Posts Tagged ‘Placido Domingo’

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: 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: Turandot

September 12, 2012

Turandot was Puccini’s last opera; in fact, it was left unfinished at his death in 1924. It departs from the verismo conventions of his other major operas, taking us instead into a mythic Far East where a cruel princess has set a deadly trap for the many suitors who come seeking her hand. It is generally considered one of Puccini’s most successful operas, and with good reason, for it is full of splendid music.

The basic scenario is this: Princess Turandot is determined not to marry, and to each potential suitor who approaches her she proposes three riddles; failure to answer correctly results in death. Enter the young Prince of Tartary who, catching a glimpse of Turandot, falls in love and resolves to seek her hand.

Our first “great moment” is the Act I aria Signore, ascolta! (“Sir, listen!”). Sung by the Prince’s servant-girl Liu, it is her plea that he not attempt to answer the riddles. Liu is secretly in love with the Prince, and for her the Prince’s plan is disastrous on all counts: if he succeeds he marries Turandot, and if he fails he dies. The aria is sung here by the wonderful Montserrat Caballé, in a concert performance that, alas, has no subtitles:

The Prince responds immediately with Non piangere, Liu (“Do not cry, Liu”) in which he reassures her, and asks that she look after his aging father if he (The Prince) should fail to answer the riddles correctly. Together these two arias are a great one-two punch, the likes of which one does not encounter very often. (Another great example of back-to-back hits is the combination of Che gelida manina and Si, mi chiamano Mimi in La bohème.) The aria is sung here by Jose Carreras, with English subtitles and poor video quality:

In Act II we are treated to In questa reggia (“In this kingdom”), Turandot’s first big aria. In it she explains why she sets the deadly riddles for her potential suitors: her ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, was forcibly married to a foreign prince, and for this insult she has herself vowed revenge upon foreign princes, one and all. This motive is, admittedly, either not very noble or not very intelligent, but the music in which it is expressed is gorgeous. Here we have Birgit Nilsson in a 1968 performance, senza subtitles:

Act III brings us an aria that has a fair claim to being the most famous in all of opera: Nessun dorma (“No-one shall sleep”). It is a favourite of tenors the world over, from rotund Italians to broken-toothed Englishman to frizzy-haired rockers, and, admittedly, there is something genuinely spine-tingling about its climax, rising to that stupendous threefold “Vincero!“. By this point in the story the Prince has successfully answered Turandot’s riddles (!), but she, being still unwilling to marry him, has been offered a way out: if she can guess the Prince’s name then he will submit to death; otherwise she must relent and marry him. He sings this aria in the early morning hours of the day she is to deliver her answer, anticipating his victory. Here is Placido Domingo, with English subtitles:

(Another terrific YouTube performance of this aria is by Giuseppe di Stefano, which can be seen here.)

For a final great moment, consider Liu’s Act III aria Tu che di gel sei cinta (“You who are begirdled by ice”). She sings to Turandot, chastising her for her coldness, and foretelling that she too will one day know the power of love. This is Liu’s “suicide aria”; she stabs herself when she’s done. (Turandot, having discovered that Liu knows the Prince, is putting the screws to her in order to force her to divulge his name. Liu kills herself to avoid betraying him.) The singer here is Leona Mitchell, and the aria lasts about 2-1/2 minutes:

It would seem that the Prince’s wooing has done little to thaw Turandot’s icy heart, but following Liu’s death he takes the risk of kissing her, and she warms to his embrace. She agrees to marry him, and thus the opera comes to what is supposed to be a happy finish, though opinions might justly vary as to whether the happiness will outlast the honeymoon.

Great moments in opera: Manon Lescaut

April 11, 2012

Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s third opera, but it was the first to meet with widespread acclaim and to have earned a secure place in the international repertoire. It inaugurated a decade of triumphs — being followed by La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. The choice of subject was perhaps unusual, not because there was anything odd about adapting an 18th-century novel, but because Massenet had had a success with the same story just a decade earlier. Perhaps Puccini simply thought he could do a better job of it (and all indications are that he would have been right to think so).

The story is that of a doomed love affair. There are three principals. The Chevalier des Grieux falls in love with Manon, but another man, Geronte, far wealthier than Des Grieux, also falls for her.  She, seduced by Geronte’s money and the promise of a life of privilege, agrees to marry him, but does not give her heart. Later, Des Grieux and Manon are caught together by Geronte, who has her thrown in prison — presumably for adultery. Manon is put on a ship, together with a group of prostitutes, bound for the outer darkness (that is, for America). Des Grieux begs leave to accompany her. Upon reaching America, they wander about in a desert (‘near New Orleans’, we are told) until they run out of water and Manon dies.

I had actually never heard the opera before this week. I enjoyed it very much. In fact, I loved it. The music is gorgeous, the singing beautiful, and the melodies graceful and plentiful. I was at no loss to put together a set of ‘great moments’.

We begin in Act I. Des Grieux first sees Manon in the town square and sings a song in praise of her beauty: Donna non vidi mai (Never did I see a woman). Here is Placido Domingo; no subtitles, but the point is clear enough.

In the second Act, Manon is with Geronte, living a life of luxury. Yet she sings a sad song, In quelle trene morbidi (In these silken curtains), in which she reflects on the fact that her wealth does not make her happy, and she longs for love. Here is Kiri Te Kanewa:

My favourite part of the opera, on first hearing, was the finale of Act III, in which Manon is being herded on board the ship bound for America. The scene works very well: Manon is preceded by a sad parade of courtesans under the same sentence, leaving Manon and Des Grieux a few moments to express their grief at the prospect of separation.  After a brief display of foolish bravado, Des Grieux begs to be permitted to go with her, and his wish is finally granted. Here is Domingo again, but this time with Renata Scotto singing Manon. No subtitles, unfortunately. The clip is a bit long, but worth it.

In the fourth and final act, Manon and Des Grieux wander through a blasted landscape (near New Orleans, remember). They sing a passionate, desperate duet, Sei tu che piangi? (Is it you that cries?). Here are Domingo and Te Kanewa again.

Des Grieux goes off in search of water, leaving Manon alone to sing her big, heart-wrenching aria, Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Alone, forsaken, abandoned). It builds to an awful cry of Non voglio morir! (I do not want to die!). Here is Anglea Gheorghiu, in a studio performance. Usually I like to select stage performances for these highlights, but this is too good to pass over.

The opera ends, as I mentioned, with Manon’s death bringing the curtain down. It is terribly sad, of course, but also terribly successful, and Puccini was to use the same formula in his next few operas. About which, more anon.

Great moments in opera: La Fanciulla del West

September 19, 2011

It is not one of Puccini’s best-known operas, and I had never heard La Fanciulla del West until I sat down with a DVD performance this week. It was written mid-career, following a string of almost unbelievably sure-footed successes — Manon Lescaut, La boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. Its 1910 premiere was, appropriately, in America.

Whether because of faltering inspiration, or because Puccini, riding the popular acclaim of his earlier operas, was ready to experiment with something a little less immediately accessible, I am not prepared to say, but La Fanciulla is not built around big, memorable arias, and its charms, which are considerable, are subtler and slighter than is usual with this composer. The singing has at times a conversational quality, and is quite closely integrated into the drama. The orchestration is supple and atmospheric, and does not sound like American country music at all.

The story is set in the American West, during the California goldrush, and takes place in and around an Old West saloon. The central character is Minnie — the only woman in the cast — who presides over the place like a guardian angel, being something of a mother and something of a sweetheart to the rough, discouraged, and lonely men who pass through. She falls in love with an outlaw, Dick Johnson, but their romance hits the rocks when he is discovered by the sheriff — who, not incidentally, is also in love with Minnie. The closing Act of the opera is a dramatic confrontation between a mob, intent on hanging Johnson for his crimes, and Minnie, pleading for mercy and a chance to start again. Remarkably (for Puccini) the opera has a happy ending.

I will add that there is something intrinsically amusing about an opera set in the American West and sung in Italian.

Here is a nice little scene from Act I: the saloon has emptied out and Johnson returns, looking for valuables to steal. He is interrupted by Minnie, who suspects nothing. She explains how content she is with her life on the frontier, but he suggests that perhaps something is missing, the implication being that perhaps he is missing from her life. They creep up to a declaration of love before being interrupted. I like this scene because it builds gently, and it is a good example of the pacing and texture of the opera as a whole. Placido Domingo is Johnson and Barbara Daniels is Minnie, from a Metropolitan Opera production. A dual language libretto is here; this excerpt begins on page 45.

The biggest number in this opera is an Act III aria called “Ch’ella mi creda”. Dick Johnson has been captured and stands at the scaffold preparing for his death. Minnie is, as yet, unaware of his capture, and he begs the crowd never to tell her of his death, but to pretend instead that he escaped. It is a short but passionate aria, splendidly sung here by Placido Domingo:

La Fanciulla del West has a lovely finale, but unfortunately I cannot find a good quality excerpt of it. I’m afraid you’ll just have to go see the whole thing.

Great moments in opera: Lohengrin

February 10, 2010

I am trying to understand what Wagner is getting at in Lohengrin.  It is the story of a mysterious stranger who comes to defend a woman in peril, asserting just one peculiar condition: that she not ask his name.  She agrees, but, poisoned by doubts sown by a jealous rival, she breaks faith with him, and he departs in sorrow.  As he goes, he restores to her a brother who has long been lost in enchantment, which turns her faithlessness, retrospectively, into something of a felix culpa.

There are different ways to read it, I suppose.  The mysterious stranger, walking among the people like a god among men, may represent the romantic Artist, who is in, but not of, the commonplace world.  Or it could be seen as a dramatization of the conflict between Christianity and the dark gods of Germanic lore — a conflict which is explicit in the libretto — and about the ultimate defeat of the latter by the former.  Or the story could be read an an allegory of the Incarnation of Christ, with whom intimacy can only be maintained on the basis of faith.  To be honest, I’m not sure how to see it.  It is always possible that it is a good story, and nothing else, but with Wagner one doubts that such a simple interpretation does justice to his intentions.

The most famous music from Lohengrin is undoubtedly the Act III chorus Treulich Geführt Ziehet Dahin, known in English as “Here Comes the Bride”.  Pride of second place probably goes to the opera’s orchestral prelude, which has become a popular free-standing piece.  I have chosen three other excerpts to highlight here.

In the first Act, Elsa stands accused of murdering her brother in order to secure political power for herself.  The King, seeing that she denies the charge, decrees that the matter should be settled by combat, and asks each side in the dispute to name a champion.  Elsa kneels and, over the beautiful orchestral “Grail music”, she recounts a dream she had of a glorious knight sent from heaven to defend her cause.  (This, of course, is Lohengrin himself, who will shortly arrive on a boat drawn by a swan.)  This aria, Einsam in Trüben Tagen (or, more informally, “Elsa’s Dream”), is a pool of calm, but a rapturous calm.  Here it is, sung by Karita Mattila in a production from the Paris Opera (text with English translation; scroll down):

Lohengrin does appear, and he does vindicate Elsa, and in consequence he obtains her hand in marriage.  As the wedding approaches, however, Elsa’s enemies are working hard to destroy her happiness.  Lohengrin has said that no-one, not even Elsa, may ask his name or where he comes from, and this odd condition is used as leverage to sow doubt in Elsa’s mind about the fidelity and goodness of her champion.  The wedding takes place in any case, and the two lovers retire to their bed chamber, where they sing a gorgeous and tender love duet, Das süße Lied verhallt.  This marital harmony is soon to be destroyed by Elsa’s doubts, but it is beautiful while it lasts.  Here is the duet, sung by Placido Domingo and Cheryl Studer in a 1990 production from Vienna (text with English translation):

Before long, Elsa begins to question Lohengrin about his name and his provenance, and so, in keeping with his original conditions, Lohengrin prepares to depart forever.  Before he goes he sings a “spill the beans” aria, In Fernen Land, in which he reveals to everyone that he is the son of Parsifal, and a Knight of the Holy Grail.  The tremendous power of his knightly order is effective only as long as its source — the Grail itself — remains a secret.  His name, he says, is Lohengrin.  This aria has a claim to be the dramatic high point of the opera, and it is a musical high point as well.  Listen especially to the section in which he speaks his name for the first time (at about the 5 minute mark in this excerpt).  Here is the aria, sung by Paul Frey at a Bayreuth production (text with English translation; scroll down):

Of the Wagner operas — or “music dramas”, as he preferred — that I have heard, Lohengrin is among my favourites.  The music is sometimes very grand, but not tipping over into bombast, and it is illuminated from within by a shimmering beauty.  I enjoyed revisiting it very much.  I watched a DVD performance of Lohengrin from the Metropolitan Opera, with Peter Hofmann singing Lohengrin, and I listened again to the famous recording made by Rudolf Kempe in 1963.  Both were excellent.