Opera permeates the very fabric of our everyday lives – whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Stories of love, triumph, tragedy, mayhem, and downright absurdity have entertained millions, but bits and pieces have added colour to other masterpieces in television, movies and theatre, entertaining millions more.

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Symphony Series 5 :: Opera’s Hit Parade

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Italian opera reigned supreme, the style known as ‘Bel canto’ becoming popular all over Europe. Emphasizing a beautiful tone, this repertoire requires great vocal agility. Beginning with a cello solo emulating this new style of singing, the overture to Donizetti’s sparkling comedy, Don Pasquale, features charming, virtuosic melodies typical of Bel canto. The two main themes each represent one of the two main characters, Ernesto and Norina, whose romance is blighted by Ernesto’s uncle, Don Pasquale.

Despite the predominance of coloratura — the Italian term for the vocal fireworks common in these operas – these works are not empty showpieces; composers such as Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini carefully structure each number so that the musical energy builds along with the drama. The aria “Cruda sorte” from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri is a perfect example of dramatic and musical structure in Bel canto opera.

Isabella, after setting out on an arduous journey to recover her missing lover Lindoro, finds herself shipwrecked on the shores of Algiers. After the first resounding orchestral chord, Isabella laments her fate in a slow, lyrical section called the cantabile. Then, beginning a second, contrasting section called the cabaletta (recognizable by its faster tempo and show-stopping coloratura), Isabella expresses confidence in her ability to overcome all obstacles – after all, she reminds herself, she is an expert in the manipulation of men!

In the duet from Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti’s music closely follows the drama, while maintaining its own musical syntax. Lucia’s lovely melodies reflect her unswerving love for her beloved, Edgardo, even in the face of her brother Enrico’s insistence that she marry another man. However, when Enrico finally convinces Lucia of Edgardo’s infidelity with a forged letter, the excitement and virtuosity of the music build – along with the passionate emotions of the characters – to a thrilling conclusion.

Bel canto operas remained popular well into the late nineteenth century, so much so that the well-known operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan often satirized the musical conventions of Italian opera as well as the conventions of Victorian society. In Patience, the over-dramatic Act I Finale mocks the expansive act finales of Bel canto operas, in which all of the characters are brought onstage and the action comes to a head.

Patience also pokes fun at the Aesthetic movement, a philosophy popular among artists such as Oscar Wilde, which valued aesthetics over moral or social considerations in art. In the Act I Finale, the poet Bunthorne, adored by all the ladies for his uncompromising aestheticism, decides to auction off his services as a bridegroom. His schemes go awry when the ladies’ jilted lovers appear in full military pomp; however, the auction continues as planned until it is interrupted by the arrival of Patience, a milkmaid with whom Bunthorne is infatuated.

Patience explains to a bewildered Bunthorne that despite her love for another, she has decided to marry Bunthorne in order to prove that love must be a completely selfless act, free from all considerations such as happiness or feelings of attraction. Robbed of the affections of Bunthorne, the disappointed ladies reluctantly return to their military lovers; the lovely Sextet and Chorus, which ensues is a clear parody of ‘frozen-in-time’ ensembles common in Bel canto act finales.

However, the proceedings are once again interrupted, this time by the arrival of Grosvenor, another highly aesthetic poet. The ladies quickly transfer their adoration to this new object, and the act comes to an exciting, cacophonous conclusion.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Italian opera began a slow transformation away from the virtuosity of Bel canto; a new style of singing emerged which, while still beautiful and lyrical, was far more athletic, emphasizing power over flexibility. The famous “Brindisi”, or drinking song, from Verdi’s La Traviata showcases the thrilling results of this shift in vocal technique, along with the stirring “Anvil Chorus” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

Near the turn of the century, the operas of Puccini brought this powerful style to the next level. Expanding the orchestra even
further, Puccini’s soaring melodies and overtly emotional music accompanied a movement towards realism in opera. Instead of telling the stories of kings or aristocrats, Puccini’s La bohème follows the lives of poor young artists living in the Latin Quarter of Paris, as they struggle to pay their rent and find love.

In “Si, mi chiamano Mimí”, the fatally ill Mimí tells her newfound love Rodolfo about herself; Puccini’s music flows freely as she begins timidly, before losing herself in her story. “Musetta’s Waltz” is a very different kind of aria, with Musetta putting on a show for her former lover Marcello. Her (successful) attempt to arouse his jealousy is accompanied by interjections and comments made by Marcello and his close circle of friends.

The move towards larger orchestras and a more powerful vocalism is epitomized in the gigantic operas of Richard Wagner. Wagner’s innovations included the concept of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘complete artwork’, reflected in the composer’s dramatic, fluid approach to melody and harmony. Music is always intimately connected with drama; gone are the neatly structured Bel canto numbers, separated by clear cadences.

The “Bridal Chorus” from Wagner’s Lohengrin, perhaps best known as the popular wedding march ‘Here comes the bride’, occurs at the beginning of Act III as the mysterious knight Lohengrin and his new bride Elsa are ushered into their bridal chamber. The impressive power and dramatic impact of Wagner’s expanded orchestra can be clearly heard in the Prelude and Chorus.

Like many of Wagner’s operas, Tannhäuser examines themes of mythology, art, and redemption through love. The aria “O du mein holder Abendstern” is Wolfram’s prayer to the evening star. A Minnesinger, Wolfram is a poet-composer in the medieval German tradition of high courtly love – similar to the French troubadours. He has had a premonition that his beloved Elisabeth is about to die; although his love is unrequited, his beautifully crafted words entreat the brightly shining star to protect her as she ascends to heaven.

Based on the German children’s story, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel was greatly influenced by Wagner, featuring highly advanced harmonies and complex motivic development. However, in accordance with the subject matter, Humperdinck also includes many folk-like melodies, such as the lovely “Evening Prayer”, sung by Hansel and Gretel as they fall asleep in the dark forest.

In France, high drama and shapely melodies were in vogue in mid-century opera, with the composers Gounod, Bizet and Délibes leading the way with their lyric tragedies. Gounod’s Faust is one such tragedy, with the stories of the characters ending in death, madness, and eternal damnation. However, the “Kermesse” chorus, which opens the second act, is a cheerful ode to wine and beer, sung as a group of soldiers and students prepare to go to war.

The lovely “Flower Duet” from DélibesLakmé is a similar moment of beauty and calm before the storm of tragedy begins. In mid-century British India, the beautiful Lakmé and her servant and companion Mallika innocently gather flowers by the river; later in the opera, Lakmé falls in love with a British officer, and when he abandons her to remain with his regiment, she takes her own life.

Perhaps one of the best known operas today, at its premiere in 1875 Bizet’s Carmen shocked both critics and audiences with its unbridled passion and the gritty realism of its subject matter. In the seductive “Habanera”, the gypsy Carmen, on a break from her work at the cigarette factory, compares love – and her own heart – to a wild bird. Inspired by a melody by Spanish composer Sebastián Iradier (which Bizet mistakenly believed to be a folk song), the aria uses the rhythm of the Cuban dance form to suggest Carmen’s untamable spirit.

Later, Carmen finds herself the object of the matador Escamillo’s interest. Although he boasts of his successes in the sphere of love as well as the bullfighting ring in the well-known “Toreador Song”, Carmen remains aloof. The aria and chorus are good examples of the exoticism of Bizet’s opera; the composer adds harmonic and melodic flourishes meant to evoke the romance of the Spanish setting.

Programme Notes by Camille Rogers