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8.554683 - BEST OF OPERA, VOL. 5
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Best of Opera Volume 5

[1] It was significant for Mozart that in 1786 he was encouraged by the Emperor to collaborate with Lorenzo da Ponte in the composition of an Italian opera, The Marriage of Figaro, a task more often entrusted to Italian composers. The new opera was based on one of a trilogy of plays by Beaumarchais already banned in Vienna. Da Ponte, however, was able to assure the Emperor that anything objectionable had been removed from the opera based on the second of these plays. Figaro, in the service of Count Almaviva, leads the intrigue that finally deflects the Count's attentions from his beloved Susanna, maid to the Countess, in a series of events that reveals Figaro's own parentage, shows the love-lorn page Cherubino in love with being in love, and finally puts all matters. The brilliant overture sets the scene, as Figaro measures the room allocated to him and his bride Susanna, one conveniently close to the Count's own quarters.

[2] Carmen, by the French composer Georges Bizet, set new and disturbing standards of realism when it was first mounted in Paris in 1875. Carmen is a gypsy factory-girl, employed in a Seville cigarette factory. Arrested for assault, she persuades her guard, the young Don José, to let her go and to join her and her criminal companions in the mountains. Her purpose achieved, she soon tires of him and turns her attentions to the handsome toreador Don Escamillo. She goes with him to the arena in Seville, but is waylaid by Don José, who murders her, in a fit of jealous rage. Carmen sings her seductive Seguidilla to Don José, suggesting a tavern where they may meet, once she has escaped from arrest.

[3] There is a mixture of realism and the exotic in much of the work of Giacomo Puccini, not least in The Girl of the Golden West, set in the wilds of California and first staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1910. The drama centres on the love of Minnie and the bandit Ramerrez, alias Dick Johnson. Johnson is caught and is to be hanged, but pleads with his captors not to let Minnie know of his fate, but to imagine him free and far away. Before the execution can take place, however, Minnie comes to his rescue, threatening the men, who eventually allow her and her lover to go free.

[4] Gioachino Rossini was brave in his decision to base an opera on the first play of the Beaumarchais Figaro trilogy, challenging a popular earlier opera by Paisiello. The Barber of Seville was at first at a disadvantage when it was performed in Rome in 1816. In the end, of course, it has been Rossini who has triumphed over Paisiello. The plot deals with Count Almaviva's wooing of Rosina, ward of the jealous old Dr Bartolo. The Count lets Rosina believe that he is a student and gains entry to Dr Bartolo's house through subterfuge, once as an officer supposedly billeted on the household and then as a music-master. In all this intrigue he is abetted by Figaro, the barber of the title, and is finally successful. The Count, known to Rosina as Lindoro, has serenaded her and in the second scene of the opera she recalls his voice and, being a girl of some spirit, resolves to have her own way and marry the man she wants.

[5] The German operas and music-dramas of Richard Wagner reveal another world. Lohengrin was first seen in Weimar in 1850, directed by Franz Liszt, after the composer had been forced to seek refuge in Switzerland. The work is based on legends and early German accounts of the quest for the Holy Grail. Elsa of Brabant is unjustly accused by the nobleman Telramund of fratricide. She is defended by a mysterious knight, whom she marries, but whose name she is forbidden to seek. When the knight is revealed as Lohengrin, a knight of the Grail, he must leave, but before his departure he is able, by a miracle, to restore to life Elsa's brother Gottfried. The third act of the opera brings the famous Bridal March, marking the entry in procession of Lohengrin, the king and nobles and of Elsa and her ladies.

[6] Ludwig van Beethoven wrote only one opera. Fidelio, however, caused trouble enough, with an unsuccessful first performance in 1805 and a revision in 1806. It was in 1814, however, that the opera took on its final form. The work is a Singspiel, a German opera with some spoken dialogue. It celebrates the heroism and marital love of Leonora, who disguises herself as a boy, Fidelio, and takes service under the jailer Rocco in the prison where the wicked prison governor Don Pizarro has imprisoned and finally intends to murder her husband, Florestan. Leonora has overheard Don Pizarro trying to enlist Rocco in his plan to murder Florestan, before the king's minister arrives to investigate rumours of malpractice. She is horrified, exclaiming at this abominable plan, but resolving to find a way to help Florestan.

[7] The last of Mozart's operas to be staged in his lifetime was a Singspiel based in part on masonic practices. In The Magic Flute, still running in Vienna in December 1791 at the time of Mozart's death, the hero Tamino must undergo various ordeals before he may be united with his beloved Pamina, daughter of the evil Queen of the Night. The tests to which he is put, accompanied by the comic bird-catcher Papageno, a man of lowlier ambitions, bring him finally both to Pamina and to the enlightened band of priests surrounding the high priest Sarastro. The second act opens with the solemn march of the priests, from whom Sarastro seeks agreement that Tamino shall be admitted, after due trial, to their company.

[8] Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, first staged in Milan in 1896, is set during the French Revolution. Before the Revolution Chénier reveals libertarian sympathies at a reception at the house of the Countess de Coigny, offending the company by his views. In the Revolution Maddalena, the Countess's daughter, seeks Chénier's protection, but he too is under threat. He fights with and wounds Gérard, former servant of the de Coignys and now a leading revolutionary and his rival in love of Maddalena. Recovered, the latter succeeds in having Maddalena arrested and brought before him. In the present aria she tells him of the hardships of her life after the death of her mother and the destruction of their house. She will give herself to him, however, in return for the freedom of Chénier, now a prisoner. Before the tribunal Gérard tries to defend Chénier, but is unsuccessful and in a final act Maddalena, brought by Gérard to visit Chénier before his execution, changes place with another prisoner, to be executed with her beloved.

[9] In La Traviata Giuseppe Verdi depicts the love of the young Alfredo for the courtesan of the title, Violetta. The couple set up house together, but she is induced to give him up, after the pleading of his father, who finds disgrace for the family in his son's relationship. This she does, to the anger and contempt of Alfredo, who only learns the reason for her action as she lies dying of consumption. The Prelude to the first act introduces a poignant theme of love that is to return as Violetta lies dying. The opera was first performed in Venice in 1853.

[10] Verdi's Rigoletto, first given in Venice two years before, centres on the court jester of the title and his master, the Duke of Mantua, whom he abets in acts of seduction, only to lose his own daughter, Gilda, to the Duke. The latter, disguised as a student, Gualtier, gains access to Rigoletto's closely guarded house, leaving her, as she here declares, in love with his dear name, ironically not his true one. Gilda is abducted by hostile courtiers, seduced by the Duke and forced to learn of her lover's duplicity, as he philanders with Maddalena, the sister of the assassin Sparafucile, bribed by Rigoletto to kill him. In the event Sparafucile kills Gilda, disguised as a boy, when she, knowing her likely fate, enters his house. Rigoletto, outside, waits to receive the Duke's body, but the sack that Sparafucile gives him holds, instead, his beloved and dying daughter.

[11] Verdi set his opera Aida, designed for the new Cairo Opera House in 1871, in ancient Egypt. Aida, daughter of the Ethiopian King Amonasro, is a captive, a slave to Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt. Radames leads the Egyptian armies against Amonasro, who is defeated and captured. In love with Aida, Radames is rewarded by the King with the hand of Amneris, who loves him. He is then tricked into revealing to Aida the military plans of the campaign against the Ehiopians, overheard by Amonasro. His apparent treachery is discovered by Amneris, jealous of his love for Aida, and he is condemned to death, immured in a tomb, where he is joined in death by Aida. In the present aria Radames longs to be chosen to lead the armies against Ethiopia, in the hope that he might secure the release of Aida.

[12] Verdi's Il Trovatore, first staged in Rome in 1853, introduces a plot of some complexity. Manrico, the troubadour of the title, finds himself at enmity with his brother, the Count di Luna, in war and in love. He has been brought up by the gypsy Azucena as her son and his true identity is only revealed to the Count after Manrico's death at his hands, allowing Azucena final revenge for the death of her mother and her own child. Leonora, loved by Manrico and his brother, gives herself to the latter in return for Manrico's freedom, taking poison in an attempt to outwit the Count. In the present aria she sings of her love, as she stands below the tower where the Count has imprisoned her lover.

[13] Così fan tutte was Mozart's final collaboration with the librettist Da Ponte and was first performed in Vienna in 1790. In a symmetrical plot two lovers resolve, with the prompting of the cynical Don Alfonso, to test the loyalty of their mistresses, two sisters. This they do by pretending to leave for the wars and returning in foreign disguise, when they prove all too successful, each winning the heart of the other's beloved. In the present aria one of the lovers, Ferrando, sings of love, after it has seemed that the sisters will stand firm against their blandishments.

[14] Derived from Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, first seen in Naples in 1835, presents the tragedy of the heroine of the title, forced by deception into marriage with Lord Arturo Bucklaw, whom she murders in madness, seeming to see, instead, her marriage to her beloved Edgardo, the displaced heir of Ravenswood, who kills himself when he learns of her death. The famous mad scene brings distorted memories of earlier happiness in music that makes great technical and dramatic demands on the singer.

Keith Anderson

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