Category Archives: Top 5/Top 10

Classical pieces make it to The Star’s 100 saddest songs list

Just saw The Star’s 100 saddest songs list via Dooce.com and was pleased to find that several pieces of classical music has made the list. Tomasino Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor and Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”  were perhaps not terribly surprising additions to the list, but I was glad that Dido made it as far as to the top 20 of the list, and I was so pleased to see Dowland’s “In Darkness let me Dwell” take the list’s bronze medal for sadness. I was also impressed that Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” was included – I’m not even sure I would have thought of that one, but it’s really apt, I think. And it doesn’t get much sadder than “Der Leiermann”, so kudos to The Star for commemorating Schubert, too. Every lied from Winterreise might well have been included, but of course they would have taken up too much space, and I do think the ole’ hurdy-gurdy man is a good representative.

Not so sure about Chopin’s prelude no. 4 in E-minor, though. I’ve heard it described as “sad” before, but I really think it’s more sensual and/or languid than it is sad. Fact: when I was a teenager I once had a make-out session to this very piece and it worked just fine . Also, let’s not forget that this was the very piece to which Tori Spelling did a striptease in the movie Co-ed Call Girl.
(Come to think of it, do let’s forget about it. Let’s forget that scene ever happened.)

Anyway, I thought I’d make a few extra suggestions for classical contributions to the list of saddest songs:

“Ack! Istomilas ya gorem” from Tchaikovsky: Pique Dame
I’ve talked about this one before, but it remains one of the saddest arias ever to me:

“Se pietà di me non senti” from Händel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto
Such a rush of sadness in the strings in this one, and such an eloquent tristesse in the soprano voice:

“Ella giammai m’amo” from Verdi: Don Carlos
It’s starting to border on the ridiculous how many times I’ve written about this aria, but there it is: When it comes to sadness there is just no way around King Philip alone in his chamber, dreading death and mourning his loveless marriage:

“Flow my Tears” by John Dowland
Because we were not done with John Dowland just yet. And because Andreas Scholl rocks:

Funeral March from Wagner: Götterdämmerung
I’ll admit that this one isn’t just sad. It’s also grandiose. It’s also intimidating and frightening. It’s also hopeful in some places, stirring as it does with the memory of the fallen hero. But the sadness immanent in the piece is definitely sufficient to earn this piece a place on the list. Besides, it heralds the ending of an entire world, so as far as sadness goes it doesn’t get much more in-your-face-ish than this:

Coventry Carol
It’s a lullaby for a baby doomed to be murdered. ‘Nuff said.

Now let’s hear your favorite sad classical pieces! Or non-classical, I’m not picky.

The Apostrophic Prop – My five favourite inanimate objects in operas

Opera props. They don’t get the grand arias, and yet they often manage to steal the show. Below are five examples.

5. “Vecchia zimarra” – Colline’s coat in La Bohème
I’m including this one because it’s probably one of the most famous instances of an inanimate object taking center stage in an opera, and it illustrates quite well how an object can be useful in the story of an opera.

The element of surprise is an important factor here. Opera makes much use of the apostrophe – the idea of addressing someone who is absent or dead (or dying). We’re used to opera characters expressing their yearning for their lover (like Rodolfo in “Ah, Mimì, tu più non torni”) or their native country (like Aida with “O patria mia”) or praying to an – absent – god, like Norma’s “Casta Diva”. But when a character is suddenly addressing an inanimate object which, thus, becomes the apostrophe, it’s hard not to be taken by surprise and struck by the gesture. It seems unreasonable to be wasting that much attention on a stupid old coat when a woman is dying on stage at the same time.

But of course that’s exactly the effect that the composer and librettist are going with Colline. We’re thrown at first by the amount of attention Colline’s squandering on his measly piece of clothing, but once we recover we understand all the more fully the miserable poverty which is at the core of the La Bohème story. No one should have to be that attached to a coat, and certainly no one should have to make the choice between a warm coat in the winter and medicine for a dying friend.

4. “La tua fanciulla io sono” – The handkerchief in Otello
If there is something silly about the attention paid to the coat in La Bohème, the attention paid to the handkerchief in Otello is downright grotesque. Otello and Desdemona share such a great, solid love, and yet something as thin and flimsy as a handkerchief is able to come between them, and this point adds considerably to the feeling of tragedy in the story. Shakespeare always had a great eye for little details like these, but I think Verdi added a lot to this particular opera MacGuffin in his opera. The handkerchief appears in several scenes throughout the opera, the Emilia/Iago/Desdemona/Otello quartet with the handkerchief in its center being the most interesting of these, I think. Like in Verdi’s much more famous quartetBella figlia dell’amore” from Rigoletto, we get to hear the confusing, conflicting thoughts of four different individuals all at once, as the wretched, fatal little handkerchief changes hands for the first time in the opera:

(from circa 06:29)

The handkerchief-MacGuffin impressed Puccini sufficiently that he included a reference to it in his Tosca. “Iago had a handkerchief, I have a fan” says Scarpia, as he schemes to make a fan come between Tosca and her lover Mario.

3. “Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst” – The Severed head of John the Baptist in Salome
Sometimes the fascination of the apostrophic inanimate object in an opera stems from the fact that the object is in fact inanimate, that is, not living. This is the case in Richard Strauss gruelling opera Salome in which Salome addresses the severed head of John the Baptist:

The scene is horrifying because we, the audience, are all too aware that the bloody, lifeless, severed head that Salome is clutching can serve as nothing more than an apostrophe. Yet Salome insists that it is not an apostrophe, that Jochanan is there, sensitive to her touch, and her lips pressed against his.

Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen, Jochanaan! Wohl, ich werde ihn jetzt küssen! Ich will mit meinen Zähnen hineinbeißen, wie man in eine reife Frucht beißen mag. Ja, ich will ihn jetzt küssen, deinen Mund, Jochanaan. Ich hab’ es gesagt. Hab’ ich’s nicht gesagt? Ja, ich hab’ es gesagt. Ah! Ah! Ich will ihn jetzt küssen … Aber warum siehst du mich nicht an, Jochanaan? Deine Augen, die so schrecklich waren, so voller Wut und Verachtung, sind jetzt geschlossen. Warum sind sie geschlossen? Öffne doch die Augen, erhebe deine Lider, Jochanaan! Warum siehst du mich nicht an? Hast du Angst vor mir, Jochanaan, daß du mich nicht ansehen willst? (….) Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ah! Ich habe ihn geküßt deinen Mund, es war ein bitterer Geschmack auf deinen Lippen. Hat es nach Blut geschmeckt? Nein! Doch es schmeckte vielleicht nach Liebe … Sie sagen, daß die Liebe bitter schmecke … Allein, was tut’s? Was tut’s? Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ich habe ihn geküßt, deinen Mund.

2. “L’ho perduta! Me meschina!” The pin in Le Nozze di Figaro
Brrrrr! Ok, on to something a bit lighter: Le Nozze di Figaro. This opera buffa is basically one big scheme, and a pin plays a quite important part in it. Susanna, while trying to trick the lustful Count into thinking she’ll meet him in the garden for a tête-a-tête later that night, hands the Count a letter sealed with a pin that he must give back to her as a confirmation of their date. Barbarina is charged with the responsibility of bringing the pin back to Susanna, but she loses it. Despite not quite grasping the significance of the pin, she is devastated and naively tells Figaro of her blunder. Figaro doesn’t realise that Susanna is merely playing an elaborate prank on the Count and gets jealous out of his mind.

There’s a bit of the Otello handkerchief atmosphere going on here, what with all the marital problems and jealousy, but it’s quite obviously played for laughs by Mozart and librettist da Ponte. “L’ho perduta, me meschina” is a much too beautiful and solemn aria to be sung about a silly little pin, and the use of a pin as a prop on stage has great comedic potential: It’s way to small to ever actually be seen from the audience seats. There is also something ridiculously phallic about the image of a pin (consider Burt Bacarach’s song lyrics: “What do you get when you fall in love?/A guy with a pin to burst your bubble”), and indeed Danish director Kasper Holten once staged a version of Figaro in which it was obvious that Barbarina was singing about the loss of, well, her bubble to the Count’s, ahem, pin. Finally, there is the possible slap-stick gag of a character accidentally pricking his finger on the pin, which does in fact happen to the Count as he is first handed Susanna’s note. This causes him to deliver my all-time favourite random throw-away line in an opera:

“Ugh, women are always putting pins everywhere!”

1. The embroidered jersey – Peter Grimes
The one opera prop that truly gets to me, however, is the knitted jersey from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. Ellen Orford and Grimes’ friend Balstrode find a small jersey that has washed up on shore, and by its special ornamental embroidery Ellen recognises it as a jersey she knitted for Grimes’ young boy apprentice. Grimes’ previous apprentice died in accidental circumstances, and Balstrode and Ellen Orford have tried hard to defend Grimes against the claims that Grimes was responsible, but the washed up jersey forces them to face the fact that Grimes has, whether wittingly or not, brought death upon yet another child.

Embroidery in childhood was
A luxury of idleness.
A coil of silken thread giving
Dreams of a silk and satin life.
Now my broidery affords
The clue whose meaning we avoid.
My hand remembered its old skill –
These stitches tell a curious tale.
I remember I was brooding
On the fantasies of children
And dreamt that only by wishing I
Could bring some silk into their lives.
Now my broidery affords
The clue whose meaning we avoid.

A silk and satin life – the ornamental anchor that Ellen stitched on the jersey holds such a heartbreaking significance. The purpose of the jersey was to keep the apprentice warm enough for him to perform his duties at sea. But the purpose of the stitched anchor was to show the boy that he was cared for, that he was human. The aria reminds me of a passage from Alice Munro’s short story “Privilege” about the significance of a series of bird illustrations amid the ruthless, merciless conditions at the early-20th-century provinsial school of Rose, the young protagonist:

“One thing in the school was captivating, lovely. Pictures of birds. Rose didn’t know if the teacher had climbed up and nailed them above the blackboard, too high for easy desecration, if they were her first and last hopeful effort, or if they dated from some earlier, easier time in the school’s history. Where had they come from, how had they arrived there, when nothing else did, in the way of decoration, illustration?
A red-headed woodpecker; an oriole; a blue jay; a Canada goose. The colors clear and long-lasting. Backgrounds of pure snow, of blossming braches, of heady summer sky. In an ordinary classroom they would not have seemed so extraordinary. Here they were bright and eloquent, so much at variance with everything else that what they seemed to represent was not the birds themselvess, not those skies and snows, but some other world of hardy innocence, bounteous information, privileged lightheartedness. No stealing form lunchpails there; no slashing coats; no pulling down pants and probing with painful sticks,; no fucking…”

If the surroundings are reducing indivduals to dispensable things to be used and discarded, if accusations and verbal abuse has taken the place of dialogue, then the communication through the inanimate object becomes the only means of expressing love, and hope, and recognition.  And there’s so much of that in Ellen’s aria here: Her love for Peter, her hopes for a happy life with him, and her recognition of John, the apprentice, as a fellow human being who might want something pretty to look at.

Top 5: Favourite lullabies in classical music

I meant to post this for Mother’s Day yesterday, but got delayed. Here it is now – dedicated to my wonderful mother who deserves a gold medal for having put up with me when I was a perpetually screaming baby who refused to sleep, ever. She has continued to be incredibly patient with me during the following 28 years, and I am eternally grateful to her.

5. “Sov du dyreste guten min” (Solveig’s lullaby) by Edvard Grieg

A lovely, tranquil lullaby. The Norwegian lyrics describe a mother holding her sleepy baby boy:

“Sleep, my most precious boy
I shall cradle you, I shall watch over you
The boy has been in his mother’s arms
The two have played together for all the life-long day

The boy has slumbered by his mother’s breast
All of the life-long day. God bless you, my joy!
The boy has been lying so close to my heart
All of the life-long day. Now he is so tired.

Sleep, my most precious boy.
I shall cradle you, I shall watch over you
Sleep, sleep.”

The sunny, peaceful atmosphere of the song is contrasted by the dramatic context of the song: It actually isn’t sung by a mother to her sleepy infant song, but to Peer Gynt by Peer Gynt’s beloved and faithful Solveig, to whom Peer returns after having lived through a series of fantastic adventures and a close-call encounter with Satan himself. Peer Gynt is most likely dying while Solveig sings to him, although this is left ambigious by Henrik Ibsen in his original play.

4. “Mädel, mach’s Lädel zu!” from Wozzeck by Alban Berg

Perhaps one of the most unsettling lullabies ever, if it can even be categorized as a lullaby. Wozzeck’s wife Marie sings this song to her young son while admiring a piece of jewelry that her lover has given her:

“Girl, close the shutters
A gypsy lad is on the prowl
He will lead you off by the hand
To his far-off gypsy land”

The lullaby perfectly sums up the general feeling of fear and uncertainty that embues Büchner’s Woyzeck  as well as Berg’s opera. This is exactly the kind of song haunted, doomed and just generally screwed-up Marie would sing to her (SPOILER ALERT!!1) soon-to-be orphaned son.

Also, it is an example of a 12-note aria that I actually know by heart. And by “an example of a”, I really mean “the only”. So.

3. “Sol deroppe” by Niels W. Gade / Peter Heise
The lyrics for this one was a poem written by Hans Christian Andersen as part of a series of songs about Agnete and the Merman. I have to say that I generally think that Andersen was kind of a clumsy poet – he was much, much better as a writer of short stories and fairy tales, which was of course the genre eventually brought him international acclaim.

But this song is really very lovely. It’s a lullaby, written for the character of Agnete, who is singing to one of the seven sons that she has had with the merman. A mer-child, if you will, but I’m not going to go into any speculations as to whether or not such a child would have gills or grow up to develop insane fish mating rituals because that would just totally spoil the romance. But the lyrics are really lovely, and I like how they subtely hint at the fact that Agnete is not completely at peace with her life under the sea – when soothing her child, she painstakingly compares every under-water phenomenon surrounding her to the phenomena of the world she used to live in on the shore:

The sun up there is sinking
Sleep, my child, and grow big and strong!
You shall ride on the wild mer-horse
The meadow grows so prettily beneath the wave

The whales with their broad fins
hover over you like great clouds
The sun and the moon shine through the water
You shall have both of them in your dreams

Hush-a-by! I bore you in pain
Be my joy forever, year by year
You have drunk Life by my heart
to my heart each of your tears will flow

Sleep, my child, I am sitting by your crib
Let me kiss your eyes shut.
When one day my eyes are closed
Who will be your mother then?

Original Danish lyrics here

Two different melodies exist for the song – one by Peter Heise and one by Niels W. Gade. I was unable to find an online recording of the song, but you can hear the Heise version here, and the Niels W. Gade version here. The gentle Heise melody works better as a lullaby, but the more sophisticaed version by Gade probably works better if sung as a lied, so I like them both.

2. “Dormi, amor mio” from Madame Butterfly by Puccini



I actually didn’t even think I liked Madame Butterfly until only last year. All that waiting…! And why would I even care about a painfully naive teenage girl and her asshat American faux husband? But then I saw it live in a theatre for the first time ever, and in a production that I really liked, and I was moved. I still think the main characters are absolute idiots, but I think that Puccini’s music more than makes up for this, beautiful as it is. My favourite part is the coro muto, but I also really like Cio-Cio San’s lullaby, sung to her aptly-named half-american toddler Sorrow:

Sweet, thou art sleeping,
Cradled on my heart;
Safe in God’s keeping,
While I must weep apart.
Around thy head the moonbeams dart:
Sleep, my beloved!

(Translation by R. H. Elkin via opera.stanford.edu)

Just like the earthly imagery mixed with that of the sea in Agnete’s lullaby, Puccini mixes the harmonies of Japanese folk songs with what appears to be religious lyrics of the western world when singing to her Japanese-American little boy, with whom she must soon (SPOILER ALERT!!!!1!) part forever. It never fails to make me sniffle.

1. “Bow thy corolla, thou bloom”by Carl Nielsen


We have already seen, in the Grieg lullaby, how sleep and death can be closely interwoven in a cradle song, and I think this is an important point. Any mother who has ever checked on her sleeping baby to see if it’s still breathing will recognise the fear of losing her child, and I wonder if the baby, too, doesn’t on some level fear that it will perish while sleeping? I struggled with insomnia from infancy all through my childhood; a stubborn, insistant insomnia that didn’t go away until I was in my teens and got overpowered by that obligatory adolescent fatigue and laziness. I later found out that severe childhood insomnia is a common trait among children who, like myself, were suffering while inside their mother’s womb due to a difficult pregnancy. These children fear sleep because they are afraid of letting go – they feel certain that they will die if they do.

This is why I’m so fond of this particular lullaby, in which the lyrics hint at the image of not just the cradling of a weary child, but the soothing of a person who is dying. This tendency becomes especially clear in the third stanza which, in an almost startling manner, features the image of a slumbering child as a comparison rather than as a description. The mention of the night drawing near coupled with the encouragement to humble prayer, too, always struck me as ominous, and the melody lingers somewhere ambigiously between the minor and the major, with a crescendo rising in the fifth to eighth bar of each stanza. Eventually, however, it’s the feeling of soothing, the prospect of peaceful sleep, that takes over, and my inner fearful, tired little infant loves this.

I know that an English translation of the song exists, but I have been unable to find it, so here it is in my own direct translation:

Bow thy corolla, thou bloom
Let it descend into the leaves
Await with closed petals
The blissful peace of night

The night, mild and quiet,
is  drawing near – oh, bow and pray
Sleep beneath golden stars
Sleep yourself blessed and sound

Sleep like a child that is rocked
Gently in its mother’s arms
Awaking only partly to sigh
with a smile its mother’s name.

Top five most lovable unloved men in operas

Annina Teatime let me borrow her boxed set of The Forsyte Saga a few days ago, about the same time as I started my Christmas vacation (a bit early – I’m working off over-time).

I thought I could handle this, but I couldn’t. My Forsyte Saga watching has been out of control. I’ve watched the entire series already, and I may have to write a whole separate entry on it. I have also fallen in love with Soames Forsyte, whom I’m convinced is just misunderstood. I can save him, you know. Poor old cuckold Soames. He just loves too much, that’s all.

And this got me thinking about men in operas who love too much and who are not loved. There are quite a few of them, and I’m always very fond of them and always found them to be as central to the story as the lovestruck tenor and soprano. I guess you could say that in a way they represent all the rest of us who can’t quite reach the heights of the leading tenor and the soprano and thus can only act as fascinated or maybe even jealous spectators to their all-consuming love and passion for one another.

5. Achille – Giulio Cesare – “Dal fulgor di questa spada”
I’ll be honest, I’m not completely sure what I’m on about here. Achille is really not that lovable. And of course Cornelia shouldn’t marry him, she just lost her beloved husband, and Achille doesn’t really show himself to be anything but a brute. But I still like him, and I especially like the masculine energy of this aria, so he gets a spot on the list.

4. Renato – Un ballo in maschiero – “O dolcezze perdute! O memorie”
Renato is not a brute – he actually seems rather refined, his raging jealousy notwithstanding. And as much becomes clear through his lovely aria “O dolcezze perdute! O memorie”, which I think is an underrated aria. It’s so lovely, and Renato displays a tenderness here that easily compares to that of the Riccardo – the melody of Renato’s aria even seems to quote the first eight bars Riccardo’s first love aria (“la rivedra nell’estasi”) slightly.

Dimitri Hvorostovsky does subtle sorrow so well. And look how young he is here! Hardly a white hair in sight.

3. Yeletsky – Pique Dame – “Ya vas lyublyu”
Poor Yeletsky – stuck with a sweet, but slightly dull and musically predictable aria, his problem seems to be that he is just not capable of the kind of passion that Liza needs from a man – and thus he loses her to a man who is too passionate; the ludomaniac Herman:

I’ve discussed this aria in my top 5 Tchaikovsky list.

2. King Philip – Don Carlo – “Ella giammi m’amo”
I actually find this to be the best, and most heart-wrenching unloved opera man moment in opera history, and the only reason I only let it come in second  is that I think it would be wrong to reduce this aria to being only about a man mourning his unrequited love. As I’ve discussed in my top 5 of favourite opera moments, this aria pretty much sums up the entire misery of the human condition, and Philip’s cuckold state is just a small part of this. But it is incredibly beautiful, so of course I had to include it:

Ferrucio Furlanetto rocks my world. A wonderful voice and incredible acting.

1. Count Luna – Il trovatore – “Il balen del suo sorriso”
I think “Il balen del suo sorriso” is the ultimate Unloved Man aria in all its perfect simplicity. The melody is almost childishly simple, because King Philip’s, Count Luna’s problem is no complicated matter. He loves a woman who loves someone else, nothing more, nothing less. But Verdi still finds a way to express both Luna’s sincerity in his feelings for his Leonora – and his frustration. The latter most prominently in the parts “Ah! l’amor, l’amore ond’ardo”, and in the concluding cadenza of the aria. Just lovely:

And look! It’s Dimitri Hvorostovsky, once again. Slightly older here, but still breathtaking and with a great take on Luna’s frustration.

Top 5 Favourite Tchaikovsky Opera Moments

I meant to post this in order to celebrate the fact that Tchaikovsky would have been 170 last Friday if he hadn’t died under semi-suspicious circumstances , but then, I dunno, Life just happened, I guess, and I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to post these past few days.

I did have the presence of mind, though, to save the little doodle that Google and the San Francisco Ballet did for Tchaikovsky’s Birthday:

A nice doodle, and I guess this is what most people associate Tchaikovsky with: Ballets. And certainly, ballets like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty are absolute classics. The Nut Cracker was actually the first performance of anything I attended at The Royal Theatre when I was three years old, wearing my nicest dress, and mesmerised by Tchaikovsky’s music, the dancers on stage and all the red plush alike. I lost my heart to ballet and theatre that day, so I have a lot to thank ballet!Tchaikovsky for.

However, my favourite Tchaikovsky works are definitely his operas. I think Tchaikovsky was a fantastic opera composer. He had a flair for pathos, which is crucial in opera composition, and somehow the raw, powerful operatic voices just suit his music perfectly, adding as they do a little edge to his orchestration which, in my opinion, sometimes gets rather too sweet and rounded otherwise. So I thought I’d do one of my Top 5s in his honour, listing my favourite Tchaikovsky opera moments.

Now, this list will be somewhat limited by the fact that I only know Pique Dame and Eugen Onegin. But I hope you’ll bear with me, and if you know of other great Tchaikovsky opera moments, don’t hesitate to post a comment!

5. Pique Dame – Yeletsky’s Aria
Yeletsky doesn’t have an enormous part in Pique Dame, but I always liked him. He seems like a genuinely nice guy, he really digs his lovely fiancée Liza, and yet Liza chooses Herman, the reckless cleptomaniac. It’s really not fair or even rational, but that’s Love for ya: It’s an irrational thing, and for all his faults, Herman is simply the more interesting and more attractive man. And I love how Yeletsky’s aria sort of reflects this, at least to me. It’s a a pretty aria, but its melody is also somewhat boring and predictable. Yeletsky struggles somewhat in the bridge of the aria to break free, to give voice to the frustration he feels upon seeing Liza slowly slip away from him, but ultimately the aria betrays a lack of that passion that makes Herman so special to Liza:

Brought to you by the ever mullet-astic Dimitri Hvorostovsky. You know, Dimitri Hvorostovsky ought to have been included in the Mulletology that Wolf Gnards did recently, because his mullet really is a fascinating phenomenon. I’m about as anti-mullet as you can get, but somehow Hvorostovsky manages to make himself look artistic and serious with his mullet. How does he do it? I’m guessing it’s his awesome voice and his dramatic presence. I am a fan.

4. Eugen Onegin -Lensky’s aria
See, this is an example of how great Tchaikovsky was with pathos. Pushkin’s poem Eugen Onegin was inspired by tongue-in-cheek meta-novels such as Tristram Shandy. Thus the characters in the poem are treated with an ironic distance, and the overly romantic Lensky is no exception. But there’s not much room for ironic distance in the superlative atmosphere of opera, and Tchaikovsky was obviously aware of this when he created his opera!Lensky who may be overly romantic, but who manages to tug at our heartstrings more than at our scornful snicker.

*sniff!*

I think it’s impossible not to feel for Lensky here. Losing both his love, his best friend, and his young life, all within a 24-hour span. This happens to a lot of opera characters, but Lensky is especially moving, because he has been so incredibly sweet and naïve up until this point. Nobody deserves to have all their illusions shattered this quickly.

3. Pique Dame: The Countess’ Aria
Old People’s Arias are such a rare thing. Possibly because opera character don’t tend to reach old age. But the Countess of Pique Dame does, and she expresses herself in this wonderful piece of music which I feel is central to the opera, because it’s so it’s so ominous. It fleshes out the Countess as an actual person with feelings and a backstory rather than just a nagging old auntie, all the while foreshadowing her violent death and thematizing the dangerous allience and love and gambling.

“Je sens mon coeur qui bat, qui bat,/je ne sais pas pourquoi.”

2. Pique Dame: Liza’s aria (“Akh! Istomilas ya gorem”)
(Yay! Finally a Tchaikovsky aria that I actually know the title of.)

In this aria, Liza waits in vain for her Hermann in the bitter Russia cold, having given up everything in order to be with him. Never has an aria sounded so cold, so bitterly cold and sad. I’ve already dedicated a blog entry to this aria, so I won’t go on about it again. But here it is, sung by the always sublime Freni:

1. Eugen Onegin: Eugen and Tatiana’s final duet
To be honest, it’s a tie for me between Liza’s aria and this one, but I had to make a choice, and this one won, only because it made it possible for me to put on display once more Hvorostovsky’s dramatic skills and awesome baritone, combined with Renée Fleming’s sweet, dignified mein and delicious soprano:

I’ve actually blogged about this opera moment before, too. It took bronze in my “What I Talk about When I Talk About Opera” list, and here’s what I wrote about it back then:

I first saw the opera last Spring in a Copenhagen cinema, where the staging of the above clip was shown on the big screen. I was there with an opera-loving friend, and neither of us were prepared for the impact the opera had on us. After the first act, we were both very much affected by the rejection that Tatiana lived through, and ended up spending the entire break relating to her pain and discussing painful rejections that we had lived through ourselves. And, familiar the storyline of Eugene Onegin, we were both looking forward to the final scene, where Eugene Onegin re-enters an older, married Tatiana’s life, only to be rejected by her, even though she still loves him. “That ought to show that haughty jerk!”, we agreed, anticipating sweet, by-proxy revenge over the men who had hurt us ”Then he’ll regret his own arrogance!”

But then, when we did reach the final act, what we found was that there was no victory in her rejection – at all. Tatiana was miserable and not triumphant in the least, when she rejected Eugene Onegin. And contemplating their desperate last duet with each other, we fully forgave him, too. Because revenge isn’t sweet at all, and no triumphant haughtiness could ever make up for the pain of lost love. Which is a beautiful message, but a heart-wrenching one, too. My friend and I were both moved to tears and were visibly trembling when the lights in the theatre went up again after Eugene’s “O, lamentable fate!” and the opera’s dramatic final cords. She and I had to take a long walk afterwards to steady ourselves, we were that shaken. I’ll never forget that day.

I think the above staging, with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky is absolutely brilliant, and I can’t imagine it being done better than this. The scenography and the costumes are simple, but bear impact, Renée Fleming is wonderfully sweet in the part of bold daydreamer Tatiana, Hvorostovsky is every bit as haughty as he should be, and the two of them have magnificient chemistry. Bravi! Also, *sob*.

I still stand by this.

Belated Happy Birthday, Pyotr.

Number One Favourite Opera Kiss

I’d like to do a Top 5 of Favourite Opera Kisses, but opera kisses are ephemeral things. Most opera kisses take place on stage with no camera to record them, and a lot of them are not even real, straight-on-the-lips kisses, since opera singers tend to protect their vocal cords by going to great lengths in order to avoid each others’ bacteria-infested mouths, so I don’t have a list of opera kisses to choose from. But there is one opera kiss that stands out to me as the all-time best of its kind. This is, of course, the Scarpia/Tosca kiss of the 1992 on-location Tosca movie.

Best opera kiss ever, according to At the Lighthouse:


(Kissage starts up at 3:35.)

Why is this the best opera kiss ever?
Oh, there are several reasons why. Here they are, bullet-pointed:

  • The music. The strings-dominated music that accompanies this kiss is fab. It’s breathtakingly dramatic and beautiful, and yet what do most stagings have Scarpia do here? They have him f-ing write a letter. Sure, it’s the letter that will provide Tosca with a pass to flee Rome along with her death-sentenced Mario, so it’s important to the story, but still. Unless you’re Tatiana in Eugen Onegin, it’s nearly impossible to make letter-writing look dramatic. So I always felt that by having Scarpia kiss Tosca passionately here, director Brian Large fulfilled a potential that the music always had, and I love that. And as Large’s Tosca shows there’s still plenty of time for Scarpia to write his document after the kiss.
  • The sexual tension. To me it’s crucial that Tosca be a love triangle, rather than simply the story of two lovers fighting an evil, lustful tyrant. Taking place in Rome in June 1800, Tosca is all about times of political change; Mario represents the rebels, Scarpia the established power, and the way I see it, Tosca, representing the things that both parties want (love, art, beauty, popularity), should waver somewhere in between these two instances. Her heart belongs to the rebels, but one would be simplifying the story if one overlooked the fact that Tosca is very much in the pocket of the establishment. They deliver her paycheck. She sings at their victory parties. They appreciate her, and she knows and likes this.
    And I think as much should be illustrated via the love triangle by a vague attraction on Tosca’s part towards Scarpia. It’s a balancing act, certainly, because you don’t want it to veer off into rape-victim-totally-asked-for-it territory, but it should be there. And in the kiss in the 1992 Tosca it is so totally there. Scarpia may be the aggressive one, but Tosca is obviously at least somewhat into it, all gaspy and swooning.
    Again, it’s a balancing act, and I would never want to see Tosca openly lusting for Scarpia, but this ambiguously reciprocal kiss is just subtle enough for the latent attraction between the Diva and the Establishment to work.
  • Ruggero Raimondi. Hot. Hot. Raimondi’s ability to look at a woman like he wants to devour her goes unparalleled in opera as well as any other performing arts and is surpassed only by his ability to raise a single eyebrow suggestively. In fact, to have Raimondi play Scarpia and not have him kiss Tosca passionately is a missed opportunity (are you listening, Benoît Jacquot?. Angela Gheorghiu could, as Han Solo once put it, “use a good kiss”.)

So, in conclusion, are you saying that this is in fact the perfect opera kiss?
No, no, not at all. It’s not romantic in the least, so if you’re after that sort of thing, this kiss is no good. And Catherine Malfitano annoys me to no end. Her acting is way over the top (she is a perfect example of over-doing of the Tosca-Scarpia attraction, for instance. Why the hell would Tosca start groping Scarpia’s man-boobs* like she does at 3:16? The guy just tried to rape her, like, two seconds ago!), and I don’t even think she has a very attractive voice. But the kiss has enough redeeming qualities, as listed above, to make up for these minor flaws, I’ve been drooling over it since I was a teenager, and chances are I’m never going to get tired of it.

* I do not really mean to say that Ruggero Raimondi has man-boobs. I have nothing but love for Ruggero Raimondi. Marry me, Ruggerone!

Top 5: Favourite Angry Arias

I guess you can’t really get into opera without being into really intense feelings, because aside from being about people singing instead of talking, operas are usually about people who feel things really intensely. Opera personas are rarely indifferent. They are rarely put in situations that call for indifference either. Opera stories are usually both dramatic and fairly bloody, and opera personas have to put up with a lot of crap. And thus, if opera personas get angry, they tend to get pissed. There is no “annoyed” or “slightly miffed” in the world of opera, only full-blown anger.

And I like that about opera, because it’s a wonderfully cathartic thing to behold. If you ever feel angry about something or other and you can’t get it out of your system for whatever reason, listening to some opera is not the worst solution. You can be certain that however angry you are feeling at the moment, the opera persona will always be angrier than you are. Or, to put it in graphic terms:

See? Your every-day anger curve is not likely to ever be able to match that of an angry opera persona. You rarely have to put up with the things opera personas put up with, and you’re too easily distracted by things such as the tuna sandwich.  And so, however angry you are feeling, you can listen to opera music and take comfort in the fact that the opera persona will without doubt be angrier than you are at the given moment. It’s a comforting, and a cathartic experience all at once, and you should definitely try it out.

If you are not familiar with opera, here’s a quick guide to what I would define as the Five Best Angry Arias and how these may serve as a means of catharsis:

5. Rigoletto: “Cortigiani, vil’ razza dannata!”
You know what would suck? Being forced by physical deformity and poverty into working as a court jester for a decadent, promiscuous duke. This is the kind of crap hunch-backed Rigoletto has to put up with, and granted, Rigoletto is pretty damned angry right from the start of Verdi’s opera. His anger culminates, however, as he has to go retrieve his beloved daughter at the Duke’s castle after she’s been abducted by noblemen, only to be met by said noblemen who tell him that no, they haven’t seen the young girl, and that the Duke is out hunting. Which, as Rigoletto quickly surmises, translates to: “Your daughter is being defiled in the Duke’s bed chamber as we speak.” And this is where Rigoletto loses it:

(Anger starts at 3:27 in the video). Great anger scene, right there. We’re at approximately 80-90 % anger here, I would say. Everything from the cursing lyrics (“razza danata!”) via Rigoletto’s forte vocals, to the rush of the orchestra, signals anger and will provide you with a great outlet for your own frustration.

For the best angry catharsis experience, you will have to turn off the aria again at 4:55 when Rigoletto decides to try the humble approach and becomes rather pathetic, pleading for mercy on his knees. But other than that, this is the perfect angry aria to turn to for catharsis if your anger stems from a feeling of being out of control with your own life and destiny (“Angry Because Work Sucks” would fit into this category, I think). Or if you’re desperately trying to defend your daughter’s virginity, but that happens so rarely these days.

4. Le Nozze di Figaro: “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi
Figaro is a bit of an atypical angry opera persona in as much as things actually turn out pretty great for him. He doesn’t die, in fact nobody dies, and he even gets the girl in the end. Also, he is not even right to be angry by the time of his angry aria. In the aria he is complaining that women are an unfaithful lot, believing himself to be a cuckold, when in fact he isn’t at all: His girlfriend Susanna is pure as snow and has never cheated on him. However, it should be acknowledged that Figaro has to take a fair amount of crap from his surroundings. In the opera’s very first scene he finds out that his old friend, the Count, is trying very persistently to get to bone Figaro’s girlfriend, Susanna. That’s got to be a pretty big crisis in its own right and it’s bound to give a guy a few trust issues.

In any case, it inspires a pretty good angry aria, and what I particularly like about it, is how rant-y it is. It’s an aria that’s perfect if you’re in the mood for ranting, because, in the wrong or not, Figaro gives an excellent rant here, as evidenced from 00:38 to 01:06 in the below video:

“…maestre-d’inganni-amiche-d’affanni-che fingono-mentono-amore-non-senton, non senton pietà, no, no, no, no!” It took a bit of practising, but I managed to memorise the lyrics several years ago, and the aria never fails to bring me some satisfaction when I’m in a rant-y mood of my own.

3. Don Giovanni: “Ah! Chi mi dice mai”
Donna Elvira is like the matron saint of smited loving opera women. She cannot catch a break. Even before we’ve met her in Don Giovanni she’s been seduced, then left by Don Giovanni, and thus she’s angry the moment she enters the stage (around 70%, I’d say), singing her aria “Ah! Chi me dice mai” about how she would like to carve out the heart of her seducer (at least, you know, if he doesn’t want to return to her):

(Cecilia Bartoli gives good Angry).

This is an aria that’s particularly effective if you’re going through a case of heart-ache and need to vent in an aggressive sort of way.

2. The Magic Flute: “Der Hölle Rache”
I excluded this one from my Magic Flute Top 5, but I guess there’s no real way around it this time. The aria has the word “rage” in its title after all. In many ways it really is the ultimate angry aria, with its impressive, furious coloratura and the raging ultimatum expressed in its lyrics: “Kill Sarastro or I will disown you, my daughter.”

I’ve picked the Diana Damrau version, because she is the angriest Queen of the Night I’ve ever seen:

I would label this as the angry aria that’s best for when you’re in a hysterically angry kind of mood.

1. Elektra: Elektra’s final dance
It probably isn’t exactly healthy to sympathize completely with the rage of the title character of this opera, because Elektra’s rage is precisely what ruins her life and eventually kills her. Elektra’s all-consuming thirst for revenge on her mother for the death of her father whithers Elektra and turns her into a maniac. Revenge is not sweet and behind it lies no satisfaction, only a void that becomes death for Elektra. But that is exactly why I feel that Elektra’s final dance should take the prize in a Top 5 of Angry Arias. Because not only do I feel that Strauss’ music is the most estatically cathartic musical representation of rage I can ever think of  (the powerful orchestral repetition of Elektra’s manical, oft-repeated “Agamemnon” after Elektra’s death is particularly brilliant to me), it also illustrates, through the character of Elektra the dangers immanent in giving completely into your own anger.

I love the above version, by the way. Gwyneth Jones’s insane movements and deranged facial expressions are straight out of a 1960s era ghost movie and they give me goosebumps.

If the final dance of Elektra isn’t enough to cure you of whatever anger you’re feeling, then surely nothing will, I say. And thus concludes my guide to the best angry arias out there.