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8.557309 - NIGHT AT THE OPERA (A) - Favourite opera arias, duets and ensembles
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A Night At The Opera

Based on Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse, Verdi’s Rigoletto centres on the curse of a father on the father of the title, the court jester to the Duke of Mantua. The climax of the action comes in the third act. Gilda, the beloved daughter of Rigoletto, has been abducted by Rigoletto’s enemies at court and seduced by the Duke, for whose murder Rigoletto has hired an assassin, Sparafucile. The scene is by the banks of the River Mincio, where Rigoletto and Gilda wait outside a twostorey house. The Duke appears, disguised as an ordinary officer, and enters the house, asking Sparafucile for wine and for a room. He is joined by Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena, while Sparafucile leaves them together, going out into the street to ask Rigoletto if this is the man. In the quartet the Duke declares his love for Maddalena, while Gilda, observing the scene from outside, is heart-broken at her lover’s faithlessness, to which Rigoletto draws her attention. In what follows Rigoletto tells his daughter to go home and disguise herself in man’s clothes, ready to leave the city. Sparafucile is persuaded by Maddalena to spare the Duke, killing instead the first man to enter. In the event this is Gilda, willing to sacrifice herself for her lover. Rigoletto returns, ready to receive the body of his victim, and takes the murdered body in a sack, prepared to throw it into the nearby river. At this moment he hears the voice of the Duke from within the house, and realises he has been tricked. He opens the sack and in a flash of lightning sees the face of his daughter Gilda.

Mozart wrote his opera La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) in 1791 for the coronation in Prague of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. The libretto was adapted from Metastasio and deals with the beneficence of the Roman Emperor Titus, whose friend Sextus is persuaded by Vitellia, jealous of Titus, to attempt his murder, a plan from which she later relents, when it seems that she herself may marry the Emperor. Sextus makes his attempt, Vitellia admits her complicity, and both are pardoned. In his first-act aria Parto, parto, Sextus agrees to Vitellia’s demands, to the accompaniment of a basset clarinet, in the original scoring, a part for the Vienna court clarinettist Anton Stadler, for whom Mozart wrote other works in the last years of his life.

Perhaps the best known operatic transformation of Goethe’s drama Faust is the 1858 opera by the French composer Charles Gounod. In his third-act Cavatina Faust, left alone outside the house of his beloved Marguerite by his satanic guide Mephistopheles, sings of her innocence, but Mephistopheles is soon to return with a casket of jewels, a temptation for Marguerite. She is later to give way to Faust, in his transformed guise as a young man, and bears a child, which she kills. In the final scenes she is imprisoned, condemned to death. Faust, assisted by Mephistopheles, tries to persuade her to escape with him, but she turns instead to the angels, who will assure her salvation in spite of the machinations of the Devil.

Puccini’s popular opera of 1895, La Bohème, set in the artists’ quarter of Paris, is based on Henri Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de bohème. The impoverished young poet Rodolfo falls in love with Mimì, a seamstress, a neighbour. Their love fails and Mimì seeks other protectors, before her poignant death from consumption, united once more with Rodolfo. At Mimì’s return Rodolfo’s friends try to raise money to help her and Colline, the philosopher of the group, goes out to pawn his old coat, Vecchia zimarra, to buy medicine for her.

Mozart’s 1787 collaboration with the poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, Don Giovanni, was written for Prague, where it was first performed. It deals with the escapades and fate of the ruthless philanderer of the title, eventually dragged down to Hell by the stone statue of the old Commendatore he has killed in his attempt on the honour of the old man’s daughter. In Là ci darem la mano (Give me your hand) Don Giovanni exercises his powers of seduction on the peasant girl Zerlina, whose marriage to Masetto is about to be celebrated.

Verdi’s 1867 opera Don Carlo has a plot of some complexity, derived from Schiller. Written with a French libretto it was revised in an Italian version in 1884. The Infante Don Carlos is in love with Elisabeth de Valois, who, it is decided, shall marry his father, Philip II of Spain. Matters are complicated when Don Carlos declares his love to one he thinks to be Elisabeth, but is in fact the Princess Eboli, who determines on revenge, when she learns of his true feelings. Don Carlos is implicated in disaffection in Flanders and imprisoned, while his friend Rodrigo, also involved, is killed. Don Carlos meets the Queen by the tomb of the old Emperor, whose voice is heard, allowing the young man to escape death and find refuge in the monastery. Rodrigo, in the two arias included, gives his life for his friend Don Carlos, having sought to take the blame for the apparent implication of his friend in treachery.

Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) was completed and staged in 1881, a year after the composer’s death. It links separate stories by the German writer of the title. In the fourth act (the third in earlier versions of the opera) Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse is heard approaching by gondola on the Grand Canal in Venice, with the courtesan Giulietta, later to be persuaded to help the villainous Dapertutto in his attempt to acquire Hoffmann’s reflection. The Barcarolle is one of the best known elements in the opera.

Handel’s early reputation rested in good part on his Italian operas, one of which had brought his first introduction to London, where he was to live and work until his death in 1759. His opera Orlando was staged there in 1733 and centres on the dilemma of Orlando, torn between love and the glory to which the magician Zoroastro urges him. Love for Angelica drives him mad, but he is finally brought to his senses by Zoroastro, while Angelica is united with her lover Medoro. In his splendid aria Sorge infausta una procella (Rise, ill-omened storm) Zoroastro, in the third act, intervenes, in his allotted rôle as deus ex machina, written for the great bass Antonio Montagnana.

In Restoration London it became the fashion to adapt the plays of Shakespeare to suit modern taste, in addition to a further current repertoire of plays with a considerable musical element. The Tempest was adapted by various writers and staged in these revised forms. The version with music attributed to Henry Purcell, who died in 1695, is only certainly known to have been staged in 1712, and the greater part of the music is now generally attributed to John Weldon, a contribution that includes the famous aria Arise ye subterranean winds, sung by a devil.

Verdi’s Il trovatore (The Troubadour) was first staged in Rome in 1853. The troubadour of the title, Manrico, is the long-lost son of the old Count di Luna, abducted and brought up by the gypsy Azucena. The plot revolves around the conflict between Manrico and his brother, the young Count di Luna, both in love with Leonora. Manrico and Azucena are eventually taken prisoner by the Count, the former to be released in exchange for Leonora’s capitulation to the Count, foiled by her suicide. Manrico is put to death, while Azucena can now reveal to the Count that he has killed his own brother, her revenge for the killing of her own mother. Leonora sings her moving D’amor sull’ali rosee (Love, fly on rosy wings) as she hears the Miserere from the castle where her beloved Manrico is held prisoner.

Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl-Fishers), an opera by Bizet, first staged in Paris in 1863, is set in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where two fishermen, Zurga and Nadir, are in love with the beautiful Leila, a priestess of Brahma. Threatened with death for sacrilege, Nadir is eventually allowed to escape with Leila, through the intervention of Zurga. In Au fond du temple saint (Within the sacred temple) the two men recall the beautiful girl they had once seen.

Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (Ariadne on Naxos), with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, its second version first seen in 1916, combines a serious opera, that of the title, with a commedia dell’arte performance, on the apparent instructions of a patron anxious to display his new wealth. The young composer is at first distressed at the situation, but is persuaded to agree to the suggested compromise. He sings praise of the holy art, before the anticlimax of the comedians, to whose participation he now realises he has agreed.

Gianni Schicchi forms part of Puccini’s 1918 trilogy, Il trittico. Based on an incident recounted in Dante’s Inferno, it shows how Gianni Schicchi, brought in by greedy relatives to impersonate a dead man and alter his will in their favour, succeeds in outwitting the whole of the dead man’s family, by writing a new will that leaves everything to himself. In Avete torto! (You are wrong!) Rinuccio, a young member of the bereaved family, in love with Gianni Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta, recommends the employment of Gianni Schicchi in the plot, in music that immediately precedes the latter’s entrance.

First staged in Paris in 1835, Bellini’s I puritani (The Puritans) is set in the period of the English Civil War, with a gallant cavalier assisting the escape of Queen Henrietta Maria, disguised in his bride Elvira’s veil. Elvira enjoys a bout of operatic insanity, before a Puritan victory allows general reconciliation. In Suoni la tromba (The trumpet sounds) the retired Puritan colonel Sir Giorgio, Elvira’s uncle, has persuaded the younger Puritan, Sir Riccardo Forth, himself in love with Elvira, to do his best to protect her betrothed, the cavalier Lord Arturo Talbo, provided, now having escaped, he does not join the battle against the Puritans. Together they call for freedom.

Keith Anderson


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