BEST OF OPERA, VOL. 2 (Naxos: 8.553167)
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The Best of Opera Vol. 2
Christoph Willibald von Gluck was a figure of great importance in theoperatic reforms of the second half of the eighteenth century that ensured agreater degree of dramatic realism, notably with his Orfeo ed Euridice of1762, based on the traditional story of the legendary Greek musician Orpheus andhis beloved Eurydice, bitten by a snake and taken down to the Underworld, fromwhere, by the power of his music, Orpheus seeks to rescue her. The reportedsuccess of this venture varies. In Gluck's opera, however, Orpheus fails toobserve the command of Pluto, God of the Underworld, not to look round to see ifEurydice is following him. He looks round and she dies, only to be revived byAmor, providing the opera with the necessary happy ending. In the famous secondact aria Che far?? senz'Euridice Orpheus laments the apparent loss of hisbeloved.
Mozart belongs to a slightly later generation. He realised his ambitions as acomposer of opera primarily during the last ten years of his life, spent inVienna. Here he won his first success with a German opera, Die Entf??hrungaus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). Four years later, in 1786,he embarked on his first collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte in the Italiancomic opera, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), based on a playfrom the Figaro trilogy by Beaumarchais in which the servant Figaro helps tobest his master, Count Almaviva. There is a sparkling overture and in the firstact aria Non pi?? 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 fantutte (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 theEmperor Joseph II. The lovers Ferrando and Guglielmo resolve to test the loyaltyof their betrothed, Fiordiligi and Dorabella by pretending to go away to thewars 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 (Gentlyblow 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 Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) was the lastto 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 theordeals to be undergone by Tamino, a prince, in his search for truth and love inthe shape of his Pamina. Tamino is accompanied by the peasant bird- catcherPapageno, a r??le taken originally by Schikaneder himself, who announces histrade and identity in Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja (I am the bird-catcher).
The French composer Jacques Offenbach, son of a Cologne cantor, became amaster of light opera in mid-nineteenth century Paris, not least with his parodyof Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Les contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales ofHoffmann) was first staged in 1881, the year after its composer's death and isbased on stories by E.T.A.Hoffmann. The famous Barcarolle, a gondolier'ssong, sets the scene in the third act in Venice, where Hoffmann is attracted tothe beautiful courtesan Giulietta.
In 1875, Georges Bizet had shocked Paris with his excursion into realism inthe opera Carmen, set in exotic Seville, where the gypsy Carmen seducesand then discards the soldier Don Jose, who, in despair, murders her. Carmen's Habanera,L' amour est un oiseau rebelle (Love is a treacherous bird) charms herlover, in true Spanish fashion.
Earlier traditions in Italian opera were continued at the beginning of thenineteenth century by Gioachino Rossini, who enjoyed phenomenal success in thesecond decade of the century, followed by a period of further triumph in Paris,ended by the change of regime there in 1830. Best known of all arias from hismany operas is Figaro's Largo al factotum, from Il Barbiere diSiviglia, in which the barber Figaro, in a work based on the first of theFigaro plays of Beaumarchais, announces his aptitude for any task that may cometo hand.
From the 1840s onwards Verdi came to dominate Italian opera. In Latraviata, derived from a play by the younger Alexandre Dumas, he depicts thefated love affair of the young Alfredo and Violetta, a popular courtesan, who islater persuaded by the young man's father to reject him and finally dies in hisarms, after he has learned the truth too late. Their early happiness as loversis declared in Un d?¼ felice (A happy day).
La traviata was first staged in 1853. Rigoletto, first staged in1851, dealt with a harsher subject, the curse of a father, whose daughter hasbeen wronged, on the court-jester Rigoletto, who has abetted the Duke in hisamorous episodes and eventually loses his own daughter, seduced by the Duke andthen murdered by those Rigoletto had hired to kill his master. The Duke' s Ladonna ?¿ mobile (Woman is fickle) expresses his view of the sex and is heardwith particular dramatic effect when Rigoletto thinks he has had the Dukekilled, only to hear his voice singing his favourite song.
Verdi wrote his opera Aida, set in ancient Egypt, for the new Cairoopera- house, where it was staged in 1871. The story is one of love andjealousy, in which Radames, loved by Aida and victorious over her people, theenemies of Egypt, is brought to his death, in which she joins him. Thevictorious general Radames returns from battle to a triumphal march, anopportunity for theatrical display.
Alfredo Catalani is best known for his opera La Wally, a work thatdeals with the rivalry of the lovers of the woman of the title, Hagenbach andGellner. La Wally refuses her father's command to marry the latter, a decisiondeclared in her first act aria Ebben? ne andr?? 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 Giocondais the best known excerpt from the work, an entertainment provided by AlviseBadoero for his guests in the third act of a plot of some complexity, in whichAlvise'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 andof her mother.
Operatic realism of another kind was embraced by Giacomo Puccini at the endof the century. In Che gelida manina (How cold your little hand is), fromLa Boh?¿me, the poet Rodolfo first touches the little hand of Mimi, hisneighbour in the Latin Quarter of Paris, where he and his artist friends have aslittle money as she. Mim?¼ timidly seeks a light for her candle and then dropsher key on the floor, as the candle flickers out. The two become lovers, butmisundertandings intervene, only to be ended when Mim?¼ is on her consumptivedeathbed.
Un bel d?¼ vedremo (One fine day), from Madama Butterfly, is thestory of the desertion of a young Japanese geisha by the American navallieutenant 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 disappointmentof her long hopes, kills herself. Before Pinkerton's return, however, she hadcontinued to hope that all would be well, as in this optimistic aria.