Posts Tagged ‘Great moments in opera’

Great moments in opera: Peter Grimes

May 16, 2013

In the minds of many opera lovers, Peter Grimes is held to be Benjamin Britten’s greatest opera. It follows, if the point be granted, that it is among the greatest English-language operas in the whole repertoire (of which there are precious few), and one of the finest of twentieth-century operas. I myself do not grant the original premise — in my mind, it is Billy Budd that takes the palm — but I do agree that Peter Grimes is a work of rare power and depth, with a swirling stew of dramatic themes and a characterful and muscular score.

The story is based on a poem by George Crabbe, but the characterization and dramatic thrust were considerably altered in the course of translation to the operatic stage. Grimes is a fisherman plying his trade, with the help of a young assistant, off the coast of Aldeburgh. Several of Grimes’ assistants have perished on the job in recent years, and he lives under a cloud of suspicion in the small community. In Crabbe’s original version of the story, Grimes is guilty of killing the boys, but Britten’s version is more ambiguous: Grimes is clearly unstable, and sometimes cruel, but his assistants seem to have died in — to use a phrase that appears numerous times in the libretto — “accidental circumstances”. Grimes is nonetheless an outcast, with only one person in the town, Ellen Orford, reaching out to him in friendship. The opera therefore gives Britten an opportunity to explore many themes: social stigma, madness, poverty, justice, friendship, and so on.

Let’s begin at the beginning: the opening scene is one of the most memorable in the work. We join a courtroom inquiry into the death of Grimes’ apprentice, and Grimes himself is just taking the stand. His testimony given and other evidence presented, the boy’s death is ruled accidental, but the townspeople are unconvinced. As the courtroom empties, only Ellen stays behind with Peter, and together they sing what is sometimes called (and what I believe Britten himself called) “the love duet”, though it is an odd love duet indeed. Here is the full scene (about 9 minutes), and embedded below is the “love duet” portion. I like the way it is almost entirely a capella. Note also that Peter and Ellen begin singing in different keys, but gradually converge not only to a common key, but actually to singing together. Pay special attention to the leaping interval (a ninth) when they sing together, “Your voice, out of the pain, is like a hand that I can feel.”; this interval recurs throughout the work at key moments.

For the remaining “great moments” I’ll skip to the final act. Grimes’ latest apprentice, a boy named John, has slipped from atop a wet cliff and fallen to his death, and Ellen, upon finding his sweater washed up on shore, sings a heart-breaking, and very beautiful, song which begins: “Embroidery in childhood was a luxury”. This is certainly among the loveliest moments in the opera; it is sung here by Patricia Racette.

Meanwhile, Grimes has been declining by degrees. A mob of townsfolk, upon learning of the boy’s death, are searching for him, intending harm. For a few minutes he holds the stage to deliver a “mad scene”. Mad scenes have an illustrious history in opera, though they are usually vehicles of dazzling virtuosity for sopranos. Not here: Grimes is breaking down, and the music goes with him. Again, this is largely unaccompanied singing, which has an eerie quality in an opera house.

There exists video of this part being sung by Peter Pears, for whom Britten wrote the role, and so I feel a sort of obligation to link to it: done! Personally I prefer the singing of the great Jon Vickers in this role:

Ellen and an old sailor named Balstrode discover Peter. Ellen attempts to draw him in, but Balstrode instructs him to sail his boat out to sea and sink it. Much had been made of this scene, both musically (for it is the one time in the opera when dialogue is spoken rather than sung, as though to illustrate the low estate to which matters have come) and dramatically (for, if Peter is innocent of harming the boys, why should he accept an unjust death?). It is certainly chillingly effective. Here is Jon Vickers again, in a performance led by Sir Colin Davis; no video per se, but someone has taken the trouble to splice in the sections of the libretto that correspond to the music as it plays:

The clip above will actually carry us through right to the end of the opera. On the morning after Peter sails someone remarks that the coast guard reports a boat sinking off-shore, but too far out for a rescue effort, news which another character dismisses as “one of those rumours”. It brings to an end an immensely sad but humane and thought-provoking masterpiece.

Great moments in opera: Il Trovatore

April 11, 2013

My indispensable old copy of Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book has this to say of Il Trovatore:

The libretto of Il Trovatore is considered the acme of absurdity…

which doesn’t seem a good beginning, but then there is this:

…the popularity of the opera is believed to be entirely due to the almost unbroken melodiousness of Verdi’s score.

And it’s true: the music is glorious, and Il Trovatore (which, incidentally, means “The Troubadour”) is among the most frequently staged operas in the world (ranked, most recently, #21). My initial short list for “great moments” had fifteen items on it, which (you will be happy to know) I have whittled down to just four (or five).

I am not going to try to explain the story. Key events have already taken place when the curtain rises, and, though we do learn about them in a monologue, the opera never really recovers from this misbegotten start. Here is a synopsis; I’ve read it a few times, but it makes little sense to me. In the clips below, therefore, we shall focus on the music rather than the dramatic situations.

The music of the Act II aria Stride la vampa (Upward the flames) is among the most memorable and important in the opera. The principal theme recurs frequently in the score in a variety of guises, and I think of it as something like the “Trovatore theme”. It is sung by Acuzena, an old gypsy woman, and the Aria Database provides this helpful summary: “Azucena describes her mother’s death to Manrico and the crowd of gypsies. Her mother was burned at the stake for being a witch while the ones who falsely convicted her laughed and enjoyed themselves.” I’ll take their word for it:

Act III brings us Di quella pira (Of that pyre), one of the showstopping-est of all tenor arias, the forbidding reputation of which rests principally on the high C which our hero, Manrico, is called upon to deliver. It is interesting to note that the high C was not actually written by Verdi, but was inserted by a young turk in the early days, and now every tenor worth his salt has to add it too. The Kobbe book again: “The tenor who sings the high C in ‘Di quella pira’ without getting red in the face will hardly be credited with having sung it at all.” Here is Pavarotti:

In the fourth and final act we have a famous sequence which consists of a few arias, but which is sometimes grouped together as “Leonora’s scene”. It begins with D’amor sull’ali rosee (On rosy wings of love), a meltingly beautiful aria in which Leonora expresses her love for Manrico. It is followed by a choral chanting of the Miserere, of which my Kobbe Opera Book remarks that it “was for many years … the most popular of all melodies from opera”. It launches Leonora into Tu vedrai (You will see), in which she sings of her determination to remain with Manrico to the end. I gather that Manrico must be in some kind of trouble.

Here is the whole scene, in a concert performance by Anna Netrebko. D’amor sull’ali rosee begins at 3:00 in this clip, but it would be a pity to miss the preceding recitative; the Miserere begins at about 8:00 and Tu vedrai follows hard upon.

In closing, I cannot help linking to a performance of Ai nostri monti (Back to our mountains), a gorgeous duet sung by Manrico and Azucena that seems to indicate that the opera has a happy ending. Here are Placido Domingo and Fiorenza Cossotto:

Great moments in opera: Fidelio

January 21, 2013

Fidelio was Beethoven’s only opera, which was understandable given the trouble he took over it. He laboured, off and on, for over a decade, and in the end three different versions were published. Today it is usually the last of these that is performed.

In an art form in which love affairs are so often paired with jealousy, lust, murder, and all the other outsized elements of grand opera, Fidelio is a notable exception for being a drama in praise of faithful married love. Beethoven, for all his musical innovations and his emblematic role as Enlightenment hero, was no moral revolutionary. Florestan languishes in prison for exposing the corruption of a local authority, and his wife Leonora, disguised as a man and answering to the name “Fidelio”, is trying to gain access to the prison to comfort him. Strange to say, not much happens in the opera’s two-hour span: Leonora eventually does get into the prison just as a threat against Florestan’s life is coming to a head; the one prevents the other, and the couple are reunited and live happily ever after.

Let’s listen first to the Act I quartet Mir ist so wunderbar (How wondrous the feeling). The characters here are Leonora (that is, “Fidelio”), Marcellina (daughter of Florestan’s jailor, and the woman whom “Fidelio” has been courting in order to get close to her husband), Rocco (the jailor), and, toward the end, Jacquino (a third wheel who is genuinely in love with Marcellina). This quartet is written in a canon, so, at least initially, each character has the same melodic line, and they must differentiate their various thoughts and feelings through emphasis and tone. It’s an awfully pretty piece of music. Here it is, with English subtitles, assuming that I can get this video to start and stop where I want:

(Apparently I cannot get it to stop where I want. I want to stop at 23:15.)

Act II opens with what is probably the most famous aria in the opera. For the first time — already half-way through the opera — we see and hear Florestan, confined in his prison cell. He sings a long lament, Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! (God! What darkness here!) It’s a moving few minutes. Here is Ben Heppner; again, I am unable to stop this video at the end of the aria, but it comes to an end somewhere around 1:24:30.

Finally, near the end of the opera there is another lovely quartet in which the various principals reflect on what has happened: Florestan freed, reunited with Leonora, and justice done. It is a pool of quietness before the rousing closing number. It ends at about 1:56:30.


The most popular music in the opera is probably the overture. Personally I don’t care much for it, but I am in a minority. Here it is, Leonard Bernstein conducting:

Finally, a curiosity: here is Walter Berry, a famous mid-century bass-baritone, singing Pizzaro’s aria Ha! welch ein Augenblick (Ha! What a moment). Pizzaro is the evil genius in the opera, the powerful man at the top on whose orders Florestan has been unjustly imprisoned, and in this aria he expresses his determination to have Florestan killed. I post this clip not because it is well sung (though it is) but because I cannot believe how much Berry resembles George Clooney! See if you don’t agree:

Great moments in opera: Love for Three Oranges

November 6, 2012

Sergei Prokofiev’s reputation rests principally on his orchestral and piano music, and until recently I had not felt any particular desire to explore his operas. In any case, The Love for Three Oranges sounded to me like a surrealist work, for which I’ve little patience. While reading Richard Taruskin’s History of Western Music, however, I found that he dwelt at considerable length on this opera, and so I decided to take a look.

It’s not as bad as I’d feared, but not as good as might be hoped. The story is actually quite a lot of fun: it is ultimately derived from a seventeeth-century commedia dell’arte, and retains some of the zaniness of its original. A young prince who has not laughed for years finally gets the giggles when he sees a witch slip and fall. In return, she places a curse on him: he will fall in love with three oranges, and will seek them to the ends of the earth. This he does, and when he finds them, and peels them open, he discovers a beautiful princess inside each one. Unfortunately the princesses are very thirsty, and he hasn’t any water, so two of the three die immediately. The third is saved by a quaint device — which I’ll get to in a moment — and the prince and princess are married.

It is a surrealist opera, in the sense that beautiful princesses clambering out of oranges to sing opera are surreal, but, as Taruskin convincingly argues, it is primarily an ironic — even post-modern — opera, and thus a spiritual progenitor of much that followed. In addition to the characters in the fairy tale, Prokofiev has several groups of observers who wander on and off the stage, commenting on the proceedings, arguing with one another, and even interacting with the conductor and the audience. Thus there is a recurrent breaking of the “fourth wall” dramatic convention. We, as viewers, are continually reminded that we are viewers, and that the actors are actors, and that we’re sitting in a theatre, and that the whole set-up is one great artifice. Perhaps this kind of thing was edgy in 1921, when the opera had its premiere (and Taruskin notes that Prokofiev’s opera actually predated Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which is usually credited with bringing this kind of self-awareness and ironic commentary to the stage), but it has grown stale in the interim.

There is still the music to consider. After watching one DVD production and listening to one CD recording, I can hardly be said to have adequately absorbed the music of the opera, but I can say this: it’s alright. There is nothing that particularly flatters the ear, nor remains long in the memory, but neither is there anything unusually agonizing about it. It is a rough-hewn music, with a good deal of rhythmic verve, but not much in the way of melody.

We won’t, therefore, belabour the search for “great moments”. I have one: this is, it is fair to say, the climactic scene of the opera, in which the third princess emerges from her orange. She complains of thirst, and the Prince is distressed, for they are in a desert and have no water. But then a miracle happens: someone watching the singers from the wings notices that he has a bottle of water, and brings it on-stage for the princess. She drinks, is revived, and turns lovingly to the Prince, setting the stage for a moving love scene, which is, however, interrupted by another group of disgruntled commentators who really wanted to see a tragedy. This clip, though a bit long, illustrates most of what is interesting about the opera, its irony and its self-consciousness, both for better and for worse. This clip is taken from the DVD I watched; the Netherlands Opera is under the direction of Stéphane Denève, and I think that is Sandrine Piau singing the part of the princess:

The most famous music from this opera is actually drawn from the orchestral interludes, which Prokofiev excerpted and arranged into a suite, and the most famous part of the suite is the March. It’s not opera, but it’s pretty good nonetheless:

Great moments in opera: Wozzeck

October 3, 2012

Alban Berg’s harrowing Wozzeck is one of the few twentieth-century operas to have gained a secure place on the stages of the world’s leading opera houses. It inhabits a world of madness, oppression, and murder, and watching it has been a distinctly unpleasant experience. Still, there is, arguably at least, something worthy in it, as attested by its continuing popularity when so many other works have fallen away and been forgotten.

It is possible to argue that its preeminence among twentieth-century operas is due merely to historical priority: premiered in 1925, it was the first opera to be written in the revolutionary “atonal” idiom championed by Berg’s mentor Schoenberg, which idiom still looms sufficiently large in music history that we are bound to remember, and in some sense honour, the major musical statements it made possible. While I don’t think this can entirely account for Wozzeck‘s continuing claim on our attention, I suspect it is not entirely irrelevant.

But Berg’s music for Wozzeck has its own fascinations. Despite its atonality, the music is invested with an impressively intricate structure. There are several leitmotifs, for example, which Berg associates with certain characters and ideas. But more to the point, the music has, famously, been written in a variety of strict classical forms that one normally finds only outside the opera house: passacaglia, fugue, rondo, march, rhapsody, sonata, and so forth. Thus did Berg, though abandoning the central organizing principle of Western music — the tonal system — reach back to formal constraints, sometimes archaic ones, to give himself a frame on which to drape his musical canvas. Whether this was done in sincere reverence or only as an arcane jest is a matter of debate.

An irony is that this compositional rigour is largely hidden from the audience, and was meant to be hidden; even educated listeners who know what is there will have difficulty following it. In his Oxford History of Western Music Richard Taruskin cites this opera as an important instance of a twentieth-century rift between composers and their audience, between the way in which the music is made and the way in which it is experienced. Berg’s virtuosity as a composer becomes in this opera almost his own private possession, not something shared with his audience. There is, at the least, something odd about that. (Though it is worth noting that it is not unprecedented: the great Franco-Flemish masters of polyphony in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries carried on a similar game of cunningly hidden compositional virtuosity.)

The story of Wozzeck is about as bleak and hopeless as even the sourest pessimist could hope for. It is based on a drama by the (posthumously) celebrated German playwright Georg Büchner, and AllMusic provides a nice précis:

Its story is a grim one — a poverty-stricken soldier struggles to support his illegitimate son and the boy’s mother while enduring victimization and humiliation from virtually everyone he encounters, until finally he discovers that his girlfriend has been unfaithful. He murders her, and then, crazed with guilt and apprehension, he drowns while trying to recover the murder weapon from a lake.

In addition to listening to a couple of audio recordings of the opera, I watched a recent DVD performance which had received high praise and which I would advise everyone to avoid like the plague on account of its being hard to follow and thoroughly disgusting. The excerpts below are all taken from a 1970 film version of the opera made by Rolf Liebermann, which I must say looks excellent. I wish I had watched it instead.

What I would like to do in the remainder of this post is dig into the music of Wozzeck a little, mostly with an ear to those ways in which Berg uses the contrast between atonality and tonality (for there are tonal elements here and there) to illuminate the onstage drama. I am learning as I go, and most of what I illustrate below I gleaned from one or another source, principally Volume IV of Taruskin’s Oxford History of English Music and my old copy of Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book.

I will start in Act II, Scene 1, not because nothing of significance occurs in Act I, but because I think I can illustrate everything I have in mind without it. The central action of Act II is that Wozzeck, who is in a relationship with a woman named Marie, with whom he has some years earlier had a child out of wedlock, begins to suspect her of infidelity. In this scene we first meet Marie and the child, living in small, poor quarters. The music in the first few minutes is basically characteristic of the opera as a whole: atonal. Wozzeck enters, and after a few moments he gives Marie some money he has earned. As he does so the music does something extraordinary: the frenzied atmosphere that has heretofore prevailed is quieted, and the orchestra is reduced to a quiet chord, in C major! There is nothing more tonal than a C major chord. That Berg chose to underline this moment, in which Wozzeck performs an act of generosity or simple justice (take your pick), in this way is surely significant. I will defer an attempt at interpretation until later, when we have a little more evidence. The C major chord occurs in this excerpt at 4:18.

The rest of my examples are all taken from the third and final act, in which the jealousy of Wozzeck, and the loosening of his already feeble grip on sanity, reap a harvest of violence. In Scene 1, Marie is at home with her child, reading from the Scriptures. She reads the story of Christ’s mercy toward Mary Magdalene, and she prays for mercy for herself. The music here is again very intriguing: when she reads the holy words, the music is unusually calm and measured. This, I believe, is actually characteristic of the whole opera: there are several occasions on which Scripture is quoted, and on each the music becomes subdued, and sometimes, though not here, even becomes tonal. In this excerpt she reads from Scripture in the first few minutes, and then again at about 3:30.

Scene 2 is one of the most important; it was called by Berg an “Invention on one note”, and that one note was B, as we shall see. The action of this scene has Wozzeck and Marie alone by a pond, and Wozzeck, jealous but also deranged, pulls a knife and murders her. The tension that builds in the prelude to the murder is quite extraordinary. When the deed is done, Wozzeck utters just one word — “Tot.” Dead. — and in that one word is packed a world of sadness and futility. He is like a child who does not understand what he has done.

What of that “one note”? As the two sit together by the pond, Wozzeck mutters threats under his breath, and when Marie asks what he saying he answers “Nothing”, on a B. As he pulls the knife we hear a B, played in six octaves, from the orchestra, and as Marie falls under the knife, calling for help, her screams are also on a B. After the murder, as Wozzeck staggers away, we hear the first of two important orchestral interludes from this Act, which consists simply of two orchestral crescendi on a B, separated by some banging timpani (also tuned to B). To me it is fascinating to see how Berg marks the development of the drama using variations on such a simple idea, not least because the leading principle of atonal composition is that no one note should be any more important than any other.

Here is the scene; the murder occurs at about 4:25.

In the following scene Wozzeck throws the murder weapon into the pond, and then, wishing to retrieve it, wades into the water himself. Two men walk past, remarking on the splashing sound they hear, but then all is silent. Wozzeck has drowned. Berg now launches what is perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most controversial, part of the score: an extended (3 minute) orchestral interlude of great beauty and pathos, in which tonality again returns. Many commentators have remarked that in this interlude it is as though the opera itself is temporarily suspended while Berg, whose music has always been admired for its capacity to express genuine feeling, steps forward to offer a sad, compassionate eulogy for Wozzeck. This excerpt begins where the interlude begins:

Why is this controversial? I believe it is because to devotees of the musical revolution of which Berg was such an important part it looks like a failure of nerve. Atonality was supposed to be a liberation, a way of overcoming the arbitrary, socially constructed conventions that had heretofore governed Western music. Schoenberg famously claimed that children of the future would sing atonal ditties to one another on the playground — in other words, atonality was “just as good” as tonality, and only time and familiarity were needed for it to be accepted as such. Yet Berg, especially in this interlude but also, as we have seen, throughout the opera, seems to deny this claim. When he wants to convey a sense of real human warmth, of honesty, or of goodness, he returns to tonality. This naturally has the effect of casting the rest of the opera, and its musical language, in shadow: in Wozzeck’s world, dominated by abuse, violence, anguish, madness, and horror, atonality is an appropriate, and indeed an especially effective, means of expression, and there is nothing neutral about it. Thus Berg, it seems to me, offers an implicit critique of his own principles and those of his teacher.

And perhaps this is part of the reason why Wozzeck retains its claim on the affection of opera-goers: its music is frenzied and abrasive, but we are not expected to simply grin and bear it. Hearing the opera is not “pleasant”, but neither is it one of those dispiriting re-education exercises in which we are expected to regard our own feelings of anxiety and disgust as somehow illegitimate. The composer is not, in fact, such a stern taskmaster; rather, he is, deep down, on the side of the angels, and his opera is ultimately a humane work of art.

Great moments in opera: Turandot

September 12, 2012

Turandot was Puccini’s last opera; in fact, it was left unfinished at his death in 1924. It departs from the verismo conventions of his other major operas, taking us instead into a mythic Far East where a cruel princess has set a deadly trap for the many suitors who come seeking her hand. It is generally considered one of Puccini’s most successful operas, and with good reason, for it is full of splendid music.

The basic scenario is this: Princess Turandot is determined not to marry, and to each potential suitor who approaches her she proposes three riddles; failure to answer correctly results in death. Enter the young Prince of Tartary who, catching a glimpse of Turandot, falls in love and resolves to seek her hand.

Our first “great moment” is the Act I aria Signore, ascolta! (“Sir, listen!”). Sung by the Prince’s servant-girl Liu, it is her plea that he not attempt to answer the riddles. Liu is secretly in love with the Prince, and for her the Prince’s plan is disastrous on all counts: if he succeeds he marries Turandot, and if he fails he dies. The aria is sung here by the wonderful Montserrat Caballé, in a concert performance that, alas, has no subtitles:

The Prince responds immediately with Non piangere, Liu (“Do not cry, Liu”) in which he reassures her, and asks that she look after his aging father if he (The Prince) should fail to answer the riddles correctly. Together these two arias are a great one-two punch, the likes of which one does not encounter very often. (Another great example of back-to-back hits is the combination of Che gelida manina and Si, mi chiamano Mimi in La bohème.) The aria is sung here by Jose Carreras, with English subtitles and poor video quality:

In Act II we are treated to In questa reggia (“In this kingdom”), Turandot’s first big aria. In it she explains why she sets the deadly riddles for her potential suitors: her ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, was forcibly married to a foreign prince, and for this insult she has herself vowed revenge upon foreign princes, one and all. This motive is, admittedly, either not very noble or not very intelligent, but the music in which it is expressed is gorgeous. Here we have Birgit Nilsson in a 1968 performance, senza subtitles:

Act III brings us an aria that has a fair claim to being the most famous in all of opera: Nessun dorma (“No-one shall sleep”). It is a favourite of tenors the world over, from rotund Italians to broken-toothed Englishman to frizzy-haired rockers, and, admittedly, there is something genuinely spine-tingling about its climax, rising to that stupendous threefold “Vincero!“. By this point in the story the Prince has successfully answered Turandot’s riddles (!), but she, being still unwilling to marry him, has been offered a way out: if she can guess the Prince’s name then he will submit to death; otherwise she must relent and marry him. He sings this aria in the early morning hours of the day she is to deliver her answer, anticipating his victory. Here is Placido Domingo, with English subtitles:

(Another terrific YouTube performance of this aria is by Giuseppe di Stefano, which can be seen here.)

For a final great moment, consider Liu’s Act III aria Tu che di gel sei cinta (“You who are begirdled by ice”). She sings to Turandot, chastising her for her coldness, and foretelling that she too will one day know the power of love. This is Liu’s “suicide aria”; she stabs herself when she’s done. (Turandot, having discovered that Liu knows the Prince, is putting the screws to her in order to force her to divulge his name. Liu kills herself to avoid betraying him.) The singer here is Leona Mitchell, and the aria lasts about 2-1/2 minutes:

It would seem that the Prince’s wooing has done little to thaw Turandot’s icy heart, but following Liu’s death he takes the risk of kissing her, and she warms to his embrace. She agrees to marry him, and thus the opera comes to what is supposed to be a happy finish, though opinions might justly vary as to whether the happiness will outlast the honeymoon.

Great moments in opera: Pelléas et Mélisande

July 25, 2012

Pelléas et Mélisande has some claim to being an anti-opera, for Debussy wrote it in conscious rejection of the German and Italian traditions that dominated the art. Against the German influence, and especially against Wagner, he drained his score of harmonic tension and large-scale musical developments, choosing instead to ravish the ear with timbral beauties that seem to hover, cloud-like, never building up harmonic momentum in any one direction for very long. Against the Italian tradition he abandoned the operatic model of alternating recitatives and arias, and he even, to a large extent, abandoned song: his is a prose opera, in which the singing is a form of heightened speech, supple and flexible, but never overtly “operatic” in the conventional sense.

For all that, it is a masterpiece; certainly I count it among my half-dozen or so favourite operas. Its principal attraction, for me, is the overwhelming beauty of its orchestral score: Debussy had an ear for orchestral colour that few could match, and to my ear he was never better than he is here. Indeed, I believe that the quality of the orchestral playing is the sine qua non for this opera; without a rich, sensual orchestral presence the opera can sound thin and insubstantial. When the playing is good, however, it is an ocean of sound on which I would happily drift for days.

Based on a play of the same name by the symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, the story is of a love triangle between a young woman (Mélisande), her husband (Golaud), and her brother-in-law (Pelléas). It has a quasi-medieval setting, taking place mostly in and around a coastal castle in the mythical kingdom of Allemonde, and the action turns on a few fairy-tale elements – a deep well, a lost ring, a dark cave. The story is told episodically, through a series of somewhat disconnected vignettes, and the drama has (in the opera, at least) a subdued, ominous tone, as if the characters are all, without knowing it, teetering on the edge of a profound and sorrowful disaster. The stage should be dimly lit, the figures emerging from shadows.

Pelléas et Mélisande is at odds with the “Great moments in opera” mentality; there are no grand musical gestures or thrilling high notes. Nonetheless, it is such a wonderful opera that I cannot resist pointing to a few favourite moments.

A key scene opens Act II. Pelléas and Mélisande meet together at a well near the castle. Pelléas questions her about how she met Golaud, and she, apparently wishing to change the subject, removes her wedding ring and begins tossing it into the air. It falls into the well. This clip begins while they are talking at the well; I recommend watching to the end of the scene, which is about 3 minutes altogether.

Pelléas may claim that the ring is unimportant, but the fact is that there is something special about it, for we learn in the next scene that at the moment when it fell into the well, Golaud’s horse, in another part of the woods, frighted and threw him.

When Golaud learns that the ring is lost, and questions Mélisande about it, she lies, telling him that she lost it in a cave near the sea. Golaud demands that she recover it immediately, and so in this scene, which closes Act II, she and Pelléas go to the cave at night. It is a wonderfully eerie scene. There is the hesitation, the fear of the darkness, then a short burst of delight at the beautiful night sky before Mélisande observes three old men, half-starved, sleeping against the cave wall, and retreats. Why does Pelléas want her to search deep into the cave? Why is the sea “unhappy”? The sense of discomforting menace underlying this scene, subtle but unmistakable, illustrates Debussy’s great achievement in this opera. This clip begins, again, about 3 or 4 minutes before the end of the scene:

The opening of Act III features one of the few moments in the opera when a character sings — sings not just in the opera, that is, but in the story. Mélisande, sitting at the window of her tower, is combing her long hair and singing a song. It’s an enchanting melody sung (paradoxically) without orchestral accompaniment. It serves as prelude to a long love scene between Pelléas and Mélisande — I call it the “Rapunzel scene” — in which Pelléas, at the foot of the tower, wraps himself in Mélisande’s hair. But the initial song is over in a minute or two:

There is quite a lot of opera after this point — five Acts in total — but these clips give, I believe, a good flavour for what it is like, and why it is so wonderful. More than most operas, it really ought to be experienced as a whole.

Great moments in opera: Madama Butterfly

April 29, 2012

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas in the repertory, consistently ranking in the top 10 most frequently performed works in the world’s opera houses (though it is only Puccini’s third most popular work, ranking below both La boheme and Tosca!). There is much to like about it: a central character whose faith and fidelity win our admiration even as her misplaced trust brings about her ruin, a touch of Japanese exoticism, and a gorgeous score. The opera premiered in 1904, and was revised several times before assuming its current form in 1907.

Lieutenant Pinkerton is a US Navy man who takes a wife — Butterfly — during an extended stay in Nagasaki. They conceive a child together, but Pinkerton departs soon afterward. The heart of the drama turns on Butterfly’s faithful and patient waiting for his return, which endures for years before being crushed by Pinkerton’s return in the company of his American wife.

The highlight of the first Act is the love duet for Butterfly and Pinkerton, Vogliatemi bene (Love me well). All is well at this point in the story, and the duet is ravishing. It is sung in this concert excerpt by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, with subtitles:

In Act II we have the opera’s musical high point: Butterfly’s heartbreaking aria Un bel di (One beautiful day), in which she dreams of the day when she shall see Pinkerton’s ship return to the harbour, and she shall once again see his face. The great Renata Tebaldi sings it in this clip, without subtitles, but they are hardly necessary in this case:

Pinkerton does return to Nagasaki toward the end of Act II, but in Act III Butterfly learns that he has forsaken her. Retreating into a private room, she takes her family’s ceremonial knife and sings Con onor muore (To die with honour). Blindfolding her child, she stabs herself and collapses on the floor just as Pinkerton rushes in. The finale is sung here by Patricia Racette in a 2009 production from the Met, with English subtitles.

Great moments in opera: Rusalka

April 23, 2012

Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka is among the most popular Czech operas in the repertoire — not that there is a great deal of competition. It premiered in 1901, and though it has apparently enjoyed considerable popularity among Czech speakers in the meantime, I believe that it is only in the last few decades that it has become widely known in wider opera circles.

The story is based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale about a mermaid who falls in love with a man and is granted the opportunity, in exchange for her voice, to leave the sea to gain his love — the same story that inspired the Disney film The Little Mermaid. The resemblances don’t go very deep, however: in Dvořák’s version, Rusalka is betrayed by the prince, kills him with a kiss, and ends the opera as a water demon.

The music of the opera is quite beautiful. There is a good deal of wet and watery music, and Dvořák seems to have given the harp a prominent place in his score, lending it an enchanting quality. The vocal writing is pleasant, if not extremely memorable — with one notable exception: in Act I, when she first falls in love with the man, Rusalka sings the Song to the Moon, which surely ranks as one of the loveliest arias by Dvořák or anyone else. It is a beauty.

It is sung in this video by Anna Netrebko; I have posted this video before, mostly to make fun of it. Nonetheless, beggars cannot be choosers:

Great moments in opera: Manon Lescaut

April 11, 2012

Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s third opera, but it was the first to meet with widespread acclaim and to have earned a secure place in the international repertoire. It inaugurated a decade of triumphs — being followed by La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. The choice of subject was perhaps unusual, not because there was anything odd about adapting an 18th-century novel, but because Massenet had had a success with the same story just a decade earlier. Perhaps Puccini simply thought he could do a better job of it (and all indications are that he would have been right to think so).

The story is that of a doomed love affair. There are three principals. The Chevalier des Grieux falls in love with Manon, but another man, Geronte, far wealthier than Des Grieux, also falls for her.  She, seduced by Geronte’s money and the promise of a life of privilege, agrees to marry him, but does not give her heart. Later, Des Grieux and Manon are caught together by Geronte, who has her thrown in prison — presumably for adultery. Manon is put on a ship, together with a group of prostitutes, bound for the outer darkness (that is, for America). Des Grieux begs leave to accompany her. Upon reaching America, they wander about in a desert (‘near New Orleans’, we are told) until they run out of water and Manon dies.

I had actually never heard the opera before this week. I enjoyed it very much. In fact, I loved it. The music is gorgeous, the singing beautiful, and the melodies graceful and plentiful. I was at no loss to put together a set of ‘great moments’.

We begin in Act I. Des Grieux first sees Manon in the town square and sings a song in praise of her beauty: Donna non vidi mai (Never did I see a woman). Here is Placido Domingo; no subtitles, but the point is clear enough.

In the second Act, Manon is with Geronte, living a life of luxury. Yet she sings a sad song, In quelle trene morbidi (In these silken curtains), in which she reflects on the fact that her wealth does not make her happy, and she longs for love. Here is Kiri Te Kanewa:

My favourite part of the opera, on first hearing, was the finale of Act III, in which Manon is being herded on board the ship bound for America. The scene works very well: Manon is preceded by a sad parade of courtesans under the same sentence, leaving Manon and Des Grieux a few moments to express their grief at the prospect of separation.  After a brief display of foolish bravado, Des Grieux begs to be permitted to go with her, and his wish is finally granted. Here is Domingo again, but this time with Renata Scotto singing Manon. No subtitles, unfortunately. The clip is a bit long, but worth it.

In the fourth and final act, Manon and Des Grieux wander through a blasted landscape (near New Orleans, remember). They sing a passionate, desperate duet, Sei tu che piangi? (Is it you that cries?). Here are Domingo and Te Kanewa again.

Des Grieux goes off in search of water, leaving Manon alone to sing her big, heart-wrenching aria, Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Alone, forsaken, abandoned). It builds to an awful cry of Non voglio morir! (I do not want to die!). Here is Anglea Gheorghiu, in a studio performance. Usually I like to select stage performances for these highlights, but this is too good to pass over.

The opera ends, as I mentioned, with Manon’s death bringing the curtain down. It is terribly sad, of course, but also terribly successful, and Puccini was to use the same formula in his next few operas. About which, more anon.


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