BEST OF OPERA, VOL. 5
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Best of Opera Volume 5
 It was significant for Mozart that in 1786 he was encouraged by theEmperor to collaborate with Lorenzo da Ponte in the composition of an Italianopera, The Marriage of Figaro, a task more often entrusted to Italiancomposers. The new opera was based on one of a trilogy of plays by Beaumarchaisalready banned in Vienna. Da Ponte, however, was able to assure the Emperorthat anything objectionable had been removed from the opera based on the secondof these plays. Figaro, in the service of Count Almaviva, leads the intriguethat finally deflects the Count's attentions from his beloved Susanna, maid tothe Countess, in a series of events that reveals Figaro's own parentage, showsthe love-lorn page Cherubino in love with being in love, and finally puts allmatters. The brilliant overture sets the scene, as Figaro measures the roomallocated to him and his bride Susanna, one conveniently close to the Count'sown quarters.
 Carmen, by the French composer Georges Bizet, set new and disturbingstandards of realism when it was first mounted in Paris in 1875. Carmen is agypsy factory-girl, employed in a Seville cigarette factory. Arrested forassault, she persuades her guard, the young Don Jose, to let her go and to joinher and her criminal companions in the mountains. Her purpose achieved, shesoon tires of him and turns her attentions to the handsome toreador DonEscamillo. She goes with him to the arena in Seville, but is waylaid by DonJose, who murders her, in a fit of jealous rage. Carmen sings her seductive Seguidillato Don Jose, suggesting a tavern where they may meet, once she has escapedfrom arrest.
 There is a mixture of realism and the exotic in much of the work ofGiacomo Puccini, not least in The Girl of the Golden West, set in thewilds of California and first staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in1910. The drama centres on the love of Minnie and the bandit Ramerrez, aliasDick Johnson. Johnson is caught and is to be hanged, but pleads with hiscaptors not to let Minnie know of his fate, but to imagine him free and faraway. Before the execution can take place, however, Minnie comes to his rescue,threatening the men, who eventually allow her and her lover to go free.
 Gioachino Rossiniwas brave in his decision to base an opera on the first play of theBeaumarchais Figaro trilogy, challenging a popular earlier opera by Paisiello. TheBarber of Seville was at first at a disadvantage when it was performed inRome in 1816. In the end, of course, it has been Rossini who has triumphed overPaisiello. The plot deals with Count Almaviva's wooing of Rosina, ward of thejealous old Dr Bartolo. The Count lets Rosina believe that he is a student andgains entry to Dr Bartolo's house through subterfuge, once as an officersupposedly billeted on the household and then as a music-master. In all thisintrigue he is abetted by Figaro, the barber of the title, and is finallysuccessful. The Count, known to Rosina as Lindoro, has serenaded her and in thesecond scene of the opera she recalls his voice and, being a girl of somespirit, resolves to have her own way and marry the man she wants.
 The German operas and music-dramas of Richard Wagner reveal anotherworld. Lohengrin was first seen in Weimar in 1850, directed by FranzLiszt, after the composer had been forced to seek refuge in Switzerland. Thework is based on legends and early German accounts of the quest for the HolyGrail. Elsa of Brabant is unjustly accused by the nobleman Telramund offratricide. She is defended by a mysterious knight, whom she marries, but whosename she is forbidden to seek. When the knight is revealed as Lohengrin, aknight of the Grail, he must leave, but before his departure he is able, by amiracle, to restore to life Elsa's brother Gottfried. The third act of theopera brings the famous Bridal March, marking the entry in procession ofLohengrin, the king and nobles and of Elsa and her ladies.
 Ludwig van Beethoven wrote only one opera. Fidelio, however,caused trouble enough, with an unsuccessful first performance in 1805 and arevision in 1806. It was in 1814, however, that the opera took on its finalform. The work is a Singspiel, a German opera with some spoken dialogue.
It celebrates the heroism and marital love of Leonora, who disguises herself asa boy, Fidelio, and takes service under the jailer Rocco in the prison wherethe wicked prison governor Don Pizarro has imprisoned and finally intends tomurder her husband, Florestan. Leonora has overheard Don Pizarro trying toenlist Rocco in his plan to murder Florestan, before the king's ministerarrives to investigate rumours of malpractice. She is horrified, exclaiming atthis abominable plan, but resolving to find a way to help Florestan.
 The last of Mozart's operas to be staged in his lifetime was a Singspielbased in part on masonic practices. In The Magic Flute, stillrunning in Vienna in December 1791 at the time of Mozart's death, the heroTamino must undergo various ordeals before he may be united with his belovedPamina, daughter of the evil Queen of the Night. The tests to which he is put,accompanied by the comic bird-catcher Papageno, a man of lowlier ambitions,bring him finally both to Pamina and to the enlightened band of priestssurrounding the high priest Sarastro. The second act opens with the solemnmarch of the priests, from whom Sarastro seeks agreement that Tamino shall beadmitted, after due trial, to their company.
 Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier, first staged in Milan in1896, is set during the French Revolution. Before the Revolution Chenierreveals libertarian sympathies at a reception at the house of the Countess deCoigny, offending the company by his views. In the Revolution Maddalena, theCountess's daughter, seeks Chenier's protection, but he too is under threat. Hefights with and wounds Gerard, former servant of the de Coignys and now aleading revolutionary and his rival in love of Maddalena. Recovered, the lattersucceeds in having Maddalena arrested and brought before him. In the present ariashe tells him of the hardships of her life after the death of her mother andthe destruction of their house. She will give herself to him, however, inreturn for the freedom of Chenier, now a prisoner. Before the tribunal Gerardtries to defend Chenier, but is unsuccessful and in a final act Maddalena,brought by Gerard to visit Chenier before his execution, changes place withanother prisoner, to be executed with her beloved.
 In La Traviata Giuseppe Verdi depicts the love of the youngAlfredo for the courtesan of the title, Violetta. The couple set up housetogether, but she is induced to give him up, after the pleading of his father,who finds disgrace for the family in his son's relationship. This she does, tothe anger and contempt of Alfredo, who only learns the reason for her action asshe lies dying of consumption. The Prelude to the first act introduces apoignant theme of love that is to return as Violetta lies dying. The opera wasfirst performed in Venice in 1853.
 Verdi's Rigoletto, first given in Venice two years before,centres on the court jester of the title and his master, the Duke of Mantua,whom he abets in acts of seduction, only to lose his own daughter, Gilda, tothe Duke. The latter, disguised as a student, Gualtier, gains access toRigoletto's closely guarded house, leaving her, as she here declares, in lovewith his dear name, ironically not his true one. Gilda is abducted by hostilecourtiers, seduced by the Duke and forced to learn of her lover's duplicity, ashe p