Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Who Puts the "Oh!" in Otello?

(reflections on the opera OTELLO, libretto by Arrigo Boito, music by Giussepi Verdi;  Met Opera HD broadcast Oct. 27, 2012: starring RenĂ©e Fleming, Johan Botha, Falk Struckmann.)

John Botha and Renee Fleming in Act One; Falk Struckmann in Jago's "Credo," Act Two.

Which is harder to believe: that Othello should, in just one afternoon, grow murderously jealous of angelic Desdemona; or that he ever loved her at all?  Yet
we do believe both propositions, against our better judgement, and we're moved to pity and terror by Shakespeare's Othello. When that happens during a performance of the opera Otello, is it because, or in spite of, the amendments of the librettist and composer?

Librettist Arrigo Boito telescopes Shakespeare's first couple of acts into just a few dozen lines of sung verse.  A composer himself, he minimizes words to maximize opportunities for his musical collaborator. I don't have the script in front of me, but the entire script for Act One goes something like this, minus repetitions and details:

CHORUS:  O, it's a terrible storm at sea. (Great storm music) We pray that our commander Otello will survive. (storm music subsides, and martial music begins)
OTELLO:  We defeated the Turks.  Now celebrate.  My captain Cassio is in charge. Come, Desdemona, let's go to bed! (she goes with him silently, smiling and beautiful)
JAGO:   (to Roderigo) If you want Desdemona, help me to disgrace young Cassio, whom Otello preferred for captain over me! I'll get him drunk.  You pick a fight with
CHORUS:  Let's drink. (rousing drinking song
CASSIO:  My head is spinning.
JAGO:  Have more!  (His music snakes down a chromatic scale in a strange braying way. It's wonderful and creepy.)
RODERIGO:  [Insult]!  (Roderigo's fight with CASSIO becomes a general riot)
OTELLO:   (storms on with Desdemona, in bed clothes) Stop!  Cassio, you're demoted. 
(Everyone leaves, and Cassio exits, ashamed, watched by Desdemona and Jago.  Desdemona remains for long duet with Otello)  Remember how we met, Desdemona?
DESDEMONA: I loved you for your adventures as slave and soldier. 
BOTH:  I love you.  I always will. 

Boito sets everything up in just those words, while Verdi can sweep us along with storm music, dance music, fight music, and this great love duet. It ended, if I heard it right, with the lovers chanting in something close to monotone, while a bass droned underneath, and the upper notes of the orchestra pulled farther upward, straining the chords to an uneasy effect as the lovers sing of their eternal devotion.

In the scenes that follow, Boito preserves swaths of Shakespeare's dialogue, but he hands Verdi and the singers a couple showstoppers that only opera could devise.  There's Jago's "Credo," when he snarls that he believes in a god of destruction, and after death?  "Nothing!"  The music (and singer Falk Struckmann) dismiss all notion of afterlife or meaning with a wave of music - a contemptuous gesture. 

The temptation of Otello is chilling and hilarious, too, as Jago disturbs the trusting Otello's faith with nothing more than hints, mostly echoes of Otello:  "What do you think?" asks the general.  Jago echoes, "Think, my Lord?"  Once, Otello even mimics Jago back at him, tune and all -- getting one of the few laughs in the show. 

There's a quartet, as Jago fights with Emilia on one side of the stage while Otello wonders if, being a black man and a foreigner, he doesn't understand these subtle Venetians.  Here, by skipping all of Shakespeare's Act One, scenes 1 and 2, Boito sacrifices one of Iago's most effective insinuating lines:  "She did betray her father, marrying you" [and may betray thee].  Johan Botho, in the title role, effectively communicated Otello's bewilderment and self-doubt here, allowing us some sympathy with him later.  Yes, he's stupidly convinced by a flimsy piece of "evidence" -- that damn handkerchief supposedly given to her supposed lover Cassio -- but he also feels as if his great love and trust have been betrayed by a cabal of "super-subtle Venetians" (as Shakespeare put it).

In Act Three, Boito includes the horrible moment when Otello seems to ask Desdemona's forgiveness: "Forgive me," he says, and the music softens as Desdemona approaches him, "I mistook you for that whore of Venice who deceived Otello." Following Shakespeare's "Willow Song," Desdemona sings "Ave Maria," beginning as a monotone chant over turbulent music, deepening into an aching, hopeless prayer.  Renee Fleming is a beautiful woman who projects intelligence and goodness, but it's Desdemona's own intelligence and innocent trusting courage that comes through, no matter who plays her. 

These characters, this situation, these emotions, all shot through with Jago's vicious creativity, constitute a loom where actors, directors, and composer Verdi can spin their magic.   It's an ugly story, hard to swallow, hard to watch, but somehow worth the discomfort. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

O Praise Hymn: King's College Sings "Best Loved Hymns"

(reflections on a recording by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge of "Best Loved Hymns" from The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church, selected and conducted by Stephen Cleobury. Notes by Cleobury and Richard Abram.  Issued by EMI recordings, 2001. Also, Vaughan Williams on Music, by David Manning. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, displayed on Google Books. (p. 32). Reflections on the Hymnbook itself.)

If director Stephen Cleobury had asked for my favorite hymns from the Episcopal Church's 1982 collection, my list would've matched the program for his CD of "Best Loved Hymns."  Unfamiliar to me when the hymnbook was new, some of these songs affect me now as old friends.  Hearing Cleobury's choir sing "The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended," its tune gently rocking up and down like a lullabye, I recall how singing it by candlelight at Sunday evensong brought serenity to this young teacher, who always came to the service anxious about Monday morning.  But there are other features of these songs to love, and perhaps I can help some hymno-skeptics to listen to them the way I do. 

First, however, we must acknowledge a cultural prejudice.  There's a presumption that fast music is "happy" and slow music must be "sad."  Our culture has forgotten how a deliberate tempo can express a wide range of emotions that aren't in the vocabularies of my seventh graders today.  Serenity, contentment, yearning, wistfulness, resolve, and reverence require explanation.  Unless the reader understands how music can be solemn without being sad, then the discussion has to stop here.

If you're still with me, you may already understand that hymns are not "slow" in a strict sense: they just lack the rhythm track that fills between beats in pop music.  For example, both Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and this recording's stately performance of Herbert Howells's "All My Hope on God is Founded" move at 120 beats per minute; Jackson merely squeezes more syllables into each measure.  Hymns are often much "faster" than pop music where chord changes are concerned. We  are used to pop songs that repeat bass lines every four measures under three chords, or even two chords. We should appreciate the frequent changes that Vaughan Williams makes in every measure of "Come Down O Love Divine," relaxing the tension at the end of each verse, as on the phrase, "Wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling."

If we think of melody as the lines of a drawing, then chord changes fill in color.  Herbert Howells (d. 1983) shifts harmonies frequently under his tune for "All My Hope on God is Founded," words by Seymour Bridges (d. 1930). He named his tune Michael, for his young son who died around the time of this song's composition in 1930.   (Tunes exist independently and are traditionally re-used for other words.  For example, the tune for "God Save the Queen" is used for "God Bless our Native Land" and "My Country 'tis of Thee").  Howells shifts to unexpected chords out of the home key while we sing that "change and chance" undermine our expectations,  and even "tower and temple fall to dust."  Howells' harmony comes back to the home key under the reassurances of the verses' final phrases: "Christ doth call / One and all; / Ye who follow shall not fall."  

Here, we should also appreciate the craftsmanship in the words of these hymns.  Notice, in the Howells, how the concluding clauses click in place with the added third rhyme: ...call - all - shall not fall.  This last line of all gives us a bonus with wordplay on "fall" and "follow."  An earlier verse makes a lovely theological point, too: "From His store / Evermore / New-born worlds rise and adore."  An alert choir director can find songs to relate to the readings for any Sunday -- even when the text is about Jesus as priest "like Melchizedek!"   The words often develop complex ideas in three or four verses, densely packed with meaning.

John Ireland (d. 1962) also uses harmony to paint such a rich text for "My Song is Love Unknown." The verses by Samuel Crossman (published 1664) reach their climaxes in lines about Christ's suffering, emphasized by inner rhyme:

...O, who am I
that for my sake,
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die? ...
is all their breath,
and for his death
they thirst and cry....

Here, as in Michael, the harmony unsettles us.  The hymn, in both words and music, expresses reverence and reassurance, tempered by resignation and regret. Happiness? Sadness? We're way beyond those categories.

We can also appreciate artistry in the melodies themselves.  The tune we know as "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" by Joachim Neander (d. 1680) is danceable in a vigorous 3/4 time.  Neander works variety into the melody, while still repeating enough to make the song "catchy."  The first line starts low and leaps up a fifth to "the almighty," slopes down in small steps and then up again in a "V" pattern. The second line repeats the pattern, but the third line inverts it, starting high and dropping down, then stepping up and down ( ^ ).   The step-by-step motion continues in the last line, sloping upward ( / ) before settling on the home note, right when words reassure us that God "sustaineth" or "doth befriend" us. 

There's a different way to balance repetition and variety in the lovely folk tune Slane, to which we sing the words "Be Thou My Vision."  There's a catchy little slide that we do going down on the word "my" (sung "my-y vision") and up on "o" (sung "o-o Lord").  That's the song's hook, giving us something familiar while the melody changes with each phrase. At "Thou my best thought," we get two of those little hooks in a row signalling the climax at our highest note ("Thou my-y be-est thought") before we settle down to where we started.  So the melody, prase by phrase, tends upward, never repeating before it relaxes at the end.  But we recognize the hook wherever it happens, and each phrase picks up where the one before leaves off, so the song has a unified feeling.  Reaching upward and upward, then falling like a sigh: it's a musical metaphor for yearning.

Some Episcopalians complain that the hymns "aren't familiar," but Vaughan Williams, writing in the preface to a hymn book of 1909, faced the same complaints.  He pointed out then that the "familiar" tunes hadn't been familiar for long, all being less than fifty years old. The program for this CD spans 400 years, so that we are hearing music that worshippers have sung all that time, with words that go back much further.  Here's something else to love, then: When we sing, we share "one body, one blood," and one voice, in time as well as in space.

Listening to the CD reveals something else to love.  Even at our thinnest, on bad days, our choir reminds me how these songs sound in halls such as King's College, where the sounds fly to every dark corner and glowing window of a vast space, and pauses bring the flying notes back down to human level. Reverb captures the feeling on CD, and I can't help but think both of God's transcendance and his immanence when I hear both the grandeur and the silences in these recordings.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Chet and Bernie Alone: A Fistful of Collars

(Reflection on A FISTFUL OF COLLARS, by Spencer Quinn. Atria Books, 2012.)

Bernie Little is a private eye, veteran, ex-cop, and dog owner; Chet is his partner, his good-natured and highly distractable chronicler, and his German shepherd.  They are the central figures in A Fistful of Collars, latest in the crime series by Spencer Quinn -- pseudonym for an author successful in another genre (but that's all I know) -- and, while the twists and turns of plot are interesting, it's still the company of the narrator that makes this book such a pleasure.

The plot here involves a macho Hollywood star named Thad Perry, filming a Western outside of Hollywood.  Bernie is hired by the Mayor to keep an eye on the notoriously irresponsible star.  Characters from earlier novels make memorable appearances, here:  Suzy the reporter, Leda the ex, and Charley the young son -- who "dies"  on camera for the corny Western in a scene that was, for me, most memorable in the novel.  When Bernie has to dogsit for an ailing neighbor, we finally get to meet Chet's best dog pal Iggy, who has always been seen through a pane of glass up to now.    

In this novel, though, the supporting cast seems more peripheral.  Breaking a pattern set in earlier installments, Quinn keeps focused on the central plot, and he keeps the two guys together.  It feels good.

Quinn manages to give us humor and pathos at the same time. Here's Chet's commentary about Bernie's reaction when Suzy moves away:
I moved closer to Bernie.  He gave me a nice pat. His gaze was still on the empty intersection down the street. I let that slip from my mind and just concentrated on the pat.  You can feel things in the hand of humans, things that are happening deep inside them. I felt what was happening inside Bernie.

The only unpleasant thing about the novel is that Quinn early on foreshadows a confrontation between Chet and a scary, much larger, canine.  I had this feeling of dread as I started each new chapter!  I'll just say, I finished the novel feeling great.  That's the great benefit from seeing the world through Chet's eyes.   

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Aurora Theatre's Intense Betrayal

Opening scene of "Betrayal" at the Aurora Theatre, from the theatre's Facebook page.
The Aurora Theatre north of Atlanta has just opened a run of Harold Pinter's 1977 play Betrayal.   The characters -- married couple Emma and Robert, and Robert's best friend Jerry, her lover -- can't always tell what the other characters are concealing, but we in the audience can. Pinter puts us in the know by presenting scenes from 1977 backwards to 1968, so that we can "fact check" characters' recollections.  The dramatic irony and the characters' second-guessing each other make for a funny and intense experience, as layers of emotion underlie every second.  Betrayal is so funny, but so intense, that my friend Susan and I were relieved that it lasted just 75 minutes.  

Pinter once distinguished two kinds of silence, the speechless kind, but also the kind that covers feelings by "a torrent of words."   For much more on Pinter's technique, see my blogpost "A Moment of Silence for Harold Pinter".  Here, I'll review particular's of Aurora Theatre's production.

We're treated to virtuoso acting, understated to give each nuance a highlight.  For example, in the opening scene, Tess Malis Kincaid ("Emma") and her real-life husband Mark Kincaid (as the ex-lover "Jerry") each has to repeat the line "How are you?" several times, during different "rounds" of dialogue -- the scene being structured like some martial arts match.  The first time, they ask, "So how are you?" to open the conversation.  It's old friends, meeting each other on uncertain terms, falling back on polite formulas.  Another time, it's a show of deeper concern.   Later, the question "How are you?" seems to be asking something more like, "How do you feel about us?"   It's a testing of the state of the old relationship.  

Mostly sitting at a cafe table, the actress worked the tiny space given her.  Her hands on the wine glass sometimes clutched, sometimes caressed, and sometimes explored the surface.   Her head bowed when Jerry turned to refill the glasses.  That's at the end of "round one," and she seemed to be struggling to find a way to communicate, or to discern, what she wanted from Jerry. But she faced him again, smiling.

For his part, Mark Kincaid's "Jerry" seemed to be keeping a safe distance from the fight, actually pushing his chair back from the table, smiling a lot.  It's only when Emma revealed that her husband had learned all about their old affair that Mark Kincaid became animated, a clue to where "Jerry's" strongest feelings and deepest vulnerability lie.

Later, with Jerry watching, Robert unleashes one of those "torrents of words" on Emma, and his words are weapons.   Director Freddie Ashley has staged this so that Anthony Rodriguez ("Robert" and also Aurora's Producing Artistic Director) commands stage center.  Jerry stands stage right, at Robert's back; drink in hand and smiling.  Emma sits on the far left end of the sofa, legs crossed, also drink in hand, smiling.  Interrupting a little dialogue between the men about who buys lunch after the next squash game, Emma suggests that she might come to watch and buy lunch for both.  Robert starts small -- "you have your game, then your shower, then your pint" -- and becomes increasingly animated as he develops his topic: "You've been at battle, you've been at it."   By the time he says that a man "doesn't want a woman in the locker room" or even "within a mile" of the squash game, Jerry and Emma are both receiving his barely-concealed hostility behind tumblers and their frozen smiles.  

We know what Robert is thinking:  his wife's lover has gall to come visiting them to flirt with her.  Emma is in agony.   At the start of this scene, when Robert called up to her to come on down, "Jerry's here," her response, off-stage, was, "Who?"  (after a pause, natch).   Meanwhile, Jerry is simply clueless.  Does he rise to the implied challenge to defend Emma's honor?   He fails to do so, and is out the door moments later.  For the audience, it's chilling and hilarious at the same time.  There's a coda:  In silence, Emma collapses, crying.  Robert slowly comes over to her, lays his hand on her shoulder -- comfort?  possession?  It's somehow both -- and they embrace.

The rest of the show is filled with so many moments similarly rich with nuance, that discussing them makes for great conversation hours and even days after seeing the show.  

We loved the set, by Isabel and Morley Curley-Clay.  At first glance, it's a high-ceilinged interior.  But on second look we see mismatched doors, window frames superimposed on mismatched windows, empty picture frames superimposed on others -- the effect being to show us several similar interior spaces superimposed on each other:  restaurants, a hotel room, and two families' living rooms.  Wall panels opened to admit sliding beds, sofas, and a wet bar.

The production as a whole, like Pinter's script, is elegant, understated, and efficient.