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8.557945-46 - OPERA WITHOUT WORDS - The Most Famous Overtures, Preludes, and Interludes in Opera

Opera Without Words


Without the human voice there would be no such thing as opera, but the orchestra provides the pulse that makes an opera breathe. The greatest opera composers have always written as well for instruments as for voices. In the process they have created magnificent orchestral pieces that have taken on a life of their own. This collection brings together some of the most beautiful.

Carmen: Prelude

It is difficult to understand why Bizet’s Carmen did not immediately conquer the audience at its Paris premiere in 1875. From the very opening moments, the prelude establishes the work’s intoxicating tunefulness while also providing a snapshot of the drama that follows. The opening evokes the hurly-burly of Seville’s street-life while its climax forewarns us of the fate that awaits Carmen herself.

Thaïs. Act II: Méditation

Nineteenth-century Parisian audiences loved operas with exotic settings. Massenet’s Thaïs duly obliged, telling the story of a prostitute in ancient Egypt who converts to Christianity. The celebrated ‘Méditation’ depicts her conversion; its emotional warmth has made it a favourite concert-hall piece for violinists who wear their heart on their sleeve.

Eugene Onegin. Act III, Scene 1: Polonaise

Despite its Polish origins, the polonaise was an immensely popular dance at the Russian court. The majestic example that graces Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is no mere embellishment, however. Its presence vividly demonstrates how Tatyana, once a lovesick child obsessed with Onegin, has become a mature woman of society, able to turn away from the man she once loved.

Eugene Onegin. Act II, Scene 1: Waltz

By contrast, the waltz from earlier in the opera finds Tatyana still mooning over Onegin. He pays little attention to her; instead he dances with her sister Olga, thus setting in motion the events that lead to the duel in which he kills Olga’s fiancé. It is typical of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic genius that the effervescence of the waltz should lead remorselessly to death.

La Gioconda. Act III: Dance of the Hours

If Tchaikovsky integrated dance into his narrative, Ponchielli’s ‘Dance of the Hours’ is pure spectacle—although it too presages tragedy. At a grand Venetian ball, a ballet re-enacts the hours of the day. Its opening melody provided the basis of two popular hits in the 1960s: Allan Sherman’s Hello muddah, hello faddah and Maureen Evans’s Like I do. Ponchielli would not have been amused.

Lohengrin. Act III: Prelude

No composer took themselves more seriously than Wagner, yet he was not averse to sentiment. Act III of Lohengrin opens with a flourish as we enter the bridal chamber where Elsa will marry Lohengrin. The music gives no clue to the fate that awaits the bride-to-be; her eagerness to know her husband’s name will soon cause her downfall. For now, though, joy is unconfined.

La traviata. Act I: Prelude

Verdi’s overtures often provide a musical summary of what follows. Ever the innovator, his Prelude to La traviata tells the story backwards. We begin with Violetta succumbing to consumption; then we find her at her happiest, before a breezy theme prepares us for curtain-up. It is a small masterpiece of purely musical storytelling.

Der Freischütz (‘The Freeshooter’). Overture

Weber has been called the ‘father of German Romantic opera’, and Der Freischütz embodies many of the undercurrents that run through German opera of the nineteenth century: the love of nature, the power of superstition and magic, and the overriding strength of love. All this is effortlessly summarised in one of the most thrilling of all overtures.

Le nozze di Figaro (‘The Marriage of Figaro’). Overture

Thomas Beecham quipped that if Mozart’s Figaro overture was played correctly, you could use it to time a perfectly boiled egg. That depends on how you like your eggs, but few can resist the overture’s fizzing energy, immediately evoking the mad day which the opera dramatises. Mozart’s own schedule was equally hectic: he composed the opera in six weeks, completing the overture just two days before the first night.

Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’). Overture

No-one knows for sure how many operas have been based on Shakespeare’s plays; 600 is a conservative estimate. Nicolai’s German-language setting of The Merry Wives is rarely heard today, but it has an Italianate grace and sense of fun, already apparent in the fleet-footed overture. The composer died only weeks after conducting its 1849 premiere.

Faust. Ballet music

No French grand opera was complete without a ballet sequence; audiences erupted into violent protest if they were denied one (preferably there would be several). Gounod was not keen to indulge their tastes, but for the spectacular ‘Walpurgisnacht’ (‘Witches’ sabbath’) in Faust he reluctantly provided an extended dance sequence. If these witches seem rather well behaved, their music is undeniably attractive.

Guillaume Tell (‘William Tell’). Overture

Thanks to the Lone Ranger television series, few operatic overtures are as well known as Rossini’s for his last and grandest opera, Guillaume Tell (‘William Tell’). In operatic terms, it is immense: almost a four-movement symphony, full of the headlong energy and melodic invention for which Rossini’s overtures are rightly celebrated. It set the seal on one of Italian opera’s most illustrious careers.

Orphée aux enfers (‘Orpheus in the Underworld’). Can-Can

Offenbach was the darling of Paris during the Second Empire. Orphée aux enfers (‘Orpheus in the Underworld’) gently lampooned contemporary modes and manners, its wealth of exuberant melody cannily disguising the satire. Its biggest hit was the galop infernal (‘infernal gallop’) that we now know as the ‘Can-Can’, although it only made its appearance as the high-kicking dance at the Folies Bergères after Offenbach’s death.

Cavalleria rusticana (‘Rustic Chivalry’). Intermezzo

In opera, an intermezzo was often a light-hearted interlude between acts. Not so the example in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. It unfolds in a mood of almost religious serenity, but that only serves to focus the tension that has gone before and prepares us for the blood-letting that will soon follow.

La gazza ladra (‘The Thieving Magpie’). Overture

According to Rossini, the theatre management, frustrated by his failure to provide an overture for La gazza ladra, locked him up on the day of the premiere. Page by page, as it was written, the music was thrown out of the window. If Rossini failed to deliver, he himself would be thrown through the window. A colourful story for perhaps the most colourful of all his overtures.

Ruslan and Lyudmila. Overture

Glinka is credited with fathering Russian opera with A Life for the Tsar. His follow-up, Ruslan and Lyudmila, was less successful, and the Russian royal family reportedly left the first performance well before it ended. But they can hardly fail to have enjoyed the exhilarating overture, which, according to Glinka, was inspired by the rattle of cutlery and crockery at a wedding dinner he had attended.

Carmen. Act III: Prelude

The tempestuous passions which course through Carmen are momentarily held in abeyance at the beginning of Act III. The heat and dust of Seville are left behind as Carmen and her smuggler-associates gather in the mountains to prepare their plan of action. It will not be long before love and death intrude once more, but for the moment the night is calm.

Manon Lescaut. Intermezzo

It was Manon Lescaut which first established Puccini as a great composer. The opera tells of a young woman, Manon, who learns the hard way that love destroys innocence. The intermezzo represents her journey to Le Havre, from where, having been found guilty of stealing from a lover, she will be deported to Louisiana. Despite its beauty, the music hints at Manon’s desolation.

Siegfried. ‘Forest Murmurs’

Siegfried is the third opera in Wagner’s mighty Ring cycle. Its hero is a young man whose innocence holds the key to the future. A child in tune with nature, he ventures into the forest, where he finds that he can understand the wisdom of the trees and the birds, as represented by the ‘Forest Murmurs’.

Rusalka. Act II: Polonaise

Another polonaise, this time from a Czech composer. Dvořák’s opera is a fairytale about Rusalka, a water nymph who longs to become human in order to fulfil her love for a prince. She is granted her wish, but at the price of being dumb. At the Prince’s court, a lavish banquet includes a ballet, in which the polonaise provides a stirring centrepiece.

Il barbiere di Siviglia (‘The Barber of Seville’). Overture

This is one of Rossini’s most spirited overtures, and it seems to embody all the romance and comic intrigue of its opera. Yet Rossini originally composed it for two operas of a quite different mood, Aureliano and Elisabetta, the latter about Queen Elizabeth I of England. As Rossini joked, why write a new overture when you can use one you prepared earlier?

Tannhäuser. Overture

With consummate artistry, Wagner fashioned a kind of ‘Greatest Hits’ medley for Tannhäuser’s overture. This is no hodge-podge, however. The different melodies cohere into a seamless whole that is among the most stirring pieces he ever composed. The opera focuses on two medieval legends, and the strikingly original overture has an appropriate sense of majesty.

Prince Igor. Act II: Polovtsian Dances

Despite working on the opera for seventeen years, Borodin left Prince Igor unfinished at his death. The Polovtsian Dances are one of the work’s showpieces, a sequence of songs and dances performed by slaves to alleviate Igor’s melancholy. In their original form they seem entirely Russian, yet in 1955 they were appropriated by Broadway for the hit musical Kismet.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann (‘The Tales of Hoffmann’). Barcarolle

A barcarolle is a melody which mimics the songs of Venetian gondoliers, and the nineteenth century threw up many examples. Hoffmann’s is the most celebrated, its lilting rhythm suggesting the gentle rocking of a gondola on the Grand Canal. The music has tenderness, eroticism and a hint of the melancholy that permeates Les Contes d’Hoffmann, the last work Offenbach wrote before his death in 1880.

Nick Kimberley © 2008

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