Posts Tagged ‘Leonard Bernstein’

Mozart and the intelligence of love

Monday, November 16th, 2015
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figaro

Opening night at the opera. (Photo: Elena Danielson)

Before I made the trek to Opera San Jose yesterday, a friend tipped me off that a line from Dante Alighieri opens one of the scenes in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro (read about the production here). This perfectly cut diamond of an opera has sometimes been compared to the Italian poet’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy; both oscillate between the highest and the lowest that the human species has to offer – from the supercelestial to the depraved. But did Mozart crib a line from Dante? Where?

He didn't mean to do it.

Did he crib from Dante?

Larry Hancock, the learned and amiable general director of the San Jose Opera, was equally mystified when I asked him at the Q&A session following his pre-show presentation. He told me to keep my ears open.

Well, an easy thing to do at an opera from one angle – but in the San Jose Opera’s excellent production, it was also easy to lose track of scholarship in the beauty of the music and the magic of this very well-matched cast of singers. There wasn’t a weak link in the long chain. So I forgot all about Dante.

By Act II, I was swept up in the Countess’s great self-pity aria (there’s always one in a Mozart opera), Susannah’s banter, and the smitten Cherubino as he began to sing the song he wrote for his Countess, Voi che sapete che cosa è amor. The supertitles rolled on the screen – “Ladies, you who know the intellect of love…,” or words to that effect. The text suddenly seemed very un-Mozartlike, and a frisson ran through me. I raised my pointed finger to the overhead screen in slow recognition, and it froze there in mid-air, till my discomfited companion jerked my hand down again.

Lorenzo_da_Ponte

Scandalous priest

I had been expecting a line from The Divine Comedy. Instead, of course, this is one of the most famous passages of La Vita Nuova, the work in which Dante describes his love for Beatrice Portinari, and his anguish at her death – as well a meditation on love as a transcendent force in our lives and as a poetic theme. “Ladies who have the intelligence of love,/I wish to speak to you about my lady…” (Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore, i’ vo’ con voi de la mia donna dire…)

Not dead on, but close enough, and certainly an Italian audience would recognize the homage even faster than I did.

I found Larry in a hallway during the intermission. How did this Viennese composer come to utter the words of Dante? He probably didn’t, he said. He suggested I look instead to the famous librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, a dissolute priest banished from Venice who eventually took to the pen for his living. And aren’t we grateful he did? He was the most celebrated librettist of his time – and he certainly would have known his Dante well, even if he didn’t take the poet’s sterner admonitions to heart.

rene-girard

He got it right.

I highly recommend this Marriage of Figaro, which continues through November 29, so you can pay a visit over the Thanksgiving over the weekend.

It was my first time attending an opera in about a decade. What inspired me to accept an invitation several weeks ago, during a time of very intense deadlines? It was the first opera I had ever attended way back in 1978 London, at the English National Opera, so it strikes a deep chord in me. More importantly, however, I recalled that René Girard said, “The Marriage of Figaro is, for me, the most mystical of all music.” No doubt he was moved by its recurring themes of escalating vengeance, sublime forgiveness, and finally, peace and reconciliation.

Little did I know I would be attending it the day after his funeral, and two days after a massacre in France. Elijah Ho noted in the San Jose Mercury:

On Opera San Jose’s Saturday night opening performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, French police stormed the Boulevard Beaumarchais of the 11th arrondissement in Paris, where but a few feet away, the Bataclan theater had become the site of unspeakable horrors. The boulevard, which leads directly to the Place de la Bastille, is named for the playwright on whose revolutionary work Mozart’s opera is based, one which prefigured the most famous storming in history. … In November 1963, Leonard Bernstein famously remarked after the assassination of President Kennedy: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Happy birthday, Richard Wilbur! The poet speaks of Candide, Russian poets, and meeting “the right girl”

Thursday, March 1st, 2012
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One of the pleasantest people I have ever met is Richard Wilbur, former U.S. poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer winner – a true gentleman, a great poet. So my bad that I almost overlooked his 91st birthday today. (I wrote about his 90th celebration a year ago here.)

Fortunately, Web of Stories kindly sent me a reminder that they have loads of video clips of the poet.

Here’s one where he describes his time at Amherst and meeting the love of his life, his wife Charlotte, who died in 2007. “I was terribly lucky she decided I would do,” he says with characteristic charm and humility:

Here’s another on his acquaintance with Russian poets, including Andrei and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Listen, in particular, to the tact and considerable diplomacy when, toward the end of the clip, he describes his interactions as he translated the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, who was notoriously tough on his translators:

Dick Wilbur was a brilliant translator of Molière – not shying away from the daunting challenge of the playwright’s rhymed couplets.  Here he’s talking about his collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman on the musical Candide. Said Hellman: “If he did alright with one witty Frenchman, he might be alright with Voltaire.”

I don’t know when this interview occurred, but his reference to his wife as still living tells us that it was at least four years ago.
Part Deux below, with two readings of two of his greatest poems.

Happy 600th birthday, Jeanne d’Arc!

Thursday, January 5th, 2012
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Almost all little girls have a love affair with horses. They also seem to go through a Joan of Arc phase, too. I was indifferent to the equestrian sports – but I read all the books in my library on the illiterate virgin from Domrémy who gave birth to a nation.

So I was pleased to learn in my online peregrinations that today is her 600th birthday.  How the experts have determined her birthday when we’re not even sure of the year she was born, I can’t remember, if I ever knew.  The picture at right was made about half a century after her death; the only contemporary portrait made of her has not survived.

She may be a powerful reminder that events can be successful without turning out quite as we imagined.  Charles VII, the king whose coronation she engineered, appears to have been a truly nasty piece of work.  Having recently attended the exhibition of The Mourners at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor, I enriched my appreciation for what a first-class creep he was:  “the mourners” adorn the tomb of John the Fearless, done in by the king-to-be in a particularly treacherous way.  Old habits die hard:  he did nothing more than a decade later to save his warrior and savior when she was captured by the Burgundians.  She burned at the stake in 1431.

We know her, not only as a warrior, patriot, and saint, but also as the heroine of two great plays:  Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, and Jean Anouilh‘s The Lark.

The most famous passage from Shaw’s play follows her agreement to sign a confession renouncing her “voices,” to live under permanent confinement.

“You think that life is nothing but not being dead? It is not the bread and water I fear. I can live on bread. It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again climb the hills. To make me breathe foul damp darkness, without these things I cannot live. And by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your council is of the devil.”

Below is a 1957 Hallmark video of the play, starring that remarkable and generally underrated actress Julie Harris as Joan and the better known, for different reasons, Boris Karloff as Pierre CauchonLillian Hellman made the English adaptation and Leonard Bernstein composed the incidental music. (Otherwise you could watch Carl Dreyer‘s reverential and acclaimed The Passion of Joan of Arc, which I have always found a little like watching paint dry. Guess I’m a lowbrow.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the whole Anouilh play, but it looks pretty good in the bits I’ve seen. You’ll have to skip through Hallmark’s 2-minute cheesy commercial at the beginning, and a very blurry video version – but Harris is worth it, I think.

Happy 90th birthday, Richard Wilbur!

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011
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Birthday boy (Photo: Stathis Orphanos)

Happy birthday, Richard Wilbur, on your 90th!  Dan Rifenburgh reminded me of the poet’s birthday on Facebook a few days ago, but he didn’t know whether he’d be spending in Cummington, Massachusetts, or Key West.  Either way, he will probably not be celebrating in NYC: I remember a characteristic passage in one his books where he described a brisk walk near his home with a guest: “But my friend from New York, an excellent abstract artist, walks through our Berkshire woods smoking Gauloises and talking of Berlin. It is too bad that he cannot be where he is, enjoying the glades and closures, the climbs, the descents, the flat stretches strewn with Canada Mayflower and wintergreen…”

Richard Woodward in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal called him “our finest living poet.”  Nice to know someone else shares that opinion — I voiced the same thought some months ago here. Here’s what Woodward said:

Richard Wilbur turns 90 on Tuesday, but it’s unlikely that many Americans will stop to pay tribute to our finest living poet. Despite having earned almost every literary award this country has to offer, including a pair of Pulitzers and Bollingens, as well as the title of U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987-88, he has never enjoyed a rapt general following.

I had dinner with Dick Wilbur and his wife Charlotte oh, maybe a decade ago in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  He was as genial as his reputation had suggested, and his obvious, abiding affection for his high school sweetheart, an effervescent and gregarious matron, was charming.  I never made it out for the Key West interview I had envisioned … perhaps there’s still time.

The poet-critic Randall Jarrell said Wilbur “obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing,” but his poems, since Charlotte’s death in 2007, have become increasingly death-haunted.

It’s unusual for poets to be productive so long — conventional wisdom is that they do their best work young, and “dry up” as Thom Gunn told me — but Anterooms: New Poems and Translations, is a marvel.  One poem, “A Measuring Worm,” describes a caterpillar climbing a window screen, hunching his back as he goes:

It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant

To warn of Last Things.
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,

And I too don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.

Woodward notes, “His productivity, never high to begin with, has slowed with age. He finishes poems at the rate that Antonio Stradivari constructed a violin. ‘I often don’t write more than a couple of lines in a day of, let’s say, six hours of staring at the sheet of paper,’ he told the Paris Review in 1977. “Composition for me is, externally at least, scarcely distinguishable from catatonia.”

David Orr in the New York Times writes of Anterooms that “it would be tempting to say that what we have here is a scanty manuscript that will nonetheless be extravagantly praised because its author is still deeply respected and, hey, isn’t it wonderful that he’s still making a go of it at his age? Tempting, but wrong. The better work in Anterooms, however limited in quantity, is as good as anything Wilbur has ever written, and upholds certain virtues other poets would do well to acknowledge, even if they travel roads different from the relatively straight one Wilbur has followed.” He concludes:

“More than 50 years ago, Randall Jarrell claimed that as a poet, Wilbur ‘never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.’ The observation is invariably quoted whenever Wilbur gets reviewed (far be it from me to break the chain). But to write convincingly about death — and also, as Wilbur has increasingly done, about grief — isn’t a matter of ‘going’ anywhere. It’s a matter of remaining poised in the face of a vast and freezing indifference. And while the strong, spare poems here are unlikely to strike many readers as the illustrious pronouncements of a Grand Old Man — the kind of figure Jarrell had in mind — they are wholly successful in meeting the darkest of subjects with their own quiet light. Which is, surely, a far grander thing.”

Anterooms includes some of two translations of poems by Joseph Brodsky (I still think his translations of J.B. are the best) one poem by Stéphane Mallarmé and an unpublished poem by Paul Verlaine.  Wilbur has always had a affinity for French (his verse translations of Molière are unmatched) — and so was the perfect lyricist for Leonard Bernstein‘s Candide, in the spirit of Voltaire. Composer Stephen Sondheim called Wilbur’s lyrics “the most scintillating set of songs yet written for the musical theater.”  I still occasionally find myself, on a sunny day, humming —

What a day! What a day!
For an auto-da-fé!

See the Lincoln Center’s 1986 version below (or for a real treat, check out Kristin Chenoweth in Candide on youtube).

Postscript: Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence celebrates the birthday here.