The Most Happy Fella at Festival Opera

Dave and I saw the opening night Saturday night of Festival Opera’s production of The Most Happy Fella. It’s a show I’ve both loved and been frustrated by since my college days. Its good points are unique and powerful, and yet it has some serious weaknesses as well (mostly in the second act, in my opinion) that I wish Loesser had figured out how to fix. I have no time to write more about it right now, but I wanted to recommend this, a confident and polished production of a show that is not done very often and even less often done well.

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Sir John in Absentia

Michael Zwiebach has a list of “Top Ten Shakespeare Operas” over at San Francisco Classical Voice, but he leaves out a favorite of mine: Vaughn Williams’s Sir John in Love. Verdi’s Falstaff is a completely wonderful opera, don’t get me wrong. But Verdi and Boito transformed it so well into a polished opera buffa in the Italian style that if you didn’t look at the program notes you might never guess that it takes place in England.

Sir John in Love is less well constructed, I think, but at the same time its music conveys a love of the English countryside and the feel of country society in Elizabethan England that I don’t hear in Falstaff. That pastoral quality is what makes The Merry Wives of Windsor special among Shakespeare’s plays — in terms of dramatic construction, it’s one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays, but Merry Wives is the only play that Shakespeare set in his own time and place, and in which he was writing openly and directly about a society and a social order that he knew at first hand. So the play has its own unique if rough-hewn quality, and the words and music in Sir John capture that atmosphere wonderfully well. You can practically smell the fresh-cut hay and the sawdust and the spilled beer in the music.

Of course, any top ten list is a very personal selection, and everyone gets to have different favorites. I just wanted to make a case for one of mine.

The Barber of Bagdad

I’ve been on a small binge lately of listening to Peter Cornelius’s opera The Barber of Bagdad (Der Barbier von Bagdad). I’m a bit surprised to find I own five recordings of it. It’s not a well-known opera, but one I like a lot. For one thing, it’s based on a series of stories out of the 1001 Nights, and I have a soft spot for anything taken from the 1001 Nights. But even apart from that, it’s funny and theatrical and it has terrific music. Plus: a first-rate libretto!

It’s sort of a huge shaggy dog story about a young man in love. He has only a narrow window of time during which he can secretly visit his beloved — her very religious father goes to the nearby mosque every day at noon to pray — and as he has some time before he can show up, he decides he will make himself more presentable with a bath and getting his head freshly shaved. His friend suggests a barber that she knows — a brilliant man, she says, master of many arts and sciences. After she leaves, he shouts out the window after her, “Don’t forget the barber!” (“Vergiss den Barbier nicht!”)

Those words are his doom. The barber arrives, but he turns out to be a foolish old man who can’t stop bragging about what an expert he is on so many subjects, going off on one tangent after another. He has cast a horoscope for the young man, which reveals that he has chosen the most fortunate time on earth to be shaved, and the barber explains the chart in detail while the young man pleads with him to get on with it. When the young man gets so exasperated that he calls the barber an outrageous windbag (unverschämter Schwätzer, to be exact), the barber is offended, and he explains at length how he was actually the quiet one in a family of seven brothers — whom he names and describes, one … by one … by one. It takes the poor young man at least half the first act just to get the barber to start shaving him, and much of the rest of it to get him to complete the job.

Worse, in the second act the barber trails the young man to his secret assignation, intending to be helpful. From the street in front of the young woman’s house, he shouts to the young man inside not to worry, he’s on the lookout in case her father returns early — which of course alerts the whole neighborhood that the young man is there. Then the barber hears the shouts of a slave being beaten, and leaps to the conclusion that the young man is being beaten to death by the father, so he shouts to the neighborhood “Help! Murder!”, raising a crowd in the street outside and making it impossible for the young man to get away without being seen. Before long the poor guy is hiding in a trunk while the father rages at the barber and the room fills up with one group of people after another, who come to try to stop the imaginary murder or side with the father or wail in grief. The caliph’s police arrive to stop the near-riot, and finally the caliph himself appears. After some more confusion, all ends satisfactorily at last and the lovers can marry. (The story in the 1001 Nights has much more of a black comedy ending: The young man not only doesn’t get the girl, he gets one leg badly broken in the chaos, entirely due to the barber, and he walks with a limp ever after.)

It’s a great opera, but it really needs a good English version. A lot of the comedy is in the words, first because they’re often very funny in their own right and second because the style is mock-heroic and if you aren’t getting the ironic juxtaposition of the increasingly serious music and the increasingly absurd situation that is developing, you miss a lot.

I know enough German, and have gotten to know the opera well enough, to follow along now as I listen, but it’s got to be a perplexing opera to listen to in a language you don’t know. It’s never been all that successful outside of Germany, and it probably won’t be if it doesn’t at some point get adapted into other languages, and well. There’s an English-language version published; I haven’t really studied it to get a feel for whether I think it’d work in the theater, but from what I’ve read of it, the language seems very stilted and forced. (It also seems possible to me, though, that what I’m seeing as stilted language is intended, at least, to convey the flavor of the Richard Burton translation of the 1001 Nights. At some point I ought to look more closely at it.)

Cornelius wrote two overtures to the opera, writing the second one at the urging of Liszt, who didn’t like the first one. Of my five recordings, only one includes the second overture, and it seems to be obligatory to say in the liner notes that the composer’s original intentions were of course much superior. Well, as a pure piece of music, I agree; if given a choice of hearing the first or second version as a concert piece by itself, I would without hesitation go with the first. It’s a deliciously sly piece of music, full of charm and atmosphere, while the second version is a much more conventional comic opera overture, not doing much more than stringing together all the best melodies and getting the show off to a lively start. Nevertheless, I think Liszt was right and the second overture is the right one to use in the theater; it’s going to put the audience in a much better frame of mind to enjoy the story that follows.

And it does end with a delicious joke, though one that you have to get to know the opera to catch: The final cadence quotes the melody of “Don’t forget the barber!”

Harnoncourt’s Porgy and Bess

Been listening to a recording of a 2009 production of Porgy and Bess, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. It’s not always as lively as I’d like it to be, and some of the smaller roles are sung a bit too much as though this were Italian grand opera; but all in all the production is very good, very moving, and remarkably clean and crisp, even in Gershwin’s densely written choral numbers. Gershwin’s orchestration is a bit weighty and takes skill to keep from overpowering the singers, and under Harnoncourt’s direction it sounds just about perfect, lush but not heavy.

I’m not wild about the practice, common now, of restoring the cuts that Gershwin made in rehearsals, with one exception. He cut these passages because he saw that the opera flows better without them, and putting them back in just weakens the pacing. The one exception is Porgy’s “Buzzard Song”, which actually strengthens the story and which Gershwin cut only because the original Broadway production was scheduled for eight performances a week and Porgy had three big numbers close together at that point, and this was too much of a strain on the singer’s voice. So one of the three numbers had to be cut for that production, but when the opera is performed on a schedule less tiring for the singers, “Buzzard Song” is well worth including. Gershwin’s other cuts, though, are better left cut as far as I can see. Harnoncourt restores a few of them, but thankfully not the whole lot.

I’m still on my first listen, nearing the end of the second act. Michael Forest’s Sportin’ Life seems like the standout so far, but really, most of the cast is terrific.

Ariadne auf Naxos

I listened to the Sinopoli recording of Ariadne auf Naxos again over the weekend. It’s a wonderful performance of one of my all-time favorite operas, a brilliant, ironic, profound, silly, rich, just about perfect match of story and song, words and music. The section from Ariadne’s “Es gibt ein Reich” (“There is a land”) to Zerbinetta’s “Grossmächtiger Princessin” (literally, “Greatly powerful princess”, but meaning something more like, “Your Excellency”) is one of the most satisfying twelve minutes or so of opera that I know. I could listen to it over and over again.