Posts Tagged ‘Teresa Stratas’

Great moments in opera: The Bartered Bride

December 5, 2014

Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) was written in the 1860s, and was the first Czech opera to find a worldwide audience — although it took about 20 years following its Czech premiere, and a few translations into German and French, for it to finally catch the ear of the public. It’s an immensely likable piece, with music that is lovely and lively, in a folk-music idiom, and a slight but enjoyable story to tell. Although it is staged fairly frequently and has an extensive discography, I had not heard it until just a few weeks months ago, when I decided to make it the next entry in this ongoing series of unpopular posts.

The story is set in a little Czech village where a young woman, Mařenka (or Maria, in the German version), stares down the prospect of an arranged marriage to a man about whom she knows nothing — save that he is not the man whom she loves. The latter is Jeník, a handsome fellow, not from those parts, and a bit of a layabout. I’ll not belabour all the machinations of the plot, which involve, among other things, a marriage broker, a circus bear, a clutch of village dances, and a wonderfully ambiguous marriage contract. In the end all comes out right.

Clips of this opera are few and far between on YouTube, but here are a few. Perhaps the most popular bit of music from The Bartered Bride is the orchestral overture. Personally, it doesn’t do much for me, but I seem to be in a minority. Here is Jiří Bělohlávek leading the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra:

Next we have a section in which the village matchmaker, who will get a fee if Mařenka’s arranged marriage goes through, tries to persuade her paramour Jeník to forget about her. This is a funny clip because the video features Fritz Wunderlich and Kurt Bohme, but the audio features Fritz Wunderlich and Gottlob Frick. Needless to say, they don’t quite line up, but the match is closer than you might expect. English subtitles. I wouldn’t say this is a “great moment” in the strict sense, but it does give a sense of the opera’s flavour:

Here is another clip, featuring two great Canadian singers: Teresa Stratas and Jon Vickers. Stratas sings Mařenka and Vickers sings Vasek, the man whom she is to marry. This scene shows their first meeting: she knows who he is, but he does not know who she is. She tries to convince him that his intended is a nasty piece of work, and that he would be much better with another village girl. Oddly, this is sung in English, and I believe you can also add English subtitles by clicking on the [CC] button at the bottom of the video.

I’ve enjoyed getting acquainted with this opera, and I think I’ll listen to it again.

Great moments in opera: Salome

May 20, 2014

Richard Strauss’ Salome is one of those pieces whose debut was accompanied by so much controversy and vitriol — it was banned in numerous jurisdictions — that its political aspects tend to overshadow its musical aspects. The opera is based on Oscar Wilde’s play, which in turn is based (of course) on the Biblical account of Salome and St. John the Baptist.

The most famously controversial aspect of the work is the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” Salome’s seductive dance before Herod. It was taken as lewd by many in the original audience, and over the intervening century there have been a not-insignificant number of singers who have refused the part on those grounds. To my mind, the more objectionable, because so gruesome, aspect of the opera is Salome’s long monologue with the severed head of St. John, which ends with a sickening kiss. Don’t plan to go for a late night meal after this opera.

Having said that, the subversive elements of the work don’t seem to me to dominate it. Instead, I was surprised at just how, in a sense, conservative the overall arc of the drama is. John the Baptist, in particular, is portrayed as a man of integrity and spiritual authority, towering over (even as he is literally sunk beneath, in a well) the weakly tyrannical figure of Herod and his posturing court. Salome’s numerous attempts to seduce him are met with thunderous rejections, and he dies bravely. There is no question but that Herod, Herodias, Salome, and everyone around them are wicked, and even if the opera wallows too luxuriously in that wickedness, there is at least never any attempt to call evil good.

The fame of Salome may rest principally on its sensational story elements, but the music does much to justify its place in the canon of twentieth-century opera. There was a reason why, one famous night in 1906, Schoenberg, Mahler, Puccini, and other luminaries attended a performance. The music is darkly lovely, coruscating at times, intensely dramatic, making effective and liberal use of dissonance without lapsing into formlessness. It is reasonable, I think, to pair it with Elektra, which followed a few years later; the two works occupy a similarly provocative aesthetic space (which Strauss was later to abandon for more genteel entertainments). It is true that there is little to nothing in the score that qualifies as tuneful or particularly memorable, but the opera was written not to be whistled in the street, but to produce an intense dramatic effect, and in this it largely succeeds, despite the evident thinness of the plot.

Alas, this same deficit of tunefulness impairs my ability to excerpt “great moments”. I shy away from the “Dance of the Seven Veils” because I’ve no wish to advertise lewdness, and that last great monologue by Salome, fine as it is, lasts over 20 minutes, which is surely enough to try the patience of even the most indefatigable and loyal reader.

But here is a happy solution to the problem of how to present the “Dance of the Seven Veils”; we can look at the score:

What does that do for you? I admit it doesn’t do much for me, but then the same could be said for much of Strauss’ strictly orchestral music.

Here is a clip of the final minutes of the opera, showing roughly the last third of Salome’s gory conversation with St. John’s head. It is sung by the wonderful Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas in a (relatively) famous film version of the opera made in the 1970s. She’s lip-syncing, but the voice to which she’s lip-syncing is her own. English subtitles. This gives a reasonably good idea of the “feel” of the opera, and is worth watching through if you’re interested.

To pluck any other “great moments” would be, in this case, to multiply cases to no purpose, for one moment is more or less as good as another. As I said, this opera is not a tunesmith’s workshop. But here is a nice little “Intro to Salome” video produced by Carnegie Hall. I wonder if it contradicts anything I said above?