I understand there are people who don’t like opera. I remember a time years ago when a colleague lectured me on how unnatural an operatic voice was. The human body was not meant to do such things. He preferred the blues.
My head is still spinning over that opinion. Nothing wrong with the blues, mind you. But not appreciating the operatic voice feels as dumb to me as not appreciating the talent of an Olympic athlete. Not appreciating the skill of a brain surgeon, not understanding a Mozart, a Picasso or a Shakespeare. It’s a skill which, when developed, makes you rise up out of your chair to applaud. An affirmation of life.
OK, so not everybody will want to include opera in this affirmation of life. Fine. But let me rave here, for a minute. I’m still reveling in the excitement I felt at the opera last night.
An even bigger reason most people don’t like opera is that the stories are so incredibly silly. About people who are all emotion and absolutely no sense. Romanticism on steroids. I’m talking about bel canto opera, Italian opera, opera of the Romantic period written for the heart (1815-1926), not Wagner, not modern opera, written for the head.
Il Trovatore is almost a satire of that kind of opera. Something Saturday Night Live would come up with to make fun of opera. The plot is formulaic:
Take a male lover (tenor, of course), add a female lover (soprano, of course), add a rival (baritone, of course) male lover. Mess ‘em up.
Manrico, a troubadour (trovatore), loves Leonora. Count di Luna wants to take Leonora from Manrico. You know before the orchestra even warms up they will fight, and somebody’s got to die.
There’s three of the big four characters. The fourth is Azucena (mezzo-soprano), mother to Manrico. But wait – the plot will surely thicken.
Turns out di Luna’s father burned Azucena’s mother at the stake for being a witch, and Azucena has devoted her life to (what else?) revenge.
Azucena’s first attempt at revenge went horribly wrong. Thinking she was throwing di Luna’s kid brother into the flames, she threw her own child instead. Her motherly instinct then led to raising the kid brother as her own. Manrico (who loves Leonora, remember), it turns out, is actually his arch-rival, Count di Luna’s kid brother. Told you the plot would thicken. The Count doesn’t know this, of course, and thinks his rival is actually the witch’s real son. Two reasons for di Luna to hate this guy, Manrico.
Manrico and di Luna are on opposite sides in the Spanish Civil War of the day (the 1820s one, not the 1930s one, obviously), so they go at it. Manrico is captured. His mother, Azucena, is captured also. Leonora offers herself to di Luna if he will free Manrico. He agrees. Leonora poisons herself. Di Luna then kills Manrico. Azucena says, “Aha! You have killed your brother. Mother, you are avenged!” Curtain.
It’s almost as if they made the story this hard to take (and there were giggles, even guffaws, all evening long) in order to create a contrast with the beauty of the voices. Sort of like medieval artists putting “beauty marks” on their portraits, blemishes which only heighten the contrasting beauty.
Enrico Caruso once said that all it takes for a successful performance of Il Trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world.
I am convinced I saw that performance last night.
In time, I want to poke around in the lives and careers of Leonora (Sondra Radvanovsky), Manrico (Marco Berti) and Azucena (Stephanie Blythe), but it will be a while before I can get to them, so totally enamored am I with the di Luna character. I had to start with the bad guy.
It turns out he’s world famous. I just didn’t know him. So much greater my delight at the discovery, I say.
His name is Dmitri Hvorostovsky /Дмитрий Хворостовский. His last name is too unpronounceable, and it feels presumptuous for me to refer to him as Dmitri, so let me call him DX – Roman letter D and Cyrillic letter X.
Dark, resplendent and sumptuously textured, his voice rolls forth like some majestic force of nature.The San Francisco Chronicle understates it by a long shot. His voice is pure magic.
I was up till 3 in the morning YouTubing this guy. It’s entirely possible I will not find a single soul to share my enthusiasm, but I am posting this anyway, just in case.
Here’s a small part of what I came upon. (I fear I am already including way too much – but I have to find time to get on with other things…)
Here’s some stuff on the man himself. A bit of his history, and the history of bel canto in Russia. How DX grew up in the “gritty industrial city of Krasnoyarsk,” became a drunk and ran around with thugs. (What’s not to love about this success story, I ask you.) Then came to Cardiff in 1989 closely chaperoned by KGB agents and won a world competition over local Welsh favorite, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. Married, had twins, divorced, drank some more, and now appears to be serious (sober since 2001) about getting his act together for the big time he’s clearly got in him.
One of the exciting bits about probing into this guy’s background is reliving the excitement of a world I once knew, a Russian cultural world that exists, along with the Western World, on its own plain, almost like a parallel universe. The YouTube selections, if you follow them, will give you a flavor of that world.
He acquired the name, the “Elvis of Opera” from the fact that he has an incredible stage presence beyond the magical one I felt last night. Something about the way he stands. Fearless looking and strong. Report after report has him infusing his roles with an energy nobody expects to find.
Look at Beverly Sills, for example, gushing over his Eugene Onegin performance at the Met with Renée Fleming.
He has his own web page, of course. And there are a large number of his concert pieces. Here are a few of the classic ones, including one from Trovatore (but you’ve got to supply the white uniform and him all alone on an opera stage):
1. Handel's “ Ombra Mai Fu”
2. Rachmaninoff's “In the silence of the secret night” (Hymn for Lorca)
3. Verdi's "Il Balen del suo soriso" from "Il Trovatore" (Note the smiles on the faces of the orchestra when he finishes.)
Just as the three tenors have taken opera to the masses, DX has given concert after concert in Russia of popular music, including Russian folk songs. Hence the sobriquet, the “Elvis of Opera.” (Elvis, in terms of popularity. I trust the resemblance stops there.)
Before you watch a couple of these, take a look at an interview he gave. Even if you don’t understand Russian, watch it, at least for a bit, and have a look at the charm this guy exudes.
And here are two Russian popular songs.
The first is a popular song of the 1960s or 70s called the Unexpected Waltz, "Случайный Вальс."
I can’t find an English version, so I’ve given a translation the old college try. Don’t hold me to 100% accuracy.
Ночь коротка, спят облака,
И лежит у меня на ладони
Незнакомая ваша рука.
После тревог спит городок,
Я услышал мелодию вальса
И сюда заглянул на часок.
Хоть я с вами совсем не знаком,
И далёко отсюда мой дом,
Я как будто бы снова
Возле дома родного…
В этом зале пустом
Мы танцуем вдвоём,
Так скажите хоть слово,
Сам не знаю о чём.
Будем дружить, петь и кружить.
Я совсем танцевать разучился
И прошу вас меня извинить.
Утро зовёт снова в поход,
Покидая ваш маленький город,
Я пройду мимо ваших ворот.
The night is short,
the clouds are asleep,
and in the palm of my hand
lies your unfamiliar hand.
The town sleeps away its troubles
and I hear the melody of the waltz.
Although we are strangers
And I am far from home
It’s as if were once again
near the place I was born.
In this empty hall we dance
just us two
Though you speak
I know not what you say.
We will grow close, will sing and whirl
across the dance floor.
I have forgotten entirely how to dance
And ask you to forgive me.
The morning calls me once again on my way,
I must leave your little town
I will pass your gate again.
The second is called На Сопках Маньчжурии (Na sopkakh Man’chzhurii - On the hills of Manchuria). It is one of Russia’s most popular songs. Different versions have developed over the years. It is a song about the Battle of Manchuria (the Battle of Mukden, to the Japanese), the final battle in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, in which the Russians lost 89,000 of their 330,000 men. The Japanese, incidently, also lost 71,000 out of 270,000, but won the war. The Japanese then took the victory as impetus to become a military power, but that’s another story.
Just for the sake of contrast, here’s a version of the original song (with subtitles) done by a kid named Maksim Troshin who died at 19. I’ve found him on Russian nationalist and anti-semitic sites. You can see how the song would appeal to the right.
And then listen to the way DX schmalzes it up (And don’t miss the audience eating it up) in the Soviet version: (Sleep peacefully, warriors. The motherland will never forget you.) I leave it to you to decide where the line is between Russian sentimentality and nationalism.
Сумрак на землю лег,
Тонут во мгле пустынные сопки,
Тучей закрыт восток.
Здесь, под землей,
Наши герои спят,
Песню над ними ветер поет и
Звезды с небес глядят.
То не залп с полей долетел -
Это гром вдали прогремел. 2 раза
И опять кругом все так спокойно,
Все молчит в тишине ночной.
Спите, бойцы, спите спокойным сном,
Пусть вам приснятся нивы родные,
Отчий далекий дом.
Пусть погибли вы в боях с врагами,
Подвиг ваш к борьбе нас зовет,
Кровью народной омытое знамя
Мы понесем вперед.
Мы пойдем навстречу новой жизни,
Сбросим бремя рабских оков.
И не забудут народ и отчизна
Доблесть своих сынов.
Спите, бойцы, слава навеки вам!
Нашу отчизну, край наш родимый
Не покорить врагам!
Ночь, тишина, лишь гаолян шумит.
Спите, герои, память о вас
(Again caveat caveat the translation!)
Dusk lay upon the earth
Desert knolls sank in the haze, and
The clouds closed in the east.
Our heroes sleep,
The wind sings a song above them
and the stars look out from the sky.
That’s not a volley flying across the field
It’s thunder. Two times
And again around all that is peaceful,
everything is still, in the quiet night.
Sleep, soldiers. Sleep the peaceful sleep,
May you dream of the fields of your homeland,
of your father’s house far away.
You perished in battle with the enemy,
your death calls us to the fight.
We will carry forward the banner
washed in your blood.
We will go forward towards a new life,
throw off the fetters than enslaved us,
the people will never forget the fatherland
and the valor of its sons.
Sleep, soldiers. Glory to you forever!
Our fatherland, the land of our birth,
will never be subjugated by its enemies.
All that is heard is the rustling of the kaoliang.
Sleep, heroes, the motherland will remember you.
* * *There’s so much more to be had about this guy. There’s more popular Russian romance pieces
like Тёмная Ночь (Dark is the Night). (I’ll skip further translations.) There's Где-то Далеко (Somewhere Far Away). And here he is horsing around in “Tenderness,” and again, at rehearsal.
I could include a bunch of his stuff from before he turned prematurely gray, but since I think his greatness that isn’t already evident is yet to come, and I want to get back again, before we go, to opera
There's Ya vas lyublyu (I love you) from Queen of Spades, and here he is, with Pavarotti, doing “Le minaccie, i fieri accenti” from Forza del Destino. And there's a Charlie Rose Interview (It's halfway through the program, at minute 33) after the success of Prokofieff’s War and Peace at the Met in New York. DX talks about how he surrenders his own personality once on stage and becomes a different person.
Bless you if you're still reading this indulgent romp through the YouTube world. All I can say is there is so much more.
Let me stop with a curious side-note.
DX has embraced Russian music with a vengeance, and become a kind of Russian cultural ambassador, dedicated himself to familiarizing non-Russian audiences with Russian music, as the previous Charlie Rose interview indicates. Remember his interview with Beverly Sills during the performance of Eugene Onegin at the Met. And given his inclination to indulge Russians by taking on a kind of Josh Groban role and going whole-hog on popularizing the classical, and his embrace of Russian nationalist sentiment, I would have expected to find a true cultural conservative.
But then I came across this bit.
The Munich Opera House, under Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, produced what some came to call the Brokeback Mountain version of Eugene Onegin. The love story is between two men, and the famous Polonaise at the ball is danced by a corps of bare-chested gay cowboys. [This may be a little hard to access. Click on the link in this paragraph to Brokeback Mountain version..., then scroll down to 31 October, "Brokeback it is" and the click on "video trailer" in the 5th paragraph. You may have to open your Quick Time Player first.]
It was roundly booed, I understand, and some of the reviews are pretty vicious.
But here’s DX’s comment on the whole thing:
“I shall see for myself,” Mr. Hvorostovsky said. “These devoted friendships between Russian men at that time could be sexual.” Intimations of romantic feelings between Onegin and Lensky run through the source, Pushkin’s verse novel, he said: “It’s very tender, the way it’s written.”What’s not to love about this man?
Wonder if I can change my name to Hvorostovsky?