[Opera Lively interview # 122] Continuing our coverage of Opera Carolina's Il Trittico which will open on January 18 in Charlotte, NC, we have the pleasure of presenting to our readers Opera Lively's second exclusive interview with one of the most intelligent and cultured singers we've had the pleasure of interacting with, Ms. Jill Gardner.
Singer: Jill Gardner
Born in: Tobaccoville, North Carolina, USA
Fach: lyric-spinto soprano
Web site: http://www.jillbowengardner.com/
The lovely soprano had impressive insights about Tosca when we first interviewed her [read that piece by clicking (here)] and this time, she confirmed once more how she dives into her characters by demonstrating superior understanding of the character's psychology and the opera's larger context. Reading Ms. Gardner is like doing an in-depth study of a particular opera.
Ms. Gardner is so interesting, that the allocated usual time of 45 minutes for this interview with her, became an Opera Lively record-setting 2 hours and 2 minutes of digital voice recording! Don't quit in the middle, because in the second half of this interview, the singer not only completes her interesting thoughts about Suor Angelica, but also addresses Il Tabarro (and a bit of Gianni Schicchi) with her usual deep and insightful views.
We will not be repeating her artistic biography, because it can be seen in our first interview with her, to which the link is above. Without further ado, we will sink into her insights about Suor Angelica.
Readers should also consult Victor Ryan Robertson's interesting interview that is part of the same coverage by clicking [here]; he will be singing in Gianni Schicchi and Il Tabarro, and his interview is also very nice, with references to other important works he's been a part of. And of course, those at driving distance should not miss the Opera Carolina performances on January 18, 23, and 26, 2014, at the Belk Theater, conducted by James Meena and staged by Jay Lesenger. Click [here] for tickets. Given Opera Carolina's consistent high level of quality, you won't regret it.
Jill as Tosca
The Exclusive (second) Opera Lively Interview with Jill Gardner
© Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.
Credits - Questions by Luiz Gazzola. Photos of the artist were recovered from her website; photo credits unknown; fair promotional use.
Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – It’s nice talking to you again, Jill. Have you had a chance to look over the draft of our questions I sent you?
Jill Gardner – Yes. I love how passionate you are. It’s really wonderful to go through your questions. I love to delve into them along with my process, too, because in my own research for a role it is very nice to be able to use your questions to figure out my thoughts about it.
LG – Thank you, it’s very kind of you to say so. OK, let’s go, about Il Trittico.
JG – All right!
LG - Puccini had great trouble keeping his Il Trittico together, since public and critics have always liked Gianni Schicchi more than its companions, and starting with his own publisher Ricordi, people such as opera house managers have been tempted to separate the three components. Something can be said, though, for Puccini’s initial intention of presenting several facets of the human experience in the same evening. The composer himself did not hesitate in calling the idea of separating his operas “a real betrayal” as he had planned the three operas as an arc – Il Tabarro for Hell, Suor Angelica for Purgatory, and Gianni Schicchi for Paradise. What is your opinion on the advantages of performing all three operas together?
JG – There is this Dante reference that you talk about, of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In Puccini’s life, after the mature works of his lyric writing, which were Manon Lescaut, Bohème, Tosca and Butterfly, the later works that he did were Fanciulla del West, Rondine, Trittico, and Turandot right before he died. What was interesting about the Triptych was that the he was trying to create a completely different evening of dramaturgy for the audience. He researched a lot of different things to build this idea. The reference to Dante was one of them, but he also traveled a lot to go to the theater – not just the opera – all over Europe. He had a huge interest in French literature and theater. I personally think that this Triptych was highly influenced by the Grand Guignol theater in the Pigalle area of Paris, where short plays were often produced in this kind of contrasting styles in an evening. When you went to the theater you might experience one or two or even three different short plays in one evening, and often one would be a comedy and one would be a horror play. The Grand Guignol theater specialized in Gothic horror.
OL – Yes, Il Tabarro is based on a Grand Guignol stage play originally presented there, with two murders instead of one.
JG – That’s exactly right. I’m intrigued by that. I haven’t figured out exactly the timing, if Puccini would have seen it, but I can’t help but think that he did. There are Massenet influences as well. You were saying that Il Tabarro represents a stronger violent vibe, then there is the sentimentality of Suor Angelica, and the comedy of Schicchi. This is the kind of thing that was presented at the Grand Guignol and Puccini wanted to recreate a similar type of evening experience in the opera theater. Musically he was experimenting, and continuing to grow, compositionally. He wanted to present three different works, all with contrasting colors, and contrasting orchestral flux, meaning how he used the orchestra in the evening throughout the Triptych. He was clearly trying to continue to develop stylistically.
For the Triptych he was particularly inspired by the theater, like he was for Tosca and Butterfly which were also based on actual plays. He wanted to channel that dramatic expression in his very unique way through his four mature works. I personally think that the Triptych musically and dramaturgically can be seen as a zenith for Puccini.
There was a tradition in the German repertoire of presenting one-act operas. You think of Strauss, with Salome and Elektra, then Daphne and Capriccio, or even Schoenberg’s Erwartung which was recently presented at New York City Opera before it went out of business. So the Germans had this idea of the one-act operas, but apart from Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, the use of this within the Italian tradition was not as developed. So I think he saw this as a means of personal expression which I see as extremely unique.
OL – Yes, people think of Puccini as romantic and melodic music, but he was a great innovator. He was original and pushed music forward.
JG – That’s what I think he was. This Giovane Scuola that he was a part of, the school that came after Verdi, started to create this veristic tradition. He was the biggest innovator, and the most inspirational veristic composer of that time. He wasn’t just growing as a musician, as a romantic lyricist, but he was truly trying to meld the theater with music, and create the most compelling dramaturgy that he could, which is why I think he also had controversial and confrontational relationships with all of his librettists, because he was very specific about what he wanted his texts to be, to be able to design the music to support the text in those dramatic situations.
OL - Let’s start by talking about Suor Angelica in which you’ll be singing the title role. What is your opinion of this opera? In spite of it being Puccini’s favorite, it is certainly the least popular of the Trittico operas, and it is rarely a stand-alone like Gianni Schicchi; sometimes it gets omitted, and unlike Il Tabarro which is sometimes given with, for instance, I Pagliacci, it is rarely paired with something else. I confess that it is indeed my least favorite Trittico opera. I guess what I like less about it, is the fact that it is an all-female opera – I like the contrast between male and female voices. But if you do love it, please defend it for us.
JG – I can totally appreciate that you would say that Suor Angelica in many ways could be your least favorite opera within the Triptych. When you see Il Tabarro, the first work of the evening, you are very impressed by this. My sister saw the 2006 production of Il Trittico with the Hawaii Opera Theater, in my husband’s Jake Gardner’s debut with the company singing the roles of Michele and Gianni Schicchi. Even in that particular evening, my sister loved Gianni Schicchi but her favorite of the three was Tabarro. But I personally love Suor Angelica. I think that more than, shall we say, the least favorite, it can be the most misunderstood of the three.
It has to do very specifically with this woman that has been banned to this convent so you are relegated like you were saying to an all-female cast of basically fifteen voices. There are extra choral voices that are added at different moments in the evening, but basically you have fifteen nuns who are living together. You are dealing with this particular life in the 17th century, in that normal practice, shall we say, of having a Catholic church within your community with people going into the convent and taking the veil. That practice in modern culture has become less and less a career path. [laughs] The issue for Suor Angelica, similar to Gianni Schicchi which also deals with all these family dynamics, money, and greed, is that you have this very particular situation of a woman who has been banned to a convent, which is harder for modern audiences to identify with. It’s very unique within the Triptych, and it is one of the reasons why it is sandwiched between the two.
It was Puccini’s favorite. It has more to deal with this person of Suor Angelica and why she is there, what her life is about, and the real tragedy of it, that is overcome through the grace of God. Faith plays a very significant part of the telling of Suor Angelica’s story because she truly relies on the grace and goodness of the Virgin Mary to assist her in her daily life, but there is also a real woman there. She is one of the most significant characters of the Triptych. I can say that because I’ve been developing that. What is the challenge of developing that role? You have to really show a real woman that is living hidden underneath this vow and this veil within this convent, because she is there against her will. That’s the challenge for the performer, in order to be able to do credit to the work, otherwise it can come off quite stale. Does it make sense?
OL – Yes, it does; interesting answer – as usual. I love your answers!
JG – [laughs hard]
OL – You are very well informed. You are an interesting singer, Jill, you really get into your character. We can tell your passion for all the aspects of the operatic art form. That’s great. So, the opera is often dismissed as overly sentimental. Have you encountered much of that prejudice, or had to address it within yourself?
JG – This continues what I was saying. I think what makes Suor Angelica so unique, is that one has to clarify the essence of sentimentality. For me, rather than it being a sentimental depiction or presentation, the point that lies at the heart of Angelica is that she is so misunderstood! She is the real subject of the abuse of power. She is an unwed mother. We just passed through the season of Christmas, so like Mary, the mother of Jesus, she is also an unwed mother, but unlike Mary she is banned to this convent for her sin, that sin being that she had a baby out of wedlock.
Clearly also within the story as you learn, not necessarily first hand or first person from Suor Angelica, later we learn from the nuns and from the big duet that she has with her aunt, the real circumstances of her life. The nuns say early on when they are talking about Suor Angelica that she clearly came from money, that she came from nobility, and has been living now for seven years in this convent. She is not there because she chose to take the vow, but as a mean of punishment. As it often happens in monastery life, her secrets, she holds to herself. She’s taken a vow of silence. It’s a very oppressive environment. If you portray this character well, you understand that there is a level of paranoia, insecurity, guilt, shame, and it has all been imposed on this young woman by her family. We latter learn that her parents were dead.
OL – I wonder if her parents died of shame; if some other sin when she was younger would have played a part in her parent’s death (or maybe her mother died of childbirth), which would bring even more guilt associated with the later sin of Angelica birthing a son as a single mother.
JG – That’s right! We learn in the Aunt’s monologue that Angelica’s parents died over 20 years ago, probably when Angelica was very, very young. Angelica’s Aunt, her mother’s sister, was then responsible for raising her. And ultimately, Angelica horribly disappoints her guardian aunt by having a child out of wedlock. Thus, her punishment to save the family was to enter the convent. For me as the performer as I develop roles, these are always the questions that I ask. For me, theatrically, and for the standpoint of developing the character, I always try to find the conflict, because that’s where the real motivation is, the seeds for every character. Whether it’s a conflict that I’ve personally experienced in my life or not, you have to be able to get in there and start asking those kinds of questions.
When I was learning the role, I couldn’t help but think of that horrible scenario in Cleveland where that man by the last name of Castro held those women prisoners for all those years – granted that that was a much more violent and subversive role that he played. I think of those girls’ lives, and that’s the level of suppression and repression and oppression that Suor Angelica is living in this environment. But it is personal; it is not overt in any way. It’s just where she is in this particular day that we go to this convent and see this life. This is when all these interactions happen. The fruition of her wanting to know about her family and specifically about her child, which is her big secret, we get to see. And then there are choices she makes from that, which are huge.
OL – In the opening scenes about desires, all they can come up with is food, and getting to know about her family, and soon enough there is the issue that nuns should not have any desire whatsoever. Of course the big elephant in the room is sexual desire, which is what the scene is about. This is completely suppressed and overlooked, right?
JG – That’s exactly right, and leads into the second part of your question. This is my first Suor Angelica, and in the process of learning this role, I pay attention to what is beautiful about her. It’s similar to the character Marguerite in Faust, and even to a certain extent Manon Lescaut. With Manon Lescaut it is more difficult because she completely goes on the wrong path due to her desire.
OL – She is not as innocent.
JG – Exactly, she goes on a different life path due to her desire. Clearly Manon Lescaut is being sent to the convent for a reason. [laughs] When you bring up sexual desire, I think this is so important for us to deal with, because it talks about sexual need and falling in love and being able to produce children, to bear fruit. Clearly Suor Angelica fell in love. In her heart she is so go good. Clearly she had a relationship with a man and had a child out of wedlock, and her family which is aristocracy or nobility could not stand her open femininity, which many of us women are now getting more and more of an opportunity to communicate. In the end, she is there in this convent dying to return to a life of normalcy and be with this man that she loves, and above all with this child.
Another interesting thing we learn in the convent is that she is smart and very resourceful. Whether she came to the convent knowing the skill or not, she became a highly developed herbalist. She learned how to make remedies from flowers and herbs and was able to offer her expertise to her sisters. She is a person of a good heart. That’s why she goes on to help Sister Clara when she is stung by bees. She says “I am here to serve.”
Yesterday I was looking into this and confirming it in the score. I think there is a personal sadness which she feels about the earlier death of Sister Bianca Rosa that they are remembering, and which later they sing the Requiem Aeternam for her. In my imagination, Suor Angelica probably tried to help her. Unfortunately the type of medicine that she could provide her could not help her. There is a personal sadness that she also feels at that moment, which links later to when she listens to the Requiem Aeternam that is being sung for her- but from this remembrance, Angelica is bolstered to say “I’m ready to meet my fate,” to have this confrontation and this dialogue with her aunt.
Of course that leads to the unraveling of her. The convent has been basically a prison for her. There is a level of daily silent oppression in all those years she’s lived there, and she has a huge desire to hear from her family. That’s why she sings this very beautiful arioso about this. She is basically saying then that the Virgin Mary will clench those desires, and we should yearn for this no matter what the outcome should be. This is the other part of living with any kind of religious faith. People in those religious communities or confines do live within this concept of death. But she lives with a very deep psychological conflict that rose in this duet with the aunt. When you peel the layers of this onion, that’s when you start to see how deep and how huge, portraying this kind of character is.
OL – With the final redemption scenes, basically a divine being is forgiving her, but her family is not. This is akin to being more royalist than the king. It makes it even more tragic.
JG – That’s exactly right. That’s a beautiful way to say that. That’s what Puccini is often trying to show here. I do understand what you mean by the sentimentality of the piece, but I think he really is trying to deal with the idea of grace and forgiveness within this kind of miracle play. The aunt is the most significant contralto role Puccini ever wrote. Within this world of the convent and all these female voices, she definitely in my opinion represents the male Yang energy. She is there to represent power and therefore it is abusive power.
Clearly this sister that Suor Angelica has, Anna Viola, is the favorite, either to the family or to the aunt. That’s what I think is so interesting: when the aunt comes there, she says ‘I’m here to do the bidding of your parents; they told me to oversee the estate. I came to ask you this favor. The reason I came today is to ask you to sign this document’ – which basically gives away Suor Angelica’s rights – ‘so that your sister can marry.’ When she tells her that, it’s when we see Suor Angelica’s purity and the goodness of her heart. She is so happy for her sister. Just to hear from her family is graceful in itself; it’s a real gift in that moment, considering how long she waited to hear anything.
But then it becomes about ‘you need to do this because the only way for her to get married is for you to do this, because you’ve shamed the family. We have to take you out of this picture in order for your sister to find her ultimate happiness.’ The interesting thing for me as I play this is that in these moments Suor Angelica definitely has two or three strong lines back to her aunt. This was because that was the nature of her family, too. She is a good, good girl, but she’s got a fiery spirit within her, which is probably why she did this irrational thing of falling in love and having a baby out of wedlock. Then when the aunt demands that she does this through guilt and shame and she has to repent and offer everything over, that’s when Suor Angelica comes forward and says, ‘OK, I offered everything over to the Virgin, but one thing I will not offer, is not to know about my son.’ She is the one who brings up the son. I think that if the aunt could have had the signed paper without any resistance she would never had told her that her son had died. The principessa lives in this state of judgment that ‘who cares? You did the wrong thing and it is best for everybody and for the child that he died.’
OL – Right. The signing out of her rights is a complete annihilation of her as a person. It’s like deleting her.
JG – Correct! It’s a very medieval approach to this miracle play but it is relevant to my culture, now. That’s why it is very important to show these human responses, these human situations. I mean, Luiz, look at our world now! How many unwed mothers do we have? How many people are not living within societal norms? People process that all the time, currently. But I still think that in a human level, these same emotions, these same judgments and attitudes, the same practices like the aunt takes with Suor Angelica, still exist and are used today. It’s a very clear example of abuse of power trying to subjugate this natural, beautiful, good-hearted woman.
OL – Yes. I’m starting to like Suor Angelica more…
JG – [laughs] Yes, this is what the next month will be while we prepare this; that’s exactly this kind of character that I think that she is. When she realizes this horrible thing that has happened to her, her only hope is to be with this child. Then she needs to deal with the ultimate choice which will allow her to be with her child which is suicide.
People today still have very difficult issues with suicide. Some cultures accept it more, like the Japanese culture does – we see it in a character like Butterfly who in the end returns to her family roots. She is living within this confined society of Japanese culture and life, and she is trying to get out of that and to be in love and have this relationship with this American and go on to leave her culture. But in the end when she faces shame and disgrace she then returns to her roots and takes the path of her father, and kills herself in order for her child to go on, whereas Suor Angelica in her mind and her heart, she wants to die. She says at the beginning, ‘O sorella, la morte è vita bella’ - death is the beautiful life. She wants to die in order to be with him.
LG – Very interesting.
JG – And yet, she realizes that again she’s made a choice that is very similar to the earlier one: an irreversible choice. The only thing in that moment is for God to forgive her, which goes back to what you were saying. That’s where she ultimately experiences forgiveness and grace. That spiritual experience is what we are trying to portray.
I will humbly say that it’s going to be very hard. I love that Jay Lesenger with whom I’ve worked in the past will be directing this Trittico. Leave it to a wonderful Jewish man to be able to portray a beautiful Catholic miracle. [laughs] I do think it’s very hard. That state of ecstasy is going to be challenging, but I’m very up to the challenge because in the end, I love this woman. I had similar moments in my life to deal with that are very personal, similar to Angelica's plight. I feel like it’s an honor to be able to try to portray that through Suor Angelica.
OL - Each time I remember that Il Triticco had its world premiere in America, precisely at the Metropolitan Opera House on December 14, 1918, I think that it is important for American companies to continue to carry it on. You mentioned the stage director. How do you feel about this Opera Carolina production?
JG – What I can tell you about Opera Carolina and this particular production, is that I have a lot of respect for this company and maestro James Meena, and also for director Jay Lesenger with whom I’ve worked several times. From my past experiences with them I very much look forward to us producing this Trittico, because I know that both of those gentlemen will be invested in producing as strong and artistic a product for our public as we can. There is a lot to be said about that within today’s business. I have to give it to the company and to maestro Meena and the board, for choosing to produce Il Trittico. Not a lot of opera companies do.
The companies nowadays are trying to stay alive, and part of it has to do with money. They are always needing, whether they want it or not, to cut costs. What I admire about them, is that even through this process they have discussed the idea of only doing two of the three, but they ultimately decided to do all three. I did a production at one time with Gianni Schicchi paired with Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge. Companies are always trying to find ways to do the works. I very much admire Opera Carolina’s artistic choice, and this is one, to be able to be one of the United States’ companies that are rising to the challenge, particularly in this economic times, of producing this zenith of Puccini’s works.
LG – Yes, it’s three hours, three operas, and a lot of casting and different sets, it is taxing, for a company.
JG – Yes, you are doing three one-act operas. You are not doing three acts of one opera. What Puccini did within each opera is very similar to what he did with Tosca and Butterfly. The idea of the Triptych is to be able to show in a few hours within each opera – and in this sunset time setting - how the present circumstances which these characters are going through, are transformed into the future. Within each of them there is a dream or a state of bliss that is trying to be achieved.
What is also interesting is that there is a reverse time order. Tabarro takes place in the 1890’s Paris. Suor Angelica takes place in the 17th century, and by the time you finish the night you are at the farthest point in the timeline, which is 1299 Florence. If the production is done well, you will have time traveled. Within each of them, you have these very human people, which is ultimately what the arts express – the human predicament, our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses - and how their choices either undermine them or bring them redemption. This is the ultimate vision of the Triptych, which is why I admire any company that does it.
LG – That’s what opera must do.
JG – Exactly; that’s our present day conflict within the opera world, of how to justify our existence, how to prove that this is important and why we need it. It’s not frivolous and not relegated to entertainment like you could experience very cheaply through other means. There is no judgment there by saying that. I’m not passing judgment on someone who partakes in as much entertainment as possible, just because I’m fascinated with opera. But this is the point, the Gospel, shall we say, of opera – that it is truly trying to present the human condition at all times. You have theater with music to support that. It’s not just film, just music, just TV; it’s the live experience of seating there in a theater, being within this larger circle of a stage and an audience. We have to go back and justify our means like the Greek tragedists had to do moons ago.
I did my debut with Opera Carolina last fall with Tosca and it is a real honor to be back singing Giorgetta and Suor Angelica. I really admire the company and I’m very thankful that they exist within the opera world and for what they are trying to do by presenting this piece in Charlotte.
OL - Did you watch the 2007 Met production, which moved Suor Angelica to 1938? What do you think of the practice of updating the time signature of an opera? And what are your thoughts about the way different productions handle the ending – should we actually see Angelica communing with a beatific vision, or just staring ecstatically into space, or (in the ROH production) clutching a little orphan boy in the mistaken belief he's her lost child?
JG – I have not seen the 2007 Met production. About the way different productions handle the ending of Suor Angelica, should we see her ascending to Heaven, or should we actually see the materialization of her vision? It is difficult to create, display, or show this mystical experience of death she is going through, and sometimes that’s where people try to change the time setting of the opera. What’s wonderful about opera is that these very real moments get suspended in time. Even though someone is dying, you may have someone singing an aria about it or having a whole ensemble responding about this death. It’s actually taking quite a few moments for this person to die. [laughs]
OL – I thought that puncturing a lung through stabbing someone would disrupt the breathing for the singer, but apparently not, because they can be stabbed and they continue to sing and sing. [laughs]
JG – [laughs] For me, Angelica's extended death experience she is going through is in part brought about by this hallucinogenic poison that she took, with that flower concoction that is going through her body. My question that I will take to the stage direction is, ‘how do I show this, physically?’ We have to show this huge desire for dying. Then, everything she goes through – the pain when she starts to feel the reality of the potion, and the thought that this is an irrevocable sin – indicates that she doesn’t want to be damned and die in this way. That’s when she starts praying to the Madonna to save her – ‘Salvami, salvami.’ Then there is this final chorus scene with a fantastic, beautifully lyrical moment that Puccini has written to display the miracle. You feel that there is ultimate release for her from the pain and psychological suffering, that she is forgiven. That’s the miracle that we want to show. And you can’t be afraid, either personally or in the production itself, to show this miracle actually happening.
You mentioned the ROH production; I read many things about that. I also saw a specific production of San Francisco Opera with Patricia Racette where they had them living within this charity hospital. There is a lot to be said about that effort, it does work for this piece. This piece is esoteric and deals with forgiveness and sin, first of all, and staging it in a convent seems so far removed from the current public! So this ROH and this San Francisco production put it in a more contemporary setting, like a charity hospital. But she is still a female victim of oppression, and she experiences true forgiveness and true love, and that’s what you still have to see, or you miss the point of the piece. I appreciate the effort of directors and designers to try to put a story in a different timeline. I’ve done that with Tosca, actually. But the characters are still living the same existences and conflicts. You still have to show the same emotional panoramas. Showing the feeling of salvation is the point.
OL - Let’s talk about the music in Suor Angelica. Some call it cloying or saccharine and not as innovative as that of Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi. Others however point to how Puccini’s musical portrait of Angelica’s aunt, the Princess, is an artistic masterpiece – the only important alto part he ever wrote – transferring to this female character the characteristics of his threatening male characters such as Scarpia, like you have acknowledged when you mentioned the male Yang. How do you feel about the music in Suor Angelica?
JG – All of the music in Il Trittico is some of Puccini’s most experimental and truly inspired. In his later period of his life it is very clear that he had already been through that peak of fantastic romantic lyricism in Manon Lescaut, Bohème, Tosca, and Butterfly. He also displayed incredible orchestral depth and economy of means. He learned through this period how to get the best bang for his buck, not only orchestrally but in his musical language.
When you think about that, when he started to deal with his later works Fanciulla, Trittico, and Turandot, he is getting to means that are really theatrical, so he saved his majorly lyrical romantic moments for the power moments of the opera. He uses alternate means, in more truncated and less conventional moments, to really depict the dramatic situations.
In Suor Angelica he achieved beautiful transparency in the orchestral writing. Sometimes he uses very brightly colored orchestration, like in Sister Genoviffa’s little arioso about sunlight. That is so beautifully descriptive, particularly through the use of the woodwinds and the strings in that moment! The level of transparency he achieved early in the piece with this contrapuntal, ancient style, in the Ave Maria prayer, continues through the piece with a predominance of modality. Even the Principessa’s entrance is completely modal. Her entrance is in C sharp minor, and then he lands on D minor, and E minor.
He is relegating himself to this modal, tonal writing, which depicts the kind of music for a convent at the time. It reflects the transparency of the situation, I think. He is so brilliant, so inspired! He uses leitmotifs – we associate them with Wagner but they are so much part of Puccini too! He has themes in every opera of the Triptych. In Tabarro we have an adultery theme between Luigi and Giorgetta. We have the cloak theme that comes later in the duet between Giorgetta and Michele. We experience the theme of the water in motion that begins Tabarro. We have the same thing in Suor Angelica and later in Schicchi. Not only he has these leitmotifs, but he uses them to demonstrate the different conflicts that come along in each piece.
He is also highly influenced now by Impressionism, with the use of sevenths and ninths in the chordal structure throughout each opera. I could write a dissertation on it. The opening prayer in Suor Angelica starts with the bell, in a very modal entrance, then the nuns start singing and the orchestra comes in, and stays very pure and holy. By the time Angelica comes in, he introduces intervals of sevenths and ninths to create this impression of a time warp, when the organ comes in. It’s a discreet but extremely inspired use of Impressionistic harmonies. Then by the end of that prayer he has totally taken them out, and he does these very normal cadences and we move right along. He is just brilliant, in that way. I can’t speak highly enough of how he uses the music throughout this entire thing.
OL - Your main number is ‘Senza mamma.’ Would you please comment on this piece? Any particular difficulty?
JG – Yes, ‘Senza mamma’ for those of us who know and love Puccini is a very inspired moment of romantic lyricism, as only Puccini could write. In the context of this piece, particularly comparing it with Giorgetta, this moment is similar to what ‘È ben altro il mio sogno’ is for Giorgetta. It’s their big lyric outburst. But, ‘Senza mamma’ is the most private moment any of Puccini’s women have. I can’t think of any other aria with this kind of solitary grief. It’s delivered from a complete and utter state of total grief and shock, like a coma-like state. She’s learned that her son she’s been living for, and dying for news about, has died. So, there is a total detachment from reality. I think of it as the greatest representation of Hell, specifically for her. It comes out of this incredible confrontation with her aunt.
Puccini used for this aria the purest modal harmonic juxtapositions. Then, the aria has such a huge transformation! There is a personal movement from the beginning all the way through this hallucinatory state, when she starts to remember and be taken over by the representation of the physical form of her son. It’s what brings the transcendent departure that she is on. These are the beginning moments. She starts with grief and by the end of the area she is on a path of bliss, trying with every power to reconnect with this son, and therefore with this symbol of love. It’s so powerful! It has to be sung solo, but has to also show and reveal all those layers of desire within her, that cause her to make all her choices.
She goes on to sing next, one of those beautifully lyrical moments – ‘La grazia è discesa dal cielo’ [grace has descended from Heaven]. That music is completely inspired, with the choir of sisters singing behind her. This is truly what she wants to experience: this state of grace with her son. She will do anything for it. The progression that you need to achieve while you are singing this, is the challenge.
OL - There is a quite modern aria for Angelica with polytonal implications, that is often cut. It’s rarely seen in recordings – there is one in 1920 with Lotte Lehmann in which she does sing it. I’m not sure if it will be part of the Charlotte show. It’s ‘Amici fiori, voi mi compensate.’
JG - It won’t be in this production, no.
OL – Let’s move on to Il Tabarro, in which you’ll be singing Giorgetta. First of all, Is it difficult to sing the two roles in the same night?
JG – This is my debut of these two roles. I performed Lauretta separately in another configuration. Is it going to be difficult, these two roles in the same night? Well, we will see! [laughs] Because, it is my debut of these two roles. The beauty of this and the reason I am a Puccini singer – the perché, the why? of this - is that I am a veristic singer. This is the true nature of verismo singing: being able to balance the heightened emotional states of these characters while maintaining beautiful singing and creating an entire palate of vocal choices that serve these emotional moments. It’s a huge challenge.
This is what I’m paying for. I’m currently studying with Diana Soviero, who was one of the greatest veristic sopranos of this repertoire. We continue to address the technical issues that these roles bring forward. I’m particularly mentoring with her because of the density of this repertoire. To be a real verismo soprano you have to go to the people who sang this, because there was a specific technique and a specific approach. You work with someone like Diana, you listen to someone like Renata Scotto… Teresa Strattas also had a huge effect on these pieces. She wasn’t completely of a veristic vocal style but had a commitment and a level of depth that allowed her to sing Il Tabarro and Pagliacci, It’s hugely informative. That’s what I do to prepare myself to sing this, and I have high hopes for it. I think it is going to be a beautiful production, and it is right where I need to be. This is the music I need to sing, this is what I am on the Earth to sing.
OL – Do you know anything about the concept, about how they are planning to stage this?
JG – I think it will be a traditional production. I’ll worry about that later this week.
OL - Now, I like Il Tabarro very much. It has a cinematic quality; its score sounds like a film score with a lot of tone painting, and it is one of the quintessential verismo operas. Like you said, there are echoes of French impressionism with dissolution of the usual harmonic outlines. There are leitmotivs such as the one for the river Seine. What do you think of it, musically?
JG – What is beautiful about this piece is that he very much starts to show these kinds of themes, contrasting the river with the relationship that Giorgetta and Luigi have, and the relationship that Michele and Giorgetta have. You look at the score, and he has this river theme, then he introduces a drinking song when the stevedores have come up from unloading the goods. Then there is a dancing song, with an organ grinder. The sheer variety of ideas and themes Puccini produces just within Il Tabarro alone, is amazing. It is seen not only in the orchestral colors but in every moment, and that’s why I think you referred to it as cinematographic. When you watch a movie they punctuate subliminally what is happening, and Puccini does it completely, in this piece. He keeps referring back to these themes, in different moments, so that you get that subliminal connection. It’s really well done.
OL -Now tell us about your lyrical outbust ‘È ben altro il mio sogno.’
JG – What is beautiful for me is that the other female character in Il Tabarro is the mezzo Frugola who is married to Talpa. ‘È ben altro il mio sogno’ which is an aria for her is also punctuated by all these interjections from Luigi, because a part of why they were drawn to one another, is this background that they have, having grown up in Belleville together and knowing that Parisian suburban life, and they talk about this.
But prior to that aria, Frugola has also talked about her passion, her fixation. Giorgetta says: ‘E la tua fissazione, la campagna!’ and then Frugola goes on to sing her one-note melody about living in the country and having the little house that she and Talpa have lived in, which has four little walls and is surrounded by palm trees, with a little garden, and their little cat. It’s their dream, their sogno. And Giorgetta says, well, I have a different sogno. Then she goes on to describe what she and Luigi are united in. It’s a reference to something that is unattainable. It’s not just harkening back to where they come from and the beauty of what unites them, but it is particularly in reference to this life that she is living now in this boat with Michele. It’s about a bygone time. While she yearns for what the magic was at that time, there is an aspect of it that is truly a fascino. It’s unattainable, and that’s the beauty of it.
OL – Well, we had this question: “You are singing two women who are portrayed as sinners in these operas – the unwed mother, and the adulterous wife, depicted harshly in these early 20th century pieces. As a modern woman, how do you relate to these characters?” – you have already commented upon some of it; do you want to add something?
JG – Yes. The beauty of singing Giorgetta and Suor Angelica for me is that although they are in the 1890’s Paris and the 1600’s, these are real women. This is the female predicament. In your question there is this aspect of ‘How do you deal with the idea of sexism within opera?’ Well, although they are relegated to those times, what they experience in those times is real today. A lot of modern-day women are caught. Although we have more choices now and are not necessarily relegated to what society tells us we should be and we are more independent and enjoy more human rights to live the lives that we dream of, some of us are still caught in the same emotionally bad relationships and bad lifestyle choices.
OL - Unlike Suor Angelica (and like Gianni Schicchi), Il Tabarro does have a literary source: Didier Gold’s play La Houppelande, a dark drama written in the spirit of Emile Zola and in the Grand Guignol tradition with its double murder, which is softened in the opera. Have you explored the source?
JG – Yes, I have explored that source. Puccini and his librettist Adami maintained many aspects of that pièce noire. The other murderer you are talking about in the play is Tinka. He murders his wife in a bar because he finds out that she is having an affair. Between Michele and Giorgetta, when he does discover that she is having this affair, unlike the Canio-Nedda relationship in Pagliacci, where Canio not only kills Silvio but he kills Nedda as well, in this situation Michele kills Luigi, and the opera ends by him displaying the dead body from his cloak, where he and Giorgetta used to embrace. In the play, he takes her face and pushes her into the face of the dead Luigi.
OL – Yes, this macabre element is very much into the Grand Guignol tradition.
JG – That’s right.
OL – Someone asked Puccini, ‘aren’t you overdoing this, by pushing her face down?’ Puccini said, ‘No, that’s how is must be; trust me, I know what I’m doing.’
JG – Yes, that’s right. There is a 20, 25-year difference between Giorgetta and Michele, which is also the case in the play. I keep thinking about what happens to them next. Does he go on and kill her? Do they stay together? At the end of Tabarro when she comes out of the hold after he has killed Luigi, I tend to play her as truly coming there to fix some kind of reconciliation with him. Do you agree?
OL – Yes, she is starting to regret the affair and trying to reconnect with him, yes.
JG – That’s right. That she considers ending her affair with Luigi shows the complexity of her life. She has this relationship with Michele, and she loves Michele. It’s unfortunate that this child died, that they had. Nedda loves Canio even though it’s a very difficult relationship. These young women… I know that, because of my relationship with my husband Jake who is twenty years my senior. I love to say jokingly that I married my father, but in many ways there is an aspect in women who are in a relationship with an older man, that they are seeking a father, they are trying to deal with something in themselves. There is something to be said for being in a relationship with an older man. My mother said she wasn’t surprised at all because she thought that I was always an old soul. I think that’s what characters like Giorgetta are finding in these relationships. These men have saved them, and they don’t hate these men.
OL – He does call her a whore. I’m not sure he would be willing to take her back.
JG – He does. Correct. That’s exactly the way I think about this. But you see, I think it’s because he is so tormented! Earlier in the opera as you see Giorgetta and Michele fighting, in the whole beginning of the opera all that they are doing is that they are having a spat. Eventually even before the duet starts, she is saying ‘you know, if you need to let anybody go, you need to let Tinka go because he drinks too much.’ He says ‘he drinks too much because his wife is a whore.’ ‘Una bagascia.’ Later he calls Giorgetta ‘sgualdrina’ [both are Italian for whore].
These men are tormented by this, because they themselves think they are less; they are wondering ‘what is wrong with me that caused this beautiful young woman who loved me to go away from me?’ You are exactly right; it’s doubtful, whether or not he can find that time of reconciliation that Giorgetta in the very end is coming out of the hold of the boat to try to have. Because I think that she is a good girl. It’s the feminine condition, the Yin principle, the less dominant, the part of ourselves that is always trying to find reconciliation, the humble aspects; that’s what these women are representing, in these very strong past historical moments. I agree with you; whether Michele can find that with her or not, is what the ultimate question is. In my mind, I don’t think he kills her. He is a much more brooding character than Cagno, who is too out there, passionate and extroverted.
OL – Probably Michele will just withdraw within himself even more and things will fall apart, if the story is continued.
JG – Correct.
OL – Let’s go back to this: we can feel some sort of thread in the three operas, addressing different social classes – here we are talking about proletarian life in a big city. Also, there is some symbolism, in the fact that the piece progresses from daylight to darkness. It just gets darker and darker, this true pièce noire. Any comments?
JG – Yes, and I think this is an aspect that is overlying the entire Triptych. In Tabarro these people are seeking their sogni, they are seeking their dreams. It’s all about dreams. In Suor Angelica it’s about being able to find this grace, this blissful state. Giorgetta and Suor Angelica are bound together by these secrets. These women have these secrets. Giorgetta has fallen in love with Luigi and she is having this adulterous affair with him, and she is tormented about it, and knows that if Michele finds out about it, he is going to kill them. She is very much afraid of him.
OL – Gianni Schicchi also has a secret: that the old man has died, and the family wants to keep it a secret.
JG – That’s exactly right, and where I was going to ultimately go with that; this secret of how this fortune is going to be divided. Schicchi is the greatest schemer, and he does it for his daughter, so that she can go on and live her dream. There is death that is involved throughout the entire Triptych, the secrets that all those people hold, the dreams that they hold. The reason why he ends it with Schicchi – you know, Tabarro is the darkest of the three pieces; the story would probably go on like you said to Michele going deeper into his brooding and pushing Giorgetta away and it all falls apart, and everybody goes on to the road to ruin. In Suor Angelica he manages to find hope and forgiveness and grace. In Schicchi, through the humor of it, here is this old man trying to find reconciliation. He is not such a vengeful person, but is putting forward the law as he sees it, so that his daughter can live her dream.
OL – So, what you are getting at, is that there is optimism in this arc. Puccini starts from the darkest parts of the human soul, progresses through grace, and then he opens up to the fulfillment of dreams and to happiness, with these two youngsters being able to marry.
JG – I think that’s it. This is a big part of what the emotional human context is. In the end, artistically and in every way, the arc of this is that Puccini is trying to balance this relationship between Yin and Yang, always.
OL – There is also an element on humanism, of kind belief in humanity, when Rinuccio in his aria ‘Avete torto’ describes Florence like a flowery tree made of different people of all backgrounds – what makes of a city, a city. At the end, Puccini seems to be saying, ‘there is something to humankind, after all, and things can work.’
JG – That’s exactly right, and it’s what I’m referring to. He is drawn to trying to find that balance, both individually as a human being, and as a culture, as the human spirit, as humanity within itself. This is very clear, the more you live with Puccini’s works. His musical language illuminates it completely, and that’s what is behind his leitmotifs.
OL – Wow, fabulous, this was a very compelling interview.
JG – Oh, I’m delighted. You’ve inspired me, and I always love speaking with you about opera because of your passion for it. I can tell that you love it as much as I do. Maybe in your next life, Luiz, you are going to be a singer.
OL – [Laughs] Hehe, I can’t sing. But maybe I’ll be a musicologist or a conductor.
JG – We’d be better for it.
OL – I look forward to seeing you again on the 18th. Will Jake be there as well?
JG – No, he’ll be singing Ariadne auf Naxos with Virginia Opera. Maybe he’ll be able to come to one of the performances if he can work it out with his rehearsal schedule.
OL – I loved his interview as well. Did you read it? [see Jake Gardner’s interview with Opera Lively (here)]
JG – Yes, absolutely. I was also so happy, not only that you liked the Così performance, but with how moved you were about The Flying Dutchman. That was a production I did not get to see because I was in Baltimore doing Tosca, but the response for the Dutchman at Piedmont Opera was huge. I think it was the best production they’ve done, and it was amazing how it was received within the community. The Tuesday night performance sold out.
OL – Did you read my review? I was very enthusiastic about it. [see it (here)]
JG – Yes, yes. I have to tell you, I loved the comparison you made between the production at Glimmerglass and this one. I thought it was right on par with Glimmerglass, really. That’s what we need, more and more, to educate the public. Jake has done Wotan in Rheingold and Walküre, but it was his first Dutchman. He is carefully finding his way in the Wagner repertoire. It’s just immense. He does have an ability for it. Given the right production and the right cast, he can do it very well, and he speaks fluent German. He sang in Germany for ten years, so he brings so much to it from the language which is such a big part of any opera composed, but specifically for Wagner.
OL – It’s nice that we have an opera singing couple like the two of you, both so intelligent and well-informed about the pieces. I remember when we were making editorial decisions at Opera Lively about what interviews should be included in our book, and one of our senior staff members was saying, “Jill Gardner’s must be in; she is great, look at all the insights she had about Tosca; I had never thought about some of those aspects, myself.”
JG – Lovely. That means so much to me, Luiz, because this is my vocation, my calling in life. That’s why I do it, and it is so important to me as an artist to be revelatory. I love what I do and I think it is important; it’s a much bigger job than just singing.
OL – Absolutely. At year end we think of how to allocate money for charity and all that, and I think it is important for people to realize that donating to opera companies fulfills a societal role as well, just as important as the role fulfilled by other charities. Opera companies bring music to inner city schools, for example, and this can do a lot of good.
JG – Absolutely, particularly as our culture changes, when more and more we have people who are not exposed to the arts. Even people who are not disadvantaged are not being exposed to the arts these days and have little notion of why this is so important and why we need it. As Jake says: ‘you know, this is our Western civilization.’ We are talking about the best of the human spirit, and how it is expressed. The arts put the mirror right up to our faces, not only as individuals, but as a species.
OL – Yes, I recently interviewed the artistic director and principal conductor of the Greek National Opera, Mr. Myron Michailidis, and in this interview that will be published soon, this was one of the things he was saying. Greece is in the middle of a horrible economic crisis, and with all the funds being cut, he was actually successful in telling the government that opera should not be cut because it represents Western civilization, a value that Greece as the cradle of this civilization must uphold. He said, ‘Greek theater started it all, the Italians picked it up and created this art form, and now we must carry it on because it is essential, and in a moment of crisis when our people are in distress, we need more opera productions, not less.’ He actually increased the number of productions by his company, instead of cutting them.
JG – Oh my God, that’s brilliant!
OL – Yes, he said, ‘now that the nation is in turmoil, our people need the arts even more than before. While they are saddened by all the hardship, we can deliver to them an opportunity to stop and think about their humanity, and be together, and be inspired by the arts.’
JG – Yes, people attending opera are being inspired by something that is bigger than themselves. I reject the idea of opera as elitist. I think particularly the composers understood that opera was for all humans. Now we have so many forms of entertainment, but we should wake up and realize that we shouldn’t try to become like everything else in order to attract the public. We should try to be like we are supposed to be, and therefore be different.
OL – Yes, I don’t like the efforts that try to popularize opera by compromising its artistic integrity. People will come, if our companies present the best possible artistic product.
JG – Absolutely. One of the most innovative jobs in an opera company is director of marketing and development, and it is not just a business job but is rather a very operatic one. When companies put together the best artistic performances that they can, then it belongs to the director of marketing to show to the people why they need to come – again, the perché : why should you need to come and see this? If this is done well and with true operatic spirit, people will say, ‘wow, I need to come and see this!’
OL – You made me thing of an ad that the Royal Opera House put together, where two young women discuss the plot of Don Giovanni – have you seen it? It’s so interesting!
JG – No! I’d love to see it!
OL – I’ll email it to you. [see it at the end of this interview] Oh my God, two hours! That’s the longest Opera Lively interview, ever!
JG – [laughs] Yaaaay! I get the gold medal! Thank you!
This is the clip we were talking about:
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