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(What's that, you say? What's an opera starring the Devil got to do with Tolkien's creation myth? Read on....) Note: This is a repost - I've been waiting for a quieter time when the diary might get more attention.

TheOneRing.net hosted a discussion a while ago about what the "Music of the Ainur" might sound like, if anyone were to have the sheer nerve to attempt a film or TV version of the Silmarillion. http://www.theonering.net/... It links offsite to another discussion at http://atolkienistperspective.wordpress.com/... . Several interesting suggestions were made, but I didn't think that any of them had enough raw power behind them.

Where Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele comes into the picture is that it takes whole chunks of the Goethe version of the Faust legend and renders them in an idiosyncratic manner - Boito was no more a professional opera composer than Tolkien was a professional novelist, and it shows. He had to radically rewrite and edit his work before it became a success, keeping what worked and discarding whole acts that didn't work. One piece that worked - and works superbly to this day - is the "Prologue in Heaven" which begins with five minutes' heavy workout for the orchestra brass and strings, and then segues into this: http://www.youtube.com/...

Note: that's the Santa Cecilia Chorus of Rome, from what is still the most highly recommended recording of the opera, almost sixty years later (it was made in 1958).

Notice how the singing begins softly, almost monotonously, and then rapidly diversifies and builds and builds and BUILDS. And then the brass returns for a final fanfare....

At this point in the opera there is a radical change of tone, as guess-who enters to complain about how bored he is with tempting silly little humans who are hardly worth the trouble: http://www.youtube.com/...

This is from the same recording as above, and just LISTEN to that deep ringing bass! Cesare Siepi was a true basso cantante, with a bright enough upper register that he could, and did, also excel in the lower-range baritone roles like Don Giovanni (unarguably his signature role).

Anyway, Mefisto's complaints lead to a sporting wager on whether he can win the soul of one Faust - and, of course, the rest of the opera. (More below the drunken C-clef!)

The Prologue concludes with more, and more complex, and even more majestic choral singing once Mefisto has headed off to do his dirty work (Heaven bores him even more than running temptations). http://www.youtube.com/... This clip features the legendary Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the Robert Shaw Chorale, and the Columbus Boys Choir, dated 1954.

Here's how Mefistofele introduces himself to Faust: http://www.youtube.com/...
Siepi takes the pace a little faster than we are used to - and actually hits the lowest notes squarely, which hardly anybody does any more (many because they can't - those notes are just not there for them). If anything he's underplaying the aria just a bit, particularly in "sulla sol e sulla terra distruzion'!" (on the sun and earth, destruction!) He just sings the bass notes with cold malice, doesn't shout, doesn't overdramatize - and it's chillingly effective.

The next two acts follow the pattern familiar from Gounod and Berlioz: the temptation, fall and last-minute salvation of the unfortunate Margherita. (Here's a taste of what the divine Renata Tebaldi made of her, again from the 1958 recording: http://www.youtube.com/... ) But Boito - and only Boito - follows the story into Goethe's second half, spending a whole act on Faust's dalliance with Helen of Troy (which bores Mefisto nearly as much as heaven - he bugs out before it's half over), and finally catching up with the re-aged Faust back in his study and the showdown over his soul. (You have GOT to hear this!) http://www.youtube.com/...

That clarion trumpet of a tenor is Mario del Monaco - almost forgotten today, but you can see why he was an international sensation in his time.

The Devil doesn't get the last word or win his wager, as the concluding chorus (you've heard it twice before, if you were paying attention) makes explicitly clear.

Well, that's some highlights of Mefistofele, and I think I've indicated why anyone wanting to mess around with the Silmarillion could do a lot worse than study what Boito did and how he did it.

Originally posted to TheOtherMaven on Mon Jun 09, 2014 at 07:18 PM PDT.

Poll

Who is your favorite Mephistopheles?

0%0 votes
7%1 votes
7%1 votes
7%1 votes
23%3 votes
0%0 votes
53%7 votes
0%0 votes

| 13 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (5+ / 0-)

    If it's
    Not your body,
    Then it's
    Not your choice
    And it's
    None of your damn business!

    by TheOtherMaven on Mon Apr 28, 2014 at 06:19:09 PM PDT

  •  Just added a poll, and have to explain my vote (0+ / 0-)

    I picked the five best-known interpreters of the role, whose works is the most easily accessible on recordings. But my sentimental favorite is Norman Treigle, late lamented star of the late lamented New York City Opera, whose quirky rendition reintroduced New York to the opera as well as vice versa. (It had not been performed at the Met since the 1920s, and would not be performed there again until 1999.)

    Siepi is a close second favorite on the grounds of his magnificent voice and pure classical approach.

    Frankly, I expect most votes to be for Ramey, because everyone's heard of him - and yes, he is pretty darn good too.

    If it's
    Not your body,
    Then it's
    Not your choice
    And it's
    None of your damn business!

    by TheOtherMaven on Tue Apr 29, 2014 at 07:50:17 AM PDT

    •  Miscounted - only listed four. (0+ / 0-)

      Sorry about that, Mr. Boris Christoff. I meant to list you, but....

      Has anyone out there seen/heard what Jerome Hines made of the role? Neither have I, but the accounts I have heard are intriguing. Too bad nobody captured him on tape or film in this opera....

      If it's
      Not your body,
      Then it's
      Not your choice
      And it's
      None of your damn business!

      by TheOtherMaven on Tue Apr 29, 2014 at 07:55:50 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  In the willow meads of Tsasarinan (6+ / 0-)

    I don't know the first thing about opera, but it brought back a great memory of playing the cello part in a quartet in high school, of a song by Treebeard about the places they used to go with their beloved and lost Entwives.

  •  Intriguing Idea... (2+ / 0-)

    ...but adapting the Silmarillion for film would be a hell of an undertaking. It's a collection of myths, more or less chronologically organized, but with a huge cast of characters that would be difficult to keep track of in a film (Finrod, builder of Nargothrond, is one of my favorites). And there's the rub: much of the story's charm is in the comparatively minor appearances of some pretty compelling characters. Possibly a(nother--cripes) trilogy, with Part the First being the creation, Feanor's making of the Silmarils, and their theft by Morgoth; Part the Second being the flight of the Noldor and their early wars; Part the Third being about Beren and Luthien. That could possibly hang, but it's still hard to imagine many characters making it meaningfully into the film. Wouldn't want another Last Airbender clusterbleep, after all, where the writer tried to get in a little bit of everything. Putting the Silmarillion on screen would take a lot of discipline in the screenplay writer.

  •  Off topic? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, TheOtherMaven

    Seriously, never heard of the others (I'm not into opera).

    My favorite is Mr. Mistopheles, from Cats.

    β€œSin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other "sins" are invented nonsense. (Hurting yourself is not sinful -- just stupid.)” ― Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

    by midgebaker on Mon Jun 09, 2014 at 09:08:27 PM PDT

    •  Ah yes, "Mr" Mistoffelees (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      The original "produced seven kittens, right out of a hat", which is probably to be taken as a riff on how difficult some people find it to tell the gender of a cat until s/he makes it unmistakable (usually by having kittens). :-)

      If it's
      Not your body,
      Then it's
      Not your choice
      And it's
      None of your damn business!

      by TheOtherMaven on Mon Jun 09, 2014 at 09:55:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Awesome topic. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TheOtherMaven, RiveroftheWest

    Couple of points, I've read The Silmarillion, and my musical background isn't opera. But I do have one one, and this is super intriguing.

    The "Prologue in Heaven" really does have the sweetness, though in my view not the power, that Tolkien conveyed in "The music of the Ainur". This is creation. In short, it needs more cowbell.

    The introduction of The Adversary in Mefistophele just sounds like "Oh, that Satan. What a scamp". Sorry. I cut my teeth on Iron Maiden and learned my craft in the Thrash years. Besides, Tolkien describes Melkor's initial rebellion as a  "discord". It was a musical argument. The last peice you linked to, now that was a musical argument.

    I once taught a student a chord sequence by Anthrax. He said "That can't be right, that sounds like shit!” Well, that's what actual discord sounds like. (He just needed to play it faster and get to the resolution.)

    That last piece didn't quite do actual discord, but it was dancing on the edge, then back to resolution, the entire time. Along with small-beat vocal counterpoints that made the whole thing shout conflict! Something very like that would be a great introduction for Melkor.

    The Margherita piece was just sublime.

    Too bad I've gotta crash now.

    One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain -Bob Marley

    by Darwinian Detritus on Mon Jun 09, 2014 at 10:26:43 PM PDT

    •  Thanks for actually checking the links :-) (2+ / 0-)

      If it's
      Not your body,
      Then it's
      Not your choice
      And it's
      None of your damn business!

      by TheOtherMaven on Mon Jun 09, 2014 at 11:23:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Let me know if this has enough "cowbell" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      http://www.youtube.com/...

      It's the final part of the Prologue, with the legendary Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra and the Robert Shaw Chorale, dated 1954.

      Again, a slow build, but it gets really awesome.

      If it's
      Not your body,
      Then it's
      Not your choice
      And it's
      None of your damn business!

      by TheOtherMaven on Mon Jun 09, 2014 at 11:38:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  What's going on in the Epilogue: (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest
      That last piece didn't quite do actual discord, but it was dancing on the edge, then back to resolution, the entire time. Along with small-beat vocal counterpoints that made the whole thing shout conflict! Something very like that would be a great introduction for Melkor.
      This is the final showdown between Faust and Mefistofele, with the fate of Faust's soul hanging in the balance - and both parties know it. Up to this point Mefisto has had absolute confidence that he will win Faust's soul and his wager with the Almighty - but (just as the clip starts) Faust's thoughts have begun to turn in a direction, namely unselfish service to his fellow men, which shakes that confidence, and drives him to increasingly frantic efforts to refocus Faust's attention on worldly and fleshly things.

      Part of the deal was that if Faust ever said to a particular moment "Stay, thou art fair" ("Arrestati, sei bella!"), the game would be over. But up to this point, and despite a remarkable variety of experiences, he has never said it.

      He finally says it - at the peak of a beatific vision, when he is in a temporary state of grace.

      Mefisto is a sore loser, and expresses his disgust with his customary derisive whistle(s). (Most Mefistos only get off one good whistle - Siepi manages three.)

      It is extremely rare that you find a tenor who has the sheer power to cut through the bass, the orchestra, and the chorus. Pavarotti couldn't do it, Domingo couldn't do it. Del Monaco DID - and made it sound easy. (He usually had some difficulty dialing down the volume for quieter passages, but here all the stops were pulled out by everyone.) Handsome brute, wasn't he? :-)

      If it's
      Not your body,
      Then it's
      Not your choice
      And it's
      None of your damn business!

      by TheOtherMaven on Tue Jun 10, 2014 at 12:07:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Opera really is a different world, isn't it? (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, TheOtherMaven
        It is extremely rare that you find a tenor who has the sheer power to cut through the bass, the orchestra, and the chorus. Pavarotti couldn't do it, Domingo couldn't do it. Del Monaco DID - and made it sound easy.
        Why doesn't the guy on the mixer board just... oh. Right.

        "Arrestati, sei bella!" That's a pretty cool concept.

        One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain -Bob Marley

        by Darwinian Detritus on Tue Jun 10, 2014 at 07:15:13 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Del Monaco certainly was a powerful tenor. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        TheOtherMaven

        This isn't an opera I know well; can you tell me if Caruso sang it, and if so, how later tenors compared to him?

        •  Caruso recorded Faust's two big numbers, but (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest

          only in the studio, and so very early (1902) that the technology of the time couldn't possibly do justice to his voice.

          Later tenors have matched the power or the resonance or the mellowness of his voice, but no one has matched all three.

          This is Caruso in the one really memorable aria from Massenet's Le Cid, recorded in 1916: http://www.loc.gov/...

          Note how tinny the accompaniment sounds - this was light-years better than in 1902, but still a looong way from even ten years later (to say nothing of fifty).

          If it's
          Not your body,
          Then it's
          Not your choice
          And it's
          None of your damn business!

          by TheOtherMaven on Tue Jun 10, 2014 at 06:24:33 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I grew up listening to old 78s, and their (0+ / 0-)

            inadequacies don't bother me as much as they do most  people. But 1902 is very early indeed, and it's certainly too bad that Caruso didn't live long enough to make electrical recordings.

            So listening to later Caruso recordings, 1910-'20 for instance, are there later tenors from the electric recording era with whom you hear similarities? Among the many critics who heard Caruso live, did they find a few that compared favorably?

            Thank you for this excellent diary; my apologies for getting a bit off-topic here.

            •  Way to start an argument! :D (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              RiveroftheWest

              Everybody has their favorites, and you aren't likely to get any kind of consensus. :-D

              Here's an incomplete selection of prominent tenors in the latter section of "Celeste Aida" (a nice stiff test for any tenor, as it requires both mellowness and power - and, in live performance, a cold running start!): http://www.youtube.com/...

              Some people think Pavarotti is the closest match to date, but he still lacks something of the warm resonance - and he was bone-lazy besides (it often showed in sloppy diction, particularly when he was required to sing in French - and he just flat-out wouldn't extend himself beyond the repertoire he was comfortable with).

              For sheer durability Domingo has no tenor rivals (debuted in 1957 and still performing - I think only a couple of basses can touch that record). But "durability" isn't one of the criteria here. :-D

              If it's
              Not your body,
              Then it's
              Not your choice
              And it's
              None of your damn business!

              by TheOtherMaven on Tue Jun 10, 2014 at 10:47:00 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  No desire here for an argument! There are many (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                TheOtherMaven

                fine singers whom I enjoy. It's just that Caruso was so admired; I should get out the old LPs and the newer CDs and do some serious comparisons myself, I guess. It's difficult, though, as his acoustic recordings are not on the level of even those of the great tenors of the '30s and '40s, let alone modern recordings. Remember, though, when asked what he considered his finest recording, didn't McCormack name one he'd made in 1912?

                I'll never forget the first time I heard Pavarotti. A glorious voice, I think. But he could have used a dose of Domingo's discipline, for sure. Domingo is an admirable tenor, baritone and conductor... durable and amazing.

                Thanks for this interesting conversation!

  •  You mean the music of the Ainur doesn't sound (2+ / 0-)

    exactly like MOZART? And Melkor's "discord" isn't a major 7th or a 6/4 chord?

    Kudos for "drunken C clef."

    •  Mozart, eh? (0+ / 0-)

      Cue Cesare Siepi triple-tonguing it in "Finch'han del vino" from Mozart's Don Giovanni. As the Don, of course. http://www.youtube.com/...

      This actually is a film clip, 1950s I think - and you can see that Siepi was NOT what most people still think of as a "typical opera singer". He was elegant, suave, svelte, and really filled out a pair of tights (nomnomnom!). You can also see why this was his signature role!

      If it's
      Not your body,
      Then it's
      Not your choice
      And it's
      None of your damn business!

      by TheOtherMaven on Tue Jun 10, 2014 at 07:11:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Mozart? Pfft. (0+ / 0-)

    I need more Pachabel!

    Warning: This cuts in on a loud burst of applause, so if you're gonna click it check your volume. Once he gets past the I-was-picked-on-for-playing-the-cello schtick it's pretty funny.  

    One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain -Bob Marley

    by Darwinian Detritus on Tue Jun 10, 2014 at 07:23:08 AM PDT

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