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8.553963 - Italian Opera Choruses
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Italian Opera Choruses

The leading figure in Italian opera from the 1840s for much of the rest of the nineteenth century, Giuseppe Verdi won his first great success with the opera Nabucco, staged at La Scala, Milan, in 1842. The libretto, by Temistocle Solera, had already been rejected by Otto Nicolai, now remembered primarily for his opera The Merry Wives of Windsor, or at least for its overture. The story of Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco) has its derivation in the Bible, notably in the Book of Jeremiah. It deals with the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, followed by the captivity of the Jews in Babylon. Complications ensue with the rivalry of Nebuchadnezzar's daughter Fenena and the supposed elder daughter of the king, Abigaille, ending in the defeat of the latter, the restoration of Nebuchadnezzar's wits, after a bout of madness, and his conversion to Judaism. The Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, Va, pensiero, in which the Jews lament their captivity in Babylon, by the waters of the Euphrates, struck an echo in Italian audiences of the 1840s, a time when Italian independence from foreign domination was of profound importance.

Pietro Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana (‘Rustic Chivalry’), first staged in Rome in 1890, is an example of verismo, the new realism that became fashionable in the later years of the century. Set in Sicily, it is a story of love and jealousy. Santuzza, slighted by Turiddu, who is involved with Lola, the wife of Alfio, the village carter, provokes the latter's jealousy, leading to Turiddu's death in a duel with his rival. The opening scene is cheerful enough, as villagers celebrate the joys of spring, singing of the burgeoning orange-trees in the chorus Gli aranci olezzano.

Verdi's opera Il trovatore was first staged in Rome in 1853. It deals with the complications of fraternal rivalry in love and war, with the troubadour of the title, Manrico, the supposed son of the gypsy Azucena but in fact the long lost son of the old Count di Luna, imprisoned and put to death by the young Count, ignorant of the relationship, while Leonora, who had promised herself to the Count in return for Manrico's freedom, poisons herself. The soldiers, in Or co'dadi, prepare for battle, to capture the castle that Manrico vainly tries to defend.

Rigoletto had been staged in Venice in 1851. Based on Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse, its action safely shifted to sixteenth century Mantua, to avoid problems with the censors, Verdi's opera treats the tragedy of the cynical court jester of the title, who helps his master, the Duke, in his unscrupulous amorous adventures, only to have his own daughter, Gilda, abducted and seduced by the Duke. He plans the murder of his master, but to his final horror discovers that it is Gilda who has been killed, not the Duke. The chorus Zitti, zitti finds the courtiers, seeking revenge on Rigoletto, intent on the abduction of his precious daughter.

Giacomo Puccini represents a later generation of Italian composers, a leading figure at the turn of the century. Madama Butterfly, first staged at La Scala, Milan, in 1904, is set in Japan and deals with the marriage and betrayal of Cio-Cio-San, the innocent young Japanese bride of the title, deserted by the selfish American naval Lieutenant Pinkerton, whose child she bears, in his absence. She kills herself, after his return with his new American wife. The Humming Chorus marks the beginning of Cio-Cio-San's long night of watching, as she awaits Pinkerton's return to her, after his ship has reached Nagasaki once more.

Verdi' s first Shakespearean opera, Macbeth, staged in Florence in 1847, is an effective transposition of the original play, with the three witches that provoke Macbeth to his acts of regicide and usurpation represented by a tripartite chorus of witches. Scottish exiles gather, under Malcolm, son of the murdered King Duncan, to march against the tyrant, their chorus Patria oppressa a clear reflection of contemporary Italian grievances and aspirations.

Gaetano Donizetti won his first significant operatic success in 1822. The comic opera L'elisir d'amore (‘The Elixir of Love’), first performed in Milan in 1832, centres on the love of the simple-minded Nemorino for the rather cleverer young landowner Adina. Nemorino imagines himself materially assisted by a potion sold him by the peripatetic quack Dulcamara, but is more effectively helped by an unexpected legacy and his own obvious sincerity. In Cantiamo, cantiam, cantiam Adina, Dulcamara, Nemorino's rival Sergeant Belcore and others celebrate the planned wedding of Adina and Belcore.

The Easter Hymn in Cavalleria rusticana is in marked contrast to the dramatic events outside the church, where the villagers celebrate the Easter festival. The sound of the Regina coeli is heard and the villagers outside join in the hymn, a prelude to Santuzza's confession to the mother of her former lover Turiddu, Lucia, of Turiddu's treatment of her.

Verdi was particularly fascinated by the possibilities of further operas based on Shakespeare, after the success in Florence of his opera Macbeth. His opera Otello, with a libretto derived from Shakespeare by Boito, was first staged at La Scala, Milan, in 1887, when Verdi was in his seventies. In the first act, which opens with the triumphant return of the victorious Otello to Cyprus, Iago first reveals his villainy, his jealousy of Cassio and his willingness to make use of Roderigo, besotted with Desdemona, the Moor Otello's young Venetian wife. In Fuoco di gioia, soldiers and their companions enjoy the warmth of the fire, which crackles as they sing.

Ruggero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, first staged at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan in 1892, is a further example of operatic realism. Based on a court case investigated by the composer's father in Calabria, it deals with the love and jealousy of the player Canio, a deceived husband in the drama he presents as well as in real life. It leads to his murder of his wife, faithless in the play and in reality, and her lover. The Bell Chorus provides a more cheerful moment, as Canio, followed by the villagers, sets out for the tavern, leaving his wife Nedda with a chance to meet her lover and to antagonize still further the clown Tonio, who observes the meeting, with his own advances indignantly and contemptuously rejected.

The Anvil Chorus in Verdi's Il trovatore provides an opportunity for additional percussive effects. Here the gypsies, with whom Manrico has been brought up, start their work, as dawn breaks in the mountains of Biscay, soon to break off to hear the old gypsy Azucena's account of the death at the stake of her mother and her attempt to throw the old Count di Luna's baby boy into the flames. By an unfortunate confusion of mind she had thrown her own baby into the fire, as far as she can remember, but evident doubt is now cast on her supposed son Manrico's true parentage.

Gioachino Rossini won remarkable early success and enjoyed along retirement from operatic composition, from 1830 until his death in 1868. His opera Tancredi, based on Voltaire's play Tancrède, was first performed at La Fenice in Venice in 1813. Here the exiled Tancredi, returns to Syracuse, hoping to see again his beloved Amenaide, daughter of the restored Syracusan leader Argirio, and to help the city against the attacks of the Saracens, with whose leader Amenaide is accused of complicity, now doubted too by Tancredi. The first version of the opera ends in victory and reconciliation. A second version allowed the intervention of tragedy, with Tancredi mortally wounded in battle, but still reconciled with Amenaide, as he dies. The chorus Amori scendete anticipates the wedding arranged for Amenaide with her father's enemy Orbazzano, a union that is intended to bring to an end the feud between the rival Syracusan families.

In La traviata, based on La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas, Verdi treats the story of the fashionable and successful courtesan Violetta and her young lover Alfredo, whom she leaves, at the request of his father. Alfredo eventually understands the sacrifice she has made for him, as she dies of consumption. The Gypsy Chorus entertains guests at the house of Violetta's friend, Flora Bervoix, after her break with Alfredo and a new liaison, which excites his bitter jealousy and resentment.

Aida, written for the new Cairo Opera House, which opened in 1871, provides Verdi with an appropriately Egyptian subject. The hero Radames, commander of the Egyptian armies, is tricked into betraying his military plans, when his conversation with his beloved Aida, an Ethiopian captive, is overheard by her father Amonasro, the captured Ethiopian king. The first great victory of Radames against the Ethiopians is celebrated with triumphant splendour, an opportunity for theatrical ostentation and extravagance. He is later to die, with Aida, immured in a tomb, his death lamented by the rival for his love, Amneris, daughter of the Egyptian king.


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