Posts Tagged ‘Roberto Alagna’

Great moments in opera: L’Elisir d’Amore

April 28, 2014

After a full year of focusing on the operas of Britten and Verdi, it was with some considerable relief that I turned this month to the Italian bel canto and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) for refreshment and relaxation. I had not heard the opera before, and it fell on my ears like dew upon the grass. There is really nothing like a bel canto comedy for effervescent loveliness. L’Elisir d’Amore has that in abundance, and is furthermore graced with at least one aria that has become a permanent part of the repertoire, but more on that below.

The story is ridiculous: Nemorino is a young man who, spurned by Adina, the young woman on whom his heart has fixed, seeks from a quack physician a love potion that will make him irresistable to her. The potion is worthless, of course, but his guileless and dogged efforts to obtain it convince Adina of his love, and win her heart in the end.

The opera is cast in just two acts. Right away in the first scene we have a lovely aria, Quanto e’ bella (How beautiful she is), in which Nemorino sings of his love for Adina. He laments the fact that she gives him no attention, and wonders how she can be brought around to return his love. Here is Luciano Pavarotti, though without subtitles [Translation]:

A little later in the same scene, Adina sings a nice little aria, Della crudele Isotta (Of the cruel Isolde), in which she reads to the assembled villagers the story of Tristan and Isolde, and of the love potion which drove them both mad with passion. Hearing the tale, which the somewhat rustic Nemorino takes for truth, he is inspired with the thought of obtaining the same potion for himself. Here is the aria, sung by Kathleen Battle, again without subtitles [Text]:

In the next scene we are introduced to Dr Dulcamara, a travelling salesman who pedals marvellous elixirs to gullible peasants. Dulcamara is a con-man and a buffoon, but a somewhat amiable one.

Nemorino approaches Dulcamara and asks for a bottle of Isolde’s love potion. At first Dulcamara doesn’t know what he is asking for, but he catches on quickly enough and sells him the “potion” he seeks (actually, diluted wine). Nemorino drinks it, and waits for its effects to manifest. (In his charming naivete, it doesn’t occur to him that he really ought to get Adina to drink the potion.) The first act closes with a lovely duet for Nemorino and Adina, Esulti pur la barbara (loosely, Let her mock me). Here are Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, with English subtitles:

The action of the second act is mainly concerned with bringing the story to a happy conclusion, albeit with a few bumps along the way. Nemorino is initially disappointed to find that the potion doesn’t seem to be working. His response? To get more of it, of course. To do so, he has to enrol in the army (to get some money), and on and on. There is a comical deus ex machina in the form of a windfall inheritance that comes to Nemorino, but, in a nice twist, neither he nor Adina know about it. The other village girls know, however, and in this chorus, Sara possibile? (Is it possible?), they each decide that they’d like to be his wife. Thus we get a funny sequence in which every village girl except Adina is falling all over Nemorino, much to his confusion and disgust.

Adina sees the affection which the other women are lavishing on Nemorino, and, to her surprise, finds herself feeling jealous. She realizes she loves him, and she turns away in sorrow. He sees her sadness, and with joy realizes the cause. Thus it is that we come to the biggest hit from this opera, the romanza Una furtiva lagrima (A secret tear), in which he gives full voice to his happiness, in glorious fashion. Here is Pavarotti [Translation]:

Needless to say, the two soon find one another’s arms, and the opera comes to a happy conclusion.

Great moments in opera: Madama Butterfly

April 29, 2012

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas in the repertory, consistently ranking in the top 10 most frequently performed works in the world’s opera houses (though it is only Puccini’s third most popular work, ranking below both La boheme and Tosca!). There is much to like about it: a central character whose faith and fidelity win our admiration even as her misplaced trust brings about her ruin, a touch of Japanese exoticism, and a gorgeous score. The opera premiered in 1904, and was revised several times before assuming its current form in 1907.

Lieutenant Pinkerton is a US Navy man who takes a wife — Butterfly — during an extended stay in Nagasaki. They conceive a child together, but Pinkerton departs soon afterward. The heart of the drama turns on Butterfly’s faithful and patient waiting for his return, which endures for years before being crushed by Pinkerton’s return in the company of his American wife.

The highlight of the first Act is the love duet for Butterfly and Pinkerton, Vogliatemi bene (Love me well). All is well at this point in the story, and the duet is ravishing. It is sung in this concert excerpt by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, with subtitles:

In Act II we have the opera’s musical high point: Butterfly’s heartbreaking aria Un bel di (One beautiful day), in which she dreams of the day when she shall see Pinkerton’s ship return to the harbour, and she shall once again see his face. The great Renata Tebaldi sings it in this clip, without subtitles, but they are hardly necessary in this case:

Pinkerton does return to Nagasaki toward the end of Act II, but in Act III Butterfly learns that he has forsaken her. Retreating into a private room, she takes her family’s ceremonial knife and sings Con onor muore (To die with honour). Blindfolding her child, she stabs herself and collapses on the floor just as Pinkerton rushes in. The finale is sung here by Patricia Racette in a 2009 production from the Met, with English subtitles.

Great moments in opera: Roméo et Juliette

January 6, 2012

Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette had its premiere in Paris in 1867. It is a quite faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, even following the five act structure of its model. Though not an extremely well-known opera, it apparently enjoys greater popularity in France than elsewhere. I had never heard it before sitting down this week with a DVD performance. My first impressions were mixed; it has its beauties, and of course the story is good, but there is something about nineteenth-century French opera (and, for that matter, eighteenth-century and seventeenth-century French opera) that leaves me cool. Nonetheless, a few ‘great moments’ presented themselves.

In the first Act, Romeo and his friends attend the masked ball at the home of the Capulets. When the party has ended, Juliet sings Je veux vivre dans ce rêve (I want to live in this dream), which is sometimes simply called Juliette’s Waltz. It’s a popular recital piece, sung in this clip by Diana Damrau:

Early in the second Act Romeo approaches Juliette’s balcony and sings a lovely cavatina, Ah! Levè-toi soleil (Ah! Arise, fair sun), in which he expresses his love for her. She is inside at the time, and only emerges when the song is completed. Here is a concert performance by Juan Diego Florez:

The burden of Act III is to get the two married, and Act IV opens with the lovers awaking after their wedding night. Naturally, they sing a love duet: Nuit d’hymenee, O douce nuit d’amour (Night hymeneal, O sweet night of love). This goes on for quite a while, but it is pretty. Here are Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna. I believe this production is from the Met. Thank goodness they don’t fall off the bed!

We all know what happens in the final Act. Here is the tragic finale, sung again by Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna, in a clip with English subtitles. This is pretty great:

Great moments in opera: Faust

June 22, 2011

There was a time when Gounod’s Faust was one of the most popular operas in the world. It was the first opera to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and over the years it has been translated into over twenty languages. It has fallen into comparative disfavour in recent decades, but has certainly not vanished. It is, like the poem on which it is based, very much a creature of the nineteenth-century, thriving in those hot vents where Romanticism rubs up against the Enlightenment. I think it is fair to say that the Faust legend does not resonate so strongly with us today as it once did, and perhaps this partly accounts for the slide in popularity.

The source material is Goethe’s Faust, Part I, which focuses on the relationship of Faust and Margaret — a story that was not part of the medieval legend, but was Goethe’s own invention. (It was for this reason, says the Earl of Harewood in his Opera Book, that Germans of his time referred to the opera, rather archly, not as Faust but as Marguerite.) Faust, an old man who laments the futility of the studies to which he has devoted his life, makes a pact with Méphistophélès (Old Scratch himself): in exchange for youth and the fulfillment of his desires he will surrender his soul in the next world. Faust seduces Marguerite, and fathers her child. Abandoned by him, she kills the baby and is imprisoned. The opera ends with Marguerite, repentent, being taken into heaven.

One of Faust’s finest moments, both musically and morally, in which he celebrates the innocence and beauty of Marguerite, occurs in the aria Salut, demeure chaste et pure. This is sung before he seduces her, and he is not to know another such moment of repose and peace again. The aria is sung here by Roberto Alagna in a recent production. English subtitles are included.

Enchanted by Marguerite, Faust instructs Méphistophélès to acquire a gift adequate to her charms. He returns with a jewel chest, which is placed at Marguerite’s door. Discovering it, she sings what is probably the most celebrated music from the opera: the Jewel Song (O Dieu! que de bijoux). It is a virtuoso showpiece, with some tricky vocal flutters and a big finish. Here is Angela Gheorghiu, again with English subtitles:

Faust’s seduction is a success, but when Marguerite’s soldiering brother returns from the front (providing an occasion for a rousing chorus, linked at the top of this post) and discovers that Faust has disgraced her, he challenges Faust to a duel. With Méphistophélès’ help Faust slays his opponent, and Marguerite, in sorrow and terror, retreats to a church to pray. This is the site of the famous “Church scene”, in which Marguerite finds herself at the center of a spiritual war. Here is Angela Gheorghiu again, with Bryn Terfel a terrific Méphistophélès. The clip is quite long, but this is a scene that has won this opera much praise.

The final Act of the opera portrays the lurid Walpurgis Night festival, at which Méphistophélès presides over a carnival of witches and demons. At break of dawn Faust, disgusted, seeks out Marguerite in her prison cell to seek reconciliation. Marguerite, however, has not long to live. As she dies, the heavens open to receive her soul. Here, again, are Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, and Bryn Terfel in the closing minutes of the opera.

Faust is new to me, and as such I am not able to make a confident appraisal of it. I will say that I did not much care for it on first acquaintance. Perhaps part of the problem is that I watched a DVD performance (not the one linked in the clips above) that was just awful: well sung, but badly lit, poorly edited, inertly staged, and so ineptly managed that the story was all but incomprehensible. But I do not think that entirely accounts for my lack of enthusiasm. The music did not really catch my ear, and the opera unfolded rather heavily and slowly. I acknowledge that a great many people disagree with me.