The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Greatest Operas, Part II

Posted by therebelprince on January 15, 2015

This post is simulcast from my blog “The Annals of Opera”.

Today, I’m continuing my exploration of my favourite operas of the last 400 years. In my first post, I looked at the early greats, now we move into the bracing 19th century.

The delight of opera, of soaring music from all points of the orchestra, characters battered by fate and love expressing their passion in powerful vocal writing, combined with theatre, art, dance, and spectacle. To those of us raised on 20th century postmodernism and deconstructionism, much of the 19th century’s output can look a bit crazy, but there was plenty of fun to be had.

First, to reiterate a few of my points from last week:

  • This is an incredibly subjective list, featuring the operas I love. I express no shame for the “masterpieces” I’ve ignored, and I’m proud to hopefully introduce items that may not be part of the standard repertoire;
  • The suggested recordings I list for some operas are just that: suggestions. They represent a recording I have heard (in full or part) and warmed to. In some cases, they aren’t the Platonic ideal of the opera, but I like them. I’m certainly interested to hear other suggestions, but I’m less interested in any negativity around my choice. I delight in comparing styles and interpretations, not in creating a stricture within which a centuries-old work of art must operate;
  • the operas are listed by composer, in rough chronological order. The numerical listings express nothing to do with quality!

10. Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848, Italian)

Along with Verdi and Bellini, Donizetti was a pillar of the bel canto style that so overwhelmed opera in the first half of the 1800s. The public taste for opera was at a height in this era, with the extravagances of staging, the ludicrous desires of divas, and the celebrity lifestyles truly fascinating. (I very much recommend Daniel Snowman’s The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera which looks at the 400 years of opera not primarily through the composers or performances, but from the people who made and attended them. For a history of works themselves, the latest good book is Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years.) Rossini may have had the greatest gift for lightness, and Bellini was the greatest composer, but Donizetti – who wrote over 70 operas alongside a prolific amount of other works – was the strongest dramatist. But while some of the works have lasted – and Donizetti has a perpetual place on the opera subscriber’s calendar -the music is ultimately fairly light stuff, solidified by the strong libretti and the stronger performances with each passing generation. His comedies are like precursors to the modern musical: well-paced, delightfully melodic trifles. I’ve enjoyed every Rossini comedy I’ve ever seen, although usually it’s the production I remember weeks later, not the music. The worthiest one is L’Elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love, 1832) which is a superb little trinket in which a self-assured young woman delights in spurning the man who loves her, until he is sold an alleged love potion by a quack doctor and determines to wreak havoc. There are also some pleasing moments in La fille du régiment  (The Daughter of the regiment, 1840). The eponymous daughter has been raised by a regiment of soldiers (having been found as an abandoned baby on the battlefield, of course) who falls in love with a prisoner of the regiment. Wackiness inevitably ensues. Sutherland and Pavarotti recorded both of those works, in remarkable voice, under the baton of Richard Bonynge. Indeed, what the bel canto era may have done best was in delighting in the tenor voice. Whereas Handel and Monteverdi had the countertenor, and Mozart seemed to love a good bass-baritone, Donizetti knew how to write for those high-flying, daredevil tenors. (Although I’m sure many basses have resented the decades in which they were reduced to playing fathers and villains!)

Donizetti’s most lasting tragedy is Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), set amongst the gloomy moors of Scotland, as a young woman is – surprise, surprise – destroyed by the joint forces of misogyny and tradition. Her family want her to marry this dude. Even her secret boyfriend ultimately thinks she should just play along. After much musical hemming and hawing, Lucia (or Lucie, as she’s known in her native Scotland) is forced to go along with it but, being a true feminist ante litteram, decides to murder him in a fit of psychopathic rage. And then sing about it at a dinner party for half an hour. And then, after the audience has worn out its hands with curtain calls, force her poor boyfriend to have another entire scene of lovely music even if the audience is ready to go home.

One of the central tenets of bel canto music was that of theme and variations. You will often hear the basic beautiful melody, followed by an elaborate scheme of ornaments, trills, and such, worked out by the specific singer and conductor, rather than keeping strict attention to the score. Some older recordings of this seem scared of this practice, but it has become very standard nowadays. The 21st century has welcomed a whole new batch of incredible talents to scale the heights of Donizetti’s notes, but I’ll always have close affection for Sutherland and Beverly Sills, who both recorded delightful Lucias. Having said that, Lucia isn’t really my cup of tea. Bel canto tragedy can so easily become histrionic, and – although its characters often exhibit more depth than those of the Verdian operas that would replace the genre – there is such an emphasis on death and despair simply for its own sake. Lucia is a bit like those Shakespeare plays, or Dickens novels, that became standard schoolroom fare throughout the 20th century. Everyone knew the setpieces, so it was easy to keep doing them over and over again, rather than think outside the box.

More to my taste is a trio of historical dramas that Donizetti set to music, showing an apparent fascination with the Tudor era of England. Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn, 1830), Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart, 1834), and Roberto Devereux (1837) explore issues of historical legitimacy, forbidden love, rivalry, and power plays through a series of stunning vocal displays. In this era, where many opera houses had regular performers, it was common to feature similar voice types and provide a variety of forms (aria, duet, trio, etc) across the evening, and every type of voice and combination is on display between these three works. While Maria is lesser than the other two, these three operas present a convincing argument for the strengths of Donizetti and his librettists in devising plot. While the lead female roles in all three operas, as well as some of the tenor parts, are considered especially challenging, the last few years have seen a return to the public interest for these works. They’re undoubtedly my favourite Italian bel canto pieces, well represented in three recordings made by the late, great Beverly Sills, ably supported by Shirley Verrett, Stuart Burrows, and others. Now available separately, the box set of the three recordings has pride of place on my bookshelf. Below, Sills sings Mary Stuart’s prayer while awaiting execution, her voice floating impossibly high above the thronging commoners:

11. Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869, French)

We saw last time the kind of “Grand Opera” Meyerbeer was writing for, with its natural disasters, love affairs against a backdrop of historical change, five-act spectacles featuring endless choruses and special effects, and – how peculiarly French – a compulsory ballet. The era saw a conscious effect to merge this French desire for spectacle with the Italian history of musical composition and the awakening of Romanticism in the German composers. Many of the Grand Opera composers are largely forgotten today, except by opera geeks. Halevy, Auber, and their ilk made works that are – if musically shallow by comparison to the 20th century, and prone to make their audience gasp like today’s big-budget Hollywood films – still captivating in their extremity. They’re staged every now and then, and most of the big operas have at least one successful recording. I tend to enjoy them when I hear, but none have stayed in my mind.

Perhaps the exception is one of my favourite operas of all time, Berlioz’s Les Troyens (The Trojans, 1863). Berlioz was a composer of great intellect, and Les Troyens united his interest in Virgil and Shakespeare, the greatest storytellers of their respective ages. This five-act opera tells the story of the end of the Trojan war, as Aeneas escapes to Carthage, where he falls in love with the Queen, Dido, even though he is aware his fate lies elsewhere. The work features large choral numbers, beautiful moments for minor characters, an act primarily based in orchestral and ballet music, and three challenging parts in the roles of Dido, Aeneas, and the doomed Trojan prophet Cassandra, who dominates the opera’s first two acts. It’s the kind of opera that could, theoretically, be done in a smaller house (assuming you could fit the orchestra in) but the endless processions, mass suicides, and ghostly apparitions make it the kind of opera for which large houses were built. By interlacing these large moments with the genuine and opposing character arcs of Aeneas and Dido, the work exudes pathos. Berlioz did not live to see the full opera staged (the third, fourth, and fifth acts were produced – as they contain effectively a complete story on their own). Brought together, it’s an exhausting but rewarding musical experience. It’s not the flashiest of Grand Opera (no-one jumps into Mt. Vesuvius or ends up being thrown into a cauldron of boiling water, for instance) but it’s quite astounding.

Remarkably, Les Troyens has become a bit of a cult classic over the last few decades, with numerous solid recordings available. The recent Met production starring Susan Graham, Deborah Voigt, and Bryan Hymel is a faithful rendering of the production for DVD, with blissful performances from all three leads, particularly Hymel who plays one of the most punishing tenor roles in the repertory without so much as breaking a sweat. There are at least two albums conducted by Colin Davis, both very good, and an older live recording with Nicolai Gedda and Shirley Verrett practically soars.

12. Mikhail Glinka (1804 – 1857, Russian)

Different cultures bring with them different thought processes, which are expressed through our use of language. We can learn to appreciate Shakespearean English or the German Romantic spirit, but even then without lessons in history and linguistics we will always be at several removes from both the writers and their intended audience. It’s tougher the further East one goes. Perhaps for this reason – as much as for the language barrier – Russian operas of the 19th century haven’t found a permanent place in the hearts or eras of Western audiences, even though their literature managed to be so influential. I’d love to add Borodin or Mussorgsky to this list but I just can’t penetrate their outer shell, crusted as it is with cultural and philosophical expectations and references that are beyond my scope. Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), adapted from a poem by Pushkin, has begun to burrow its way under my skin. I highly recommend the DVD of the Kirov Opera production, conducted by Gergiev and starring a young Anna Netrebko.

13. Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875, French)

As Grand Opera died out in the 1860s, France took on a new operatic interest, as the romantics came to the fore. So many of my operas arise from late 19th century France that I sometimes think I was born in the wrong era. (Charles Gounod is an exception, to be frank – I’m not really a fan of Faust.) The most well-known is undoubtedly Bizet’s Carmen (1875), a tawdry drama about the battle for the heart – and soul – of the cold-hearted gypsy of the title. Carmen is one of those tales that invites speculation about the characters’ inner desires, while delighting us with the sensual Spanish setting and earthy tunes. It’s one of those entry-level operas that I’d recommend to anyone curious about the artform. There are many great modern recordings, but I enjoy an older – seemingly obscure – one, conducted by Solti, and starting the enviable team of Domingo, Te Kanawa, Jose van Dam, and Shirley Verrett as Carmen herself.

Bizet’s other big opera – Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers, 1863), in which two best friends in a Ceylon seaside community are tested by their shared lover for a Brahman priestess – became obscenely successful in the mid-20th century thanks to the popularity of the gorgeous tenor-baritone duet Au fond du temple saint, but the establishment has now put it back in its place as a work of sentimentality, cheap tunes, and feigned exoticism. They’re not wrong but, on the other hand, the 1989 recording with Barbara Hendricks (whose voice simply melts in the role of Leila the priestess) is constantly in my CD player. So, there.

14. Jacques Offenbach (1819 – 1880, French)

While we’re on the subject of the French, let’s discuss my another of my “desert island” operas, the endlessly amorphous Les contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann, 1881). After a lifetime of writing operettas (nowadays a pejorative term for a work that dares to be light and satirical or unrealistic, instead of recognising its identity as a work of art, like that self-serious mope Wagner), Offenbach put his skills to the task of creating an opera proper. Rejecting many of the strained, po-faced libretti of his colleagues, Offenbach created a work that could probably only have come from the mind of an operetta composer, adapted from the adventurous short stories of E.T.A Hoffmann. The Hoffmann of the opera – a drunken writer who has let his creative demons get the better of him – entertains a bar full of university students with the tales of his three lost loves. It’s a designer’s delight, involving robots, Venetian gondolas, paintings that come to life, and casual bystanders of increasingly grotesque natures.

Sadly, Offenbach died before he could complete the orchestration on Hoffmann, and so never saw it performed. To be frank, I think that’s part of why the work has such a hold on me. A lot of operas in the repertoire can be done – with the right talent – almost on autopilot (get a soprano, a tenor, an opera chorus and some backdrops, and you’re done). But unfinished works like Hoffmann, which has plenty of textual questions as is, require each director and conductor to ask questions of themselves, and so improve with each answer. What order do the acts go in? Is Nicklausse played by a man or a woman? How much of the story is fantasy and how much reality? What happens to Giuletta at the end of the Venice act? Most importantly, will you cast one soprano and one bass to play all four soprano parts and all four bass roles? And, even if you want to, can you find someone up to the challenge? After all these questions, conductors still have to decide which version of the substantially differing scores to use. In short, each recording of Hoffmann is filled with potential new joys.

Unsurprisingly, my desert island recording is the light-hearted Sutherland/Domingo recording, with the underrated Huguette Tourangeau as Nicklausse. But, once you’ve got a few under your belt, the Kent Nagano recording works from a more innovative version of the score which had tremendous moments too.

15. Ambroise Thomas (1811 – 1896, French)

One more Frog before we travel again abroad. Thomas is not a well-remembered composer today, and his two major operas are certainly not earth-shattering pieces of art. His little humanist work Mignon (1866) was astonishingly popular in the Victorian era and early 20th century, but I don’t rate it beyond a source of easy pathos. However, his Hamlet (1868) has not received its fair dues, if you ask me. An elaborate post-Grand Opera, the piece ripples with sumptuous music. No, it’s certainly no Shakespeare, but it’s kind of a cheat sheet for how the Victorians saw Shakespeare. And the roles of Hamlet and Ophelia offer great rewards for talented vocalists (and, by extension, us).

Sutherland recorded the role of Ophelia with Sherrill Milnes as her Hamlet but, to be honest, it’s not great. The conducting is too brisk to savour the score (although she recorded individual scenes on other discs that are much better). Faring much better is the almost-perfect 1994 recording starring Thomas Hampson, Samuel Ramey as Claudius, and the immensely gifted June Anderson, whose “mad scene” as Ophelia (which is essentially the opera’s entire fourth act) is divine.

16. Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901, Italian)

It’s fair to say that 19th century opera would have been very different without Verdi, the most famous opera composer of them all, and the supreme Romantic opera maker, whether you love him or loathe him. Verdi wrote roughly 28 operas, half of which are in the standard repertoire to this day (and the other half revived more frequently than you would think). On the one hand, the majority of his plots – at least from his first opera, Oberto (1839) to the contrived La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny, 1862) are melodramatic, brimming with surface-level emotion, weighty choruses, “stand and deliver” style arias, and a self-conscious nationalism that earned him the mockery of some critics but the praise of his people. His orchestral writing is frequently uninteresting and his supporting characters as bland and tasteless as a piece of wet cardboard. Yet, that’s a remarkably unfair disparagement. In an era when far too many audiences sit through sub-par (but “well constructed”) works to please a suffering artist, it’s comforting to know that people once enjoyed operas constructed for their pleasure. As time went on, Verdi attempted to tailor his scores to the individual situations (even if the characters within them remained melodramatic cut-outs) and when he wanted to be innovative with form or structure, he damn well knew how. There is great musicology in Verdi’s works, but his cultural dominance was arguably one of the reasons that audiences at the start of the 20th century stopped caring about new opera. In their very different ways, Verdi and Wagner (who apparently never met one another) would define the artform.

Verdi’s worthwhile efforts include the domestic, quietly powerful Luisa Miller (1849), the overhyped but musically strong Rigoletto (1851), and the convoluted Il Trovatore (The Troubadour, 1853) which is a gift when performed with great singers.  As he neared retirement in the ’70s, Verdi penned two epic works – Simon Boccanegra (1857-81) and Don Carlos (1867) – both of which I will see for the first time in 2015, so no thoughts until then.

To wrap up this week’s blog entry, then, I’ll run through the four Verdi operas that have justifiably left their mark on Western culture:

La traviata (The Fallen Woman, 1853) is the world’s most-loved opera and, by all rights, should be a dead fish by now. But, much like Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the strength of the work overrides the tiresomeness of repetition. The tale of the courtesan, the wealthy young man, his disapproving father, and the tragic hope of love remains captivating. No opera before or since has managed to convey the frivolities of young love so well through music. (Sadly, it’s also the go-to performance of any university and/or fading opera singer. Listener, beware.) Act I is like a little dream, as the frivols of the party guests meld with the yearning Alfredo and the carefree Violetta. Act II, although far more sedate, is a picturesque little drama as both the lovers are faced with their doubts about one another, and their potential incompatibility. And the final act – you’ll know it when you hear it – is an abandoned carnival, the most perfection depiction of faded decadence that was ever written (give or take Powder Her Face 150 years later … but we’ll get to that). There are numerous Maria Callas recordings on the market, and they’re worthwhile.

Aida (1871) is the tale of doomed love and political uprisings in Ancient Egypt that has delighted opera subscribers and destroyed the lives of weary ushers the world over. In my early 20s, I found it derivative and generic. In my late 20s (so old!), I’ve warmed to the musical beauty of the piece that was originally to have been Verdi’s retirement job, premiering most fittingly in Cairo. Aida is a treasure trove of arias and duets that almost overwhelm the ear. Like Monteverdi or Rossini’s masterpieces before it, Aida is perhaps an example of a masterpiece “of its time” rather than a masterpiece “for all time”. Audiences going in with that attitude will enjoy it far greater. But within that framework, the deeply woven lyricism holds for the entire duration of the work. It holds the attention from large choruses to the tender scene on the banks of the river Nile. But the masterstroke of Aida is its finale, as the lovers embrace their death in a dark and musty tomb. With the chorus heard only in the distance, singing piano prayers in a deliberately non-Western tone, it is surely one of the softest finales in opera to this point. No wonder Wagner went all out with his slowly disappearing chords at the end of his Ring Cycle! Perhaps the supreme Aida of the 20th century was Leontyne Price (who brilliantly turned down the role when it was offered to her for her Metropolitan Opera debut, on the grounds that if she was an African-American star premiering at the Met, it wasn’t going to be in the role of a slave). Listening to Price sing O patria mia early in her career, and then hearing her voice – different but no less remarkable – in her final ever operatic performance – video below – is a true privilege. On disc, I’d heartily support Montserrat Caballe’s performance.

Otello (1887). Having entered voluntary retirement by the time he was 60, Verdi returned to the stage in his old age to compose this startling, richly-layered piece, which arguably improves on Shakespeare’s original. Othello and Iago are two of the most fascinating characters in Verdi’s canon, and the opera – despite being four acts long – is taut and perpetually changing its musical feel, like the protean Iago himself. Desdemona is not quite as richly detailed (although nor is she in the Shakespeare), but she has nevertheless been played by an endless stream of distinguished sopranos over the last 130 years. Verdi interlaces his score with musical motives and powerful orchestral music that reflect – but don’t imitate – the Wagner-inspired musical changes that had taken hold of the music world since his glory days. The two musical highlights must be Desdemona’s celebrated extended scene in Act IV as she prepares to meet her fate, and the life-changing love duet for Othello and Desdemona at the end of Act I. Seriously, if that thing doesn’t move you, you are stone, my friend. STONE. It’s just… it’s just sheer musical power creating the rich emotions of a moment and then threatening us to imagine anything better.

Placido Domingo is undoubtedly the leading Otello of the last 40 years. He has recorded the role numerous times, but on disc, I think his work with Renata Scotto is the highlight.

Falstaff (1893) – and finally, for today, is Verdi’s last opera. The product of his old age, Falstaff is a glittering human comedy set amongst ordinary folk, as a drunken lout attempts to seduce two housewives until they find out, and decide to turn the tales. The opera surprised and disappointed the people of 1893, who were expecting the bombastic completion to Verdi’s noisy 60-year legacy. However, it proved to have a 20th century mentality that makes this work a hit nowadays, and a work that can be staged as a heightened period piece with glorious results. Adapting Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Verdi wrote in a mostly through-composed style, where there is little room for individual arias or recitative. At the same time, a sumptuous tapestry of themes and motives does emerge, and all of the roles of the ensemble are hilarious when played well. I recently heard someone describe this opera as “essentially one giant song” and that’s about it. It was a synthesis of theatre and music in a way that opera was always supposed to be, but so often had not. That the man who so loved grand choruses and passionate anthems could find joys in his dotage in the antics of village comedy is one of those miracles which genius so often provides. (I’m ashamed to say I don’t actually have great knowledge of this work on disc – I’ve just been lucky to see it on stage quite a lot in the last few years – but by all reports the Tito Gobbi recording is the benchmark.)

Next time, we’ll take a look at that other guiding light of the late 19th century, as well as some of his more populist contemporaries.


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