Nov 042017
 

On this date in 1737 the Real Teatro di San Carlo in Naples began performances with Domenico Sarro’s Achille in Sciro. San Carlo is the oldest continuously active venue for public opera in the world. Nowadays the opera season runs from late January to May, with a ballet season from April to early June. The house once had a seating capacity of 3,285, but has now been reduced to 1386 seats. San Carlo became the model for numerous theaters throughout Europe. The theater was commissioned by the Bourbon king Charles III of Naples because he wanted to endow Naples with a new and larger theatre to replace the old, dilapidated, and too-small Teatro San Bartolomeo of 1621, which had served the city well, especially after Scarlatti had moved there in 1682 and had begun to make Naples one of the major opera centers in Europe.

The new opera house was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano, a military architect, and Angelo Carasale, the former director of the San Bartolomeo. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium is the oldest in the world. It was built at a cost of 75,000 ducats. The hall was 28.6 meters long and 22.5 meters wide, with 184 boxes, including those of proscenium, arranged in six orders, plus a royal box capable of accommodating ten people, for a total of 1,379 seats. Including standing room, the theatre could hold over 3,000 people. The fastidious composer and violinist Louis Spohr reviewed the size and acoustic properties of this opera house very thoroughly on 15 February 1817 and concluded that:

There is no better place for ballet and pantomime. Military movements of infantry and cavalry, battles, and storms at sea can be represented here without falling into the ludicrous. But for opera, itself, the house is too large. Although the singers, Signora Isabella Colbran, [Prima Donna of the Teatro San Carlo opera company and Rossini’s future wife], and the Signori Nozzari, Benedetti, etc., have very strong voices, only their highest and most stentorian tones could be heard. Any kind of tender utterance was lost.

When it was opened, the opera house was much admired for its architecture, its gold decorations, and the sumptuous blue upholstery (blue and gold being the official colors of the Bourbons), and was, at the time, the biggest opera house in the world. In 1809 Domenico Barbaia was appointed manager of the royal opera houses in Naples and remained in charge until 1841. He soon established a reputation for innovative and dazzling productions, which attracted leading singers to the opera house. On 13 February 1816 a fire broke out during a dress-rehearsal for a ballet performance and quickly spread to destroy a part of building. On the orders of Ferdinand IV, of Charles III, Barbaia was able to rebuild the opera house within ten months. It was rebuilt as a traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium with 1,444 seats, and a proscenium, 33.5m wide and 30m high. The stage was 34.5m deep.

On 12 January 1817, the rebuilt theatre was inaugurated with Johann Simon Mayr’s Il sogno di Partenope. Stendhal attended the second night of the inauguration and wrote: “There is nothing in all Europe, I won’t say comparable to this theatre, but which gives the slightest idea of what it is like…, it dazzles the eyes, it enraptures the soul…”

In 1844 the opera house was re-decorated, changing the appearance of the interior to the now-traditional red and gold. Apart from the creation of the orchestra pit, suggested by Verdi in 1872, the installation of electricity in 1890, the subsequent abolition of the central chandelier, and the construction of the new foyer and a new wing for dressing rooms, the theatre underwent no substantial changes until repair of the bombing damage in 1943.

When San Carlo was built, the Neapolitan School of opera enjoyed great success all over Europe, not only in the field of opera buffa but also in that of opera seria. Naples became the capital of European music and even foreign composers considered the performance of their compositions at the San Carlo theater as the pinnacle of their careers. Likewise, the most prominent singers performed and consolidated their fame at the San Carlo.

From 1815 to 1822, Gioachino Rossini was house composer and artistic director of the royal opera houses, including the San Carlo. During this period he wrote ten operas: Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815), La gazzetta, Otello, ossia il Moro di Venezia (1816), Armida (1817), Mosè in Egitto, Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818), Ermione, Bianca e Falliero, Eduardo e Cristina, La donna del lago (1819), Maometto II (1820), and Zelmira (1822). After the composition of Zelmira, Rossini left Naples.

To replace Rossini, Barbaja first signed up Giovanni Pacini and then another rising star of Italian opera, Gaetano Donizetti. As artistic director of the royal opera houses, Donizetti remained in Naples from 1822 until 1838, composing sixteen operas for the theatre, among which Maria Stuarda (1834), Roberto Devereux (1837), Poliuto (1838) and the famous Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), written for soprano Tacchinardi-Persiani and for tenor Duprez.

Giuseppe Verdi was also associated with the theater. In 1841, his Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio was performed there and in 1845 he wrote his first opera for the theater, Alzira; a second, Luisa Miller, followed in 1849. His third should have been Gustavo III, but the censor made such significant changes that it was never performed in that version nor under that title (until a re-created version was given in 2004). It was later performed in Rome with significant revisions to the plot and its location, while the title became Un ballo in maschera.

The unification of Italy in 1861 lead to Naples losing its status as the musical center of Italy and the home of the country’s leading opera house to La Scala as power and wealth moved northwards. By 1874 the fall in income from performances led to the closing of the opera house for a year. Its fortunes were able to recover due to the continued support in the later half of the 19th century and into the 20th century by Giacomo Puccini and other composers of verismo operas, such as Pietro Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Cilea, who staged their works here.

In the late 19th century, the house created its own in-house orchestra under Giuseppe Martucci, which helped attract a number of respected conductors including Arturo Toscanini, Pietro Mascagni and composer Richard Strauss, whose influence expanded the opera house’s repertoire.

One performer who did not appear in Naples from 1901 onward was Naples-born Enrico Caruso, who after being booed by a section of the audience during a performance of L’elisir d’amore, vowed never to return.

Here’s a small taste:

Speaking of taste, one of the most beloved Neapolitan dishes, perhaps as part of a pre-opera dinner is spaghetti alle vongole napolitano. It’s very simple to make and is one of my favorites.  You must use very small clams, but you can use linguine in place of spaghetti.

Spaghetti Alle Vongole Napolitano

Ingredients

500 gm fresh small clams in their shells
200 gm cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
500 gm spaghetti

Instructions

Wash the clams thoroughly and keep them in salt water for half an hour before cooking.

Cook the spaghetti in abundant boiling water.  Check every few minutes once it is soft to make sure it is cooked al dente and no more.

Sauté the garlic gently over medium heat in oil in a deep skillet (with a lid) for about 2 minutes. Do not let it take on any color. Add the tomatoes, salt to taste, and half of the parsley. Stir slowly and cook for 3-4 minutes.

Drain the clams and add them to the skillet. Stir and cover until the clams are open (3-4 minutes). If the sauce is too dry add a small amount of boiling water from the pasta pan.

When the spaghetti is cooked al dente, drain and put it back into the same pot. Pour over it the juices from the cooked clams.  Stir for 1 minute over low heat.

Empty the spaghetti on to a serving dish and serve with the clams and tomatoes garnished with the remaining parsley.

Serves 4

Nov 222016
 

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On this date in 1928 Maurice Ravel’s Boléro premiered in Paris.   Boléro  was originally composed as a ballet commissioned by Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein and is, without doubt, Ravel’s most famous musical composition, to the extent that when most people think of Ravel, Boléro is the first (perhaps only) thing that comes to mind. Boléro epitomizes Ravel’s mature stage of composition that was preoccupied with restyling and reinventing dance movements. It was also one of the last pieces he composed before illness forced him into retirement. His two piano concertos and the Don Quichotte à Dulcinée song cycle were the only compositions that followed Boléro.

Before Boléro, Ravel had composed large scale ballets (such as Daphnis et Chloé, composed for the Ballets Russes 1909–1912), suites for the ballet (such as the second orchestral version of Ma mère l’oye, 1912), and one-movement dance pieces (such as La valse, 1906–1920). Apart from such compositions intended for a staged dance performance, Ravel had demonstrated an interest in composing re-styled dances, from his earliest successes – the 1895 Menuet and the 1899 Pavane – to his more mature works like Le tombeau de Couperin, which takes the format of a dance suite.

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Boléro had its genesis in a commission from Ida Rubinstein, who asked Ravel to make an orchestral transcription of six pieces from Isaac Albéniz’s set of piano pieces, Iberia. While working on the transcription, Ravel was informed that the movements had already been orchestrated by Spanish conductor Enrique Fernández Arbós, and that copyright law prevented any other arrangement from being made. When Arbós heard of this, he said he would happily waive his rights and allow Ravel to orchestrate the pieces. However, Ravel changed his mind and decided initially to orchestrate one of his own works. He then changed his mind again and decided to write a completely new piece based on the musical form and Spanish dance called bolero. While on vacation at St Jean-de-Luz, Ravel went to the piano and played a melody with one finger to his friend Gustave Samazeuilh, saying “Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” This piece was initially called Fandango, but its title was soon changed to “Boléro.” According to Idries Shah the main melody is adapted from a tune composed for and used in Sufi training.

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The composition was a sensational success when it was premiered at the Paris Opéra with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and designs and scenario by Alexandre Benois. The orchestra of the Opéra was conducted by Walther Straram. Ernest Ansermet had originally been engaged to conduct during the entire ballet season, but the musicians refused to play under him. A scenario by Rubinstein and Nijinska was printed in the program for the premiere:

Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.

Ravel himself, however, had a different conception of the work: his preferred stage design was of an open-air setting with a factory in the background, reflecting the mechanical nature of the music.

Boléro became Ravel’s most famous composition, much to his surprise. He had predicted that most orchestras would refuse to play it. However, it is usually played as a purely orchestral work, only rarely being staged as a ballet. According to a possibly apocryphal story from the premiere performance, a woman was heard shouting that Ravel was mad. When told about this, Ravel is said to have remarked that she had understood the piece.

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Boléro was first published by the Parisian firm Durand in 1929. Arrangements of the piece were made for piano solo and piano duet (two people playing at one piano), and Ravel himself arranged a version for two pianos, published in 1930. The first recording was made by Piero Coppola in Paris for The Gramophone Company on 8 January 1930 and Ravel attended the recording session. The following day, Ravel conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra in his own recording for Polydor. That same year, further recordings were made by Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Conductor Arturo Toscanini gave the U.S. premiere of Boléro with the New York Philharmonic on 14 November 1929. The performance was a great success, bringing “shouts and cheers from the audience” according to a New York Times review leading one critic to declare that “it was Toscanini who launched the career of the Boléro,” and another to claim that Toscanini had made Ravel into “almost an American national hero.”

On 4 May 1930, Toscanini performed the work with the New York Philharmonic at the Paris Opéra as part of that orchestra’s European tour. Toscanini’s tempo was significantly faster than Ravel preferred, and Ravel signaled his disapproval by refusing to respond to Toscanini’s gesture during the audience ovation. An exchange took place between the two men backstage after the concert. According to one account Ravel said “It’s too fast”, to which Toscanini responded “You don’t know anything about your own music. It’s the only way to save the work.” According to another report Ravel said “That’s not my tempo”. Toscanini replied “When I play it at your tempo, it is not effective”, to which Ravel retorted “Then do not play it.” Four months later, Ravel attempted to smooth over relations with Toscanini by sending him a note explaining that “I have always felt that if a composer does not take part in the performance of a work, he must avoid the ovations” and, ten days later, inviting Toscanini to conduct the premiere of his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, an invitation which he declined.

The Toscanini affair became a cause célèbre and further increased Boléro’s fame. Other factors in the work’s renown were the considerable number of early performances, gramophone records, including Ravel’s own, transcriptions and radio broadcasts, together with the 1934 motion picture Bolero starring Carole Lombard, in which the music plays an important role.

Boléro is written for a large orchestra consisting of:

woodwinds: piccolo, 2 flutes (one doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling on oboe d’amore), cor anglais, 2 clarinets (one doubles on E♭clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 saxophones (one sopranino, one soprano and one tenor), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon

brass: 4 horns, 4 trumpets (3 in C, one in D), 3 trombones, bass tuba

3 timpani and percussion: 2 snare drums, a bass drum, one piece/pair of orchestral cymbals, tam-tam

celesta and harp

strings

The instrumentation calls for a sopranino saxophone in F, which has never existed (modern sopraninos are in E♭). At the first performance, both the sopranino and soprano saxophone parts were played on the B♭ soprano saxophone, a tradition which continues to this day.

Boléro is extremely straightforward.  The music is in C major, 3/4 time, beginning pianissimo and rising in a continuous crescendo to fortissimo possibile (as loud as possible). It is built over an unchanging ostinato rhythm played on one or more snare drums that remains constant throughout the piece.

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On top of this rhythm two melodies are heard, each of 18 bars’ duration, and each played twice alternately. The first melody is diatonic, the second melody introduces more jazz-influenced elements, with syncopation and flattened notes (technically it is in the Phrygian mode). The first melody descends through one octave, the second melody descends through two octaves. The bass line and accompaniment are initially played on pizzicato strings, mainly using rudimentary tonic and dominant notes. Tension is provided by the contrast between the steady percussive rhythm, and the “expressive vocal melody trying to break free.” Interest is maintained by constant reorchestration of the theme, leading to a variety of timbres, and by a steady crescendo. Both themes are repeated a total of eight times. At the climax, the first theme is repeated a ninth time, then the second theme takes over and breaks briefly into a new tune in E major before finally returning to the tonic key of C major.

The melody is passed among different instruments: 1) flute 2) clarinet 3) bassoon 4) E♭clarinet 5) oboe d’amore 6) trumpet (with flute not heard clearly and in higher octave than the first part) 7) tenor saxophone 8) soprano saxophone 9) horn, piccolos and celesta 10) oboe, English horn and clarinet 11) trombone 12) some of the wind instruments 13) first violins and some wind instruments 14) first and second violins together with some wind instruments 15) violins and some of the wind instruments 16) some instruments in the orchestra 17) and finally most but not all the instruments in the orchestra (with bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam). While the melody continues to be played in C throughout, from the middle onwards other instruments double it in different keys. The first such doubling involves a horn playing the melody in C, while a celeste doubles it 2 and 3 octaves above and two piccolos play the melody in the keys of G and E, respectively. This functions as a reinforcement of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th overtones of each note of the melody. The other significant “key doubling” involves sounding the melody a 5th above or a 4th below, in G major. Other than these “key doublings”, Ravel simply harmonizes the melody using diatonic chords.

The tempo indication in the score is Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai (“tempo of a bolero, very moderate”). In Ravel’s own copy of the score, the printed metronome mark of 76 per quarter is crossed out and 66 is substituted. Later editions of the score suggest a tempo of 72. Ravel’s own recording from January 1930 starts at around 66 per quarter, slightly slowing down later on to 60–63. Its total duration is 15 minutes 50 seconds. Coppola’s first recording, at which Ravel was present, has a similar duration of 15 minutes 40 seconds. Ravel said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that the piece lasts 17 minutes.

An average performance will last in the area of fifteen minutes, with the slowest recordings, such as that by Ravel’s associate Pedro de Freitas Branco, extending well over 18 minutes and the fastest, such as Leopold Stokowski’s 1940 recording with the All American Youth Orchestra, approaching 12 minutes.

At Coppola’s first recording Ravel indicated strongly that he preferred a steady tempo, criticizing the conductor for getting faster at the end of the work. According to Coppola’s own report:

Maurice Ravel […] did not have confidence in me for the Boléro. He was afraid that my Mediterranean temperament would overtake me, and that I would rush the tempo. I assembled the orchestra at the Salle Pleyel, and Ravel took a seat beside me. Everything went well until the final part, where, in spite of myself, I increased the tempo by a fraction. Ravel jumped up, came over and pulled at my jacket: “not so fast”, he exclaimed, and we had to begin again.

Ravel’s preference for a slower tempo is confirmed by his unhappiness with Toscanini’s performance, of course. Toscanini’s 1939 recording with the NBC Symphony Orchestra has a duration of 13 minutes 25 seconds. In May 1994, with the Munich Philharmonic on tour in Cologne, conductor Sergiu Celibidache at the age of 82 gave a performance that lasted 17 minutes and 53 seconds, perhaps a record in the modern era. Perhaps in no other modern composition is tempo so critical. The insistent beat of the snare drum is the underpinning of the whole piece. Should we be slaves to the composer’s wishes? A difficult question. All composers, no matter how rigid in their directions, provide wiggle room for interpretation. Some directions are of necessity imprecise. How loud is fortissimo? How soft is pianissimo? With tempo it’s not as imprecise in modern times because of metronome markings, but there is still some wiggle room there, even with a metronome. Clearly Ravel was not thoroughly consistent. It also depends whether it is being played as an orchestral piece alone, or to accompany dancers. Also remember that it is called Boléro for a reason; it’s meant to evoke the bolero, which means the tempo should be consistent with the dance.

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Creating a menu to do in taste what Ravel did with sound is an interesting challenge. The way I think of it is that you need something that is consistent through all the courses as the base, but then another ingredient or series of related ingredients that all match in some way, but which are in marked contrast to the base – increasing in complexity as the meal progresses. I’d need to actually plan a full dinner party to test out such an idea. I’m thinking, for example, that if milk were your base, you’d start with a glass of milk. Then perhaps you could have onions in milk, then leeks in milk, then shallots in milk – then onions and garlic, then onions, garlic, and chives . . . and so on. The trouble with those ingredients is that it would not be a very satisfying meal.  I’ll open this up to my readers and see who’s paying attention. You need to think first about what will be your “snare drum” – a consistent undertone, such as milk, bread, or wine. It has to be able to stand alone at the outset. Then as the meal progresses each course needs to have an ingredient that blends with the basic ingredient, but strives to break out, culminating in a richly complex set of ingredients. Course should follow course with the added ingredients becoming more varied and complex. What do you think?