The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Greatest Operas, Part IV

Posted by therebelprince on January 29, 2015

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

This is the fourth in my series of post looking at my favourite operas from the 1600s to the present day (you can find previous instalments here). We’ve journeyed through the heights of Romanticism in Italy, France, and Germany in the late 19th century, and now we reach that all-important turning point, as the 20th century dawned, and high art merged with the avant-garde… for a while, at least.

As with all the posts in this series, a few housekeeping notes:

  • this list is subjective, not a “best of” or a “greatest”, but also not with any ulterior motive other than to encourage people to get involved in this astonishing artform;
  • my suggestions for listening or viewing are based primarily on my own preference, but are often only one out of many great options;
  • and, since we’re going chronologically, the numerical listing doesn’t reflect quality. I promise!

24. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924, Italian)

In the world of opera, four men continue to hold great sway among audiences today. In the first three posts, we talked of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. From a very different vantage-point, Puccini completes the set. His ten operas (twelve, if you count Il trittico as three separate works) are foundation texts for most opera companies to this day, and a fairly sizable number of opera subscribers believe that the art of opera essentially died when he did. (Of course, this is utter rubbish, but we’ll leave that sermonizing for a future post.) But it’s not exaggerating to say that Puccini found perhaps the ultimate fusion of the operatic techniques available at the turn-of-the-century, and much other opera of his era was done in imitation of him. His constantly evolving orchestrations, vocal lines that rise from, and fall into, the instruments, and particularly his desire to tell different stories, are all Puccini’s calling cards. Each one of his operas is set in a different social milieu, from the Wild West to Japan, from Catholic churches to bawdy clubs, from outright comedy to pathetic tragedy. Admittedly, with the influence of modernist composers, a lot of young musicians and critics (and I’ve spend a lot of time in the presence of such) find it easy to deride this most populist of composers. Yet, although it’s taken me a while to appreciate him, I’ve certainly come around.

It would be easy to fill a whole post with thoughts on the Puccini canon, but I’ll try to be brief. We have another hundred years of opera to get through, after all. We’ll ignore the first three Puccini operas, although they’re not without worth. Puccini’s career really kicked off with La bohème (The Bohemian Life, 1896), the tale of two love affairs – one tragic, one comic – in bohemian Paris. The characters of the struggling young male artists, the illness-stricken Mimi, and the coquettish singer Musetta, are bound together in an idealist, slightly sentimentalist tale. The Karajan recording, starring Freni and Pavarotti, is one I cherish, although the field is pretty wide. Here’s Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, singing Musetta’s taunting Act II number:

Alongside La bohème, Puccini is best known for two tragedies. Madama Butterfly (1904) is an indictment of Western imperialism, embodied by the caddish American sailor, Pinkerton, who takes a young Japanese girl, Cio-Cio, as his wife. Their ravishing love duet concludes Act I (and it’s a stunner) but, come Act II, it’s clear to us that this was merely a purchase by Pinkerton. Once he’s left port, he’s not coming back, and the cruel destruction of Butterfly is all that follows. The opera is an endless spring of inspiration: the Butterfly/Suzuki duet (ornamented with falling petals in the Moffatt Oxenbould production that has lingered on Australian stages this past decade), the “humming chorus” as Butterfly waits for her lover’s return, and the crushing final aria. The opera’s (and, by extension, the culture’s) treatment of orientalism has come under question – fairly – of late, and the use of the United States’ anthem as Pinkerton’s theme is less than subtle. Yet, Butterfly remains a powerful human drama. Then there’s Puccini’s “shabby little shocker”, Tosca (1900). It’s disheartening that so many of Puccini’s women end up as victims, but they at least go out fighting, and never is that more true than the steely Tosca, an actress caught up in the machinations of a Fascist regime. The play’s second act – a lengthy showdown between Tosca and the loathsome Scarpia – is what theatre should be. Here is Maria Callas (the eternal Tosca) singing Vissi d’arte:

Puccini didn’t publish much music beyond opera, and his output was hardly prolific. But perhaps this was because he spent time digging to the heart of each story in his care. The underrated La rondine (The Swallow, 1917) is a story of a fragile love affair, featuring no historical conflicts, murder attempts, or other 19th century guff. Instead, it has the drawing-room feel of an Ibsen play. Perhaps this atmosphere of “ordinariness” is why La rondine isn’t as often performed, in an era when audiences routinely pay $200 for an opera ticket, and houses seat more than 2,000 people. But the aria Chi il bel sogno di Doretta is well-known, and the second act finishes some utterly wonderful ensemble work. (The Gheorghiu/Alagna album is first-rate.) In fact, after Butterfly, Puccini eschewed the sentimental tragedy in favour of plots that experimented. Not in the way that later, modernist artists experimented, but certainly taking on texts that required characters to express new feelings, not just the same, tired storylines. One example is La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West, 1910), a magnificent piece that the conductor Toscanini called “a great symphonic poem”. Set in Gold Rush-era California, the central character is Minnie, a saloon owner, and her hot-tempered lover Johnson. It’s a piece that does everything you would not expect of a Wild West story, including the opera’s heartbreaking opening, in which a seemingly casual folksong compels the camp’s miners into bittersweet memories of home.

Puccini’s penultimate opera, Il Trittico (1918) is really three operas: a grim verismo (realistic and violent) opera called Il Tabarro (The Cloak); a morality tale about redemption, Suor Angelica; and the dark comedy Gianni Schicchi, in which a grieving family is anything but. His final work, uncompleted at his death, was Turandot (1926), which furthered Puccini’s experimental nature, as he began to play with Eastern music textures, setting his story in a fantasy world filled with wonders, and yet peopled by characters with realistic issues. Turandot is very well represented on disc, although I’m quite partial to the Joan Sutherland recording myself. Here is Leona Mitchell as the loyal-but-doomed slave girl, Liu:

Like Mozart and Verdi before him, Puccini is partially responsible – unwittingly – for keeping opera from progressing in the 20th century, at least with audiences, who proved unwilling to move past him. As in most other artforms, the shock of modernism, combined with the rapidly changing world after two great wars and a new technological era, caused a divide between the creators and the audience. Unlike most artforms, opera never quite won back the subscribers (but perhaps that was because – as it became a more elite pursuit – your “average” opera subscriber became someone with money, and such people are rarely interested in the way the world changes). However, that discussion is for another time. For now, let’s look at a few of Puccini’s contemporaries.

25. Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904, Czech)

Up until now, the story of “great” opera has been almost extensively French, Italian, and German, with some Russians along for the ride. Eastern European opera took a much longer time to crack the mainstream, partly because – like the Russians – it’s so heavily based in folk and traditions foreign to us, but also partly because of the language barrier. Until the 20th century, most opera was performed in the language of whatever city you were in since, obviously, you were catering to your audience, and your local opera singers didn’t speak every language under the sun. It made a great deal of sense. With the 20th century, that attitude changed, and not unfairly: opera in the original language allows singers in a global world to perform the same role anywhere, on short notice. It honours the talent of the original librettist, and – most importantly – the musician. After all, each language sounds very different when set to music. This is particularly true of something as idiomatic as Czech. But, of course, this raised problems: Czech wasn’t a common language, so it was harder for singers to learn. And translating the shorter, sharper syllables would cause a very rough libretto in Italian or English.

But, here we are. An age of linguistically rich opera. Dvořák’s careful, lyrical fairytale/morality tale Rusalka (1901) is a richly folk-oriented piece, and potentially a designer’s dream, uniting the world of villages and castles with that of nymphs and wood sprites. Rusalka is old-fashioned today, but it retains a level of shimmering, otherworldly difference. The Czech recording, conducted by Vaclav Neumann, is an obvious choice, but for something different, here’s Fleming – a renowned Rusalka – singing the iconic Song to the Moon:

26. Francesco Cilea (1866 – 1950, Italian)

Cilea was very much a product of his day, one of those working composers whose legacy is obscured by both the geniuses and populists who were his contemporaries. His legacy is the verismo (or, arguably verismo) drama, Adriana Lecouvreur (1902), a backstage drama about the real-life actress Adriana and her complicated mix of lovers, rivals, and dirty dealings. The plot is famously confusing, the ending a tad ridiculous with its poisoned flower, and stagings prone to melodrama. Yet, the lead roles offer great potential, and Cilea infused the work with more than a few memorable tunes and themes. It’s actually a fairly decent night at the opera. The Tebaldi recording is highly acclaimed and, I just learned on researching this post, that Sutherland recorded the complete opera late in life, which I may need to seek out. Here’s the great Mirella Freni hamming it up in the finale to Act III (not the last act, mind you; they were still writing these things long back in 1902):

27. Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918, French)

Along with Maurice Ravel (whom I’ve not included here simply because, I’m sorry to say, I don’t know any of his celebrated operas), Debussy was an Impressionist, setting him thematically at odds with really all of the 26 composers we’ve talked about thus far. He was, by all accounts, something of a strange genius. Whether most music-goers understood his genius then – whether most of us do now – is debatable. Opera wasn’t Debussy’s strongpoint, if only because he was so busy with everything else, but his lasting legacy in opera is Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). Telling the tale of a doomed love triangle in a kind of medieval, fairytale society, Debussy’s opera is a kind of dreamlike experience. It has almost in common with poetry and straight theatre than with what we think of us as opera. Scenes come and go in quick succession, characters exist as much in the abstract score as in the words they sing. On first hearing – at least to the uninitiated – the score sounds as cold as steel. But as it opens up, there’s a haunting vein running underneath. The music is continuous, while the vocal line often resembles a kind of formal speech pattern, like a chant. (A live recording starring Eilene Hannan is not all that easy to find these days, but fairly good stuff.) Whatever it was, Pelléas et Mélisande was not destined to be the future of opera, but it foretold the deconstruction of operatic form that would follow.

28. Carl Nielsen (1865 – 1931, Danish)

This Danish composer, whose symphonies are now all the rage, is one I’ve only recently discovered, so it’s probably premature to put him on the list. Nevertheless, his Saul and David (1902) is a biblical epic with the scope of the great German operas of his era, but written in an altogether different idiom to the Romantic music that was common. Consider this a premature addition to the list based on my addiction to the full opera, available to hear on Youtube, which I keep going back to:

29. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908, Russian)

The last of the Russian greats to make the list, Rimsky-Korsakov seems to merge a love of folklore and “authentic” music practices, with a willingness to experiment but never to push things too far. He wrote a decent number of operas, which – perhaps deliberately or perhaps just by virtue of his working in the folkloric medium of another culture – depart from the classical opera mold in many ways. The Snow Maiden (1882) is set in a land where it’s always winter, and haunts the hell out of me as conducted by Fedoseyev. The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1907) is an expansive, supernatural, nationalist orgy for the senses (there’s a good live recording by Gergiev). Rimsky-Korsakov was apparently an atheist (as, after all, many true geniuses have been for millennia), which lends an air of transcendence to his fairytales; they’re not just searching for some conventional view of religious redemption. Finally, there’s one of his most accessible pieces, The Golden Cockerel (1909) in which an embattled king and his enemy, a beautiful and cunning queen, come together thanks to the machinations of a magic bird. Yep, it’s pretty out there.

Anyhow, that’s all from me for this week. Next week, we delve further into the 1900s and 1910s, and a whole bunch of men who wanted to make a lot of noise.


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