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The Best of Opera,Vol. 4

[1] Wagner's opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, first stagedin Munich in 1868, is set in sixteenth-century Nuremberg, where a song contestis to be held, according to the traditional rules of the guilds. On thisoccasion the goldsmith Pogner is offering the winner the hand of his daughterEva in marriage. Matters are complicated by the intrusion of the young knightWalther, who falls in love with Eva and enters the contest, to the disgust ofthe town-clerk Beckmesser, who has his own ambitions. The Overture weavestogether various leading motifs associated with characters, ideas and events inthe work, starting with the Mastersingers motif, followed by that associatedwith Walther's love. There are motifs for the Guilds, for youthful fervour,love, passion and, in an accelerated version of the Mastersingers motif, musicfor the apprentices, all reaching a climax as they appear together.

[2] Giuseppe Verdi owed something to Wagner, however different hisoperas may seem. From his first success in Milan in 1842 he went on to dominateItalian opera for years to come, with works that still remain central toItalian operatic repertoire. Aida, written to celebrate the opening of anew opera house, was first performed in Cairo in 1871. Set in Egypt, it dealswith the love of the Egyptian general Radames for the captive Ethiopianprincess of the title. Tricked into unwitting betrayal of the planned campaignof his army and object of jealous anger to the Egyptian princess Amneris, whosehand in marriage he had been offered by the grateful King, he is eventuallycondemned to death, immured in a tomb where he is joined by Aida, as Amnerislaments the fate of the man she had loved. In Ritorna vincitor! (May hereturn victorious) Aida is troubled by the prospect of her lover's victory overher own people, as he leaves to lead the Egyptian army against the Ethiopians.

[3] Verdi's opera IlTrovatore ('The Troubadour'), first staged in Rome in 1853, has a plot ofsome complexity. The troubadour Manrico, supposed son of the gypsy Azucena butin fact, as is later revealed, the lost son of the Count di Luna, is pittedagainst his brother in war and for the love of Leonora. Azucena, who has comein search of her son, is seized by the Count di Luna and condemned to death atthe stake. Manrico, in Di quella pira ('That pyre's terrible fire'),learns of his mother's imminent death and resolves to rescue her, an attemptthat leads to his own imprisonment and death and, in final self-sacrifice, thatof Leonora.

[4] The opera Cosi fan tutte ('They all behave like this') wasstaged in Vienna in 1790. It was Mozart's last collaboration with thelibrettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. Two lovers plan, for a wager, to test the fidelityof the sisters pledged to them by pretending to go away to the wars butreturning in disguise. As each woos the other's mistress, they eventuallysucceed, losing their wager, although matters are eventually put right, in oneway or another. In Come scoglio ('Steadfast as a rock') one of the sisters,Fiordiligi, declares her intention of resisting to the end the advances of thestranger who now presses his attentions on her.

[5] A leading figure in French opera towards the end of the nineteenthcentury, Jules Massenet based his 1894 opera Tha?»s on a work by AnatoleFrance. It deals with the love of the courtesan of the title for a holy man,Athana?½l, who is finally tempted by her beauty, after her successfulconversion. This last is reflected in the famous Meditation, anintermezzo that marks her change of heart.

[6] Massenet, in his opera Manon, turned his attention also tothe story of Manon Lescaut, fated heroine of a novel by the Abbe Prevost.

Puccini, a dominant figure in Italian opera at the turn of the century, treatedthe tragic story in an opera first staged in Turin in 1893. Manon, escorted byher brother to a convent but accompanied by the rich older man Geronte, meetsthe Chevalier Des Grieux and the two elope, before Lescaut and Geronte canleave for Paris. There, however, she is finally forced to accept the protectionof Geronte and when she seeks to leave him for her former lover, she isarrested at Geronte's insistence, accused of theft as she attempts to take withher jewels he has provided for her. Condemned to transportation, she isaccompanied by Des Grieux, only to die in the desert outside New Orleans, Sola,perduta, abbandonata ('Alone, lost, abandoned'), as her lover goes to seekshelter for them.

[7] Donizetti's lighter hearted L'Elisir d'amore ('The Elixir ofLove') of 1832 shows the apparently hopeless love of the simple peasantNemorino for a rich landowner, Adina, who herself is attracted to the braggingsoldier Belcore. Nemorino finds help in his suit from the quack doctorDulcamara and his bogus elixir and in a legacy that brings him unusualpopularity. In Una furtiva lagrima ('A furtive tear') he sees signs ofAdina's love for him and the pair are eventually united.

[8] Staged first in Venice in 1853, Verdi's La Traviata ('TheFallen Woman') is based on La Dame aux camelias ('The Lady of theCamelias') by Alexandre Dumas. The courtesan Violetta meets and falls in lovewith the young Alfredo Germont, with whom she sets up house, leaving her formerlife. She is persuaded by Alfredo's father to break off the relationship, whilenot revealing her reason for this action, to the anger and contempt of herlover. It is only when she lies dying of consumption that Alfredo learns thetruth. After their first meeting, Violetta seems to experience true love forthe first time, but in Follie!... Sempre libera ('Folly!... Always free')she dismisses the thought.

[9] A composer of the greatest precocity, Erich Korngold spent much ofhis career in America, writing music for the cinema. His opera Die toteStadt ('The Dead City') had its successful premi?¿res in Cologne and Hamburgon 4th December 1920, when Korngold was twenty-three. The work deals with thepreoccupation of the protagonist Paul with his dead wife Marie and hisfascination with the actress Marietta. A dream about the latter breaks thespell, allowing Paul to embark on a new life. Marietta's song Gl??ck, das mirverblieb ('Joy, that is left me') tells of a beloved who soon must die,affecting Paul deeply.

[10] The last of Mozart's operas to be staged in his lifetime, DieZauberflote ('The Magic Flute'), running at the time of his death in thewinter of 1791, has a masonic setting. The hero Tamino passes through ordealsof various kinds before reaching enlightenment and union with his belovedPamina. He is shown her picture, at the beginning of his quest, and is dazzledby the beauty he sees there in Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schon ('Thispicture is bewitchingly beautiful').

[11] La Cenerentola ('Cinderella') allows Rossini some latitudein his 1817 treatment of Perrault's tale. The heroine is finally united withher prince and shows magnanimity in pardoning her father and sisters,expressing this in a remarkable show piece, Nacqui all'affanno e al pianto ('Iwas born to trouble and tears').

[12] Italian verismo (realism) in opera is seen in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci(Players), first mounted in Milan in 1892. Based on a court case, the plotconcerns the justified jealousy of the actor Canio towards his wife Nedda, whomhe murders in the course of a play that reflects something of the realsituation in the actors' lives. The Bell Chorus in the first of the twoacts mar
Disc: 1
Cavalleria Rusticana: Mamma, quel vino e generoso
1 Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Overture
2 Aida: Ritorna vincitor!
3 Il Trovatore: Manrico?... Di quella pira
4 Come scoglio, K. 588
5 Thais: Meditation
6 Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Hannah And Her Sisters
7 L'elisir d'amore: Una furtiva lagrima
8 La Traviata: Follie!... Sempre libera
9 Gluck, das mir verblieb, Op. 12
10 Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schon, K. 620
11 Nacqui all' affanno
12 Pagliacci: Bell Chorus
13 Cielo e mar (La Gioconda)
14 Alceste: Ombre larve
15 Entr' acte
16 Mama, quel vino e generoso (Cavarellia Rusticana)
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