Giuseppe Verdi


A weekly Quixotic pursuit for appreciators of opera who don't expect too much, would-be appreciators of opera who don't know what to expect, and those somewhere in-between,
such as your host.

Thrown together in haste every
Saturdee morning by
Rip Rense

Giacomo Puccini

Saturdee Opry Links # 105: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Edition!

Here is Saturdee Opry Links' tribute to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion of opera as well as those in need. Please enjoy all ten selections, plus overture and encore. Or please don't, if that is your preference. You might find some surprises, or insights, via Justice Ginsburg's preferences, or you might not. The sun might not come up tomorrow, for that matter, or chickens might stop clucking. You never really know.

The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a lifelong devotee of opera, on stage with
Washington National Opera in a speaking role in Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment.”
Saturdee Opry Links Overture
Prelude, Act 3, "La Rondine," by Puccini. Gorgeous!
Our opening selection today is from the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's favorite opera, "La Nozze di Figaro," by Mozart. This is "Sull'aria," also known as the "letter duet," which, yes, you have heard in "The Shawshank Redemption" (gawd he'p us.) Here are sopranos Mirella Freni and Kiri Te Kanawa in this exquisite duet.
Synopsis : Susanna and the Countess are plotting to trick the Count, who has been attempting to seduce Susanna. They have planned for Susanna to meet the Count this evening. The Countess dictates a letter to Susanna that informs the Count where he can meet Susanna. She repeats the Countess's words as she writes.
On the breeze
What a gentle little zephir
A little zephir
This evening will sigh
This evening will sigh
Under the pines in the little grove.
Under the pines…
Under the pines in the little grove
Under…the pines…in the little grove
And the rest he’ll understand
Certainly, certainly he’ll understand.
Small wonder that the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg named Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" as her favorite opera. It is just wall-to-wall with melody, from tender arias to strident declarations to comic frivolity. It also features duets, trios, quartets, and, well, at the end of act two, a duet that morphs into a trio that morphs into a quartet that morphs into a quintet that morphs in a septet. (Somehow, poor sextet was left out.) Here is the end of that sequence from act two, with English subtitles to help you along. Now, understand that to our ears, this music sounds almost predictable. Why? We are so used to hearing it, and hearing it parodied. You have to divorce modern context and listen as if with new ears. That awful cliche you find in every Ken Burns documentary, over and over again, applies: "No one had ever heard anything like it before." This was not only revolutionary, but a light-year ahead of most other music of the day, in cleverness, intelligence, creativity. It's also just plain fun. The plot? Hell if I know. All Mozart operas are Marx Brothers movies, as far as I'm concerned.
About the finale of act 2:
About the opera:
Synopsis of opera:
The Marriage of Figaro continues the plot of The Barber of Seville several years later, and recounts a single "day of madness" (la folle journée) in the palace of Count Almaviva near Seville, Spain. Rosina is now the Countess; Dr. Bartolo is seeking revenge against Figaro for thwarting his plans to marry Rosina himself; and Count Almaviva has degenerated from romantic youth of Barber into a scheming, bullying, skirt-chasing baritone. Having gratefully given Figaro a job as head of his servant-staff, he is now persistently trying to exercise his droit du seigneur – his right to bed a servant girl on her wedding night – with Figaro's bride-to-be, Susanna, who is the Countess's maid. He keeps finding excuses to delay the civil part of the wedding of his two servants, which is arranged for this very day. Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess conspire to embarrass the Count and expose his scheming. He retaliates by trying to compel Figaro legally to marry a woman old enough to be his mother, but it turns out at the last minute that she really is his mother. Through Figaro's and Susanna's clever manipulations, the Count's love for his Countess is finally restored.
As everyone must know, Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have been an opera singer, if she'd had the chops for the job. Opera was the greatest abiding love of her life, although she had many. She and the odious Scalia somehow maintained a very close friendship for decades, built largely on their love of opera. (In the art imitates life department, the composer Derrick Wang wrote an opera about their weird, almost perverse friendship, "Scalia/Ginsburg," in 2017.) The late justice was a real, hard-core operaphile (unlike Saturdee Opry Links, which likes some aspects of opera, and can't stand others) who could discuss the history of a given opera, the characters and plot vagaries, even the nuances of singing technique (she was a pianist and cellist.) Here she explains her top five favorite opera choices, from which SOL is mostly choosing today's selections.
Justice Ginsburg adored, in fact, exalted, Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier," naming it her second-favorite opera, or third, if you're keeping score at home (more later.) This grand venture that is part opera buffa, part opera seria (at least in effect), is a study in aging, love, heartbreaking choices, and fatuous ego. The music fairly swims and roils and swoops and weeps. It is tender and it is thrilling; it is intoxicatingly lyrical and quietly meditative. Justice Ginsburg loved the character, the Princess von Werdenburg, better known as the Marschallin, who must face the harsh cruelty of growing older. Here she looks at her face in a mirror, studying the lines of age, worrying about the time when she will be an old woman. This is "Da Geht er Hin," in which The Marschallin---evidently post-coitus with a strapping young man (whom she ultimately gives up so he can marry appropriately with his young love)---tries to come to grips, for the first time, with Father Time. Note: this is not a "beautiful melody" type of aria, but a musical mood painting. Here is Kiri Te Kanawa, with English subtitles.
There he goes, the bloated oaf, and gets the pretty young thing and a ton of money. As if it had to be like that. And it comes to mind that it is he who  forgives something. What is it that makes me angry? That's the way of the world. Can I also remember a girl who is fresh from the convent commandered into the holy state? Where is she now? Yes, look for the snow from last year! That's what I say. But how can it really be that I was the little Resi and that I would be the old woman? The old woman, the old marshal! "Victory, there goes the old  Princess Resi!" How can that happen? How does God do that? Where I am  always the same. And if he has to do it, why does he let me watch it  with such a clear sense! Why is not he hiding from me? It's all secret,  so much secret. And you're there to endure it. And in the "how" there is the whole difference.
It's very telling, I think, that the late Justice Ginsburg gravitated toward the more serious, dramatic opera, certainly an indication of depth of emotion and intellect. The first opera she ever saw---the moment that set her on a life-long love of the genre---was the less-performed "La Gioconda," by Ponchielli (you know his music from the dancing hippos and ostriches in "Fantasia.") One can only wonder what impact this particular scene must have had on the young Ruth Bader, as it depicts a woman in deep, suicidal despair.
Setting: A room in a ruined palace on the Giudecca island, Venice, 17th century
Synopsis: The singer La Gioconda's life is in shambles. She is engaged to Enzo but he does not love her. He instead loves Laura, who La Gioconda has saved from Laura's vindictive husband several times.  In order to save Enzo as well, La Gioconda has offered herself to the evil spy, Barnaba. In addition, her mother has disappeared. She now contemplates suicide, hoping that it will release her from the pain she feels. This is the wrenching, "Suicidio!" sung by soprano Saioa Hernandez.
In these enormous moments
you alone remain for me, and tempt my heart.
Final voice of my destiny,
Ultimate cross of my road.
And one day the hours flew in lightweight hours,
I have lost mother, love,
conquered by unfortunate jealous fever!
Now I fall exhausted among the darkness.
To the task! I ask heaven
to sleep quietly in the tomb.
Verdi's "Otello" was, the late Justice Ginsburg said, her preferred way to experience the story---yes, over Shakespeare.  "The opera, to me," she said, "is more engaging." (Verdi, who revered Shakespeare, would have loved that.) Of course, this story of deceit, betrayal, nefarious plotting, insane jealousy, and murder, is not your average opera buffa! It was Justice Ginsburg's number-four recommended opera, which, again, illustrates much about the seriousness of her personality. Here is the gorgeous, tender, heart-rending "Ave Maria," from Verdi's "Otello," in which Desdemona, knowing full-well that she has moments to live, offers a final prayer. The soprano is the great Leontyne Price (who was part of the most memorable opera experiences Justice Ginsburg ever had: her debut with Franco Corelli in Verdi's "Il Trovatore." (More on that later.)
Ruth Ginsburg Loved Opera, and Opera Loved Her Back
by Francesca Zambello
Director, Washington Opera
Another of late Justice's five most recommended operas would, she said, have to be by Puccini. Her quote:
"Now I could pick 'Boheme,' 'Tosca,' 'Butterfly,' 'Turandot,'  but I'm not going to pick any of those because the women don't fare very well. They die of consumption, they're insanely jealous. . .and poor Butterfly. But Puccini wrote an opera, 'Girl of the Golden West,' where Minnie saves her man from the gallows. She plays cards with the sheriff to decide. If she wins, she saves her man. If she loses, it's not gonna be so good for Minnie or her man. But Minnie is a very strong woman, and there are not too many of those in grand opera." (Interesting to note that she based her decision here on politics and not music. "Girl of the Golden West" is Puccini's least melodic opera.)
I would respectfully dispute Justice Ginsburg on this point. Minnie is a noble figure, almost holy, but I rather dislike the term, "strong woman," as it implies that it is an unusual thing to be a "strong woman." I disagree. I also think that "strength" takes many forms. "Mimi" in "La Boheme" knows she is terminally ill, yet lives exactly as she wishes, and takes Zen-like pleasure in embroidering flowers. Her passions are undiminished by her illness. "Butterfly" waits five long years for the scoundrel, Pinkerton, to keep his pledge to return to her. Again, strength! When he does return---with a new wife, intent on stealing the child he had with Butterfly---she courageously indulges the one recourse laid out by her culture: hara kiri. Again, this is a type of strength. "Tosca" (the Justice's second Puccini choice) features a lead character who murders the man who sexually extorted her for the life of her imprisoned beloved. Yup, strength! And "Turandot" is a fairy tale, yet the murderous queen title character changes her ways when she finally understands love. Strength? I think so. And throughout opera, there are many valiant, tragic female figures who bear up as well as they can under the most unjust and outrageous situations. So that's my point. Will Your Honor stipulate to it?
SO. . .here is Minnie explaining how she doesn't miss men because she is surrounded by glorious nature. "O se sapeste," from "Girl of the Golden West." The soprano is Eva Maria Westbroek.
How it can look on stage:
Oh if you only knew how cheerful living is!
I have a little "chicken" that takes me to a gallop
Over there for the countryside; for daffodil meadows,
Of burning carnations, for deep rivers
Which perfumed the shores with jasmine and vanilla!
Then I return to my pines in the Sierra mountains
So close to heaven that God, passing by,
seems to incline his hand toward you
From the earth like this,
comes the desire to beat at the threshold of heaven
To enter!
In order, Justice Ginsburg's favorite operas are: "Marriage of Figaro," (Mozart), "Don Giovanni," (Mozart), "Der Rosenkavalier," (R. Strauss), "Otello" (Verdi), and "Fanciulla del West" (Puccini.") (She said that "Figaro" and "Giovanni" are practically a tie.) Here, from "Don Giovanni," is "Ah, chi mi dice mai," in which one of Don Juan's "conquests" vows revenge. (Careful, Don, she really means it.) The soprano is Anna Caterina Antonacci, who, sad to say, spent most of her career in Europe. With English subtitles! (The aria begins about 1:30, but the whole sequence is worth watching.) "I will rip his heart out!" proclaims Donna Elvira. Gad---a "strong woman!"
Justice Ginsburg's favorite tenor was the titanic Swedish lirico spinto, Jussi Bjorling. One of her favorite recordings was Verdi's "Aida," with Bjorling, Zinka Milanov, Leonard Warren. Here is Bjorling with the graceful curvature of "Celeste Aida," a great challenge for any tenor because it comes early in the opera, before voices have had a chance to warm up. (Her favorite soprano, by the way, was Renata Tebaldi.)
Setting: A hall in the Palace of the Kings at Memphis.
Synopsis: Rumors of an impending war with Ethiopia have been circulating. Radamès has just been told by Ramfis that Isis has named a new, young man to command the Egyptian Army.
Justice Ginsburg appeared in several operas as a supernumerary, but the highlight of her "opera career," certainly, was her speaking part in a Washington Opera production of Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment." She portrayed the "Duchess of Krakenthorp," with the dialogue (in English) rewritten with her in mind (as you will hear.) Here is a brief clip:
Okay, kids, one of Justice Ginsburg's greatest operatic experiences was being in the audience in 1961 at the Met, when Leontyne Price debuted with the great Franco Corelli. Here is that debut, in Verdi's masterpiece, "Il Trovatore" (The Troubadour), in the form of the great, welling aria, "Tacea la Notte Placida" ("The Night Was Still and Quiet, at 2:36.) If you want to stay tuned for the second aria, "D'amor sull'ali rosee," ("On the Rosy Wings of Love," at 9:05) have at. If you'd rather stick your thumb up your ass and watch "Sesame Street," that's fine, too. (Just testing to see if you're reading!) Now, if you listen verrrrrry carefully, you can hear her (and husband Marty) applauding.
Setting: The gardens of the palace of Aliferia, Aragon, 1409.
Synopsis: Leonora reveals to her servant Ines that she heard someone serenading her in the garden. However, when she goes out to see who the troubadour is, she finds that it is, in fact, a knight in black armor who she had once crowned as the champion of a tournament. She quickly fell in love with him.
Annnnnnd, for "D'amor sull'ali rosee:"
Setting: A hall in the palace of Aliferia, Aragon, 1409.
Synopsis: Manrico has been captured in an attempt to save his mother from being executed and is now being held in prison by the Count of Luna. Leonora has come to the prison in disguise in order to see him. She hopes that he will be sustained by her love for him.
“Most of the time, even when I go to sleep, I’m thinking about legal problems,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said. “But when I go to the opera, I’m just lost in it.” Saturdee Opry Links' tribute to the valiant public servant concludes in perhaps an unlikely---or unexpected, at least---way.  As Washington Opera Director Francesca Zambello revealed in a New York Times tribute piece this past week, "She loved Wagner’s 'Götterdämmerung,' and its finale, the Immolation Scene. We had a lot of conversations about Brünnhilde, and why it took a woman to save the world. That’s what she said: Only a woman could do it; only a woman could change the course of history. She did always love pieces where the woman was the protagonist." I have a few probably unsophisticated responses to this. First, I find it reductive to take the feminist angle, and favor moments in opera merely because they feature "strong women." I find this disappointingly political, though, yes, understandable. But Justice Ginsburg's life was one of fighting like hell for women to get ahead in any/all professions, and later, as a member of the Supreme Court, fighting like hell for people who needed it, period. So her agenda is understandable, and it is also understandable that she would therefore thrill at opera's great heroines. One could argue, not that you care, I'm sure, that opera's greatest heroine was. . .Brunhilde. Why? Does she, in fact, "save the world?" Yes and no. She destroys the world---you could say, the universe---because of the corrupt, hopeless follies of the Gods. In short, she effects. . .justice! Ah-ha! Yes, Brunhilde was a sort of Chief Justice! As for whether she saved "creation," that's a matter of debate. Does Wagner's "Götterdämmerung" end The Big Everything, or does it signify, to use the current banal techno-term, a "re-boot?" We don't know. But we do know that Wagner designated an incredibly brave female figure of immense, unyielding principle, to do it. Principle that flew in the face of the gods' laws, and actions that openly defied her father, the thick-headed king of the gods, Trump, I mean Wotan. Hmm. . .an incredibly brave female figure of immense, unyielding principle? Now who does that sound like? Here is "Brunhilde's Immolation," the end of the whole damn enchilada," from "Götterdämmerung," by Richard Wagner. So long, Ruthie! This is the Patrice Chereau production with Gwyneth Jones as Brunhilde.
Go here and search for "Mighty logs."
Saturdee Opry Links' Ruth Bader Ginsburg special ENCORE!
Here, again, is the aria we began with today, "Sull'aria," from her very favorite opera, "The Marriage of Figaro," by Mozart. With a lovely and appropriate backdrop.
Synopsis : Susanna and the Countess are plotting to trick the Count, who has been attempting to seduce Susanna. They have planned for Susanna to meet the Count this evening. The Countess dictates a letter to Susanna that informs the Count where he can meet Susanna. She repeats the Countess's words as she writes.
On the breeze
What a gentle little zephir
A little zephir
This evening will sigh
This evening will sigh
Under the pines in the little grove.
Under the pines…
Under the pines in the little grove
Under…the pines…in the little grove
And the rest he’ll understand
Certainly, certainly he’ll understand.

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