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ClassicsOnline Home » BEST OF OPERA, VOL. 2
The Best of Opera Vol. 2
Christoph Willibald von Gluck was a figure of great importance in the
operatic reforms of the second half of the eighteenth century that ensured a
greater degree of dramatic realism, notably with his Orfeo ed Euridice of
1762, based on the traditional story of the legendary Greek musician Orpheus and
his beloved Eurydice, bitten by a snake and taken down to the Underworld, from
where, by the power of his music, Orpheus seeks to rescue her. The reported
success of this venture varies. In Gluck's opera, however, Orpheus fails to
observe the command of Pluto, God of the Underworld, not to look round to see if
Eurydice is following him. He looks round and she dies, only to be revived by
Amor, providing the opera with the necessary happy ending. In the famous second
act aria Che farò senz'Euridice Orpheus laments the apparent loss of his
Mozart belongs to a slightly later generation. He realised his ambitions as a
composer of opera primarily during the last ten years of his life, spent in
Vienna. Here he won his first success with a German opera, Die Entführung
aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). Four years later, in 1786,
he embarked on his first collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte in the Italian
comic opera, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), based on a play
from the Figaro trilogy by Beaumarchais in which the servant Figaro helps to
best his master, Count Almaviva. There is a sparkling overture and in the first
act aria Non più andrai Figaro makes fun of the amorous page Cherubino,
whose affections have turned towards the Countess.
The last collaboration between Mozart and da Ponte was Cosi fan
tutte (They all behave the same way), a satire on the fickleness of women,
staged in Vienna relatively briefly in 1790, the year of the death of the
Emperor Joseph II. The lovers Ferrando and Guglielmo resolve to test the loyalty
of their betrothed, Fiordiligi and Dorabella by pretending to go away to the
wars and returning in disguise, each to make overtures to the other's girl,
finally with some success. In the beautiful trio Soave sia il vento (Gently
blow the wind) the two girls, and the cynical master of the plot Don Alfonso,
bid the two men farewell, as they leave, supposedly for the war.
Mozart's German opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) was the last
to be staged in Vienna, in the autumn of 1791, the year of the composer's death.
The masonic plot, by the actor-manager Emanuel Schikaneder, centres on the
ordeals to be undergone by Tamino, a prince, in his search for truth and love in
the shape of his Pamina. Tamino is accompanied by the peasant bird- catcher
Papageno, a rôle taken originally by Schikaneder himself, who announces his
trade and identity in Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja (I am the bird-
The French composer Jacques Offenbach, son of a Cologne cantor, became a
master of light opera in mid-nineteenth century Paris, not least with his parody
of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Les contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of
Hoffmann) was first staged in 1881, the year after its composer's death and is
based on stories by E.T.A.Hoffmann. The famous Barcarolle, a gondolier's
song, sets the scene in the third act in Venice, where Hoffmann is attracted to
the beautiful courtesan Giulietta.
In 1875, Georges Bizet had shocked Paris with his excursion into realism in
the opera Carmen, set in exotic Seville, where the gypsy Carmen seduces
and then discards the soldier Don José, who, in despair, murders her. Carmen's Habanera,
L' amour est un oiseau rebelle (Love is a treacherous bird) charms her
lover, in true Spanish fashion.
Earlier traditions in Italian opera were continued at the beginning of the
nineteenth century by Gioachino Rossini, who enjoyed phenomenal success in the
second decade of the century, followed by a period of further triumph in Paris,
ended by the change of régime there in 1830. Best known of all arias from his
many operas is Figaro's Largo al factotum, from Il Barbiere di
Siviglia, in which the barber Figaro, in a work based on the first of the
Figaro plays of Beaumarchais, announces his aptitude for any task that may come
From the 1840s onwards Verdi came to dominate Italian opera. In La
traviata, derived from a play by the younger Alexandre Dumas, he depicts the
fated love affair of the young Alfredo and Violetta, a popular courtesan, who is
later persuaded by the young man's father to reject him and finally dies in his
arms, after he has learned the truth too late. Their early happiness as lovers
is declared in Un dì felice (A happy day).
La traviata was first staged in 1853. Rigoletto, first staged in
1851, dealt with a harsher subject, the curse of a father, whose daughter has
been wronged, on the court-jester Rigoletto, who has abetted the Duke in his
amorous episodes and eventually loses his own daughter, seduced by the Duke and
then murdered by those Rigoletto had hired to kill his master. The Duke' s La
donna è mobile (Woman is fickle) expresses his view of the sex and is heard
with particular dramatic effect when Rigoletto thinks he has had the Duke
killed, only to hear his voice singing his favourite song.
Verdi wrote his opera Aida, set in ancient Egypt, for the new Cairo
opera- house, where it was staged in 1871. The story is one of love and
jealousy, in which Radames, loved by Aida and victorious over her people, the
enemies of Egypt, is brought to his death, in which she joins him. The
victorious general Radames returns from battle to a triumphal march, an
opportunity for theatrical display.
Alfredo Catalani is best known for his opera La Wally, a work that
deals with the rivalry of the lovers of the woman of the title, Hagenbach and
Gellner. La Wally refuses her father's command to marry the latter, a decision
declared in her first act aria Ebben? ne andrò lontana (Now, let me go).
She and her chosen lover die eventually in an avalanche.
The Dance of the Hours from Amilcare Ponchielli's opera La Gioconda
is the best known excerpt from the work, an entertainment provided by Alvise
Badoero for his guests in the third act of a plot of some complexity, in which
Alvise's wife Laura is La Gioconda's rival for the love of a Genoese prince,
Enzo Grimaldi. All ends predictably unhappily, with the death of La Gioconda and
of her mother.
Operatic realism of another kind was embraced by Giacomo Puccini at the end
of the century. In Che gelida manina (How cold your little hand is), from
La Bohème, the poet Rodolfo first touches the little hand of Mimi, his
neighbour in the Latin Quarter of Paris, where he and his artist friends have as
little money as she. Mimì timidly seeks a light for her candle and then drops
her key on the floor, as the candle flickers out. The two become lovers, but
misundertandings intervene, only to be ended when Mimì is on her consumptive
Un bel dì vedremo (One fine day), from Madama Butterfly, is the
story of the desertion of a young Japanese geisha by the American naval
lieutenant whom she has married and who is the father of her son. He leaves,
only to return with an American wife, and she, in despair at the disappointment
of her long hopes, kills herself. Before Pinkerton's return, however, she had
continued to hope that all would be well, as in this optimistic aria.
Another wronged woman, the singer Tosca, is at the heart of the opera of that
name. She seeks to save her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, who has been
arrested for complicity in the escape of a political prisoner. Allowed the
chance to save her lover by giving herself to the corrupt head of police Scarpia,
she agrees, but murders him once he has signed what seem the necessary papers.
Scarpia had, in fact, deceived her and left orders for Cavaradossi's execution,
which she Witnesses, before leaping to her death from the battlements of the
prison. In Vissi d'arte (I have lived for art), she protests in prayer
her innocence, having given her life, in a way that might seem theologically
unsatisfactory, for her art and for love.
Puccini's opera Manon Lescaut, derived from the novel by the Abbé
prévost, centres on the sad fate of Manon herself, who elopes with the young
Chevalier Des Grieux, only to desert him for the rich old Géronte. Her betrayal
of the latter leads to arrest and transportation to the inhospitable American
desert, where she dies in her lover's arms. In Donna non vidi mai (Never
did I see such a woman) Des Grieux is first struck by the beauty of Manon, while
in the Intermezzo of the third act Manon's imprisonment in Le Havre
before her transportation is reflected.
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