The Greatest Operas, Part VII
Posted by therebelprince on February 19, 2015
This post is simulcast from my blog “The Annals of Opera”.
Thanks for joining me for the latest chapter of my Annals of Opera, a look at my favourite works of opera from the last 400 years. We’re into the thick of the 20th century now, arriving at a group of men and women fascinated by experimenting musically, although we’ve plenty ahead of us in terms of experimenting theatrically…
43. Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953, Russian)
Prokofiev should need no introduction, and his striking, swirling melodies – particularly known through his ballet Romeo and Juliet and his eternally popular Peter and the Wolf – are only a couple of jewels in a glittering career. Being Russian in a period of turmoil (one of many, let’s be honest) was probably no help to his career or his health, but Prokofiev’s works remain profound statements of the messy origins of 20th century music. He wrote several operas, many of which (including The Fiery Angel (1927) and Betrothal in a Monastery (1941)) have some merit, but there are two that particularly stand out. The first is The Love for Three Oranges (1921), a tongue-in-cheek epic, in which a hypochondriac prince can only be cured by laughter and the quest for the mysterious oranges. (Recommended recording: Kent Nagano’s album.) Whether it has any deeper meaning, or is simply the ultimate in surrealist opera, remains entirely up to the viewer (although watching the well-known Opera North production, linked below, may give some clue).
Prokofiev’s operatic masterpiece, however, may just be his most ludicrously ambitious work: an adaptation of War and Peace (1945). Featuring something like 70 solo roles, as well as demands for a large chorus and staging, the opera has been done in grand productions from the Met to Sydney (where it was chosen to open the Sydney Opera House). While the work is perhaps overlong, with a few pieces that have all the complexity and rigour of the excesses of Russian literature, it’s also full of fascinating character sketches made real by the score. Despite its epic nature, the opera somehow manages to convey the central tenets of Tolstoy: that there are no “great men”, only forces of history and the changes we all make. (Tolstoy himself seems to have been dismissive of opera, for whatever it’s worth.) It’s also the source of an amusing non-scandal from the Met’s grand production, in which an extra’s tumble into the orchestra pit overtook media interest on Opening Night. Did he fall? Did he jump? Was he pushed? (No. No, he wasn’t.) War and Peace seems to be in some ways the end of a tradition (the ’40s and ’50s aren’t exactly known for their timeless contribution to grand opera) but was also the summation of a composer’s career, and proof that humanist narrative and emotions fitting to the heightened power of opera could still be seen on the stage in the modern era.
44. Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976, English)
Although his work looms large in the legacy of 20th century music, the composer Benjamin Britten seems a bit of an anomaly on this list. He was influenced as much by the classics (Bach and Brahms, for instance) as by the distinguished history of English music (going back to Purcell) and was then gradually opened to the delights of Debussy, Berg, and so on. In short, this willingness to absorb numerous traditions is something that English and American composers proved more adept at than those from Germany and the European countries. Perhaps this was because their more tumultuous politics forced European artists to join a “school of thought” rather than enjoying the full breadth of their history; I do not know. But it creates something special in Britten’s large body of work. His operas remain probably his most recognisable works to the public, and indeed he’s the last composer, chronologically, to be part of the “standard repertoire” (although he doesn’t command the same fervent passion that opera subscribers still give to Puccini and perhaps Strauss).
Britten wrote operas both for large companies and for touring and amateur groups (that local, individual means of being involved in music that was so popular in England). His defining opera is Peter Grimes (1945), still affecting some 70 years on. Peter is a curmudgeonly and seemingly simple fisherman whose small town gradually turns against him after one of his apprentices dies at sea. In its investigation into the secrets that lie beneath the surface, and its reflections on how communities can turn on those who are different, it seems to have connections to the fact that Britten himself was a pacifist (not to mention openly homosexual) in a war-stricken era. At the same time, that’s to oversimplify the case. The opera is full of marvelous portrayals of character, and the role of Peter still invites discussion and debate to this day. Britten’s life partner Peter Pears, a tenor of a very specific timbre, was also his most frequent collaborator, and recorded many of Britten’s operas (with the composer himself as conductor). Unsurprisingly, their recording remains highly-respected, although I prefer Jon Vickers, who recorded the role after Britten’s death, with the distinguished Colin Davis as the baton. There are, however, numerous more recent recordings, and it’s always worth checking new recordings out to grasp opera in modern interpretations with today’s recording clarity.
However, Britten’s operatic output only extended and diversified over the following thirty years. He wrote many operas, and none of them a complete waste. Albert Herring (1947) is a delightful, small-town comedy, in which the pompous members of a town committee seize upon a sweet-natured mother’s boy to be their “May King”. Albert Herring is actually one of the composer’s more complex scores, at least to the ear of the operagoer, but it’s also great fun on stage, featuring a set of characters who have almost definitely wandered out of The Way We Live Now. The remainder of Britten’s most brilliant operas are adapted from famous works of literature. The eerie chamber opera The Turn of the Screw (1954) – well recorded by Colin Davis – and the haunting, delphic Death in Venice (1973), most well-known through the original cast recording featuring Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk, are worthy examples of the composer’s art. In choosing to depict the androgynous Tadzio as a dancer rather than singing, Britten manages to get close to the heart of Thomas Mann’s original novella, in which the boy is a beautiful figure always out of the protagonist’s reach – both literally and figuratively.
Still better is my personal favourite among the Britten canon, Billy Budd (1951), an adaptation of the Melville novella in which a young sailor faces discrimination on board the HMS Indomitable. With an entirely male cast (due to the setting), the opera perfectly represents the central characters: hateful Master-at-arms Claggart, idealistic Billy, and Captain Vere, whose poignancy and obstinacy are at the centre of the tragedy that unfolds. Pears and Britten recorded the work, but I quite like the Kent Nagano/Thomas Hampson recording. In Grimes, Venice, and Billy, there are undertones of homosexual yearning, which can be amplified or suppressed by each production (well, Venice makes it quite challenging to suppress things!). It’s naive to think that Britten was just working through his own psychology in all of these works – like people who are determined to argue that every Shakespeare play must reveal himself, because god forbid an artist can use his imagination and creativity – but the unearthly power of the musical work undoubtedly speaks to the fact that the composer could understand the complexities of the character in each libretto. But perhaps the opera most indicative of the sheer range of Britten’s talent is A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960). There’s a fantasy element to the work; it doesn’t seek to improve on Shakespeare, like Verdi’s final two masterpieces, instead it seems like a fantasia on the original play. Britten writes for every voice type and instrument, with Oberon as a countertenor at a time when the voice was very much out of fashion, and Puck as a rhythmic speaking role, creating a sense of each of the various “worlds” within the woods.Most importantly, however, A Midsummer Night’s Dream might be the last good opera written whose main intent was to provide joy to its audience.
I link here to the first few minutes of a magnificent Glyndebourne production from the ’80s, which I would love to find the rest of, if anyone has any leads:
45. Gian Carlo Menotti (1911 – 2007, American)
There are so many operas from the ’40s and ’50s that I would dearly love to hear and see. Marcel Delannoy’s Puck, Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson, Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, Douglas Moore’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Giants in the Earth (his Ballad of Baby Doe has some marvelous passages for soprano, but is ultimately a weak concoction), Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful Wuthering Heights. It’s an era in which many new operas faded as quickly as they arrived, perhaps because of the rise of the American musical, which seemed like an evolution of the artform into something more populist and less “serious” in its musical composition. Or perhaps it’s just an inevitable side-effect of the 20th century. Works are now more likely to arrive, be approved or disapproved of by critics, and then retreat to being known only to afficionados and those who seek them out. Like arthouse films or – really – any novel. I suspect that the American Menotti’s operas would have suffered the same fate had he not proven savvy enough to adapt himself to new media.
Perhaps Menotti’s best opera – or, at least, the one I know best – is The Consul (1950), a dark commentary on bureaucracy, international relations, and Fascism, both literal and figurative. His style is, perhaps, the origin of that kind of opera that is so easily parodied in movies and television of the late 20th century, in which people seem to be speaking in mundane phrases to lilting, melody-free music. That parody is not wrong, but it opens up a different approach to opera which attempted to communicate directly to the audience – through comedy or drama – in opposition to the meaning-obscured works of those writing between the wars. (His 20-minute comedy The Telephone (1947) is a good indicator of both the joys and the limitations of this method.) Menotti would keep writing operas for another forty years, although they’re not all that easy to seek out. Many were written expressly for television, or on individual commissions. Indeed, if Britten represented a chance for regular operagoers to experience something a little different that was still “for them”, Menotti represents the modern composer, creating his own art (he won two Pulitzer Prizes) but also recognising the role of commission and accessibility for the modern artist. Among other positions, Menotti ran and organised festivals around the world, from running the Rome Opera to being the first Creative Director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. (He’s also the first composer on this list to make it to the 21st century so, nice job, Menotti.) While I don’t think his works have lasting merit, and I’ll probably survive if I never hear one again, they’re also the kind of meat-and-potatoes fare that needs to keep existing alongside the true avant-garde, as is true in any medium.
46. Michael Tippett (1905 – 1998, English)
Tippett was as famous as Britten in his day, but that fame doesn’t seem to have lasted. Inspired by a vast range of styles, from ragtime to modernism, Tippett’s works became increasingly complex with age, although the reason for his 21st century neglect isn’t clear. He wrote several well-respected operas; I only know his early, more traditionally tonal work The Midsummer Marriage (1955), a kind of post-Freudian version of The Magic Flute. The libretto is, inarguably, confusing and a bit silly, but Tippett’s score is remarkable enough to save it. The Colin Davis recording is very good, although the opera was also recorded in concert much earlier with a cast including Joan Sutherland. (In her autobiography, Sutherland talks about the experience with a mixture of nostalgia and – clearly – confusion on whatever the plot was about.)
47. Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990, American)
A quintessentially American composer, Copland’s peculiar colours and harmonies seem to have defined parts of that great country, like his Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man. There’s a level of Impressionism (or post-Impressionism) in his early works, but he became more experimental in middle-age. By writing for film and ballet, utilising ragtime and folk in his works, Copland was a composer that Americans could revere as their own, and undoubtedly a key reason for the great wealth of music made in the USA in the last half-century. His contribution to opera is minimal, but his simple tale of life in the Depression-era Midwest, The Tender Land is a modest depiction of small-town living. It’s perhaps a salutary lesson to 21st century composers in imbuing mundanities with music that makes them seem worthy.
48. Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912 – 1990, Australian)
Okay, so I’m being a bit silly here, since no-one would argue The Transposed Heads (1954) to be one of the greatest operas of all time. But this tale, taken from Thomas Mann, set in traditional India, features some lovely music and expresses the cultural variety of this Australian composer (the first Australian and only second female composer on this list). Two men of different castes fall for the same woman, and agree on the socially responsible solution. But, before long, neither man can live with the decision, and ritual beheadings are only the start of a bizarre plot. It’s not available on Youtube, but the West Australian Symphony Orchestra recording – starring the wonderful Gerald English – is well worth seeking out. Next on my own “to-listen” list is Glanville-Hicks’ Sappho (1963), written for Maria Callas and the San Francisco Opera, but ultimately never produced. It was finally recorded in 2012, and I look forward to hearing it.
49. Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990, American)
One of the major conductors of the mid-20th century, Bernstein was a passionate champion of music, old and new, and of artistic learning. Even if he had not composed, Bernstein would have a place in the history of music. An eclectic, perhaps too self-aware composer, Bernstein has not left behind the legacy of contemporaries such as Copland, but his many populist pieces exhibit a similar understanding to that of Menotti about uniting the classical tradition with the growing popular tradition. By the ’50s and ’60s, there was a generation growing who had less direct connection to classical music, and it’s no surprise that Bernstein’s most popular work these days is West Side Story (1957). His operatic masterpiece, no doubt, is Candide (1956), although it has one of the most complicated biographies of any work on the operatic or musical stage.
Originally presented as something close to a musical, directed by Tyrone Guthrie and starring Barbara Cook, the production was … unsuccessful to say the least. Adapting the deep ironies of Voltaire’s novella into a self-serious musical was not, perhaps, the right choice. In the ’70s, however, the work – with its great score and deeply humanist values – was revived by Harold Prince, having successful Broadway runs in increasingly cut or adapted versions with lyrics written and rewritten by everyone from Stephen Sondheim to the stage manager’s cat. In the 1980s, opera houses around the world clamoured out for a properly operatic version, which they were subsequently given. And then, in 1988, Bernstein finally created his definitive Candide, which was recorded on CD and DVD in a concert version. (Since Bernstein’s death, the opera has been revised and tweaked numerous times over, and perhaps will be forever.) Truth be told, the piece will never work perfectly for the stage. Some of the comedy – already subtle and intellectual in the ’50s – isn’t exactly going to grow more approachable for today’s generation. The dramatic thrust of the work is essentially “boy is an idealist, he should not be, but doesn’t realise it for two long acts, while everyone around him does nothing except become more venal”. Scenes rebound from South America to Europe at a moment’s notice. And in spite of half a million rewrites, nobody – “not nobody, not know-how”, to quote The Wizard of Oz – has written one damn decent number for Paquette. Yet, there’s something in that chameleonic quality that has attracted me greatly to the work. (The wonderful website Sondheim Guide has a detailed discussion of the history of each song from the long list that have appeared in the work.) More to the point, Candide is one of my favourite things of all time. Like the greatest works of Dostoyevsky or Dickens, the profoundest thoughts are expressed when we juxtapose the low thoughts of commoners with the high thoughts of kings. The Bernstein “final” recording, starring Jerry Hadley as Candide with Christa Ludwig and June Anderson, expresses the sublime nature of the score. It has moments of satirical humour, moments of romantic beauty, moments of hope and hopelessness, and that final chorus – in which the orchestra drops out to allow the searching simplicity of human voices – is revelatory.
50. Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963, French)
Poulenc is a remarkably tuneful composer, who saw himself as not an artist so much as a craftsman (so did Shakespeare, and – really – many of the best; yep, I’m throwing that opinion out there). He has a fairly extensive output, although he spent substantial parts of his writing – and being – very serious. What stands out about his operatic output is his strength of writing for the human voice, and perhaps bringing back the voice as the crucial element of opera, where it had often been one part of the orchestra since the innovations of Wagner. His interest in crafting work, and often of a melodic type, didn’t endear himself to some of the more “progressive” composers and conductors of the late 20th century. Me? I’m kinda into him.
La voix humaine (The Human Voice, 1959) is a 40-minute opera for one soprano, in which the orchestra really does act as a support for the voice. It’s less melodic than his larger-scale works, but has been well-recorded by a number of sopranos including, most recently, Felicity Lott, accompanied only by piano. More well-known is his grand opera, Dialogues des carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites, 1956). The story of an order of nuns who fight for their religious beliefs in the days of the French Revolution seems to emerge from the despotic horrors of the early and mid-20th century. It’s taut and character-based, but also deeply melodic, reflecting the passionate beliefs of its central characters. The gory final scene, in which the nuns decidedly – and defiantly – do not win in a battle with the guillotine, is particularly memorable. Pierre Dervaux and Kent Nagano have both conducted respected recordings.
That’s all from me for this week. Next time, we’ll close out the ’50s with some gorgeous Americana, and see what the Cold War brings…