Tuesday, January 27, 2015


A miracle with countertenors where they are supposed to be


It is necessary to consider the plot of this opera first of all because it is the most surprising political construction imaginable. Imagine a king and a queen so imbued with their own personalities and selves that they decide to become gods mind you, and they are encouraged in that folly by Jove himself when Jove rebuilds the walls of Thebes one day when the king, Anfione, asks him to protect Thebes against an attack from Creonte, some outside rival king. It is obvious that the vanity of these people is flattered by the gods in spite of the fact that these king and queen are tyrants, un the old understanding of the word: they take all decisions by themselves.

The fact is that this first situation leads to the worst imaginable events that will bring Niobe herself to destroying the Gods’ statues in one main temple. That’s how tyrants are ungrateful to the gods when the gods are dumb enough to support them. And then the whole opera explodes in the most unnatural events: an earthquake that destroys Thebes, kills all the children of Niobe and Anfione and finally brings them down since Anfione finally becomes human and kills himself and Niobe is turned into stone, by the gods I guess, or maybe because she has a volcanic and stony soul, if any soul at all, and I won’t speak of her heart she only has soft fro gods or people pretending to be gods. She gets every single gram – our ounce – of the fate she endures – deserves – though her folly will have caused the death of so many people in the meantime.

If it were for that kind of mushy plot, the opera would not be very interesting.

The first interest is the love imbroglio created by the composer and librettist. Niobe and Anfione are deeply in love with each other and yet Anfione retires and leaves his wife alone on the throne, though she is obviously not able to do the job and he knows it since he brings some local nobleman, Clearte, to help her in that task. So she gets that nobleman who is in love with her to sit on the throne though she has no real feeling for him. Thebes is attacked by Creonte who is secretly in love with Niobe, though that is purely hormonal. He fails on the battlefield thanks to Jove. Then he uses the magic of Poliferno to abduct the queen and he makes her fall in love with his impersonation of Mars, the god, and she cannot but fall in love with that god since she thinks she is a goddess. So her vanity leads her to fornicating with a god – in her head, since it is an illusion – though probably not with that Creonte who is impersonating the god. She is thus part of a blasphemous trap but by falling in it she is the only blasphemous person because she should refuse to have any sexual relation with any god, especially a false one, particularly since she does not know he is false.

You add to these scabrous and adventurous love affairs the only real one between Tiberino and Manto and then you have the romantic dimension you need to be both baroque and slightly post-baroque, and this love affair will be fully satisfied.

But this love imbroglio leads to the exploration of all kinds of love feelings from virginal unutterable desire to the most lascivious impulses. True love is at times expressed, true love unrequited and true love unsatisfied but bound to succeed.  But also false love that is trying to lure the other partner into a trap, and the totally blasphemous love for a god that can be the result of incredible vanity or of simple narrow-mindedness and limited mental means. This exploration of love is at times funny. But that does not make this opera great.

The greatness of this opera comes from the music, which sounds logical, though I know some great operas that are not necessarily very great as for their music.

Scene 13 in Act I gives the real measure of Philippe Jaroussky in Anfione’s part with a small aria that he transforms into a masterpiece. At this moment Anfione sounds like a wimp:

“Friendly spheres, now give my lips
The harmony of your rotation.
And resting my weary limbs
May the tree, the stone have motion
From my peaceful breathing.”

How can a man be that vain to think the world, the material world, the most static stones will start moving into the cosmos because he, that man, is going to start breathing life into them? Vainer than him you die! But Philippe Jaroussky makes that moment a challenge to simple beauty and both the voice and the singing, the music behind both of course, make us feel, hear the boredom and the tiredness, the weariness and the desire to escape. A wimp he sounds like, and a wimp he is. Philippe Jaroussky and his high countertenor voice even enables us to understand and imagine it is the child in the aging king that takes over and that he wants to play with the universe as if it were his private collection of Lego blocks.

The next scene gives us the full contrast with Niobe.

“I want to delight you always,
I want to be with you always.
My heart has no peace, no well-being,
It lives in constant pain
When it is far from you, my faith.”

The soprano Karina Gauvin has the perfect voice for that regret expressed in contrast with the childish caprice of going away into his play den expressed by the king. Her voice is here slightly less high in pitch but especially slightly more somber in timber and I must say the effect is amazing at this moment. We understand that this separation is bound to lead to some kind of earth shattering catastrophe because of these two voices and the deep contradictory ambitions and desires they convey.

The simple duet at the end of scene 23 Act I brings that contrast to its own acme

Anfione: My flame
Niobe: My passion
Both: Let us go to rejoice
Anfione: For you sweet pain
Niobe: My precious chain
Both: Death is pleasing to me.

And yet it will take two full acts to bring that result. But this duet is so contemplative we feel that the meaning is nothing but the mental death of love itself, love that makes the mind unable to think, reflect, be, that makes the mind dead to the world and to logic. And that feeling only comes with the music and the crossing of the two voices.

Anfione’s aria in scene 5 Act II is a prodigy of beauty both in text and music. I need to work on the Italian original here.

Dal mio petto o pianti uscite
In tributo al mio dolor
E in virtù de miei tormenti
Disciogliendovi in torrenti
In voi naugraghi ‘l mio cor.

[From my breast, O tears, glow, / in tribute to my sorrow. / By virtue of my torments, / dissolve yourself in torrents, / in you my heart will be drowned.]

The text is beautifully built around two rhymes, one embracing the other. The embracing one is rich since it covers three words and the rhyming third word is naturally only covering the vowel and the last consonant. The two words that are identical in front of these two slightly different rhyming words amplify the rhyme itself. And this rich emphatic embracing rhyme brings together a rhyme built on two three syllable words that contain only one varying consonant in the middle The meaning of some kind of torturing torment is perfectly rendered by this couple of rhyming words that are tortured and tormented under our own eyes, in fact in our own ears since they are sung.

What’s more this aria is 4:39 minutes long. It is enormous and of an extraordinary beauty that cannot and must not be described. It has to be experienced.

In Scene 9, Act II, Niobe gives us a self-centered egotistic selfish aria that becomes a sort of anthem to why such people should be punished, since they are so blind to the world and to the tricks that people can play on them. At this moment she is making love, in a way, with Poliferno, a magician who is tricking her into believing she is with a god.

“I press a god to my bosom,
My joy is made eternal.
In the beautiful rays of your face
Every sorrow becomes joy.”

Karina Gauvin makes that aria so aerial that we could hand ourselves to such an illusion of divine salvation.

In Scene 12 in the same Act II Anfione gives us another piece of the beautiful innocent perversity of a king who suddenly regresses to the state of a child in a play den.

“With warlike rhymes,
Reawaken my invincible heart
To arms.
This sorrowful soul
Now dedicates its valor
To raging war.”

We could expect some martial tone. And you can be wrong one thousand times. He is in his play den playing with his Lego blocks and his tin soldiers entirely oblivious to the world outside. He is avenging himself with his fake plastic army of invincible GIs like the tin soldiers Stephen King uses at the beginning of his latest novel, “Revival”.

The third act is providing us with a few more pleasurable pieces, like Niobe’s aria in the first scene that contains one sentence that explains the whole character amplified by the music:

“e l’ardor mio / l’ardor mio / e l’ardor mio fatal.”

Turn it the way you want this simple phrase amplified by the initial ternary repetition like the three nails in the two hands and the feet of Christ and then the adjective fatally rejected at the end like the spear going through the heart of Christ still hanging on his cross. That’s Niobe. She is so obtusely self-ego-centered that she enjoys being put to death by the suffering brought to her by her vain running after the pleasures of love. We can even wonder if for her love is not that simple pain and suffering experienced in her full dissatisfaction in the vain pursuit of love for a man who has retired, and for another who is a freeloader, and for a third one who is a magical god-looking wizard, and/or a fourth one who is a bewitched impersonation of a god by some human who is going to cause her final fall. That’s what she is, that Niobe, “vanity” made flesh, “vanity of vanities” impersonated, “vanity of vanities all is vanity” molded into cold stone.

I am afraid though the dirge Anfione sings in the fourth scene of Act III where he declares he has lost all hope is maybe not either grandiosely ironical since he has triumphed of everyone at this point, or somberly mesmerizing since he is being hypnotized by the dark side of life, the dark side of his being having stuffed his own head up the dark tunnel of his own gut. We could even dream him as a child who is crying on the hot chocolate he has spilled before drinking it. Anfione is a fool and as such the music can only be ironical, perversely hypnotizing or capriciously whimsical. And it is too flat at this point. The singing is not regenerating it.

But I must admit the eleventh and twelfth scenes of this third act, the scene of Anfione’s suicide and the subsequent scene of Niobe’s being turned into stone are worth at least 50% of any lauding praise poured on this opera. Those two scenes bring the opera to a full embodiment of the anger of gods against people who try to destroy them, and by gods we have to understand the natural order of history and the cosmos. No one has the right to question and try to change what history is doing and its long slow hesitating ambiguous course in time within the cosmic context that cannot be negated and must not be changed. Both Anfione and Niobe had tried to make history in their own image and to make gods become their own slaves under the duress of the menace of being toppling down, at least their statues in their temples.

The punishment of such people by history is divinely eternal and unfathomable. Think of how all tyrants end in history and imagine the distorted children an alliance of water and fire, extreme left and extreme right can lead to. This opera then takes a powerful meaning in the very present situation of our doubting and dubious human world.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?