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Florentine Opera Company Blog

Eric Einhorn is the stage director for the Florentine Opera’s new production of Julius Caesar.

“…we are the same people our ancestors were, and our descendants are going to face a lot of the same situations we do.”

-Kage Baker

Handel was a master dramatist. Even within the rigid form of opera seria, he was able to create rich worlds inhabited by incredibly dimensional characters, Julius
Caesar being no exception. Within the framework of a very familiar slice of history, Handel paints vivid portraits of people experiencing love, triumph, deception,
and loss. What makes Handel’s opera great, and has contributed to its 300+ year longevity, is its honest portrayal of the universality and timelessness of the human
experience. Handel gives the audience an opportunity to connect with the deepest emotions of each character, whether that character is a Roman general, an Egyptian
queen, or a frightened adolescent.

That emotional connection is only possible through clear storytelling on stage. To begin that process, the design team and I searched for a visual world that would
direct the focus more keenly onto the characters. Setting the opera in ancient Egypt, while appropriate to the story, creates a visual distance and an obstacle to
emotional connection. More contemporary, recognizable costume silhouettes allow us to move quickly from “Who are these people?” to “What are these people feeling?”

Specific libretto text cannot be ignored, however, and a fair amount of the drama revolves around the nationalistic tension between the Romans and the Egyptians.
In trying to reconcile this with our desire for a more contemporary setting, Mussolini and the Italian occupation of Libya in the early 20th jumping-off point. Mussolini’s
desire to expand the “Italian empire” creates an incredibly strong link to Julius Caesar. The silhouettes of this time period are then placed against a set that beautifully
evokes the simple, yet ever-changing landscape of the Egyptian desert.

Rather than adding any political commentary to the narrative, the setting of this production is meant only as an entry point into Handel’s complex characters. All people in all periods of history experience
love and loss, triumph and defeat, and it is through Handel’s sublime treatment of these characters that we experience a catharsis.

 

November 6, 2013

Pablo Siqueiros: An Interview with our Studio Artist

by William Florescu, General Director

baritone, Pablo Siqueiros is a 2013/14 Florentine Opera Studio Artist. Mr. Siqueiros will perform the role of Baron Doulphol in La Traviata Nov. 8 & 10 at the Marcus Center, and will be featured in the Florentine Opera @The Center Series in Riverwest.

1. What made you first get interested in Opera? It sort of just happened while I was pursuing my undergraduate degree in Music Education. Already 22 years old when I transferred to San Diego State University, my intent was to become a choral director, but as a requirement for my major I had to begin taking classical voice lessons. During my lessons I began to explore art song and operatic repertoire and began to get involved with the school productions a year later. After my first public performance I knew opera was where I belonged.

2. Who is your favorite Opera Singer now? Famous historical singer (i.e. Caruso)? It’s so difficult to pick just one, but if I had to, I would say Mariusz Kwiecien. He is a very exciting performer and has a powerhouse voice. As far as historical singers, I really enjoy listening to Franco Corelli.

3. Aside from Opera, what is the music you like to listen to the most? I listen to some acoustic folk music, mainly to keep my mind from working on opera when I’m not in rehearsals.

4. Besides singing, do you play an instrument? I took piano courses in college as part of a requirement for the major, but I can’t say that I’m as proficient at it as I would like to be.

5. If you weren’t going to be a singer, what do you think you would do professionally? I think I might have pursued a career in graphic design, maybe interior design. They’re both fields I’ve always had an interest in and had a knack for, but a lack in formal training in them has kept me from making it a career choice.

6. So, what do you think of Milwaukee so far? Although I have only seen a very small portion of what Milwaukee has to offer, it feels like a great city that is rich in culture and proud of its unique attributes.

7. What would you say to someone who had never been to an opera, to convince them to try it? I would say that regardless of what language the opera is in, it speaks a universal language. Opera is not casual and it won’t be about everyday life, like anything you see on television. Opera takes the most emotional, terrifying, elated, mournful, even psychotic moments of someone’s life and heightens it with music that reflects those feelings and thoughts. It becomes universal when you see real people on that stage using their voices and their bodies to tell you these stories in a way that will stir something inside and ultimately leave you breathless by the end of the performance.

8. What is your favorite language to sing? As a native Spanish speaker, it is easiest for me to sing in Italian. The two languages share similar consonant and vowel sounds, so it feels the most natural for me.

9. When I’m not singing, rehearsing, or performing, the thing I like to do most is……? Rest (mainly). Visit local coffee shops, restaurants, bars, walk around new neighborhoods, ride my bike (weather-permitting), and exercise.

10. What is the funniest (now – probably awkward at the time!) thing that has happened to you in the middle of a performance? Last summer I was singing the title role in Don Giovanni in northern Michigan and in one of the final scenes, there was a feast set out and I was supposed to rummage through and eat the food savagely. On the second performance, I took a bite of a loaf of bread that proved to be way too large to eat in time to sing my next entrance. I still attempted to sing my line with bread in my mouth, but ended up choking on it (audibly). So, I decided to stop singing there, finish my bite of food, and come in on my next entrance. I will never forget the confused and slightly-worried look from the conductor as he’s watching me struggle. It turned into a great post-production topic of conversation. Lesson learned: if you’re going to actually eat on-stage, make sure to take small bites.

The Florentine Opera will begin our 80th season with one of opera’s most captivating tales by its most treasured composer: Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (November 8 & 10, 2013). We continue our season with a Valentine’s Day weekend concert of cherished Italian arias and Italian-American songs: Festa Fiorentina (February 14, 15 & 16, 2014). Next, we bring you Handel’s most iconic opera in a brand new production: Julius Caesar (March 28 & 30, 2014). This monumental season will come to its finale with Puccini’s tragic tale of young love: La Bohème (May 9 & 11, 2014).

Become a season ticket subscriber today, and receive the best seats at the best prices. Early purchases will receive the highest discount available. You won’t want to miss a moment, so subscribe today for our 80th anniversary season of Italian opera classics!

- Florentine Opera General Director William Florescu will stage direct productions of La Traviata and La Bohème this season.

October 30, 2013

Erin Gonzalez: An Interview with our Studio Artist

by William Florescu, General Director

mezzo-soprano, Erin Gonzalez is a 2013/14 Florentine Opera Studio Artist. Miss Gonzalez will perform the role of Flora in La Traviata Nov. 8 & 10 at the Marcus Center, and will be featured in the Florentine Opera @The Center Series in Riverwest.

1. What made you first get interested in Opera? When I was a junior in high school, Chapman University Singers and Choir visited Danville, CA on their annual choir tour. One of their selections was the Brindisi: Libiamo ne’ lieti calici from Act I of Verdi’s La Traviata. It was an incredible experience! The soloists and chorus were phenomenal. I thought to myself “I hope to one day be able to sing like them.” My love for opera was confirmed when I was a freshman in college at Chapman University Conservatory of Music. I saw my first opera, Puccini’s Turandot with former company, Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. I knew after that performance that I wanted to be a professional opera singer.

2. Who is your favorite Opera Singer now? Famous historical singer (i.e. Caruso)? Susan Graham. I love the timbre of her voice, her impeccable technique, pristine diction and commanding stage presence. My favorite famous historical singer is Teresa Berganza. Everything about her is magical.

3. Aside from Opera, what is the music you like to listen to the most? I love to listen to oldies, the classics (especially Frank Sinatra), and country.

4. Besides singing, do you play an instrument? Piano and classical guitar.

5. If you weren’t going to be a singer, what do you think you would do professionally? I would be a veterinarian. I love nurturing and caring for animals.

6. So, what do you think of Milwaukee so far? I really like it! Everyone is so friendly. Since I have only been here just a few weeks, and I have not had an opportunity to explore the city yet. Nonetheless, I am very excited to experience everything Milwaukee has to offer.

7. What would you say to someone who had never been to an opera, to convince them to try it? It is a unique art form that combines text and music, generally in a theatrical setting. Therefore, it appeals to a broad audience (drama, dance, history, music, linguistics).

8. What is your favorite language to sing? Italian.

9. When I’m not singing, rehearsing, or performing, the thing I like to do most is……? Spending time with my family, boyfriend, and puppy. I also enjoy hiking, traveling, reading, and photography.

10. What is the funniest (now – probably awkward at the time!) thing that has happened to you in the middle of a performance? When I was a senior in college, I performed the role of Ciesca from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi with Opera Chapman. My costume for the role consisted of an enormous bum roll. This took up a lot more real estate on my back end then I am used to having. While searching for Buoso Donati’s will, my bum roll came into contact with the candelabra and it came crashing down. At that moment, everyone onstage stopped looking for the will and focused their attention on where they heard the crash. It was mortifying!

The Florentine Opera will begin our 80th season with one of opera’s most captivating tales by its most treasured composer: Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (November 8 & 10, 2013). We continue our season with a Valentine’s Day weekend concert of cherished Italian arias and Italian-American songs: Festa Fiorentina (February 14, 15 & 16, 2014). Next, we bring you Handel’s most iconic opera in a brand new production: Julius Caesar (March 28 & 30, 2014). This monumental season will come to its finale with Puccini’s tragic tale of young love: La Bohème (May 9 & 11, 2014).

Become a season ticket subscriber today, and receive the best seats at the best prices. Early purchases will receive the highest discount available. You won’t want to miss a moment, so subscribe today for our 80th anniversary season of Italian opera classics!

- Florentine Opera General Director William Florescu will stage direct productions of La Traviata and La Bohème this season.

tenor, Aaron Short is a 2013/14 Florentine Opera Studio Artist. Mr Short will perform the role of Gastone de Letorieres in ‘La Traviata’ Nov. 8 & 10 at he Marcus Center, and will be featured in the Florentine Opera @The Center Series in Riverwest.

1. What made you first get interested in Opera? When I was in elementary school, my parents enrolled me in a summer kid’s camp at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. We spent two weeks learning about opera, playing singing games, as well as rehearsing choral pieces and a short children’s opera, which we performed on the final day of camp. I had such a blast at the camp that I ended up going back 2 more summers, and eventually I was able to sing in the children’s chorus for a few operas during the KC Lyric season.

2. Who is your favorite Opera Singer now?  Famous historical singer (i.e. Caruso)? I really enjoy listening to Jonas Kaufmann, but to me, nothing beats the incredible sound of Jussi Björling.

3. Aside from Opera, what is the music you like to listen to the most? I love music from the 70’s and 80’s, and I especially like listening to Billy Joel, The Doobie Brothers, and Styx.

4. Besides singing, do you play an instrument? I studied piano for several years when I was younger, but unfortunately I’ve forgotten most of it. It helped me pass Piano Proficiency in college, though!

5. If you weren’t going to be a singer, what do you think you would do professionally? It’s hard for to me to imagine a career outside of music, but if I had to do something else, I’d probably look into something fun like video game design.

6. So, what do you think of Milwaukee so far? As a Midwestern boy born and raised, I’m so glad to be in such a welcoming and friendly community. The support for the arts in Milwaukee is tremendous, and I feel blessed to be in this city.

7. What would you say to someone who had never been to an opera, to convince them to try it? I’d tell them to they should sit down and watch the first act of Tosca, which I find to be one of the best first operas for adults to go and see. It’s got everything you could possibly want in a nice two-and-a-half-hour package: drama, comedy, great music, beautiful singing, and one of the most dastardly villains you’re likely to see in opera!

8. What is your favorite language to sing? I really enjoy singing French repertory: I’m a huge fan of the style and I just love the flow of the language.

9. When I’m not singing, rehearsing, or performing, the thing I like to do most is…? Relax with friends and listen to some classic rock.

10. What is the funniest (now – probably awkward at the time!) thing that has happened to you in the middle of a performance? During a performance of Street Scene at my undergrad in Wichita, the tornadoes sirens went off. The stage manager, a student, came running on the stage in the middle of Mrs. Maurrant’s aria in a bit of a panic and told everyone they had to go to the shelter located below the stage. We somehow crowded the whole audience as well as all of the cast and crew into a medium size rehearsal space in the basement of the building. Eventually we were able to continue the show about 20 minutes later, but it was certainly a chaotic few minutes getting everyone safely downstairs!

The Florentine Opera will begin our 80th season with one of opera’s most captivating tales by its most treasured composer: Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (November 8 & 10, 2013). We continue our season with a Valentine’s Day weekend concert of cherished Italian arias and Italian-American songs: Festa Fiorentina (February 14, 15 & 16, 2014). Next, we bring you Handel’s most iconic opera in a brand new production: Julius Caesar (March 28 & 30, 2014). This monumental season will come to its finale with Puccini’s tragic tale of young love: La Bohème (May 9 & 11, 2014).

Become a season ticket subscriber today, and receive the best seats at the best prices. Early purchases will receive the highest discount available. You won’t want to miss a moment, so subscribe today for our 80th anniversary season of Italian opera classics!

- Florentine Opera General Director William Florescu will stage direct productions of La Traviata and La Bohème this season.

October 14, 2013

Julie Tabash: An Interview with our Studio Artist

by William Florescu, General Director
soprano, Julie Tabash

soprano, Julie Tabash is a 2013/14 Florentine Opera Studio Artist. Miss Tabash will perform the role of Annina in La Traviata Nov. 8 & 10 at he Marcus Center, and will be featured in the Florentine Opera @The Center Series in Riverwest.

1. What made you first get interested in Opera?
Throughout high school I was a member of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s Artists-In-Training program. As such, I received weekly voice lessons and coachings, several performing and master class opportunities, and a chance to see the company’s mainstage operas both in their rehearsal and performance stages. Getting to hear such beautiful music and watch such poised, confident singers solidified my desire to become and opera singer!

2. Who is your favorite Opera Singer now?  Famous historical singer (i.e. Caruso)?
My favorite current opera singer is Diana Damrau. Her ease of vocal production along with the beauty with which she displays her heart through song are traits that I completely admire! My favorite singers from opera’s past are Montserrat Caballé and Maria Callas.

3. Aside from Opera, what is the music you like to listen to the most?
I enjoy Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers, Gavin DeGraw, Norah Jones, Sara Bareilles… All sorts of musicians!

4. Besides singing, do you play an instrument?
I play basic piano, and love occasionally to sit at the piano and write new songs.

5. If you weren’t going to be a singer, what do you think you would do professionally?
I would have pursued journalism had I not chosen the musical path. I love to write, and I love the fast-paced nature of a career in reporting. Broadcast or print journalism, it all interests me! Is being a forecast-singing news meteorologist completely out of the question??

6. So, what do you think of Milwaukee so far?
I am loving Milwaukee! The arts scene here is more incredible than I could have imagined. There are truly so many creative, artistic people in one place! Between the museums, restaurants, theatres, coffee shops, breweries, beautiful outdoors, etc… who couldn’t be happy here?

7. What would you say to someone who had never been to an opera, to convince them to try it?
I would tell them that contrary to popular belief, opera is probably one of the most accessible art forms ever to exist. While the plots, settings, costumes, and languages may be foreign to present day humans, the words, themes, and emotions that the characters express are timeless. They are present in human hearts and minds all over the world. When these words and emotions are expressed through music, they reach a level of honesty that, in my opinion, no other medium can truly achieve in the same way.

8. What is your favorite language to sing?
French and English

9. When I’m not singing, rehearsing, or performing, the thing I like to do most is…?
Go to a coffee shop with a book and headphones in hand, and sip coffee or tea, read or write, and listen to whatever music matches my mood.

10. What is the funniest (now – probably awkward at the time!) thing that has happened to you in the middle of a performance?
I once (was supposed to) have a fiery, quick exit to the stage right wing after a scene as the stage lights dimmed to a blackout. However, the crew had accidentally drawn the big black heavy curtains to close off the stage right wing from the stage, so I, unexpectedly, ended up walking directly into the curtain, face first. I attempted to find an opening in the curtain to get to the wing, but the blackout made that nearly impossible. Needless to say, the black shadow of a human bumping tirelessly into an immobile curtain was most definitely me…

The Florentine Opera will begin our 80th season with one of opera’s most captivating tales by its most treasured composer: Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (November 8 & 10, 2013). We continue our season with a Valentine’s Day weekend concert of cherished Italian arias and Italian-American songs: Festa Fiorentina (February 14, 15 & 16, 2014). Next, we bring you Handel’s most iconic opera in a brand new production: Julius Caesar (March 28 & 30, 2014). This monumental season will come to its finale with Puccini’s tragic tale of young love: La Bohème (May 9 & 11, 2014).

Become a season ticket subscriber today, and receive the best seats at the best prices. Early purchases will receive the highest discount available. You won’t want to miss a moment, so subscribe today for our 80th anniversary season of Italian opera classics!

 

- Florentine Opera General Director William Florescu will stage direct productions of La Traviata and La Bohème this season.

May 23, 2013

William Florescu: Welcome to our 80th Anniversary Season

by William Florescu, General Director

William Florescu


It gives me great pleasure to share with you our 2013-2014 Season. As the nation’s 6th oldest opera company celebrates the Italian heritage that gave birth to the world’s finest art form and Milwaukee’s professional opera company, I encourage you to consider a season subscription to the Florentine.

We will begin our 80th season with one of opera’s most captivating tales by its most treasured composer: Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (November 8 & 10, 2013). We continue our season with a Valentine’s Day weekend concert of cherished Italian arias and Italian-American songs: Festa Fiorentina (February 14, 15 & 16, 2014). Next, we bring you Handel’s most iconic opera in a brand new production: Julius Caesar (March 28 & 30, 2014). This monumental season will come to its finale with Puccini’s tragic tale of young love: La Bohème (May 9 & 11, 2014).

As a season ticket subscriber, you will receive the best seats at the best prices. Early purchases will receive the highest discount available. You won’t want to miss a moment, so subscribe today for our 80th anniversary season of Italian opera classics.

 

- FO General Director William Florescu will stage direct productions of La Traviata and La Bohème in 2013-2014.

April 10, 2013

Candace Evans: on Mozart’s THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO

by Florentine Opera

Le Nozze di Figaro was composed in 1786, based on a stage play by Pierre Beaumarchais, and is subtitled La folle journée, or the day of madness. After writing this successful opera, Mozart reused musical phrases within the overture to Cosi fan tutte, the second act of Don Giovanni and within the Agnus Dei of his Coronation Mass.  In recent years, the opera The Ghosts of Versailles used elements from both Beaumarchais and Mozart. Recycling was in fashion long before we thought about it!

This would lead me to say that everything old is new again, and that would certainly be true of this opera. The themes of loves folly and fidelity are as much a part of our romantic journeys as they were in Mozart’s day. The lovesick Cherubino, the arrogant Count, the long suffering Countess and the sexually harassed Susannah can be found in any of today’s entertainments or in the next cubicle at your office.

I’m often asked, “What do you want the audience to take away from this performance?” My answer to that is always, “What they wish!” My task and joy as a director is to tell the story well and let the audience find their own moments of identification. Whether you see this opera when you are about to become engaged, are recovering from a nasty break-up or are celebrating a loving long-standing relationship, you will find your own messages. That’s the timelessness of great art and it’s always worth ‘recycling.’

I look forward to making my Florentine opera debut with the spectacular work!

For a biography of Ms. Evans click here.

March 8, 2013

William Florescu: Thoughts and Reflections on Britten and ALBERT HERRING

by William Florescu, General Director

William Florescu is General Director for the Florentine Opera Company and the Stage Director of this new production of ALBERT HERRING.


This piece and its composer hold special significance for me, and I would like to share what may seem like some random reasons why – so please bear with me.

1) I have been a confirmed anglophile for more years than I can remember. The first phase of this culminated in a year of post-graduate study in London.  It was only after studying there that I learned from my parents (I am adopted) that I am actually half English – this certainly explained why they had been so supportive of me going there to study.

2) The old “six degrees of separation” reason.  One of my teachers, John Shirley-Quirk, sang in most of Britten’s important premieres from the mid-sixties on, so I feel that I am connected to that tradition closely.  In addition, I had the privilege of singing for and getting to spend some time with tenor Peter Pears (the original Albert Herring, and Britten’s life partner).

3) I had the pleasure of singing the role of Sid in Albert Herring, directed by my directing mentor Roger Stephens, who passed away recently.  This fact gives this opera added poignancy for me.

4) David Lloyd, the long time General Director of Lake George Opera, was one of my predecessors at my last company before coming to the Florentine.  He sang the title role of Albert in the American premiere at Tanglewood in 1949.  He also passed away recently, so these performances have added significance for me in that way as well.

Even without the above reasons, I would love this piece, because of all of its intrinsic value as a piece of music theatre.  Indeed, I believe it to be one of the, if not the best comic opera of the 20th century.  I believe this because, just like those other great operatic comedies – Falstaff, The Marriage of Figaro (our next opera), and Die Mesitersinger, the comedy is infused with and informed by, real human emotion.  Comedy is able to speak to the human condition in a way that tragedy is often not able.

For video excerpts and comment from the director click here.

March 7, 2013

A Virtue of Necessity: ALBERT HERRING and Others

by @FlorentineOpera

A Note from the Florentine’s guest lecturer

by Corliss Phillabaum

The tremendous success of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at its 1945 premiere by London’s Sadler’s Wells Opera prompted many critics to hail the emergence of Britain’s first major opera composer since Henry Purcell. Britten was certainly eager to build on this success but he was faced with the grim reality that the market for new operas in England and elsewhere was limited, especially in a world just emerging from the devastation of World War II. Internal politics at Sadler’s Wells made new operas unwelcome and England’s only other opera company with the resources to produce full-scale operas, Covent Garden, also showed no interest in new works. However Britten was not only a multi-talented musician (composer, pianist, conductor), he was also a resourceful and talented administrator, and he drew on all of these skills to create his own solution: together with two associates, he founded his own opera company, the English Opera Group.

The concept of a touring opera company devoted to performing new operas written for small forces was suggested by Britten’s next opera, The Rape of Lucretia, which was written for a small cast of soloists, no chorus, and a chamber orchestra of a dozen players. It had been produced in 1946 in the intimate opera house of the Glyndebourne Festival. The possibilities of such a ‘chamber opera’, as Britten called it, shaped the ideas of Britten and his two associates, Eric Crozier (director of the first production of Peter Grimes) and the designer John Piper in forming their new company.

For his next opera, to be written with touring in mind, Britten wanted to write a comedy. Crozier suggested adapting a French short story by Guy de Maupassant, Le Rosier de Madame Husson, with the action transplanted to Britten’s native Suffolk, and ended up writing the libretto himself. Britten scored the opera for the same vocal and instrumental forces as Lucretia, and it was first produced at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1947. Both operas were subsequently staged in repertory by the new English Opera Group and toured in England and on the Continent. In addition to more operas by Britten, the company also commissioned and produced eleven new operas by other British composers over its three decades of activity and had a major influence on opera in England.

As in virtually all of Britten’s operas, the central character in Albert Herring is an outsider, someone who doesn’t fit in with the norms of a conservative society. In this case, however, a repressed mama’s boy is praised for his extreme ‘purity’ as (apparently) the only virtuous young person it town, with the unexpected result that he overcomes his inhibitions and breaks out for a wild night on the town. In de Maupassant’s original story the outcome is tragic as his Isidore becomes a hopeless alcoholic, but in Crozier and Britten’s version the ending is strongly positive.

Crozier’s libretto is both witty and singable and Britten’s music vividly characterizes the various town leaders both vocally and in the imaginative orchestration. The opera is a true ensemble work in which every singer has rewarding musical and dramatic moments and every instrumentalist has significant moments in the musical spotlight. Britten and his librettist poke affectionate and sharp-witted fun at their self-important pillars of small town society, but the serious overtones of the story and the treatment of Albert and his friends are both warm-hearted and genuinely moving. Britten’s comedy, created out of necessity, has deservedly become one of the most frequently produced of all 20th Century operas.

October 19, 2012

Maestro Joseph Rescigno: Thoughts on Carmen

by rclark

A Note from the Maestro

by Maestro Joseph Rescigno

The great familiarity that audiences have with a beloved work like Carmen results in their bringing steamer trunks of baggage to it. The ongoing challenge for performers—especially for those who have performed it many times—is to cut through this familiarity and re-present the magic that caused this opera to become the most popular in the French repertoire. If you love Carmen, you are not alone. Johannes Brahms is reported to have attended Carmen twenty times in 1876 alone. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky called it “one of the most perfect operas of our day” in an 1878 letter.

The Maestro will conduct for CARMEN on October 26 & 28, 2012 at the Marcus Center

It is a difficult piece to perform, not so much in a technical sense, but stylistically and emotionally. It has elegance and calls for restraint, particularly in its many evocative, descriptive passages for the orchestra and for the chorus with orchestra. Rousing music surrounds the bullring, and Micaëla’s innocence could not be clearer in Act I. Yet we can contrast that innocence with the intensity of the Act III music in which she challenges not only José but also Carmen and the smugglers. The greatest intensity pervades the final confrontation between José and Carmen, of course.

The gift that Bizet gives the performers, on the other hand, is utter timelessness. Directors have moved the time and place of its setting but, even when unchanged on the surface, audiences take to it instantly and wholeheartedly. There are simply no temporal or geographic barriers. The story that so shocked the audience of l’Opéra-Comique on opening night, and the rebellious and wanton character of Carmen, have lost none of their dramatic power.

The opera’s unifying “fate motive” appears in the overture and is repeated often to restore our sense of foreboding. No reprise is more astonishing, however, than the one we hear immediately before José swears his love and describes his obsession with Carmen in Act II (“La fleur que tu m’avait jetée” [The flower that you threw to me]). In this reprise, the melody is instantly recognizable, but Bizet’s choice of the English horn turns it into an ardent, yearning love song. This choice of a single instrument dramatically alters the mood, which just goes to prove that there are no “small” choices in composition.

The Act II English horn solo is one of many opportunities for individuals in the pit to shine. Also listen for the first cello and first violin in Act I as Zuniga interrogates Carmen after her arrest. Take note as well of the oboe in the Act IV prelude. The flute has several lovely solos. It shines most obviously in the opening of the Act III prelude, but it is also important before Carmen’s Act I “Séguedille.” In fact, the flute is very much Carmen’s instrument. When she is in full seductress mode, the flute often accompanies her, along with very light strings.

The most basic contribution the conductor makes lies in clarifying a work’s structure (by which we primarily mean the relationships among its sections), and this is accomplished in large measure by judicious pacing. For example, the Act II quintet is like a symphonic scherzo-trio-scherzo, and relatively brisk pacing, with only a slight relaxation in tempo in the middle section, helps illuminate that form. (It may be noted, further, that Bizet puns by assigning only three singers to that middle “trio” section whereas the bracketing scherzo sections involve the entire quintet.)

The chorus of cigarette factory girls, on the other hand, is often played a great deal faster than Bizet’s metronome indication, sapping it of some of its color and atmosphere. Bizet’s choice for the opening tempo does a good job of depicting the teasing and sensuality of a group of women returning from a break in factory work on a hot afternoon in Seville. As it happens, if we start too fast, we can also run into something of a conductorial speed trap as we segue into the next section. So I find that Bizet’s tempo is a good one for both technical and dramatic reasons.

In the Act IV final duet, it falls to the conductor to showcase the realism that shocked the Opéra-Comique audience in 1875. We cannot do this without wonderful singing actors, of course, but the challenge to the conductor is to develop a plan across many shifts between speech-like recitative and singing in changing tempos. For me, the structure that mirrors the volatility of Don José before he kills Carmen bears some resemblance to the alternating urgency and calm in the extended dialogue between Tamino and the High Priest in Mozart’s Magic Flute. But the Carmen duet is far more melodramatic, of course. The Fate motive bursts forth periodically to raise the heat, and the toreador’s theme comes from the crowd offstage, adding another layer of musical and dramatic complexity. We want to build toward the most intense moment and maintain discipline until José finally stabs Carmen. The task here is to portray nothing so much as instability, and we can only build toward a great climax with the most rigorous concentration and control.

This brilliant final duet, in what is one of the most important operas of the repertory, only underlines the tragedy of Bizet’s early demise so soon after the opera was written. The growth from Bizet’s astounding Symphony in C, written at age 17, to Carmen, at age 36, is enormous. Therefore, we ask: Would Carmen’s success soon after its poor initial reception have encouraged Bizet to continue exploring a quite-original style that stands now as a harbinger of the verismo school more than a decade before that school took shape in Italy? How would his work have evolved?  A case in point is supplied by the singing that we often hear in the place of Carmen’s original spoken dialogue. Such singing was required by “grand opera”; Charles Gounod wrote his own adaptation for Faust after its premiere, as did Jules Massenet for Manon. While we easily recognize that composer Ernest Guiraud adapted Carmen based on Bizet’s music, we are still left to wonder whether Bizet would have come up with something as completely outside expectations as Carmen itself originally was. And what might that have been? It is, after all, not given to most mortals to be able to divine the answer any more than most of us could conjure up Carmen in the first place. So Bizet’s adaptation of Carmen must be added to the music lover’s list of irretrievable losses along with how Giacomo Puccini might have finished Turandot or how Alban Berg might have completed Lulu, as well as what might have come from the pens of composers like Mozart, Schubert, and Pergolesi who, along with Bizet, died especially young.

My first contact with Carmen was a recording with Risë Stevens, conducted by Fritz Reiner. It still remains one of my favorites, along with the de los Angeles-Beecham recording. But when performers come together to mount a “war horse” like this, we all must strip our minds of the many performances we have heard or even participated in. The goal must be to cultivate a personal connection to the printed page and a deep appreciation of the particular talents of each member of the team. How will Carmen use her voice to meet the enormous challenge of portraying her sexuality without falling into parody? How will José express his volatility and at-least-temporary insanity? As ever, the conductor’s job is to give the artists both breathing room and support while representing the composer to the audience.

- by Maestro Joseph Rescigno, October 2012

Joseph Rescigno has served for 28 years as Artistic Advisor and Principal Conductor of the Florentine Opera Company.

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