The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Greatest Operas, Part VI

Posted by therebelprince on February 12, 2015

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

To the one person still reading this, welcome to the sixth instalment of my Annals of Opera, in which I list my favourite operas from 1600 to the present day, and hopefully stumble upon enlightenment upon the way.

Last time, we reached the 1920s, where Romantic music gave way begrudingly to modernism, although a few composers said, “why bother?” It was a strange time in all artforms and, sadly but understandably, a time when artists’ desire to challenge tradition and accepted systems led them to create works that were important rather than artistically whole. It’s the era of Brecht, where it wasn’t just enough to evolve and subvert existing ways of telling stories. No, you had to completely dismantle the system. I sound bitter, although I’m not, because it ultimately led to the rich, explorative world we live in today. But it’s a shame to see that so many of the operas (and other works of art) produced in the ’20s, ’30s, and even ’40s are ultimately works of their time, and just don’t translate in the way that the great works of previous decades had achieved. Of course, populist opera was still being created – the Metropolitan Opera commissioned or premiered a lot of new works during these years – but, almost without exception, they’ve faded from view without so much as a single commercially-available recording. At the same time, the Great Depression and the subsequent political turmoil that led to World War II had a major effect.

Still, we’ve reached an important point. If you were to look at the average opera season – particularly in an English-speaking country – you could be forgiven for thinking opera ends here. Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Puccini’s Il Trittico had been the last works to enter the standard repertory. Puccini would follow it up posthumously with Turandot in the ’20s, and we looked last week at Korngold’s box office success with Die tote Stadt but, well, things were different. Audiences gradually became conservative but, at least for now, the vogue seems to have shifted to operetta and “light” opera, which – like mainstream movies – were prone to grow outdated very quickly. So, we’ll be moving through the ’20s and ’30s at a fairly brisk pace, with a more multicultural cast of characters. Shall we begin?

My usual caveats:

  • All operas, recordings, and clips are suggestions, based on my subjective taste. I’m always interested to encounter new works and new interpretations of old works;
  • We’re going in rough chronological order, so being 50th doesn’t mean I value that composer less than the person in 3rd.

36. Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928, Czech)

Janáček’s operas, like so many of those in our list today, attempt to come closer to realism. Puccini and his ilk had sought a kind of realism in their verismo operas, but these were still full of heightened arias and intense, lyrical beauty. The works of Janáček – particularly his operas – seem to come from a musical melting-pot. The orchestration is at times lush and romantic, but the overall musical structure is definitely “modernist”, with endlessly varying rhythms and constantly shifting musical keys. His characters, meanwhile, often sing in short, clipped phrases, taking their origins partly from the natural rhythms of the Czech language, but also from psychology; many of his greatest characters are repressed by others, or repressed within themselves. A lot of his operas seem to have roots in folk music, but they’ve also been described as very early examples of minimalism. This speech-heavy style was evident in many composers of the era. Inevitably, it’s not my favourite means of operatic communication – any more than a modernist play in which the characters speak entirely in clipped sentences so the playwright can comment on the impossibility of modern communication, or some such – but it makes its point. And, more than some of the later modernists, Janáček’s work retains elements of the Romantic while also finding his own style of expression. This is perhaps the reason why his operas have only grown in popularity over the decades.

Janacek’s operas seem to fall into two (very broad) camps: tales grounded in the unreal or the magical, which usually carry weighty themes underneath; and stories of the cruelty of common humans. The latter camp is a grim one. His works are set in villages and prison camps. These have been the location of many operas, of course, but these seem almost a rebuke to the alleged “realism” of all that came before. Jenůfa (1904) and Káťa Kabanová (1921) are tales of women – and their men – pushed into corners by prejudice, tradition, and outright hatred. As in so many fairy- and folk-tales, mothers and stepmothers are particularly unpleasant, and the mob is quick to judge. The composer’s last opera, Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead, 1930) takes place within a Siberian prison, where tales of hope and woe play out amongst a large ensemble. With their dense, chromatic scores and Czech idioms, the operas aren’t easy for a newcomer, but the tense fabric of his works is well worth seeking out. I’m no Janáček scholar but Sir Charles Mackerras – a conductor who seems to have made it his mission to bring the composer’s works to the Western world – is perhaps the most renowned in the field, so any album conducted by him would be a great place to start.

The less realist operas – perhaps because they are less “traditional” in content and staging – have taken longer to catch on, but they’re all the more exciting because of it. Příhody lišky Bystroušky (The Cunning Little Vixen, 1924) is a splendid reflection on the cycle of life, set amongst the animals of the forest, as a pet fox breaks free of her freedom to discover what lies in the real world. A truly delightful work with some cold morals at its core, The Cunning Little Vixen seems to appeal to the young as much as the old.

The early opera The Excursions of Mr. Broucek to the Moon and the 15th Century is a social satire full of flights of fancy and a hard-to-penetrate array of musical motifs, but it’s always excited me because it seems to suggest that casually brilliant relationship with fantasy that artists of the time (see particularly the first silent films) had. More successful is Věc Makropulos (The Makropulos Affair, 1926), in which a group of modern-day folk stumble across the dark secret of a famous singer, Emilia Marty. It’s a claustrophobic piece that feels like an ever-tightening noose. The gorgeous flights of music make beauty out of discord, yet the music suggests the (literally) endless yearning and regret-after-success that typify the main character. Great stuff.

37. Alban Berg (1885 – 1935, Austrian)

I mentioned earlier that there were many straightforward, populist “light” operas in the ’20s and ’30s that did well and were never heard from again. By a similar notion, there was a large number of angry young men, determined to have their art mean something, say something. To confront social issues, and make a lot of noise while doing so. Undeniably, they did all of the above. They were also – along with their brothers and sisters in theatre, film, art, and literature – in part responsible for the massive social upheavals. On top of this (again, as with every other medium of art), they would ultimately lead to our modern era, when the tenets of the narrative-based works would merge – to some degree – with these iconoclasts. And yet, these young men also had a more defiant and unspoken objective: to cause discomfort, particularly to the well-fed opera audiences, many of whom were still acting like it was the 19th century despite the massive world changes brought about by WWI and other contemporary events. A reviewer – commenting on one work of this era – wrote, “The work is intended, one learns, to poke fun. As far as I am able to discern, it pokes fun chiefly at those who paid money for it”. The works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, for instance, such as The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (still revived with startling frequency), are good examples. I leave it to the reader as how successful these endeavours were – arguably, just as few of these composers are known today as the light opera folks, at least outside of university music departments – but I’ve always found something about them a little bit naive. It’s challenging theatre, alright, but the people attending are those who want to be challenged. The people who perhaps need the insight are unlikely to be there. The divide between the desires of the artists and the desires of the mainstream audiences was beginning to grow.

All of which is a preface to Alban Berg, the poster boy for the new, 20th century styles of music such as “twelve-tone composition”, that deliberately laid waste to everything people thought they knew about music composition. Berg’s two operas are masterpieces of the form. Some of the twelve-tone composers seemed to live entirely in their heads, creating music that was structurally fascinating but cold and impenetrable to the audience (“C’est arithmetique!”, a character in a Ravel opera says) – and, after all, when music is your medium, what is to be gained if only musicologists can interpret it in a live setting? In orchestral pieces, perhaps, philosophy and abstraction could be the order of the day; in a narrative-based work, that made less sense. Berg’s works, however, stress the human nature of the characters, and his scores – although still very challenging for an opera house audience – have their fair share of Romantic leadings. Indeed, I’d argue that it’s this fusion of the modern and the classical, combined with a solid sense of drama, that has kept Berg’s two works in the repertoire almost a hundred years after their composition.

The stronger of the two is Wozzeck (1925), a fascinating, 90-minute excursion into the brutal life and senseless death of the poor title character, a messed-up nobody who can’t seem to catch a break with his wife, his boorish military squadron, or society as a whole. (Opera: using the lives and deaths of the poor for its own entertainment since 1860.) In its uncompromising examination of poverty, Wozzeck treats its characters without any form of sentimentality. The sizable orchestra works through a dense score, and the taut running time of the drama has given Wozzeck a fairly consistent power over audiences for 90 years. His second opera, Lulu  (1937), is far more ambitious, a comic-tragedy about the sensuous, amoral Lulu, who works her way through decadent Germany, from poverty to wealth, from prison to parties, amongst a large gallery of satirical characters. When she’s not convincing her lovers to kill themselves for her, she’s barely suppressing bisexual urges or moonlighting as a prostitute, a decision that doesn’t work out so well for her. Although, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition Jack the Ripper, dot they? The work – by virtue of its picaresque narrative – is more sprawling, lacking the distilled musical or psychological power of Wozzeck. But, on stage, it is a work of profound, black strength.

38. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975, Russian)

I’ll come out and say it: I actually don’t think that Shostakovich was on par with some of the other composers of his age. He was clearly very talented, don’t get me wrong, but his music is 20th century in a very different way to that of Berg. Something we still face today when we create art is the weight of hundreds of years of thought and creation before us, what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence”. That weight had never been so acutely felt until the 20th century, when globalisation, records, film, and – ultimately – the internet made it so easy not just for us artists to be overwhelmed by the past, but for audiences and critics to use their own powers of knowledge for good or evil. Which is to say that Shostakovich’s work is – at its height – absolutely wonderful, but it seems to evolve more from his influences, and less from something inside himself. (Note to the reader: I’m not a musicologist, merely a nut with a blog.)

Shostakovich’s most well-known opera is Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934). It centres on Katerina, an unhappily married Soviet peon who determines to do away with her husband. It’s another very noisy opera, falling somewhere between complex Romanticism and Russian folksong, renowned for its well-rounded lead female character, but also for its frank depiction of oppression and sexuality. There’s a rawness to the characters that seems to come from the physical and psychological hardness of Russians of the era, and with the current generation of singer-actors who inhabit opera stages, there’s never been a better time to see the work. The most highly-regarded Katerina of our era is probably Eva-Maria Westbroek, who has recorded the work on CD and video.

39. George Gershwin (1898 – 1937, American)

A very different operatic tradition was brewing in the English-speaking countries (which we’ll discover once we hit the ’40s and ’50s). The greatest American opera before 1950 is undoubtedly Porgy and Bess (1935). Gershwin was, of course, an iconic figure in the New York jazz scene of the ’20s, but his desire to enter into classical music was frustrated both by circumstances, and composers like Ravel, who turned him down as a prospective student (apparently because they did not want to ruin his jazz style with their schools of thought). Gershwin was successful and highly-regarded throughout the ’20s and ’30s, but sadly died at 38 before he could enjoy his 1937 Oscar nomination or the belated success of Porgy. The work – the tale of a flawed love affair amongst African-Americans in a rundown waterfront area of Charleston, South Carolina – is filled with luscious music that takes its origins from a variety of sources. It’s unmistakably a jazz opera, but the influences are as much traditional Jewish music, American folk song, and the leitmotif styles Gershwin had absorbed from the French and German composers of the age. Arias, duets, and complex ensemble work emerge from through-composed sections of the score. Nowadays, Porgy and Bess is best known through its divine jazz interpretations, but – despite decades of denial – it functions just as powerfully, if perhaps a few hours long, as an opera. There’s a few prominent recordings from the ’70s and ’80s (when the complete work was rediscovered) but, while all of them have strengths, they reflect conductors and artists still coming to terms with the score. There’s a delightful live recording now available of an early performance, starring Leontyne Price and Cab Calloway, which reflects actual performance practice of the 1950s. More effective for everyday listening is the ideal recording of this work, conducted by Simon Rattle from a famous Glyndebourne production (later released on DVD with the same cast, mouthing to their original recording). Rattle seems to have a supreme appreciation of every moment in the score that is ripe for held notes, unexpected rests, and other surprising fillips. It’s one of those recordings with which, once you have heard it, no other performance can hope to compete.

Briefly, I should say, Porgy and Bess sits as one of many texts from the 20th century that raise significant questions about racial imperialism in culture, which I believe should be asked whenever the work is performed and idly discussed. But I firmly believe that one can appreciate the art of another era for all of its sublime qualities, regardless of (or even, in cognitive conjunction with) the injustices committed to, say, the Ancient Egyptian slaves (Aida), political martyrs (Les Huguenots), soldiers in war (Les Troyens), and – of course – the barbarian crimes of African-American slavery. To the interested reader, I suggest Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (1910), written by one of the foremost black musicians of the day, and now available in two separate full recordings. In Porgy and Bess, though, every moment teeters on the sublime. As proof, I submit this short clip of a strawberry-seller, wandering the common streets on an average day after a storm:

40. George Enescu (1881 – 1955, Romanian)

It seems that every composer of the era had an opera in them, although many ultimately stuck to their day-jobs. Gustav Holst’s Shakespeare adaptation At the Boar’s Head (1925) is a failure despite some lyrical songwriting; Bohuslav Martinu’s Julietta (1938) creates a despairing psychological tapestry about a seaside town where everyone has lost their memory but feels somewhat perfunctory in spite of this beguiling concept; Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951) contains some good orchestral writing and a clever libretto by W.H. Auden, but fails to marry the two (Stravinsky’s operas seem to me like pieces of music he wrote for an orchestra, and then remembered at the last minute he was supposed to include some vocal work).

Enescu, an absolutely phenomenal composer, doesn’t seem to be a household name, but his works – particularly for strings and piano – seem to bridge outside influences with the composer’s own style in a way that, I mentioned earlier, Shostakovich perhaps did not. His version of the Oedpius myth, Œdipe (1936) is startling. This is opera. The lead role is bracingly demanding, and the large cast are asked to handle not just the rhapsodic, vaguely impressionist (echoes of Debussy) writing but also the tension of this, one of the most guttural of narratives. The work is not often performed, and I’ve certainly never seen it done, but it suggests to me an ideal compromise – here in the late 1930s – between the two rapidly diverging operatic traditions. Perhaps the opera’s length and formality would work against it in a modern production, but the delights in the orchestral and vocal writing are rich indeed. I only know of one recording, but it’s a good ‘un: conducted by Lawrence Foster, with José Van Dam (who apparently demanded two years’ preparation before he was willing to record) as the hero, and a laughably impressive line-up of supporting cast members including Barbara Hendricks, Gino Quilico, Nicolai Gedda, and Brigitte Fassbaender. Well worth seeking out.

41. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958, British)

Perhaps the foremost British composer during the first half of the 20th century, Vaughan Williams remains today the pinnacle of Britishness. They’re less dogmatic now but, by the end of Vaughan Williams’ life, there seems to have been a camp of younger folk who believed his music to be too stolid and folk-based to represent post-War England. (And while I’m a card-carrying member of the Benjamin Britten fanclub, I’m also a Vaughan Williams acolyte.) Thankfully, we can now enjoy the brilliance of a man whose work seems – to me – to begin in the traditions of folksong and old England only to transcend into something mystical and profound. Two of his operas remain highly regarded, in very different ways. Riders to the Sea (1937) is a bleak one-acter, adapted from a Synge play, in which very little happens except the piling-on of grief to an old woman. As the work opens, she’s just about to find out that her son has died in the ocean on which their society lives (the complex need/fear relationship of humans to water over the centuries has yielded so many arresting images in art, and continues to fascinate me). Unfortunately for our protagonist, this is the fifth son to die this way, and she’s only got six. The sixth one is off somewhere being young, but you don’t have to be Joseph Campbell to predict where this story is headed. It’s far more effective in performance than on recording, as the composer seems to have submersed his natural talent all the better to bring Synge’s text faitfully to the stage.

My own personal favourite from the composer’s canon is also one of my all-time favourite operas, Sir John in Love (1929). The gall to adapt Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor after Verdi’s exquisite Falstaff somehow came through for old Ralph. Sir John is an utterly beguiling four-act opera immersed in English folktunes (although, as the composer was fond of pointing out, their total contribution was but a fraction of the opera’s running time) and moments of great joy, as well as lyrical beauty. It’s a reasonable adaptation of the Shakespeare play, retaining many minor characters and utilising plenty of lines from the play, as well as songs and moments from other Shakespeare works. The lovers’ duet in act one is startling, the vocal writing of the merry wives themselves consistently entertaining, and the entire final act is the quintessence of mystery. Vaughan Williams’ setting of See the Chariot at Hand for the final, lovelorn chorus, is inspired beyond belief. There are two easily accessible recordings, both with strong merits (one by Richard Hickox for Chandos), but I prefer the fine, detailed recording for EMI conducted by Meredith Davies. Anyhow, check it out. Sadly, the opera is still rarely performed or captured on video, so I instead leave you with the Festival Singers of Florida:

42. Paul Hindemith (1895 – 1963, German)

And, finally for today, we come to a German composer who seems to have straddled the two worlds of late Romanticism and full-throated Modernism (he is sometimes now referred to as a “neoclassicist”, alongside Stravinsky, which makes some level of sense to me). Hindemith wrote in all forms of music, for instruments both common and obscure. He penned a number of operas, although none are done regularly to this day, perhaps because they still embody a lot of the avant-garde musical values of the ’20s and ’30s that, as in most art forms, have come to seem niche today; works of a changing era, rather than works of the era that benefited from that change. Still, I have a lot of time for his defining opera, Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter, 1938). Although based on a true story, the opera’s main plot – that of a 16th century artist trying to express his opinions freely in a repressive state – had obvious parallels to the composer’s life in Nazi Germany. Although, Matthias’ journey is the centrepiece, the opera has a vast canvas, giving life to the revolting citizens and to both the wealthy and oppressed, all of whom are positioned at various levels on a complex social hierarchy. The music retains much of the stark, dissonant qualities of the era, which belie the watchful eyes of the state that lurk around every corner, but Hindemith also shows a passion for the more classical approaches to composition. Very often, the music coheres into something tuneful and harmonic, managing to convey the tension of the narrative and the individual concerns of the characters in a way that sits well with the vocal lines. There are a number of well-written roles, such as the distraught, widowed Countess, who gives the opera’s shifting focus a feel of uniformity. The extended climax, in which Matthias is tempted by a range of possibilities represented by the main characters of the opera, is powerful when done on stage, if a little bit dated. Lovely stuff.

Next on my Hindemith list is The Long Christmas Dinner (1963), written from a libretto by Thornton Wilder, which takes place over 90 years of dinners in the one family.

And thus ends our discussion for this week. Next time, we’ll journey to the middle of the 20th century, as Prokofiev and Britten lead us to new ways of telling stories – and new subjects.


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