Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Music For Two Old Men Arguing About Politics

I was in a record store the other day arguing with an ardent Wagner worshipper who was dismissive of Verdi (don't ask why, or how, I get into arguments like that). Challenged to come up with some examples of why I think Verdi was the greatest musical dramatist of all time -- greater even than the guy who felt it necessary to point out that his operas were "music dramas" -- I cited my favorite Verdi scene, the scene that also happens to be my favorite operatic scene of all time and the scene that made me a fan of Verdi: the scene in Don Carlos for King Philip II (bass) and the old, blind Grand Inquisitor (another bass).

The text of the scene is a very condensed version of the scene in Schiller's original play (the librettists actually did a very good job of shortening and rearranging it while keeping many of Schiller's lines). King Philip is considering having his son, Carlos, killed for insurrection; the Inquisitor assures him that the Church will absolve him for this since, after all, God sacrificed his son for the greater good. Then the Inquisitor tells Philip that there's a worse traitor and a bigger threat to the regime: Carlos's and Philip's mutual friend Rodrigue, who is crusading for Flemish independence (and recruited Carlos to his cause). Philip initially refuses to turn his friend over to the Inquisition; the Grand Inquisitor threatens him and then leaves, and Philip ruefully admits that he has to do what the Church says.

This scene, which lasts almost ten minutes, breaks most of the rules of opera as mass entertainment: it has few "tunes," is almost uninterruptedly slow and gloomy, involves two bass voices (adding to the constant flow of dark, grim sound), and, most importantly, it's a political argument set to music. Two old guys arguing about politics, religion, friendship, duty, fatherhood and power, and how all these things intersect -- that's what you get in a straight play, but it's normally the sort of thing that gets cut in the transfer to an opera, which is supposed to be about the expression of basic emotions.

Verdi kept this and made it a centerpiece of the whole evening, because he was one of the few great opera composers who ever found a way to make political issues into compelling music. (Wagner was another, obviously.) I can't really describe how he does it, but the music turns what could be a dry argument into a gripping piece of theatre: Verdi seized on the conflicts in this scene -- especially Philip's conflicts between his feelings as a father and a friend, and his role as the puppet of the Inquisition -- and makes us feel them. Music is not about intellect, it's about emotion, and we can feel Philip's weakness, his self-loathing and the confident, fearsome fanaticism of the Grand Inquisitor. And when the Inquisitor finally threatens Philip, it is -- or should be, if the performance is any good -- really scary, in a way that it never could be in a straight non-musical version of the play.

This isn't at all like Wagner, because Wagner, good as he is, isn't as character-specific in the way he writes; beause he gives a lot of the work to the orchestra and the leitmotif system, the voices, and therefore the characters, seem a little generalized. Verdi's genius was dealing with big issues while creating very specific, vivid characters; and while the voices carry the scene, the orchestra fills us in on other things about them. (The woodwind theme when the Inquisitor tries to cajole Philip to come back to the path of righteousness is exactly right; it sounds a little off, a little strange, like a man who is trying to be nice and doesn't know how.) And Verdi is a master theatre man, so he finds all sorts of ways to keep the scene from becoming boring; most importantly, within the overall dark mood, he manages to differentiate between the two men (Philip's music, like Philip, is pleading and uncertain; the Grand Inquisitor makes stern, confident pronouncements) so that even if you had two basses who sounded exactly alike, you'd always know who was singing. He also shows an understanding of the limits of a singer: this comes right after Philip's big aria, so Philip's music here is much less difficult than the Inquisitor's.

I've always been looking for the "perfect" version of this scene, and I haven't found it yet. Partly because the "perfect" version would be one in the original French libretto, and most performances use the Italian translation. (Verdi wrote the opera for Paris and set the music to French words, and the opera just works better in French.) There is a DVD of the French version with Jose Van Dam as Philip, but his voice is too light for the part and the Grand Inquisitor is too unsteady. (The part is really, really difficult to cast, because it's essentially a one-scene part, but requires a big, deep voice that can handle the climax where he threatens the King.) The best Italian version I've heard is probably on the old Solti recording from 1966 which has the young Nicolai Ghiaurov as Philip and the young Martti Talvela as the Inquisitor; neither of them are very subtle and they don't have great Italian pronunciation, but they are two huge, beautiful voices that can blow you away at the climax.

The best version I found online, and the only one with subtitles -- which are important, because the scene doesn't work unless you know what's being said -- is this one from the Metropolitan opera in 1980 with Paul Plishka as Philip and Jerome Hines as the Grand Inquisitor. Plishka is known to all Met-goers as Guy Who's In Every Production, and he's reliable but not brilliant, and doesn't really have the low note at the end. Hines, who was known as a great Philip in his prime, made a specialty of the Inquisitor later in life; he has a great bass voice that's maybe just a little past the point of being able to fully handle the threat music. But still, you have two good singers in a good production -- which the Met has apparently been using virtually unchanged ever since then -- well conducted (the young James Levine), and it's certainly the best introduction to the scene that can be had online.

And here, as a supplement, are two others I found on YouTube, both without English subtitles:

This performance is from La Scala in 1978; the Inquisitor is Luigi Roni (a guy who was usually heard in small-but-difficult bass parts like the Commendatore in Don Giovanni) and Philip is Evgeny Nesterenko, a Russian bass who had a big international reputation for a few years, went through some vocal difficulty, and then went back to appearing mostly in Russia.

Then there's this one, from Tokyo in 1967, sung by two Italian basses of the second rank, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (Philip) and Antonio Zerbini (who did mostly comprimario roles, small parts that need a good singer). It's OK, but it might be better with better conducting: Olivero De Fabritiis, in the pit, makes the Inquisitor's theme sound kind of drab and un-menacing, and the performance has the lack of rhythmic control that is typical of a lot of Italian performances of the era (there's even one moment where Philip completely misses his entrance).

And finally, someone found an audio-only performance from 1956 with Cesare Siepi -- who specialized in the part of Philip but never got to record it commercially -- and Giulio Neri, a promising bass who died young. It doesn't have the intensity I'm looking for in this scene, but hearing two big, dark, beautiful voices is certainly a pleasure (as it is on the Ghiaurov/Talvela version).

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