Posts Tagged ‘Angela Gheorghiu’

Great moments in opera: L’Elisir d’Amore

April 28, 2014

After a full year of focusing on the operas of Britten and Verdi, it was with some considerable relief that I turned this month to the Italian bel canto and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) for refreshment and relaxation. I had not heard the opera before, and it fell on my ears like dew upon the grass. There is really nothing like a bel canto comedy for effervescent loveliness. L’Elisir d’Amore has that in abundance, and is furthermore graced with at least one aria that has become a permanent part of the repertoire, but more on that below.

The story is ridiculous: Nemorino is a young man who, spurned by Adina, the young woman on whom his heart has fixed, seeks from a quack physician a love potion that will make him irresistable to her. The potion is worthless, of course, but his guileless and dogged efforts to obtain it convince Adina of his love, and win her heart in the end.

The opera is cast in just two acts. Right away in the first scene we have a lovely aria, Quanto e’ bella (How beautiful she is), in which Nemorino sings of his love for Adina. He laments the fact that she gives him no attention, and wonders how she can be brought around to return his love. Here is Luciano Pavarotti, though without subtitles [Translation]:

A little later in the same scene, Adina sings a nice little aria, Della crudele Isotta (Of the cruel Isolde), in which she reads to the assembled villagers the story of Tristan and Isolde, and of the love potion which drove them both mad with passion. Hearing the tale, which the somewhat rustic Nemorino takes for truth, he is inspired with the thought of obtaining the same potion for himself. Here is the aria, sung by Kathleen Battle, again without subtitles [Text]:

In the next scene we are introduced to Dr Dulcamara, a travelling salesman who pedals marvellous elixirs to gullible peasants. Dulcamara is a con-man and a buffoon, but a somewhat amiable one.

Nemorino approaches Dulcamara and asks for a bottle of Isolde’s love potion. At first Dulcamara doesn’t know what he is asking for, but he catches on quickly enough and sells him the “potion” he seeks (actually, diluted wine). Nemorino drinks it, and waits for its effects to manifest. (In his charming naivete, it doesn’t occur to him that he really ought to get Adina to drink the potion.) The first act closes with a lovely duet for Nemorino and Adina, Esulti pur la barbara (loosely, Let her mock me). Here are Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, with English subtitles:

The action of the second act is mainly concerned with bringing the story to a happy conclusion, albeit with a few bumps along the way. Nemorino is initially disappointed to find that the potion doesn’t seem to be working. His response? To get more of it, of course. To do so, he has to enrol in the army (to get some money), and on and on. There is a comical deus ex machina in the form of a windfall inheritance that comes to Nemorino, but, in a nice twist, neither he nor Adina know about it. The other village girls know, however, and in this chorus, Sara possibile? (Is it possible?), they each decide that they’d like to be his wife. Thus we get a funny sequence in which every village girl except Adina is falling all over Nemorino, much to his confusion and disgust.

Adina sees the affection which the other women are lavishing on Nemorino, and, to her surprise, finds herself feeling jealous. She realizes she loves him, and she turns away in sorrow. He sees her sadness, and with joy realizes the cause. Thus it is that we come to the biggest hit from this opera, the romanza Una furtiva lagrima (A secret tear), in which he gives full voice to his happiness, in glorious fashion. Here is Pavarotti [Translation]:

Needless to say, the two soon find one another’s arms, and the opera comes to a happy conclusion.

Great moments in opera: Un ballo in maschera

October 10, 2013

Today is Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birthday. It seems a good opportunity to continue my exploration of his operas.

Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) premiered in 1859. The theme, about a plot to assassinate a political leader, troubled the censors and Verdi was obliged to make a number of revisions. The version most frequently performed today is set in a polis that could hardly be of interest to anyone — namely, Boston.

The plot grows out of a love triangle between Amelia, her husband Renato, and the governor of Boston, Riccardo, who is in love with Amelia while also counting Renato among his closest friends. Naturally, the situation is a powder keg, and things go as badly as one would expect. There is a subplot about a fortune teller who foresees Riccardo’s fate; though it seems to add nothing specific to the unfolding of the plot itself, it does cast a fatalistic sheen over all. This was something I noted about La Forza del Destino, Verdi’s next opera, as well, so perhaps it was a preoccupation of his at the time.

In the first Act, Riccardo pays a visit to the fortune teller. While waiting to see her, he sings the lovely aria Di’ tu se fedele (Say whether the sea awaits me faithfully), in which he boasts that nothing can prevent his attaining his heart’s desires. Of course, he is asking for trouble. Here is Placido Domingo at Covent Garden in 1975, with English subtitles:

In Act II, Amelia and Riccardo are discovered in a tryst, and she, facing a death sentence for adultery, sings a passionate lament, Morrò, ma prima in grazia (I shall die – but one last wish), in which she begs to see her son once more. It’s a moving few minutes of beautiful song. Here is Angela Gheorghiu in a concert performance, regrettably without subtitles:

The third and final Act is a tour de force. I could simply point to the entire thing, but let me focus on a few particularly good sections. Amelia’s jilted husband, Renato, has joined a conspiracy to kill Riccardo, and they plan to execute the deed at a masked ball. Here is the scene in which they receive their invitations to the ball; I like the contrast here between the perky page who delivers the invitations, singing with dazzling coloratura, and the ominous ruminations of the plotters. Verdi points up the contrast by having the two moods presented first separately and then in combination. I have set both the start and end points for this clip, but if the end marker should fail (as it is doing for me) the excerpt lasts about 4 minutes:

Adding to the pathos of the situation, we next learn that Riccardo has repented his dalliance with Amelia. In Ma se m’è forza perderti (But if I am forced to lose you) he resolves to send Amelia and Renato away in order to sever the adulterous affair. Here the wonderful Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja sings the aria in a concert performance from Royal Albert Hall:

The final scene of the opera is the ball itself. Let’s pick it up near the end: Riccardo is dancing with Amelia and tells her of his decision to send her away. As he does so, Renato approaches and stabs him. Riccardo has one of those easily-parodied death scenes in which his perishing is postponed by repeated obligations to fill an opera house with his beautiful voice, but eventually the knife gets the better of him. A brief final chorus brings the opera to a tragic close; the sequence lasts about 7 minutes. Here are Placido Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli:

Happy birthday, Joe Green!

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: 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.

Great moments in opera: La Traviata

November 25, 2009

For this installment of “Great moments in opera” we turn to Verdi’s La Traviata.  This is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, but I confess that I have not known much about it apart from a few of the big numbers.  This week I listened to it again, paying some attention to the plot.  (The performance I listened to was Maria Callas’ live performance made in Lisbon in 1958, in a newly-surfaced mastering discussed here.  It is terrific!)

I am told that “la traviata” means something like “the fallen woman”. The story is about a love affair between a gallant and wealthy young man and a poor woman with a checkered past.  (Was she a prostitute?  It wasn’t quite clear to me.)  His father disapproves, and they are made to separate.  She dies in the end.  (I’m not giving much away.  Such deaths are de rigeur in opera.)  It is actually a fairly comprehensible plot, as these things go, and there is a real attempt to convey the emotional and psychological difficulty of the situation — not always the case in Italian opera.

The first Act of La Traviata is a tour de force.  Verdi gives us one hit after another: a superb prelude, a rousing opening chorus, and a wonderful opening duet for our heroes (the drinking song “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” [listen]).   The music goes from strength to strength, and the Act closes with one of the most famous of all soprano arias, “Sempre libera”.  At this point in the story our heroine, Violetta, is consumed with a kind of frantic madness, doomed, it seems to her, to a life of hedonism and fleeting pleasures, rather than a deep and abiding love.  Meanwhile Alfredo walks around off-stage singing of his love for her.

I found that the level of inspiration was not as high through the rest of the opera, with too much recitative.  This is almost unavoidable, since one has to tell a story, after all, and Verdi’s duller moments are not half so dull as, for instance, Wagner’s.  Things pick up again as the opera nears its completion, and there is a splendid final scene.

My favourite performance of “Sempre libera” is from an old recording made by Joan Sutherland.  I cannot find that audio online, but here is a good performance by Angela Gheorghiu, complete with subtitles.