Posts Tagged ‘Giuseppe Verdi’

Around and about

December 19, 2019

A few interesting articles that have come my way in the past month or so:

  • At The New Atlantis, Aaron Kheriaty reviews the recent history of the spread of assisted suicide and euthanasia, with a special eye on how medical societies have aided and abetted the process by assuming a stance of neutrality toward these “procedures”.
  • In physics news, a new experiment in Germany has put an improved upper limit on the mass of neutrinos. For a long time it was thought they might be massless, like photons, but the discovery of neutrino oscillations implied that they must have some non-zero, albeit very tiny mass, and this new result assures us that they weigh no more than about 1/500000 of the mass of an electron. Still, this has interesting implications for cosmology.
  • Also in the physics world: the first detection of gamma-ray bursts by a ground-based telescope. Gamma-ray bursts are amazing astrophysical events that can release in 1 second as much energy as our sun will generate in its entire lifetime.
  • Some months ago, we read The Tale of Genji. A manuscript of a very early copy of a portion of the book was recently discovered.
  • A few years ago a big media splash was made by a study which found that children with religious upbringings were less generous then their unchurched counterparts. Since religion poisons everything, this result was reasonable, right? But it turned out that the data showed no such thing, and the study has been retracted. In fact, the associations of religiosity in childhood with psychological and social health measures generally run the other way.
  • Daniel Kennelly writes an engaging essay marking the 60th anniversary of A Canticle for Leibowitz.
  • At the New York Review of Books, Matthew Aucoin writes a fascinating account of Verdi’s two late Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff.

For an envoi, here is Desdemona’s “Willow Song” from Otello, sung by Rosanna Carteri in a 1950’s television production:

Great moments in opera: Falstaff

April 6, 2014

Falstaff was Verdi’s final opera, written six years after the triumph of Otello, when he was in his late 70s. The subject came as a surprise: it was, if I am not mistaken, Verdi’s first comedy. Although it has not been as popular with audiences as his great tragedies, it is generally considered to be a masterpiece on its own terms.

This opera is prodigiously inventive — indeed, it is almost too full of ideas, restless and fleet of foot as it leaps nimbly from one thing to the next. A beautiful musical line will come up, the sort of thing that in another opera would be lingered over and savoured, but here it makes its appearance and is dropped. The music dashes off to something else. The opera is also notable for the number of ensemble pieces it contains. Mozart, whose comedies had (and still do) set the standard to meet, had laid down an implicit challenge to later composers in his marvellous ensembles, especially the famous septet in Le Nozze di Figaro. Verdi accepts the challenge in Falstaff: there is at least one nonet, and also, if I remember rightly, an octet. They are a lot of fun, full of complicated rhythms banging up against one another.

Something which immediately strikes the listener, maybe especially the non-Italian-speaking listener, is how very wordy this opera is. It is not quite patter songs all the way through, but there is a lot of rapid dialogue, very few melismas, and the rhythms are brisk.

A big question about Falstaff is how faithful its central character is to Shakespeare’s original. Granted, it takes a kind of mad courage to even attempt to adapt this character, widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most miraculous creations, to another medium. If I tried it, I should surely fail. I am not convinced that Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, entirely succeeded either. The basic lineaments are there: Falstaff is a drunk, a womanizer, a spendthrift, with a passion for life and adventure. But Falstaff the invincible comic spirit, the magnanimous heart, the man whom Chesterton described as “shaking with hilarity like a huge jelly, full of the broad farce of the London streets” — I am not sure that he makes an appearance in Verdi’s version. In the DVD performance I watched, I did not see him — this Falstaff was more of a buffoon, rather sadly fallen prey to his own follies — but I am not sure how much of that impression to attribute to the particular production I saw and how much to the opera itself. It’s a question that I leave open for now.

After that rather long preamble, let’s hear a few excerpts from the opera.

Although most of the music of Falstaff is jaunty and hasty and doesn’t try to ravish the listener’s ear, there are two characters, young lovers named Fenton and Nannetta, whose music is always lyrical and romantic. Whenever they open their mouths, and especially when they are together, it is as though we are transported into another world, or another opera (and Verdi has some fun with this later, as we’ll see). But, as with almost every musical idea Falstaff, even these lovely interludes don’t last long. Here are Fenton and Nanetta singing a duet called Bocca baciata non perde ventura; it is over in about 40 s.

The basic story of Act I is that Falstaff, who owes a large tab at the tavern and finds himself penniless, sends love letters to several local women with the hope of seducing them and getting their money. The trouble is that the women in question all know about his duplicity. In this section, which closes Act I, they — and their husbands — all swear to revenge themselves on Falstaff. This nonet is one of the big ensemble numbers of the opera. I apologize that the quality is not great; it goes on for about 2 minutes.

In Act II the women plan to trick Falstaff and they hatch a strategy. The action eventually results in Falstaff’s hiding in a laundry basket which is carried out and dumped into the river, much to Falstaff’s chagrin and everyone else’s amusement.

In the final act, Falstaff is tricked again in an elaborate scheme that involves dressing up as fairies and much besides; I confess I didn’t quite follow all the details. The action takes place outside the town, by an old oak tree, and before Falstaff and the others arrive we have a nice little scene with Fenton and Nannetta. Fenton arrives first, and sings a beautiful aria, as though he were in a bel canto romance and not a Verdian comedy. He sings Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola / (“From my lips, a song of ecstasy flies”), dilating at length on his love for Nannetta. When he finally sings “Lips that are kissed lose none of their allure,” Nannetta enters with a charming answer: “Indeed, they renew it, like the moon.” The two join in a ravishing duet that seems to be building to a glorious climax but — and this is a really nice comic moment — they are interrupted at the last moment by the entrance of another character. The interruption is so abrupt that it is as though the music falls off a cliff. Here it is (with Spanish subtitles, alas); the interruption occurs at 3:30 in this clip:

In the same act Nannetta has a ravishing solo aria, Sul fil d’un soffio etesio, which she sings in the guise of the Fairy Queen, calling the fairies to a dance. Here it is sung by an unnamed soprano, with English subtitles:

But Verdi saves his best for last: the most famous section of Falstaff is the finale, Tutto nel mundo (Everyone in the world). The composer has one final trick up his sleeve: a fugue! I do not know if there are fugues in any of Verdi’s other operas; right now I cannot think of one. In any case, it is a form that is not associated with Italian opera, to put it mildly, and the fact that Verdi reached for it in the final section of his last opera strikes me as quite remarkable. Is it a tribute to Bach, one master to another? Or merely a sparkling musical witticism? Here it is:

Great moments in opera: Don Carlo

January 21, 2014

I am not sure whether this opera is properly called Don Carlo or Don Carlos. It exists in both Italian and French versions, which I think is the origin of the confusion. Verdi’s much-revised piece — there are both five- and four-act versions — is an example of the grandest of grand opera: about four hours long, and plump with international politics, ecclesiastical spectacle, and personal tragedy. As with so many of Verdi’s operas, it was unfamiliar to me until recently; I have both listened to and watched it now as a belated part of my Verdi anniversary observance.

The story is set in sixteenth-century Spain, in the troubled court of Philip II. Philip has recently married Elisabetta, a much younger woman who, unhappily for all concerned, had prior to the marriage been entangled in a romance with the king’s son, Don Carlo. Thus we have a love triangle of the most awkward sort at the heart of the royal family. Sixteenth-century Spain also means the Inquisition, of course, and there is a power-hungry and corrupt Grand Inquisitor to put a lurid face on things. Meanwhile there is political unrest in Spain’s Netherlandish provinces. These three elements — usurped love, Inquisition, and power politics — are the ingredients with which Verdi cooks his stew.

The brightest musical highlight of the opera comes early in the first Act: Don Carlo is reunited with his friend, Rodrigo, who has recently returned from a diplomatic mission to the Netherlands. They sing a rousing duet, Dio, che nell’alma infondere, in which they swear enduring friendship to one another. Here are Placido Domingo and Louis Quilco, with English subtitles:

Later in the first act is a lovely aria sung by Eboli, a third-wheel who is secretly in love with Don Carlo. Her song, Nel giardin del bello (In the garden of war), tells the story of a Moorish king who tries to woo an alluring, veiled beauty who turns out, much to his surprise, to be his wife. It’s a soprano showpiece, sung in this clip by Tatiana Troyanos at the Met, with English subtitles:

This motif of mistaken identity in romance anticipates the opening scene of Act II. Don Carlo has arranged to meet Elisabetta in the palace garden at night, and upon meeting her (as he supposes) he cannot resist professing his love for her. Yet he is mistaken: he has met Eboli, and she wrongly takes his profession of love as intended for her. The mistake realized, Don Carlo rejects her, and she, calling herself “a tigress with a wounded heart”, vows to revenge herself on him. At this point Rodrigo enters the garden and intervenes. What follows is a marvellous trio, sung here by Luciano Pavarotti (Don Carlo), Luciana d’Intino (Eboli), and Paolo Coni (Rodrigo) in Milan. This clip begins with Rodrigo’s entrance; the trio really starts to gather steam about one minute in.

Later in this act we get one of Verdi’s splendid choruses: the scene depicts the preparations for an auto-da-fé, and the unruliness of the crowd is well captured in the music. Probably you’ll recognize the tune. This is a concert performance, and a pretty good one:

I’ll select just one highlight from Act III: King Philip sings Ella giammai m’amò (She never loved me), in which he meditates on the inevitability of death and laments his loveless marriage. This is one of the great arias for bass voice, sung here by Ildar Abdrazakov. I cannot find a version with English subtitles, but the text and translation can be seen here.

Likewise, one highlight from the fourth and final act: Don Carlo must leave Spain to avoid his father’s wrath, and Elisabetta prays for strength to be parted from him forever. As her thoughts turn to France and the early days of their romance, she sings Tu che le vanita conoscesti (You who have known the vanity). Here is a treat: rare footage of Maria Callas singing live!

This is from 1962, so quite late in her career, when she was past her prime, but what a voice! Mesmerizing. (To hear her sing the same aria in 1958, go here. This is a calibre of singing from which one never quite recovers.)

Don Carlo has a dramatic finale which, however, I shall not showcase here. Suffice to say that all the main elements I stressed at the beginning — politics, religion, and tragedy — come together for a conclusion that is ne’er to be forgotten. If you think it ends well, you’ve not seen enough operas.

Great moments in opera: Otello

November 28, 2013

If pressed, I would name Otello as my favourite of Verdi’s operas. It has magnificent music, well-developed characters, and, of course, a great story. Verdi was tempted out of semi-retirement to write it — it followed his previous opera, Aida, by a full sixteen years — and it is amazing to consider that not only had he lost none of his dramatic sense and musical inspiration in the interim but, if anything, both were keener than they had ever been.

The music of Otello is especially impressive. The orchestration is richer and more textured than is typical with Verdi, and the seams between the arias and and the dramatic recitative have been concealed to a greater extent than in his earlier work. There is an expansiveness, a calm breadth in the music that is very seductive. The tragic sensibility which I admired in Simon Boccanegra is present in this opera too, but here it is wedded to a dramatic arc that is without superfluous elements or overly complex machinations, and it is all the more powerful as a result.

This matter of adapting the play for the opera is worth commenting on. It is rare to find a drama that plays well both in the theatre and the opera house: there is no great operatic Hamlet or The Tempest, and few theatre-goers are lining up to see Beaumarchais’s Le Barbier de Séville or Sardou’s La Tosca. Opera is an art that works with big gestures, and is most successful when the stories are relatively clear and the characters relatively simple. This general observation highlights the skill with which Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, adapted Shakespeare’s play. I read that the libretto is just 1/7 the length of the play, yet it contains the essential action, and the central characters — Otello, Desdemona, and Iago — have faithfully inherited their personalities from Shakespeare’s originals. (Perhaps Iago in the opera is not quite so complicated as Iago in the play.) It is one of the best libretti in the repertoire.

Otello has been described as “one long diminuendo“. It begins with a tremendous bang: Otello arrives in Cyprus in the midst of a great storm. The crowd sings a tumultuous chorus, and Otello makes a resounding entrance with a shout of “Esultate!”, celebrating his naval victory over the Turks. It is a wonderful beginning. This clip is from Milan in the late 1970s, with Placido Domingo singing Otello. The lighting is dreadful, and the subtitles are in Italian, but hopefully the rousing start comes through anyway. Otello’s appearance is at about 4:00 in this clip:

Later that evening, Otello and Desdemona are finally left alone to share a gorgeous love duet, Gia nella notte densa (Now in the dark night). It is sung in this clip by Placido Domingo (again) and Anna Netrebko in a concert performance with English subtitles.

In Act II Iago has a very famous aria, Credo in un Dio crudel (I believe in a cruel God), a kind of malicious manifesto in which he gives full vent to his nihilism and self-hatred. Iago in this opera is truly a monster — exaggerated for effect beyond what one could attribute even to Shakespeare’s Iago. In this clip we hear Piero Cappuccilli in an old, fuzzy film, with subtitles. This looks a bit corny; try to squint.

The remainder of Act II is devoted to Iago’s poisoning Otello’s mind with doubts of Desdemona’s fidelity, and early in Act III Otello confronts her. This pivotal dramatic scene is sung here by Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming, with English subtitles:

The fourth and final Act, set in Desdemona’s bedchamber, is as good as opera gets. Desdemona sings a long, unbelievably beautiful section: first the “Willow Song”, and then, as she prepares for bed, Ave Maria. These are among the most celebrated soprano arias in the repertoire. Here is Marina Poplavskaya singing the “Willow Song”; the subtitles are unfortunately in German, but the text with English translation can be seen here.

And here is the same singer with the Ave Maria section; German subtitles again. The text is not the traditional prayer, so you may wish to consult the English translation here.

Soon enough Otello enters the bedchamber and accuses Desdemona of unfaithfulness. The ensuing scene, in all its tragic glory, is quite long but superb; it is the tail-end of the “long diminuendo“. I have had to split it into two parts: in the first, Otello is sung by Placido Domingo and Desdemona by Renee Fleming; there are English subtitles. The second excerpt picks up where the previous one left off, except that Renee Fleming has been replaced by Barbara Frittoli and the English subtitles have disappeared. It is the best I can do. It was also, I dare say, just about the best Verdi could do.

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: Simon Boccanegra

August 10, 2013

My exploration of unfamiliar Verdi operas continues this anniversary year with a viewing of Simon Boccanegra, a middle period work that premiered just a few years after La Traviata. Verdi revised it twenty years later, toward the end of his life, and the revised version is the one normally heard today. It is a dark piece, written mainly for male voices (there is just one female character of any significance), and it is imbued with an imposing sense of tragic doom. Hard to love, perhaps, but impressive while it plays.

The action is set in fourteenth-century Genoa, and concerns the fate of the title character, who is the city’s Doge. The plot is complicated, with several characters appearing at different times under different names. I’ll do my best to sketch a skeleton plot to hang these highlights on.

It opens with a prologue in which several matters of importance occur. Simon Boccanegra has fathered a child out of wedlock with Maria Fiesco yet is prevented from marrying her by her father Joseph. (The child, also named Maria, has subsequently gone missing while in the custody of her nurse.) Caught up in Genoese political turmoil and acclaimed Doge, Boccanegra accepts the position simply in order to secure the power to overrule Maria’s father’s objections to their marriage. On the night of his acclamation, however, Maria dies of an illness. The musical highlight of the prologue is her father’s lament, a bass aria called Il lacerato spirito (The tortured soul). Here is Robert Lloyd, with Spanish subtitles. (Apologies; the feeling comes through in any case.)

Twenty-five years elapse between the prologue and the opening of Act I, and these years are thick with thorns for anyone trying to follow the story. Boccanegra is still the Doge, but Fiesco, being his political opponent and fearing reprisals, has gone into hiding under the assumed name “Andrea Grimaldi”. We learn that the very night on which he fled Genoa, an infant girl was discovered on the grounds of his country retreat, and in the intervening decades he has raised her as his own daughter.

We, the audience, are not surprised to learn that this abandoned child, now grown to a young woman and called Amelia, is in fact Boccanegra’s lost child alluded to in the prologue, but none of the on-stage characters are aware of this initially. Ah, opera!

Amelia’s opening aria, Come in quest’ora bruna (How in this morning light), is a beauty worth lingering over. I suppose the same could be said of the singer: here is Marina Poplavskaya, from the Royal Opera House in London:

By a convenient coincidence, Simon Boccanegra visits the country villa where Amelia lives. In the course of their conversation, she reveals her orphan status and the circumstances which brought her to the care of Andrea Grimaldi. She shows Boccanegra a locket in which she keeps a picture of her mother. Boccanegra is astonished to see a picture of his long-lost love, Maria Fiesco: Amelia is his daughter! Contrived? Sure, but Verdi handles this recognition scene very nicely. Here are Kiri Te Kanawa and Vladimir Chernov, with English subtitles. The scene reaches its climax about 6 minutes in:

In Act II Boccanegra’s life is under threat from several angles: a courtier, Paolo, who was to marry Amelia until Boccanegra, discovering his paternity, forbade it without explanation, wants to assassinate Boccanegra. And another young man, Gabriele, also in love with Amelia, is fiercely jealous of Boccanegra’s newly close relationship with her, misinterpreting it as a romantic liaison. Gabriele, in fact, comes close to murdering Boccanegra, but is stopped at the last moment by Amelia, who explains the nature of their relationship. Together the three of them then sing a lovely trio, Perdon, Amelia… Indomito (Forgive me, Amelia… A wild, jealous love).

Meanwhile, Paolo has quietly poisoned Boccanegra’s drinking water. The final Act follows Boccanegra’s faltering final steps: he reconciles with his old rival Feisco, sees Amelia happily married to Gabriele, and names Gabriele his successor as Doge, but finally succombs. Here is the death scene; we pick it up about 6 minutes from the end:

Simon Boccanegra is not as popular as the majority of Verdi’s mature operas, and I think the principal reason is likely the complications of the plot: even with a synopsis in hand it is sometimes difficult to follow what is happening, much less to clearly understand the various motives of the principal characters as the story progresses. Mind you, an impenetrable plot hasn’t stopped Il Trovatore from being popular. It is also fair to say that the music of Boccanegra is not as winsome as might be hoped. I was, however, greatly taken with its moody, tragic ethos: watched with attention from start to finish it reveals itself as a work of considerable power, and Boccanegra himself is a character of impressive strength and dignity.

Great moments in opera: Luisa Miller

July 8, 2013

Verdi’s Luisa Miller is, I suppose, a peripheral work in the grand scheme of things, but it is awfully good. Though it is usually considered an early work, the point is debatable: it was his fifteenth opera, and the massive triumph of Rigoletto lay just two years in his future.

Luisa is a peasant girl whose heart is captured by Rodolfo, a handsome young man who visits her village. He, for his part, is enraptured with her as well. In the first scene of the opera we have some splendid singing in which they profess their love. Luisa leads off with Lo vidi e’l primo palpito (I saw him and my heart felt its first thrill), and is joined by Rodolfo for a wonderful duet, T’amo d’amor ch’esprimere (I love you with a love that words cannot express). The townspeople eventually join in for a rousing chorus. The whole sequence lasts about six minutes, and they may be my favourite six minutes of the opera; here are Katia Ricciarelli and Placido Domingo, with subtitles:

Naturally, if all was well with this love affair the opera would be over almost before it began. We therefore cast about for a problem, and here it is: unbeknownst to Luisa, Rodolfo is the son of the village’s lord, and his father intends him for a marriage at a higher station.

To derail the love affair, Rodolfo’s father orders Luisa’s father arrested and threatened with death, making his release conditional on Luisa’s writing a letter to Rodolfo denying that she ever loved him. She protests, but buckles under the pressure. Upon receiving the letter, Rodolfo sings a gorgeous song of lament in which he recalls the happy times he and Luisa had shared together. Here is Placido Domingo with Quando le sere al placido (When at evening, at peace); singing does not get much better than this:

At first Rodolfo believes that the letter is false, but when he confronts Luisa and she, inwardly devastated but outwardly resolute, confirms the sentiment of the letter, he is enraged. He secretly poisons a cup of water and, drinking from it himself, offers it to her. After drinking, and realizing that she is about to die, she confesses the truth: she loves him.

Just then, as they are both beginning to falter under the effects of the poison, Luisa’s father returns, a free man, and the three sing a magnificent and heartbreaking trio, Padre, ricevi l’estremo addio (Father, receive my last farewell)… Ah! tu perdona il fallo mio (O, forgive my sin) … O figlia, o vita del cor paterno (O child, life of your father’s heart). A devastating conclusion follows.

Here are Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo, and Sherill Milnes singing this splendid last trio. The man whom Rudolfo kills in the closing moments of this scene is Wurm, a third-wheel who had been seeking Luisa’s hand and had conspired to disrupt the central romance. No subtitles, unfortunately, and neither can I find an English translation of the libretto. Nonetheless, this is too good to pass up:

Great moments in opera: Aida

June 16, 2013

Verdi’s Aida was written fairly late in his life; he was never to write another that matched its popularity. I have a friend who regards it with a certain bemusement as a canonical example of elephantine opera, and this is true to some extent (though, in fairness, the production I watched this week had only elephant tusks, rather than real, whole elephants). It has an exotic setting, in the court of the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, and is plump with pomp and circumstance. But it gives its singers some very beautiful material, and it has a fine, tragic finale.

The story is basically that of a love triangle between Radames, the commander of the Egyptian army, Aida, a servant in the Pharaoh’s household who also happens to be an Ethiopian princess, and Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter. Both Aida and Amneris love Radames, but Radames loves only Aida.
In the first act Radames sings a celebrated aria, Celeste Aida (Heavenly Aida), in which he expresses his love for her. It has one of those gorgeous melodies which, once heard, will be with you for the rest of the day. It is the aria I think of first when I think of this opera. Here is Luciano Pavarotti, senza subtitles:

By Act III Radames has led the Egyptian forces to battle against an invading Ethopian army intent on rescuing Aida, and returned triumphant. Aida sings a beautiful aria of lament: O patria mia, mai più ti rivedrò! (O my country, never more will I see you!) Here is Leontyne Price, con subtitles:

As I said above, the finale of Aida is a show-stopper. Radames falls from grace when his love for Aida is revealed, and he is condemend to death for treason. The Egyptians bury him alive inside a great stone tomb, and as he despairs over his loss of Aida he is surprised to find her in the tomb with him — she had snuck in when she learned of the punishment decreed for him. The opera comes to a close with an amazing trio: Radames and Aida inside the tomb, embracing and declaring their love, and Amneris on the outside, lamenting Radames’ death. Dramatically I find it extremely effective. Much of the music of this scene reprises material heard earlier, so structurally it works well too. Here are Placido Domingo, Aprile Millo, and Dolora Zajick from a 1989 production at the Met:

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: Rigoletto

January 21, 2010

Rigoletto is another of Verdi’s operas that is new to me.  I had known the famous tenor aria “La donna è mobile” (listen), but nothing else — not even the basic story.  This week I watched a Metropolitan Opera production from 1977 starring Placido Domingo, Ileana Cotrubas, and, in the title role, Cornell MacNeil.

Rigoletto is a hunch-backed jester in the court of the Duke of Mantua.  He is not a good man, his physical deformity being an effective image of his moral corruption, but his character is redeemed somewhat by his love for his daughter Gilda, who is now a young woman.  The Duke is a buoyant philanderer who bears more than a passing resemblance to Don Giovanni.  Over the course of the opera we are shown how Rigoletto’s wickedness leads to the destruction of whatever happiness has been his.

I am learning more and more that Verdi took characterization seriously, and he does an excellent job portraying these complex, and mostly unlikable, people.  (The cast is really quite dark: an evil jester, a promiscuous Duke, and a hitman are the three lead male roles.)  Rigoletto is a strong central character, and the roles of the Duke and Gilda are also rounded and interesting.  The story itself is involving, with several excellent scenes, although I thought it was let down by a weak final act.  (Rigoletto’s discovery that the body in the sack is not, in fact, the Duke’s body I thought a disappointingly weak moment, at least in the production I viewed.)

I have selected two episodes to illustrate the musical glories of Rigoletto.  The first is “E il sol dell’anima” (Love is the sun), an Act I duet between the Duke and Gilda.  The Duke’s wandering eye has alighted on Gilda, and in this duet he, disguised as a student, declares his love for her.  After a few moments they hear footsteps approaching and must part.  Here is Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland:

My second selection is a quartet from Act III, “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Fairest daughter of love).  The four singers are Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke, and Maddalena (another of the Duke’s conquests).  This is the closest I have heard any opera composer come to the high standard which Mozart set in his operas for quartets (or quintets, or sextets).  Not only is the music great, but each singer’s contribution remains in character: the Duke is (apparently) gallant, Maddalena is coy and condescending of his advances, Gilda is heart-broken, and Rigoletto is dreaming of revenge.

The best version of this quartet that I have found on YouTube, with Pavarotti singing the Duke, is unfortunately not embeddable, but it can be viewed here.  As a runner-up, here is the quartet from the Metropolitan Opera performance which I viewed.

I enjoyed Rigoletto very much, and am looking forward to hearing it again before too long.