Friday, August 24, 2007

Balm to My Soul

Music is my lodestone in an irrationally horrific world. Opera's beauty offsets war's ugliness, and without such balance, we slip into insanity or numbness, both of which rob us of our humanity. Perhaps this is why the more horrors I witness, the deeper I cling to music.

I was recently invited to Rwanda to speak at a gathering of eclectic geniuses on peacebuilding and also to meet with President Kagame. Rwanda is truly the land of contradiction. I’ve never been to a more placid ex-slaughter zone. Not even Cambodia is so cool. It’s hard to believe – on the surface – that only 13 years ago there was the horror, the horror of Genocide. 800,000+ people slaughtered in 90 days. That’s almost two souls per minute. And some of those paid for the bullet rather than being hacked to death with a rusty, dull machete.

Rwanda then

While at Harvard, I had an opportunity to meet Roméo Dallaire, the UN Force Commander during the genocide. He was infamously ordered by Kofi Annan not to save victims because the UN might get bad press if a peacekeeper was hurt. Annan was not yet the UN’s Secretary General - that came later, as a promotion for Rwanda and other good deeds done. Dallaire remains a scarred man, as does Kagame, as does Africa.

Rwanda now

Ten years later, I found myself in Burundi, trying to silently prevent a relapse of the same genocide. The earlier genocide remains unfinished business, not just for Rwanda but for the entire region: Burundi, Congo, and Uganda. Since 1994, the area has known only war and ashes. Finally, ten years later, Burundi had a fragile ceasefire and tenuous government, split between Tutsi and Hutus. However, a simple spark would set the region in flames again.

A rebel group called the FNL yearned to be this match. The FNL, also known as the PALIPEHUTU-FNL, was/is the most extreme Hutu group in the neighborhood, seeking sanctuary in the Wild Wild West of eastern Congo, and crossing the border at night into Bujumbura, the capital, to wreak havoc. They knew that if they could assassinate the President of Burundi, the government would explode, followed by Burundi, followed by the region - sort of like Valhalla at the end of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. It’s all burnt.

My job was to keep the President alive, in public view, and not guarded by a bunch of white guys carrying machine guns wearing sunglasses. And I had a limited budget, no one could know I was there, and it had to be done yesterday. In short, it was mission impossible, for real.

I kept him alive, but that’s another story…

In the first days of my surreptitious visit, I made a special point to visit one of the various unmarked killing fields outside Bujumbura. It was an area where an untold many had perished. I had visited such ghastly sites before, from Phnom Penh to the beach dunes of Liberia. However, Buj was different, as was the entire Great Lakes region, owing to the vast scale of the atrocities. As I walked the ground, the tread of my boots scraped up old bits of clothing and children’s teeth, emerging from the earth a decade later. Big balls of twine in Minnesota get more memorialization.

I felt angry. I was livid. I wanted retribution. Then an opera aria wafted through my head. It was like cool water on hot pavement. It was “Vesti La Giubba” from the opera Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. It’s an aria of egregious pathos, scorned humiliation, and despair. It summed up all that I was at that moment, staring at children’s teeth in the dirt.

Skip to the climax, half way in (at 2 minutes, starting with “Ridi Pagliacci"). This is the famous Carlo Bergonzi version with Herbert von Karajan conducting the La Scala Theater Orchestra of Milan, who own this music.

C'est moi.

Quills That Kill

Somewhere between the fire power of a 20mm Vulcan Gatling canon and the Treaty of Versailles lies Ms Cintra, whose quill could kill Kim Jong Il. She’s the keyboard dominatrix of the Dregulator (a blog of intellectual depravity), two kick-ass books (1 & 2), a few plays, and other sordid readings. She's death over a K street martini. Recent musings include:

The Musical Merc is (sorta) humbled to be included amongst such luminaries as Norris and Snow. Check it out.

The Madame

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Outed on NPR!

Yes, it’s true – my cover has been blown! National Public Radio (NPR) was kind enough to feature a 10-minute segment on “The Musical Mercenary” on the news program All Things Considered. You can listen to me wax lyrical about the intersection of war and opera.

Host Jacki Lyden’s witty cool could disarm even the toughest warlord, and everyone at NPR, especially Petra, was magnifico!

Hear the pop collision of war and opera:

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Night to Remember

Is there no better metric of civilization than the dinner party? We can thank the war-loving Romans for bringing this timeless tradition to the masses. Prior to them, it was pretty much constrained to royalty, albeit the odd Athenian symposium with naked dancing girls and paltry talk of philosophy.

However, Gertrude Stein is my personal patron of the plate. Although hailing from Allegheny, Pennsylvania, she lived in Paris with her life long lesbian lover Alice Toklas. Together, they hosted a salon that ushered in the avant-garde in the early 20th century.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, 1906

She described her guests as the "Lost Generation,” which included: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Ernest Hemingway ("Hemingway, remarks are not literature"), Ezra Pound, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Paul Bowles (whom I practically worship) among others. Who knew that cordials, conversation and cuisine could shape 20th century culture?

One of my favorite places: the grand necropolis, Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris.

I had recent occasion to visit Gertrude in Paris. She now resides in the world’s most fashionable necropolis, Père Lachaise Cemetery. I like to frequent it often to visit old friends, from Abelard and Heloise to Chopin to Edith Piaf and many others. Maria Callas use to be a tenant, but her ashes were kidnapped, recovered, and then scattered across the Aegean Sea. Callas is as complex in death as she was in life.

The late, great Ms. Stein.

We can only aspire to crawl in Stein’s long shadow. Recently, the Pentagon Diva and I hosted an “Opera Gala Dinner,” for a few kindred souls, including the indefatigable Her Majesty Maeve. It was magnificent. We find it is best to start with a bottle of wine per person and one for the table. Here’s the menu (sans accompanying opera):

Il Condottiero and Pentagon Diva’s
Opera Gala Dinner

Champagne von Fledermaus
Johann Strauss Jr’s Die Fledermaus, Act 2 chorus “Champagne the Great!”

Assortment of cheese, fruits and wine a la The Magic Flute
Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Act 2 chorus “Seid uns zum zweitenmal wilkommen”

Il Primo
Artichokes Zuppa di Tabarro
Puccini’s Il Tabarro, choking duet “T’ho Colto!”

Il Secondo
Flank of Valkurie
Wagner’s Die Walküre, Act 3, “Ride of the Valkyries”

Aida Battle Spears of Asparagus
Verdi’s Aida, Act 2 post-battle “Grand Triumphal March”

Druidic Mushroom Risotto di Norma
Bellini’s Norma, Act 2 Roman-Druid duet “In mia man alfin tu sei”

Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Intermezzo

Il Dolce
Falstaff’s Alcoholic Cheesecake with Hänsel und Gretel Strawberry Sauce
Verdi’s Falstaff, the whole thing
Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, Act 1, the strawberry-picking expedition

Honey-Nut Fruitcake a la Salome
Strauss’s Salome, final scene

Myriad Cordials
Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, "Belle Nuit, O Nuit D`amour"

Don Giovanni cognac
Traviata port
Lammermoor scotch
“Girls of the Golden West” bourbon
Masked Ball aquavit
Boris Godunov vodka variations
The Bartered Bride’s dancing bear honey-liquors

If I could magically conjure anyone to my perfect dinner party, whom would I invite? Well, aside from the living, certainly the dead. I would start with the following: Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw (also a classical music critic!), Voltaire, Dorothy Parker, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Gertrude Stein, at her old pad on 27 Rue de Fleurus. Wit combined with genius is potent stuff indeed.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Future Prophets

Somewhere between A.A. Milne and Joseph Conrad, I went through a Philip K. Dick phase. For the uninitiated, P.K.D. was a paranoid, impoverished, speed freak in San Francisco around the ‘60s and ‘70s. He eked out a living writing pulp science fiction. Well, ‘pulp’ say some; PROPHET say others.

In a world then enamored with the Summer of Love and the Gilligan’s Island, he presaged post-modern madness. His worlds are dark and dystopian, where humanity is held hostage to mega-corporations. The idea that companies would control countries was preposterous in the 1960s, less so now. His novels are also epistemological horror-thrillers, where people (including the reader at times) have trouble discerning (de)illusion from reality. It’s all a bit creepy, if you think about it too long, which is P.K.D.’s aim.

Fittingly, it was Hollywood, the master of illusion, that embraced his vision. Starting in 1982 with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner - one of the greatest movies every made - which is about what constitutes a life. Following this, a slew of films were produced based on his work: Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, and more.

One of the many things that made Blade Runner a revolutionary film and ageless science-fiction flick was its amazing futuristic music. Composed by Vangelis, it is completely electronic and synthesized, much like the synthesized human "replicants" the Blade Runner is hunting. Also, in the early ‘80s, synthesized music was as future-cool as, say, the digital watch.

Sample the music of replicants crying in “Tears in the Rain” by Vangelis:

An orchestrated version of Vangelis’s music provides an interesting and no-less successful experience:

Converts joined this future noir, inspiring movies like Aliens II and Johnny Mnemonic; video games like Resident Evil or Doom (which were also turned into movies); and cyberpunk literature, such as author William Gibson. No longer does our future feature the gallant Captain Kirk, bravely going where no man has gone before. Now humanity is enslaved by its own greed, ingenuity, and despair. Ask any Nexus Model 6.

And, yes, P.K.D. exists even in opera! His supreme novel, VALIS, has been transmorphed into an opera. VALIS (which stands for “Vast Active Living Intelligence System”) was written a year before his death in 1982 (the same year Blade Runner premiered). In many ways it was his spiritual autobiography, weaving together mystical Taoist forces and Gnostic visions that unlock the secret knowledge of the cosmos. For those who want a fuller exegesis of VALIS, start here.

The opera VALIS was composed and written by Tod Machover, and premiered at the Pompidou Center in Paris on December 1, 1987. Only one recording of it exists.
So what does a musical interpretation of P.K.D.’s ontological universe sound like? Imagine a collision of Vangelis, Pierre Boulez (modern French atonal composer and conductor), and the amplified sound of a Toyota Prius being crushed by a Hummer.

Also, most of the words are not sung but actually recited, like an over-produced poetry reading. All that is needed are the bongos, a cigarette, sunglasses, black beret, and beat cafe. Not that P.K.D. would be caught dead in such a joint.

But don’t take my word for it. Sample protagonist Fat’s Dream:

Or, just to confirm opinions, Sophia’s Aria:

Small wonder it’s never performed.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Unsung Heros

Mercenary or not, the 4th of July is always a poignant moment for us military veterans. In my experience, soldiers do not fight and die for ideas. Leave the ideas to those with “other priorities.” Soldiers fight and die for one another.

I have been a military leader in and out of uniform. I have led elite US Army units and I have led African conscripts. It is relatively easy to lead highly motivated, trained, and equipped elite forces. The real test is leading untrained, poorly equipped, unmotivated, soldiers – ordinary people asked to do extraordinary things – who frequently are given the most dangerous jobs. It is one of war’s timeless axioms.

Today, it is the leaders of the Army National Guard/Reserve who get my vote for best leadership. They have to convince plumbers, school teachers, and others, for whom war is not a chosen calling, to stand on a checkpoint each night and become ambush bait. Each night.

For me, the 4th of July is not noisy fireworks or jingoistic flag-waving. It is a time for quiet appreciation, in a special American sort of way. No one captures this mood better than American composer Aaron Copland, in his music for the film Our Town, adapted from Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play. It is a quiet, humble piece on a grand scale.

Some may gripe that the London Symphony Orchestra's playing is less than pristine, however Copland is his own best interpreter of his work. However, others may prefer Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's tighter, faster (2 minutes!) version.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

On Meeting Makers

Speaking of joy and Beethoven (see last blog), one cannot simply pass by the master without doffing the proverbial cap. There is a reason why nearly every great classical musician has a bust of Ludwig somewhere in his or her lair, from Wagner to Schroeder (Peanuts cartoon). Beethoven is the real thing: the mad genius creator, greatest revolutionary, Dionysian fire child, alpha and omega – in a word, the Decider.

The cosmos of Beethoven is broad and deep, and much ink has been spilled explaining its contours. One of its shining constellations is the almighty 9th symphony, written at the eve of his death, also known as the “Choral Symphony.” It received this nickname, probably by publicists trying to sell more scores, because Beethoven did the unthinkable: he turned the last movement into a duet of orchestra and chorus (gasp!), smashing all sense of proper 18th century symphonic decorum and good manners. It remains arguably the greatest symphony ever committed to paper, and what is even more incredible is that the man who wrote it was completely deaf at the time.

The climax of the piece is the last movement, where the chorus comes storming in at full throttle with Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy.” It is the sound of victory, elation, and terror fused into a single, raw life-force. It’s the piece European armies marched to after sacking capitals, and the piece that unified East and West Germany on Christmas Day 1989, just weeks after the Berlin Wall fell.

There is no single, best recording of this supreme opus. There are a multitude of music lovers willing to knock out teeth and crack bones to defend their favorite conductor's vision. Visions include: Furtwangler, Klemperer, Walter, Boehm, Toscanini, Karajan, Bernstein, Solti, Abbado, Mackerras, Harnoncourt, and many, many more.

Listen to legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan’s explosion of "Ode to Joy," in his equally legendary 1976 recording. This is the second of three recordings he made and I think his finest. Indeed, it is one of THE finest. Compare it, for example, to Solti's version, in the previous blog, which sounds utterly sluggish and leaden next to this:

Yes, it is potent. Yes, it invigorates my work ethic as a mercenary. But what it is to power, it’s little brother, the third movement, is to prayer. In many ways, the third movement is the feast of my fancy. It is the antithesis of the Odeon last movement, and instead proceeds like a meditation, written by a man cruelly deprived of his hearing due to a mid-life illness. Poor Beethoven expressed his rage against fate in violent works like the 5th symphony (da-da-da-DUM!). However here we have a different man. An older man, knowingly approaching his personal eschatology, and has come to some small acceptance of life’s cruel capriciousness.

Unlike the famous 5th symphony or violently triumphant “Ode to Joy,” this music is soft, penitent, and sublime. It unfolds in a rich soundscape, slowly like the revelation of a mystery not intended for public consumption. Its melody, as carried by the violins and then the winds, is optimistic and lyrical: not full of the anger in earlier works. It sounds simple, but packs in a universe of emotional angst, digested over a tormented lifetime.

Perhaps this is Beethoven’s resignation to the gods of song and sound. The magic of the movement is that we mere mortals are witnessing a holy communion between the musical gods and their greatest mortal champion, LvB, in a language that he could no longer hear but so clearly understood.

Listen to the incomparable Wilhelm Furtwängler (who is Beethoven’s peer in the realm of conducting and demands his own blog expo) join in this communion, in his last-ever recording, months before his own death in 1954:

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bring on the Joy!


Great news! I can now upload music so you can finally hear what I'm talking about! Peruse my earlier blogs and witness with your ears.

To celebrate, here's a little Ode to Joy:

Technorati Profile

Friday, June 29, 2007

Scratching Itches and Other Ludicrous Urges

Dear Fellow Patrons of the Arts,

Yes, I know I’ve been AWOL of late. Business. Really. Every now and again, a mercenary gets the capricious urge to explore, ahem, less risky lines of work. I was recently filling out a job application, and was asked to answer questions about my leadership potential and problem solving skills. Here’s what I wrote. What do you think? Do I stand any chance of getting the job?

1. Briefly describe the situation and the person/people you worked with.

I was studying for my economics and statistics exams at Harvard when I received a phone call that changed my life. A stranger’s voice identified himself as a Senior Vice President at [insert corporation name]. He explained that they had just received a contract to raise an army for [insert small African country name], that I came highly recommended by “top men” at the [insert US government agency], and would I consider taking a year or two off from my graduate program to raise this army? Tired of studying Nash equilibria, I said “sure,” and two days later was in sweltering [insert capital city of said country] negotiating with vicious warlords and AK-47 wielding child-soldiers.

2. What specific challenges did you have in working with this person/these people?

I arrived shortly after [insert brutal dictator’s name] flight to [insert nearby country], and [insert country of origin] was post-apocalyptic in its destruction. Many consider the civil war in [said country] to be one of the most egregious conflicts in Africa’s post-colonial history, and I was working with those responsible for many of its worst atrocities.

The task before me was daunting. Before creating a new military, I had to first demobilize [dictator’s] old army. A standing military had never been successfully demobilized in Africa without triggering a coup d’etat or worse. My first step was to identify and consult with all stakeholders, not only to glean their local knowledge but also foster ownership of the task. Second, I had to persuade the military, the most potent class of [said country’s] society, to lay down their weapons and become unemployed, insignificant farmers. Moreover, I had to do this without being murdered by child soldiers, who knew no other livelihood.

3. Describe the key things you did to overcome these challenges.

I believed the key to success lie in treating the soldiers with dignity and respect, rather than as criminals and monsters. Many within the international community and [said country] society demurred at my approach, but it won me allies within the army itself. Old veterans, who had witnessed horrors beyond imagination, realized that life was more than the warm barrel of an AK-47. Together, we persuaded the entire [insert large number]-man military to lay down their weapons.

4. What was the outcome of this situation?

It was the first time in modern African history that an entire standing army had been safely demobilized.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I Am Not Alone

I am often asked: “How can a mercenary also be such an opera zealot?” My answer is always the same: “Passion is everything.”

Admittedly, there are few in my (former) profession who enjoy a good Ring cycle or cry during Madame Butterfly, but that doesn’t make me unique. In fact, I come from a long line of song-loving soldiers for hire. Well, not exactly a long line. Ok, a line of one.

Meet Tobias Hume. Captain Hume was a bit before my time (from around 1569 to 1645); he was an Englishman, composer, viol player (like a cello), professional soldier, and a mercenary. His most famous client was the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War, a wonderful time for private soldiers.

The viol de gamba.

Back in those days, Sweden was not the innocuous nation of Ikea, social welfare, and blondes. Ha! Sweden was the scourge of Europe! Its armies swept through the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither holy nor roman nor an empire) like a halberd through Jell-O. All resistors were defenestrated, a favorite method of winning hearts and minds for centuries.

Defenestration in action.

When I was stationed at a small provincial German town as a young US Army Officer, the school children would sing songs, generations old, of Swedish Terror. Beer swilling Bavarians would sober up at the mention of the Swedish horde, and speak in subdued tones of how the occupiers went house to house, stripping each one of its valuables and virgins, right down to the lead holding the stained glass windows together, in order to make musket balls.

The Swedes themselves still remember their glory days. Recently, my wife and I hosted a large cocktail party at our house for a delegation of senior-ranking Swedes from their Ministry of Defense. After one too many rounds of enforced Aquavit, I turned to the nearest Swedish General, who clearly looked like his ancestors drove long boats onto the shores of Ireland, and commented how sad it was that the world has forgotten the Terror that was Sweden. He turned to me, cracking a Cheshire-cat smile, and quietly replied, “But we do not.”

The lesson is: don’t mess with the Swedes! Vikings, Renaissance superpower, and the Saab fighter-jet. They’ve done it before and they can do it again.

A Mercenary’s Music

Captain Hume was no fool, and drew his wages from the winning side (see Peace of Prague, 1635). Not much remains of his music, which comprises two collections: “The First Part of Ayres” (or Musicall Humors, 1605) and “Captain Humes Poeticall Musicke” (1607).

His music is mostly for the viol, which ticked off John Dowland, the lute-playing Pete Townshend of his era, who cast aspersions upon Hume. This was during the famous Lute v. Viol battles of the early 17th Century. As there are no electric cellos in rock bands today, we know who won the war.

Despite his day job, his music is soft, soothing, and subtle. It stars mostly the solo viol and often includes voice. I would not choose to attack the Danes with this music as my personal soundtrack, but would rather reflect on the day's glory over the evening campfire with this music.

Hume’s hit parade includes: the stately yet frisky “Captaine Humes Pavin;” the upbeat “My Hope Is Decayed;” a quick-stepped “A Souldiers Galliard;” the wistful “Touch Me Lightly;” of course something on “Death,” and “Life,” leading inevitably towards “A Question,” and sanguinely followed by “An Answer,” which I personally don’t find terribly informative.

For a taste of something lively, try Hume's "Hunting Song," played by Les Voix Humaines with Julien Boland:

I am particularly fond of “A New Cut” (ouch!), “A Souldiers Resolution,” and the timeless soldier mantra “Good Againe.” “A Souldiers Resolution” starts with strident bowing, reminding me of reveille, AKA “the wake up bugle,” for those who have had the pleasure of Boot Camp. It is followed by what sounds like – expressed via viol - soldiers running around garrison, changing of guards, cleaning weapons, marching in formation, stacking munitions, digging ditches, peeling potatoes – all those timeless things soldiers do. None of them are fun, but you do them because all your buddies are doing also them, and you don’t want to let them down.

Listen to Jordi Savall jam "A Souldiers Resolution":

Hume understand this and invokes his “Souldiers Resolution” like an oath, as he proclaims “to the understanding reader”:

“I Doe not studie Eloquence, or profess Musicke, although I doe love Sence, and affect Harmony: my Profession being, as my Education hath beene, Armes, the onely effeminate part of me, hath beene Musicke; which in mee hath beene alwayes Generous, because never Mercenarie.”

Unlike the saccharine words of his contemporaries, his tone is gruff, raw, and direct. His music, however, is not. Little is known of his life, save a few letters and the portrait his music paints. Later in life, Hume finds his "Fortune is out of tune," and begs Queen Anne, to whom his second collection is dedicated, for charity. However, none is received and he dies poor and nearly insane at the Charterhouse Hospital. Old mercenaries don’t fade away so much as whither.

“To prayse Musicke, were to say, the Sunne is bright.”

Hume recordings are hard to come by. My favorite is by Jordi Savall, the Pete Townshend of the modern viol (and his daughter Arianna Savall is a rockin’ Renaissance harpist). It includes the hit parade, which Savall really digs, as evidenced by occasional and involuntary grunts as he jams.

Another recommendable collection is on one of my favorite labels, Naxos, which goes out of its way to record obscure music. Its collection is less martial but equally saucy. It includes ditties such as “My Joys are comming: The Lady of Bedford Delight,” “Musicke and Mirth: The Lady Hattons Delight,” and “Cease leaden slumber: The Queenes New-yeares gift.” I guess we know what he thought about on guard duty. Some things don’t change much over the centuries.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Great Tuberculosis Arias

One of my favorite things about opera is that it’s never constrained by reality. To wit, the great tuberculosis aria or solo scenes, which involve the heroine, a soprano, belting out a huge aria in her bed as she wheezes to death of “consumption,” as tuberculosis was colloquially called in the 19th century. These “Tuberculosis Arias,” as I colloquially call them, are usually the climatic scene of the opera; once the soprano falls, the curtain is soon to follow.

Tuberculosis was all the rage in the 19th century. Several artistic celebrities succumbed to its seduction, including Frédéric Chopin, Honoré de Balzac, Aubrey Beardsley, John Keats, the Brontë family, Robert Louis Stevenson, Franz Kafka, gunslinger John "Doc" Holliday, Albert Camus, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s first wives, and even George Orwell (I had to throw him in because I love his letters).

Add to this list Violetta Valéry, heroine of Verdi's "La Traviata" (1853), and Mimì, the heroine of Puccini's "La Bohème" (1896).

A side note for the curious. "La Traviata" literally means “The Woman Who Strayed,” and is taken from the novel La dame aux Camélias, by Alexandre Dumas, which later inspired all 10 versions of the movie Camille (my favorite is the 1936 version with Greta Garbo). It’s great feminist literature. Incidentally, the Broadway musical and subsequent movie Rent is based on La Boheme and the death-by-tuberculosis theme inspired the modern film adaptation of Moulin Rouge. Guess opera isn’t so out-of-date after all.

Extreme Opera

Recently I subjected my wife to a performance of Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City during an ice storm. She has yet fully to forgive me. On this March day, NYC was deluged with six inches of not rain nor snow but SLUSH. Yes, as if NYC needed any more of that.

Nor was this the first time my long-suffering wife risked her life to indulge my leisurely pursuits. There was the time we went skiing in Austria during a blizzard whiteout, when there was so much snow that you couldn’t see five feet in front of you, yet you’re traveling 30 mph (50 kph in Europe). This despite the avalanche-warning sirens wailing in the background and Herman Meyer himself taking the chairlift to the lodge. It’s all rather surreal until you plunge into a 1000-foot (or 304-meters) Alpine ravine, as we almost nearly did. If that ever happens to you, you should know that the Austrians will only laugh at you and dig out your corpse in the spring.

After the performance, we skidded out into Broadway in our patent leather shoes to hail a cab with the thousands of other hard-core opera-goers, average age: 66. However, it quickly turned into a mortal version of the ancient arcade-game “Frogger,” as we all frantically dodged the South Asian taxi drivers talking on their cell-phone while maneuvering their 2000-pound cabs on bald-tires.

A small contingent of us made it to Central Park, where, in the face of stinging wind not felt since US Army Ranger School (Desert Phase), we hailed down a taxi driven by a West African. Now, you don’t need to live in West Africa, as I have, to know that snow and West Africans are an unholy combination.

Desperate, we jumped in and endured a kamikaze sleigh ride down the West Side Highway at 60 mph, all the way down to the bottom of the Financial District, where we were staying. It made me religious. I’ve been an atheist in foxholes before, but there was something profoundly undignified about dying at the hands of a Nigerian hydroplaning on Manhattan ice-slush. There was simply too much unflattering symmetry in the whole event to render it an acceptable means of soul trans-migration.

Dying Divas

Traviata charts the tragic fall of a young Parisian courtesan, Violetta Valéry, literally the toast of the town. Fickle, she swears off love, declaring she must be free to enjoy life (her famous “Sempre libera” – Always Free aria). Then steps in Alfredo Germont and, despite herself, Violetta falls in love.

Listen to the indefatigable Angela Gheorghiu live it:

An act later, they are married and have exchanged their champagne nights for Diet Coke days in the suburbs, where the chagrined Violetta is secretly selling her jewelry in order to buy the groceries. Things are at their bottom when Alfredo's father pops by and demands that she leave Alfredo, as her party-girl reputation is ruining his future, his sister’s ability to marry up, and the Germont family name. Withering under the weight of her life, Violetta feebly agrees, invoking her old mantra, “Sempre libera,” as she departs.

In grief, Violetta becomes sick and impoverished. Alfredo, who does not know about his father’s furtive visit, assumes that she ran off with another man. This so enrages him that he later throws money at her, as if she was a whore, at a grand ball, disgracing her before all of society. Now the Hester Prynne of Paris, she retreats to a small, squalid apartment, where she contracts tuberculosis.

It is only at the very end of the opera, when Alfredo realizes that she sacrificed herself for him, that he comes to her side. But he is too late. She is in the clutches of the disease. Enfeebled, Violetta coughs between her dark notes as Alfredo, his father, and the doctor helplessly watch her whither away. As the moment of death approaches, the soprano does the most arresting thing – she speaks. Punctuating the gravity of the situation with the only non-sung words in the opera, Violetta declares that the pain is gone and she is free once more. Then, with lungs of iron, Violetta bolts up in bed and belts out, in tones that would make Liza Minnelli cower, that she is coming back to life, to the tune of “Sempre libera.” She dies, and the curtain falls.

Listen to Maria Callas die of tuberculosis:

Boheme is hardly less tragic. It stars four Bohemians and a young woman, Mimì. A “Bohemian,” in 19th century parlance, referred to the original Beatnik generation of artistic malcontents who inhabited the low-rent Latin Quarter of Paris. The real Bohemia was the land of today’s western Czech Republic, which (I assume) was rather artistic and libertine at the time. Johnny-Come-Latelies, like Picasso and Hemingway, tried to pretend they were Bohemian cool, but in truth the movement had come and gone before they stamped it on their street-cred resume.

Boheme opens with the raucous boy-Bohemian club that have made a decrepit Parisian attic into their ultra-cool artistic tree house. As they burn their art to keep warm and then head off to the local café, Mimì enters, the poor girl from downstairs, looking for someone to light her candle. Rodolfo, the poet of the entourage, is attracted to her, and remains as his companions leave for some midnight wine. Rodolfo sings to her about the noble life of the poet, in his magnificent aria “Che gelida manina - What a cold little hand.” Within the space of a single song, Puccini renders a tale of hope, achieved through beauty, of the heroic artist.

Mimì replies with a more humble but more poignant aria of her modest life as a seamstress, “Mi chiamano Mimì – They call me Mimì.” Despite her oppressive poverty, she finds escape in the gentle embroideries of nature, which raise her above the tyrannical life of the sweatshop. The music intensifies around her and apogees in a heavenly anthem, liberating her from the dingy confines of the slum.

As Rodolfo’s frat-boy chums call to him from the street to get his lazy-ass down and join them at the café, Rodolfo starts winding up for one of opera’s most beautiful duets, “O soave fanciulla - Oh gentle maiden,” in which Rodolfo and Mimì fall in love. He softly begins by declaring that love alone commands him, and as he crescendos to his high notes, Mimì swoops in with her own high notes, joining in sublime harmony. Arm in arm, their song sweetly fades away as they head off to the bedroom backstage. Amore!

Listen to Pavoratti and Freni get it on:

Things never go as planned. Weeks and complications later (including the knock-out duet “Quando me'n vo - When I go along,” but we’ll save that for another time), they are estranged. Mimì has contracted tuberculosis in her damp and drafty apartment, and Rodolfo, penniless but madly in love, painfully dumps her so that she might find a richer boyfriend who can help her. Mimì, crushed, retreats to her damp and drafty apartment.

The final act takes place later, and Mimì, by this time, is alone and very ill. One of the Bohemians’ girlfriends, Musetta (a great character but again for a later blog), announces that Mimì is dying, and they all go downstairs to fetch her. Pale and ghostly, they place her in their bed, and scrounge all their possessions to sell to find medicine. Colline, their philosopher, even sells his faithful old overcoat, and sings his agonizing "Vecchia zimarra – Old coat" aria.

Mimì and Rodolfo, left alone, recall their past happiness in the duet “Sono andati? – Have they gone?” and Puccini adds poignant overtones from their earlier love duet. The others soon return with medicine but too late. Quietly, they watch her slip away. Rodolfo cries out Mimì's name and starts sobbing over her lifeless body as the curtain drops. Fin.

Listen to De Los Angeles croak:

Drum Roll Please…

Demobilizing Charles Taylor’s army in Africa was easier than recommending a recording of these two operatic war horses. In fact, even choosing a lead soprano – Tebaldi verses Callas – is enough to start a brawl in the Dress Circle. There is absolutely nothing scarier than a gay man in tails smashing off the head of his champagne flute on a marble cocktail table and lunging towards your juggler with the crystal stem like a juggernaut trained by the Ballets Russes. (To learn more about gay-man soprano fetish, read the excellent book The Queen's Throat by Wayne Koestenbaum).

What does a hardened, veteran mercenary fear most in the world? RPG-wielding child soldiers in Sierra Leone? NO! Sunni militia men bearing power-drills? NO! Serbs with 7.62mm SVDS Dragunov sniper rifles? NO! Somalis in Toyota Hilluxes with pedestal mounted DShKs (‘dishkas’)? NO! Chinese food delivery vehicles in San Francisco? NO! What a mercenary fears most is castration by the Velvet Mafia.

At such risk, I now give my (gulp) recommendations to these most revered of operas. For a modern version of Verdi’s La Traviata, you cannot go wrong with conducting legend Sir Georg Solti’s 1994 version, one of his last recordings before he died three years later. This recording, in outstanding sound and also available as a DVD, debuts the amazing Romanian super-star Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta (ASIN: B00000427V). She’ll have you convinced she’s singing on blow.
However, there are those who would sacrifice their first-born (or first-adopted) to be present at the 1958 performance of Maria Callas at Lisbon, Portugal, conducted by Franco Ghione. For those who don’t have first-born, this performance was captured live by EMI engineers, although in sub-optimal sound. If you want to know why so many people go ga-ga over Callas, give this a spin (ASIN: B000002RY7).
If there is an opera more challenging than Traviata to pick a favorite, it’s Puccini’s La Boheme, which may be one of the most performed operas ever. Incidentally, it bombed on opening night. It was eclipsed by his friend, composer Leoncavallo (the original one-it wonder with Pagliacci) who premiered his version of La Boheme months later and all the critics went crazy over it (see last blog entry on critics). Needless to say, Puccini and Leoncavallo were no longer friends after that. Opera takes no prisoners.

Many consider the first commercial recording of Boheme to be the finest. It was conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham with Spanish soprano Victoria de Los Angeles, who inspired him to record it, and Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling. This mono 1956 recording is available widely and cheaply (ASIN: B000063UM0).

However, my all around favorite is Herbert von Karajan’s 1973 stereo version with his favorite soprano, Mirella Freni, and a young Luciano Pavarotti at his peak (unlike his post-climatic self these last decades). This is a great starter version, from which you can graduate to the Tebaldi-Callas duel (ASIN: B0000041TR). Have the champagne flute-stems at the ready…

Saturday, March 3, 2007

More Fun Than Being Bitten by a Monkey

On a recent business trip to Africa, I had a most unusual experience, even for a seasoned mercenary. Usually, if I’m not too hung over, I like to wake up early and go jogging. Not for health reasons, of course, but to make sure that I can outrun the inevitable bandito gang. Normally this entails dodging kamikaze cars, leaping over chickens in a single bound, sucking in vast amounts of diesel fumes, and avoiding large numbers of disaffected youth wielding machetes, the only thing more universal than an AK-47 in Africa.

Fortunately for me, I was “visiting” a country that had a magnificent beach, which cut out most of the vehicles, chickens and fumes but not the machetes. Like most countries I work in, this one had long suffered a heinous civil war chock full of more atrocities than you could wag an Amnesty International finger at. While this is very troubling from a human rights perspective, it was also troubling for my jogging routine: war refugees swamped the city and used the beautiful white beach as their mass toilet. So, add multi-colored feces and gagging stench to my hop, skip and jump routine.

One morning I was running along in a vain attempt to keep my Nikes clean, and saw a small crowd of people huddled over something that had washed up on the shore. As I neared and elbowed my way into the crowd to get a view of the spectacle du jour, I was appalled, even by my cynical standards. Wrapped up in a filthy cloth was the body of a small child. Most of its organ were missing. It’s chest cavity was empty, and filling up with sand with every lapping wave.

The child was clearly the victim of ritualistic killing and cannibalism. It was done by one of the old secret societies that still penetrate the highest ranks of the country in question. The highest ranks. Probably even my boss’s boss.

It’s time like these when you need Erik Satie.

War orphans trying to find their parents, thanks to the ICRC.

As Satie once said: "More fun than being bitten by a monkey!" Satie was a fabulous anarchist who lived and died by the piano in Paris during the turn of the 20th century. He was the proto-Dadaist and ancient (by Rolling Stone standards) ancestor of punk rock. Largely overlooked during his life, he lived modestly, surviving on the royalties of his one-hit-wonder, ”Je Te Veux,” which played at the famous Chat Noir café-cabaret, as well as what he derided as his “furniture music” -basically the ambient “muzak” of the salon age – because of its lack of inspiration.

We can thank the academic, composer, and weirdo John Cage for reviving Satie’s legacy during the 1960s, when the US was undergoing its Cultural Revolution (not to be confused with China’s of the same period).

I know what you are thinking - anarchist, French, modern, ‘60s Greenwich Village – surely this music will entail someone, wearing a black turtleneck, banging away on a piano and calling it music. But you’d be wrong (although this is what Cage’s music sounds like, and worse).

Satie’s best music is sublimely beautiful and profoundly sad. How can I describe it? When I worked in the public sector, the U.S. Army stationed me in Germany. One of my postings was just outside the largest and most forgotten about holocaust Death Camps: Flossenburg. Flossenburg killed more people than its more infamous cousin, Dachau, outside of Munich.

Why was Flossenburg totally unknown? Is it because the German government built condos over it and renamed the streets for lost Sudantan land cities? No! Is it because Germany want to forget about the whole WWII thing? No! It’s because it was where the SS sent homosexuals, which was outlawed in both Nazi and post-Nazi Germany. Unspeakable, deadly sex crimes took place in Flossenburg by Sadists guards. Even if you did survive the horrific camp, you would never admit to it publicly for fear of being labeled ‘homosexual.’

My wife and I were fascinated by the phenomenon of Flossenburg, our neighborhood Death Camp. We would make frequent and somber pillages to pay our respects to lost souls, always listening to Satie’s six “Gnossiennes” piano pieces. They are eerie, numinous, cheerless, potent and perfect. They are like a message in a bottle from another plane, and if we listen carefully, between the notes, we might discern some mystical meaning from the departed.

Sooth the soul with Satie's Gnossienne number 4, played by de Leeuw:

Satie made up the word "Gnossienne" just as he did the piano piece’s format. Most composer’s during his day took some pre-existing format, such as a saraband or sonata, and compose within it, sort of like writing a sonnet. Satie sought to break all molds and created his own forms. This one he called "Gnossienne,” probably named after the word “gnosis,” as he was involved in a mystical Gnostic sect at the time.

Another piece that you will surely recognize are the three “Gymnopédie.” These pieces ethereally float along, slow but pregnant with emotion and longing. They are strangely moving. Accordingly, they have been adapted for orchestra, plagiarized by TV scores, ripped by rock bands like Janet Jackson, and venerated by the tribe of jazz. It is unclear what Satie meant by “Gymnopédie,” but he was, after all, an anarchist.

Sample the first Gymnopédie, played by Rogé:

Because these pieces are not terribly difficult to play, every pianists thinks they can play them. How wrong. Like bad high school poetry, more is needed than technical ability. In Satie's music, it is often the silence between the notes that speaks volumes. A great Sherpa in the Satie Cosmos is the French pianist Pascal Rogé, on the Decca label (ASIN: B0000041P2).

For those who want the full gravity of these pieces, especially the haunted "Gnossienne,” can live dangerously and try Dutch pianist Reinbert de Leeuw. He has the full measure of the score with a slow and somber reading, not depriving the music of its gravity; sample the Gnossiennes especially. His recordings come on a Philips Duo (2 CDs for the price of one! ASIN: B0000069CS):

There are several fine orchestral versions of the Gymnopédie. One of my favorite collections is by Leonard Slatkin, conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on the audiophile-quality label Telarc (ASIN: B000003CSO). It has other meditative pieces to contemplate as well: Vaughan Williams’s famous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; Barber’s Adagio for Strings (a tear-jerker used in the movie “Platoon”); and a version of “Danny Boy” that you won’t easily forget. This is one of those discs you keep in your car for traffic jams.

Sample the orchestral version of Gymnopédie number one:

Or try some luscious Vaughan Williams to lower the blood pressure:

At the end of a long day - eviscerated children, rebels seizing aid supplies, warlords threatening your life with child soldiers – a scotch with Satie goes a long way to making the world a more livable place.

Dispatches from Russia

Changing times zones but not times, another one of my all-time favorite operas is “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky. Yes, I know, it’s shocking: Tchaikovsky. When one thinks of opera one doesn’t think of him. One thinks of Sugar Plum Faeries and symphonies. Not opera.

Why is this? Because classical music is like the jumbo-jet business: Boeing makes great aircraft but they never make the engines. Engines are always made by GE, Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney or some other specialist. Opera composers never compose symphonies and symphonists never compose opera. Even Beethoven allegedly called his one opera, “Fidelio,” his stepchild, and – truth be told - it sort of is. And the Great Richard Wagner’s symphony is C is one big whoopee cushion of music.

Now purists will argue the many exceptions, such as anything before 1800 or Bizet. First, operas written before 1800 are rarely performed for a reason (except Mozart, but nothing is normal about that Salzburg boy). As for Bizet, he’s French, as is Debussy, Ravel and others who did both, but they’re French and enjoy French Exceptionalism. Just look at their foreign policy.

Back to Tchaikovsky. He tried in vain to enter the opera market, which was like Hollywood in the 19th Century, but failed because he wasn’t Jedi enough. Instead of being true to himself, he tried to emulate the operatic style of the most influential composer of his day: Richard Wager.

It was a musical train-wreck. Imagine Valkyries meet Nutcrackers. Horrific, I know. Of his ten operas, only three are listenable: “Mazeppa,” “The Queen of Spades,” and “Eugene Onegin.” It was this last one that he smashed through the superego of his generation and transcended into his own operatic rapture.

Russian literature fans who watch too much Jeopardy are already shouting: “What is a novel by Pushkin?” That’s correct for $500. In a time when German opera was looking backward to the Norse mythology and Italian and French opera were fetishizing the orient, Tchaikovsky wanted a Russian opera based on a relatively contemporary Russian author. Pushkin fits the bill, with his tale of scorned and then unrequited love ending in the utter tragedy, deep heartbreak, and death. Very Russian.

There is much to admire in “Onegin,” but it’s the “Letter Writing” scene that kicks Cossack ass. Let me back up. The story opens at a country estate somewhere outside St. Petersburg, where the teenage girls Tatyana and Olga live with their aristocratic parents. In comes Olga’s boy friend, Larina, having just arrived from The Big City, dragging along his reluctant best friend, Eugene O. Eugene is the classic disaffected youth of privilege – sort of Holden Caulfield from “Catcher in the Rye” meets a Brother Karamazov (the older one).

In a moving quartet, as only opera can do, the four simultaneously share their innermost thoughts with the audience upon meeting in the drawing room. Olga and Larina are ridiculously in love, and engage in cutesy love poetry to one another. One can just see bubble hearts emanating from their heads. Tatyana and Eugene are quite a different matter. Tatyana becomes hopelessly, madly, and irrevocably in love with Eugene. Eugene, however, thinks she’s an utter country bumpkin, and in fact thinks anyone who doesn’t live in the city is hopelessly, madly, and irrevocably uncool.

That night, as the boys return to St. Pete, Tatyana takes it upon herself to bear her love and soul to Eugene in a tender letter, which she spends all night writing and re-writing. After many false starts and much hand-wringing, she finally hits her stride, which Tchaikovsky let’s you know by shifting the shiftless music to one of aching panache, announced by soft French horns. If only blogging had an orchestral accompaniment!

Listen to Tatyana's famous "Letter Writing Scene," in an incandescent performance by Inessa Galante:

Her nursemaid discovers her at sunrise (which Tchaikovsky does a great job of portraying musically)...

...slumped over her writing desk, spent. The nursemaid posts the letter, Onegin arrives soon after, and…well…you know the rest. It’s not a ‘happy ever after’ story. But it will have you crying into your vodka before the opera is over.

There is a paucity of good recordings of this fabulous opera, which is unaccountably, except that Russian is a hard language to learn for singers. There is one good recording, one “off the beaten path” recording, and hopefully one great recording.

If you were to go out to the CD store today (if you could find one), I would recommend the recording directed by the under-appreciated, Russian-born Semyon Bychkov, leading the Orchestra of Paris. It stars THE Russian tenor of our time, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, singing the lead, and the surprising Sicilian-born Nuccia Focile as Tatyana. She does an admirable job of sounding both powerful yet girlish. It’s a hard balance to strike, as the part requires a mature voice but can’t sound like a misplaced Valkrie. It’s a two disc opera on the Philips label (ASIN: B000004162).

The next set, for those armed with intrepid ears, epitomizes the term “Great Recording." It is the pre-war Bolshoi Opera recording conducted by both Aleksandr Orlov and Alexander Melik-Pashaev (they did different acts for some reason). Yelena Kruglikova, plays a highly sensitive and vulnerable Tatyana (with much better Russian than her Sicilian competition), and Panteleimon Nortzov a romantically dark Onegin.

Should you go on an Onegin Spree (as sometimes happens to me) you will discover a subtle universe of differences between ‘modern’ opera practices and pre-war practices. This is not the time to map this beautiful jungle, but I personally am much more moved with this older recording over anything done recently. Opera is not like cars: newer is not always better.

We can thank one of my favorite labels, Naxos, and their Wizard of Oz sound engineer, Ward Marston, for resurrecting this legendary 1937 recording off of 78rpm discs. Note to the faint of heart: despite Marston's amazing ability to perform musical CPR on this recording, the sound quality is, well, old. 70 years old. It will sound thin and tin-like, as if you are listening to this opera through two metal cans strung together with twine and connected to an AM radio. (ASIN: B00007DWLN)

Lastly, for those who really just want a superb performance of the "Letter Writing Scene," along with a hit parade of other Tchaikovsky opera gems, look no further than the "Tchaikovsky Experience," featuring Inessa Galante and conducted by Neeme Järvi and the Royal Opera House, at Covent Gardens.

Ok, drum roll please…

What keeps me up at night these days (other than the lamentable state of the world)? MISSING TONIGHT'S METROPOLITAN OPERA PRODUCTION OF ONEGIN! Why? Valery Gergiev • • Renée Fleming • • Ramón Vargas • • Dmitri Hvorostovsky • • the Met Orchestra. It’s the dream cast that Onegin zealots like moi have been waiting for. You think I am alone in this madness? Au contraire, mon frere! The three only performances sold out almost immediately (why just three??!). Could I have nabbed a ticket today (and wasn’t an impecunious blogger), I would be blogging from the DC-NYC Accela right now. The opera is that good. As a service to humanity, the Met MUST record it for posterity. Meanwhile, the Musical Merc will conduct Onegin recons to scout out bootleg recordings of this performance...

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Opera and Mercenaries: Life's Little Collisions

Yes, it’s true, I do love opera and it makes me cry. Just don’t tell my war pals. I would lose all jungle-cred. You see, my line of work frowns upon opera, ballet and other frou-frou pastimes. What is my line of work? Well, to put it simply, I am a security contractor who provides specialty skills internationally to advance the interests of my clients. It involves exotic travel, tropical diseases, interesting people, and some risk. Having served in the public sector and then the private sector for many years, I thought I would lay down the Kalashnikov and pursue what really makes my heart beat: opera.

Forget the firefights or raising armies in foreign lands that no one can find on maps, even with a college education. When you talk about excitement you’re talking Verdi. In fact one of my all time favorite operas – and the title of my meager blog – is about mercenaries: 'La Forza del Destino.' It means “The Force of Destiny,” which pretty much sums up Italian opera in the 19th Century. It involves love, family, a curse, guns, revenge, war, God, and twisted fate. As Maria belts out in 'The Sound of Music' (ahem –NOT opera), “These are a few of my favorite things.”

Ok, first a point of clarification. For all you pro-Westphalian weenies out there who object to the use of private militaries, get over it. Countries have been outsourcing war much longer than not, including the US in WWII. Let’s not get detained with high-falutin’ notions of sovereignty, human rights or any other legal fictions that brief well at the UN but look rather messy in practice.

Sorry, but I had to get that off my chest at the beginning.

Now, back to Forza. It has the best sword fight of any opera. It’s a long and convoluted story that would put “Days of Our Lives” to shame. Two sworn enemies – enemies only through cruel twists of fate – chase each other all over Spain and Italy, but – get this – they don’t actually know what the other looks like (which is SOOOO opera). As a result, they coincidently join the same band of mercenaries and become fast friends, saving each other’s lives, and thus invoking the Sacred War Buddies Bond.

But even sacred bonds can be broken in 19th century Italian opera, where everything is on the betting table. Soon, again through strange fate, they learn the other’s identity and the chase resumes. Don Alvaro decides he’s had enough with fate and checks into the local monastery to live out the rest of his days in nonviolent celibacy. [Blog footnote: his scorned Ex, whom he is still in love with and she with him, is also checked into the same monastery, but they don’t know that yet.] However, clever Don Carlo tracks him down after five years on the road, and shows up to deliver justice, Olde World style.

The climatic scene begins with Don Carlo being rung into the monastery by the world’s grumpiest monk, Melitone (as in melatonin), and surprises the dickens out of Don Alvaro, calling him a half-breed, no-good, hypocritical monk moron. Noble Don Alvaro tries to invoke his newfound faith in God, and Verdi accompanies his prayer with a most sympathetic orchestra. He makes an impassioned plea for peace and the cessation of senselessness violence. Simultaneously, which it he beauty of opera, Don Carlo makes an impassioned plea for honor. Together, in a strange duet of enemies, they harmonize the principles of mercy verses justice (Myers Briggs fans eat your hearts out).

However, who can withstand the insult of being called a mulatto?! Don Alvaro can stand it no more and grabs up the swords thrown at him in by Don Carlo, tosses off the monk robes, and with much operatic shouting, steel meets steels and the duel begins, to an ironically triumphant orchestra. Verdi kicks ass at climaxes. As they say in the movie “Highlander,” there can only be one. And so there is.

To get the whole scene, go to Act IV and start with the duet “Invano Alvaro” [trans. ‘in vain, Alvaro’]. It starts with Don Carlo in the monastery, awaiting Don Alvaro. He is gloating over his victory in finding Don Alvaro, and basically spits on his reputation.

[NEW FEATURE!!!] Listen to the Gardelli version of the climactic scene:

I recommend one of THREE recordings for Verdi’s 'La Forza del Destino.'

The first and all-around best is conducted by Gardelli, a much under-rated conductor. He times the tempi with a superlative baton, and squeezes every dramatic ounce out of this most dramatic score. Cappuccilli sings a dark and menacing Don Carlo, obsessed with his quarry. Raimondi is the golden-toned Don Alvaro, and he is clearly emotionally invested in the part. Best of all, it ends with the unmistakable metallic clang of rapier on rapier for the dual. How I love the sound of metal in the morning!

The second great recording is James Levine's early 1960's version, when he was still an unknown upstart. It has a dream cast of the indefatigable Domingo as Don Alvaro, Milnes as a menacing Don Carlo, and the angelic Leontyne Price as Donna Leonora (remember that scorned Ex?), with the London Symphony Orchestra. It's a taut climax scene, and it can be found on RCA recording (RCD3-1864) or on Amazon (its Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN) is B000009NIX).
For those who want to walk on the wild side, try Verdi’s original 1862 version used for the St. Petersburg grand premier. He was originally commissioned to write the opera for St. Pete’s literati. He detested living in Russia for a year (there is a great picture of him bundled in hides and furs), imported tons of Italian sausages to gnaw on, and stretched the limits of the Italian language to express his displeasure (which makes sense, if you too grew up in Italy). Anyway, there is a great recording of the seldom-heard original on the enterprising Opera Rara label (ASIN: B00095L924).