Archive for Don Giovanni

Il Mio Tesoro – John McCormack

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , on December 19, 2021 by telescoper

The aria Il Mio Tesoro Intanto from Act II of Mozart’s great Opera Don Giovanni is widely regarded as a test piece for Operatic tenors because of its demanding mix of long flowing lines, big leaps and florid coloratura ornamentation. The other day I heard a performance by the great Irish tenor John McCormack which, despite being recorded over a hundred years ago (in 1916) completely blew me away. I thought I’d share it here.

John McCormack made over 800 records in his lifetime, the vast majority of them Irish songs and ballads that found a huge audience not only in Ireland but also in the Irish diaspora in the United States of America; this part of his career was extremely lucrative making him a millionaire. His first love was the Opera: a lyric tenor of the highest quality, his career overlapped with that of the great Enrico Caruso and the two became great friends after McCormack moved to the United States and became a regular at the Metropolitan Opera. It was Caruso who made the first ever million-selling record (Vesti La Giubba from I Pagliacci in 1902) and perhaps that’s what persuaded McCormack to embark on a recording career.

Before the 1920s gramophone recordings were entirely acoustic, made by a process exactly the reverse of a gramophone player. Musicians and singers would play into a horn at the sharp end of which was a needle that could leave an impression on the recording medium. In the early days the recording would be made on a wax cylinder, but this was soon replaced by plastic or acetate discs. It wasn’t possible to make recordings longer than a few minutes using this method.

Here’s an example of an early recording session showing what it was like. The chap with the moustache is Sir Edward Elgar:

Given this sort of arrangement it is no surprise that the sound of the Orchestra of the Met is muffled and distorted on the following recording. Almost certainly McCormack would have been standing right in front of the horn so his sizeable form would have acted as a kind of baffle. When I think of these old records it always seems a wonder that you can hear anything at all.

Despite the limitations of the recording technology the crystal clarity of McCormack’s voice and his superb control shine through. I listen to quite a lot of old jazz records made in a similar way so my ears are perhaps unusually forgiving but I think this is one of the greatest versions of this aria that I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard quite a few. I hope you enjoy it too.

P.S. John McCormack was born in Athlone, which is about 100km due west of Maynooth.

Dond’escono quei vortici?

Posted in Education, Opera, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 10, 2012 by telescoper

Just time for a quickie today. I seem to be writing that virtualy every day at this time, in fact. Anyway, yesterday I gave the last of a series of lectures on Fluid Dynamics during which I talked a little bit about the Navier-Stokes equation, and introduced the concept of turbulence, topic that Richard Feynman described as “the most important unsolved problem in classical physics”. Given that the origin of turbulence is so poorly understood, I had to cover it all fairly qualitatively but did at least explain that its onset is associated with high values of the Reynold’s Number, an interesting dimensionless number that characterizes the properties of viscous fluid flow in such a way as to bring out the dynamical similarity inherent in the equations. The difficulty is that there is no exact theory that allows one to calculate the critical value of the Reynold’s number and in any particular situation; that has to be determined by experiments, such as this one which shows turbulent vortices (or “eddies”) forming downstream of a cylindrical obstacle placed in flowing fluid. The (laminar) flow upstream, and in regions far from the cylinder, has no vorticity.

What happens is obviously extremely complicated because it involves a huge range of physical scales – the vorticity is generated by very small-scale interactions between the fluid elements and the boundary of the object past which they flow. It’s a very frustrating thing for a physicist, actually, because one’s gut feeling is that it should be possible to figure it out. After all, it’s “just” classical physics. It’s also of great practical importance in a huge range of fields. Nevertheless, despite all the progress in “exotic” field such as particle physics and cosmology, it remains an open question in many respects.

That’s why it’s important to teach undergraduates about it. Physics isn’t just about solved problems. It’s a living subject, and it’s important for students to know those fields where we don’t really know that much about what is going on…

PS. The title is a quotation from the libretto of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, uttered by the eponymous Count as he is dragged down to hell. It translates as “Whence come these vortices?” Pretentious, moi?

Don Giovanni

Posted in Art, Opera with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2011 by telescoper

Another sign that autumn is nigh is that the opera season has started again, which at least gives me the opportunity to resume my series of occasional opera reviews.

I was planning to go to see the new  Welsh National Opera production of Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart   last week but was stymied it clashed with the cricket, which turned out to be a day-night game finishing too late to allow me to go to both. Anyway, I was able to get tickets for last night’s performance as well as dispose of last week’s so it all worked out for me in the end.

First night reviews of this production weren’t particularly good – the reviews in the Telegraph and the Guardian are fairly typical – which probably accounted for the fact that the Wales Millennium Centre wasn’t particularly  full even for such an extremely popular opera. I don’t usually pay much attention to reviews myself and I thought the critics were excessively harsh, although some of the points they make are valid.

I won’t repeat the synopsis in detail here because it’s probably familiar to most people likely to read this, even those who aren’t opera buffs. In fact it’s all explained by the subtitle il dissolute punito. We meet the villainous “nobleman” Don Giovanni attempting to molest  Donna Anna after sneaking into the house of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father. Don Giovanni is rumbled and confronted by the Commendatore; a duel  ensues which appears to be ending without bloodshed until the Don draws a dagger and murders the Commendatore.

There then follows a series of escapades: attempted seductions, disguises, mistaken identities, narrow escapes, and so on. Typical comic opera stuff in fact, except that it’s not really typical comic opera  because it’s comic opera with music by Mozart and libretto by da Ponte. In other words, it’s genius.

Finally,  Don Giovanni’s past catches up to him. He taunts a statue of the dead Commendatore while seeking refuge in a graveyard. Later, back at Don Giovanni’s  house the statue arrives  and sends Don Giovanni to Hell.

The first impression you get of this production on entering the theatre is the monumental set, which is based (not inappropriately) on the  Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin (shown left), a huge bronze sculpture that depicts a scene from Dante’s Inferno. What you see on stage, however, is not a simple replica of the Rodin piece, but a series of variations on and extensions of the original artwork. Extra pieces are added to form a walled courtyard, it opens out to form a series of rooms and chambers, and in the end the gates themselves open to take the eponymous villain down to Hell (along with a smoke and fire effect which unfortunately didn’t work very well last night; there wasn’t enough smoke to engulf him as was clearly intended).

The idea of basing the set around this work of art was potentially brilliant but I didn’t think it really worked as well as it might. The reason is that the magic of Mozart’s operas emanates, at least in part, from the huge dramatic contrasts. Don Giovanni certainly has a very dark edge, but it also has a great many lighter comic episodes, some of them bordering on the slapstick. Having this heavy sombre backdrop to everything tended to dampen the swings between light and shade. It’s as if the  production was so obsessed with this one idea, that everything else became subservient to it. What could have been brilliant was just too clumsy. You don’t have to force things so much, especially not with Mozart, especially not with Don Giovanni.

Another criticism I would make concerns David Kempster as Don Giovanni. He certainly sang extremely well, his smoky baritone voice sounding very rakish. However I thought he acted the part too broadly, at times like a pantomime villain, to the extent that he seemed delighted by the theatrical boos he got on his curtain call. He was at times very funny indeed, but again I thought he was a bit forced.

However, if it sounds like I’m being very negative about the performance then I don’t mean to be. Apart from the unnecessarily imposing set, the look of the production is wonderful: the costumes and lighting were beautifully done, and the crypto-Gothic look was appropriately spooky when “spooky” was called for.

David Soar was a really oustanding Leporello; I think the audience agreed with me as he got a huge cheer at the end. Camilla Roberts was excellent as Donna Anna as was Nuccia Focile as Donna Elvira. On the other hand I found Carlo Malinverno a disappointment as the Commendatore. He looked scary enough but his undistinguished and occasionally  wobbly bass voice didn’t have the necessary menace for climactic scene with Don Giovanni near the end. For me it has to be a voice that really reverberates with doom. Few can really pull it off, and Carlo Malinverno isn’t one of them.

A special mention, however, must be made of Samantha Hay, who stepped in at short notice to sing the part of Zerlina owing to the indisposition of Claire Ormshaw. She was absolutely wonderful, with a beautifully crystal-clear voice and engaging stage presence. Well done to her for a performance that was very warmly received by the audience.

Watching the opera last night it struck me again, as it always does listening to Don Giovanni,  just how many great pieces of music there are in it. Whereas most operas can offer at most a few set-pieces, in Don Giovanni they keep coming one after the other for well over three hours. This is Mozart at the very peak of his powers, and  a few blemishes don’t even come close to taking the magic away.

Il Convitato di Pietra

Posted in Literature, Opera with tags , , , , on August 7, 2011 by telescoper

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a – sometimes excessive –  interest in the origin and meaning of words. It’s not something that many people share, but I think language is a fascinating thing, in the way that it evolves so that words and phrases take on different nuances.

It’s not just in English that this happens, of course. The other day I received in a brochure about Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming production of  Don Giovanni (for which I’ve already got first-night tickets). I’ll no doubt post a review in due course, but probably the most famous scene of what is arguably Mozart’s greatest opera is near the end of Act II when the statue of the murdered Comendatore arrives to claim Don Giovanni’s soul, with the words

Don Giovanni a cenar teco
m’invitasti e son venuto!

(Don Giovanni, you invited me to dine with you and I have come!) It’s a stunning scene from the point of view of both music and drama, and can also be genuinely frightening when done well.

Here’s an example from Youtube, with the doom-laden basso profundo of Kurt Moll as the Comendatore

Some years ago in Nottingham I went to see Don Giovanni performed by the Lithuanian National Opera. It was a nice but unremarkable production until it reached the Comendatore scene. The arrival of the ghostly figure is preceded by an ominous knocking sound which, in this production, emanated from offstage, to the right, as the audience watched. The cast all looked in this direction, as did all the audience. But it was a classic piece of stage misdirection. Suddenly, the music announced the arrival of the statue, a spotlight flashed on and there was the Comendatore already in centre stage. It took me completely by surprise and I gasped audibly, to the obvious disapproval of the team of old ladies sitting in the row in front of me, who shook their heads and tutted. I had  seen Don Giovanni before, and knew exactly what was coming, but was still scared..

Anyway, that’s not really the point of this post. At a conference some years ago I was talking to an Italian colleague of mine and he told me something I found fascinating, which is that the Comendatore scene had led to an idiomatic expression in Italian Il Convitato di Pietra (“The Stone Guest”) which is in quite common usage.

In fact there  are other works that allude to this phrase including an earlier opera called Don Giovanni o Il Convitato di Pietra and a later play by Pushkin called The Stone Guest.

So what does it mean? It’s not quite the same as the Comendatore scene would suggest. In Italian it is given as

(una) presenza incombente ma invisibile, muta, e perciò inquietante e imprevedibile, che tutti conoscono ma che nessuno nomina

which I’ll translate with my feeble Italian as

an impending but invisible  presence, dumb and therefore disturbing and unexpected, which everyone knows but no-one names

In other (English) words, “The Stone Guest” is someone who’s not actually present – at least not physically – but who nevertheless manages to cast some sort of a shadow over the proceedings. I’m sure we can all think of occasions when this would have been a very apt phrase but there seems to be no English equivalent. It’s not quite the same as the Elephant in the Room, but has some similarity.

Now that I’ve had a chance to think, though, perhaps there is an English equivalent. A person who is perpetually absent but despite that exerts baleful influence on those present? A name connected with stone?

It’s got to be Keith Mason….