Saturday, August 9, 2014

Stravinsky: Pulcinella (complete)

Pulcinella is a ballet by Igor Stravinsky based on an 18th-century play—Pulcinella is a character originating from Commedia dell'arte. The ballet premiered at the Paris Opera on 15 May 1920 under the baton of Ernest Ansermet. The dancer Léonide Massine created both the libretto and choreography, and Pablo Picasso designed the original costumes and sets. It was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev.

OK, enough Wikipedia (and I only use it because I'm too lazy to put it in my own words). This video is hardly the ideal Pulcinella, but the ideal Pulcinella may exist only in my own mind. It was one of the recordings I grew up with, and we played the spots off it, mainly because my father was on a Stravinsky kick and wanted to hear everything he ever wrote. I remember the music vividly, but not the conductor, the orchestra or the record label (else I might be able to track down a reissue).

As a kid, I suppose I knew a little bit about the ballet, something about clowns jumping around in those white outfits they wear in Europe, but of course I had never seen it. I still haven't seen it. I've never even heard a live performance of the whole work, only the ubiquitous suite. But always I had an echo in my brain of that first recording. I own five Pulcinellas now, and I don't listen to any of them because that first one spoiled me for anything else.

Why? The voices. The three singers, tenor, baritone and mezzo-soprano, are the spirit of the piece, and all too often they sound wooden, as if they just don't get it and are only singing the notes.  The piece has to be conducted with a certain irony and even satire, a sour edge contrasting with lamb-gambolling sweetness. The music is often at odds with the odd-sounding words, which in fact have nothing to do with Pulcinella and the commedia dell'arte. The words are more like medieval sonnets about thwarted love. And yet they are splashed against this odd rococo backdrop, this motley set painted by Picasso.

There were a few Pulcinellas on YouTube, and a while ago I tried to find a good one. There is a rare performance of the ballet, but it's chopped up into 10-minute pieces. A more complete one exists, but someone has recorded it with atrocious sound distortion, as if they didn't even notice the music. What is the matter with people today??? I doubt if I will ever find the perfect combination, and besides, all those clowns jumping around is distracting when I would rather concentrate on the melancholy sweetness of the music.

Anyway, it took a hell of a long time to find a translation of the Italian words, and it wasn't on the internet either, but on a set of CD liner notes, with type so small you had to take a magnifiying glass to it. It had the Italian on one side and the English on the other, like a menu.(I once bought Coles notes for a Chaucer class, and it was the same deal) I had to transcribe the words line by line, and it took a while. I thought I posted something about it already, after all that work, but I can't find it. If this is repetitious, please forgive me.

Since I decided against the ballet version, which in fact was pretty silly, I had to make a few (gulp) gifs to fill the gap. I was trying to get something across which, as usual, I didn't quite. When you look up pulcinella, you get punchinello, a nasty little creature in a Milky the Clown-style puffy white suit, a conical hat and a nasty bird-beak. He's menacing, is what he is. He'd scare little children. But wasn't the commedia the thing that brought us Punch and Judy? Maybe they called it something else back then. 

by Igor Stravinsky


While on the grass
the lamb grazes
alone, alone
the shepherdess
amid the green leaves
through the forest
goes singing.


Content perhaps to live
In my torment I might be
If I ever could believe
That, still far away, you were
Faithful to my love,
Faithful to this heart.


With these little words
So sweet
You rend my heart
To the depths.
Fair one, stay here,
Since if you say more
I must die.
With such sweet
Little words
You rend my heart
I shall die, I shall die.

(Soprano, tenor, bass)

I hear say there is no peace
I hear say there is no heart,
For you, ah, no, never,
There is no peace for you.


Whoever says that a woman
Is more cunning than the Devil
Tells the truth.

(Soprano, tenor)

There are some women
Who care for none
And keep a hundred on a leash,
A shabby trick,
And have so many wiles
That none can count them.

One pretends to be innocent
And is cunning,
Another seems all modesty
Yet seeks a husband.
One clings to a man
And has so many wiles
That none can count them,
None can number them.


One pretends to be innocent
And is, and is cunning
Another seems all modesty
Yet seeks a husband,
There are some
Who care, listen, for none.
Who cling to a man
And who flirt with another
And have a hundred on a leash
A shabby trick,
And have so many wiles
That none can count them.


If you love me, if you sigh
For me alone, gentle shepherd,
I have pain in your suffering,
I have pleasure in your love,
But if you think that you alone
I should love in return,
Shepherd, you are easily
To be deceived.
A fair red rose
Today Silvia picks,
But pleading its thorn
Tomorrow she spurns it.
But the plans of men
I will not follow.
Because the lily pleases me,
I will not spurn other flowers.

(Soprano, tenor, bass)

Sweet eyes, bright with love,
For you my heart languishes.