Posts Tagged ‘Great moments in opera’

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: The Turn of the Screw

September 4, 2013

Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw premiered in 1954, just one year after his ill-received Elizabethan opera Gloriana, and it is generally regarded as a return to fine form. If memory serves, it sticks closely to Henry James’ original, though the reality of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel is less doubtful in the opera than in the story.

It is a chamber opera; Britten asks for just thirteen instruments, including a piano which features prominently in the score (and, at times, in the stage action). Given this scale, the opera is suitable for light, small voices; two of the principal parts are sung by children, after all. I would imagine that it is best seen in a small hall. (I myself have not seen it live.)

From the point of view of its musical material, The Turn of the Screw is virtuosic. Britten generally resisted the allure of Schoenberg and the serialists — which is part of his attractiveness — but the music for this opera is actually based on a twelve-tone row. Britten has furthermore written the music of each scene as a variation on this row, giving the whole work a rare formal unity. Not that one — or, at least, not that I — can hear these subterranean connections.

It has been argued that a thematic thread running through many of Britten’s stage works is that of childhood innocence overcome by the evils of the world. Britten had, throughout his life, a great love for children, composing many works for them to sing and hear, and he seems to have been troubled by the fact that their gaiety and naivety should be marred by contact with the sin and disorder of the world and society. One can see this to some extent in Peter Grimes, in which Grimes’ young assistants suffer at his hands, or in Billy Budd, in which Billy — a child at heart — is entrapped by the envious malevolence of his superior officer.

In any case, the theme of corrupted innocence is certainly present — indeed, it is front and center — in The Turn of the Screw. As if to underline the point, Britten and his librettist make good use of Yeats’ lamenting line: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned”. If anything could serve as a short precis of the story, that would do.


There are few clips from this opera on YouTube, and most are of dismal quality. I did find one, and here it is: after arriving at the country house, the Governess sings of how,  having now met her two young charges, her initial anxieties have been laid to rest. No sooner does she say so than she has her first fleeting encounter with an unexpected presence in the house. The aria is sung here by Sara Hershkowitz:

All that remains on YouTube are larger, unfocused chunks of the opera; I’ll link to one such here, if only to give a better idea of what it sounds like. In this segment, chosen more or less at random, the Governess has just finished sharing with the housekeeper news of her strange encounter (above), and has learned in turn the story of Peter Quint. In this clip she returns to the children, her fears much revived. Miles sings his principal aria (on the theme “Malo”) and then Flora sings her eerie aria on the banks of the manor’s lake. This taken from a 1980s film version of the opera:


As I watched and listened to the opera this week, I found myself pressed to make an unwelcome admission: I do not actually enjoy this opera as much as I would like to, nor even as much as I thought I did. The reasons, I think, are several. Though Britten was rarely a great melodist, the deficiency of memorable musical material here is quite severe; the vocal lines are often very angular and the harmonies often jarring. Arguably this is appropriate to the story Britten is telling, but I found it soured my experience. Could this be related to his effort to structure the music on the basis of a twelve-tone row? I don’t know.

Also, the chamber orchestra is a thin frame on which to hang the music of an opera. I once went to a student performance of Don Giovanni that was remarkably inexpensive, and when I arrived I learned why: it was being performed with piano accompaniment only! Needless to say, something was missing. Obviously the trouble I’m pointing to in Britten’s case is not as severe, but it does tend in that direction: I found myself missing the richer palette of sounds that an orchestra affords.

Finally, I am not convinced that Britten succeeded in conveying the drama of the story effectively. There is something strangely inert about it; the eerie, haunting quality of the original is muted. It is possible that this deficiency is performance-dependent: it bothered me while I was watching a film version of the opera this week, but it has not bothered me previously when I have only listened to the piece. It is hard to say. I would certainly like to have the opportunity to see The Turn of the Screw live on the stage.

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: 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.


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