Piano Diary 4.

Beth Levin

[August 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:4.]

The Aftermath of Liszt’s Dante Sonata

Working on Liszt’s Dante Sonata is serious business. If you become too immersed in it, you run the unwitting risk of taking on the traits of the devil, a little like Willem Dafoe portraying Nosferatu. To some degree musicians are akin to actors in that we express a score and speak its language the way an actor speaks the language of a play or a script. Liszt’s Dante is beyond the programmatic. Its descriptive qualities so mirror the actual characters and elements of Dante’s verse (the devil, the angels, Hell, fear, horror and tragedy) that I half expect to hear a knock at the door at the end of a work day to find an exorcist offering to relieve the musical turbulence haunting me.

The introduction, comprised of falling augmented fourths, so utterly evokes the devil’s presence that one cannot imagine a closer fit. That coupled with Liszt’s dramatic timing creates a world that a listener enters at his peril. Quick, scale-like sixteenth notes suggest a scurrying, red tailed being replete with horns and just the right use of silence evokes the necessary sense of suspense and trepidation for what lies ahead. Liszt’s brilliant use of the rest, the fermata and rubato throughout the sonata (more exactly a Fantasia quasi Sonata) helps to create the requisite drama and likewise helps the performer to feel time in a heightened way. Liszt’s sweeping palette of colors suggests the gamut of emotion, from evil to ecstasy.

A presto section which immediately follows the maestoso introduction is composed of a succession of minor and chromatic chords played under long legato slurs and with long-held pedals. The effect so perfectly portrays the underground that one can feel the hellish heat and feel the urge to flee from the terrible world to which Dante is being led. Liszt’s markings are “agitato assai,” “lamentoso,” “con impetuo,” and “disperato” — words that add to the performer’s sense of what she must do.

A word about long-held pedal-markings: it often takes courage to pedal through measures and measures of changing harmonies especially after being schooled in the clarity of Bach, Scarlatti and Mozart. But clarity can always be found despite masses of pedal and almost any sound can be created at the piano with enough imagination and desire to hear it. Finally, a great performance often leaps beyond the expected.

Farther into Dante, Liszt employs more fiendish writing in the form of prestissimo octaves, huge leaps and unrelenting, driving chords that seem to fly off the page. Nevertheless, amidst the virtuoso writing one always hears an expressive melodic line, an echo of the introductory intervals (the devil) and other unifying elements that ground the performer in a musical purpose, never allowing her to play fast octaves for mere show (although the effect at ever increasing tempi can be breathtaking). In that sense, the piece is very physical and requires a performer at the top of her technical game. But she is telling a story and trying not to be lured into a display of technique.

About halfway through the piece, angels appear in the form of heavenly writing. There is an ecstatic theme in pianissimo that Liszt almost buries in the former bombast but now allows to be heard simply and without distraction. Words like “dolcissimo con intimo sentimento” and “lagrimoso” add to the sense of the music’s exquisite sadness. He also employs single falling chromatic notes to conjure up the urgent pleading of one begging for mercy. A final Recitativo sounds like another gasp or last desperate plea before all hell breaks loose for Dante and for us.

The climax of the piece suggests a major struggle wherein one can hear snippets of the devil’s and angelic themes sparring. Just when you think the devil has died down, (“perdendo” in the score), Dante allows him to plead one more time, and the angels are heard to respond en masse. Liszt reintroduces the devil, but this time with an added hint of madness, as if he is laughing at Dante. Minor chords used in the beginning to portray the underground are now transformed to the major but no more sinister major chords have ever been heard. The devil’s triumph as heard through the wildness and irony of the major chords infuses the music and the listener with horror and a sense that all that is good has turned toward evil. We feel bereft of hope and left to lick our wounds with no consolation.

Excuse me, dear reader, a knock at the door.

The Amato Opera Company, Mozart’s Don Giovanni , May 4th, 2001, 7:30 PM

The Amato Opera Company’s production of Don Giovanni Friday night was a comedy of errors. I had heard from a friend in the cast that there had been only two rehearsals for an entire opera, that Don Octavio barely knew his rôle , that the orchestra consisted of a synthesizer and that Anthony Amato was forced to coax and cue his artists madly from his place in the pit.

But as much as charm can make up for a shabby production, the Amato theater succeeds by brimming with it. A tiny, narrow space with a very tall stage flounced by a plush green curtain, it gives the listener in his seat an intimate feel of what is happening onstage. You’ll never see singers mid-rôle up that close anywhere else. If the glue from a wig starts to sweat, you’ll see it. If a singer looks frantically to the orchestra pit for the first word of his recitative, you’ll see it. And if a costume looks in need of a bit of dry cleaning, you’ll see it.

This production never hides its art. All of the mishaps and foibles, bad singing, hastily learned lines and orchestra-pit faux pas are exposed, thereby leaving the audience to experience two performances, the opera itself and the comedy of a patched together production.

Peter Campbell as Don Giovanni had the requisite bravado and a nice voice. He seemed at home and sure of himself. But with only two rehearsals for such a difficult rôle , even Don Juan waned in confidence, and by Act II was fumbling here and there for words and music.

It was Leporello who stole the show. Not a young man, his voice had long since gone over the hill. But he compensated by acting the part so well, with funny asides and glances at the audience, a myriad of facial expressions and the wise use of his body as an instrument for the character. He seemed to have a perfect understanding of his part, namely as foil to Don Giovanni. He also employed great variation in color whenever he spoke or sung, often dropping to pianissimo which truly caught this listener’s attention. It provided relief from the other singers who never strayed from a full voiced, single dynamic through an entire aria. A little more variation in color and nuance would have gone a long way to add emotional interest in the face of a certain lack of polish.

The sets were charming and whimsical, if a bit cheesy. One had a sense of everything about the theater, onstage and off, being a façade of sorts. But a façade can still create magic, and the production had its moments. Zerlina and Masetto shared some tender love duets and made us believe in the existence of the two innocents. (The program reported that Masetto had made quite a hefty donation to the Amato which led one to believe he may have bought his rôle . But I leave it to the cynics among us to decide.) When the Commendatore reappears as a ghostly figure at the end of Act II, we are truly frightened and held by the power of his voice and his emotions. Finally there is something engaging and childlike about seeing people dress up in costume, give their all to Mozart’s world of fantasy.

The orchestra was composed of a synthesizer which could imitate piano, harpsichord, and cembalo. Luckily there were also doublings on flute, clarinet, bassoon and horn, adding some liveliness and color to the small ensemble. Often the singers were either trailing or ahead of the keyboard in part because the instrument never fully supported the singers with enough sound. I think a strong upright piano may have been a better choice as a substitute for an orchestral score.

The female leads were most in control of themselves, their roles and their voices. But even beautiful singers, when surrounded by lesser professionals, in struggling to stay above it all, are inevitably pulled downward to a diminished level of performance. Would that the opposite were true.

When Don Octavio made several failed attempts to begin his recitative with Donna Anna looking on, it took a great actress in Christine Moore to make us believe she was still listening and that she cared. A lesser singer might have hit him over the head with a bottle of vino and sung the ensuing duet as a solo. No one present would have blamed her.

The Amato Opera Company allows us to see how opera is a supremely collaborative effort and how when the parts aren’t working smoothly the outcome may suffer. But the Amato Opera is also a noble effort and one that on a good day provides a small audience of opera fans with great music, new talent and a chance to be part of a living homage to the great opera composers of the past. Even with it’s flaws, the final curtain call of Don Giovanni evoked thunderous applause, and when our favorite singers appeared for a bow we responded with cheers, the stamping of feet and shouts of Bravo and Brava. No singer at the Met could have been any more appreciated. I’d say to go to a production at the Amato not with the heart of a critic but with a sympathetic attitude and an openness to the experience of the moment.