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8.554682 - BEST OF OPERA, VOL. 4
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The Best of Opera, Vol. 4

[1] Wagner's opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, first staged in Munich in 1868, is set in sixteenth-century Nuremberg, where a song contest is to be held, according to the traditional rules of the guilds. On this occasion the goldsmith Pogner is offering the winner the hand of his daughter Eva in marriage. Matters are complicated by the intrusion of the young knight Walther, who falls in love with Eva and enters the contest, to the disgust of the town-clerk Beckmesser, who has his own ambitions. The Overture weaves together various leading motifs associated with characters, ideas and events in the work, starting with the Mastersingers motif, followed by that associated with Walther's love. There are motifs for the Guilds, for youthful fervour, love, passion and, in an accelerated version of the Mastersingers motif, music for the apprentices, all reaching a climax as they appear together.

[2] Giuseppe Verdi owed something to Wagner, however different his operas may seem. From his first success in Milan in 1842 he went on to dominate Italian opera for years to come, with works that still remain central to Italian operatic repertoire. Aida, written to celebrate the opening of a new opera house, was first performed in Cairo in 1871. Set in Egypt, it deals with the love of the Egyptian general Radames for the captive Ethiopian princess of the title. Tricked into unwitting betrayal of the planned campaign of his army and object of jealous anger to the Egyptian princess Amneris, whose hand in marriage he had been offered by the grateful King, he is eventually condemned to death, immured in a tomb where he is joined by Aida, as Amneris laments the fate of the man she had loved. In Ritorna vincitor! (May he return victorious) Aida is troubled by the prospect of her lover's victory over her own people, as he leaves to lead the Egyptian army against the Ethiopians.

[3] Verdi's opera Il Trovatore (‘The Troubadour’), first staged in Rome in 1853, has a plot of some complexity. The troubadour Manrico, supposed son of the gypsy Azucena but in fact, as is later revealed, the lost son of the Count di Luna, is pitted against his brother in war and for the love of Leonora. Azucena, who has come in search of her son, is seized by the Count di Luna and condemned to death at the stake. Manrico, in Di quella pira (‘That pyre's terrible fire’), learns of his mother's imminent death and resolves to rescue her, an attempt that leads to his own imprisonment and death and, in final self-sacrifice, that of Leonora.

[4] The opera Cosí fan tutte (‘They all behave like this’) was staged in Vienna in 1790. It was Mozart's last collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. Two lovers plan, for a wager, to test the fidelity of the sisters pledged to them by pretending to go away to the wars but returning in disguise. As each woos the other's mistress, they eventually succeed, losing their wager, although matters are eventually put right, in one way or another. In Come scoglio (‘Steadfast as a rock’) one of the sisters, Fiordiligi, declares her intention of resisting to the end the advances of the stranger who now presses his attentions on her.

[5] A leading figure in French opera towards the end of the nineteenth century, Jules Massenet based his 1894 opera Thaïs on a work by Anatole France. It deals with the love of the courtesan of the title for a holy man, Athanaël, who is finally tempted by her beauty, after her successful conversion. This last is reflected in the famous Méditation, an intermezzo that marks her change of heart.

[6] Massenet, in his opera Manon, turned his attention also to the story of Manon Lescaut, fated heroine of a novel by the Abbé Prévost. Puccini, a dominant figure in Italian opera at the turn of the century, treated the tragic story in an opera first staged in Turin in 1893. Manon, escorted by her brother to a convent but accompanied by the rich older man Geronte, meets the Chevalier Des Grieux and the two elope, before Lescaut and Geronte can leave for Paris. There, however, she is finally forced to accept the protection of Geronte and when she seeks to leave him for her former lover, she is arrested at Geronte's insistence, accused of theft as she attempts to take with her jewels he has provided for her. Condemned to transportation, she is accompanied by Des Grieux, only to die in the desert outside New Orleans, Sola, perduta, abbandonata (‘Alone, lost, abandoned’), as her lover goes to seek shelter for them.

[7] Donizetti's lighter hearted L'Elisir d'amore (‘The Elixir of Love’) of 1832 shows the apparently hopeless love of the simple peasant Nemorino for a rich landowner, Adina, who herself is attracted to the bragging soldier Belcore. Nemorino finds help in his suit from the quack doctor Dulcamara and his bogus elixir and in a legacy that brings him unusual popularity. In Una furtiva lagrima (‘A furtive tear’) he sees signs of Adina's love for him and the pair are eventually united.

[8] Staged first in Venice in 1853, Verdi's La Traviata (‘The Fallen Woman’) is based on La Dame aux camélias (‘The Lady of the Camelias’) by Alexandre Dumas. The courtesan Violetta meets and falls in love with the young Alfredo Germont, with whom she sets up house, leaving her former life. She is persuaded by Alfredo's father to break off the relationship, while not revealing her reason for this action, to the anger and contempt of her lover. It is only when she lies dying of consumption that Alfredo learns the truth. After their first meeting, Violetta seems to experience true love for the first time, but in Follie!… Sempre libera (‘Folly!… Always free’) she dismisses the thought.

[9] A composer of the greatest precocity, Erich Korngold spent much of his career in America, writing music for the cinema. His opera Die tote Stadt (‘The Dead City’) had its successful premières in Cologne and Hamburg on 4th December 1920, when Korngold was twenty-three. The work deals with the preoccupation of the protagonist Paul with his dead wife Marie and his fascination with the actress Marietta. A dream about the latter breaks the spell, allowing Paul to embark on a new life. Marietta's song Glück, das mir verblieb (‘Joy, that is left me’) tells of a beloved who soon must die, affecting Paul deeply.

[10] The last of Mozart's operas to be staged in his lifetime, Die Zauberflöte (‘The Magic Flute’), running at the time of his death in the winter of 1791, has a masonic setting. The hero Tamino passes through ordeals of various kinds before reaching enlightenment and union with his beloved Pamina. He is shown her picture, at the beginning of his quest, and is dazzled by the beauty he sees there in Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (‘This picture is bewitchingly beautiful’).

[11] La Cenerentola (‘Cinderella’) allows Rossini some latitude in his 1817 treatment of Perrault's tale. The heroine is finally united with her prince and shows magnanimity in pardoning her father and sisters, expressing this in a remarkable show piece, Nacqui all'affanno e al pianto (‘I was born to trouble and tears’).

[12] Italian verismo (realism) in opera is seen in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (Players), first mounted in Milan in 1892. Based on a court case, the plot concerns the justified jealousy of the actor Canio towards his wife Nedda, whom he murders in the course of a play that reflects something of the real situation in the actors' lives. The Bell Chorus in the first of the two acts marks the departure of the villagers at the sound of the vesper bell, leaving Nedda aware of the danger she faces from her husband's possible jealousy and from the unwanted attentions of the ugly Tonio, whose actions finally provoke the catastrophe.

[13] In a plot of some complexity, Ponchielli's 1876 opera La Gioconda is again a tale of love and jealousy. Here the Genoese Laura is married to the chief of the Venetian state inquisition, but in fact loves the Genoese prince Enzo Grimaldi, who comes to Venice disguised as a sea captain. On the deck of his ship he sings his aria Cielo e mar (Sky and sea), as he awaits the arrival of Laura, unaware of the plot that the wicked spy Barnaba has laid for him. It is only through the self-sacrifice of the singer of the title that Laura and Enzo Grimaldi are eventually united.

[14] The ancient Greek story of Alcestis, who was prepared to take her husband's place by dying and descending to the Underworld instead of him, was notably treated by Euripides. Gluck, in his Italian opera on the subject in 1767, followed nine years later by a French version for Paris, explored the same legend with a new attempt at dramatic realism. The sacrifice of Alcestis has proved acceptable to the gods and she sings her defiance of death in Ombre, larve (‘Shades, ghosts’).

[15] Georges Bizet tackled the subject of Carmen, in 1875, with a work that explored new operatic territory in a story of love, jealousy and murder set in Spain. There the gypsy factory-girl Carmen seduces the young soldier Don José, who deserts his post to accompany her and her smuggler companions to the mountains. She turns her favours to the toreador Escamillo and is finally murdered by Don José outside the bull-ring in Seville. The entr'acte to Act III sets the relatively tranquil mountain scene.

[16] Mascagni's opera Cavalleria rusticana (‘Rustic Chivalry’) is often given in a double bill with Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, which it matches in realism. Set in a Sicilian village, it deals once more with love and jealousy. Santuzza, neglected by her former lover Turiddu, resents his attentions to Lola, now married to the village carter Alfio. She is instrumental in exciting Alfio's jealousy and provoking a duel that ends in Turiddu's death. In Mamma, quel vino è generoso (Mamma, this wine is too potent) Turiddu bids his mother farewell, before leaving to fight with Alfio.


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