CD 22 of 24
You will have noticed that the preceding 21 discs have presented the music, for the most part, in chronological order. These last three discs do not and the reason is twofold. First and foremost, we have endeavored to present complete works as opposed to snippets so that you may hear the composer’s exact intentions, but as most operas last over two hours this would be impractical. Secondly, there are four composers that receive a disproportionate number of tracks. These four contributed more to the development and popularity of opera than others and deserve this additional space and while it would have been easier to arrange the music chronologically, we thought it best to arrange it in such a manner that listening to each disc on its own would be an enjoyable experience.
Opera, being a marriage between text and music, has seen its share of spats. Some believed the text should take precedence, others took an opposing view, but by 1650 music had won the argument and it was around this time that opera graduated from the intimate rooms where the elite and nobility took in an evening’s entertainment, to places where a larger audience could enjoy it. Opera’s leading characters were sung by castrato singers, their arias designed to show-off a unique vocal agility, and recitative, a half-spoken/half sung dialogue, was used to dispense with the plot details quickly so everyone could get back to the singing – the real reason why they had gathered.
The popularity of opera took off. Initially the Germans loved the Italian style which emphasized virtuosic singing over text, but a homegrown opera evolved, eventually replacing the recitative with spoken dialogue in works called Singspiels. Opera in France was influenced by the strong French theatrical traditions. Text, ballet and choral scenes were favoured there, and these were showcased prominently. In England, Henry Purcell attempted to hold back the Italian tide with his Dido and Aeneas (1689). “When I am laid in earth” (CD 23, Track 16), is not only that opera’s highlight, but was also the runner-up in the saddest song ever written poll, the one where Barber’s Adagio for Strings took top prize. Unfortunately for Purcell, the love of the Italian style was just too strong, and it would not be until Benjamin Britten arrived in the mid-twentieth century that English opera would find an audience.
As the nineteenth century progressed, the libretto’s importance declined, the rise of the virtuoso singer continued and Grand Opera began its ascendency in France. These Grand Operas were long affairs (often five acts long) that included spectacular ballet and choral scenes and employed massive sets, quite often for no other reason than to provide a feast for the senses. Bel-canto opera (with the emphasis on the beauty of singing) gained prominence in Italy, with the beautiful sounds pushing the libretto into a subservient role. As for the singers, the castrato was out and the tenor was in, creating a new hero that saved the day and got the girl.
All of these paths led towards two men: Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) and Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883). Wagner was the more revolutionary of the two, creating his Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art), in which text, music and plot were in balance, While stretching harmony to the limit (setting the table for Schoenberg), he fused the orchestral and vocal lines to support the drama. His leitmotifs connected objects, innermost thoughts of the characters and recalled or foreshadowed events in the drama. The continuous melody gave the orchestra an even greater role in driving the plot.
Verdi is the summit of Italian opera. His use of the overture in La forza del destino is one of the strongest operatic openings there is (CD 22, Track 4), his arias and duets still bring audiences to their feet (CD 23, Track 5; CD 24, Track 2) and his choruses are often the highlight of the show, the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore (CD 24, Track 11) being but one example. Aida, the grandest of grand operas, requires so many extras – human and beast – it is occasionally staged in sports arenas to accommodate them all and for pure spectacle, these productions can’t be beat! Admittedly, some plots are based on absurd premises and situations, but Verdi makes it work by ensuring his character’s react to the unfolding drama in passionate fashion. Beautiful arias sung by beautiful women dying of consumption (La Traviata – The Fallen Woman) or mothers throwing their babies into fires (Il Trovatore – The Troubadour) - it just doesn’t matter, the music is so strong we believe it all!
Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) wrote his works beginning late in the nineteenth century, writing well into the twentieth. La bohème (The Life of Bohemians), tells the tale of impoverished artists and features “Che gelida manina” (What a frozen little hand, CD 23, Track 2). “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (I lived for art – I lived for love, CD 23, Track 8) is Puccini’s achingly beautiful aria from Tosca. With music as touching as this, it is no wonder that he has captured the public’s heart and soul more than other operatic composer in the last 50 years – and having a number one hit doesn’t hurt either! His “Nessun dorma” (None Shall Sleep, CD 23, Track 6) from Turandot became a sensation after being performed by the Three Tenors to a world-wide audience.
Presently, opera is as popular as it has ever been, but operas written in the twentieth century have struggled to find an audience. There are exceptions of course; Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier of 1911 (CD 24, Track 14), and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945 – CD 17,Tracks 2 – 6) being two such works, but generally, opera companies look to the past. However, this does not mean to imply that contemporary companies are museums for crowd favourites. The old favourites are presented in new productions and virtually unknown works by famed composers make appearances that have proven to be hits. We have only begun to scratch the surface of operas by Handel and Vivaldi, each with more than 40 to their credit, and due to the zeal of the Early Music scholars and enthusiasts, we are being treated to resurrected treasures of the Baroque and Classical era. Perhaps the future of opera lies in its past as there are still plenty of “new” operas yet to be seen and heard.
(Please find our recommended audio excerpts for this CD on the bottom of the "Overview" page.)
- Georges Bizet (1838 - 1875)Carmen
- 1. Overture (Prelude)3:31London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado
- Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868)L'italiana in Algeri
- 2. Overture7:50Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado
- Pietro Mascagni (1863 - 1945)Cavalleria rusticana
- 3. Intermezzo sinfonico4:16
- Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901)La forza del destino
- 4. Overture (Sinfonia)7:46Philharmonia Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli
- Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)La Damnation de Faust, Op.24
- Part 1
- 5. Marche hongroise4:28Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa
- Johann Strauss II (1825 - 1899)Die Fledermaus
- 6. Overture7:38Bavarian State Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber
- Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)Eugene Onegin, Op.24
- Act 3
- 7. (Scene 1) Polonaise4:51Staatskapelle Dresden, James Levine
- Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)Götterdämmerung
- Dritter Aufzug
- 8. Trauermarsch6:30Staatskapelle Dresden, Peter Schneider
- Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949)Salome, Op.54
- Scene 4
- 9. Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils9:48Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Giuseppe Sinopoli
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)Fidelio op.72
- 10. Overture7:14Wiener Philharmoniker, Leonard Bernstein
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)Le nozze di Figaro, K.492
- 11. Overture4:10English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner