The Greatest Operas, Part III
Posted by therebelprince on January 22, 2015
This post is simulcast from my blog “The Annals of Opera”.
This is the third in my series on my favourite operas of all time – a deep passion of mine that is, sadly, not one shared by a great deal of my generation. So, I hope that this ongoing list may be of interest to newcomers or opera amateurs like myself.
In Week One, I explored the origins of opera, while Week Two delved into the “golden era” of opera in the 19th century. This week, I take a look at the maturation of these forms throughout Europe as the 19th century came to its end. It is one of the defining periods of the artform, and a time of great… well, not fun exactly, but certainly brilliance. Let’s dive in!
First of all, the usual caveats:
- This is an incredibly subjective list, featuring the operas I love, whether they be acknowledged masterpiece or quirky underdogs;
- The suggested recordings I list for some operas are just that: suggestions. They may not be the Platonic ideal of the opera, but I like them. I delight in comparing styles and interpretations, and tend to refute the people who pick one recording as the benchmark and then deny all the others;
- the operas are listed by composer, in rough chronological order. The numerical listings express nothing to do with quality!
17. Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883, German)
Well, we may as well talk about the big one. As we saw last week, Giuseppe Verdi defined what we’ve come to know as “Italian Opera”, reducing the focus on simple stories with florid vocal lines, increasing the importance of some things that are either blessings or curses – big chorus, historical events, human tragedy – depending on whom you talk to. He was incessantly popular in Europe, in part because he used so many good tunes. And therein lies the arguable problem. As he aged, Verdi certainly interweaved his scores with great skill. The construction of the musical writing – musicologists or high-level amateurs should check out Julien Budden’s three-volume The Operas of Verdi – is complex and detailed. Yet, the music’s only purpose was to tell the story, and to tell it beautifully. Aside from Otello and Falstaff (and, arguably, Aida), Verdi wasn’t particularly interested in investing his works with allegory or philosophy, nor was he interested in the use of a music as being subservient to the drama of the piece. It’s wrong to say that Wagner and Verdi were somehow writing in opposition to one another – they lived in different countries and were members of different schools of thought – but, by the end of the 19th century, they were increasingly seen as the pillars of the two traditions that would maintain a hold over classical music for the first few decades of the 20th century.
Wagner was a complex man, often in danger of poverty without the aid of the aristocracy; sometimes in ill-health, sometimes a fervent Socialist, often not so much; unpleasantly racist but undeniably of a genius and vision far too rare in humankind. He still commands awe or revulsion, depending on the individual. As a composer, Wagner was determined not to write “opera” but to write “music-dramas” in which theatre and music came together with art and philosophy. His works are characterised by “leitmotivs”, in which individual musical phrases represent characters, themes, emotions, or plot elements. What’s more, these phrases evolve, mingle, and change over time, to reflect the evolution of the story. In Wagner’s operas, the voice is just one of many instruments (although a powerful one), and ten or fifteen minutes can pass without any singing. While most of his stories are taken from conventional plots, they are written with incredible passion and depth. Moreso, his works often seem allegorical, and his characters often seem to reflect deeper philosophical arguments. Finally (if one can use that word when discussing Wagner), the “conversations” happening in the orchestra seem to use music in the same way that expressionist painters would use colour, or expressionist poets would use words. There’s a lot more happening in the score than the love affair or swordfight happening on stage.
Wagner’s ten “mature” operas are all startling works, although I am only beginning to crack the surface of most of them. He is best known for the four-opera cycle Der Ring Des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung, 1876), undoubtedly the most epic piece of music ever written. It’s a story not unfamiliar to movie audiences of today, as a varied roster of supernatural beings – gods, dwarves, valkyries, and so on – fight for a golden ring that offers supreme power to the person wearing it. Yet, as the 16-hour work (played over four nights, with intervals that can be as long as 90 minutes to accommodate breaks for eating and discussion) continues, a very human tale emerges from the grandeur. The densely-packed score is so rewarding that there are people who will literally travel the world to see new productions of The Ring. I saw my first live Ring in 2013 (Melbourne) and was impressed to discover that the work never loses your interest. Indeed, on stage, each act almost seems a little tale in itself, all of which add up to an astounding whole.
Strangely, I’d recommend the Ring as a good starting point for anyone interested in Wagner, since it’s a captivating story about which much is written, including many handy “guides”. John Culshaw chronicled the tumultuous, multi-year audio recording of the Decca Ring in his worthy book Ring Resounding. The Decca Ring – conducted by Sir Georg Solti – is still highly-recommended, and I think it’s a good place to start. The more recent live recording conducted by Daniel Barenboim is, however, my current favourite.
Two other Wagner works that I’m particularly fond of are Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843), an atmospheric tale of terror and disturbing love on the high seas (which, being amongst the composer’s earlier works, is a bit more conventional), and Tristan und Isolde (1865), opera’s ultimate statement on the sublime nature of love. Although the Italians would continue writing about love until Puccini’s death seventy years later, opera would gradually have to find new areas of concern now that Wagner had essentially said it all. Tristan is arguably an opera for radio (essentially nothing happens in the second act except declarations of love) that has been worshipped by everyone from Nieztsche to Proust, although Mark Twain didn’t get it, and its refusal to supply easy harmonies annoyed many of the contemporary critics. It’s based on a very old story, as two young people fall in love despite their respective societal roles, and – despite some minor subplots – almost nothing happens. Yet nothing happens with such reckless musical power that one can retrospectively predict the popularity of the operas of Philip Glass. Regardless, those final ten minutes, in which Isolde unites love and death, must rank among the most commanding in not just opera, but music. It is performed below by the awesome soprano Waltraud Meier and conductor Daniel Barenboim, with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an orchestra Barenboim founded to help bridge relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
I’m perhaps too narrative-based to ever give myself over completely to Wagner (and I find Parsifal unpleasantly Victorian in its morals), but there’s no denying he obliterated what came before. Next on my list of operas to listen to is his late comedy, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master-Singers of Nuremberg, 1868). A four-and-a-half hour comedy seems ludicrous, but I’m told it’s quite good. We shall see, Wagner. We shall see.
18. Arrigo Boito (1842 – 1918, Italian)
Boito was one of the leading artistic figures of his day, a somewhat libertarian writer and poet who became best known to the 20th century as the librettist of some of Verdi’s greatest operas, including Otello and Falstaff (for which he was instrumental in bringing the composer out of retirement). However, Boito was also a somewhat reluctant composer. He doesn’t appear to have written much music, but his Faustian opera Mefistofele (1868) is an unconventional delight. The charismatic Mefistofele is a dynamite role for a bass and, in his brilliance, is like Satan in Paradise Lost if Milton had been less of a religious sourpuss. The opera is structurally a bit odd, with Acts 2 and 3 telling their own story, and Act 4 a separate tangent from the rest of the plot altogether. Still, on disc, the work is quite delectable. The two major recordings both have strengths and weaknesses yet, while I like the Norman Treigle/Placido Domingo album, I’m inclined to pick the other, starring Pavarotti and Mirella Freni. They are outstanding in one of opera’s most delicate love duets (made all the sadder because she’s gone completely loopy by this point). Indeed, I’ve heard dozens of versions of Lontano, lontano, and only Pavarotti really seems to get the urgency in the tenor line:
19. Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921, French)
Saint-Saëns was a great composer across many instruments and many formats. An unusual man, he had deeply passionate thoughts on music and composition, and seems to have been moved to hate or loathe the work of other composers. Although he lived in the height of Romanticism, Saint-Saëns wrote in a much more classical style, composing technically complex works. He had an eye toward the future, and was an early supporter of Wagner, but he ended his life considered by many as a bastion of conservatism. His operas are forgotten except for his utter masterpiece Samson et Dalila (1877). The biblical tale of long-haired Samson and his betrayer, Delilah, is set with some of the most sensual music ever written. The music swirls for two hours around the mismatched lovers, culminating – true – in moments of traditional operatic pomposity, but always based in that gorgeous composition. The tenor role of Samson is pretty cool, but it’s the husky mezzo role of Delilah that has held the opera in such high esteem over the years. Jessye Norman and Marilyn Horne are two of the greatest Delilahs of the late 20th century. Below is the legendary Maria Callas singing Delilah’s ultimate act of seduction, Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix. (As a concert piece, Samson’s few lines have been removed, which is a great shame, as they’re high-flying declarations of blind love.)
20. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893, Russian)
I mentioned in my previous post that I find it challenging to appreciate Russian opera, simply because their thought processes – and, as a result, modes of communicating and storytelling – are vastly different to those of the Western mind. Glinka managed to break through by sheer depth of talent, and Tchaikovsky took that several leagues further. Eugene Onegin (1879) is an unmistakably Russian work about young love, the frailty of memory, and the necessity of defending one’s honour, but it’s also a human tale that still speaks to us today. Eugene is a typical Russian cad, actually a bit of a dick but audiences don’t notice because his friend, Lensky, is dickier. As is the Soviet way, people get very unhappy about the breaking of social decorum, others get very unhappy about having a messy house, and people show up expecting free food from their neighbours. Oh, that’s not actually the plot? Right. Tatyana really loves Eugene; Eugene is a bit distracred with himself to notice; by the time he finally does, years later, they’ve both been through too much for it to go where it should. It’s like The Remains of the Day but the characters can’t seem to stop expressing their feelings.
The character of Tatyana – whose highwire ‘Letter Scene’ in the first act threatens to make the rest of the opera seem anticlimactic by comparison – is one of the great soprano roles in the repertoire. To newcomers (like I was until last year), Eugene Onegin plays better on the stage than on recording, as its many characters and their various interactions are integral to the appreciation of the piece.
Tchaikovsky lovers also recommend: Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades,1890).
21. Jules Massenet (1842 – 1912, French)
Massenet’s career and afterlife alternates between celebrated and dismissed. Popular with the Establishment in his native France, Massenet regularly held high-level positions in the music world. His music was popular, while his own experience in the orchestra ensured that he was able to write works catering to the needs of the musos. Although there is very much a trademark Massenet style – ineffably French, with liquid vocal writing – he was fond of working across a variety of opera genres, fascinated as much by the modern as the tragic, as much by the human as the fairytale. Like a 20th century “jobbing” composer, Massenet utilised his training to construct dramatic pieces, theatre in the form of opera. He has been described as only a “second-rate composer … but at the least, a first-class second-rate one”. To people who are only interested in old works of art if they were written by genius, perhaps stay away from Massenet. But – after a period of neglect – singers like Beverly Sills, Renée Fleming, and Roberto Alagna have restored the reputation of individual operas, and it seems clear that there are probably other works out there waiting for public recognition again (Massenet wrote at least 30 of the things).
Of the five Massenet operas I know, I’m fond of all of them. Manon (1884) is his most enduring work, telling the well-known tale of the country girl brought down by a combination of love, lust, and decadence. It’s a powerful opera, no doubt, but I think it’s enduring in part because it’s conventional. This is what the first half of the 20th century saw as “opera”: tales of downfall, forbidden love, and luminous arias that emerge from unexpected scenes (at one point, her would-be lover Des Grieux briefly becomes a priest, only for Manon’s arrival in his chapel to change his mind through the power of love song). As opera composers in the 20th century became more avant-garde, works like Manon seemed to stand for everything straightforward and immutable about 19th century opera, even if their opportunities for a singer to show off were unavoidable. More successful, in my opinion, are Werther (1892), in which a young poet loses his mind for the sake of love, and the composer finds new heights of melody (well-recorded by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu), and the John-the-Baptist tale of Hériodiade (1881), which seems to have been largely forgotten, but was recorded twice in 1995. Twice! I haven’t heard the Cheryl Studer recording, but I very much like the Renée Fleming.
My Massenet pet project is Thaïs (1894). Like many composers, Massenet wrote a lot of his parts for specific voices. The lead role of Thaïs – a Greek courtesan in Ancient Egypt – was written for the ferociously talented soprano Sybil Sanderson, and her legacy has left difficult Massenet roles that require highly talented performers to make them work. Sadly, Leontyne Price never recorded the opera, although she does an exquisite version of the “Mirror” Aria on her Prima Donna album. In this opera, a repressed monk determines to save the courtesan from sin, unaware that his feelings for her are deeper than that of mere salvation. As he attempts to win her over to piousness despite her comfortable lifestyle, her spiritual rise contrasts with his gradual conversion to rationalism. The instrumental interlude known as the Meditation is well-known, but it is the moments of pure, platonic friendship that develop between the two characters later in the opera that are the strongest. The Renée Fleming/Thomas Hampson recording of this tale is particularly effective, although when they reunited for DVD 13 years later, some of the bloom of their voices were gone, and an unforgiving production didn’t make the most of the characters’ depths (particularly not the bitterly ironic ending).
And, finally, there’s my Massenet guilty pleasure, the colourful Esclarmonde (1889). Based on a medieval legend, the knight Roland falls in love with a sorceress, who needs his help to save her people, but whose own magic powers are tied to her chastity. It’s as curious as it sounds, with water sprites and curses. It’s also the excuse for Massenet’s most symphonic opera score. Another one written for Sanderson, the title role is the most challenging in the composer’s canon, and seems to have been done rarely between 1900 (after Sanderson stopped performing it) and 1974, when Richard Bonynge convinced his wife, Joan Sutherland, to take on the role. It became one of her signature roles – Sutherland called Esclarmonde “the most erotic music I ever sang” – and her recording, featuring the exceptionally talented Giacomo Aragall and Huguette Tourangeau, is a thing of beauty.
Massenet was a composer of his age, undoubtedly, but I think his sensibilities should be remembered and cherished.
22. Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1857 – 1919, Italian)
Poor Leoncavallo had the misfortune to work in the 1890s and beyond, when tastes to change and the Italian public were only interested in Puccini. Don’t mistake me, he seems to have worked fairly consistently for thirty years, but – a century after his death – Leoncavallo is remembered only for one work. Having said that, it’s one of the 20 most popular operas in the world. Pagliacci, set amongst a troupe of travelling performers in Calabria, blurs the lines between the characters and the characters they’re playing, as Canio – the lead performer in the troupe – begins to suspect his wife, Nedda, of infidelity. Pagliacci is very often given as part of a double bill, alongside Mascagni’s domestic tragedy Cavalleria Rusticana, (1890), which has some touching sentimental music but is – for my money – a tad dull. Although, if more operas were 80 minutes long, perhaps the artform would still be popular with my generation?
If you know one aria from opera, it’s almost definitely from this one.The Tito Gobbi recording is stellar, although Domingo is surely the most accomplished Canio of the late 20th century.
23. Engelbert Humperdinck (1854 – 1921, German)
Next week, we’ll be looking at more composers who worked in the 19th century, but all of whom contributed to the 20th century aesthetic of opera. Humperdinck remains well-known due to his Wagnerian version of the fairytale Hänsel und Gretel (1893), which is still regularly performed to this day. Expansive and magical, the opera probably isn’t on this list because of any sense of experimental genius. It’s here because it’s one of those operas that many of us grew up with, and that was one of the first pieces of classical music for children of several generations, including my own. And yet, isn’t that one of the ways in which we can tell the worth of a piece of art? That, 120 years after being written, it’s still as affecting as ever? Unlike ballet (and even theatre), introducing children to opera is a harder task, so works like this remain vital.
In the next post, we’ll move into the early 20th century, as Romanticism gives way to Expressionism and the pursuit of the modern, while Puccini makes his mark.