Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Great opera villains, Part Two

Edouard de Reszke as Mephistopheles in Gounod's "Faust" -- the Devil gets all the good tunes.
With the chill in the air, opera season is here, and I’ve been looking at the juicy parts the typical operatic villain gets to sing.

While it’s perceived as a pastime for the rich, most of its history saw opera as an opiate of the people. Yep, common folk would flock to see these larger-than-life stories, enjoying the extremes of acting, production values and musical embellishment just as we get off on 3-D IMAX films today.

As we will see in this installment, the gorier the fates, the more florid the emotions and the more special effects that could be piled on, the happier the hoi polloi was. In the first part of this story, I talked about my top three: Scarpia in “Tosca,” Don Pizzaro in “Fidelio,” and Claggart in “Billy Budd.” Here are some second-tier nasties and a catalog of the mayhem they wreak. Enjoy!

1.    Iago, “Otello” -- Verdi

Position: Junior officer in the Venetian army

Iago just misses out being in the top three by virtue of Verdi’s chief virtue – the fact that he couldn’t write a poorly-rounded character to save his life. Like Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoy, Verdi gives every one of his parts a soul, and the inherent balance in this approach keeps Iago from dominating the proceedings.

When I first read “Othello” as a kid, I didn’t get it -- I wondered why it wasn’t just called “Iago.” With the passage of time and the revelation of some top-notch performances, it’s become apparent that Othello is the author of his and Desdemona’s destruction, even if Iago is holding the poison pen.

What’s his problem?: Basically, Iago would much rather have civil service procedures and seniority determine promotion. Otello preferred Cassio to him, therefore, he seeks vengeance against the Moorish general. (In Shakespeare’s source play, he also refers to the fact that O fooled around with his wife.) Iago aka “Honest John” proves how smart he is by concocting a brilliant series of implied statements that drive Otello to suspect his own wife’s fidelity and eventually to strangle her to death.

M.O.: Iago would have made a great lawyer. Using only half-hinted assertions and a bit of circumstantial evidence, he propels the murderous plot.

Good tunes?: Plenty! It’s Verdi, after all. From his baldly cynical “Credo” through to the Act II and III finales, Iago is a great part to sing and to play. My favorite Iago, Sherrill Milnes, sings here.

Payback: Well, he kind of dashes offstage when the jig is up at the end of Act IV. We are told that the cops are in hot pursuit, and certainly he can never show his face in Venice again, but his ultimate capture and disposition of the case are never explicated. Maybe he talked his way out of it – if anyone could have, it was him.

2.    Alberich/Fafner/Hunding/Hagen, “Der Ring des Niebelungen” -- Wagner

Position: Dwarf, Giant/dragon, angry husband, sneaky warrior

What’s their problem?: Alberich starts the whole thing by renouncing love and grabbing The Ring, to gain complete magic power over everything. Wotan tricks him out of it, but then Wotan has to hand it over to the twin giants Fasolt and Fafner for getting his Valhalla palace complex built. Then Fafner kills Fasolt and turns into a dragon. Hunding is a lout who just happens to have the bad luck to have married the twin sister of Siegmund, Sieglinde. The brother and sister run away and “get married” (knocked up) and Hunding kills Siegmund. Way later, Hagen son of Alberich schemes to get the Ring back from Siegmund and Sieglinde’s kid, the hero Siegfried. He stabs him in the back to do so.

M.O.: Stealing, oppressing other dwarves, bullying, murder, transforming into dragons, uncouthness, treachery, backstabbing.

Good tunes?: I don’t know . . . do you like Wagner? Then yes. There are lots of good bits and lots and lots of slower parts where everybody kind of goes over everything that’s come before just to catch us up and keep us all in the loop. If you like the idea of 15 straight hours of one epic story spread over four different operas, this is your baby.

Payback: Alberich is always in background, cursing folks and plotting for control, but ultimately foiled as the cycle begins again. Fafner gets offed by Siegfried. Hunding makes Wotan so mad by killing Siegmund that Wotan just waves his magic spear at him and he dies. Hagen drowns trying to grab the Ring. It’s so Tarentino.

3.    Count di Luna, “Il Trovatore” -- Verdi

Position: Nobleman

What’s his problem?: He loves Leonora, but she loves Manrico, the troubadour of the title. Actually, he is one of the more sympathetic villains in opera – his feelings for the heroine are real, his jealousy is not unfounded. He just has to be the bad guy.

M.O.: He has a squad of guards that are about as effective as the Keystone Kops. Time and again, Manrico and Leonora slip away from him. He duels Manrico, who beats him but refrains from killing him due to the fact that subconsciously he realizes that they are really brothers . . . I think. It’s not until he captures Manrico’s mother, the crazy gypsy lady Azucena, who is NOT really Manrico’s mother, that he gets the edge on Manrico.

Good tunes?: Pull “Il balen del suo sorriso” out of its Act II, Scene 2 context, and raise the register a bit, and it will do the trick for any tenor-ish lovesick hero.

Payback: He doesn’t get Leonora, who does the right thing and kills herself. He then executes Manrico. It is a truly horrifying final moment for the Count. Azucena tells him he has killed his brother, and the Count screams, “And I must live on!” CURTAIN. But . . . wait a second. He’s going to take the word of a crazy gypsy lady? Not too convincing.

4.    Don Giovanni, “Don Giovanni” -- Mozart

Position: Nobleman

What’s his problem?: Sex addict. He will sleep with anything that moves, providing it’s female. He’s a player. He doesn’t care what lies he must tell, who he has to step on, and does not scruple to murder.

M.O.: Swordplay (both kinds) and sweet talk.

Good tunes?: Hey, he’s the (anti)hero.

Payback: Dead-guy statue drags him to hell. For the audience, this is a perfect case of vicarious hypocrisy – they get to watch Donny G. have his way with all of womanhood, and then suffer his just desserts. It’s a win-win . . . except for the title character, of course.

5.    Rigoletto, “Rigoletto” -- Verdi

Position: Jester, single parent

What’s his problem?: Another one of Verdi’s patented antiheroes. He a 16th-century standup comic, but he doesn’t know when to stop being “on,” bringing down a curse (“la maledizione!”) on himself.

M.O.: Barbed words, and underworld connections (he hires a hit man, Sparafucile).

Good tunes?: Oh so many, but especially his pitiful “Cortigiani, vil razza damnata” in Act II –

Payback: He dooms his secret daughter to seduction and deflowerment by his boss, the callous but charming Duke of Mantua (another famous villain who gets off scott-free). Due to a severe case of Opera Logic, his revenge plan goes awry and he ends up getting his own beloved deflowered daughter killed by the aforementioned Sparafucile. “LA MALEDIZIONE!” CURTAIN.

6.    Mephistopheles/Mefistofele/Nick Shadow, “Faust”/”Mefistofele”/”The Rake’s Progress” – Gounod, Boito, Stravinsky

Position: Unholy adversary.

What’s his problem?: This is an immensely complex theological matter that would take volumes to weigh properly. You might say he doesn’t really have a problem – just a sinister mission. As the old joke says, the Devil said to the preacher: “If it wasn’t for me, you’d be out of a job!”

M.O.: He pretty much has all the dark power of the universe behind him. The only effective countermove is the grace of God, usually employed conveniently at the last second.

Good tunes?: As the great Brazilian writer Machado de Assis put it in his analogy of the world as an opera stage, “God is the librettist. The music is Satan’s.”

Payback: Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. There are always more souls to wager over with the Deity.

7.    Enrico Ashton, “Lucia di Lammermoor” -- Donizetti

Position: Lord of Ravenswood (impoverished)

What’s his problem?: He’s got to marry off his kid sister to Lord Bucklaw in order to get his hands on some ready cash. Too bad she’s in love with Edgardo, who also happens to be the rightful heir of Ravenswood.

M.O.: Murder (he killed Edgardo’s pappy), psychological torment and threats.

Good tunes?: He gets to rave on about his schemes to set up the action, exposition-style, in Act I, Scene 1. Often overlooked is his vigorous confrontation with Edgardo in Act II, Scene 1, in which he informs the poor lad that Lucia is e’en at that time dancing the horizontal mambo with Bucklaw, and they challenge each other to a duel.

Payback: Newlywed Lucia kills Bucklaw, then goes nuts and falls down dead. So much for paying off the mortgage. Unless there’s some kind of prenup that lets Enrico grab the loot. It’s worth checking with the local solicitor.

8.    Barnaba, “La Gioconda” – Ponichelli

Position: Spy for the Inquisition

What’s his problem? This horny little snitch lusts for the lady of the title role. When she spurns him, he threatens her poor old blind mother -- and just about anyone else who crosses his path.

M.O.: Denouncing people, and making dirty deals, all to try to get into La G’s pants.

Good tunes?: Well, just one – “O monumento!”, in Act I. Ponichelli is really Verdi Jr., and you can hear a lot of “Rigoletto” in “Gioconda.” Barnaba is a classic bureaucrat – he not only identifies his self-interest with that of the state, but he is quite happy to feel smug and virtuous about it, even as he plots the most evil schemes. Here’s Mateo Manuguerra --

Payback: None whatsoever. True, he doesn’t get to bounce on the midnight trampoline with La G, but his last line is truly disgusting – to her corpse, he announces that he drowned her mother the night before. What a jerk.

NEXT TIME: Don’t mess with the Gesler, and others

Monday, November 14, 2011

The sky’s the limit: new book offers penetrating look at air safety

Why Planes Crash: An Accident Investigator’s Fight for Safe Skies
By David Soucie with Ozzie Cheek
221 pgs., Skyhorse Publishing

Straight out, I need to make an admission – I went to high school with the author. No pressure, right?

I have been reviewing books, and a vast variety of work in other media, for two decades now. When I found out that a former classmate had written a book, I requested a copy from him, without his prior solicitation. I was insatiably curious.

My nervousness about the possibility of reading something awful, and having to pan the work of a nice guy, was groundless. “Why Planes Crash” stands on its own merits, a thoroughly enjoyable a thought-provoking read.

It succeeds on many levels. First, it’s an engaging autobiography, outlining the author’s personal and professional progress and pitfalls as he moves from aircraft mechanic to maintenance director to FAA inspector and beyond. The number of alternately hilarious, horrifying and moving moments he has experienced in his career alone makes fascinating reading.

A key factor in this level of satisfaction is the tone of the book. It’s an old cliché that you should write as you speak, with a directness and sense of comfort that draws in the reader. It’s also absolutely true, and damnably difficult to pull off. Years of artifice, bad habits and self-consciousness usually have to be stripped away before a writer’s voice can truly be heard. Fortunately, with the aid of Ozzie Cheek, Soucie accomplishes this. In fact, it’s a special treat to read this book from my unique perspective as, having known him for 30-odd (or 30 odd) years, I can attest that it sounds like Dave is talking directly to me.

It doesn't hurt that the pervasive crusading thrust of the narrative is often punctuated by a number of acknowledgments of his own shortcomings -- his workaholic nature, his headstrong tendencies, and a shattering admission of his valuing the bottom line over life that he feels led to the death of a coworker.

Second, it offers a no-holds-barred look at the real-life practices behind airline safety – a system that, despite the presence of many good people and positive practices, is frighteningly prey to the same problems and lapses any other line of work is. Bureaucratic inertia, political infighting, personal vendettas, corporate collusion and governmental red tape all seem to stand in the way of a very basic public obligation – to make sure that people don’t get killed in the course of a flight. It’s easy to agree with Soucie’s assertion that he was edged out of the FAA due to his impertinent insistence on honoring this responsibility.

Thirdly and most importantly, he describes an evolution in his thinking that, articulated and spread properly, can prove of great value and application in all walks of life. His sense of integrity does not allow him to accept half-measures, and he eloquently gathers together strands of realization along the way, weaving them into a theory of prognosis and information sharing that can be used to prevent disasters, rather than merely the passive application of blame – and new rules -- after the fact.

I have seen the need for this kind of thinking, time and again, in every organization I have been a part of, and at the heart of many of the problems and tragedies I have reported on in my career as a journalist. Soucie traces each step, from literal nuts-and-bolt practicalities to philosophical stance, with elegant clarity.

In the end, what raises “Why Planes Crash” above the level of the as-told-to and tell-all piece of non-fiction is the soul behind it. Soucie comes from a place of caring. He has principles, and he manifests them in a real-world, high-stakes area of concern to all. "Why Planes Crash" offers new ideas and insights in the context of solid storytelling. Thanks, Dave.

P.S.: At the end of his book, he threatens to write a follow-up that will articulate his concepts more thoroughly. Get cracking, mister.

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