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8.554703 - Intermezzo: Intermezzi from Operas


The lights are dimmed and from the pit the sound of the orchestra rises. For a moment, the action of the operatic stage comes to a pause and the orchestra alone is given the commentary on what has passed or what is yet to come. This is the world of the Operatic Intermezzo and our selection presents some of the best known of these short pieces together with one or two that are less well known.

The busy and colourful opening piece is the Prelude to Bizet's opera Carmen. Full of the local colour of a hot day in Seville, it sets the scene for the opening act where Carmen, the gypsy cigarette girl, will seduce the hapless soldier Don José. Later, when she has tired of him and is on the look out for a new lover, the Toreador Escamillo, she and her friends go on a night-time smuggling excursion and the Entr'acte to the third act of the opera sets the scene for the encampment in the mountains where Carmen will finally rid herself of José's unwanted attentions - or so she thinks, until finally he will search her out at the Bullring in Seville and kill her.

Mascagni's short and brutal opera Cavalleria Rusticana is usually paired with Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, both tales of jealousy and murder. The Intermezzi from the two operas are moments of calm before the storm and are justifiably popular items from the Italian operatic repertoire.

Schmidt and Humperdinck represent German late Romantic opera at its most luscious. The story of Notre Dame is that of Victor Hugo's famous hunchback and the gypsy girl Esmeralda. As an opera it is hardly ever staged today but it contains this marvellously lush orchestral gem. Far more popular with young and old alike is Humperdinck's setting of the legend of the two children lost in the woods who meet a wicked witch and manage to dispatch her before she makes a meal out of them. The Dream Pantomime pictures the two children's vision of heaven as they fall asleep, frightened and alone in the forest.

Puccini's opera Manon Lescaut was his first great success. Based on Prévost's racy novel, it tells the story of the young girl Manon and her lover Des Grieux. At this stage she has been arrested for immorality and is sent to Le Havre with a group of common prostitutes to await transportation to America and her ultimate death.

The Waltz King Strauss's little known 1001 Nights is an Arabian fantasy with a distinctly Viennese feel quite different from the sentimental picture of the ancient Egyptian courtesan Thaïs, who finds God through her unrequited love of a holy man depicted in this miniature violin concerto.

The following three pieces leave the world of the opera house for that of the concert platform; Fauré's lilting Sicilienne from his music to Maeterlinck's symbolist, tragic love story of Pelléas et Mélisande, the Interlude from the Swedish Romantic Stenhammar's final major choral work, The Song and the popular Intermezzo from Sibelius's evocation of the northern Lapp region of Karelia.

Far away from the icy wastes of northern Finland, Jacques Offenbach's fantastic opera on the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann takes us to the cellars of Leipzig's taverns, the surreal dolls of the mad Doctor Coppelius and the decadence of Venice. The Barcarolle is perhaps the best known of all the opera's hit tunes and often appears in a sung version and as an Intermezzo as here, framing the diabolical temptations of the courtesan Giulietta out to win the body and soul of the disillusioned poet.

Mascagni is far from being a one-off composer although the popularity of his Cavalleria Rusticana sometimes suggests that is the case. L'Amico Fritz is an altogether gentler subject set in the Alpine regions and telling of the love of a young couple. Highlights are aplenty and include the Cherry Duet and this superbly melodic Intermezzo.

Verdi's adaptation of Dumas's Lady of the Camelias is one of the greatest successes of nineteenth century Italian opera, although amazingly it was a failure at its first performance. The two excerpts which follow are the marvellously scored Preludes to the first and third acts of the opera, tinged as they are with melancholy and the presentiments of tragedy. Seldom does even Verdi's orchestral genius rise to the emotional pull of these intense tone pictures of the doomed courtesan and her tragic fate.

After such depth of sorrow in music, something more flippant is needed to clear the air and that is exactly what Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours manages to do. The scene is a grand ball at Venice's Cà d'Oro on the Grand Canal; potions, exiled nobles, a jealous spy, the cruelty of the Doges and the devoted ballad singer, Gioconda herself, reach a point of crisis as the Doge's wife has been drugged by her husband, apparently dead, the time for an Interlude of a spectacular ballet to break the tension for a few moments, although many listeners might just get the whiff of satire that Walt Disney gave to the same music in his Fantasia.

David Doughty

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