September 28, 2014

Sweeney Todd and the duality of man

Sheesh - even GUM can have a dual nature!
A masterwork like Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (it's okay if I dispense with the subtitle, right?) is a complex work of art functioning on many levels, with much to communicate about the human condition. Never have I written about a show with such an abundance of blog-worthy themes. This post takes up another major aspect made manifest both in the script and the music:

The dual nature we all exhibit if we live long enough in this troubled and troubling world.

With one exception (an exception explained by a line of recitative), every character in Sweeney Todd is two characters - just like me. And you. "We all deserve to die", Todd bellows in his volcanic solo "Epiphany". That assertion is debatable, but it is true that all of us have aspects of ourselves we display to the world, and other aspects we prefer no one know about.

In Sweeney Todd, even the chorus has two identities. Beginning with the Prologue ("The ballad of Sweeney Todd"), we see them functioning as a Greek chorus, singing commentary on the action as a single unit. Yet at other times they splinter into highly individualized townspeople of London; this one skeptical of Pirelli's elixir, that one buying a bottle.

Of course, The Great Pirelli himself is one of the obvious case-studies in duality. In public, he's babbling in a Chico Marxian "Eye-talian" patois. Privately, he's the Irishman Daniel O'Higgins.

The opening scene of Act I offers a subtle bit of duality. Anthony Hope launches the music with a jaunty song in praise of London, a solo guillotined by Sweeney's impatient interjection. Within a few minutes Todd repeats the opening of "No place like London", but in place of Anthony's youthful gushing optimism, now the words "There's no place like London" carry the weight of the barber's bitter cynicism.

Even songs can have a dual nature in this work.

That opening scene also introduces us to the Beggar Woman, a figure whose duality has duality! Long before it's confirmed that this deranged homeless creature is Todd's wife Lucy (duality #1), she is depicted flipping randomly between two mental states: now whimpering pitiably, now spewing obscene propositions to the two men.

How about Anthony? Doesn't he ruin my theory? After all, he's pretty much the same "golly-gee whiz" paragon of earnest good will at the end as at his first entrance.

Ah, but Sweeney himself offers the explanation for his lack of duality. "You are young," he sings gravely, "Life has been kind to you. You will learn."

As for Johanna, Anthony's love and Todd's child, in a conventional musical or operetta she would be the ingenue: sweet, young, innocent and endearing.

Hmmm. Well, three out of four ain't bad.

Johanna is damaged; life has not "been kind to her". The ward of Judge Turpin, a prisoner in his house and the current object of his perverse desires, she is agitated to the point of neurosis. It is Johanna who proves capable of violence in the scene of Fogg's Asylum, grabbing the pistol from her lover and shooting a man in cold blood. Yet, at the same time, the audience does find her endearingly charming as well.

One might speculate, as Johanna's neuroses develop and life stops treating Anthony with "kindness", that their fate may eventually be as bleak as that of the rest of the characters.

Of course, our title character, his partner in crime Mrs. Lovett, and his adversary all support the theme of man's duality. Like his former apprentice O'Higgins, Todd has two names. He is Benjamin Barker, an honest tradesman, devoted husband and loving father. He is Sweeney Todd, insane serial murderer.

Sondheim is careful to depict Todd's duality in musical terms as well. In the aforementioned "Epiphany", the music careens crazily from short rhythmic bursts of staccato rage (Who sir? You, sir? No one in the chair, come on!") to long, anguished, unrhymed wails of grief ("And I'll never see Johanna, no, I'll never hug my girl to me").

As for Mrs. Lovett, this one shouldn't even require explanation. She's a chatty scatterbrain. She's a heartless psychopath. When Todd ignores her shy confessions of love in "My Friends" in Act I, Sondheim tricks us into feeling sorry for her in the face of his disregard. But by the time she sings "By the sea" in Act II, we know better, even though Todd continues to ignore her; we've learned that she's the worse monster.

And Turpin fits the mold as well. A distinguished jurist to his neighbors, only Johanna, Todd and Anthony see the persona of sexual deviate he hides from the world. Even his henchman Beadle Bamford alternates from being a responsible community activist ("Glad as always to oblige my friends and neighbors") to enabling Turpin's brutality with brutality of his own.

Finally, even Tobias, the most tragic figure in the piece, will show us two personas. The treachery of Mrs. Lovett will trigger his metamorphosis from good-hearted simplicity (with a dark head of hair) to babbling Avenging Angel with hair shocked white.

You and I are no different, of course. There are aspects of my own nature I keep hidden from the world, and the same is true of you, Faithful Reader. Let's confide in one another, shall we? Let's confess our darker natures! It'll be fun!

You go first.

September 21, 2014

Sondheim's craft: manipulating the song of Death.

Do you like puzzles? If so, you should have been a composer. Composers like to assign themselves puzzles in their projects. For example, Arnold Schoenberg said "Let's see if I can create compelling music using all twelve chromatic tones in the same order without repeating any." Beethoven's challenge in his fifth symphony was to construct a large-scale orchestral work based on just four notes.

Stephen Sondheim is no different. In Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, his challenge was to see how many ways he could employ a four-note motive borrowed from an ancient dirge.

The Requiem Mass of the Catholic Church, or "Mass for the Dead", begins with the "Dies Irae", a centuries-old hymn depicting the Judgement day. Here is the first line, rendered in modern notation:

The Grim Reaper
This tune, austere and bleak as befits the text ("Day of wrath, day of doom" etc.), has been adopted by countless composers in all periods of music history as the Musical Symbol Of Death. Orchestral music, choral music, piano music, and most definitely opera and music theater - there is a long list of quotations of and musical references to the Dies Irae. In many cases, simply the first four notes suffice.  Famous examples of the tune making its way into classical compositions include the Symphonie Fantastique  by Berlioz, the Totentanz by Liszt, both the Variations on a theme of Paganini and The Isle of the Dead  to name two of several by Rachmaninov, and literally many dozens of other major and minor composers. Sheesh, it even appears in John Williams' score for The Empire Strikes Back, for pity's sake.

Now here's what you may never have realized about Sweeney Todd:

Virtually the entire score, from beginning to end, is infused with and dominated by the Dies Irae. It's everywhere. This might come as a shock, since many of the quotations are so subtle that you'd never recognize them even on repeated hearings. But they're there, and it's pretty appropriate when you stop to consider the manner in which death drives the story.

On the one hand, it might sound tedious, repetitious and gloomy to have multiple musical numbers based on the first 4 or 5 notes of the Dies Irae; you might fear that the music would be too academic in nature for a compelling show.

You'd be wrong.

When composers limit themselves; that is, when they set up restrictions in their musical materials ("Rule: you must find ways to use the beginning of the Dies Irae"). it brings out their best in terms of imagination and resourcefulness. Here's a summary of the various ways Sondheim, a genius, manipulates these seemingly unpromising four notes.
  • Right away in "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd", which is the prologue before Act 1, the chorus literally screams the motive following the first two stanzas:
  • When we first meet Mrs. Lovett, she strikes us as an eccentric but likeable old busybody; we will only gradually come to realize what a psychopath she is. But in her first solo, the music gives us a clue. On close examination, the notes below on the words "What's your hurry?" are an upside-down version of the Dies Irae.
  • When Lovett presents Sweeney with his old set of razors, he croons an ecstatic love song to them. The very first four notes are an exact mirror image of the Dies Irae. Notice how the hymn-tune them climbs higher and higher vocally, corresponding to the scheme for vengeance that is now rising in his mind as he sings. The vocal line illustrates how he's thinking: Death is rising for Judge Turpin!
  • When we meet Todd's daughter Joanna, who would be the ingenue in a more conventional musical, her entrance aria "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" has a particularly ingenious manipulation of Dies Irae. The musical death-tune is hidden in the middle of her vocal line in its original form (with a passing-tone inserted between the two syllables of "Irae"). And, with great song-writing craft, it appears when the girl mentions "Night"ingale and "Black"bird:
  • In the scene of Sweeney's shaving contest with "The Great Pirelli", the latter's simple young assistant Toby acts like a carnival barker, drawing a crowd with his sales pitch. Here the back-and-forth oscillation in his patter is generated by the first three notes of Dies Irae. The original form of the D.I. occurs in the third bar:
  • Lovett sings a near-lullaby to Todd when he grows impatient for Turpin to visit his shop in her sly solo "Wait". Here Sondheim is particularly subtle in introducing the Dies Irae; rather than appearing note-to-note, it's the first note of each bar in this excerpt that reveals the tune, allowing for octave transposition on the word "I've":
  • Meanwhile, young Joanna, a most neurotic young lady (with good reason), is making plans with Anthony to elope. In expressing her disgust over Judge Turpin's attentions, she invokes half-serious plans of suicide. Sound like a good opportunity for the Dies Irae? Our fave tune is quoted neatly and on point on the words "I'd rather die":
  • When Turpin finally has a seat in Todd's barber chair, their bantering paen to the fair sex "Pretty women" resembles those chains of paper clips you made as a child; it's nothing but four-note units mainly derived from Dies Irae. It's truly a Song of (Impending) Death:

  • When Turpin makes his angry exit, the frustrated Sweeney erupts in over-the-top musical rage ("Epiphany"). While the low brass in the orchestra snarl out the Dies Irae underneath him,
          Sweeney is growling a vocal line with an inverted Dies Irae on the words "Mrs. Lovett":
  • The witty "A Little Priest" duet for Todd and Lovett reprises the Dies Irae version heard in "Worst Pies", and the Act 2 curtain-raiser "God That's Good" allows Toby to repeat his own D.I., simply substituting pie-centric lyrics in place of elixir rhymes. The next occurrence of note is in Lovett's vacation fantasy "By The Sea", in which the tell-tale oscillation in the opening phrase is the unmistakable sign of the Dies Irae. Here an inverted example is seen on the words "that's the life I covet", with one extra note inserted on "I":
  • This post is getting long, so I'll give you one more example, though there are others. When Toby, who is somewhat related to the Fool of Shakespearean times, naively offers to protect Lovett from Todd; his tragedy is that he senses evil in the latter but not in the former. The Dies Irae chooses the most apt moment to appear, on the words "Demons are prowling":

Bottom line: the score to Sweeney Todd is so saturated with the Dies Irae that it's as if Death itself was a character; a character who, rather than have a solo number to sing, instead inhabits the music of the human players. 

Tedious, repetitious and gloomy? Hardly. In the hands of a master craftsman like Sondheim, the four-notes of the Dies Irae are like a musical chameleon; a "tune of 1000 faces", so to speak. Conveying every affect from bawdy humor to girlish impetuousness to rage to filial love, the Dies Irae lets us know that the Grim Reaper is never far from these doomed (but entertaining!) citizens of London.

September 15, 2014

Rigoletto Todd: the Demon Jester of Mantua Street

Sweeney's daddy? Titta Ruffo as Rigoletto
In my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and other Primates, I wrote some essays about Verdi's middle-period masterwork Rigoletto in advance of Virginia Opera's 2010 production. In one of those, I made the case that the opera was uncannily close in plot points, characters and themes to Stephen Sondheim's musical thriller Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Well, Faithful Readers, it's four years later, and Sweeney and his friends will be making their company debut at the end of the month. I'm sure in the time between these productions I've managed to pick up two or three new readers, so strictly for their benefit I now recap this bit of "compare and contrast". (Also, I'm lazy. Sue me.) See if you think my argument holds water. Or meat pie gravy, as the case may be...

  • Rigoletto was once married to the love of his life, but lost her - a tragedy that haunts him. He sings mournfully about her in the solo "Deh, non parlare al misero", in which he recalls her as an "angel" who showed compassion to such a "lonely, deformed, poor" man as himself.
  • Sweeney Todd was once married to the love of his life, but now believes she is dead. He sings mournfully about her in the solo "There was a barber and his wife", in which he describes her as "virtuous" and himself as "foolish".
  • Rigoletto's sole surviving family member is his daugher Gilda.
  • Sweeney Todd's sole surviving family member is his daughter Joanna.
  • Rigoletto's nemesis is the Duke of Mantua, a serial womanizer whose crude obsession with women belies his wealth and social standing. Rigoletto hates him for having debauched his daughter.
  • Sweeney Todd's nemesis is Judge Turpin, a serial womanizer whose obsession with women belies his wealth and social standing. Todd hates him for having debauched his wife.
  • The Duke of Mantua sings a musical number in which, while praising women, he also objectifies them: "Questo o quella".
  • Judge Turpin sings a musical number (with Todd) in which, while praising women, he also objectifies them: "Pretty women".
  • Rigoletto's bitterness and rage toward his fellow man erupts in a violent solo, "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata".
  • Sweeney Todd's bitterness and rage toward his fellow man erupts in a violent solo, "Epiphany".
  • Rigoletto's thirst for vengeance via murder results in a catastrophe: the unintended killing of his daughter. He collapses in remorse.
  • Sweeney Todd's thirst for vengeance via murder results in a catastrophe: the unintended killing of his wife. He collapses in remorse.
What does all this prove? Mostly, it demonstrates something we already knew: that throughout human history, the traditions of storytelling include archetypes that appear and reappear from one generation to the next.

Second, with apologies to all the 20th-century operas which debut at opera houses, receive a few performances, and ultimately fail to enter the so-called "standard repertoire", one can argue that the entertainment known for the past four hundred years as "opera" has most compellingly been represented by Broadway musicals like Sweeney Todd in modern times. Sweeney's mix of complex, sophisticated music and popular appeal recalls operas like Tosca and Carmen more convincingly than some avant-garde operas I could mention.

Oh, and as a bonus "contrast and compare" not mentioned in 2010's blog post, here's another observation: Sweeney Todd also echoes Rossini's Barber of Seville.  

Think about it: 
  • Joanna is the ward of the elderly Judge Turpin, who keeps her a prisoner in his house and intends to marry her. The dashing sailor Anthony Hope serenades her ("I feel you, Joanna") and vows to steal her away for himself. In Barber,
  • Rosina is the ward of the elderly Doctor Bartolo, who keeps her a prisoner in his house and intends to marry her. The dashing Count Almaviva serenades her ("Ecco ridente") and vows to steal her away for himself.
Gotta love archetypes!

September 7, 2014

Sweeney Todd: the show even “nice people” can love.

I'm thinking of letting my beard grow out....
(photo by Alex 1011)
I’m nice. Are you? I’m sure you are – you look nice. (I’m sure people tell you that all the time.)

Most of my audiences, whether readers of this blog or folks who attend my classes and lectures around Virginia, are made up of refined, educated, well-mannered, civilized and (above all) nice people.

They’re kind to animals. They‘re concerned about foreign affairs and the economy; they vote in national, state and local elections. They recycle. They support local businesses over national chains. They don’t use vulgar language and feel uncomfortable when others do. They watch “Masterpiece Theater” and especially enjoy “Downton Abbey”.

When it comes to movies, they stay away from films with gratuitous graphic sex, violence, car chases and explosions, preferring romantic comedies, substantive dramas and stylish mysteries.

If you fit this general description, then you don’t have to tell me, because I already know what you’re thinking:

You’re not so sure you want to come to see Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Virginia Opera.

You’re pretty sure it’s not nice. You’ve heard about the goings-on in this show. “I don’t think I would like it”, you’re thinking. Homicidal barber? Cannibalism? People eating meat pies with……. with human flesh in them? Who would want to see THAT? Oh sure, maybe some big-city hipsters enjoy that sort of thing, those godless pagans from New York and Boston and L.A.

But this is Virginia – it’s the Bible Belt, for Pete’s sake! We’re simple folk hereabouts. We want our operas with uplifting stories and lovely tunes and tender emotions. “Golly”, you’re thinking, “I sure wish they were doing Puccini instead.”

Yep, you’d be hippy-hoppy-happy if we were staging Tosca. You know – that classic opera containing a torture scene, an attempted rape, two murders and a suicide. Why, it’s practically Mary Poppins.

LISTEN TO ME: Sweeney Todd isn’t what you think it is. It’s a masterpiece and you WILL enjoy it, I promise. This music drama, a hybrid of opera, operetta and musical, is bursting with humanity, humor, pathos, toe-tapping tunes, soaring love music, and tragic destiny.

Let’s confront the gorilla in the room: the whole baking-people-into-meat-pies subject that has you scared and grossed out.

This show is not The Silence of the Lambs. I know you’re wondering why it was necessary to add that element. I mean Tosca killed Scarpia but she didn’t EAT him, right? So let’s consider: why and how is this element present?

One aspect of drama is catharsis; the notion that by vicariously experiencing that which we fear, we rise above our fears and feel spiritually uplifted. The Silence of the Lambs exploits one such fear: that we might experience the horrifying death of being eaten. 

Sweeney turns the tables: what if WE were the (unwitting) cannibals? What if WE unknowingly consumed human flesh? That's another cause for morbidity and dread.

Remember being served “mystery meat” in your school cafeteria? It was brownish-gray, oily, covered in fried breadcrumbs and no one could figure out what it was. And no one has seen Mr. Jackson the Algebra teacher for a few days – you don’t suppose…….??

In Sondheim's music drama, the subject is handled with humor, which drains all the shocking revulsion out of it. The finale of Act I, “A Little Priest”, becomes a vehicle for Stephen Sondheim’s greatest achievement in amusing wordplay as the two principal characters speculate on what priests, lawyers and other professionals might taste like. Far from recoiling in revulsion, you'll chuckle and even belly-laugh.

But there’s a higher purpose in introducing the spectacle of citizens devouring their neighbors.

It’s a metaphor, of course; a metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man. The class system in London was like those food chains we saw depicted as children:a tiny fish eaten by bigger fish,the bigger fish eaten by a giant fish. In nineteenth-century England, each strata of society used (read: “ate”) the class below them for their survival and comfort. Judge Turpin “consumes” Todd and his wife Lucy to satisfy his wanton desires. This is no cheap horror show; it's literature. It's art.

One final reassurance: the music is of immortal quality. Now passionate, now anguished, now bantering, now lush and melodic, now harrowing, now majestic, it is one of Sondheim’s richest, most rewarding scores.

It’s a masterpiece, one which even you nice folks out there will find enhances your life. Don’t stay away. Sweeney Todd is not what you think.

August 31, 2014

Introducing my new website!

Curtain call following Baltimore premiere
of my work Katie Luther: the Opera
I've been composing and arranging music for around two dozen years now. For most of my life I thought of myself as a pianist, not a composer. But nerve damage to my left hand has sidelined my keyboard career, and the list of my works has been growing rapidly the past few years.

When I look in the mirror these days, I'm amazed to see a composer looking back. Not a "great" composer, mind you; not a "master"; not an "immortal". Nope, not me.

Hoo-BOY, am I mortal!!

But a composer nonetheless. So I'm proud to share with you now the launching of a new website featuring and promoting my compositions. You can find it at You are herewith invited to visit anytime.

There you'll find:

  • Lists of my operas, choral & other vocal works, and instrumental works;
  • A schedule of performance dates and locations;
  • Audio samples
  • A gallery of photos
  • Testimonials from musicians
  • Contact information
I'll continue to add material and update the site as new engagements and projects emerge, but in the meantime, we're LIVE, baby!

Now, the 2014-2015 Virginia Opera season will be off and running in about a month, which means my posts about our productions will begin next week. I've got a LOT of cool insights about Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street to share. 

Til then, enjoy my website - bookmark it and share the link with music-lovers. And thanks!

August 25, 2014

America and Italy and their fading national pastimes

You may be under the impression that only American opera companies (such as New York City Opera, San Diego Opera and the Metropolitan Opera) suffer economic hardships in our modern world while their European counterparts, thanks to greater government subsidies, roll along like Ol' Man River.
Baseball: has its day come and gone?

You'd be wrong. Check out this article about the closing of Italy's fourth-largest opera house. Go ahead and read it; I'll wait.

(Dum-de-dum dum dum, tra la la)

You're back! Sad for that community, right?

How could this happen in ITALY, of all places?! I mean, it's the birthplace of opera! Every cab driver from Milan to Messina can sing "La donna è mobile", right? It's their national pastime, right? It's ITALY, for Pete's sake!

Well, let's talk about national pastimes. They aren't what they used to be.

Take the United States. Our national pastime has been said to be baseball ever since Honus Wagner was in diapers. But be honest when was the last time that YOU, Faithful Reader, actually watched a nine-inning game on TV from start to finish? How many managers of major-league teams can you name? Who's the best player on the Kansas City Royals or the Milwaukee Brewers?


The truth is that pro football has largely supplanted baseball as the game Americans obsess over. Football and basketball are what young boys want to play. Look over baseball rosters and you'll see that many of the names are Latino and Asian. African-American players are increasingly rare; where are the Hank Aarons, Willie Mays and Bob Gibsons?

Major-league baseball continues to prosper and will never go away completely. For one thing, the experience of physically going to a ballpark to see a game in person is still a relaxing and wonderful way to spend an afternoon or evening. The food is better than ever, baseball fields are beautiful, and the people-watching is great. I, your Humble Blogger went to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field just four days ago as I write this, and while the game was so dull (Oh, Cubs....) that my mind wandered a lot, I was still glad I went.

So attendance tends, I think, to outstrip TV ratings. Yet the TV revenue is stupendous and helps keep small-market teams like Kansas City and Milwaukee in business.

But overall the luster of baseball has drained away as our collective passion has been transferred to Peyton Manning, and even the NBA stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

This strikes me as an amazingly equivalent parallel to the decline of opera in Italy.  We Americans invented baseball and exported it to the world even as we played it less and less. Italians invented opera around 1597 and developed it into a viable and internationally-loved art form as the decades passed into centuries.

But Italian composers producing great operas in modern times are as uncommon as African-American players wearing a catcher's mask behind the plate.

Quick: name the ten greatest Italian operas composed following the death of Puccini. No fair using Google.

Yeah, that's a tough one. What happened there? Why has the 21st century produced no Bellini, Verdi or Rossini? You do realize, don't you, that (and this is so ironic) it's the Americans who have made recent generations a "Golden Age of New Opera"? Carlisle Floyd, Douglas Moore, Philip Glass, Jake Heggie, Tobias Picker, John Adams, Andr√© Previn, William Bolcolm and too many others to list make this a fact and not an opinion. 

Here's what I bet: I bet that cab drivers in Rome are far more likely to sing Lady Gaga's latest than anything from an opera.

And now the government funding is drying up, which is hardly shocking given the continual crisis-point of the Italian economy. When those who control the purse-strings no longer value the art form, we're entering a ZONE OF UNCERTAINTY. 

I guess the lesson here is: "Don't cling". Don't cling to the past, because society and culture are always changing. Nothing is permanent. Language changes, industries change, technology changes, media change all the time, and on and on. Why shouldn't national pastimes follow suit? Baseball and opera: still regarded with affection in their homelands, but no longer "the big thing".

August 16, 2014

The time Robin Williams sang opera

Robin Williams, baritone
The entertainment world will be processing the tragic death of Robin Williams for some time to come. It's difficult to accept that such a vivid and vibrant life-force can be suddenly and shockingly extinguished like Shakespeare's "brief candle".

This is an opera blog, so I've been thinking about the film Mrs. Doubtfire since the opening sequence features Williams' character singing a big chunk of the aria "Largo al factotum" from The Barber of Seville. I thought that bit was not really effective, and my reasons might shed light on how seldom films allowed us to see all of the actor's genius.

If you ask me, Robin Williams was at his very best in the animated Aladdin from the Disney studios. In this case, the producers were willing to unleash his comedic talent and let him run wild as the Genie. Without the need to adhere to the realities of more scripted comedies with their realistic cinematography, Williams let loose a torrent of improvisation that was manic, helter-skelter, and truly funny. The Disney animators Job #1 was to match him visually, with rapid-fire images keeping pace with the pure volcanic invention of his mind. It worked. In case you've forgotten how well it worked, take a look at this feature from ABC News. After a minute or so of updates concerning the details of his passing, there is a revealing interview with producers and animators of Aladdin demonstrating how they managed to keep pace with his imagination.

Now consider the animated portion of Doubfire, as seen in this YouTube clip. What a clever idea this must have appeared to whoever thought of it: "Hey, how about this: Robin sings that "Figaro Figaro Figaro" number from that Rossini opera for a Warner Brothers-style cartoon. We see him singing it in a studio - in Italian! - while the animation plays in front of him. How cool, am I right? This'll be great!"

Instead, it was a mildly amusing miscalculation. Consider: singing an aria by Rossini, in Italian, with orchestra, is about as scripted as it gets. It's pretty much the opposite of volcanic, manic, helter-skelter improv. The animation may have been clever (although actually pretty standard stuff), but the point is this:

Robin Williams was following the animation, rather than the animation following him. The result, as far as I was concerned, was a middle-aged man standing in front of microphones, singing Rossini badly. You'll pardon me if I don't find bad opera singing to be hi-larious.

The rest of the film made better use of his gifts, there's no question about that. Still, the "Largo al factotum" moment left me feeling uncomfortable, as though something was off-key. When a comedian is a brilliant improviser, we want him riffing ecstatically, not reciting Shakespearean sonnets or reading Walt Whitman or singing a Schubert song cycle.

To use a painting analogy, we want him splattering paint on a canvas, not carefully doing a paint-by-numbers sunset.

I join the rest of the world in mourning his passing. Over the next few weeks I'll make a point of re-visiting my favorite Robin Williams films: The Birdcage, Good Morning, Viet Nam, and even the fascinating drama Insomnia. 

Oh, and if you want to hear what a really gifted singer he could be with the right material, forget Figaro and listen to this clip of "You ain't never had a friend like me", the Genie's song from Aladdin. And I mean LISTEN - that is, don't even watch the screen and be distracted by the images. Turn up the volume and marvel at a perfectly good Broadway-style baritone, used with an endless array of vocal colors, incredible energy, remarkable stamina and excellent intonation.

Rest in peace.