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8.553166 - BEST OF OPERA, VOL. 1

The Best of Opera Vol.1

The first volume of the Naxos selection of operatic excerpts includes music ranging from Mozart to Puccini. The first of these composers is represented by the famous aria of the Queen of the Night from The Magic Flute. Mozart had settled in Vienna, independent of a patron and of his father's guidance, in 1781. Ten years later, after variable successes, his fortunes seemed about to take a turn for the better. In 1791, the year of his death, he w rote two operas, the coronation opera La clemenza di Tito for Prague and the German Singspiel Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) for a suburban theatre in Vienna. The latter was still running at the time of his death in early December. The opera, imbued with masonic symbolism and with a libretto by the actor-manager Emanuel Schikaneder, who took a leading comic rôle in the work, deals with the ordeals and initiation of Tamino and his earthier companion, the bird-catcher Papageno, into the mysteries of enlightenment and his final union with Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night. In the first act of the opera the latter appears to Tamino, seeking his help in the rescue of her daughter from Sarastro, whom she brands as evil, although it later transpires that he is the leader of the enlightened band into which Tamino is eventually admitted. In Der Hölle Rache she declares, in brilliant coloratura, her enmity to her former consort Sarastro.

Giuseppe Verdi dominated Italian opera in the second half of the nineteenth century. For many he seemed a symbol of national unity, at a time when this was a matter of great moment, his very name an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele, rè d'Italia (Victor Emanuel, King of Italy). His first great success came in 1842 with the production in Milan of the opera Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar). The subject, the captivity of the Jewish people under Babylon, had obvious political significance in an Italy partly dominated by foreign powers. The chorus of Hebrew slaves, Va pensiero (Fly, my thoughts, on golden wings), toiling by the waters of Babylon, struck a necessarily patriotic note, particularly at the words O mia patria, si bella e perduta (O my country, so fair and yet lost).

Rigoletto, first staged in Venice in 1851, is based on Victor Hugo' s Le roi s' amuse. The opera deals with the fate of the court jester Rigoletto, who abets the lascivious Duke of Mantua in his amorous exploits only to have his own beloved daughter Gilda seduced by his master. He seeks revenge through the agency of the hired assassin Sparafucile, but his scheme misfires, resulting, instead, in the murder of Gilda. Bella figlia dell'amore, a quartet for the Duke, Maddalena, Rigoletto and Gilda, comes at the climax of the opera. The Duke, whom Rigoletto has planned to have killed, is in the house of his proposed murderer, dallying with Sparafucile's sister, Maddalena, who is to lure him to his death. Rigoletto secretly observes the scene, to the distress of Gilda, who still loves her seducer.

Two years later La Traviata was staged, also in Venice and based on a French original, this time the play La dame aux camélias of the younger Alexandre Dumas. Violetta, the heroine, a fashionable courtesan, is loved by the young Alfredo, but is induced by the latter's father to renounce him in favour of her old life, so as not to damage the honour of Alfredo' s family and the marriage prospects of his sister. Alfredo knows nothing of Violetta's self-sacrifice, and only learns the truth as she lies dying of consumption. The drinking-song, Libiamo ne'lieti calici, is introduced by Alfredo at Violetta's house, which he is visiting for the first time, invited by her to a reception there.

La forza del destino was written for performance in Russia in 1862. It is based on the Spanish play Don Alvaro o la fuerza delsino by Angel Saavedra, Duke of Rivas, which recounts a complex tale of the working of fate in the love of Leonora and Don Alvaro, unwitting cause of her father's death and therefore the object of vengeance from her brother. The overture sets the scene for the sombre tragedy that follows.

The leading composer in Italian opera after Verdi was Giacomo Puccini, an exponent of dramatic realism. He won success in 1896 with his opera La Bohème, based on a French novel by Henri Murger that deals with life in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1830s. A group of young artists share an attic apartment. The poet of the group, Rodolfo, is alone when a timid knock at the door introduces a neighbour, the poor little seamstress Mimi, who seeks a light for her candle. She and Rodolfo fall in love as their hands meet, searching for the key she has dropped, and timidly she reveals the name by which she is known, Mi chiamono Mimi (They call me Mimi). Their love cannot last, and after various vicissitudes is renewed only on her death-bed.

Puccici's La Tosca followed in 1900, based on a French play by Victorien Sardou. The heroine of the title loves the painter Cavaradossi, who is implicated in revolutionary activity, assisting a fugitive to escape, and is imprisoned and condemned to death by the wicked Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia. Tosca, a singer, seeks to secure his release, which she can only do at the price of her honour. She secures what she thinks is a pardon and laissez-passer from Scarpia, whom she then murders. Scarpia, however, has deceived her, since he has planned not a mock-execution of Cavaradossi, as he had assured her, but the man's real death by firing-squad. Tosca, Scarpia's murder undiscovered, believes until the end that Cavaradossi will escape with her. When she realises that he is dead and that Scarpia's murder is now known, she leaps from the prison battlements to her own death. Cavaradossi, in prison in Castel San Angelo, reflects in E lucevan le stelle on happier times.

In Madama Butterfly Puccini turned for his plot to an American play by David Belasco on a Japanese subject, the betrayal of the heroine of the title, the young Japanese girl Cio-Cio-San, by a visiting American naval officer, Pinkerton, who goes through a form of marriage with the girl, having no serious intention of remaining true to her. He leaves and Cio-Cio-San patiently awaits his return, watching for his ship with her loyal servant Suzuki and the boy that Pinkerton has fathered. When the latter eventually returns he brings with him his American wife and Cio-Cio-San, Madama Butterfly, kills herself. On her wedding-day Cio-Cio-San has been cursed by her uncle, the Bonze, and as evening falls she is comforted by Pinkerton in a love duet, Bimba dagli occhi, which ends the first act.

Gianni Schicchi formed part of an operatic triptych by Puccini, first staged in New York in 1918. Gianni Schicchi himself helps the family of Buoso Donati, who has just died, to frustrate the intentions expressed in his will to leave his money to a monastery. Schicchi impersonates the dead man and makes a new will, but secures much of the property for himself, to the anger of Buoso Donati’s family, who remain powerless. Omio babbino caro is sung by Schicchi's daughter Lauretta, who wants to marry Rinuccio, a relative of Buoso Donati who is instrumental in bringing in Schicchi to solve the family' s difficulties and his own.

Puccini's last opera, Turandot, was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1924. It is based on the eighteenth century play by Gozzi dealing with the cold- hearted Chinese princess Turandot, who sets her suitors three riddles. Those unsuccessful are put to death. Calaf, son of the conquered King of Tartary, eventually solves the riddles and wins the heart of Turandot. In Nessun dorma Calaf, having solved the riddles set by Turandot, now agrees that if she can find out his name in the course of one night, she may have him killed. As the night passes, none may sleep, as Turandot seizes every means to find out Calaf's name, but he is certain of victory.

The Italian composers Leoncavallo and Mascagni are often coupled, since their operas I Pagliacci and La cavalleria rusticana often form a double-bill in the opera-house. The first, by Leoncavallo, is based on an actual event and centres on the murder, by the jealous actor Canio, of his faithless wife Nedda and her lover Silvio during the course of a play in which he, as Pagliaccio, finds himself in a similar situation with Columbine, the part take by Nedda. In Vesti la giubba and the dramatic section that precedes it, Canio resolves to conceal his feelings, hiding behind the make-up and dress of an actor in a performance during which he eventually drops his mask.

Mascagni's La cavalleria rusticana also deals with jealousy and murder. The action is set in a Sicilian village, where Santuzza has been seduced by Turiddu, who now turns his attention to the wife of Alfio, a carter whose work takes him often away from the village. Santuzza takes her revenge on Turiddu by telling Alfio of the faithlessness of his wife and provoking a duel in which Turiddu is killed. The Intermezzo reflects the course of affairs, coming after Santuzza has told Alfio of Turiddu's behaviour and hinting at the tragedy to come.

The most important figure in German music-theatre in the nineteenth century is Richard Wagner, a man inspired by his own grandiose ideals, to which all had to give way. He created a new form of dramatic unity in a combination of the arts of music and drama, for which he wrote words and music and which he directed, eventually in a theatre in Bayreuth constructed to his own novel design. His Tannhäuser, on the life of the medieval Minnesinger of that name, has more contemporary connotations. The opera was first staged in Dresden in 1845. Tannhäuser himself has given way to the pleasures offered by Venus, but returns to the world to seek redemption. The famous Pilgrims' Chorus Beglückt darf nun dich marks his return to the world, as pilgrims set out on their journey to Rome. Returning pilgrims will eventually give Tannhäuser a sign of his salvation.

Realism came to French opera in particular with Georges Bizet and his last opera Carmen, based on a play by Prosper Mérimée and first staged in Paris in 1875, the year of Bizet's death. Love and jealousy again dominate the plot, set in Seville. The gypsy girl Carmen lures the soldier Don José from his duty and from his beloved Micaela, persuading him to follow her to the mountain hide-out of her smuggler companions, after he has been demoted and punished for allowing her to escape from prison. Carmen then deserts him for the bull-fighter Escamillo. Don José, in final despair, kills Carmen, as her new lover is again enjoying triumph in the arena. The famous Toreador's Song is introduced as Escamillo first describes his glamorous career.

The Czech composer Antonín Dvořák worked for some years as a viola-player in the opera orchestra in Prague and himself wrote some ten operas. The penultimate, in order of composition, Rusalka, written in 1901, is based on de la Motte Fouqué's Undine, the story of a water spirit who falls in love with a mortal. Rusalka is helped by a witch to assume mortal shape, but dies when the prince she has married proves unfaithful. O silver moon, Rusalka's Romance, occurs in the first act of the opera.

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