Opera Amore Program Notes
Opera, according to Maestro Trudel, has been missing from the Ottawa artistic scene for far too long. This evening’s concert is going to remedy that. M. Trudel has concocted a parcel of operatic bon-bons. They should deliver at least a temporary satiation for the need to embrace the early morning desire to test the acoustics of your shower – maybe with a fortissimo delivery of La Donna mobile (Rigoletto) or Sempre libra (La traviata). Sorry – but you will have to keep practicing as neither are on tonight’s agenda. But plenty of other favourites are. Opera, of course, is quite irrational. None of us suddenly stops in the street to deliver a passionate song about a beloved – though this is conventional behaviour on the opera stage – and often sung at full throttle! Tonight, there is plenty to give you thought for your next visit to the shower: great arias, great choruses aplenty. It will be like an illicit visit to the opera candy store. Make sure you have a dental appointment booked!
So, let us begin:
La forza del destino (Overture)
Verdi’s La forza del destino is a particularly dark and melodramatic tale of vengeance misplaced. It caught the St. Petersburg audience by surprise when it was premièred there in 1862. They expected Italian opera to be light and frothy. Consequently Forza received a lukewarm reception. However, once revised and staged at La Scala it received a warmer greeting. Love betrayed by a misunderstanding is a favourite theme of dramatic opera. The revised overture to Verdi’s La forza del destino, with its fateful opening chords, announces that an intense drama is indeed to follow. It broods with the appropriately tragic energy needed to gird this melodramatic tale of mistaken intentions, reactions and vengeance. Along the way it announces some of the important themes of the opera in the time-honoured pot-pourri fashion of Italian operatic overtures.
Il trovatore (Act II: Anvil Chorus)
Il trovatore (The Troubadour) is another haunting tale of vengeance. Based on a play by A. Garcia Gutiérrez, the plot revolves around the ghastly mistake made by the gypsy Azucena who, to avenge the death of her mother by burning as a witch at the command of the Count di Luna, steals the Count’s baby son with the intention of throwing him into the fire, but in her over-wrought state, threw her own baby boy into the fire by mistake. She brought up the other as her own – and he became Manrico, the troubadour of the title, now battling the old Count’s elder son who has succeeded to the title. Azucena first appears at the beginning of Act II surrounded by her gypsy brethren. The men are busy at their anvils and launch into the famous Anvil Chorus. At the end of the opera Manrico is put to death by the young Count, and the crazed Azucena takes her final pleasure in telling him that he has just killed his own brother.
La traviata (Prelude to Act I & Act II Gypsies & Matadors)
Alexander Dumas fil’s play La Dame aux camélias (based on his novel of the same name) was premièred in Paris on February 2nd, 1852. Verdi was in Paris at that time, but whether he saw the play is not recorded. But by 1853 Verdi wrote: “I shall be doing La Dame aux camélias for Venice, possibly under the title of La traviata”. Dumas based his novel on a real-life person – Marie du Plessis – a wealthy courtesan who died in relative poverty of consumption at the age of twenty-three. Dumas fil’s novel is one of the great love stories of all time – the ailing courtesan who, against her better instincts, falls completely in love with a young admirer. In the opera this is Alfredo Germont. Germont père, in Act II persuades Violetta (Verdi’s name for Marie that if she really loves Alfredo, abandon him and return to her life as a courtesan, so as not to damage the family name with a scandal. Only in Act III, when Violetta is in the last throws of her illness, does Alfredo discover the truth and rush to her side – just in time, of course!
The short Prelude to Act I of La Traviata does not announce itself with a bang. Rather the high shimmering, luminous violins ooze out of the woodwork foreshadowing what will happen to Violetta in Act III as she dies of consumption. The Prelude ends with the big tune from Act II telling us of Violetta’s love for Alfredo.
In Act II, Scene II, we are back in Paris at a fancy dress party where guests arrive as gypsy fortune-tellers and Matadors. They sing with great vigour – after all it’s a party!
La traviata is one of the most heart-breaking stories in all of opera, made the more so by Verdi with his theatrical instincts at their sharpest.
Ebben?….No andro lontano from La Wally
Alfredo Catalani is now best known for La Wally, his final and most successful opera of 1892. Based on the novel by Wilhelmine von Hillern, Die Geyer-Wally, Catalani and his librettist, Luigi Illica, created a four act opera that is full of traditional Italian melodrama, poetry and romanticism.
The action takes place in the Tyrol around 1800. There is rivalry between adjacent villages – including suitors for the hand of Wally, daughter of Stromminger. He misinterprets his daughter’s actions, thinking she is in love with Hagenbach from the next village, but he prefers she marry his bailiff Gellner. The headstrong Wally refuses, and, unable to convince her father, leaves her home to live in the village in the mountains. The aria, Ebben? .... Ne andro lontano, is Wally’s sad but determined farewell to the home of her mother. Of course things go awry: she does fall in love with Hagenbach after arranging to have him pushed over a precipice by Gellner, only to relent and descend on a rope to rescue him, wounded but alive! The two lovers come to a cool end, as Hagenbach, finally realizing he loves her, reaches Wally in her mountain hut. As they begin the descent they are swept away by an avalanche. But then it is a melodrama!
And then for something really different comes Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany. This is an opera created by Weill and his librettist Bertolt Brecht written to counter the rise of Fascism in Europe. After the Leipzig première in 1930 subsequent performances were literally trashed by Nazi sympathizers – as were the later performances in Frankfurt and Berlin. The opera emerged from the counter-culture of the Weimar avant-garde where political opinions were both rampant and extremely polarized. It made for a lively (!) evening at the opera. And some really good tunes! The Alabama Song (also known as Moon of Alabama or Whiskey Bar) began as a poem by Brecht in German but which was translated into idiosyncratic English by Elizabeth Hauptmann in 1925. Brecht published it as part of his Home Devotions – a parody of Luther’s collection of sermons. Kurt Weill set it to music in 1927 for the play Mahagonny Songspiel and reused it in Act I for the 1930 opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The destitute and disenchanted flock to the city of Mahagonny (founded by three criminals). Among them are the prostitute Jenny and the lumberjack Jimmy McIntyre. Jenny sings the provocative Moon of Alabama. Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife) made her name singing this song in Europe and America.
The Canadian composer John Estacio created his opera Filumena in 2003. It was a knock-out! The story is based on the true-life story of Filumena Lassandro, a young Italian women who immigrated to Canada in the early 1900s and settled in the Crowsnest Pass. She was married off at a young age and became involved with an Italian bootlegging ring. She has to act as the decoy. One night things go horribly wrong and Filumena ends up as the last women to be executed in Alberta. The composer writes: “I wrote this short overture before I started writing the opera. A few of the themes from this overture have ended up in the opera, but not all of them. The first of three themes in this piece is a folk-like melody, which segues into a dance tune that one might hear at a traditional Italian wedding party; and perhaps the wedding band has had one too many of the bootlegger’s brew, especially the lower brass section…. The third theme suggests the passionate elements of the story; betrayal, unrequited love, and the despair at the tragic turn of events. Gradually the music returns to the theme that started off the piece.”
You will note Estacio’s ‘big tunes’ – this definitely belongs at the opera!
Aïda (Act II: Triumphal March)
After our intermission we arrive at the grandest of Grand Operas! Verdi wrote Aïda in 1871 expressly for the new opera house in Cairo (which had opened, along with the Suez Canal, two years before). You may recall that the Ethiopian Princess Aïda, has been captured and made a slave to Princess Amneris, daughter of the Egyptian King. Radames, an Egyptian army officer, hopes he will be chosen to lead the Egyptian army against the Ethiopians who have just invaded Egypt. But of course, there is a complication! Radames is in love with Aïda and Amneris is in love with Radames. Where would opera be without love-triangles?! In Act II, the Ethiopians have been defeated by the Egyptians so there is a grand Triumphal March to celebrate the occasion which gives the chorus a wonderful opportunity for a grand sing! This is pomp and circumstance, Italian style.
Carmen (Act I: Habanera & Act IV: Les voici! Voici la quadrille)
Everything in Carmen is in perfect balance. The music is a consummate achievement of élan while the drama gives fullest expression to the passion of the characters and lets us sympathize with the predicament of Carmen and Don José. And there is no moralizing (pace Wagner). While also eschewing the Wagnerian symphonic approach to opera, Bizet did manage to advance the traditional form of the opéra-comique so that the music and drama reinforce and enhance each other, rather than get in each other’s way. This was achieved, in no small way, by Bizet’s ability to create great arching melodies which carry the music (and the listener) inevitably on to the next section. His sharply etched rhythms also ensure the carpets get a thorough beating from hundreds of tapping toes. Then there is the dusky atmosphere of Spain that pervades every corner of the music (no mean achievement since Bizet had never been to Spain to soak up the ‘local colour’). And, finally, there is Bizet’s masterly treatment of this most quintessential of operatic tales (adapted by Meilhac and Halévy from a novel by Mérimée) – the collision of love and lust, life and death – which never fails to stir the deepest roots of human emotion.
The denouement in the final Act has the crowd in the bullring operating at a full throated fortissimo (Les voici! Voici la quadrille!) celebrating the arrival of the toreadors. It all comes to a terrible end when José stabs Carmen to death since she has proclaimed her more recent love for Don Escamillo – THE Toreador. But back in Act I we see Carmen at her most beguiling as she launches, with smoky seductiveness, the Habañera where she sings that “Love is a rebellious bird”! And Don José has no idea of what terrible trouble he is about to get into!
Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Barcarolle)
Offenbach was born in Offenbach-am-Main, Germany in 1819 to a Cantor but lived most of his life in Paris where he studied cello and composition. Except he wasn’t a very good student, and instead, won himself a place in the cello section of the Opéra-Comique. He wrote nearly 100 operettas, a good number of which are still in the repertory. But he really wanted to be known for his operas. He attempted two – Rheinnixen and, at the end of his life, The Tales of Hoffmann. The libretto (written by Jules Barbier) is based on three short stories by e.t.a hoffmann. Sadly, the man with the scythe came by a bit too early (in 1880) – which left the managers of the Théâtre de la Gaîté-Lyrique scrambling to find someone who could finish the opera from the short score. They chose Ernest Guiraud who completed the orchestration. The posthumous première was given in 1881.
Hoffman tells three fantastical stories about women he has loved: his youthful love for Olympia is scuppered when it turns out she is a mechanical doll! There is a more mature love for Antonia and then his indulgences with the courtesan, Giulietta. The famous Barcarolle (Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour) is from this Venetian Act (having originally been composed for his Rheinnixen opera of 1864). It is a duet between Nicaulasse (a pants role masquerading as Hoffmann’s Muse) and Guiletta. The music is wonderfully mesmerizing.
Nabucco (Act III: Va pensiero)
Verdi’s first real success came in 1842 with his third published opera – Nabucco, shortened from Nabucodonsor (Nebuchadnezzar) – which is too much of a mouthful to sing! The story is taken from Nebuchadnezzar’s defeat and consequent slavery of the Hebrews. Va, pensiero is the great chorus from Act III of this opera where the Hebrews bemoan their fate as slaves of Nebuchadnezzar. But there was also a hidden message here as the Italians were itching to be free of the Habsburg yoke and wanted the various regions of ‘the Boot’ to be united as one country. The text, by Solera, left no doubt that these ‘Hebrews’ represented the patriots longing for a united Italy, independent of any foreign rulers. Va pensiero, in which the chorus sing mostly in unison, became a rallying cry. That walls scrawled with Viva VERDI could also mean Viva Vittorio Emmanuele, Re D’Italia didn’t do Verdi’s stock any harm either as it was the rallying cry for an Italy united under that monarch.
Now you can address your bathroom acoustics tomorrow morning with a suitable rendition inspired by this evening’s Opera Amore!