Italian Opera Choruses
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Italian Opera Choruses
The leading figure in Italian opera from the 1840s for much of the restof the nineteenth century, Giuseppe Verdi won his first great success with theopera Nabucco, staged at La Scala, Milan, in 1842. The libretto, byTemistocle Solera, had already been rejected by Otto Nicolai, now rememberedprimarily for his opera The Merry Wives of Windsor, or at least for itsoverture. The story of Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco) has its derivation in theBible, notably in the Book of Jeremiah. It deals with the Babylonian attack onJerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, followed by the captivity of theJews in Babylon. Complications ensue with the rivalry of Nebuchadnezzar'sdaughter Fenena and the supposed elder daughter of the king, Abigaille, endingin the defeat of the latter, the restoration of Nebuchadnezzar's wits, after about of madness, and his conversion to Judaism. The Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, Va,pensiero, in which the Jews lament their captivity in Babylon, by thewaters of the Euphrates, struck an echo in Italian audiences of the 1840s, atime when Italian independence from foreign domination was of profoundimportance.
Pietro Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana ('Rustic Chivalry'),first staged in Rome in 1890, is an example of verismo, the new realismthat became fashionable in the later years of the century. Set in Sicily, it isa story of love and jealousy. Santuzza, slighted by Turiddu, who is involvedwith Lola, the wife of Alfio, the village carter, provokes the latter's jealousy,leading to Turiddu's death in a duel with his rival. The opening scene ischeerful enough, as villagers celebrate the joys of spring, singing of theburgeoning orange-trees in the chorus Gli aranci olezzano.
Verdi's opera Il trovatore was first staged in Rome in 1853. Itdeals with the complications of fraternal rivalry in love and war, with thetroubadour of the title, Manrico, the supposed son of the gypsy Azucena but infact the long lost son of the old Count di Luna, imprisoned and put to death bythe young Count, ignorant of the relationship, while Leonora, who had promisedherself to the Count in return for Manrico's freedom, poisons herself. The soldiers, inOr co'dadi, prepare for battle, to capture the castle that Manricovainly tries to defend.
Rigoletto had been staged in Venice in 1851. Based on Victor Hugo's Le rois'amuse, its action safely shifted to sixteenth century Mantua, to avoidproblems with the censors, Verdi's opera treats the tragedy of the cynicalcourt jester of the title, who helps his master, the Duke, in his unscrupulousamorous adventures, only to have his own daughter, Gilda, abducted and seducedby the Duke. He plans the murder of his master, but to his final horrordiscovers that it is Gilda who has been killed, not the Duke. The chorus Zitti,zitti finds the courtiers, seeking revenge on Rigoletto, intent on theabduction of his precious daughter.
Giacomo Puccini represents a later generation of Italian composers, aleading figure at the turn of the century. Madama Butterfly, firststaged at La Scala, Milan, in 1904, is set in Japan and deals with the marriageand betrayal of Cio-Cio-San, the innocent young Japanese bride of the title,deserted by the selfish American naval Lieutenant Pinkerton, whose child shebears, in his absence. She kills herself, after his return with his newAmerican wife. The Humming Chorus marks the beginning of Cio-Cio-San'slong night of watching, as she awaits Pinkerton's return to her, after his shiphas reached Nagasaki once more.
Verdi' s first Shakespearean opera, Macbeth, staged in Florencein 1847, is an effective transposition of the original play, with the threewitches that provoke Macbeth to his acts of regicide and usurpation representedby a tripartite chorus of witches. Scottish exiles gather, under Malcolm, sonof the murdered King Duncan, to march against the tyrant, their chorus Patriaoppressa a clear reflection of contemporary Italian grievances andaspirations.
Gaetano Donizetti won his first significant operatic success in 1822.
The comic opera L'elisir d'amore ('The Elixir of Love'), first performedin Milan in 1832, centres on the love of the simple-minded Nemorino for therather cleverer young landowner Adina. Nemorino imagines himself materiallyassisted by a potion sold him by the peripatetic quack Dulcamara, but is moreeffectively helped by an unexpected legacy and his own obvious sincerity. In Cantiamo,cantiam, cantiam Adina, Dulcamara, Nemorino's rival Sergeant Belcore andothers celebrate the planned wedding of Adina and Belcore.
The Easter Hymn in Cavalleria rusticana is in markedcontrast to the dramatic events outside the church, where the villagerscelebrate the Easter festival. The sound of the Regina coeli is heardand the villagers outside join in the hymn, a prelude to Santuzza's confessionto the mother of her former lover Turiddu, Lucia, of Turiddu's treatment ofher.
Verdi was particularly fascinated by the possibilities of further operasbased on Shakespeare, after the success in Florence of his opera Macbeth. Hisopera Otello, with a libretto derived from Shakespeare by Boito, wasfirst staged at La Scala, Milan, in 1887, when Verdi was in his seventies. Inthe first act, which opens with the triumphant return of the victorious Otelloto Cyprus, Iago first reveals his villainy, his jealousy of Cassio and hiswillingness to make use of Roderigo, besotted with Desdemona, the Moor Otello'syoung Venetian wife. In Fuoco di gioia, soldiers and their companionsenjoy the warmth of the fire, which crackles as they sing.
Ruggero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, first staged at the Teatro DalVerme in Milan in 1892, is a further example of operatic realism. Based on acourt case investigated by the composer's father in Calabria, it deals with thelove and jealousy of the player Canio, a deceived husband in the drama hepresents as well as in real life. It leads to his murder of his wife, faithlessin the play and in reality, and her lover. The Bell Chorus provides amore cheerful moment, as Canio, followed by the villagers, sets out for thetavern, leaving his wife Nedda with a chance to meet her lover and toantagonize still further the clown Tonio, who observes the meeting, with hisown advances indignantly and contemptuously rejected.
The Anvil Chorus inVerdi's Il trovatore provides an opportunity for additional percussiveeffects. Here the gypsies, with whom Manrico has been brought up, start their work, as dawn breaks in the mountains of Biscay, soon to breakoff to hear the old gypsyAzucena's account of the death at the stake of her mother and her attempt tothrow the old Count di Luna's baby boy into the flames. By an unfortunateconfusion of mind she had thrown her own baby into the fire, as far as she canremember, but evident doubt is now cast on her supposed son Manrico's trueparentage.
Gioachino Rossini won remarkable early success and enjoyed alongretirement from operatic composition, from 1830 until his death in 1868. Hisopera Tancredi, based on Voltaire's play Tancr?¿de, was firstperformed at La Fenice in Venice in 1813. Here the exiled Tancredi, returns toSyracuse, hoping to see again his beloved Amenaide, daughter of the restoredSyracusan leader Argirio, and to help the city against the attacks of theSaracens, with whose leader Amenaide is accused of complicity, now doubted tooby Tancredi. The first version of