About this Recording
2.110612 - COLOMBARA, Carlo: Art of the Bass (The) (NTSC)

Carlo Colombara
The Art of the Bass
Bizet • Verdi • Rossini • Gounod • Boito • Rachmaninov • Mussorgsky


Carmen was the last and most successful opera of the French composer Georges Bizet, whose death occurred during the first run of the piece at the Paris Salle Favart in 1875 by the Opéra-Comique. Set in Spain, the opera brought an unusual element of realism, with the gypsy factory-girl Carmen at its centre. Arrested for affray, she uses her charms to seduce her guard, Don José, and find freedom in the mountains, with her smuggler companions. Don José follows her, deserting both his post and his betrothed, but Carmen already has found a new lover, the toreador Escamillo. The opera ends with the murder of Carmen by Don José, as she accompanies Escamillo and his entourage to the bull-ring for a corrida in Seville. Something of Escamillo’s pride is heard in his Toreador’s Song in Act II, when he first meets Carmen at the inn of Lilias Pastia, where her smuggler friends are planning their next enterprise. Escamillo, in Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre and the following Toréador, en garde!, thanks the company at the inn and goes on to praise the glory of his profession.

Giuseppe Verdi, from his first significant success in 1842, held a dominant position in Italian opera over the following years. His Don Carlo was first staged, with its original five acts, at the Paris Opéra in 1867 and revised in a four-act version in 1884, with an Italian translation from the original French libretto. It is a story of love and rivalry, here between the Infante Don Carlos and his father, Philip II, whose wife, Elisabeth de Valois, had earlier been proposed as a match for his son. The complex plot involves the machinations of Princess Eboli, who is in love with Don Carlos, and the disaffection of inhabitants of the Spanish Netherlands, for which Don Carlos has some sympathy. Rodrigo, who has attempted to shield his friend Don Carlos from blame for association with the Flanders revolutionaries, is killed, and in the final scene, when the King and Grand Inquisitor seek the death of Don Carlos, he is mysteriously saved, through the intervention, seemingly, of the old Emperor or a monk in his guise, who takes him into the monastery where this meeting is taking place. In Ella giammai m’amò! (She never loved me!), from Act III in the revised version, King Philip, in his private chamber, laments the seeming fact that his wife has never loved him, but has, rather, been in love with his son, the Infante.

Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), the best known of all Gioachino Rossini’s operas, is from another world. Based on the first of the three Figaro plays of Beaumarchais, it deals with the comic devices through which Count Almaviva, assisted by his factotum Figaro, woos and finally marries the young heiress Rosina, after outwitting her guardian Dr Bartolo, who has had an eye on his ward’s dowry. In La calumnia è un venticello (Slander is a little breeze) Don Basilio, Rosina’s music-master, suggests to Dr Bartolo that slander may be the best means of driving out of town Count Almaviva, who is rumoured to have arrived in Seville in order to seek the hand of Rosina, who has already been approached by the Count in the guise of the penniless Lindoro.

Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra was first staged at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1857, to be revised for La Scala, Milan, in 1881. Set in Genoa, the opera opens with the election of the corsair Simon Boccanegra as Doge, the plebeian choice, who hopes that this will help his marriage to Maria, daughter of the reigning Doge, Fiesco, who has kept her imprisoned in his house. In Il lacerato spirito (This desperate father’s broken spirit) Fiesco laments the death of Maria, who has died giving birth to a daughter, and inveighs against Boccanegra, who is soon to discover his loss. The plot continues 25 years later, with the identity of Boccanegra’s daughter, adopted by the Grimaldi family and in love with Gabriele Adorno, revealed. Adorno is involved with the disguised Fiesco in plotting against the Doge Boccanegra, who eventually, in the act of forgiving his enemies, dies of poison.

Goethe’s Faust served as inspiration to a number of composers in the nineteenth century. Charles Gounod’s French version, drawn from Part I of the original play, had its first performance in Paris in 1859. Through the help of the Devil, Mephistopheles, Faust is rejuvenated, to enjoy, for a time, the worldly pleasures that had up to then eluded him. Faust seduces the innocent young Marguerite, who is to kill the child she bears him and finally be executed, her soul saved, as the opera ends. In Act IV Mephistopheles sings a mock serenade, Vous qui faites l’endormie (You who pretend to sleep) outside Marguerite’s house, as her brother returns from the war, soon to discover his sister’s shame.

Verdi’s Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) was first staged at La Scala, Milan, in 1842. The work is in four parts, the first set in Jerusalem, where the Temple is captured by Nebuchadnezzar, who orders its destruction. In the second part, in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, Abigaille, thwarted in her love for Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem, who loves Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter Fenena, seeks revenge. Eventually Nebuchadnezzar, who, for blasphemy, has lost his wits, is restored to sanity and converted, to continue his reign, while Abigaille poisons herself. In captivity in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, Zaccaria, High Priest of the Hebrews, with Tu sul labbro de’ veggenti fulminasti, o sommo Iddio! (On the lips of the prophets Thou hast fulminated, O almighty God!), prays to Jehovah to bring enlightenment to the unbeliever and speak, through His prophet, to the Assyrians.

Again derived from Goethe’s Faust, Arrigo Boito’s opera Mefistofele, first mounted at La Scala, Milan, in 1858, gives the Devil of the title some good tunes. He leads Faust to a Witches’ Sabbath, a wild Walpurgisnacht. The moon is rising and the wind blows, as Mephistopheles draws Faust on, climbing ever higher up old Satan’s mountain. They reach a peak and hear the sound of witches approaching from below. Mephistopheles calls impatiently for his sceptre and robe, as their king, and in Ecco il mondo (Behold the world), holding a glass orb in his hand, he sings of his power over the world, in all its wickedness, laughing at the human predicament. He dashes the glass orb to the ground, and the witches celebrate the shattering of the world.

Verdi’s opera Attila was first seen in Venice in 1846. Ezio, a Roman general, offers Attila the Roman Empire, if he will leave Italy free, but Attila rejects the proposal. The Aquileian knight Foresto gathers together the soldiers that have survived Attila’s attack and wonders what has happened to his beloved Odabella, daughter of the ruler of Aquileia, now a captive. Attila announces his intention of marrying Odabella, but as the Romans and Italians attack the Huns, she stabs Attila to death. In Act I Attila, in his tent, has a nightmare in which an old man seizes him by the hair and warns him to turn back from the gates of Rome. He recounts this to his young Breton slave, Uldino, in Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima parea (As my soul seemed to swell). To his terror he soon sees the figure of the old man once more when a group of Christian maidens, singing hymns, comes to him, in their midst the old Roman bishop Leone.

Rachmaninov wrote his one-act opera Aleko as a graduation piece and it was first staged at the Moscow Bolshoy Theatre the following year, 1893. It deals with the liaison between the young Aleko, tired of his life, and a gypsy girl, her rejection of him in favour of another, and his murder of the couple. In his cavatina Aleko, alone, at night, recalls his love for Zemfira, their kisses, her promises, and her infidelity.

Mussorgsky wrote his first version of Boris Godunov in 1869, producing a revised version in 1872 and a further revision the following year. The work was rescored by Rimsky-Korsakov for performance in 1896. Based on historical events, the opera shows the accession to power of Boris Godunov, after the murder of the rightful heir, Dmitry. A pretender, the false Dmitry, leads an army against Boris, who remains haunted to madness by the ghost of the boy he has murdered, and, as the council of boyars gather round him, he bids farewell to his son. Fyodor must now succeed him, however the throne had first been gained; he must distrust the disloyal Boyars in Lithuania and punish them. His voice grows weaker, as he bids his son be a just ruler, honouring the saints and protecting his sister, and finally seeks the blessing of God and the angels on the boy.

Keith Anderson

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