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Thread: Pulitzer-winning Washington Post chief art critic explains why Meyerbeer is great

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Clearly we are using the word "profound" to mean different things. It is one of those words, isn't it? I suppose the last scene of La Boheme could be called "profoundly sad," but that still wouldn't make the opera profound. Profound things give me pause and make me feel the need to reorient myself in some way. Rodolfo and Mimi just make me pull out my hankie, dab a few tears, blow my nose, curse Puccini for his skill at manipulating me, and go back to arguing with people on TC.
    I agree about La Boheme, but I think it's the most shallow and mawkish of Puccini's operas. It works superficially in the way that Figaro works in that its humor and lightness is used a contrast to its sad elements; but the problem with Boheme is that the sad elements have no real connection to character or action, it's just a meaningless twist of fate executed by its author for its calculated effect on the audience.

    Madama Butterfly has a bit more connection between its tragedy and its characters/situations. There's a context of the East/West culture clash and the differing psychological portraits of love, devotion, sacrifice, and responsibility. Its problem is due to it being so one-sided and dimensional; Pinkerton is just a superficial lout with no real characterization to speak of, and even Butterfly, who's on stage throughout most of the opera, has no real evolution. Once her family denounces her for leaving her religion, and she has the rapturous night with Pinkerton, it's mostly just sadness/tragedy from there on out, minus her naive delusions of a happy future.

    I think Tosca is where Puccini finally gets a libretto that could be called profound, and I think it's been terribly underrated in this respect. There's a lot of interesting layers to it. The opening act we get an interesting connection forged between art, religion, and love. Then Scarpia shows up looking for a political prisoner, and we add politics into the mix. In act 2 we have the contrast between Tosca's cantata in the background with Scarpia scheming and eventual torture of Mario. Tosca's Visi D'arte reveals the opera's connection of art, love, and religion explicitly; but it feels naive as it reveals Tosca's ignorance of the political power, the invisible hand, that has influenced both. Tosca's murder of Scarpia is so refreshing for Puccini because it's the first time up until then that one of his female characters has shown some sense of agency rather than just being a passive victim of circumstances. The final act is interesting in that one can read it as a kind of metaphorical clash between the "real world" and the "escapist" world of art and acting. Tosca is no longer an Eve living in her Eden of art, love, and God, but she's still naive about the real world. Mario is much more jaded, and his E lucevan le stelle is so moving in part because it's a postlapsarian elegy to an unrecoverable innocence. Tosca still believes that if he/they still "act the part" then they can recover their Eden, but the real world wins in the end, and the loss of innocence is complete with Mario's execution and Tosca's suicide.

    My one reservation with Tosca is that I'm not sure what Puccini's music really adds to this that's not already there in the libretto. Certainly his music is in turn rapturously gorgeous, intensely dramatic, wistfully melancholic, deeply sad... but I'm not sure if there's a moment where it says anything beyond the libretto the way that Mozart's "Contessa Perdono" finds this exquisite moment of profound grace to a few lines that would otherwise be pretty superficial on the page. The only comparable moment in Tosca is perhaps the end of Act I where Scarpia's presence "colors" the church music into something unmistakably sinister. Still, there's no denying that Puccini's music enhances the emotional impact of everything that's already there, and that's a fine accomplishment in itself.
    Last edited by Eva Yojimbo; Jun-16-2018 at 04:29.

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  3. #122
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    Quote Originally Posted by bz3 View Post
    Nor does the word 'profundity' come to mind when I think of Spielberg or, as much as I love his work, Wyler. Maybe DavidA was thinking of a different word.
    I would've agreed about Spielberg until AI, which I think is one of the most thought-provoking films of this century. Though Kubrick's hand in the script maybe the largest reason for that. The film is a fascinating clash of their two unique--nearly polar--sensibilities.

    Surely, though, if we're talking of popularity and profundity in film the top two names to be mentioned should be Hitchcock and Kubrick.

  4. #123
    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Eva Yojimbo View Post
    I think Tosca is where Puccini finally gets a libretto that could be called profound, and I think it's been terribly underrated in this respect. There's a lot of interesting layers to it. The opening act we get an interesting connection forged between art, religion, and love. Then Scarpia shows up looking for a political prisoner, and we add politics into the mix. In act 2 we have the contrast between Tosca's cantata in the background with Scarpia scheming and eventual torture of Mario. Tosca's Visi D'arte reveals the opera's connection of art, love, and religion explicitly; but it feels naive as it reveals Tosca's ignorance of the political power, the invisible hand, that has influenced both. Tosca's murder of Scarpia is so refreshing for Puccini because it's the first time up until then that one of his female characters has shown some sense of agency rather than just being a passive victim of circumstances. The final act is interesting in that one can read it as a kind of metaphorical clash between the "real world" and the "escapist" world of art and acting. Tosca is no longer an Eve living in her Eden of art, love, and God, but she's still naive about the real world. Mario is much more jaded, and his E lucevan le stelle is so moving in part because it's a postlapsarian elegy to an unrecoverable innocence. Tosca still believes that if he/they still "act the part" then they can recover their Eden, but the real world wins in the end, and the loss of innocence is complete with Mario's execution and Tosca's suicide.

    My one reservation with Tosca is that I'm not sure what Puccini's music really adds to this that's not already there in the libretto. Certainly his music is in turn rapturously gorgeous, intensely dramatic, wistfully melancholic, deeply sad... but I'm not sure if there's a moment where it says anything beyond the libretto the way that Mozart's "Contessa Perdono" finds this exquisite moment of profound grace to a few lines that would otherwise be pretty superficial on the page. The only comparable moment in Tosca is perhaps the end of Act I where Scarpia's presence "colors" the church music into something unmistakably sinister. Still, there's no denying that Puccini's music enhances the emotional impact of everything that's already there, and that's a fine accomplishment in itself.
    Tosca profound? You do make quite the silk purse out of the old sow's ear, but I see no "interesting connections" between art, religion and love arising from the mere presence of those elements, even though they're vividly juxtaposed and combined. Puccini is all about passions, not metaphysics, sociology, or even deep psychology. Politics? Nah. Verdi - or even Meyerbeer, to keep this thread stitched together - would have made more out of that, probably by making Cavaradossi a character with actual ideas in his head. Tosca herself isn't all that compelling except when she suffers and then picks up that knife. Callas, despite the greatness of her performance, found her a bit stupid.

    No,Tosca is about love, jealousy, and sadism, and Scarpia is the only interesting character on the stage and the heart of the drama. The rest is just the machinery that moves the characters into place for maximum impact.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Jun-16-2018 at 06:12.

  5. #124
    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by fluteman View Post
    Also, not wanting to flog a dead horse, and again this is not scientifically precise, but according to arkivmusic.com, Herbert von Karajan, the celebrated Nazi, has 18 Mendelssohn and 13 Mahler recordings in print. And though no doubt Wagner and Brucker are performed more often in Germany than in other European countries, I strongly suspect Elgar and Holst are more often performed in England, Johann Strauss is more often performed in Austria, Gershwin and Copland are more often performed in the US, Massenet and Gounod are more often performed in France, etc. You can't attribute all this nationalist bias to the Nazis, even if anti-Jewish prejudice is involved in some instances.
    Karajan had scores of banned Mendelssohn symphonies hidden away during the war which he used to study. He obviously didn't share all the nazi view of music.

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    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DavidA View Post
    Karajan had scores of banned Mendelssohn symphonies hidden away during the war which he used to study. He obviously didn't share all the nazi view of music.
    Question: Were Mendelssohn's scores banned, or only performances?


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  8. #126
    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    Question: Were Mendelssohn's scores banned, or only performances?
    Well, he kept the fact he had his scores of Mendelssohn secret. He also listened to Kulenkampff's Mendelssohn violin concerto when one wasn't supposed to own such a record let alone play it.
    Last edited by DavidA; Jun-16-2018 at 09:13.

  9. #127
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    An admirable presentation, Nick. Some of those contemporary encomiums are really over the roof! Still, I can't but feel that if Meyerbeer actually possessed all the virtues they're suggesting he does, he would never have fallen so completely out of fashion. If his work had effectively turned opera from “a vehicle of emotions into a vehicle of ideas” and made it an effective "platform for the expression of metaphysical and philosophical ideas,” would we now be so utterly ignorant of the fact? Not that he may not have aspired to such things, but the key word here is "effective": those are difficult and rare things for opera to do, because, being an essentially musical art, it has to find a depth and strength of musical expression that makes us care about whatever "metaphysical" and "philosophical" ideas are on offer. It isn't in the nature of opera to present philosophy on an intellectual level as spoken drama can; even Wagner, the most philosophical of composers, knew that, and emphasized that the audience must "understand through feeling." Whether Meyerbeer had the gift of distilling his presumed profundities into compelling musical expression seems more than doubtful to me, given the music I've heard. Such greatness as that implies - a greatness such as even the truly great Verdi waited most of his career to attain, and such as most composers never do - doesn't drop so ignominiously out of sight, no matter what Wagner or Berlioz had to say about it. I don't doubt that Meyerbeer has some good things in store for those unacquainted with him - and yes, as everyone seems to agree, the fourth act of Les Huguenots has beauty and power! But I heard nothing of comparable force in Le Prophete, which struck me as a rather shapeless string of variably attractive numbers. A title like "The Prophet" would seem at least to hint at some of those "metaphysical ideas," but I heard nothing in the music or the dramaturgy to suggest that any were lurking in the wings.

    So, if the pendulum is swinging back, what is it swinging back to? Will Meyerbeer ever regain anything close to the prominence among opera composers he had in his lifetime? He now has to compete with Verdi, Wagner, Bizet, Puccini, Strauss, Mussorgsky, Debussy, et al., who are still going strong on the world's stages, as strong as when they were alive. The tastes of Meyerbeer's time and place will never be replicated; his culture is gone for good, and the art of the past slowly recedes from us. Even in our museum culture, where everything is sooner or later dug up and put on display, much of that art occupies only its special niche. No doubt Meyerbeer will find his niche, if he hasn't already, but whether his music will be found compelling enough to sell his dramatic ideas to the future awaits demonstration. I don't expect to live that long.
    Thanks! I'm optimistic!

    Critical consensus has changed; Meyerbeer operas are performed more regularly, and in more prestigious venues; audiences (listening to live recordings, and reading comments online) enjoy them; and there are singers like Michael Spyres, Bryan Hymel, and Diana Damrau who want to sing them. French opera, too, is having a comeback, thanks to organizations like the Palazzetto Bru Zane and the Opéra Comique.

    Composers come back into fashion - like Handel, for instance. Who'd have thought that opera seria (talking about tastes of dead times and places) would be as well loved as it is today?

    Italian bel canto, too; Verdi and Donizetti were considered slightly disreputable mid-century, and Rossini downright unperformable. I've seen some silly mid-century criticism: Rossini was a gifted comic musician, an entertainer, who made the mistake of trying to write serious operas (Harding, 1971). “He had among his many gifts a genius for triviality… To hear the overture to William Tell is always an exciting experience; to strum through half a dozen of Rossini’s forgotten operas is wearisome and monotonous” (Dent, Opera, 1949).

    If you're interested, good articles discussing the ideas in Meyerbeer's work, and his conception of the historical opera are:
    Sieghart Döhring, "Giacomo Meyerbeer and the Opera of the Nineteenth Century"

    Matthias Brzoska, "Remarks about Meyerbeer's Le Prophète" (talks about the central philosophical ideas of Meyerbeer's conception of historical Grand Opera and especially Le Prophète)

    Robert Letellier, "The Thematic Nexus of Religion, Power, Politics and Love in the Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer"

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  11. #128
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Tosca profound? You do make quite the silk purse out of the old sow's ear, but I see no "interesting connections" between art, religion and love arising from the mere presence of those elements, even though they're vividly juxtaposed and combined. Puccini is all about passions, not metaphysics, sociology, or even deep psychology. Politics? Nah. Verdi - or even Meyerbeer, to keep this thread stitched together - would have made more out of that, probably by making Cavaradossi a character with actual ideas in his head. Tosca herself isn't all that compelling except when she suffers and then picks up that knife. Callas, despite the greatness of her performance, found her a bit stupid.

    No,Tosca is about love, jealousy, and sadism, and Scarpia is the only interesting character on the stage and the heart of the drama. The rest is just the machinery that moves the characters into place for maximum impact.
    Much like you suggested of Zauberflote a few pages back, it entirely depends on whether one reads it superficially as being about love, jealousy, and sadism; or whether one reads it archetypally. I think Tosca welcomes the latter as much as the former, and probably works on this level more coherently than does Flute. The "interesting connection" between art, religion, and love is the kind of Edenic triumvirate they create. Much like in Gotterdammerung, it's the sinister outside world driven by the selfish will that destroys it. By "politics" I don't mean any particular politics, but like in Wagner the "political" is merely symbolic of the outside "world of men" and the "will to power" that threatens the purity of art/religion/love. Tosca (and perhaps Mario) are "a bit stupid" because of her/their naivety; I don't see this as a flaw.

    Puccini may be about passions, but I don't see passions as being antithetical to profundity, and when given a libretto that had more substance he made it so that they were felt passionately. I think this is what blinds people with Puccini and Tosca, because it does work so well as just drama, making us feel the love and jealousy and sadism, that people refuse or have no interest in looking deeper. Speaking of sociology, is any opera more relevant to the #MeToo movement?

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  13. #129
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    Quote Originally Posted by Eva Yojimbo View Post
    Much like you suggested of Zauberflote a few pages back, it entirely depends on whether one reads it superficially as being about love, jealousy, and sadism; or whether one reads it archetypally. I think Tosca welcomes the latter as much as the former, and probably works on this level more coherently than does Flute. The "interesting connection" between art, religion, and love is the kind of Edenic triumvirate they create. Much like in Gotterdammerung, it's the sinister outside world driven by the selfish will that destroys it. By "politics" I don't mean any particular politics, but like in Wagner the "political" is merely symbolic of the outside "world of men" and the "will to power" that threatens the purity of art/religion/love. Tosca (and perhaps Mario) are "a bit stupid" because of her/their naivety; I don't see this as a flaw.

    Puccini may be about passions, but I don't see passions as being antithetical to profundity, and when given a libretto that had more substance he made it so that they were felt passionately. I think this is what blinds people with Puccini and Tosca, because it does work so well as just drama, making us feel the love and jealousy and sadism, that people refuse or have no interest in looking deeper. Speaking of sociology, is any opera more relevant to the #MeToo movement?
    I suppose one can read any number of stories "archetypally"; we have modern myths as well as ancient ones. But in opera the story is not the primary locus of meaning: by the nature of the medium, that must be the music. Zauberflote's libretto tells a fanciful, even silly story, but there's something about the music that lights up its seemingly naive imagery with a glow from the beyond. Tristan und Isolde amounts to little as a tale; a pair of doomed lovers in a hostile world is pretty much a cliche, but the score creates a world of meaning capable of embracing and then drowning the political, sexual, and moral dimensions of life in an ecstatic flood of subtle harmony that unearths dark and often uncomfortable secrets of the soul. Likewise Parsifal, which looks to many like a weird conglomeration of pseudo-religious, and possibly penicious, fantasies, is revealed by the unparalleled eloquence of Wagner's music as a profound parable of human psychological and moral growth, giving lacerating utterance to some of the utmost extremes of existential agony and spiritual transcendence.

    These comparisons may be unfair (and Puccini, a devoted Wagnerite, would probably be the first to say so), but I'm not persuaded that Tosca, or any Puccini opera, comes anywhere close to these works in plumbing the potential depths of its subject matter by means of music. Joseph Kerman was too severe in calling Tosca a "shabby little shocker, but he correctly pointed out that the final bit of music in the score, a quotation from "E lucevan le stelle," makes a fine theatrical effect but tells us absolutely nothing about any deeper meaning the work might be thought to have. I myself think Puccini should have ended with the "Scarpia" motif, which would at least have acknowledged the victory of evil over both religion and love - a dreadful message, but surely the one we discover if we look into the work's dark heart. Maybe Tosca could have made a greater claim to profundity if Puccini had been less of a sentimentalist by nature, or less of a theater animal. He was a bit too satisfied with Sardou's formula for a sure-fire hit, "torture the woman."
    Last edited by Woodduck; Jun-17-2018 at 06:37.

  14. #130
    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    I suppose one can read any number of stories "archetypally"; we have modern myths as well as ancient ones. But in opera the story is not the primary locus of meaning: by the nature of the medium, that must be the music. Zauberflote's libretto tells a fanciful, even silly story, but there's something about the music that lights up its seemingly naive imagery with a glow from the beyond. Tristan und Isolde amounts to little as a tale; a pair of doomed lovers in a hostile world is pretty much a cliche, but the score creates a world of meaning capable of embracing and then drowning the political, sexual, and moral dimensions of life in an ecstatic flood of subtle harmony that unearths dark and often uncomfortable secrets of the soul. Likewise Parsifal, which looks to many like a weird conglomeration of pseudo-religious, and possibly penicious, fantasies, is revealed by the unparalleled eloquence of Wagner's music as a profound parable of human psychological and moral growth, giving lacerating utterance to some of the utmost extremes of existential agony and spiritual transcendence.

    These comparisons may be unfair (and Puccini, a devoted Wagnerite, would probably be the first to say so), but I'm not persuaded that Tosca, or any Puccini opera, comes anywhere close to these works in plumbing the potential depths of its subject matter by means of music. Joseph Kerman was too severe in calling Tosca a "shabby little shocker, but he correctly pointed out that the final bit of music in the score, a quotation from "E lucevan le stelle," makes a fine theatrical effect but tells us absolutely nothing about any deeper meaning the work might be thought to have. I myself think Puccini should have ended with the "Scarpia" motif, which would at least have acknowledged the victory of evil over both religion and love - a dreadful message, but surely the one we discover if we look into the work's dark heart. Maybe Tosca could have made a greater claim to profundity if Puccini had been less of a sentimentalist by nature, or less of a theater animal. He was a bit too satisfied with Sardou's formula for a sure-fire hit, "torture the woman."
    It depends on the definition of 'profound'. There are speakers and philosophers who people deem 'profound' mainly because they can't understand what they are saying. Puccini never tried to be terribly profound in that sense of philosophical baloney, but Tosca is a 'profound' study of what has been a real life situation for many people standing up to tyranny and state oppression. I must confess the profundities of Tristan are lost on me as I can't identify with the characters and their long winded build up to a climax that never happens.
    Last edited by DavidA; Jun-17-2018 at 09:17.

  15. #131
    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DavidA View Post
    It depends on the definition of 'profound'. There are speakers and philosophers who people deem 'profound' mainly because they can't understand what they are saying. Puccini never tried to be terribly profound in that sense of philosophical baloney, but Tosca is a 'profound' study of what has been a real life situation for many people standing up to tyranny and state oppression. I must confess the profundities of Tristan are lost on me as I can't identify with the characters and their long winded build up to a climax that never happens.
    So "it depends on the definition of profundity" - and you start by offering a definition of it that isn't one? Gee, that helps.

    Well, we know that Wagner in general is lost on you, so why bother "confessing" it yet again? Whether you can "identify" with his characters is beside any point being made here (or anywhere); it shows only that his kind of art is not a kind you're personally in sympathy with, a fact of no consequence to people who do possess the requisite sympathy and understanding. And if you missed the climax in Tristan you were evidently asleep when it arrived. (I realize it's a long evening and that after-dinner events can be difficult for us oldsters. I take my Wagner early in the day now, or an act at a time.)

    Profundity is not a matter of "real-life situations." Tosca is a vivid portrayal of a sexual pervert who gets off on trapping women like butterflies (no pun intended) and sticking pins (or something else) into them while they're still alive. The only thing "profound" (quote, unquote) in it, the only thing it's a "study" of, is the one-dimensional, apparently unmotivated, mustache-twirling nastiness of Scarpia, one of opera's most effective villains. Effective, yes; Puccini is relentlessly effective. But profound? He doesn't really explore the potential of any of his dramatic motifs: love, politics, religion. It isn't a thought-provoking work, or one that suggests any fresh perspectives. The characters are superficial, and their goodness and badness are presented in black and white, without subtlety or complexity. I've seen TV sitcoms with more psychological light and shade. Nobody is likely to come out of Tosca thinking differently about anything, unless they've been living under a rock and hadn't noticed that some people are really, really bad. Why is Scarpia so bad? Who knows - but who cares? It's great theater.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Jun-17-2018 at 13:19.

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  17. #132
    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    So "it depends on the definition of profundity" - and you start by offering a definition of it that isn't one? Gee, that helps.

    Well, we know that Wagner in general is lost on you, so why bother "confessing" it yet again? Whether you can "identify" with his characters is beside any point being made here (or anywhere); it shows only that his kind of art is not a kind you're personally in sympathy with, a fact of no consequence to people who do possess the requisite sympathy and understanding. And if you missed the climax in Tristan you were evidently asleep when it arrived. (I realize it's a long evening and that after-dinner events can be difficult for us oldsters. I take my Wagner early in the day now, or an act at a time.)

    Profundity is not a matter of "real-life situations." Tosca is a vivid portrayal of a sexual pervert who gets off on trapping women like butterflies (no pun intended) and sticking pins (or something else) into them while they're still alive. The only thing "profound" (quote, unquote) in it, the only thing it's a "study" of, is the one-dimensional, apparently unmotivated, mustache-twirling nastiness of Scarpia, one of opera's most effective villains. Effective, yes; Puccini is relentlessly effective. But profound? He doesn't really explore the potential of any of his dramatic motifs: love, politics, religion. It isn't a thought-provoking work, or one that suggests any fresh perspectives. The characters are superficial, and their goodness and badness are presented in black and white, without subtlety or complexity. I've seen TV sitcoms with more psychological light and shade. Nobody is likely to come out of Tosca thinking differently about anything, unless they've been living under a rock and hadn't noticed that some people are really, really bad. Why is Scarpia so bad? Who knows - but who cares? It's great theater.
    I probably was at the last Met Tristan I saw. Partly Wagner's fault for being long winded but also that of the production.

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