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Gypsy's opera picks

It's opera time at many universities; the big performances are saved until the end of the semester. A friend of mine was asking about opera and wondering good ones to attend. For the newbies I don't pick easy, but what I think would captivate the attention and imagination of most people. So here are 3 that I think serve the proliferation of opera well:

Carlisle Floyd Susannah: this is based on the Biblical story of Susannah, but is set in mid 20th century backwater America. The tight community casts a wary eye on the beautiful Susanna, as does the preacher sent to save her soul. Renée Fleming sings "Ain't it a Pretty Night,", Susannah's big aria in the opening of the drama. You can listen to excerpts from the entire opera on Amazon.

Georges Bizet Carmen: if you're gonna attend a 4 hour long opera, this is a good place to start (save Wagner for when you're completely obsessed). The teenage cigarette factory worker falls in love with the soldier Don José, and life unravels from there. This opera is based on the Spanish novel by the same name, and the story has been retold in the music Carmen Jones and the production *Carmen: hip-hopera," as well as a flamenco film.

One of the best Carmens I've witnessed is Kirstin Chavez; she's got the look and the goods to play her own castanets when the moment arrives. The only video of her in the role I could find is when Carmen's having her tarot cards read, and her fate ain't quite as good as that of her girlfriends. You can hear excerpts on Amazon. I'm partial to the Julia Migenes and Placido Domingo performance and film, but it's no longer available; if you find it in a thrift store, go for it.

on the lighter side:

Mozart Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute): supposedly the opera that set the Masons against Wolfie, this opera has a bitchy mother, a love story (natch), and always unusual costumes for Papageno (the bird catcher) and Papagena. My favorite performance was at UNC-Greensboro, in which the director super-imposed a chess game over the action. I'm going to another version tonight! Here's Detlef Roth and Gaël LeRoi performing the Papageno-Papagena duet (in German with french subtitles; you'll get the gist). Here's another Papageno feature in which his mouth has been locked, with Nathan Gunn (this one in English with english subtitles). Listen to more here.



I was just watching the director's cut dvd of Forman's magnificent film, with that hilarious scene where the mother-in-law's shrieking moralisms morph into the Queen of the Night's famous coloratura. Some amazing and very moving stories on the supplemental stuff on that disc, including the story of Shaffer, the writer of the play and the movie's script, standing in the pit at the Prague opera house where Don Giovanni had premiered, weeping uncontrollably in that spot where Mozart had stood, conducting the opera that changed music history forever, some 200 years earlier. I had forgotten what an incredible performance F. Murray Abraham delivered as Salieri -- bone-chilling stuff.

One of the truly baffling things about that film was the hysterical reaction of many critics who whined that it was historically inaccurate. It confirmed my definition of a critic: an observer of the arts who is utterly ignorant of art. A factually correct Amadeus would have been a very dull, factually correct play/movie, but not a work of art. By playing with the historical record, Shaffer delivered a psychological insight to the Mozart story that couldn't have been possible with a documentary account. And those of us oldsters who were around in the mid-80's remember the worldwide wave of popularity this film created for the music. I can remember hearing kids who probably had never listened to a note of classical music all their lives singing "La ci darem la mano" after that film came out and won 8 Oscars. If you've never seen it, get thee to a Netflix. You are not likely to ever forget it.

Thanks for the link Norm.

Brian - I did love the drama of Amadeus. I think the critics got tired of hearing the tired old story that Mozart was so poor when he died that he had to have a pauper's burial - the most annoying of the inaccuracies. you're right, it doesn't make good film to show Mozart's actual burial, followed by his widow Costanza and her ineptitude with money, and the loss of the good grave for the general burial. Ah, but she married rich the second time around! That particular inaccuracy wasn't really essential to the story.

As far as Mozart's character, Tom Hulce probably nailed it to the wall! It was great to see a composer presented as something NOT on a pedestal. I've heard tell of a post-mortem diagnosis of Tourette's syndrom, but there's - of course - no way of proving this (and the Mozarts were into scatalogical humor).

Here's the Queen of the Night aria scene from the movie, for a little extra.

[as an aside, Des Moines Metropolitan Opera will be performing Susannah this summer. Too bad I won't be there to attend!]


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