Posts Tagged ‘James Levine’

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: Parsifal

June 15, 2010

Parsifal was Wagner’s last music-drama, and in many ways it is the artistic culmination of his life, bringing his techniques of musical composition, his love of medieval legend, and his penchant for long, slow musical lines together into what I can only describe as a sublime musical creation.  Debussy called it a “monument of sound”, and he was right.  The music is gorgeously majestic, and, like Lohengrin but to an even greater degree, it seems to be illuminated from within by an intense and pure radiance.  It is among the most beautiful things that I have ever heard.

Most of this beauty is in the orchestra.  The singing does not partake of any of the usual operatic conventions: there are few melodies that remain in the ear, and nothing at all that resembles an “aria”.  The vocal lines are almost uniformly very slow, as though the singers were statues just come to life, and this stateliness is a good match for the on-stage “action”, of which there is not very much.   This unhurried pace, which in some of Wagner’s previous work tended, in my judgement, toward ponderousness, here achieves a kind of rapt intensity and heroic strength.

The story of Parsifal is drawn from Chretien de Troyes, Wolfgang von Eschenbach, and the Welsh Mabinogion.  The Knights of the Holy Grail are tormented by Klingsor, a sorcerer, who has stolen the sacred spear which pierced Christ’s side, and who, by means of an enchanted garden filled with beautiful maidens, seduces any knight who attempts to retrieve it.  Meanwhile, Amfortas, the leader of the knights, has been wounded by this same spear and is racked with pains.  Only another touch from the spear can heal his wound, and a prophecy says that the spear can be retrieved only by a guileless fool.    Accordingly, the knights await him.  Parsifal, of course, is the awaited one.

In Act I, we learn the back story, and we see Parsifal make his first appearance among the knights.  In Act II, he goes to Klingsor’s enchanted garden and there confronts Kundry, the chief seductress who is herself under Klingsor’s spell, and who is one of Wagner’s most complex and interesting characters.  Parsifal overcomes her temptations, finds the spear, and, making with it the sign of the cross, sees Klingsor’s castle collapse into ruin.  In Act III, he returns, after many years, to the knights, and heals Amfortas’ wound with the sacred spear. Parsifal is over four hours in performance.  (Act I alone lasts nearly two hours.)

I am not sure how to interpret this work.  It is full of Christian imagery, with much of the action centered around sacred relics and the Blessed Sacrament.  One of my opera guides says that it depicts the triumph of Christianity over paganism, and this is a plausible — indeed, the most obvious — reading.  It is possible, I think, to appreciate it simply as a particularly effective dramatization of one of the wonderful medieval tales of the knights of the Grail.  On the other hand, one hardly expects a forthright defence of Christianity from Wagner, and there may be something else afoot.  Some sources say that Parsifal is consciously influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer.  That would explain the long section in which one of the characters articulates a view of the world as will and representation.  I jest.

The orchestral prelude to Parsifal introduces many of the central leitmotifs — those of the Sacrament, of the Grail, and of Faith, most notably — and it illustrates very well what I tried to say above about the translucent purity of the music.  The prelude lasts longer than 10 minutes, so too long for a single YouTube clip, but here is the first part of it, conducted by James Levine.  (The remaining part is here.)

One of my favourite scenes is from Act I, in which Parsifal is brought, for the first time, into the great hall of the Knights of the Holy Grail.  The knights themselves then enter, singing a beautiful chorus, and gather around the Grail.  This is really beautiful.  English subtitles are included in this high-quality video of a Bayreuth production:

To illustrate the style of singing that dominates most of Parsifal, consider this lovely scene from Act III.  Parsifal has returned from his long journey, carrying the sacred spear, and he meets the old knight Gurnemanz and a repentant Kundry in a meadow.  It is Good Friday.  This clip is again from Bayreuth, and with English subtitles.  Parsifal is sung by Siegfried Jerusalem, Gurnemanz by Hans Sotin, and Kundry by Eva Randova.  (If you like this scene, it is continued here.)


I believe that I have now completed this survey of all ten of Wagner’s mature operas.  May those who think that it has gone on too long, and those who think that it has gone on too short, forgive me.  May those who think that it has gone on just long enough join me in giving thanks to God.  Amen.