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ClassicsOnline Home » BEST OF OPERA, VOL. 3
The Best of Opera Vol. 3
Leader of the operatic reform of the later eighteenth century that led to a
greater collaboration of librettist and composer and increased dramatic realism,
Christoph Willibald von Gluck achieved his first success in the new genre in
1762 with Orfeo ed Euridice, a treatment of the traditional story of
Orpheus, legendary musician of the ancient world, and his beloved Eurydice, whom
he tries to bring back from the Underworld by the power of his music. The famous
Dance of the Blessed Spirits in the second act of the opera depicts
something of the mood of the Elysian fields, from which he tries to save
Eurydice, with final success only when Amor intervenes.
Opera in Italy owed much, in the second decade of the nineteenth century, to
Gioachino Rossini, who enjoyed enormous success both at home and in the
following decade in Paris. His opera on the subject of the scheming Figaro, the
barber of Seville, in the opera of that name, Il barbiere di siviglia, the
creation of the French playwright Beaumarchais, is preceded nowadays by an
overture that had already twice served its purpose for other works but which
nevertheless makes a witty and sparkling introduction to the comedy.
Opera in Italy from the 1840s was dominated by Giuseppe Verdi, a composer
associated by many with the political unification of Italy. In La traviata, based
on the play by the younger Alexandre Dumas, he treats the love of Alfredo for
the successful courtesan Violetta, her forced rejection of him and their final
reconciliation on her death-bed. The Prelude to the third act of the
opera introduces the final scene, as Violetta lies ill, still with memories of
her former lover.
Verdi's opera Il trovatore (The Troubadour), was staged in the same
year as La traviata, 1853. Derived from a Spanish original, it deals with
the conflict between Manrico, the troubadour of the title and long lost son of
the Count di Luna and his enemy and, unknown to him, brother, the present Count,
in a tangled story of love, jealousy and gypsy revenge. The famous Anvil
Chorus in the second act is sung by the gypsies at their encampment where
the gypsy woman Azucena, whom Manrico supposes to be his mother, is nursing him
back to health after his duel with his brother.
La forza dei destino (The Force of Destiny) was first staged in 1862.
Again derived from a Spanish original, the opera deals with the workings of
fate, as Alvaro is accidentally instrumental in the death of the father of his
beloved Leonora and therefore suffers the vengeance of her brother Carlo, who
finally kills his sister as he himself lies dying. In Pace, pace, Dio
Leonora, who has assumed disguise as a hermit, prays for a peace of mind she has
never known, before the final dénouernent.
Shakespeare' s Othello provided a basis for an opera by Rossini and,
69 years later, in 1887, for an opera by Verdi. Iago, jealous of his master
Othello, feeds his jealousy of Cassio, whom he supposes to be the lover of his
young wife Desdemona, leading to her murder. Iago tells Othello of Cassio's
dream, a false tale that seems to provide further evidence of Desdemona's
perfidy. Othello, his suspicions further aroused by Iago's production of the
handkerchief, supposedly given to Cassio, swears revenge on his wife.
A leading proponent of operatic realism, Giacomo Puccini won his first
significant success with Manon Lescaut in 1893, followed three years
later by his operatic version of a French novel by Henri Murger in La Bohème,
a work that centres on the love of the poet Rodolfo for the poor seamstress
Mimì, the first open realisation of their love, after their chance meeting in
the attic quarters shared by Rodolfo and his artist friends, declared in his
declaration of love in O soave fanciulla.
Puccini's opera Tosca, based on a French play but with its action set
in Rome, concerns the love of the singer Tosca and the painter Cavaradossi,
implicated in the escape of a political prisoner by the wicked police chief
Baron Scarpia, who, murdered by Tosca, nevertheless is the cause of the lovers'
death. In Recondita armonia Cavaradossi, painting a picture of Mary
Magdalene, based on the appearance of a frequent visitor to the church, compares
this to his beloved Tosca, whose miniature he carries.
Madama Butterfly is a tragedy set in Japan, where an American naval
lieutenant marries a geisha girl in a ceremony that she takes seriously, while
he deserts her, to return with his American wife in a final scene that brings
Butterfly final disillusion and death. The famous Humming Chorus, sung by
an off-stage chorus, ends the first scene of the second act of the opera, as
Butterfly, her servant Suzuki and her son, await in hope the expected return of
Mozart found his first real opportunity for opera after his move to Vienna in
1781, followed by a commissioned German opera and in 1786 by the first of his
collaborations with the poet Lorenzo da Ponte in Le nozze di Figaro (The
Marriage of Figaro) based on the second play of the trilogy by Beaumarchais, the
first of which had served Rossini for his Barber of Seville. This was
followed in 1787 by an opera with da Ponte for Prague, Don Giovanni, a
treatment of the life and loves of the famous Spanish philanderer Don Juan. His
servant Leporello, much put upon, complains of his life and gives a list of his
master's amorous exploits in the Catalogue Aria.
The last of Mozart's operas to be staged was Die Zauberflöte, still
running at the time of the composer's death in the winter of 1791. The masonic
libretto by the actor-manager Emanuel Schikaneder recounts the ordeals undergone
by the foreign prince Tamino before his acceptance into the brotherhood led by
Sarastro and his union with Pamina, whose love has also motivated him. In Ach,
ich fühls Pamina expresses her sorrow at separation from Tamino and at the
predicament in which she finds herself.
The German composer Flotow made a successful career for himself in nineteenth
century Paris. Among his best remembered operas is Martha, otherwise
known as Richmond Fair, a place to which Lady Harriet, under the name of
Martha, and her maid Nancy resort in the guise of country girls, entering the
service of two young farmers, with predictable results. One of the men, Lionel,
sings of his love in M'appari, tutt' amor.
Georges Bizet brought about something of a revolution in the choice of
operatic subject in his final work for the stage, Carmen, first staged in
Paris in 1875. Set in Spain and based on a play by Prosper Mérimée, the opera
deals with the fickle love of the gypsy girl Carmen for the soldier Don José,
whom she soon deserts for the toreador Escamillo, provoking the soldier's
jealousy and her death at his hands. In La fleur que tu m'avais jetée Don
José, in the second act, set in a Seville tavern where Carmen and her smuggler
friends meet, declares his love for Carmen, having kept the flower that she
first threw to him.
Lakmé, set in British India in the nineteenth century centres on the
love of the English officer Gérald for the daughter of a Brahmin priest, Lakmé,
a romance doomed to failure and leading to the latter's self-inflicted death.
The flower- duet, sung by Lakmé and Mallika, in the first act of the opera
marks a moment of particular exotic beauty.
Umberto Giordano was born in Naples and had his greatest success at La Scala
in Milan in 1896 with the opera Andrea Chenier, based on the life of the
French poet of that name, a revolutionary who fell victim to the guillotine,
accompanied in death by his beloved Madeleine. Although the opera is no longer a
major part of present repertoire, the tenor arias Un dì all' azzurro spazio and
Come un bel dì di maggio, with the soprano La mamma mia morta are
well enough known.
Richard Wagner took opera into a very different region, with his creation of
works that brought together all the arts under the creative imagination of one
man, poet, composer, theatre director and designer. The Ride of the Valkyries
marks the opening of the third act of Die Walküre where the
warrior-maidens, daughters of the great Wotan, gather. The opera, the second in
the cycle of The Ring, brings the saga to the death of Siegmund, the
punishment of the Valkyrie Brünnhilde and the birth of Siegfried, subject of
the next drama of the cycle.
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