Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Garden of Music and History: Tosca, Puccini, Napoleon and the Short-lived Roman Republic

          I can sum up our recent Sunday afternoon at the opera -- the phrase doesn't quite have the ring of "night of the opera" -- in a single word: great.
          I have loved the music of Puccini's "Tosca" for years; and pretty much all of Puccini. Everything about the Boston Lyric Opera production was first rate, and clearly an opera company with the word 'Boston' in it (a rarity in recent decades) is extremely cheered by the strong reception its all-out staging of a 'big' classical opera has received from audiences, reviewers, and the city as a whole. World-class cities have opera; it's one of the requirements. Sunday's show was sold out, as was Friday night's opener at the Emerson Majestic Theater, a restored beaux arts theater that looks and performs perfectly for grand opera -- the musical genre in which the unaided human voice can fill every inch of a big hall. 
          The leads -- Elena Stikhina as Tosca, Jonathan Burton as her lover Cavaradossi and Daniel Sutin as the seriously despicable Scarpia -- were excellent both as singers and as actors. And the stage was inventively reconfigured to make space for a full orchestra (as opposed to a smaller 'pit orchestra'). Everything comes together in the quintessentially 'operatic' high point -- singing, lush orchestration, plot points, sacred setting and a thoroughly profane, confessional evil-dictator exulting by Scarpia -- of the emotion-wring "Te Deum"concluding the first act. 
          God is part of the plot line here. But as entrapped, devoutly Catholic Tosca asks in her heart-rending solo in the second act, where is he? 
           And then we come to the historical, real-world setting of "Tosca," a work based not on fable, myth, or romance, or even realistic fiction, but on a particular moment of history: Rome, in 1800, just after a great battle of Marengo, a crucial event in the Napoleonic Wars. The forces of the Roman church and state status-quo are rooting for Napoleon's defeat. The forces of liberty and modernity for his victory.
         Blogging for the Boston Lyric Opera, Laura Stanfield Prichard describes 'Tosca' this way:
"A tempestuous tale of seduction, cruelty, and deception, this opera presents a fierce battle of wills set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars."
         Some reviewers have described its plot as "a political thriller."
         Puccini based his work on an 1889 play by Victorien Sardou, whose surgeon grandfather served in Napoleon's army in Italy. Sardou wrote it for actress Sarah Bernhardt and the play proved a spectacular success at the box office.
          In fact, the history of the Napoleonic era is all over this play. In the play's first scene the escaping political prisoner, Angelotti, re-introduces himself to onetime supporter Cavaradossi as the former premier "of the short-lived Republic of Rome." This was a government set up by the Revolutionary French Republic in 1798. The Army of the French Republic justified its wide-reaching campaigns of the 1790s as the liberation of other nations from absolutism, monarchy, hereditary social classes, and the tyranny of both church and state in the kingdoms of the Old Regime. 
          No unified country of Italy existed at this time. Rome was governed by the Pope, as were a collection of provinces called The Papal States. In much of the country the dominant power was the Austrian Empire. When the Army of the Republic defeated the armies of Austria, its ancien regime allies and the various kingdoms of Italy, it set up satellite states with new pro-French regimes. (It also took a captive Pope to France.) The new Roman Republic promptly absorbed the neighboring Papal States and claimed authority over a fair-sized chunk of the middle of the Italian peninsula.
          But when the French army withdrew, most of these new regimes lacked enough local support to stay in power. In Rome an invasion from Naples overthrew the 'short-lived' republic, put the republicans like Angelotti in jail, and enlisted provincial bullies such as Scarpia to run the city as a police state. Torture, show trials, political executions, extortion, corruption. We're familiar with this apparatus from the bad times and places of the 20th and 21st century. 
          The situation remained fluid in the fragmented Italian peninsula. And Napoleon was still in the picture. When a fresh coalition of anti-republican states was formed against France, Napoleon again took command of The French Army of Italy (such a geographical name) and carried the war to the Austrians in the Alpine region.
           The decisive battle of Marengo in the Piedmont region of Italy is the "victory" reported to Scapia and his reactionary government in the first act of "Tosca." In fact 'early reports' from the battlefield would have given the edge to the Austrians. Napoleon had divided his army, based on false reports of enemy intentions from a double-agent, and faced the Austrian attack with only a part of his forces. His commanders were able to give ground slowly and avoid a rout until later in the day when the rest of the French army arrived, positioned on the enemy's flanks. Under their unexpected attacks, the Austrians broke and fled. 
          A report of Napoleon's victory at Marengo arrives in the second act of the opera, causing the imprisoned Cavaradossi to rejoice. Whatever happens to him, this news seems to promise, revolutionary justice will win in the end.  
          The Battle of Marengo actually had bigger short-term consequences for Napoleon and France than it did for Rome. The decisive victory established Napoleon's popularity at home as the superstar who could do no wrong -- a path that led him a few years later to crown himself as Emperor. 
           Rome and the Papal States would see various regimes for more than half a century until they became part of the unified Italian Republic in 1870. 
           Great art depicts both individual tragedy and the ultimate triumph of forces greater than individuals -- love, heroism, and the arc of history. The only thing missing from the BLO's "Tosca" was a curtain call for Scarpia wearing a Trump mask.   

Composer Giacomo Puccini based his Tosca on the 1889 play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou. He had seen a performance of it while working on Manon Lescaut (even Verdi was interested in it!), and was taken with the thriller. He began work in earnest in 1896, after asking his publisher Giulio Ricordi to wrangle the rights for Sardou’s play from Alberto Franchetti, another composer who worked with librettist Luigi Illica. A tempestuous tale of seduction, cruelty, and deception, this opera presents a fierce battle of wills set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Conductor James Levine has described it as “Puccini’s glorious musical inspiration [combined] with the melodramatic vitality of one of the great Hitchcock films.” -- Laura Stanfield Prichard, blogging for the Boston Lyric Opera

Friday, October 13, 2017

Garden of Literature: 'Petite Suites' for Readers with Big Appetites for Stories

           Robert Wexelblatt, my poetry colleague at Verse-Virtual.com, where we both play the role of contributing editor, has published a new collection of delicious, bite-sized stories under the musical title "Petite Suites."
           The author's "latest book," as the Boston University College of General Studies tellingly puts it in an article titled "Wexelblatt’s Petites Suites Stories Merge Music and Fiction," consists of "a series of charming, inventive short stories" about two or three pages long. 
           Wexelblatt is a professor humanities in the university's College of General Studies. The college newsletter article, a Q&A piece, gives Wex the opportunity to explain the origin of the collection and the reason for the musical titles. Here's his response to the question of how the inspiration from a musical structure
-- "short movements with loose thematic connections" — led to the storytelling. 
           Wex: "My object was to make a suite out of brief, brisk narratives resembling the movements of the French compositions that were my model. I gave each of the little stories in the suite fanciful but relevant musical titles, in French, and indicated the instruments that would perform them. I hoped the result would be an attractive hybrid of fiction and music. I was trying for something in fiction that would share some of the lively, tuneful, witty, and sardonic qualities of the little French suites that I see as ripostes to the serious, ponderous, solemn, sometimes bombastic and elephantine German music of the time. As Debussy’s or Fauré’s little suites are to, say, Wagner’s Ring or Bruckner’s symphonies, so these suites are to the five-hundred-page novel."
          I have to acknowledge that, personally speaking, I tend toward the 500-page novel. (My novel "Suosso's Lane" is almost that long.) But I found these "suites" -- sharply, wittily written, quickly resolving -- a highly addictive reading experience. The structure plays out as compellingly as its musical inspiration. We're presented with a "hook" (or premise) -- I'm tempted here to borrow the Facebook phrase "fetching preview" -- followed in quick order by exposition, development, crisis, and resolution. 
         The structure never grows old, the stories never become predictable. In some cases the resolution -- as in the best fiction (and music? I'm not qualified to say) -- doesn't resolve. It may surprise, comment, or add a whole new level of complexity. Many of life's stories do just that. Sometimes characters behave the way we expect them to. Sometimes their choices show more wisdom than we expect of them. These are particularly satisfying because then we readers are learning something new as well. 
         Here is Wex's discussion of his use of the French, quasi-musical titles for his 'suite' stories.
             Wex: "My model for the titles is Erik Satie, a composer who excelled at fanciful titles. Here are some translations: 'Sketches and Snares of a Large Wooden Fellow,' 'Dried-out Embryos,' 'Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear,' and the charming 'Sonatine Bureaucratique,' which needs no translation. I wanted titles that were similarly unexpected, fanciful, and amusing but at the same time revealing about the stories they head..."
         You can find the article here: https://www.bu.edu/cgs/2017/09/22/wexelblatt-draws-inspiration-from-music-in-petites-suites/

         I'll close by cribbing a bit of the 'advance review' (or blurb) I wrote after reading the book in proof copy:
The author’s fertile imagination offers scenarios, sketches, and movements for the mind on every theme and subject under the sun, families, artists, presidents for life, almost lovers, fading lions and hungry cubs. While the themes are stated with a musical precision, developments come smartly and the resolutions are sure and often subtle. A banker who knows where the bucks are hidden prevents a war. A GPS becomes the voice of wisdom. Odysseus confronts a different sort of fidelity.  
         I attempted in those comments to suggest the truly impressive range of the author's imagination. While his story structures reveal a pattern, this world-inside-the-covers-of-a-book takes us just about everywhere.
         Here's a link to thing in itself:


Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Garden of Verse: A World of Gratitude in a Harvest of New Poems -- October's Verse-Virtual

         It's harvest season. Here's a harvest of offerings from the October 2017 edition of Verse-Virtual.com.

As Joan Mazza's poem "Before the first bite" reminds us, when the harvest brings us to table,

Pause to see the colors
in front of you. Reflect
on those who grew
this wheat and ground
its heart, turned semolina
into pasta. Who tends
olive groves, presses
the fruit into oil, bottles it.


The poem's fine dining vocabulary, its active verbs (tends, presses, bottles) and compressed lines work together to focus our attention on the ides of gratitude. It's a good season for it.

            On a similar theme, gratitude to the "ordinary saints" who serve us, both mind and body, is always in season. Joan Colby's fresh supply of praise poems for oft-overlooked occupations introduces us to facts about these jobs and those who do them are either ignored (meaning I ignore them) or simply unknown (a similar declaration of ignorance here). Such as the farm worker: 

"attaching the vacuum tubes
To the teats so the milk will flow"

A second poem reminds me, painfully, how we call on the "Saint Geek" to address "the blue screen of perdition" -- god, naming the devil! I have to cross myself after naming that one.

As for the manicurist, see these brilliantly apt lines:

 "How you nail us
With a styled creation
To indemnify against an
Onus of manual labor."
            The onus is on us.


            The cleverness of "You, Singular" by Edward Conti relies on its brief declaratives and witty rhymes. Its lyrics evoke not only singularity, but childhood, as in the unexpected final line of this stanza:

"You can make fun of me
I hope you do.
There’s only one of me.
How many are you?"

Only one, perhaps, but one can be more than enough. I also enjoyed the poem's reach into the "Thin Man" comedies to find an unexpected canine rhyme for "master." That line "I’ll be your Asta" may dog me for some time to come. And I'm grateful for it.

            We're likely to find more than a measure of gratitude in Joe Cottonwood's "Autopsy of a Douglas Fir" as well. In the beautifully composed first stanza alone, the poem evokes not only the act of harvesting a tree, but the land, ecology and peoples of "three centuries of wooden wisdom."

"In your bleeding cross-section I count
three centuries of wooden wisdom
since that mother cone dropped
on soil no one owned.
Black bears scratched backs
against your young bark. Ohlone
passed peacefully on their path
to the waters of La Honda Creek."

            I'm thankful also for the poem's introduction to me of the name "Ohlone," used for the surviving lineages of the indigenous peoples of the San Francisco Bay.

            Gratitude for a certain kind of immortality is the theme of Marilyn Taylor's "The Day After I Die," expressed with a fine satirical eye.

"they will find the cure
for whatever got me,
and a unified theory
of physics will be announced
by a consortium
from M.I.T."

            Those aren't the only wonders that will follow the demise of the speaker of this poem. Also predicted are answers to the age-old questions. Are we alone in the universe? What address do I plug into the GPS for the fountain of youth? The energy crisis? -- all resolved. Check out the final stanza for the greatest discovery of them all.

            Alan Walowitz's moving poem "Anthony Peter Tumbarello" may remind us to be grateful for those who cross our paths in life, and keep re-crossing them. The poem tells the story of the poet's relationship with his childhood friend, and the cross "Tony" bore all his life, in a few perfectly chosen lines that pack a whole story into a sentence.  

"When we walked
other kids would stare
and sometimes strangers’d
cross the street to inquire,
Son, what’s wrong with your friend?
as if Tony couldn’t hear
for being so bent.

            There's a world of tragedy in the stranger's thoughtlessly expressed inquiry, even if it was not ill-intended, and even if it was actually well meant. And a world of stubborn courage in Tony's response, delivered smartly at the end of this poem.

            The title of Robert Wexelblatt's poem "Going to Bed with Jane Austen" has a ring of inevitability. We all go to bed from time to time with a favorite author. Where the poet takes this notion however is wholly original, satirical, revealing, and wise. A sort of compact novel in a concise lyric.

            Something else that bedtime is good for, storytelling and its many uses, also comes in for an apposite nod (and wink?)  -- "like that famous sultan, I finally fall asleep." A beautifully crafted poem.
            My thanks, since we're handing out gratitude, also go Verse-Virtual's indefatigable editor Firestone Feinberg, who continues to put together such finely seasoned bounties of verse every month. 
            Find all these poems and others at http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html  

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Garden of Literature: Walking With Thoreau

How can we let this year go by without doing something to recognize the bicentennial year of the birth of Henry David Thoreau? Apparently that year is more than three-quarters gone, while I am somehow under the impression that it is only just getting underway. I fear that events on “the national scene,” to use what now sounds like an antiquated phrase, have pretty much canceled 2017.
Can we get a do-over on this one?
Nevertheless… Concord, Mass., the metaphysical heart of all things Thoreau, put together a website http://thoreaubicentennial.org/ with a full calendar of events around the town where the great American thinker lived and wrote, and where he spent the famous retreat in the woods along Walden Pond before discovering the necessity to go back to work in what most of us call, mostly by habit, the “real” world. In the great philosopher and writer’s case, he worked in his father’s pencil factory.
Concord is surely ground zero for Thoreau commemorations. But we all can touch a little bit of the Thoreau legacy simply by talking a walk. Or reading pioneering works such as “Walden,” “Civil Disobedience,” or his essay about his favorite activity, “Walking.”
My moment with Thoreau came this summer when I picked up a book published two decades ago that featured “Walden” in the title, “Walking Toward Walden” by John Hanson Mitchell. An ambitious intellectual project based on a physical challenge, the book attempted to evoke not only what Thoreau’s neighborhood was like back when he used to take daily walks in the woods outside of Concord, but also what it is like today — along with a fair representation of the Concord region before Europeans arrived in North America and in all the intervening eras since.
Here is Mitchell’s take on the centrality of Concord and its role in Thoreau’s universe. “Drawn by the charismatic Ralph Waldo Emerson, who returned to his ancestral territory to live in 1834, other writers or thinkers began to visit or even settle in Concord so that by 1840, this small satellite of Cambridge and Boston had become the American center of intellectual activity.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, who referred to Concord as “Eden,” moved there in 1842, Bronson Alcott in 1848. Louisa May Alcott made the place a setting for “Little Women,” a pioneering publishing success. The poet Ellery Channing dwelled there. Feminist educator Margaret Fuller visited often to help prime the Transcendentalist pump.
As for our famous prophet of simple living and love of nature, Mitchell describes him as “the sometime schoolteacher, pencil maker, surveyor and handyman named Henry Thoreau, whose oeuvre was all but unread until after his death in 1862.”
Books about Thoreau are many. Books about walking his land are rare.
When John Hanson Mitchell and his two eccentrically learned friends and traveling companions set out to walk from Westford, Mass. to Concord entirely through undeveloped land — in one day — the literary adventure goes forward but also backwards, with many frequent side trips into the major interests of the three hikers, their previous ventures together, and some references to their separate adventures as well. One of his companions knows everything about birds. The other knows — almost everything — about Native Americans. Mitchell knows Concords backwards and forwards and provides a mean recreation of the Revolution-sparking Battle of Lexington and Concord as well.
Given that range of expertise, the book hangs together because of its concentration on to the unifying concept that was also at the center of Thoreau’s life and thinking, namely “the land.”
Their single-day trek through land preserves, near impassable wetlands, over high bridges, through the backyards of new housing developments, and along dirt paths that once served long-gone farmsteads, succeeds in evoking a sense, however speculative, of what walking the land meant for Thoreau. We also learn what our contemporary three-some discover about the much-changed, much varied, and still-changing Concord region’s landscape. But even Thoreau himself was “passing through time” — that’s the way I’ve decided to think about it — when he walked the surrounds of beloved mid-19th century “Transcendentalist” Concord because the changes wrought by the European civilization planted there were already evident.
The Colonial farms of an earlier day were being abandoned in Thoreau’s time. Farmlands that had been claimed from the wilderness at great cost — certainly in time and energy — in the 17th and 18th centuries had already been ‘farmed out’ by European methods. Their owners had headed west to find new lands to exploit, and the land left behind was going back (or had already gone back) to the wild. The abandoned fields were still far from the largely undisturbed old forest of the indigenous peoples displaced by the Europeans, but lots of land around Concord was heading in that direction. And in some parts of Mitchell’s journey, the same processes could be observed.
In fact, pieces the landscape continue to go back and forth between development and reforestation. The book’s three travelers encounter shopping centers, factories, warehouses, railyards, technology think-tanks and corporate centers along Route 128 (“technology highway”). They pass through suburban subdivisions, protected wildlands with conservation restrictions in perpetuity, dried riverbeds and new wetlands. The beavers that disappeared before Thoreau’s time have now returned. As we know, more clearly than 20 years ago, deer are everywhere today.
Thoreau observed the landscape changes of his own day, while celebrating what endures. What else Thoreau discovered on his daily walks includes — almost everything. Here’s how his famous essay “Walking” was described when it first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. The author “explores: the joys and necessities of long afternoon walks; how spending time in untrammeled fields and woods soothes the spirit; how Nature guides us on our walks; the lure of the wild for writers and artists; and why ‘all good things are wild and free.’”
(The essay is available today as a 60-page paperback. See https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/227113.Walking)
Just reading words such as these makes me sad to realize that I cannot today leave my door and achieve by foot in any reasonable time frame “the lure of the wild.” I suspect that even on my best days I could not have kept pace with Thoreau’s habitual walks.
How much philosophical weight Thoreau put on walking can be seen in statements such as these from his essay “Walking.”
“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”
 And of course the most famous Thoreau quote of all is his evergreen sentiment “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
No doubt we find it harder today to encounter the transformative experience of “the wild” Henry David Thoreau regularly attempted. But in almost any city, state or continent, in any phase of life, we can still open the senses, and the mind, and the heart, to the “wildness” of the natural world. We may not be "walking toward Walden," but we can go a little way toward “preserving the wild.”