returned the favor. This gets both sons in hot water. However, before Mitridates can execute anyone, the Roman rout his troops and lay seige to the city. Sifari goes to fight by his father's side. But, the Romans win the day, and release Farnace from the dungeon, with a promise he can have the throne and the babe both if he chooses. The Romans leave, and Farnace has this big change of heart, for which he needs a rather lengthy aria to explain.

In the finale, Mitridates, rather than submit to the Romans, has fatally stabbed himself. Before he dies, Farnace and Sifari beg their father's forgiveness, which he grants before dropping dead. Thus ends the opera.

The work takes nearly three hours to complete, and while I enjoyed a few of the arias, I found myself wondering how much longer there was until the end. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I watched it, as it provides an opportunity to compare Mozart's early work with his later work. I felt there were too many parts for castrati, but I guess that was the style of the day. Osborne indicates that Mozart did not write any of the arias until he had met the players, so the arias were written for specific singers. This, too, I've learned through Greenberg was a common practice, at least for Mozart.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Sleigh Rides

Looking out the window at the snow this winter, I was reminded of something I became aware of a few years back. Nearly everyone is familiar with Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride"; it was played 17,361 times from December 12-19, 2005 topping the charts for the week. This classic was composed during a July heat wave while Anderson lived in Woodbury, Connecticut. It is energetic, witty, unpretentious and distinctly American. However, there are many more "Sleigh Rides" that may not be as well known. I happened to hear one of these many recordings on the radio a few years back, which the announcer reported as the Divertimento for orchestra in F major "Musical Sleigh Ride" by Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I later discovered that Tchaikovsky had written a “Sleigh Ride” as part of the Seasons Op. 37a.

These are all very different pieces. Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" conjures visions of horses trotting briskly, bells jingling merrily and snow flying behind the sleigh. Leopold Mozart's sleigh ride is more of a promenade, perhaps a larger, more majestic sleigh. The other (seldom performed) by Tchaikovsky is a magical romantic version of a sleigh ride in a Russian wonderland of snow and ice.
But wait, there are more. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his own “Sleigh Ride” as part of German Dances. It is a short piece, as is the one written by Prokofiev called “Troika”(a sleigh pulled by 3 horses abreast). The Prokofiev version was written for the film "Lieutenant Kije. Prokofiev wrote two versions of this piece an instrumental one, and another for orchestra and baritone, both very short.And Norwegian composer Frederick Delius, as part of Three Small Tone Poems, wrote the “#2 Sleigh Ride” It was written originally as a piano piece but was orchestrated shortly thereafter and starts as a dance punctuated by sleigh bells but quickly changes to the full, rich orchestral sound that characterizes the work of Delius. Are there others? I suspect that there are-this is by no means a complete list. Many of the great composers lived in Russia, Germany and Austria at a time when the sleigh (or troika) was very common. Living in the land of snow and ice myself (Vermont), I am often tempted by the sleighs for rent locally. Perhaps I will take a sleigh ride of my own this winter.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Abduction, Cosi, Tito

The following is a post I contributed to the Yahoo Opera Study e-mail group.

I've got three more (well, two and a third) Mozart operas under my belt.

The *Abduction from the Seraglio* I watched was performed by Maggio Musicale Fiorentino under the direction of Zubin Mehta. Stealing the show (I suspect this happens a lot) were Osmin, played by Kurt Rydl, and Blonde played by Patrizia Ciofi. (Now I know where "Blondie" comes from in *The Abduction of Figaro*...maybe this opera is the source for the pirate, but I doubt that). The stage used some simple but colorful backdrops, mostly stained-glass windows and sliding doors, with each different scene having a different configuration. I must say I've come to appreciate these more simple sets.

This Abduction has Belmonte arriving on a little row boat, hardly big enough for travel on the high seas, though we learn later he has a bigger boat waiting. Added to this production is a large crocodile, which appears to be a pet of Osmin's. Osmin enters with his part in the opening duet with a bucket from which he feeds the croc. It's a neat touch.

All of the singers were attractive and had wonderful voices. The extended scene between Osmin and Blonde is lots of fun, where the tough blowhard Osmin is turned into a child in a tantrum. The Pasha is a serious but courteous gentleman.

I got through about the first third of the Peter Sellars' *Cosi fan tutte*, with it's modern setting at the cafe named "Despinas." This was my second Cosi, having done the La Scala version months ago. About 15 minutes into it, I started to feel kinda foolish. I don't know why, but I was relieved nobody saw me watching it. I don't mind old operas and plays and such being translated into modern settings, but with the angst and the groping and Despina crying and so on, I just couldn't finish it. Luckily this was a Netflix rental, so it wasn't much of a monetary loss. Who knows? Maybe someday I'll be able to appreciate it better, but this production was just too jarring visually for me.

So next, I kinda skipped ahead and watched the Glyndebourne production of *La Clemenza Do Tito*. I did a little reading in Charles Osborne's book *The Complete Operas of Mozart* (Greenberg quotes this book in some of his lectures - I found it in a Half-Price Books store in San Antonio this last spring), and Osborne doesn't seem to think much of it. It was written while Mozart was also working on *The Magic Flute*. Two of the main characters, Sextus and Annius, are soprano roles written for castrati; these are now, of course, pants roles (the women wore body armor but it was hard to pretend they were really men - and -uh oh! - there was some same sex kissing going on [not that there's anything wrong with that]). Titus is really a swell guy, always expecting the best of folks, and is surprised and torn to learn that Sextus tried to kill him.

This production, too, used pretty minimal sets, basic shapes (well, except for maybe the flying saucer), and lighting that reminded me of film noir movies with its shadows and light. I really like the music, though I can't say any one part of it stands out. I suppose being sandwiched in between Cosi and Flute that, by comparison, it doesn't shine as bright as its neighbors in time. But I liked it, and would pay to see it live.

Pretty fun stuff, these Mozart operas.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Jelly Roll Morton collection

Terry Treachout had a good review of The Complete Library of Congress Recordings of jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton in the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 23. Unfortunately, it is not available online.

Here is an excerpt:
"When I was down on the Gulf Coast, in nineteen-four, I missed goin' to the St. Louis Exposition to get in a piano contest...."

To the jazz aficionado, those prefatory words, spoken in a careworn Creole accent, are as evocative of a lost world as "You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' but that ain't no matter." Jelly Roll Morton said them on May 23, 1938, sitting at a grand piano in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington, sipping whiskey and softly vamping away at a tune of his own composition called "Alabama Bound." Sitting nearby, discreetly manipulating two portable disc recorders, was Alan Lomax, a young musicologist employed by the Library of Congress who had had the brilliant idea of inviting Morton to talk about the origins of jazz.

Now Rounder Records has released Morton's recorded reminiscences in an unabridged form for the first time on an eight-CD set called "Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax." It is to jazz what the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is to American history—only more fun….

At $115 the collection is a bit pricy for me, but I'm hoping it will eventually show up at my local public library.
I have just two recordings by Morton, both off the Ken Burns Jazz collection: The Pearls and Dead Man Blues. And then there is probably his most famous composition - King Porter Stomp, which became a huge hit for Benny Goodman thanks to an excellent arrangement by Fletcher Henderson.

Friday, December 02, 2005

New Writer for T&V

There's a new, additional writer for this blog.

Sandy Rouse has agreed to contribute to Theme and Variations. Sandy lives in Newfane, Vermont (also the home town of mystery writer Archer Mayor), and has been involved in the arts for many years. This will be her debut in blogging.

She is probably a bit more qualified than the original two yahoos when it comes to writing about the arts, but don't let that turn you away; she's a very good writer.

Welcome, Sandy!