The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Greatest Operas, Part V

Posted by therebelprince on February 5, 2015

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

For the fifth instalment of my series on the greatest operas of the last 400 years, we’ve reached the 20th century. Whereas the 19th century had been dominated by the Romantic (and romantic) tales of Italy, France, and Germany, by the early 1900s, opera opened to both Eastern Europe and the barbaric English-speaking nations. It was also developing more ways of storytelling, with some composers taking opera closer to “straight” theatre, while others pulled away into more abstract and expressionist modes of music.

Like any era of great change and experimentation, the 1900s and 1910s seems to yield a lot of “exciting” works, but few that are anywhere near perfect. Still, many of the works I’m talking about today have at least a weak grip on the standard repertory, and they can be particularly enjoyable when done well. Opera was losing some of the things that made it great in the 1800s, but was also letting go of the sentimentality and pomposity. Now, the battle between what audiences wanted to see, and what artists wanted to create, would begin in earnest.

My usual caveats before we continue:

  • All opinions, including choices of recordings, are subjective suggestions only. Everyone will have different preferences, which is one of the delights of an artform, and there are many great ways of performing or conducting a piece;
  • more importantly, since we’re moving chronologically, the numerical listing doesn’t imply anything about quality (I keep saying it… but people keep not hearing it…).

30. Frederick Delius (1862 – 1934, English)

Even as the rest of the world was becoming avant-garde, English people of the era seem to be pretty conservative (hashtag this week in rampant historical generalisations). Still, Delius had a fairly substantial output, and he was well-aware of the changes to harmony and chromaticism that were taking over music.  His work doesn’t touch me like his successors, Vaughan Williams and Britten, but his tragedy-cum-morality-tale, A Village Romeo and Juliet (1907), is a tense, portentous work, with some solid character writing. It was the kind of straightforward opera that would become terribly unfashionable outside of England before very long. It’s also a reminder the character and atmosphere were – and remain – the bread and butter of all narrative artforms, like opera, regardless of how experimental things can (and should) get.

31. Dame Ethel Smyth (1858 – 1944, English)

One of only a handful of women on this list, Smyth was – fittingly – a woman’s suffragette. Before the 20th century, women composers were essentially nonexistent. And, even throughout the 20th century, the scope and increasing cost of opera seems to have prevented the establishment from providing for female opera composers. It is a problem that will surely be fixed in the 21st, but it looms large on this list. Smyth’s music isn’t as revelatory as her contemporaries, which is why she’s not a name on the tongue of many concertgoers, but she certainly knew how to construct opera around a text. Her feminist comedy The Boatswain’s Mate (1916) was spoken of highly, although I cannot find a recording of it. However, I do enjoy her gloomy The Wreckers (1906), set in a Cornish village with a dark secret: the citizens lure passing ships to their doom on the rocks, to plunder them. The people of this stormy, isolated village are as unfriendly as their atmosphere, and another example of the how folklore and old stories seemed to play a crucial role in opera of each country.

32. Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945, Hungarian)

Another composer whose music seems to arise from folk music is the great Hungarian, Bartók. Incredibly accomplished, the composer’s works – particularly later in life – tread the ground between the advanced tonal works of his older contemporaries, and the more dissonant and atonal music being developed by the “Lost Generation”. Blah blah musical analysis whatever, the point is that his sole opera, A kékszakállú herceg vára (Bluebeard’s Castle, 1918) is bracing and fantastic. Featuring only two singing characters, we find Bluebeard bringing home his new wife, young Judith, to his castle. The opera is set in a darkened hall, off which run seven doors. Gradually – despite her husband’s warnings – Judith opens each door, behind which emerge bold shafts of light, and an increasing truth about the horror of the situation. A psychosexual tale, the opera requires two strong performers as well as a large orchestra to portray the dissonant wonders of the score. It’s perhaps the ultimate gateway drug to Eastern European opera. There are dozens of recordings, and I’ve enjoyed any that I’ve listened to, but diehards speak of the Kertesz recording as particularly worthy.

Here is a recording from the BBC Proms, starring Jeanne-Michèle Carbonett and Sir John Tomlinson. It’s the Fifth Door (the Kingdom, represented by white), which is my absolute favourite.

33. Riccardo Zandonai (1883 – 1944, Italian)

I should say – at this point in my list – that there are bound to be “serious music lovers” who look at my addition of such one-hit wonders as Smyth and Zandonai and ask, “why?”. And I can only respond by comparing opera to any artform. The film buff who cites Reservoir Dogs or Bonnie and Clyde in their Top 10 films list is considered completely reasonable. Those works contain no deep, allegorical statements, nor do they use the medium of film to destroy the establishment or seek the highest depths of humanity. You could easily make a Top 10 list out of solely European art films by that rationale. However, we would acknowledge that those are two technically-accomplished, powerful, well-acted and cleverly-directed films. Thus, they deserve their fans. And so am I for opera. There’s a place for high genius and a place for experiment. But works that are accomplished and powerful even without necessarily being mind-blowing can also be worth our whiles too, or so I believe.

The rather stern looking Zandonai is another of those composers whose longterm fame rests entirely in one work, in this case the melodrama Francesca da Rimini (1914). A talented and respected composer (he was reportedly the weakened Puccini’s original choice to finish Turandot), Zandonai was also a music lover, and champion of others’ music. It’s perhaps no surprise at this point in the list to learn that Francesca da Rimini concerns a doomed love affair, this time between two young people who fall in love – she assuming that he is her betrothed husband.  Since her father is a political figure, and her actual intended husband is rather unpleasant, things do not end well. Despite my earlier rant, Francesca contains lots of first-rate music, including the sumptuous love duet between Francesca and Paolo. It has clear roots in the lush harmonies of Puccini and his kin, but some of the vocal writing seems to go beyond Puccini into something approaching the late Romantics. Domingo and Renata Scotto put in a good showing on DVD (the opera seems to be rarely recorded on CD). Here they are in the climactic moments of the opera (there’s lots of more cheerful stuff before this, I promise):

34. Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949, German)

Every one of my posts thus far has included one absolute icon in their number (Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini). Strauss is the closest equivalent on this list. He’s certainly an icon to many young composers, although at the same time his works lack the effortless genius of the great works from that esteemed quartet. Strauss wrote for orchestra, chamber group, solo instruments, voices, and choirs, as well as his litany of operas. Grounded firmly in a Romantic style, Strauss’ earlier operas are arguably the best, as he – alongside the other composers of the ’10s and ’20s – rushed past Romanticism and into Modernism.

His three pre-war operas remain popular to this day. Salome (1905) is a wonderful piece of grotesquerie, in which the messed-up teenage princess lusts after her stepfather Herod’s prisoner, John the Baptist, in a court full of hypocrites and absurdities. The lead role requires great range and stamina; it’s also one of those operatic ironies that calls for the look of a lithe, teenage girl… which has rarely been the case. The score is dense, chromatic, and deliberately unpleasant throughout, breaking forth into dazzling beauty only in the final ten minutes, in which Salome demands, receives, and makes out with John’s bloody, severed head. Unsurprisingly, the stuffy rich folk of New York society managed to get performances cancelled when it premiered there. (When I first saw Salome – with the great Cheryl Barker in the title role – the house was half-empty, and much of the applause seemed half-hearted. Shame. Europe seems far more receptive to these kinds of works than the US or Australia, even a hundred years on.) On disc, Birgit Nilsson remains a formidable Salome, although the role has had many successful interpreters to record the role since.

Strauss followed Salome with his expressionist masterpiece Elektra (1909). Grounded in Greek mythology, Elektra is a product of its age in its focus on the psychological destruction of its title character, conveyed through experimental means. A lot of productions set the opera in a blank space, or somewhere entirely abstract. It remains a challenging piece, essentially 100 minutes of increasingly grim work in a highly dissonant format, in which Elektra is characterised in all her psychological murkiness while the characters around her remain deliberate ciphers. I’ve seen two performances on DVD (sadly, none in person) and both times you can hear in the audience applaud with joy at the hypnotic power the work has had. While Nilsson is again good on CD, I’d recommend watching this one on DVD first, to feel the impact. The next Strauss opera remains his most beloved work, the bittersweet comedy Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1911). It represents the move Strauss began to make away from harsh modernism as he grew older. Der Rosenkavalier is a complex comedy of errors in which a Princess (known as the Marschallin, a legendary soprano role) begins to lose her younger lover Octavian (played by a female, in this case a mezzo-soprano) to the beautiful young Sophie. Numerous minor characters and caricatures fill out an opera full of social critique and heartbreak. The setting is 1740s Vienna, a time of some decadence, which often leads to productions that reflect the fact that this world would gradually fade away. It is, indeed, a truly beautiful work, with exquisite vocal writing and a constantly varied score. The character of the Marschallin is also a significant character in terms of operatic development: a slightly older woman who is graceful and self-assured, yet also lustful and, ultimately, having to admit the practical realities of her life. Renée Fleming puts in a strong performance on DVD, while there’s a classic recording starring the timeless Elisabeth Schwartzkopf and the equally brilliant Christa Ludwig.

In his later life, Strauss continued writing works of brilliance for orchestra and voice, developing a style that accepted modernism but remained tonal throughout. He also faced the oppression of the Nazis with some solidarity and strength. Although he would continue writing opera for another thirty years, these three early operas are the ones that gained the greatest hold on the repertory. I’ve been gradually diving into some of the later operas but I find with Strauss, until I see them in performance, my appreciation is quite limited. So, I leave you with this recording of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa singing the Marschallin’s first act aria. (The final trio is the most resounding moment of the opera, but it really works best when it’s been earned by experience with the rest of the piece.)

35. Erich Korngold (1897 – 1957, Austro-Hungarian American)

Korngold is an interesting case: a boy wonder who had his first successes in his early 20s before moving into the unexpected – and still new – world of film scores. His Academy Award-winning and nominated scores are still held to high praise, as intricate pieces of music as good as anything symphonic being produced at the time. Towards the end of his life, however, it seems that his work wasn’t greatly respected by the establishment. It wasn’t until the ’70s that his memory started to be honoured. This was perhaps because he was a through-and-through Romantic, which thus made him seem stuffy as the 20th century dragged on. Korngold’s operatic legacy is his glittering Die tote Stadt (The Dead City, 1920) which became an international sensation when the composer was just 23. I’ve read more than one critic who has said – not unfairly – that the work is a Romantic pastiche of all the opera composers of his youth. And, well, of course it is. All artists in their twenties imitate until they find the genius within them. Still, ever since I saw Die tote Stadt – at its much-delayed Australian premiere in 2012, with Cheryl Barker and Stefan Vinke – I’ve become a bit of a Korngold convert. (Due to the massive orchestra required, and the unpleasantly tight confines of the Sydney Opera House’s orchestra pit, the musicians were in another room, being conducted via video screen!)

The opera’s focal character is Paul, a young widower, who meets a beautiful dancer who resembles his late wife. The bulk of the opera is an extended hallucination – or is it reality? – as the pair embark on a relationship in fin-de-siecle Bruges. There’s plenty of gorgeous music, including a superb baritone aria in the second act for a member of Marietta’s troupe, and the final scene, as Paul must face the reality of his life. (They say that the opera’s central theme – dealing with the loss of a loved one – resonated strongly with the post-war audience. I felt that resonance still, in the Sydney Opera House in 2012.) Things do go off the rails a bit in the third act, in which the gates of hell briefly open up onstage and – I suspect – opera directors throw their hands up and say “let’s just get through this part”. Still, it’s a wonderful piece. There are a few great recordings. My personal favourite at present is that by Leif Segerstam, but a recent live performance conducted by Sebastian Weigle is also really rather good. Below is the opera’s most iconic piece, a song Marietta sings for Paul in the first act, which is the thematic heart of the opera. This recording is sung by the superb Barbara Hendricks. (I recommend searching for videos or audio of Renée Fleming singing this one, but I think I’ve linked to enough Fleming videos in this list already!)

In the next post, we’ll make it to the Roaring Twenties, and everything goes to the dogs. It’s gonna be fun.


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