Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

By the Waters of Casablanca (the opera)

The gray, impalpable figure in the chapel of Milan’s Casa di Riposo did not look at me. His familiar face, beard, rigid posture offered me a cold, shadowy shoulder. Verdi was dead.

Gentle fingers touched my arm. Another shade. “Madame Strepponi!” I cried, not too surprised – she rests there, too, beside the maestro.
As usual, the great lady was not thinking of herself. “He is bored – my Verdi. Death provides so few distractions. He must compose.”
“What can I do?” I said, helplessly.
“Find him a libretto!” she commanded. “Some theatrical property that has not yet been presented on the lyric stage. Something truly musicabile, in a style that will inspire him – personalities, confrontations, great issues of the soul! Do they still write such operas?”
“These days, they usually keep that sort of thing for the movies. Which – now that you mention it – gives me an idea…”

Come il tempo passa, ossia Casablanca

Act I
The curtain rises on Rick’s nightclub-casino in French Morocco, 1941. The Americans aren’t in the war yet, but Rick is an American. [No doubt you expect a tenor, but I hear Bogart’s grating tones in the baritone register, and Simon Keenlyside does agonized, internal roles so very well.] His constant companion and best draw is jazz pianist Sam [tenor – Anthony Dean Griffey for colorblind casting – if we use Lawrence Brownlee, he’ll have to have a bel canto showpiece].

Chorus: Tutti vengono da Rick. (Everybody comes to Rick’s.)

Ugarte [stout character tenor – Kim Begley could have fun with it], a European with a dubious air, sneaks up to the crazy Russian bartender, Sasha [light baritone – Mariusz Kwiecien], hoping to see Rick. Sasha is vague as to Rick’s whereabouts, and Ugarte slinks off. Sasha flirts with Yvonne [mezzo – Denyce Graves or Michelle De Young - well neither of them slink, exactly, but neither does Borodina any more], a slinky chanteuse but, herself stuck on Rick, she flips him off.

Enter Louis Renault, Casablanca’s corrupt police chief, hitherto loyal to his Vichy paymasters. [alto – I see the shifty Louis as a trouser role – Alice Coote or Beth Clayton – but it could also be sung by David Daniels.] Louis is showing a German visitor, Major Strasser [tenor – Kurt Streit] around the local hotspots. Strasser asks about Rick, whose anti-fascist background in the Spanish Civil War (cue: castanets in orchestra) he knows; Louis remarks “If I were a woman, I would be very much in love with Monsieur Rick.”

Rick joins Strasser and Louis for dialogue sung over riffs from Sam’s piano.
“Perche vieni a Casablanca?” (Why did you come to Casablanca?)
“Pelle acque.” (For the waters.)
“Ma, Casablanca aque non ha! E deserto!” (But there are no waters here! It’s the desert!)
“Mi hanno mal’informato.” (I was misinformed.)

Rick excuses himself when he spots Ugarte in the shadows, and while Sam leads a rousing jazz number, learns that Ugarte has murdered two Germans and stolen their signed letters of transit, good for anyone who carries them to flee the country. He begs Rick to hold onto them while he packs. Rick reluctantly agrees.

While Rick is hiding the papers, Major Strasser begins to chat up Yvonne. To Sasha’s chagrin, she flirts back. Comic quartet (cynical comments from Louis).

Enter Victor Laszlo (bass – Rene Pape) and his lovely companion, Ilsa (soprano – Renee Fleming would kill for this role, but I’d prefer Anna Netrebko for her overt, accented sexuality, or perhaps Diana Damrau, who is Bergman cool). While Laszlo chats with like-minded exiles, Ilsa turns to the piano.

“Suonalo, Sam.” (Play it, Sam)
“Non di che cosa parla, madamigella Ilsa.”
“No? Suona ‘Come il tempo passa.’ Dee-di-de-di-de-di….” (Play ‘As Time Goes By.’)
Relucantly, Sam plays the tune (which Ilsa performs as a sortita, with coloratura cadenza) … only to be interrupted by a furious Rick.
“Ho vietato di mai suonare quella canzone, Sam!” (I told you never to play that song, Sam!)
“Salute, Rick,” says Ilsa, behind him. (Orchestra thunders minor key version – ominously,) She introduces him to Laszlo, whose reputation for fighting the Nazis in Czechoslovakia is well known to Rick.

Their brittle trio is interrupted by gunshots and screams: a man has been slain just outside the door. Louis hurries out … and returns with the news that Ugarte has been shot. Strasser triumphantly proclaims that Ugarte was a murderer who had stolen two letters of transit. His entourage (a barbershop quartet of Axis officers) usurps Sam’s piano for the Wacht am Rhein. In response, Laszlo leads the band, Sasha and even Yvonne in the Marseillaise. This becomes a Chorus of Refugees (By the waters of Casablanca) longing for the freedom of their various homelands.

Strasser, irate about the chorus and no happier to learn that Ugarte did not have the letters of transit on his person, commands Louis to close Rick’s down. Louis does so on the grounds that he’s discovered gambling on the premises (“Son stupefatto, stupefatto” – I’m shocked, shocked), commencing a stretta in which all the characters comment on the precarious situation. The curtain falls.

Act II, scene 1

Rick, in his room, drinks and broods on Ilsa’s betrayal (cello obbligato and aria: “Ella giammai m’amo a Parigi” – She never loved me, even back in Paris). Louis enters, warning that Major Strasser will be furious if Laszlo gets away. When he goes, Ilsa rushes in to explain that she secretly married Laszlo, the great freedom fighter, before she ever met Rick; Laszlo escaped from a concentration camp but refuses to flee to America without her. She offers herself to Rick if he’ll give her the letters of transit – for Laszlo.

Grand duet (over an ever more chromaticized ‘As Time Goes By’):
“Hai scordato, Rick …?” (Have you forgotten, Rick … ?)
“Parigi? Eri vestita di blu … i tedeschi erono vestiti di grigio …”
(You wore blue. The Germans wore gray.)

She falls into his arms as the curtain descends.

Act II, scene 2

At the airport, Laszlo sings a brindisi about being drunk on libertà. Ilsa shows up, saying Rick will bring the letters of transit, and they sing of the future they fly to – while Ilsa, aside, ponders her real feelings.

Rick comes in with the papers – but Louis has followed him. Rick pulls a gun on him, urging Laszlo to take Ilsa and catch the plane.

“Ma Rick –?” Ilsa whispers, as Laszlo turns toward the runway. Rick snarls: “I problemi di due personcine non ammontano a una colline di fagioli,” (The problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans), launching a trio in three-four time (with Laszlo) that becomes a quartet (when Louis chimes in). “Sempre avremo Parigi … Guardandi a te, bimba.” (We’ll always have Paris … Here’s looking at you, kid.)

Laszlo and Ilsa walk toward the plane; tension builds as the propellers rev (timpani rolls over a low brass march). A jeep drives up, Strasser at the wheel. “Laszlo dov’é?” he demands. Louis nods at Rick, who still has him covered. Strasser, angrily, seizes the phone and demands to be connected to the conning tower. Rick shoots him dead. (Descending arpeggio crash.)

The plane takes off, just as Strasser’s German quartet drives up. “What has happened?” they demand. (Crashing arpeggio.)

Louis responds in cold, official tones: “Il Maggior’é … assassinato … Raccogliete i sospetti usuali.” (Round up the usual suspects.)

As the Germans drive off in frustration, Rick gazes fondly at his new companion-in-arms: “Louis – questo sia l’inizio di un’ amicizia bellissima.” (I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.)

Crashing arpeggio segues into the Marseillaise.

© John Yohalem, 2008