January 14, 2018

Nighty-night: Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

“I love the silent hour of night, For blissful dreams may then arise, Revealing to my charmed sight What may not bless my waking eyes.” (Anne Brontë)

“And sleep, that sometime shuts up sorrow's eye, Steal me awhile from mine own company.” (William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

“Dreaming gives a chance for your subconscious mind to work when your conscious mind is happily asleep. If I don’t sleep, I find that in the morning I am unprepared for my next day’s work… but dreams release many things which one thinks had better not be released.” (Benjamin Britten)

"Asleep" (Rupert Bunny)
Benjamin Britten joked that he chose Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the 1960
Aldeburgh Festival because it came with a ready-made libretto. It's funny because, in reality, transforming an Elizabethan play into a workable libretto is a complex task.

The truth is that, given Britten's track record of subject material, Midsummer was an entirely predictable choice; one that fit him to a T. Browse through the composer's catalogue of recent works, and one theme stands out:

The night.

Night time, with its companion themes of sleep and dreams, appears to have occupied a position somewhere between fascination and obsession with Benjamin Britten. Midsummer is the fourth major work written within a handful of years to deal with the subject, the other three being:
  • The Serenade, Op. 31 for tenor, horn and strings (1943). This is a cycle of six poems dealing with both romantic and disturbing aspects of the night by prominent British poets, framed by a prologue and epilogue for solo horn. The finale, a setting of an ode by Keats, clearly relates sleep with death, as indicated in the opening lines:
O soft embalmer of the still midnight! Shutting with careful fingers and benign Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light, Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;

  • The opera The Turn of the Screw (1954) is a ghost story about a malevolent spirit, Peter Quint, who strives to possess the soul of a child named Miles. At one point, Quint calls out to Miles:

I am the hidden life that stirs
When the candle is out;
Upstairs and down, the footsteps
barely heard.
The unknown gesture, and the soft,
persistent word,
The long sighing light of the
night-winged bird.

  • Britten's Nocturne, Op. 60 (1958) is another song-cycle for tenor voice with chamber instrumental accompaniment. Like the Serenade, it consists of settings of poems by distinguished British poets exploring the by-now familiar theme of nocturnal musings. It ends with a sonnet of Shakespeare full of yearning and desire:
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Britten's leanings toward night time, sleep and dreams affects his approach to the play. He dispenses with Shakespeare's first act, the scenes in which we meet the three groups of human characters (nobles, lovers and tradesmen) in the "wide-awake" real world of Athens. Instead, the composer chooses to have the curtain rise on those supernatural beings who dispense spells while we sleep, the fairies. Last to appear in the play,. Oberon, Tytania and their fairy retinue are the first on stage in the opera; we are immediately plunged into the eerily sleepy ambience of the woods, where drowsy young people hide from reality to resolve their various issues and conflicts.

This is where our idiom "Let me sleep on it" comes from; as Benjamin Britten posits in his quote at the top of this post, sleep is where our subconscious continues to work on our problems while we yield to the so-called REM stage of deep sleep. We've all experienced it.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is an amusing object lesson on the mysterious curative and healing powers of sleep.

December 21, 2017

How Cole Porter drew on Robert Schumann in "Kiss Me, Kate"

Virgnia Opera recently finished a seven-performance run of Puccini's Girl of the Golden West. It's no secret that a phrase in one of the opera's tenor solos seems to have been cloned in "Music of the Night", a big number in Lloyd-Webber's music theater behemoth, Phantom of the Opera.

Music history is filled with examples of melodies by one composer being duplicated by another. It seems to me there are three basic categories of such cloning:
Schumann: Küss mich, Kate!
  1. Outright plagiarism - always a taboo! 
  2. A deliberate homage, often executed with ironic intent; and
  3. An unintentional accidental "echoing". In this case, a composer might simply be undisciplined, failing to fully "vet" his inspiration to ensure that it's truly original. We musicians hear tens of millions of notes and thousands of musical phrases as we become familiar with a large body of compositions. They can influence the creative juices in ways not always registering in the conscious mind.
As an example I noticed only recently, let's consider the song "So in love" from the classic Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate.

I think it's highly possible - even likely - that Porter was familiar with Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe and based the climactic phrase of "So in love" with a corresponding phrase from "Ich grolle nicht".

Here are the two passages in question.
First, the Schumann:
 Now, the Porter song:

There is an obvious connection the two; the phrase beginning "Decieve me, Desert me" in Porter is a virtual twin of the Schumann beginning at bar 23. In both, the vocal line climbs via a sequence of three phrases based on upward leaps of a perfect fifth, culminating with a dramatic high note. At that point, even the harmonization seems "suspiciously" familiar to Schumannites.

Would Porter have manufactured the same passage had "Ich grolle nicht" never been written?

Doubtful, says I.

So into which of my three categories would this particular bit of "cloning" fall: plagiarism, homage, or happy accident? A comparison of the two texts being set may indicate an homage.

In the phrase in question, the unhappy lover of Schumann's song says:
"I saw you truly in my dreams, and saw the night in your heart's cavity."
That seems fairly close to the complaint of Porter's character, who has been taunted, hurt, deceived and deserted. Takes a big old night-filled heart to do all that!

Finally, recall that Cole Porter was a cultured, classically-trained musician who played both violin and piano as a boy growing up in Indiana. It's a safe bet he had at least a nodding acquaintance with the great masters, Schumann included.

I find this kind of analysis interesting - obviously! I hope you do as well, but if not -


November 27, 2017

Let us now tell of sucky Thanksgivings Past

Thanksgiving Feast, 1973. Not pictured: yogurt

How was your Thanksgiving? Killer? Hope so. Mine was fine, if you don't count two 14-hour drives in the space of five days: Virginia to Illinois and back again. But the food was great, including a bunch of miniature pies in four different varieties.

I love pie. (Pro tip on whipped cream: a bit of confectioner's sugar and a dollop of rye whiskey added to the cream during whipping results in something AMAZING.)

Oh, and always spatchcock your turkey, people. It comes out moist and the cooking time is reduced to a fraction of what your parents experienced.

HOWEVER: don't we all have sad little stories of truly lame & sucky holidays in our pasts? Of course we do. So I will now relate two of mine for your, um, amusement. (One hopes.) They're both from my long-ago student days.

My undergraduate years were spent in Bloomington Indiana, where I majored in piano at what is now called the Jacobs School of Music at IU. Normally I'd have be-bopped up I-65 to my home in Evanston IL for Thanksgiving, but this particular year I had a junior recital looming; I really needed to stay and get some good practicing done.

That wasn't too dreary from my point of view; I'm a classic introvert anyway, so I was sort of looking forward to an empty apartment sans three roommates and a nearly-deserted Music Building. My folks had made sure I had the funds to see me through the break. "Ah!" I thought, "I can go to one of the town's really nice restaurants and order anything I want! Woo-hoo!"

Thanksgiving Thursday arrived. I hiked the few blocks from my apartment to the town square that is Bloomington's "downtown". The dining establishment I had in mind was Sully's Oaken Bucket. In the 70's it was one of those places a young man might take a co-ed on a fancy date. (I looked it up just now - it no longer exists.)

It was closed.

EVERY RESTAURANT IN TOWN WAS CLOSED. Even the burger joints. Geez, Bloomington, don't the actual residents ever eat out? This struck me then as infuriatingly irrational. It still does!

I walked and walked. Bloomington was suddenly a forbidding ghost town. No fancy dinner for me!

Well, the grocery store was open for business. Okay; I would head there then, and get ANYTHING I WANTED.... woo-hoo...

By now, however, the combination of hunger, frustration, disappointment and growing fatigue had put me in a bit of a mood. A little sour, a little impatient. (In my family, we refer to this state of mind as "the can't-help-its".)

I wandered up and down the aisles. Nothing looked good. Back in those now-distant days, grocery stores didn't have the artisanal gourmet items or the assortment of hot convenience foods that are commonplace today in our Age of the Foodie. No rotisserie chickens, no salad bar, and so on.

What to get, what to buy, what to eat?
Canned beef stew? Yuck
A "Swanson frozen TV dinner"? Yuck (Marie Callender and her ilk were unknown.)
Baloney and bread? How festive.
Ground beef? Oh sure, let me whip up a meatloaf. NOPE.

I'll tell you what my Thanksgiving dinner consisted of in the end.
Two cartons of cherry yogurt and a box of Mrs. Paul's frozen onion rings.


Jump forward in time to 1978. I had left Indiana with a Bachelor's and a Master's in my pocket to begin another academic adventure in pursuit of the D.M. in piano at Northwestern in my hometown of Evanston. Also, I was a newlywed, in such financial straits that we couldn't afford to take the holiday off. So on a frigid Thanksgiving morning I left our tiny apartment in Rogers Park, hopped on the El and made my way to the Burger King across the street from the Music Building.

During my employment there, I did a little of everything:
I worked the fries and drinks station;
I was in charge of the milkshake machine (we shall not speak of the time I filled it, turned it on, and forgot to attach the turning blades, resulting in a giant frozen block instead of a creamy liquid...)
I made the burgers. NOTE: in case you didn't know, at Burger King ketchup and mayonnaise are required as a matter of policy to be applied in neat little spirals, starting from the center of the burger and working outward. The trouble comes during the lunch rush, when making neat little spirals takes too long, in which case the worker splootches the crap on the meat like an assassin spraying bullets into a crowd.
I even drove all over Evanston one day buying hamburger buns at supermarkets because we ran out. The manager had forgotten to re-order them.
And I worked as cashier.

On this holiday, I was up front, taking orders from the public. I was expecting a slow, easy day with little traffic. So it was surprising and, yes, a little depressing that all my regulars came in as usual.

If you've ever worked in a fast-food joint, you know that you see the same faces popping up on a consistent basis. Surely, I thought, they're all at Grandma's house watching football, right?

Mais non, mes amis.

In they came, one after another, right at the usual time. I especially remember a tall dude with a crew cut and a pasty white complexion. Every SINGLE day he came in and ordered the SAME thing: two double Whoppers, plain (OMG) with two cartons of milk.

Up to the counter he came, his pale unshaven face betraying no holiday cheer. He ordered two double Whoppers, plain, and two cartons of milk.

As I made change, I was thinking, "Dude - put some cheese and onions on it! Get some onion rings! GET A DAMN APPLE PIE, IT'S FREAKING THANKSGIVING!"

But the customer is always right, so I held my peace. I guess he enjoyed them; I mean, he wouldn't keep getting them if he didn't enjoy them, right?

And I hope you enjoyed whatever you ate, even if you're only now crawling out of that food coma.

November 18, 2017

My take on Thomas Adès's "The Exterminating Angel"

View of the screen at the Hampton VA AMC 24
It's a crisp fall afternoon in Newport News Virginia. No housework or football or hiking with Joy the Friendly Beagle this afternoon; I plunked down my $24.50 at a local Cineplex to see Thomas Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel in a live HD transmission from the Metropolitan Opera.

I have never seen the Luis Buñuel film on which the opera is based, though I went so far as to read a few reviews of it. Roger Ebert's 1968 review was especially helpful in conveying the surreal elements of Buñuel's vision. On the other hand, I mostly stayed away from reviews of the opera, wishing to let the music and the performances come at me without any pre-conceptions.

But yes, I had heard about that high A... I guess it's a good thing when late-night comics (Seth Meyers, in this case) talk about opera sopranos and the notes they sing.

The emitter (emittress?) of said high A, of course, is the brilliant coloratura Audrey Luna. She knocked me OUT with her sassy, beautifully sung Zerbinetta in Virginia Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos in 2014. Nominally "friends" on Facebook, it's been fun to watch her career really take off in a big way.

So I was curious to see Ms. Luna do a real "star turn" on the Met stage, but even more curious to see if the opera would strike me as the sensational triumph it's been declared in the press.

SO: my thoughts.

My first action upon getting back home was to open my laptop and tweet a question to Damon Lindelof.

Lindelof, you'll recall, was one of the creators and producers of the TV series Lost. (No, by the way: the final episode didn't bother me that much. I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. It was a very fun show.)

I tweeted him to ask if, just possibly, Lost was also based on The Exterminating Angel. Seeing the operatic version really brought to mind several elements of the show.
  • Both the opera and the series feature a large ensemble cast of individuals who are trapped; mysteriously unable to leave the place in which they find themselves.
  • The supernatural elements of both are remarkably similar! Wasn't there a random bear in Lost? Well, that bear got himself another gig in the opera. Some sheep also do cameos.
  • In both, civilized people are more or less deconstructed, devolving to mental instability or being reduced to primitive survival skills. Instead of foraging and hunting on a tropical island for provisions, the men in Angel hammer through the floor to create a fountain of cold water from the water pipes; later they slaughter and cook a sheep.
  • The endings of both Lost and Angel, while enigmatic, both suggest that the characters are dead, though the outlook for the opera folk is assuredly bleaker, lacking the warm-fuzzy aspect of a family reunion on their way to Heaven in Lost.
Commonality with Lindelof's mystery island aside, I found Angel to be a very engaging piece of theater. It shares an advantage enjoyed by Philip Glass's Orphée; namely, a superior screenplay as source material.

The only challenging aspect of Adès’s musical language is in his approach to vocal writing. ALL the principals sing continuously in the upper regions of their ranges. And when I say "upper", ..... I mean UPPER! It's not just Ms. Luna who is called upon to handle a satanically difficult tessitura; it's everyone on stage, even the boy soprano outside the mansion who peeps out repeated high notes calling for his mother. It would seem to be a cruel and unusual task for the artists, though the ones interviewed at intermission gamely avowed that, under the composer's coaching, they could manage it. In fact, none of them seemed to this listener to be tiring towards the end. Everyone projected enough of the illusion of effortlessness to prevent the afternoon from becoming trying, as it certainly could be with lesser talent. (I recall seeing the HD transmission of Glass's Satyagraha years ago. In that performance, the artists really struggled with a challenging tessitura, enough to leave me feeling drained with empathetic weariness by the end.)

A few thoughts on this.

While at first, the seeming randomness of the high-flying vocal writing worried me ("Oh, THIS is gonna get old"), I warmed to it as the drama unfolded. Like all good operatic composers, Adès writes music that informs the listener; in this case, the over-the-top vocal histrionics succeed in depicting the pathologies of the characters, as well as the intense claustrophobia of their joint predicament.

It worked.

HOWEVER, while I was engaged, entertained, and "into" the drama (I truly wanted to know how it would end!), I'm not sure that the piece will reward repeated hearings, especially if audio only, without the staging and visual effects.

That many soprano voices singing at their stratospheric limits all the time, at the expense of the intelligibility of the lyrics, is tiring on the ear. I also wonder, because I have no idea, how many living sopranos could navigate the punishing role of Leticia, which was written with Ms. Luna's instrument in mind. There may be more Isoldes and Turandots walking the earth today than potential Leticias. This role makes Zerbinetta sound like Zerlina. Hoo-boy!

I gives high marks to the orchestration; the variety and aptness of the orchestral colors Adès has at his command is a key element to the powerful effect of his opera. Nothing but praise; he's a master with a master's instinct for narrating the action via instrumental music.

I'm glad I went. I'm glad my ears adjusted to the vocal writing enough to allow me to appreciate the composer's achievement.

Would I want to see it again? Maybe. Not for a while, though. Now I want to see the film!

November 13, 2017

Puccini's "Girl": Three operas in one act!

Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato,
the original Minnie and Rance
Milton Berle, the famous mid-20th century practitioner and scholar of comedy, once declared that there are three basic jokes. All jokes, he maintained, were variations of one of those seminal three.

Perhaps it works that way with story-telling as well; specifically, perhaps it works that way for opera libretti. At the very least, certain characters and certain scenarios appear to pop up in the repertoire time and again:
  • wily servants outwitting their pompous masters (Thanks, commedia dell'arte!)
  • tales of vengeance in which both the avenger and his/her target come to ruin
and so on. But since Virginia Opera is currently mounting Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West, I'll focus on that with a startling observation.

The formal structure of act II of Girl combines the structures of the second acts of Puccini's two previous operas: Madama Butterfly and Tosca.

That's odd, seeing as how the composer's options were limited. After all, he was more or less bound by the nature of his source material, David Belasco's 1905 Broadway play. Yet, the similarities with the other operas are clearly present. Here's what I mean.

  • Act II of Butterfly begins with Suzuki, a mezzo-soprano maid, intoning a Buddhist prayer with a monotonous vocal line as the orchestra toggles back and forth in whole steps.
  • Act II of Girl opens with Wowkle, a mezzo-soprano maid, intoning a lullaby with a monotonous vocal line that toggles back and forth in whole steps.
  • Cio-cio-san, having spotted Pinkerton's ship in the harbor, is full of joyous anticipation of his return. She and Suzuki prepare for his arrival by decorating their little house with flower petals.But when Pinkerton arrives, it's a crushing disappointment: he's married to another woman.
  • Minnie, having invited Dick Johnson to her cabin, is full of joyous anticipation. She and Wowkle prepare for his arrival by setting out cookies and cream. But when Dick arrives, it's a crushing disappointment: Minnie learns that another woman has been his lover. (She also learns that he's a criminal, but it's the revelation of Mexican harlot Nina Micheltorena that breaks her heart.)
  • In Tosca, Baron Scarpia (the baritone, who is an officer of the law) lusts after Tosca, but she rejects his advances.
  • In Girl, Jack Rance (the baritone, who is an officer of the law) lusts after Minnie, but she rejects his advances.
  • Scarpia physically injures Cavaradossi (Tosca's lover) by subjecting him to torture
  • Rance physically injures Johnson by shooting him.
  • Tosca attempts to save her lover's life by negotiating a transaction with Scarpia: she will yield her body to him in exchange for Cavaradossi's life
  • Minnie attempts to save her lover's life by negotiating a transaction with Rance via a game of poker. If he wins, she will yield her body to him - as well as turning over Johnson to him.
Weird, isn't it? Obviously, the question arises: was Puccini aware of these parallels? Well, he wasn't an idiot; I don't see how could have failed to make the connection. That leads to the next question: was this a deliberate ploy? In other words, did the composer think "Hey, these plot twists were dynamite in the last two shows; I think I'll recycle 'em for this one"?

That's trickier. Puccini's dead; I can't interview him to confirm his thinking. And nothing in his published letters discusses these plot connections.

Again, the entire sequence of baritone-injures-lover-leading-lady-offers-body-to-save-him is dictated by Belasco's melodrama.

This is why I believe there are certain seminal essential plots in story-telling that recur over and over. Puccini may simply have happened to re-utilize these particular elements in close proximity.

Finally, lest you think I have failed to notice it, we must differentiate one important distinction between Scarpia and Rance: Scarpia was a liar who did NOT keep his end of Tosca's bargain. Whatever we think of Sheriff Rance, he at least had enough of a code of honor to keep his promise. The result? The rare Italian operatic drama in which no one dies! O meraviglia! O gioia! Addio, California!

November 4, 2017

Puccini's Minnie: a different kind of diva

Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson:
Conflict begets immortality
As pointed out in last week's post, the Act I orchestral prelude to Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West functions as a thumbnail of the entire opera. Two contrasting themes (A and B) are heard twice each. A is meant to depict the harsh physical environment of the California wilderness; the chaos of rough-and-ready frontier justice in which men were lynched without due process; and (in general terms) sin and spiritual darkness. B, on the other hand, stands for order, hope and redemption. The prelude ends with the theme of Ramerrez.

What we're meant to infer is this: the opera's focus will be on the redemption of Ramerrez, whose "secret identity" is the American Dick Johnson, via the love of a virtuous woman, namely Minnie (the "Girl" of the title). The implied duality of the A and B themes define Ramerrez, as we shall see. The result is a curious musical imbalance in the treatment of the two main characters.

Operatic music is at its most compelling and memorable when its characters are facing some sort of adversity. They must be tortured; desperate; conflicted - THAT'S the soil from which musical immortality blossoms.

With this in mind, it's apparent that, while Minnie is in several respects a great role, the unusual nature of her character deprives her of great arias. Puccini had simply never created a character like Minnie before. (Yes, I know, she was "created" by David Belasco. I mean, of course, Minnie as a musical "creation".) Think about it:
  • Manon Lescaut was deeply conflicted between her love for a poor boy and her desire for a life of wealth and privilege. She is assigned two sure-fire applause-getting arias: "In quelle trine morbide", and her death scene, "Sola, perduta, abbandonata".
  • Mimi was dying; doomed by tuberculosis. Her beloved arias include "Mi chiamono Mimi" and "Addio senza rancor" Big ovations are standard.
  • Tosca was tormented by pathological jealousy and a hair-trigger temper. Audiences eat up her great outpouring of torment, "Vissi d'arte".
  • Cio-cio-san was rejected by her family and abandoned by her husband; even people who don't care much about opera know "Un bel di".
Minnie, on the other hand, is a big, healthy, happy American tomboy. Minnie's "as corny as Kansas in August", Minnie's "as normal as blueberry pie". And this affects her solos. 

Understand me: Minnie doesn't lack for great vocal moments or compelling dramatic moments. But her two solos are "Laggiu nel Soledad" in Act I and "Oh se sapeste" in Act II.

Ever heard of those? Unless you're a true opera maven, probably not. And these solos have no life on the concert or recital stage; they are only heard in the context of a complete production of the opera. The issue here is two-fold: 
  1. Minnie isn't conflicted. The first aria is a warm reminiscence of her parents' happy marriage; the second aria is a rhapsodic description of her happy (there's that word again...) life in the mountains with her pony and fields of flowers, etc. etc. The arias are charming; well-crafted; pleasing; even beautiful. But they are NOT the kind of material that produces gooseflesh or tears or the lump in the throat.
  2. Puccini had been studying Wagner and Richard Strauss in recent years, particularly Parsifal and Salome. Their influence is strongly heard in Girl of the Golden West. Minnie's arias are not set-pieces designed to elicit an ovation from the audience. Unlike "Vissi d'arte", they have no traditional structure like verse-refrain or ABA, providing listeners with repeated, recognizable tunes. And they lack a "button" at the end; indeed, like his German models, Puccini took care to see that all solos are immediately followed by dialogue, snuffing out the opportunity for an ovation. Minnie also seems to echo the persona of several Wagnerian heroines beginning with Senta: the "Eternal Feminine" who provides redemption to a hero. 
But don't feel sorry for this gun-totin', whiskey-drinkin' card-playin' gal. The role rises to its own kind of heights, both vocal and dramatic:
  • The love duet with Johnson in Act II is the stuff dear to a Puccini-lover's heart;
  • The end of Act II, from the wounding of Ramerrez through the poker game, calls for acting chops of Meryl Streep dimensions. Minnie cannot stand in place and warble prettily! This scene demands an actress who will commit to a roller-coaster of larger-than-life emotional states; an actress who will "go for it".
  • Finally, the Act III scene in which Minnie pleads for her lover's life is a fabulous solo with chorus that rises to an impressive climax. It's just that this material relies on the backdrop of the miners and cannot be excised out of the complete opera for concert performance.
If it's compelling, passionate solos you want, solos reflecting drama born of conflict and torment, then I refer you to our hero, Ramerrez/Dick. He's a thief, but comes to feel ashamed of his past. In addition, he embodies the racial tensions that beset Gold Rush country in the late 1840's following the end of the Mexican-American war. He has a dual identity: Mexican and American, each struggling to dominate. His passion and shame and conflicted nature is transmitted viscerally in Act I's "Quello che tacete"; his confessional monologue of Act II; and his famous aria "Ch'ella mi creda" in Act III. That aria, by the way, is often heard in recital and concert; it's a retro stand-alone show-piece.

Minnie's moments of desperation are situational and temporary; they aren't an inherent, organic element of her personality. Dick is the character who is a "hot mess"; accordingly, his are the solos that generate heat. 

Finally, take note of the opposing directions of the two character arcs:
  • Dick Johnson is on an ascending spiritual journey. As the scenes unfold, he becomes more and more virtuous;
  • Minnie, on the other hand, gradually descends from her original plateau of high moral virtue. This all-American girl, a Bible teacher who has never been kissed, hides a criminal from the posse seeking to bring him to justice. She lies to the Sheriff repeatedly to protect that criminal. And, worst of all, she cheats at cards to gain his safety, knowing that such cheating is a capital offense in her tight-knit community. She is LOSING virtue simultaneously with Dick's steady moral GAIN. 
And you and I root for her! What a girl.....

October 29, 2017

Two "Golden West" motifs; one born of the Gold Rush

Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West opens with a big orchestral flourish leading to a sustained chord. The chord is harmonically unstable; it doesn't establish a key. It's followed by a sequence in which that same chord crashes along in descending motion:
This passage is immediately followed by the same three bars transposed a fourth lower, further muddying any sense of tonality. The effect?


And that is precisely what the composer intends. These chaotic, tonally unhinged chords, the beginning of a seventy-second orchestral prelude, form one of the principal motifs in the opera, a motif that will be heard throughout the drama. Puccini crafted it to convey a sense of the untamed wilderness in which he set his opera: the mountainous region of the California Gold Rush.

As mentioned in last week's post, the men who came to the California territory in 1848, lured by reports of gold nuggets just waiting to be picked up out of riverbeds, faced an arduous and lonely existence. With no transcontinental railway, it could take months of perilous journeying to arrive. The recent Mexican-American War left a simmering stew of racial tensions in an uneasy society of Americans, Mexicans and Native American tribesmen. Law and order was of the rough-and-ready variety; we've all seen Westerns depicting claim-jumpers and thieves with "gold fever" (a term employed by Sheriff Jack Rance in the opera). And the weather was not the balmy paradise of Southern California; the blizzard in Puccini's second act is no exaggeration. To make things worse, once a gold miner made it to Gold Country, he was pretty much stuck there indefinitely, Fine if he had a profitable claim, tedious if he, like many, only broke even, and a likely death sentence for those who lost money.

Everything described in the paragraph above is what Puccini meant in those opening bars. In them, we hear the howling of mountain storms, the ruggedness of the terrain, the chaos of lawlessness and even the isolation and loneliness of the men. For example, the orchestra quietly murmurs the motif when Jim Larkens breaks down, sobbing that he wants to leave and go home in Act 1.

But, as they say on late-night infomercials, "that's not all"!

Puccini also extends its meaning to include the spiritual chaos of the human heart. Thus, we hear it when Minnie, teaching a lesson on Psalm 51, explains to her "ragazzi" that no sinner is beyond redemption. We hear it again when, in Act II, Minnie allows Dick Johnson to be the first man to kiss her, the motif in this case describing Minnie as she gives in to the emotional "chaos" of her first romance as well as Dick's awareness that he is living a lie and thus unworthy of her.

But back to our example! In the prelude, the chaos/wilderness motif is immediately followed by another motif. This one is the opposite both in directionality and implied meaning. Ascending higher and higher, it stands for order in place of chaos and redemption in place of spiritual chaos (or, in Dick's case, his guilt and sin).

This motif, too, will be heard continually in the opera, the yang to the earlier motif's yin. Notably, Dick will sing it when making his confession to Minnie in Act II; the miners and Minnie will sing it as they capitulate to Minnie as she pleads for Dick's life in the opera's final scene.

The Prelude states both motifs in succession twice before concluding with a new idea; a jazzy latin dance rhythm:
This, it will become clear, is the theme of Dick's alter ego, the bandit Ramerrez. Thus, the Act I prelude becomes a sort of thumbnail summary of the entire work, making it clear that the focus of The Girl of the Golden West will be Johnson's redemption and the resolution of his dual nature.

As we'll observe in my next post, this will heavily shape the nature of the vocal writing in Puccini's American opera and how audiences have come to perceive the two main characters.