BEST OF OPERA, VOL. 3
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The Best of Opera Vol. 3
Leader of the operatic reform of the later eighteenth century that led to agreater collaboration of librettist and composer and increased dramatic realism,Christoph Willibald von Gluck achieved his first success in the new genre in1762 with Orfeo ed Euridice, a treatment of the traditional story ofOrpheus, legendary musician of the ancient world, and his beloved Eurydice, whomhe tries to bring back from the Underworld by the power of his music. The famousDance of the Blessed Spirits in the second act of the opera depictssomething of the mood of the Elysian fields, from which he tries to saveEurydice, with final success only when Amor intervenes.
Opera in Italy owed much, in the second decade of the nineteenth century, toGioachino Rossini, who enjoyed enormous success both at home and in thefollowing decade in Paris. His opera on the subject of the scheming Figaro, thebarber of Seville, in the opera of that name, Il barbiere di siviglia, thecreation of the French playwright Beaumarchais, is preceded nowadays by anoverture that had already twice served its purpose for other works but whichnevertheless makes a witty and sparkling introduction to the comedy.
Opera in Italy from the 1840s was dominated by Giuseppe Verdi, a composerassociated by many with the political unification of Italy. In La traviata, basedon the play by the younger Alexandre Dumas, he treats the love of Alfredo forthe successful courtesan Violetta, her forced rejection of him and their finalreconciliation on her death-bed. The Prelude to the third act of theopera introduces the final scene, as Violetta lies ill, still with memories ofher former lover.
Verdi's opera Il trovatore (The Troubadour), was staged in the sameyear as La traviata, 1853. Derived from a Spanish original, it deals withthe conflict between Manrico, the troubadour of the title and long lost son ofthe 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 AnvilChorus in the second act is sung by the gypsies at their encampment wherethe gypsy woman Azucena, whom Manrico supposes to be his mother, is nursing himback 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 offate, as Alvaro is accidentally instrumental in the death of the father of hisbeloved Leonora and therefore suffers the vengeance of her brother Carlo, whofinally kills his sister as he himself lies dying. In Pace, pace, DioLeonora, who has assumed disguise as a hermit, prays for a peace of mind she hasnever known, before the final denouernent.
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 masterOthello, feeds his jealousy of Cassio, whom he supposes to be the lover of hisyoung wife Desdemona, leading to her murder. Iago tells Othello of Cassio'sdream, a false tale that seems to provide further evidence of Desdemona'sperfidy. Othello, his suspicions further aroused by Iago's production of thehandkerchief, supposedly given to Cassio, swears revenge on his wife.
A leading proponent of operatic realism, Giacomo Puccini won his firstsignificant success with Manon Lescaut in 1893, followed three yearslater by his operatic version of a French novel by Henri Murger in La Boh?¿me,a work that centres on the love of the poet Rodolfo for the poor seamstressMim?¼, the first open realisation of their love, after their chance meeting inthe attic quarters shared by Rodolfo and his artist friends, declared in hisdeclaration of love in O soave fanciulla.
Puccini's opera Tosca, based on a French play but with its action setin Rome, concerns the love of the singer Tosca and the painter Cavaradossi,implicated in the escape of a political prisoner by the wicked police chiefBaron Scarpia, who, murdered by Tosca, nevertheless is the cause of the lovers'death. In Recondita armonia Cavaradossi, painting a picture of MaryMagdalene, based on the appearance of a frequent visitor to the church, comparesthis to his beloved Tosca, whose miniature he carries.
Madama Butterfly is a tragedy set in Japan, where an American navallieutenant marries a geisha girl in a ceremony that she takes seriously, whilehe deserts her, to return with his American wife in a final scene that bringsButterfly final disillusion and death. The famous Humming Chorus, sung byan off-stage chorus, ends the first scene of the second act of the opera, asButterfly, her servant Suzuki and her son, await in hope the expected return ofLieutenant Pinkerton.
Mozart found his first real opportunity for opera after his move to Vienna in1781, followed by a commissioned German opera and in 1786 by the first of hiscollaborations with the poet Lorenzo da Ponte in Le nozze di Figaro (TheMarriage of Figaro) based on the second play of the trilogy by Beaumarchais, thefirst of which had served Rossini for his Barber of Seville. This wasfollowed in 1787 by an opera with da Ponte for Prague, Don Giovanni, atreatment of the life and loves of the famous Spanish philanderer Don Juan. Hisservant Leporello, much put upon, complains of his life and gives a list of hismaster's amorous exploits in the Catalogue Aria.
The last of Mozart's operas to be staged was Die Zauberflote, stillrunning at the time of the composer's death in the winter of 1791. The masoniclibretto by the actor-manager Emanuel Schikaneder recounts the ordeals undergoneby the foreign prince Tamino before his acceptance into the brotherhood led bySarastro and his union with Pamina, whose love has also motivated him. In Ach,ich f??hls Pamina expresses her sorrow at separation from Tamino and at thepredicament in which she finds herself.
The German composer Flotow made a successful career for himself in nineteenthcentury Paris. Among his best remembered operas is Martha, otherwiseknown as Richmond Fair, a place to which Lady Harriet, under the name ofMartha, and her maid Nancy resort in the guise of country girls, entering theservice 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 ofoperatic subject in his final work for the stage, Carmen, first staged inParis in 1875. Set in Spain and based on a play by Prosper Merimee, the operadeals with the fickle love of the gypsy girl Carmen for the soldier Don Jose,whom she soon deserts for the toreador Escamillo, provoking the soldier'sjealousy and her death at his hands. In La fleur que tu m'avais jetee DonJose, in the second act, set in a Seville tavern where Carmen and her smugglerfriends meet, declares his love for Carmen, having kept the flower that shefirst threw to him.
Lakme, set in British India in the nineteenth century centres on thelove of the English officer Gerald for the daughter of a Brahmin priest, Lakme,a romance doomed to failure and leading to the latter's self-inflicted death.
The flower- duet, sung by Lakme and Mallika, in the first act of the operamarks a moment of particular exotic beauty.