Georges Bizet     1838-1875

Georges Bizet    

Georges Bizet
Selections from Carmen

Georges Bizet was yet another of those composers who showed precocious brilliance as a child but never lived long enough to fulfill the promise. The difference, however, between Bizet and Mozart, who died at about the same age, is that Mozart left over 600 completed compositions, many of them masterpieces, while Bizet is known primarily for a single work, the operas Carmen. In Addition, only a few other works – the opera Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers), a youthful symphony and a couple of suites from his incidental music to the now forgotten play L’arlesienne – are still occasionally heard today.

Although he did not come from a family of professional musicians, Bizet’s parents recognized his talent and supported his ambition to become a musician and composer. Encouraged by his father, he entered the Paris Conservatory at the extremely young age of ten. He excelled to the point of winning the coveted Prix de Rome, a composition prize that allowed the winners to study in Rome for three years. In fact, the Prix de Rome was almost an obligatory first step on the career ladder for would-be French composers (although it certainly didn’t guarantee lasting fame). 

After his return to Paris, Bizet hoped to specialize in opera. He had all the right connections in the Paris music establishment but difficulty pleasing audiences and himself. His first three operas, including Les pêcheurs de perles received only lukewarm receptions and Bizet himself destroyed many incomplete operas and large-scale orchestral works. 

Carmen, based on a contemporary novella by Prosper Merimée, is the story of a fickle seductress who ensnares Don José, an innocent young soldier, into a passion that leads inexorably to desertion, degradation and finally a jealous murder on stage. Audiences and critics alike considered Carmen scandalous and immoral (although that didn’t stop it from enjoying the longest run of any of Bizet’s previous works). But when the critics panned it Bizet was crushed and succumbed to a chronic throat ailment from which he never recovered. Within three months of the premiere, he was dead. Carmen, however, was much admired by the young Giacomo Puccini, whose own verismo (true-to-life) operas were among Carmen’s direct descendents. Its fame rose gradually and it is now in the permanent repertory of virtually every opera company. 

Two orchestral suites from Carmen were compiled by Fritz Hoffmann after Bizet's death. But most conductors assemble their own suite. Today's selections include:

The “Smugglers’ March” from Act III (Listen)

Carmen sings the “Habanera” in Act I. As the cigarette factory bell rings and the workers amble out, the soldiers are waiting for Carmen. After a dramatic solo entrance she launches into the aria whose text capture the essence of her personality: “If you don’t love me, then I love you; but if I love you, beware (Listen).” As she sings and dances, she sidles up to Don José, the one soldier who is obviously ignoring her, throws a red cassia flower at his feet and dashes back into the factory.

The Tavern Scene from Act II

Giuseppe Verdi     1813-1901

Giuseppe Verdi    

Giuseppe Verdi
Brindisi” from La traviata

“A fiasco!” – this was the judgment of both composer and audience in March, 1853, at the Venice premiere of what is now arguably Verdi’s most popular opera. Already the foremost composer in Italy with 17 operas to his credit – most of them successes – Verdi could afford to expand beyond the artistic conventions of the genre. From its seventeenth century roots serious opera dealt exclusively with mythological or grand historical themes. Verdi’s lifetime interest, however, was the human psyche, regardless of the social rank of the characters. And in La traviata he completely broke with tradition.

Based on the dramatization of La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas, a French bestseller of the previous year that was immediately dramatized, La traviata was the first tragic opera to treat a contemporary subject. Even more scandalizing was the fact that the heroine was a courtesan; and although Violetta Valéry travels only in the best Parisian circles, the word “traviata” literally means “fallen” or “debauched.” Violetta takes up with Alfredo, whose father prevails upon her to renounce the relationship so that Alfredo’s sister can get married. Violetta dies of consumption in a garret but not before everyone repents and reconciles at her bedside. 

Verdi had also intended that the opera be staged in contemporary dress, an innovation that so disturbed his producer that the composer had to abandon that battle in order to win the war. As if that weren’t enough, Verdi had to make do with what he considered to be second-rate singers, his first choices having been engaged elsewhere, most likely in other Verdi roles. Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, the soprano who premiered the role of the consumptive Violetta was of a rather hefty build, weighing 290 lbs., and the audience laughed aloud as they watched her die of consumption. 

By the next year, the opera was staged again in Venice, now with a more appropriate cast, unlimited rehearsal time and under the complete control of the composer; it played to packed houses and raves. However, the scandalous libretto continued to generate controversy, and Queen Victoria refused to attend a performance of the opera. 

At a party to celebrate her supposed recovery from a bought of consumption, Violetta and Alfredo have just met and fallen in love. They sing the spirited Brindisi (drinking song) just before the plot begins its tragic trajectory (Listen).

Jacques Offenbach     1819-1880

Jacques Offenbach    

Jacques Offenbach
Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann

The son of a German Jewish cantor, Jacques (originally Jacob) Offenbach moved to Paris where his father thought Jews were better treated than in Germany. Trained at the Paris Conservatoire, he was a cellist and salon musician for many years until he was appointed conductor of the Théatre Français and began composing one-act operettas, satirizing the vapid social scene of Paris. In 1858 he wrote his first three-act operetta, Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) that satirized the neoclassical vogue of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. La belle Hélène, composed in 1864, was an even more scathing swipe at the none-too-bright-Emperor and his even less bright empress Eugénie. His operettas paved the way for Sir Arthur Sullivan, Franz Lehár and the musical comedies of the twentieth century.

But Offenbach’s hope was to write successful “real” opera. Numerous early attempts failed miserably, and when he finally succeeded with The Tales of Hoffmann, he died before he finished it. His friend Ernest Guiraud was commissioned with the job of finishing it, and as is usual in such cases, to no ones satisfaction. With recent research and discoveries of letters and more manuscript pages, the Opera is now probably as complete and true to the composer’s wishes as we will ever get it.

The Tales of Hoffmann is based on three stories by writer and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), whose fantastic tales epitomize the Romantic fascination with the supernatural and the bizarre. The Opera recounts the poet’s four love affairs, each one thwarted by a different incarnation of Hoffmann’s diabolical nemesis. 

The Barcarolle, first inserted into the Opera as an entr’acte between Act III and the Epilogue also opens the reconstructed Act II, in which the Venetian courtesan Giulietta sings it as a duet with Hoffmann’s faithful companion Nicklausse. It sounds like a perfect evocation of the Venetian setting, but in reality, Offenbach rescued this music from his 1863 opera Die Rheinnixen (The Rhinemaidens), which was a dismal failure (Listen).

Giacomo Puccini     1858-1924

Giacomo Puccini    

Giacomo Puccini
Nessun dorma” from Turandot

To become a successful opera composer in Italy in the latter half of the nineteenth century was a formidable challenge. Giuseppe Verdi, born at the beginning of the century, dominated the operatic scene with a steady stream of successes throughout Europe, thus raising the bar for newcomers. But by the 1890s time was ripe for new directions in Italian opera and Giacomo Puccini, born to four generations of musicians and opera composers (now forgotten), was the right man at the right time to become Italy’s next leading opera composer. He was a born musical dramatist with a talent for melodic invention and colorful orchestration as well as a keen sense for dramatic situations. Starting with Manon Lescaut in 1893 and ending in his death in the midst of Turandot, he produced a stream of successful operas, most of which have remained within the mainstream repertory of opera companies to this day. 

Puccini embraced verismo (realism), the late nineteenth century Italian literary movement, composing his operas to depict situations true to life, never shying away from the earthy and ugly in human nature – as well as never missing a chance to lace his realism with accompanying melodrama. His villains, both vicious and petty, brought howls of protests from the critics: “There may be some who will find entertainment in this sensation, but all true lovers of the gentle art must deplore with myself its being so prostituted. What has music to do with a lustful man chasing a defenseless woman, or the dying kicks of a murdered scoundrel?” fumed one London paper after a performance of Tosca.

In his 60s, Giacomo Puccini decided to “strike out on new paths.” The result was Turandot, a fantastic tale from the eighteenth century set in a mythical China. But Puccini never felt at ease with the plot: “My life is a torture because I fail to see in this opera all the throbbing life and power which are necessary in a work for the theater if it is to endure,” he wrote in desperation. He agonized over the opera for four years, finally dying of throat cancer before he finished the last scene. 

To avenge the rape and death of a distant ancestress, the Chinese princess Turandot challenges her suitors with three riddles and, if they fail to answer them correctly, has them beheaded. Prince Calaf has just seen Turandot on the ramparts of the palace and is instantly bewitched by her beauty. He beats Turandot at her own game. For many of the arias and ensembles, Puccini used authentic Chinese melodies.

“Nessun dorma” (No one sleeps tonight) was the signature piece for the Three Tenors. Calaf has now challenged Turandot to discover his true name, agreeing to sacrifice his life if she succeeds. Turandot orders every citizen of Peking to uncover Calaf’s disguise, while he muses about the sleepless citizens, anticipating his ultimate victory over Turandot – but not before Liu, his slave who adores him, sacrifices her life in the face of torture (Listen).  

Giacomo Puccini
Quando me'n vo” (Musetta’s Waltz) from La bohème    

La bohème, the sentimental story of life, love and death in the garrets of the Latin Quarter of Paris, was born in 1895 of a composers’ battle. A few years earlier, the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo – of I pagliacci fame – showed Puccini a libretto he was planning to use, based on Henry Murger’s novel La vie de bohème. The rivalry, which nearly ended in court, produced a public scandal, but Puccini finished his La bohèmefirst, nearly a year before his rival, and it was premiered under Arturo Toscanini. It has remained Puccini’s most popular opera by far, while Leoncavallo’s version, usually referred to as “the other La bohème,” had some minor initial success but was quickly forgotten. The bohème scandal was definitely not the first of Puccini’s brushes with unethical behavior.

La bohème is the sentimental story of life, love and death in the garrets of the Latin Quarter of 1830 Paris. 

In Act II, Musetta, the fickle girlfriend of the painter Marcello, attempts to regain his attention by flirting with the elderly government administrator, Alcindoro, who can afford to keep her in the style to which she wishes to become accustomed. In "Quando me'n vo" (When I go Out) she brags how irresistible she is (Listen) she complains of her tight shoe and Alcindoro runs to the shoemaker to fix the problem, while she and Marcello make up.

Aaron Copland     1900-1990

Aaron Copland    

Aaron Copland
“Stomp Your Foot” from The Tender Land Suite

Starting in the late 1930s, Copland, by then a well-respected “serious” composer, brought a fresh new sound to Hollywood as well, to replace the heavily orchestrated fare of what he called “Dvorák - Tchaikovsky generalized music.” In the early 1950s, the League of Composers commissioned Copland to tackle a new medium, a made-for-TV opera. The money – $1000 – came from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, II. For Copland, both television and opera were new media, and he approached both with great trepidation. 

Copland and his librettist Horace Everett – the pseudonym writer, dancer and painter Eric Johns took for this work – were inspired by the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with text by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. The book grew out of a 1936 magazine article on the conditions of white sharecropper families in the South. Copland and Everett transferred the action to the Midwest as the story of two drifters, Martin and Top, looking for a job at the farm of the Moss family – a mother, a daughter Laurie about to graduate from high school, her 10-year-old sister Beth, and their grandfather. When the two drifters come along asking for odd jobs, Grandfather Moss is reluctant and the mother is alarmed because she's heard reports of two men molesting young girls in the area. Nevertheless, and with Laurie’s urging, they hire Martin and Top. 

At Laurie's graduation party Laurie and Martin fall in love, but their goals in life are in conflict: Laurie associates Martin with freedom from the confines of small-town life, while he associates her with settling down. During the evening Martin and Top are accused of being the molesters. Although the accusations are soon proven false, Grampa Moss tells them they must leave at daybreak. In the course of the night, Martin and Laurie make plans to run away together, but Top convinces Martin that the roving life would never suit her. The two drifters steal off, but when Laurie discovers she's been jilted, she decides to leave home anyway. 

In the end, the television deal collapsed; instead, the New York City Opera premiered it in April 1954, with a revised version mounted in 1955. Copland wrote about the style of the opera: “I think of The Tender Land as being related to the mood of Appalachian Spring. Both the ballet and the opera take place in rural America: one in the southern Appalachians; the other in Midwest farm country. Both make use of folk materials to evoke a particular landscape in a real way. I adapted several folk songs for inclusion in the opera, among them "Ching-a-Ring Chaw" for the square dance number and "Zion's Walls" for the quintet that closes Act I.” Also included is “I Was Goin’ Acourtin’ In 1958 Copland extracted the three-part suite from the opera. 

As in most suites extracted from operas, Copland arranged the selections on musical considerations, rather than in the order of the plot. Movement Two is taken from Laurie’s graduation party scene in Act II. It opens with a stomping dance for brass band (Listen). The composer's handling of the party music certainly supports his comments about the relationship between the musical style of The Tender Land (Listen) and Appalachian Spring (Listen).

Giuseppe Verdi
Anvil Chorus from Il trovatore

Il trovatore has one of opera’s most ridiculous and convoluted plots. The Count di Luna’s brother is believed to have perished at the hands of a Gypsy, whose daughter Azucena saved him and brought him up as her own son, Manrico. Now an adult, Manrico has distinguished himself as a warrior and troubadour and finds himself di Luna’s rival for the love of Leonora, who loves Manrico. By the time it’s all over, Leonora has swallowed poison rather than submit to di Luna, who has executed Manrico, only to find out from Azucena that he has killed his own brother.

“Vedi! Le fosche notturne spoglie” (See! The somber hues of night), the so-called Anvil Chorus, is sung by a band of Gypsies as Count di Luna prepares to besiege the castle where Manrico is harboring Leonora. Its name derives from the accompaniment of actual anvils in the percussion section of the orchestra (Listen). The best-known passage from the scene is the choral refrain, to anvil accompaniment (Listen). 

Giacomo Puccini
Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut

Based on a popular French novel that also gave rise to operas by Daniel Auber and Jules Massenet, Manon Lescaut is the story of Chevalier Des Grieux and his lover Manon Lescaut, who flaunt family and public opinion by living together in Paris. When all sources of money run out and Manon looks around for greener pastures, she is arrested for prostitution and the two are deported to the colony of Louisiana where Manon dies of exhaustion in Des Grieux’s arms. The Intermezzo occurs between Act II and III, after Manon is arrested.    

The Intermezzo anticipates the grim fate of Manon and Des Grieux in Act IV on the waterless plains of Louisiana [sic] (Listen). As Manon is dying of dehydration and exhaustion, the lovers sing their most intense duet (Listen). An echo of their music in happier times explodes into the inevitable tragedy (Listen).     

Giuseppe Verdi
Va pensiero from Nabucco

In Nabucco, we get a glimpse of the composer at the unpromising beginning of his career. The year was 1842. His first two operas had been dismal failures and he had vowed never to write another note. The impresario Bartolomeo Merelli, however, presented the young Verdi with the libretto for Nabucco, which the composer patently ignored. When he casually looked through it five months later, he was hooked. 

The opera enacts the story of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 C.E. by King Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco) from the Book of Daniel – with significant non-biblical accretions – the King’s Divine punishment of madness and his repentance. At the time Verdi was mourning the untimely death of his first wife and two young children, and in Act III he poured his sense of longing and pain into the chorus of the exiled Israelites, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (Fly, thought, on golden wings) (Listen). This chorus not only became an instant sensation, but also became the “theme song” for the Risorgimento (the uprising for the unification of Italy).

Pietro Mascagni     1863-1945

Pietro Mascagni    

Pietro Mascagni
Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana

“It was a pity I wrote Cavalleria first. I was crowned before I was king.” Thus did Pietro Mascagni evaluate his own musical career, citing his youthful success in 1890 with Cavalleria Rusticana. He attempted to repeat this triumph in the remaining 55 years of his life but to no avail. The only one of his 15 other operas occasionally staged is L’amico Fritz, a gentle comedy, the opposite of grim and gritty Cavalleria. Sadly, in his later years, Mascagni became a mouthpiece for Italy’s Fascist government. In 1929 he took over as conductor at La Scala in Milan when Arturo Toscanini resigned in protest over the Fascist regime, and in 1935 he composed an opera Nerone as a tribute to Mussolini – although why anyone would want to be likened to the emperor Nero is anyone's guess. 

Mascagni came close to total obscurity. Responding to an advertisement for a one-act opera competition promoted by a publisher, he composed his masterpiece in only a few weeks but did not consider it suitable, choosing to send in an act from an earlier opera instead. His wife, however, submitted the score of Cavalleria without his knowledge, and the rest is history. Cavalleria is an adaptation of the novella by the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, the originator and most important writer of the verismo literary movement. Verismo, or “realism,” portrayed the brutality of the social environment and characters of rural Sicily and Southern Italy. 

The single act includes an adulterous love triangle, jealousy, betrayal and a duel to the death. The Intermezzo opens the final scene, as the people are in church celebrating Easter Sunday, just before the fatal duel. 

The Intermezzo spins out a single theme (Listen). 

Giacomo Puccini
Mi chiamano Mimi” from La bohème

In Act I, Mimi stumbles into Rudolfo’s apartment asking for a light when her candle has gone out on the stairs. It turns into a love-at-first-sight affair mere moments after she tells him her name, “Mi chiamano Mimi” (They call me Mimi) (Listen).

Richard Wagner     1813-1883

Richard Wagner    

Richard Wagner
Walkürenritt (Ride of the Valkyries) from Die Walküre

The over 15 hours of Richard Wagner’s four operas that together make up Der Ring des Nibelungen – Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – comprise probably the most massive musical creation ever composed. It was also one of the most influential for musical development at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not least of all in the expansion of the orchestra and innovations in orchestration.

Wagner had numerous axes to grind with his massive tetralogy. He envisioned the mythological theme to represent the superiority of the German people – a theme that became the centerpiece of Hitler’s Third Reich. He conceived a system of musical symbolism in which dozens of specific musical motives, or Leitmotiven, represented characters, objects and abstract concepts, which when combined provided simultaneous layers of meaning to the music and text. Wagner considered the complete integration of music, text and spectacle, or Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work), to be the pinnacle of his own genius, as well as the model for the perfection of artistic creativity of the future.

Wagner’s egomania and especially the propagandistic use to which his music was put in the 1930s and 40s, has soured many music lovers and musicians alike, but there is no doubt about Wagner’s sheer genius.

Perhaps the most famous of the orchestral pieces from The Ring is the Ride of the Valkyries from the second opera in the tetralogy, Die Walküre. Here, Wagner paints with music the rhythm of the galloping horses, the rush of the wind as they fly through the air and the calls of Wotan’s maiden daughters as they swoop down to the battlefields to take fallen heroes up to Valhalla (Listen).

Andrew Lloyd Webber     b. 1948

Andrew Lloyd Webber    
b. 1948

Andrew Lloyd Webber
”All I Ask of You”, from Phantom of the Opera    

One of the most popular and successful composers of musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber, comes from a musical family. His father, William, was Director of the London College of Music, his mother a piano teacher and his brother Julian is a well-known cellist. He started composing at age nine, and his first musical, The Likes of Us, at 17.

Lloyd Webber has the distinction of having had three of his shows (Cats, Evita and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) running at the same time on Broadway. His music is an eclectic blend of classical, rock and folk music; the proportions of the recipe change depending on the nature of the show. 

The Phantom of the Opera premiered in London 1986 and has been a spectacular success on both sides of the Atlantic and in translation worldwide. Based on the 1910 French novel by Gaston Leroux (1868-1927), it is the story of the beautiful singer Christine Daaé, the musical protégé and obsession of a mysterious masked musical genius, the Phantom. Residing in a secret apartment beneath the Paris Opéra, the Phantom terrorizes the staff and musicians, demanding Christine be the star of the theater's productions. 

The duet takes place in Act I on the roof of the Paris Opéra where the Phantom’s protégée Christine and her lover Raoul have escaped after the Phantom has displayed the hanged body of a stagehand before a shocked audience. Christine tells Raoul about her subterranean voice lessons with the Phantom, and he promises to protect her. But the Phantom overhears them and wreaks further havoc throughout Act II.

Giuseppe Verdi
Triumphal March from Aïda

Aïda, premiered in 1871, involves a classic love triangle. Radames, leader of the Egyptian army, loves Aïda, a captures Ethiopian princess, now a slave to the Egyptian princess Amneris, who also loves Radames. During the great procession celebrating another victory over the Ethiopians, Aïda discovers her father Amonasro in disguise among the captives. He urges her to seduce Radames into deserting over to the Ethiopians, but the plot is discovered by Amneris and the High Priest Ramfis. Radames is put on trial but refuses to defend himself and is condemned to be buried alive. While Amneris prays over his tomb, Radames discovers Aïda hidden in a corner, and the lovers consume the remaining oxygen in a final farewell duet.

Despite the fact that the scenario had been provided by one of the most noted Egyptologists of the period, it abounds in anachronisms and historical mistakes. The site of Radames’s consecration, for example, was set in the Temple of Vulcan, a Roman god who was never worshipped by the Egyptians and who made his appearance under the Romans around 700 years after the timeframe of Aïda. 

Probably one of the most popular scenes in the entire operatic literature, the so-called “Triumphal Scene” from Act II, Scene 2, displays the full range of Verdi’s powers: procession, choruses, ballet and a finale in which all the characters simultaneously pour out their deepest emotions. Preceded by a grand trumpet fanfare (Listen), in the opera, the chorus opens the celebration (Listen). The March accompanies the victorious Egyptian army, led by Radames, as it approaches the King’s throne (Listen), followed by the priests (Listen) and finally the captive Ethiopians.

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