Beachcombing with La Stupenda on Alcina’s Island

This week I had the immense pleasure of spending time with Handel’s Alcina, in a classic recording with Joan Sutherland (1926-2010)—La Stupenda—in the role that earned her the sobriquet.

Nexus entry.Handel-Alcina-Bonynge-5a[London-3LP].jpg

I had been thinking of Alcina for weeks because of my recent fascination with “island music,” which has spawned a series of entries here on Sound Trove, but after last week’s dip into the waters of South Pacific, I could resist no more. For Alcina is not so very different from Bloody Mary: enchantress-queen of an irresistible isle, creator of a marvelous fantasy that a strapping young foreign “hero,” remembering his “girl back home,” reveals as illusory. Of course, Alcina is herself both enchantress and lover, whereas in South Pacific those functions are separated: Bloody Mary’s “extension,” her silent daughter Liat, serves as the object of desire. Both stories are ultimately Circe stories, Alcina more obviously so because her ex-lovers are literally turned into wild beasts, just as in the Greek myth.

The composer has an interesting function to perform here, because the music demanded of Bloody Mary and Alcina has to be music that cannot be resisted, music that would lure you to self-annihilation with a song in your heart.

page1-220px-Whispering_sheetmusic.pdf.jpg“Bali-Ha’i” is pretty convincing in this role; Rodgers achieves a suggestion of the mysterious, romantic allure of island vistas in a way that perhaps parallels the suggestion of the beauty of the mountains in the opening of The Sound of Music. But what about Bloody Mary’s other song, “Happy Talk”? Since writing about South Pacific last week, I’ve been thinking a bit about what sort of a song that is, and the more I think about it, the more I feel comfortable committing to the idea that it’s Paul Whitemanesque. (Listen to “Whispering,” if you’ve allowed yourself to forget what Whiteman’s orchestra had to offer at its best.) And what, pray tell, is Bloody Mary doing singing music in the Whiteman mode as she plays overseer-enchantress for her daughter’s big love scene with Lieutenant Cable? My take is that this music would have sounded seriously dated to the original audiences of South Pacific, that the out-of-touch and corny note it strikes either reveals Bloody Mary’s basic misunderstanding of what it would take to make the Cable-Liat relationship work or reveals to the audience that there is insufficient music here upon which to build a lasting relationship. It seems to me that there might also be racial dimensions of “Happy Talk” that might have been prompted by the dialect present in the lyrics. More pointedly, Rodgers seems to be referencing minstrelsy, and therefore making a weird link between “othernesses” that might nevertheless have been operative for his audience, including the diegetic “audience of one,” Lt. Cable. Ultimately, Cable’s “Younger than Springtime” can’t save his relationship with Liat from “Happy Talk.”

118001911.jpgAnd what about Handel music for Alcina? She also has her “Bali Ha’i” moment in her first aria, “Di’, cor mio, quanto t’amai,” sung to the new arrivals to her island kingdom. In it she acts as a sort of tour guide, recommending that the newcomers visit the secret grove where she and her lover Ruggiero first, um, realized their mutual affection. Little does Alcina know (we suppose?) that she’s singing this to Ruggiero’s betrothed, Bradamante. (Bradamante is apparently terrifically convincing as a man, since Alcina’s sister Morgana falls for him/her instantly upon seeing him/her.) Listening to Sutherland sing this single aria, one can well imagine the audience at Venice’s La Fenice immediately hailing her as “La Stupenda.” Her virtuosity here is effortless, graceful, entirely assured; she has numerous opportunities in the aria to demonstrate her famous trill, so accurate and even that it sounds like an instrument. How could Bradamante, worn out from travel and dressed up as a soldier, ever hope to compete with this exotic goddess of fioritura? I mean, just look at her: She’s not even trying that hard!

The appearance of effort, of workman-like virtuosity, is present in Alcina, of course (It is Handel, after all.) It’s particularly evident in the Jane-Fonda-meets-Arnold-Schwarzenegger sweaty swagger of “Sta nell’Ircana pietrosa tana.” Here Ruggiero has seen through the all the sorcery of Alcina and is ready to do battle against the “armed squadrons and bewitched monsters” she has amassed to stop him. So he sings about how Alcina, the “Hyrcanian tigress,” lurks, while showing through leaps and sequencing melismas how he’s the kind of guy who can hunt him some tiger. Handel even throws in (thrillingly!) horns to show that the folks in the orchestra know a legit huntsman when they see one. So as fun as the aria is—and it is terrifically fun!—it also makes itself a bit absurd as a classic case of overcompensation. Teresa Berganza sings it, as she often does the role throughout the opera, with a brightness signifying brash youth that touchingly (if you go for that sort of thing?) demonstrates how uncritical a consciousness Ruggiero possesses. He blows hot and cold because he really does feel that way, a mental child who was never any match for the subtle, calculating, and yes enchanting, Alcina. But he wins against her in all his bluster. How can we be comfortable with that?

One answer is that it’s not really Ruggiero who wins but Bradamante, and that the power struggle in the opera is really between the plot-women (Alcina and Bradamante). I would love to talk more about this, but. . .maybe another time.

51tniyOSHLL.jpgAnother reason we can accept La Stupenda’s humiliation and defeat is that Alcina isn’t always such a nice person. In Act III, in a final act of tigress-like desperation, she eggs on Oberto, a captive boy whom she allowed to remain human instead of turning into a beast, to kill a lion that approaches him. Oberto (Mirella Freni!) realizes that the lion is actually his father—in part because the lion nuzzles up to him—and calls Alcina, whom he had previously thought of as protector and friend, “Barbara!” (“Barbarous one!”) This is the real end of her world of enchantment. It makes me think of the moment at the end of Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し, 2001) when Yubāba asks Chihiro to choose which pair of swine is actually her transformed parents as a last test before she will return her real name and release her from the kingdom of the spirits. (It’s a trap, but one Chihiro, like Oberto [and Admiral Ackbar], sees through.)

What happens after Oberto calls out Alcina is one of those remarkable moments in Handelian opera when it seems the composer is doing things he’s not supposed to be doing. He writes a ¡¡¡tRiO!!! in which Bradamante and Ruggiero are musically (and textually) pitted against Alcina. 1843832682.jpgAs Winton Dean writes in his magnificent Handel’s Operas, 1726-1741, this trio, a phenomenon “all too rare in Handel’s operas. . .stands beside those in Tamerlano and Orlando as a masterly summing up of a dramatic confrontation.” <1> And then? Well, then Alcina is utterly defeated, her magic urn broken, all her enchantments undone. The chorus of former rocks, waves, and beasts sings about their release “from the blind horror of night” (“Dall’orror di notte cieca”). It feels like the prisoners’ stepping into the light of the courtyard in Fidelio, like the broadcasting of the Letter Duet from Figaro over the loudspeakers in Shawshank Redemption. Winton Dean talks about Act III of Alcina as “trac[ing] the disintegration of Alcina’s personality.” How far she had to fall from the vocal heights of her first Act I aria!

Nexus exit.

There’s always so much more to say, but it’s time to bid adieu to Alcina’s island for now. But what sadness I feel at leaving such a beautiful illusion! There’s some consolation in knowing that Ruggiero felt exactly the same way when he sang this. . .“Verdant meadows, leafy woods, all your beauty will decay. . .”

<1> Winton Dean, Handel’s Operas, 1726-1741 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006): 321.

“Most people live on a lonely island” – South Pacific Remembered

“Oh, and then there’s this one: [sings first phrase of ‘This Nearly Was Mine’].” “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You mean that’s from South Pacific?” “Um, it’s only, like, the best song in the whole show.” “Wow. You know I’ve had that song on my mind for, like, most of my life. Decades. And I’ve just now realized that I never knew where it came from.”

This is the kind of intensive social research you commit to when writing a blog about listening across the whole span of recorded history. The bit of conversation reported above, which I had with a colleague a few days ago after mentioning that I was writing about South Pacific this week, points to the way that the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein have stayed lodged in the collective consciousness of several successive generations of Americans, even when they don’t fully realize it. They’re part of the soundtrack of our formative years, warp and weft of our musical identity, and therefore become a music of nostalgia. As you grow up musically, this sounds like a cache of kitsch that nevertheless stirs genuine pangs of longing. It’s as if all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals inhabit a “special island,” whispering “Come to me, come to me.”

I’ve been on a bit of an “island music” kick recently, so much so that I’ve decided to add a category for it to Sound Trove. Steel band music from Trinidad, music shaped by a childhood in Cuba, by contemplation of the Canary Islands, by poetry on New Zealand. But this time it’s different. South Pacific directly deals in all the things a music scholar reads about—exoticism, colonialism, musical tourism. Sticky wickets abound. For instance. . .

MI0002193571.jpgThe role of Bloody Mary, mother of Liat, the Tonkinese love interest of American Lt. Joseph Cable, was played in both the original Broadway production and the 1958 film by Juanita Hall. I’m listening to the original Broadway cast recording, one of the joys of which is reading the album notes, so here’s what the notes say about Hall: “. . .formerly was associated with the Hall Johnson Choir as soloist and as associate director. She later founded the Juanita Hall Choir.” Hall (1901-68), born in New Jersey and eventually trained at Juilliard, was also an African American, but when Richard Rodgers heard her, he wanted her cast in the role of the Tonkinese mother (and, later, in the role of Madam Liang in Flower Drum Song).

When, at the end of “Happy Talk”—during which Bloody Mary is overseeing and encouraging her daughter Liat’s love scene with American Lieutenant Joseph Cable—she asks playfully (and/or cloyingly), “Is good idea? You like?” it may increasingly concern listeners that this question is posed by a black American delivering lines in broken English to suggest a South Asian as written by white American males. Does it further complicate matters to point out that Hall was the first African American to receive a Tony (in 1950, for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical), for that very role? Does it complicate them further to point out that Rodgers, who had wanted Hall for the role on Broadway, asked that her voice be overdubbed when the film of South Pacific was made? (Bloody Mary is sung in the film by an uncredited Muriel Smith, the first African American to attend the Curtis Institute of Music.)

81ZY+rTp3CL._SY355_.jpgConsider some of the layers of racial politics here: those embedded in the source material for the story—that is, American soldiers’ experiences in South Asia during and after the Second World War; those found in James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, the source for the musical; those found in Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan’s adaptation; those found in the casting of the Broadway production of South Pacific; those found in the writing and casting of the 1958 film; our own in 2018. We can’t untangle it. It’s a mess. It seems clear that by casting an African American for a major Broadway production at a time when Broadway was segregated, Rodgers and others thought of themselves as activists to some extent. Beyond that simple point, pursuing the tale of appropriation, misrepresentation, and racial in/justice represented by South Pacific looks a pretty bewildering enterprise, so much so that we might do well to forsake the whole thing were it not for. . .

Nexus entry.

Bali Ha’————–i may call you any night, any day.” When Juanita Hall lands on that F sharp on Ha, all the longing to reach the island of your dreams, the music of your distant past, is hauled up from the depths of the murky subconscious. This can’t help but remind me of the raised fourth scale degree of “Maria” in West Side Story: also clashing with the tonic chord, also landing on the strong beat of the bar, also suggesting the longed-for “other.” Of course, it’s Tony who sings about his longing in “Maria,” whereas Bloody Mary is voicing the island itself in South Pacific. Her unforgettable line, with its “exotic” raised fourth, links exotic landscape with the world of dreams, the female voice with unspoken desires. All this is very familiar to fans of nineteenth-century opera, echoing links between desire and the “exotic” in Carmen and particularly Madama Butterfly.

ac2dbb3e74429149ae90ddc1d92586bb--carmen-bizet-mezzo-soprano.jpgIn some ways that’s unfair to Carmen and Butterfly. Both feature male protagonists who are deeply troubled. Don José, violent and jealous, ends up winning few friends in the audience when he murders the object of his desire; Pinkerton, selfish and ignorant, similarly makes himself a villain by leaving Cio-Cio-san in a situation where suicide is her best option. The men are not unsullied heroes; they’re weak and small and make life worse for others. So in a sense the longing called up by Bizet and Puccini in Carmen and Butterfly is shown to be a fruitless creation of witless men, their untutored desire a path to destruction that calls into question the entire exotic mode.

South Pacific, while adopting these “exotic” markers almost unquestioningly, nevertheless deploys them amid a more complicated set of relationships. For example, male desire is often not exhibited in association with “exotic” music, but in group performances of American popular music: “Bloody Mary,” though about mock-desire, is nevertheless an introduction to the knot of male sexual frustration that is at its most overt in “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and is satirized by Nurse Nellie in the drag burlesque of “Honey Bun.” It is against the backdrop of that collective expression of desire that the more nuanced stories of Liat/Cable and Nellie/Emil de Becque play out. And speaking of Emil de Becque. . .

61DGzzvnuxL._SY355_.jpgIt is he, the French planter with French-Tonkinese children, who sings “This Nearly Was Mine,” that song long lodged in the subconscious vault of my colleague. In the original Broadway production de Becque was played by Italian bass Ezio Pinza, who by that point in his career had just finished his twenty-second and final season at the Met (1926-48). There’s certainly something “other” about his voice, then, in the context of South Pacific: he’s the suave European sculpting vocal lines amid impulsive jabs of the American brash. Approximately, anyway. His musical “othering” doesn’t end there. Given an opportunity to work with an operatic vocalist, Rodgers and his orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981), made the orchestra do more than boom-chuck-chuck. In “Some Enchanted Evening,” de Becque’s first-act “aria,” the strings sometimes echo his lines in a sort of canon, providing the “voice” of his dreamed-of duet partner. Then, in “This Nearly Was Mine,” at my favorite moment of the entire musical, the melody from “Some Enchanted Evening” starts to answer de Becque in the English horn but is cut off, never to return. The dream of finding love is “nearly” achieved, and then disappears forever. In the Finale, “Some Enchanted Evening” gets its reprise, and Nurse Nellie Forbush sings in answer to de Becque. His dream comes true, and he even gets a money note to prove it. The serious problem—that Nellie, from Little Rock, A.R.K., had to overcome her deep-seated prejudice against de Becque’s “mixed-race” children—is solved. Nellie and de Becque’s story seems to tell us that life is complicated and far from perfect, but if we’re very fortunate, we learn to see that imperfection is beautiful because it’s life.

Lt. Cable is not so fortunate, of course. He chooses to leave Liat, remembering his “girl back home,” but then makes the decision to go on a mission so dangerous that it kills him. This is a kind of anti-Butterfly, where Pinkerton’s stand-in is the one who kills himself out of grief, and Liat must go on living with the burden of memory. Rodgers gives Cable (performed by William Tabbert) a beautiful song, “Younger Than Springtime,” a parallel to de Becque’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” But Liat is voiceless in the song: the character never sings a note, and the orchestra never stands in for her. How could it work out when the orchestra won’t even acknowledge her?

Nexus exit.

You know how it is: So much more to say, and so many records. . .