Posts Tagged ‘Great moments in opera’

Great moments in opera: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

November 5, 2013

Part of the fun of revisiting Britten’s operas this anniversary year has been to see whether my previous opinions — sometimes formed on slight acquaintance — are confirmed or upended. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I was disappointed to be disappointed by The Turn of the Screw, which I had thought I would enjoy more than I did. But then here comes Britten’s operatic setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to restore the balance: I had thought (based on a live performance I saw about ten years ago) that it was a pleasant but fairly peripheral work, but now, after spending time with a few recordings, I am close to bursting with enthusiasm. Well, at least I find it to be much better than I had remembered.

The piece had its premiere in 1960; Britten himself, with Peter Pears, adapted the piece from Shakespeare, and the libretto is fairly faithful to the beloved original, right down to individual lines. Britten does superb work providing distinctive musical backdrops for the three principal groups of characters: the fairies, the lovers, and the rustics. If I am not mistaken, this was Britten’s only operatic comedy (unless I count the early quasi-opera Paul Bunyan), and the wit comes through brilliantly, especially in the Pyramus and Thisbe section.

As the story is known to everyone, let’s move directly to some musical highlights. Sad to say, but there are only a few video clips available on YouTube; this makes my work easier, but I am not convinced these slim pickings will really allow me to convey the charm of the piece.

Here are the opening few minutes, in which a chorus of fairies sings the famous “Over hill, over dale” lines. The intonation of these young fairies is not all that it might be, but the only other clip I can find is worse. The mercurial quality of the fairy music comes through well:

A little further along in Act I we are introduced to Oberon, whose part is, most unusually, written for a countertenor voice. (Britten wrote it for Alfred Deller, who sang the premiere.) Here he sings “Welcome, wanderer” to Puck. I don’t much like the choreography here — Puck’s movement is too angular and somehow sinister — but it is unlikely that the song could be sung more beautifully (thanks to David Daniels):

Of course, the comedic high point of the opera is the rustics’ staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. It goes on for probably 15 minutes in total, but here is an excerpt which catches some of the humour. (My favourite line — “Now will I to the chink, to spy and I can hear my Thisbe’s face” — is here.) The sound quality could be better:

In the closing scene, the fairies return to the stage to sing (what is in the play) Oberon’s final speech, “Now until the break of day”. This is among Britten’s more beautiful and memorable creations, and it makes a nice finale (save Puck’s final words, which are cut from this clip):

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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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