Each week (approximately!) I listen to an opera in its entirety and post a review below. Actually, I listen to it twice during my daily commutes to and from work, often an English version first (to help me follow the plot), then an original language version that I carefully select from those available. I also read up on the work from various print sources that I have, and sometimes also watch a video performance. Basically, I immerse myself in the opera for a week. This is as much for my benefit as my readers’. It makes me very familiar with the work, which helps me appreciate it more on future listenings. I also often discover works that I love, or come to like others of which I previously had a negative impression.
Usually these are operas that I’m listening to in their entirety for the first time (I have over 700 to choose from!), after which I offer my initial thoughts and impressions. Operas, like other forms of music, can grow on the listener over time, so I usually keep an open mind even if I don’t care for an opera right away. While I indicate the particular recording(s) I listened to, the review is mostly focused on the work itself and not necessarily the selected performance. Occasionally I will also review the operas I am more familiar with, some of which are briefly encapsulated on the starter operas page. If I’m going to cover fifty operas a year this will take fourteen years, so I’d better get started . . .
My rating scale:
5 tenors – I loved it. I will listen to the whole work often, and seek other recordings of it.
4 tenors – I liked it. I will keep it in my rotation, and learn more about it.
3 tenors – Neutral. I might re-listen to certain parts, but probably not the whole work.
2 tenors – I didn’t like it. It mostly bored me, and had few redeeming qualities.
1 tenor – I don’t know what anyone sees in this, but to each his or her own.
Opera: Eugene Onegin Composer: Tchaikovsky Other popular works by this composer: Pique Dame First performed: 1879 Language: Russian Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado Setting: Early nineteenth-century Russia Plot: Young love. Rejection. Growing up. Regrets. A sheltered young girl confesses her love to a handsome, playboy neighbor and is rejected; both regret it, but at very different points in their lives Highlights: Bolyat moyi skori nozhenki so pokhodushki; Letter scene; Waltz and chorus; Kuda, kuda, va udalilis; Polonaise Recommended audio recording/s: Mazurok/Fedin/Fedoseyev; Allen/Freni/von Otter/Levine Recommended video recording/s: Netrebko/Kwiecien/Gergiev
Eugene Onegin is arguably Tchaikovsky’s most popular opera (the only other real contender is Pique Dame; his seven other operas are rather obscure). As a lover of Tchaikovsky’s music for over thirty years, I have been very slow to warm up to this work. What’s wrong with me, I wondered? Why don’t I like it, especially when I love Pique Dame?
Onegin is different from the traditional opera in that it is presented in vignettes that occur over a period of many years; the scenes can therefore seem disjointed and confusing if you’re not aware of this. The work is based on an extremely popular (in Russia) poem of the same name by Alexander Pushkin (the Shakespeare of Russia) that many Russians learned by rote in grade school (the surname is pronounced “own-yayg-in”). It is about an idle, rootless playboy (the Onegin of the title) who makes some poor life choices and regrets them later in life when it is too late to fix them. The opera was close to Tchaikovsky’s heart; he seemed to particularly relate to the young girl (Tatyana) who sheepishly confesses her love to Onegin. One gets the impression that Tchaikovsky had once done something similar and been equally rejected and humiliated. The opera contains many of Tchaikovsky’s typically beautiful melodies, choruses and quartets, as well as lush orchestrations.
I think I was slow in appreciating this work for a few reasons. I struggled a bit with the atypical plot; the score isn’t as heavy with standout arias and other musical numbers as many other operas; and, frankly, maybe I just wasn’t listening to the right recording. I highly recommend the one pictured at the top left of this page conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev. It really made the opera come alive for me; it has a lushness, immediacy and lyricism that is missing from other recordings I’ve heard. Recording aside, the music for this one reminds me a bit of Wagner’s operas (something else I struggle with) in that it is more like a film score – it accompanies the plot rather than stands out from it. It is best appreciated when watching a performance of the opera rather than just listening to it.
The opera opens on the estate of the Larin family. The matron of the estate reminisces with her servant about the old days. Soon, a group of peasants enters singing a song in praise of the harvest in a wonderfully Russian-sounding chorus:
We are then introduced to the two daughters, Olga and Tatyana, as well as a neighbor, Lensky, who is betrothed to Olga. Lensky brings along his friend, Eugene Onegin, whom Tatyana is immediately smitten with. That night, she decides to write him a gushing letter blurting out her overpowering feelings. This is the famous letter scene – famous for its beautiful and lush melody, as well as for the fact that while Tchaikovsky was composing this, he had a very similar real-life experience. We can easily imagine what Tatyana sings and feels here actually coming from the mouth and heart of Tchaikovsky (indeed, he also wrote the libretto for this opera):
Tatyana nervously awaits Onegin’s reply to her admission. He soon arrives, basically telling her that he is not the kind to settle down, and that she should be more careful about blurting out her feelings in the future as others may not let her down so gently. She, nevertheless, is crushed.
In the next scene, a ball is being given some months later in honor of Tatyana’s name day (a Russian religious tradition similar to a birthday). Onegin is there, invited by Lensky. The scene opens with a reprisal of the tender letter-scene motif, followed by a lively waltz and chorus that has Tchaikovsky written all over it:
Onegin dances with Tatyana, and then flirts and dances with Olga, Lensky’s fiancee. Lensky becomes jealous, and they dance again to punish him for his silly jealousy. Breaking up this tension is a performance by the girls’ French tutor, in most productions a somewhat unusual man who is either overly effeminate or obsequious or physically challenged. I’m not sure of the reason for any of this unless it’s specified in the libretto, but in any event he sings some couplets he wrote in honor of Tatyana.
Things escalate and Lensky cannot overcome his jealousy; he challenges Onegin to a duel, and Onegin accepts. The second act opens in a snowy forest where the duel is to take place. While waiting for Onegin to show up, Lensky sings his big number, “Kuda, kuda va udalilis” (where have you gone, golden days of my youth?), sung beautifully here (@ 2:50) by Bogdan Volkov (and conducted by none other than Placido Domingo):
Onegin arrives, and he and Lensky sing a duet lamenting the deterioration of their former friendship. Onegin then shoots Lensky dead, cradling his former friend in his arms as the curtain falls.
Five years pass, time that Onegin spent abroad. He is now back in St. Petersburg attending a ball at a wealthy nobleman’s house, and the scene opens with a famous and delicious Polonaise (a Polish dance) from the pen of Tchaikovsky:
Onegin laments his empty life and the killing of his friend Lensky. To make matters worse, he recognizes the wife of the nobleman, whom everyone is treating like a queen – it’s Tatyana. Onegin realizes that he is in love with her now, and in a surreal twist he writes her a letter confessing his love. It is now she who rejects him, and he is left utterly alone.
Opera: Carmen Composer: Bizet Other popular works by this composer: Les pecheurs de perles First performed: 1875 Language: French Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado Setting: Seville, Spain in the early 1800s Plot: A soldier ditches his chaste lover for a flirtatious and fickle temptress, with tragic consequences for all Highlights: Overture; L’amour est un oiseau rebelle; Près des remparts de Séville; Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre; La fleur que tu m’avais jetée; Les voici, voici la quadrille Recommended audio recording/s: Horne/McCracken/Bernstein; Domashenko/Bocelli/Chung; de los Angeles/Gedda/Beecham; Simonov (in Russian) Recommended video recording/s: Baltsa/Carreras/Ramey/Levine Rating (1 to 5):
Carmen is one of the most frequently-performed, well-known, and accessible operas in the world. It is filled with glorious, tuneful music, much of which those who are completely dismissive of opera will recognize immediately. It was Tchaikovsky’s favorite opera, no slouch in that department himself. It was Bizet’s only real success (and a blockbuster one at that), and the last opera he composed before his untimely death at age thirty-six. His final work was sadly not recognized as a masterpiece until after he died. Numerous selections from the work are now among the most famous of all opera numbers, and rightly so. It is a fantastically entertaining work.
Many people are familiar with the lively overture, Carmen’s seductive habanera, the toreador’s bombastic entrance, and Carmen’s death. The finer points of the plot may escape them as well as some other wonderful music, which flows through this work from beginning to end. A live performance of Carmen is not something you will soon forget, and as such, I recommend it as a great choice for anyone who has never seen an opera.
So let’s get started. The opera starts off with a bang via a lively, loud and infectious prelude that is thrilling. It also makes an appearance later on.
The scene opens outside a tobacco factory, where a changing of the guard is about to take place (why there are soldiers at the tobacco factory has always escaped me). There’s a catchy number as people walk about the square, followed by an even catchier one, avec la garde montante, sung by a chorus of children, who are imitating the soldiers. Here it is, sung in Russian, in a wonderful recording from 1977 (see below):
Micaela, an innocent village girl, enters, looking for her sweetheart, Don Jose, one of the soldiers (and the protagonist of this opera). He’s not there yet, but his fellow soldiers waste no time flagrantly flirting with her. Just then, a bell rings and the tobacco factory girls emerge for a break in a musically beautiful scene. They’re all smoking (how attractive!), and one of them, Carmen, is quite the little vixen. She’s a gypsy, and she sings her very famous habanera in front of the soldiers, extolling the virtues of being a free spirit:
Micaela finally meets up with her lover Don Jose (whom Carmen has already eyed) and gives him a letter from his mother (he’s an innocent Momma’s boy, and therefore all the more tempting to Carmen). Micaela and Jose engage in a long musical duet that is quite pretty in spots. His mother wants him to come home and marry Micaela. Suddenly, a ruckus breaks out in the factory, and Carmen is accused of attacking another woman with a knife. When confronted, she is defiant and basically sings the musical version of “f*** off!” (tra la la la la):
Don Jose is ordered to arrest her, and he begins to tie her hands. She then flirts with him, singing a sexy seguidilla (a Spanish dance), Pres des ramparts de Seville, and promising him a night of passion at the tavern of her friend Lillas Pastia if he will run away with her (do you think he’ll fall for that?):
He is beguiled by her and lets her go free, leading to his arrest as she laughs and runs off. She clearly knows how to get her way. Two months pass, and Carmen is at the tavern entertaining some soldiers. Don Jose has recently been released from his detention for letting her escape. With two friends, she sings and dances the lively number les tringles des sistres tintaient (be patient, it slowly warms up to a fantastic frenzy!):
Outside there is a commotion, as a crowd is cheering the arrival of the toreador (bullfighter) Escamillo, who makes a grand entrance with the ultra-famous “toreador song,” votre toast, je peux vous le rendre. Listen to the audience go wild at the end of this fantastic performance by Samuel Ramey as the toreador (the applause actually continues far beyond the end of this clip):
Escamillo (the toreador) notices Carmen, but she is busy fretting over the recently-released Don Jose. Some smugglers arrive (the tavern is a hot spot of smuggling activity), and Carmen’s two friends agree to assist them, but Carmen wants to wait for Don Jose to arrive. He does, and she again treats him to a seductive dance (her third now?), Je vais danser en votre honneur. A bugle sounds, and Jose says he has to leave. Carmen mocks his callousness, whereupon he confesses his feelings in this opera’s most tender and heartfelt aria, La fleur que tu m’avais jetee, in which he tells her that he kept the flower she once threw to him, and it consoled him in prison:
Carmen is not convinced, and says that if Jose loved her, he’d run away with her (and the smugglers). He protests and is ready to leave her when his commanding officer, who is also sweet on Carmen, arrives. They get into a fight over her, and, since Jose has struck a superior, he now has no choice but to abandon the regiment and join Carmen’s gang.
Act three opens with a tender flute, harp and oboe instrumental. We then see the smugglers hauling their contraband, Carmen and Jose among them. The gypsies are reading fortunes, and Carmen discovers that death is predicted for both her and Don Jose. She and her friends go off to distract the guards, while Jose stands lookout. He almost shoots Escamillo, the bullfighter, who has come in search of Carmen, whom he is smitten with (isn’t everyone?). Jose, of course, doesn’t like hearing this. To make matters worse, Micaela shows up (remember her, his goody-goody girlfriend?) and tries to lure him away from Carmen and his life of crime. When that doesn’t work, she informs him that his mother is dying. That does the trick and he departs, predicting that he’ll see Carmen again.
Act four opens with a rousing entr’acte as the scene opens outside the bullfighting arena.
We also hear a reprise of the lively music from the overture that opened the opera as the cuadrilla arrives (the bullfighter’s assistants), followed by Escamillo, with Carmen at his side (both in resplendent outfits). They profess their love for each other in a lovely duet (si tu m’aimes Carmen).
Carmen’s friends warn her that Don Jose is in the crowd, but she says she is not afraid. Jose finds her, is still smitten, and flies into a jealous rage when she rejects him and professes her love now for Escamillo. Jose promptly stabs her, and we have a classically tragic ending.
Overall, gorgeous and memorable music (including the entr’actes), great costumes and scenery, and an interesting story line. Bizet’s last and greatest effort is a keeper.
Sure, this is a dated production (1988) and thus not up to today’s audio and video standards, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless. The singing was great, the orchestra was even greater, and the costumes and sets provided plenty of eye candy (Carmen’s outfit in the last act, as well as Escamillo’s, are stunning). Samuel Ramey, as Escamillo, performs the best toreador song I have ever heard, and gets a well-deserved thunderous ovation for it. Jose Carreras earns one that is just as enthusiastic for his flower song. I did find Carreras a little distant – he didn’t have the same presence as either Carmen or Escamillo, meaning he seemed to be singing and acting as if there was no audience there – he just didn’t connect with them, or with me as a viewer. He even looked this way in his curtain calls. Helloooo? Regardless, the production was quite enjoyable. Carmen (Agnes Baltsa) handled all of her material well and inhabited the role quite admirably. The whole opera is packed onto one disc, which is convenient, and there is a substantial booklet with scene-by-scene synoposes. A worthy addition to any opera collection, and a great introduction to opera for any newcomer.
This wouldn’t be my first choice for a Carmen DVD. The disc itself is pretty no-frills, with no menu options except to turn the (English-only) subtitles on or off. That’s it (aside from chapter choices). And the subtitles are poor, in that there frequently aren’t any for several sentences. Visually, the Met production (with Baltsa and Carreras) has it all over this one in terms of sets and costumes. The Escamillo here I thought was very weak, especially in his big number, which failed to excite. Also, I can’t get used to the British custom of not applauding after major arias – it was like watching a dress rehearsal (with no audience). The orchestra under Zubin Mehta was good, but here again I prefer the Levine-led Met production. I did like that both Carmen and Don Jose very much look their parts, and their acting and singing is good. I particularly liked Don Jose’s flower aria, perhaps better than that of Carreras. Lima made an excellent Jose and I prefer him to Carreras, who failed to connect with me. I feel just the opposite about Carmen; the one here (Ewing) is too sulky for me and she lacks energy, while Baltsa (on the Met DVD) has more energy and charisma. Micaela was wonderful, the best one I’ve seen as this role usually bores me. Not so here. So, the pluses here are Lima as Jose and Vaduva as Micaela. The minuses are an overly sullen Carmen, a weak Escamillo, and spotty subtitles. Overall it’s OK and worth adding to a collection, but if I had to buy only one, I’d choose the Met production with Baltsa, Carreras and Samuel Ramey as a fantastic Escamillo. His Toreador Song is the best I’ve seen, full of energy and bravado, as it should be. He gets a thunderous ovation – American style – that was well-deserved.
I was attracted to this recording, which I found by accident, because I usually like Yuri Simonov’s conducting, and I love Carmen. What’s more, it was Tchaikovsky’s favorite opera, and, as he is a hero of mine, it seemed fitting that I listened to this in his native Russian (even though he also spoke French). What a delightful surprise this recording turned out to be! The orchestra and singing are fantastic. Simonov tends to take the tempos slow and dramatic, just as I prefer them. The sound has an overall presence and immediacy to it (this is a live recording), and while there is some stage noise and the recording was made with older technolgy (1977), I really liked its soundscape. Every note felt fresh, and Simonov treated each one with tender-loving care. I’ve found several of these older Russian recordings to be top notch (also check out Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin conducted by Fedoseyev). It is a little jarring to hear some of these famous numbers sung in Russian, but it actually provides a way of hearing the opera with new ears. Maybe not the best choice for newcomers (it should first be experienced in its native French), but highly recommended for existing lovers of Carmen.
Opera: Cosi fan tutte (“They all do it”) Composer: Mozart Other popular works by this composer: Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflote, Le nozze di Figaro, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, Idomeneo First performed: 1790 Language: Italian Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado Setting: 18th century Naples Plot: A man bets his two friends that their fiancées would not remain faithful if the men were sent away; they fake absence and disguise themselves as new suitors to find out Highlights: Soave sia il vento, Un’aura amorosa, Dammi un bacio, Secondate aurette amiche, Il core vi don Recommended audio recording/s: Schwarzkopf/Ludwig/Krauss/Bohm; Watson/Montague/Spence/Mackerras (in English) Recommended video recording/s: Lehtipuu/Pisaroni/Persson/Vondung (Glyndebourne) Rating (1 to 5):
Apparently, fiancée swapping was a popular theme back in the day (and you thought everyone was so innocent back then), and I have to say the plot of this opera seems a bit unusual today. What’s more, the implication is made that women are unfaithful, the reverse of the prevailing attitude of our own time. Once you get past these two cultural hurdles and realize that times and attitudes change, perhaps you can enjoy the show. Remember, they didn’t have much to titillate themselves back in the 1700s, so this was likely their version of Girls Gone Wild.
Another thing I have to get out of the way on this one is recitative, because it crops up a lot in works of this era (the late 1700s/early 1800s). In case you’re unfamiliar with it, recitative is the half-spoken, half-sung dialogue part of many operas. It basically helps explain and advance the plot, and is interspersed between arias and other more formal musical numbers. Some operas have a little of it, some a lot. The problem with it is this: it is not particularly interesting to listen to, especially if you don’t understand the language, which will often be the case. Also, much of it sounds the same; there’s not enough variety to make it captivating. When it’s accompanied just by piano plinking, it’s especially annoying. Here’s an example:
If you’re watching a subtitled video or a supertitled performance where the words are translated, this isn’t a problem and the recitative will actually add to your understanding and enjoyment of the show. But if you’re just listening and not following along with a translation, the recitative will likely bore you to tears. In fact, I suspect this is one reason why many people have never listened to an entire opera. Even at my level of familiarity, I find recitative tiresome if I’m just listening, as opposed to watching a video. So my trick is this: I make myself a recording with the recitative eliminated (the spoken parts are usually separate tracks on most opera recordings, so this is easy to do). This leaves me with just the musical numbers and very few tedious parts. In the case of Cosi fan tutte, this made a huge difference in my listening pleasure (it’s a good thing to do with Rossini operas as well). Of course, this is also why they sell opera “highlight” discs; they basically accomplish the same thing, though go a bit further in cutting some music as well.
Perhaps because of all this, Cosi did not appeal to me initially. The music didn’t hook me immediately as did that of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote or Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, and the story seemed too outlandish to be credible (really? you don’t recognize your own lover in disguise?). I had to listen to it numerous times (and to several different recordings) before it took root, which is a shame because the music is beautiful. Sure, a few arias stood out immediately, but it was a while before I came to appreciate the work as a whole. Incidentally, I’ve had the same problem with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which many people love but I’m not yet impressed with. As for Don Giovanni, again not an instant favorite, but after a few listens I recognized it as a complex masterpiece.
The overture to Cosi isn’t nearly as well-known as the ones to Figaro or DonGiovanni, but it’s more than adequate. The piece is lively and rather boisterous, and, unlike some overtures, actually quotes parts of the opera to follow. Some composers, like Rossini, actually used the same overture for several different operas. Hey, why not? There was no sound recording back then, and people were lucky to see a particular opera once in their lifetime, so they’d likely not remember a recycled overture!
We open with our two male leads, Ferrando and Guglielmo, extolling the virtues of their lovers, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, respectively. Now some of these names are tongue twisters, so bear with me (I keep wanting to call Ferrando Fernando, thanks to ABBA). The good news is that there are only six main characters, so it doesn’t get too terribly complicated. The men’s friend, Don Alfonso (not to be confused with Don Alonso from Il Barbiere di Siviglia!) has a more pessimistic view of women, and bets the men that their lovers would not remain faithful were they to leave them for even a day, given the proper temptation. The men accept the wager and agree to pretend to be sent off to war. They will then don disguises and attempt to woo the other friend’s woman (yeah, it’s implausible, but so are most opera plots!).
Soon we come to an aria that is so sublime, so beautiful, so delicious, that it may bring tears to your eyes. It’s pure Mozart genius, the composer doing what he does best – light, tender melodies that just float on air (and, in the case of this one, floating on air is exactly what he was trying to convey). It stood out to me immediately the first time I listened to this opera, and, along with one we’ll hear next, is a major highlight of this work. It’s called Soave sia il vento (be gentle, breezes), and is sung as the women wave goodbye to their lovers, who are off to war:
The men “leave” and the scene switches to their home, where we meet Despina, their maid (did everyone have maids years ago?). Don Alfonso is afraid Despina will spill the beans and recognize the disguised men, so he bribes her into going along (and why wouldn’t their fiancees also recognize them? This isn’t addressed). The men enter dressed as Albanians (which apparently means they’re hairier), and the women are taken aback. The “strangers” profess their love, but the women remain steadfast. Ferrando senses victory, and sings the second amazing aria from this opera, Un’aura amorosa (a loving breath). Here it is, sung by the dashing Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu:
The men threaten, and pretend, to drink poison if the women won’t give in to their wooing. A fake doctor (really the maid, Despina) revives them with magnet therapy, a contemporary reference to the then-popular work of Anton Mesmer, from whom we get the term “mesmerize.” The men demand a kiss, but the sisters refuse. However, after some encouragement from Despina, Dorabella starts to weaken and Fiordiligi agrees that some mild flirtation would do no harm. The men present them with flowers to this gentle tune, Secondate, aurette amiche (help them, gentle breezes):
Fiordiligi caves in just as her sister did, and a notary is summoned (again, Despina in disguise) to perform a double-wedding (how quickly these relationships progress! Well, people did die young back then . . . ). The documents are signed, and soon after we hear military music indicating the “return” of the two men who supposedly went off to war. The “Albanians” flee, change out of their disguises, and return to profess their love for their sweethearts. When Don Alfonso shows them the marriage contracts, they feign outrage before revealing to their lovers that they were the Albanians all along. Don Alfonso has won his bet – women are supposedly unfaithful (cosi fan tutte!), but all take it in stride and make up. Implausible? Absolutely! But the music is gorgeous, almost too eloquent for such a silly plot. This one is perhaps better listened to than watched – just be sure to edit out those boring dialogue parts!
Opera: The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia) Composer: Rossini Other popular works by this composer: The Thieving Magpie (la gazza ladra), The Italian Girl in Algiers (L’Italiana in Algeri), Cinderella (La Cenerentola), William Tell First performed: 1816 Language: Italian Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado Setting: 18th century Seville Plot: A nobleman disguises himself as a student to win the hand of a woman who is unhappily controlled by her overprotective and jealous guardian Highlights: Overture; Largo al factotum; Una voce poco fa; la calunnia; ma Signor Recommended audio recording/s: Bartoletti; Chandos Opera in English; Prey/Berganza Recommended video recording/s: Bayo, Florez; Metropolitan Opera HD live (Florez, DiDonato, Mattei) Rating (1 to 5):
Surely you’ve all heard of this one. It is Rossini’s best-known opera, and occupies a spot in the top ten of the world’s most popular operas (by number of performances). In fact, it has remained steadily popular for over two hundred years. It was likely this work that was my first real exposure to opera as a child, in the form of “The Rabbit of Seville,” a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon that featured Rossini’s wonderful overture and Figaro’s famous largo al factotum aria. I was captivated and the seed was planted, even if it did take a while to grow (FYI, this video doesn’t start for thirty seconds. Also, I should mention that these lyrics and this scenario are totally the invention of Warner Brothers).
Many people are familiar with the very infectious overture, which showcases Rossini’s talent for building energy and excitement to a feverous pitch. This overture is actually recycled, as it was used in two of Rossini’s earlier operas (this was once common, as people heard these performances so seldom that the duplication went unnoticed). We may think of it now as very “Italian” sounding, which just goes to show how much influence Rossini had on his country’s music. He was a very popular and prolific composer (mainly of opera, writing dozens) who retired early and enjoyed the rest of his life. He is one of the rare ones who was able to enjoy his fame. Here is a stellar rendition of his delicious overture to this opera by the always superb Herbert von Karajan. Listen to it as you continue reading.
The opera is a comedy, a farce (think Three’s Company) with lots of disguise, subterfuge and deceit. It is poorly named, as it has little to do with the barber of the title (Figaro), who instead plays matchmaker (perhaps “Matchmaker of Seville” would be more fitting. The name was not Rossini’s invention – he took it from the play that this opera is based on). Basically, Count Almaviva is smitten with Rosina, the ward of a Doctor Bartolo, who is also smitten with her (not least because she is rich). Problem is, Doctor Bartolo is a grumpy old codger whom Rosina has no interest in. Knowing this, he keeps her confined and sheltered to prevent her from being wooed. Enter Figaro, Bartolo’s barber and general jack of all trades (a “factotum”), who helps the count gain access to Bartolo’s household and, hence, Rosina. However, since the count does not want to be loved for his wealth or title, he disguises himself as a poor student named Lindoro. Rosina and Lindoro’s attempts at communicating with each other amidst the doctor’s (rightfully) suspicious nature, with Figaro’s help, generate much of the comedy. This opera is based on the first play of a trilogy by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is based on the second play of the series and features several of the same characters.
I highly recommend that newcomers listen to the excellent version of this opera in English on the Chandos label since the dialogue is so important to understanding what is happening. What’s more, the dialogue is quite funny, and you’ll miss out on much of the plot and humor if you don’t understand Italian (why is Figaro’s name famously yelled out multiple times in largo al factotum, for instance?) This opera is considered the king of opera buffa, or comedic opera, and Rossini supposedly wrote the music in less than a month.
After the overture gives us a hint of the frenzy to come, the curtain opens on a courtyard outside Doctor Bartolo’s house. Count Almaviva has assembled a band of musicians to woo Rosina outside her window, to little effect. Figaro makes his grand entrance into the courtyard with his shaving cart, singing his famous aria (largo al factotum – make way for the jack of all trades) bragging about his skills and how in demand he is – everyone wants his services! Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! There are several great renditions of this available online, and we have room, so let’s look at a few. Here is the aria sung by the recently deceased Russian baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky:
This next one is from the excellent Metropolitan Opera production of a few years ago, with Swedish baritone Peter Mattei as a swashbuckling Figaro:
Here is a very young, energetic Figaro, Bjorn Burger, from the Glyndebourne Festival outside London (this one is just an excerpt):
Lastly, Tae-Joong Yang, who gets drowned out by the orchestra a few times but does a great job nonetheless:
Count Almaviva recognizes Figaro and solicits his help in wooing Rosina. Figaro will do anything for hire, and readily agrees. He sings a comical number about how much he loves money (All’idea di quel metallo; the idea of that metal), and then comes up with a plan. Lindoro (the count) will pretend to be a drunken soldier ordered to be billeted (take up temporary lodging) at the doctor’s residence. The count agrees. Here is another of Lindoro’s attempts at wooing, interrupted by the jealous doctor:
The scene switches to inside the doctor’s house, where Rosina sings her famous aria (una voce poco fa; a voice a little while ago) about how cunning she is and how she will win Lindoro, whom she has taken notice of. Here it is sung with great skill by Latvian soprano Elina Garanca:
Rosina writes a note to Lindoro. The doctor enters, suspicious, and Don Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher, convinces the doctor to spread false rumors about the Count/Lindoro in order to discredit him in Rosina’s eyes. Basilio sings a dramatic aria about slander (la calunnia è un venticello – slander is a little breeze) that slowly builds to a fever pitch, like so many of Rossini’s most thrilling compositions (sorry for the foreign subtitles, but this is a great version!):
After some planning between Figaro and Rosina, and more suspicion from Doctor Bartolo, the count enters disguised as a drunken soldier and demands lodging. He comically mangles Bartolo’s name several times, and manages to reveal to Rosina who he really is (well, that he is “Lindoro”) when the doctor isn’t looking. A commotion ensues when the doctor presses his suspicions, and the ruckus draws the attention of the police. When convinced to arrest Lindoro, he reveals who he really is to them and they immediately back off, much to the astonishment of most everyone present. A delightful Rossini sextet (ma Signor! – but Sir!) follows with his signature, slowly-building crescendo of voice and orchestra that whips itself into a frenetic climax. This is Rossini at his best:
In act two, the frenzy and subterfuge continue, this time with Lindoro posing as Rosina’s substitute music teacher, Don Alonso (it isn’t clear what happened to soldier-Lindoro, but presumably some time has passed since then). His entrance is again comical, as he ingratiates himself to the doctor to the point of annoying him.
While the fake music teacher gives Rosina her lesson (and woos her), Figaro shaves Doctor Bartolo (finally, he gets to be a barber!) The real music teacher inconveniently arrives and is quickly ushered out the door, with the help of a purse-full of money. Bartolo becomes agitated and decides he will marry Rosina that night. He convinces Rosina that others who woo her are unfaithful, and she is temporarily swayed. A musical storm ensues (temporale), another fine example of Rossini orchestration that is reminiscent of the overture:
The Count and Figaro sneak into the house via an upstairs window. The Count reveals his true identity to Rosina to win her back. A marriage contract is signed making use of the notary who was sent for by the doctor for his own nuptials. He arrives too late to stop it, but is mollified when he is allowed to keep Rosina’s dowry (the Count is rich, so they don’t need it), which is the main reason he wanted to marry her anyway. A happy ending! (This does happen on occasion; we saw in a few weeks ago in Fidelio).
I have seen this opera live, twice, by local touring companies, but never in a large opera house. There was a wonderful version done by the Metropolitan Opera a few years ago starring Juan Diego Florez, Joyce DiDonato, and Peter Mattei that sadly is not yet available on disc (you can rent it on the Met’s streaming website). Florez is particularly amazing in this role. Listen to this excerpt, or just jump to the 8:16 timestamp and witness the tremendous, minute-long ovation Florez gets from the adoring crowd:
For audio recordings of Il Barbiere, I would not hesitate to recommend the one conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, pictured at the top of the page. I am very picky about this opera, and any recording I admire has to have a superb overture, a stunning largo al factotum, and a thrilling ma Signor, at the very least. This one passes those tests with flying colors. I also highly recommend the Chandos English version, which is very funny, well-sung and well-conducted. It’s a great introduction to the opera before moving on to the Italian-language choices.
I am in the process of watching about five different video recordings of The Barber of Seville. I will report back soon with my observations.
This is a fantastic production! I especially liked several things about it. For one, all of the separate elements of the production were excellent. There are many recordings of this opera, and some will be great in one area, not so great in another. This one was even across the board: singing, acting, costumes, conducting, sets, video and audio quality, etc. It also doesn’t hurt that the leads are very young, energetic, and attractive. Not only do they sing well, but their acting abilities and stage movements were top notch, which is essential in this zany, madcap opera. It was a special delight watching Figaro’s (Bjorn Burger’s) energy and facial expressions. Whenever the camera gave a close up of him or any cast member, they were totally in character and expressive, even if in the background. There was always lots to look at on the stage to keep things visually interesting, and whoever choreographed the production did a great job. Everyone looked comfortable moving and acting in their parts.
I loved the clear, lyrical voice of Count Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and enjoyed the stage presence of both Dr. Bartolo and Don Basilio. Rosina’s costumes were beautiful (as is she), and though Figaro’s seemed a bit out of place, it did fit his youthful and energetic demeanor. Janis Kelly’s (Berta’s) costume also seemed odd to me (she looked like a school marm more than a housekeeper), but when she had her big number she stole the show and got the loudest applause of the night. Excellent use was made of the small stage, and things were generally very colorful and nice to look at (especially on Blu Ray, which I would recommend splurging on). I initially feared, based on the cover, that this production would be a modernized updating of the opera, which I tend to dislike (I’m a traditionalist). While this performance does have a bit of a modern feel (maybe due to the anachonistic set background and Figaro’s outfit), it does nothing to take away from the overall plot, as modernization often does.
You may find a better-sung production (I’m thinking Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato at the Met, not yet available on video), but I would rank this one very highly on visuals, energy, enthusiasm, and overall fun. Comes with a short interview with the conductor (Enrique Mazzola, who has a wonderful energy and spirit), and also with a commentary track by him and Danielle DeNiese (Rosina).
Opera: Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades) Composer: Tchaikovsky Other popular works by this composer: Eugene Onegin First performed: 1890 Language: Russian Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado Setting: Late 1700s, Russia Plot: A man dually obsessed with gambling and another man’s woman finds he is unlucky in both cards and love Highlights: Ja vas lyublyu, Akh! istomilas ya goryem, Je crains de lui parler la nuit Recommended audio recording/s: Rostropovitch, Ermler, Gergiev Recommended video recording/s: Didyk, Magee; Liceu Rating (1 to 5):
Tchaikovsky wrote about a dozen operas, only two of which are popular today. He was much more successful in other genres (symphonies, ballets, orchestral pieces), in which he was proficient and phenomenal. Of his two popular operas, most would probably agree that Eugene Onegin is his claim to fame, if only because it is the one with which most people are familiar (according to Operabase, Eugene Onegin is currently the sixteenth most popular opera in the world; Pique Dame is forty-eighth). Onegin is performed much more often than The Queen of Spades, but I think the latter opera is far superior. Tchaikovsky himself agrees with me – he thought it his best work, which at this stage in his career is saying quite a lot. It is my favorite opera of the scores with which I am currently familiar, and one of the few that I enjoy in its entirety. There are no dull moments (which so many operas have, and which is probably why the art form is not more popular) thanks to Tchaikovsky’s wonderful facility with melody and drama, which is on full display here. This work is one thrilling scene after another, all the more amazing when you learn that Tchaikovsky wrote it in six weeks’ time.
The opera is at turns grand, dramatic, majestic, exciting, plaintive and mournful, much like Tchaikovsky’s best symphonies. It has a bit of everything. The arias and melodies are stunningly beautiful, and the orchestral writing is full of Tchaikovsky’s distinctive flair for drama and pathos. The music takes center stage here – how could it not in Tchaikovsky’s hands? Listen to this delicious opening to Act III as you continue reading:
This was the first opera I ever saw live, back in the early ’90s, during my very first and thrilling visit to the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York City. Russian opera is not a typical first choice for people new to the genre, as I was, but I was enormously moved by Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and life story. He was my hero, and I had a burning desire to see one of his operas, so I headed to New York. This was right around the centenary of his death, and his music was even more in vogue than usual. But it was mid-February, and a blizzard hit the city during my stay. The opera was on a weeknight, and between that, the storm, and this opera not being wildly popular, the opera house was relatively deserted. I was able to move to a prime seat up front that would have normally cost a small fortune, and was far better than the one I had paid for. For the next three hours, I was mesmerized and enthralled by this highly atmospheric, haunting opera. Not only was the music passionate and visceral, but I felt like they were playing it just for me. When I hear certain parts of the opera today, I am strongly reminded of that magical, snowy night when I was warmly cocooned in the splendor of one of the greatest opera houses in the world, feeding my soul with a work of immense genius.
The opera is the story of a (literally) haunted man, Herman, who is addicted to gambling and to discovering the secret three cards that will supposedly win him a fortune. The secret is rumored to be known to an old Countess (the “Queen of Spades” of the title), who also happens to be the grandmother of the woman Herman is in love with (Liza) but cannot have (she is betrothed to a prince, and Herman is not of her class). The opera is based on a story by the great Russian author Alexander Pushkin, just as Tchaikovsky’s other popular opera, Eugene Onegin, is, but this time Tchaikovsky’s own brother wrote the libretto, with some help from the composer himself. Tchaikovsky composed this opera around the same time as his extremely popular ballet The Nutcracker, and each shares similarities. The composer would be dead in just three years’ time at the height of his career, so this is among his last compositions. There is so much glorious music in this opera that I can’t include it all here; I’d basically be posting the whole thing (you can indeed watch the whole thing on YouTube. I’d highly recommend this one). This opera’s music goes directly to the depth of my soul, like so much of Tchaikovsky’s output, and leaves me awestruck with its brilliance. Whether these feelings are vestiges of that impressionable night in New York many years ago – my first opera, my first time at the Met, the allure of the City – I’m not sure, but this is one I treasure deeply. It is my desert island opera, and you won’t find me paying more rapt attention to anything else.
The opera begins with some foreboding chords in the overture, followed by a pleasant opening scene in a park on a sunny day (this scenario is very reminiscent of the opening scene in The Nutcracker). Children play as the governesses watch over them and the men discuss the happenings at the gambling tables the prior night. They remark on Herman’s obsessiveness and recent moodiness. He admits to being in love from afar with a woman whom he has not officially met (Liza). He soon discovers that she is above his station, and is pledged to another, Prince Yeletsky. There is a wonderful quartet in this scene (“mne strashno” – “I am afraid”) between Herman, Liza, the countess and the prince wherein they each voice their respective fears (timestamp 23:40):
The scene switches to Liza’s home, where she and her friends are singing some musical numbers at the piano. Two of them have a pensive, forlorn theme, and the last is frivolous to lighten the mood. None of them do anything to advance the plot, except to highlight Liza’s unhappiness with her engagement. Rather, they are excellent pieces to create a mood (both happy and sad, as Tchaikovsky excelled at these extremes) and to show off the composer’s talent for melody. Here, in succession, is each number, starting at 35:20:
After all this singing Liza heads for bed but can’t sleep. She’s thinking about the mysterious stranger she saw in the park (Herman), who suddenly appears on her balcony. He basically tells her that he will kill himself if he can’t have her, and guilts himself into her arms. Pathetic, but hey, that’s opera sometimes (OK, much of the time).
The scene switches to a ball being thrown by the prince to celebrate his engagement to Liza. Here, the prince sings the opera’s famous love aria, ja vas lyublyu (I love you madly), probably the most famous number from any of Tchaikovsky’s operas, and a highlight of his considerable opus. The first clip below is the rousing opening to Act II, and the second is the aria, sung by the wonderful (and recently deceased) Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky:
The masked ball continues with a charming pastorale (a rural musical play) to entertain the guests, complete with sheep. Meanwhile, Liza gives Herman the key to her room, and he makes plans to visit her that night. The master of ceremonies of the ball announces that Catherine the Great is about to grace them with her presence, and Tchaikovsky gives us a thrilling, frenzied buildup and crescendo to herald her majesty’s arrival. This scene, when done right, is just fantastic (the one on the Boder/Didyk disc is my favorite, but not available online). In the clip below there is no physical empress, just an image, but you’ll get the idea. It’s at 29:14:
In the next scene, Herman is in the countess’s room, just outside Liza’s, mulling over his fate, captivated by a portrait of the younger countess on the wall. He hears the countess arriving and hides. She sings a haunting number in French about the days gone by, Je crains de lui parler la nuit, (I’m afraid to speak to him at night) at 42:43:
Herman reveals himself after the countess dozes off, and threatens her with a pistol to get her to reveal the secret of the three cards. She dies of fright. Liza finally gets home, and thinks that Herman was only using her to get to the countess. She asks him to leave. Now he is without the secret or the girl – he just can’t catch a break.
Act III opens with another example of Tchaikovsky’s prodigious talent for expressing emotion with musical instruments. I provided a clip of this at the beginning of this discussion, but here is another one for good measure, in the venerable Russian conductor Valery Gergiev’s capable hands. Listen to it as you read the following paragraph.
Herman receives a letter from Liza asking him to meet her by the river at midnight. Below is the dramatic scene, and Liza’s pliant hope that Herman still cares for her. One can imagine Tchaikovsky himself, who was no doubt tired of hiding his homosexuality all his life and was prone to depression, echoing these words that he penned for Liza: “I am weary . . . worn out with suffering. I am exhausted by grief; night and day I have been tormented by thoughts of him. Where is the joy I once knew? I am weary, so tired. My life promised me only joy; then clouds gathered. A storm carried off everything I loved in the world, destroying my happiness and my hopes . . . ” This aria is chilling (it begins after the dramatic introduction, and after she descends the stairs, at 12:32).
Suddenly the countess’s ghost appears to Herman, telling him that she is compelled to reveal to him the three secret cards: three, seven, ace. Herman goes to meet Liza, but is consumed with his newly learned secret instead of with her. Feeling abandoned and forlorn, she leaps into the river (well, in this clip she kind of just vanishes) as he hurries off to the gambling hall at 23:20. Yes, there’s lots of codependency in these operas, which helps the drama along:
Herman arrives at the gambling hall, ready to play his secret cards. He bets heavily with the three, then the seven, and wins both hands. He then bets it all with what he thinks is the ace, but it turns out to be the queen of spades – the countess’s revenge. He loses it all and, depending on the version you watch, ends up insane or kills himself. Here, at the opera’s mournful conclusion, his comrades pray for his tortured soul. This is so moving that Tchaikovsky himself wept as he wrote it – again, perhaps, it was too close to home. Listen to it (timestamp 40:20) as you read my closing thoughts on this very personal work.
There you have it; a moving, dramatic masterpiece full of beautiful music and pathos; Tchaikovsky’s best opera. One can only wonder what else he would have created had he lived beyond the age of 53, considering that this and two of his other masterworks – the Sixth Symphony and The Nutcracker – were all created in his last few years. But maybe this was all he had in him – after all, how much genius can a genius produce? Perhaps he said all that he had to say. As someone who has read extensively on this talented man as well as spent countless, blissful hours listening to his incredible music, I am convinced that he had had enough of life, and knew his end was near (there has always been speculation that he passively killed himself). I think Liza’s lamentation, quoted above (“I am exhausted by grief”), is his vicarious, mid-life suicide plea, and his mournful Sixth Symphony a few years later only cements this theory. In any event, I am eternally grateful for everything he had to say in his music, both hopeful and hopeless, to me and to the world. He spoke both languages, but the latter ultimately prevailed.
Sound recording was just being invented when Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died from cholera on November 7, 1893, after foolishly (purposely?) drinking a glass of unboiled water during an outbreak. There is a very brief recording of his voice on a wax cylinder that resides at the Tchaikovsky Museum in Russia at the site of his final residence. It is indistinct, high-pitched and full of static. But no matter; his passionate music speaks for him far better than any words could. As he was fond of saying, “where words leave off, music begins.” Pyotr Ilyich, may your troubled soul rest in peace. Ja vas lyublyu.
A word on available audio and video recordings of this work: For audio, my top recommendation would be the fantastic Rostropovich set, followed by conductors Ermler and Gergiev. For video, the YouTube recording mentioned above (led by Gergiev, with Vladimir Galouzine as Herman) is superb, but sadly not available commercially. However, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube – the video and audio streaming quality is excellent. Just be aware it is in three separate parts. This recording has many dramatic touches that I really like, and Galouzine is fantastic as Herman, both in voice and acting. On disc, the best choice is the Liceu/OpusArte recording (with Misha Didyk as Herman). It is visually and audibly stunning. The costumes and sets are fantastic, and this Herman (Didyk) isn’t too hard to look at (unlike some of them!) The 1992 Gergiev performance with Gegam Grigorian as Herman is also worthy, if a little dated. The Metropolitan Opera 1999 recording with Placido Domingo as Herman and Valery Gergiev conducting has not, as of this date, been released.
Update: Review of the Dutch National Opera Pique Dame DVD:
This unconventional performance takes many interesting liberties with Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera (and my favorite of all the operas I know). However, these changes would be very confusing to those not familiar with both the opera and with Tchaikovsky’s personal life, which has always been an integral part of his major works. Being familiar with both, I was able to appreciate much of the symbolism in this performance, even if it was occasionally distracting. The modifications were at times clever and thought-provoking, at other times silly and cringe-worthy. I’ve always imagined Tchaikovsky to be a reserved and dignified man, so it bothered me to see the singer portraying him behaving contrary to this image. Yes, the composer himself has a strong presence in this performance, and I don’t mean metaphorically. His character is on stage most of the time, with mixed results. He observes, writes, dances, conducts and even sings (and quite well at that). The concept is very intriguing since, as I mentioned, Tchaikovsky the man is so intricately tied up in his works, and particularly this one. I’ve always felt that Lisa’s pessimistic lamentation by the river in her plaintive Act III aria (I’m so weary . . .) was a stand in for Tchaikovsky’s own vicarious emotional catharsis, and it may even shed some light on his state of mind just three years before his untimely death at age 53.
“Tchaikovsky” interacts with others on the stage without being overly intrusive. In fact, it’s a bit surprising how well this fits into the overall work. He is at times inspired by the happenings in front of him, usually leading to flourishes of creative thought. He basically abducts the role of Prince Yeletsky, even to the point of singing his (and this opera’s) greatest aria, with wonderful effect. To see this character, who looks so much like the real Tchaikovsky physically, so immersed in his own work was deeply moving at times. In fact, there is a whole cadre of Tchaikovsky look-alikes on stage, identically dressed and making the point very clearly that this opera, written by Tchaikovsky and his brother Modest, takes many pages from Tchaikovsky’s own life experience.
The curtain opens on a beautiful drawing room set that serves as the setting for most of the action (Tchaikovsky’s living room, Lisa’s bedroom, the Prince’s ballroom . . .). This also works surprisingly well, and allows for a refreshing change from the standard strolling-in-the-park venue of the traditional opening scenes. Tchaikovsky has just finished satisfying his sexual urges with a male prostitute (whose identity is quite intriguing), and with that uncomfortable moment the overture begins. This was one of those cringe worthy scenes, a bit jarring (“too much information,” as they say, and certainly not part of the opera as written), but probably not that far from the truth of Tchaikovsky’s actual life experience. Nevertheless, I felt my idol was being shamed for his natural inclinations, but I think the intent was more likely to highlight his own shame at being homosexual in such a repressive time and place – a time when his proclivities were so unacceptable, especially for a man of his class and notoriety. This repression was certainly a huge factor in his musical creations and emotional life, and without it we would not have his glorious opera – and here I invoke the true Latin meaning of this word (“opera,” the plural of “opus”), which is the sum of a composer’s creative works.
Creative touches I really liked include Tchaikovsky directing the child soldiers in the opening scene; him conducting the chorus (something he did in real life) and playing the piano during some of his most intensely emotional music; and the inclusion of references to Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflote, a work that had just been written (in Pique Dame’s time frame, the 1790s) by another musical genius whom Tchaikovsky greatly admired. All of these make sense, as does the parallel between Lisa’s unhappy betrothal to Prince Yeletsky and the real-life betrothal of Tchaikovsky to a woman whom he did not love and had little true interest in, except to quell gossip. Lisa jumps in the river, and so did the real Tchaikovsky (well, sort of, in a lame and thankfully unsuccessful attempt to kill himself).
One striking quirk about this production is that I watched the entire thing before I realized, only by glancing at the disc’s cover, that the man who played Herman, Misha Didyk, is the same man who played him in the Liceu production six years earlier, which I had watched just last week. He was unrecognizable to me, and I still have a hard time believing it’s the same person. In the former production he was dashing and handsome, in this one he looks sloppy and unkempt. Maybe the long hair just doesn’t work for me; it was no doubt meant to make him look more girlish (or more Danish?)
By the end of this performance, I had grown tired of the insertion of Tchaikovsky into every scene; it became distracting. He was too much of a focus, and it detracted from the telling of the story. He is on stage for almost the entire three hours (he must indeed be “weary,” as his aria complains). While there were some nice dramatic touches in the latter scenes – the smoke-spewing, swinging chandelier and lighting in the ghost segment, and the ghost speaking through Tchaikovsky was a deliciously eerie addition – it was not enough to keep me from being weary. Maybe I’ve just watched too many Pique Dames this month, but I prefer the traditional interpretations. I would not recommend this for a newcomer to the opera. Not only would they be utterly confused by the modified story line, but while that modification adds some intriguing twists for aficionados to chew on, it also takes away the charm and cohesion of the original. Certainly worth a look by seasoned viewers, but if this had been my only experience with the opera I may not even have liked it, and it certainly would not be my favorite opera of all time. If you want to know the real Tchaikovsky, he is right where he has always been – in his glorious music, not romping around on stage.
Also reviewed: Fedoseyev-conducted 1989 performance (recommended)
Opera: Rigoletto Composer: Verdi Other popular works by this composer: Aida, Otello, Macbeth, Il trovatore, La traviata First performed: 1851 Language: Italian Accessibility Level: Beginner ExplorerAficionado Setting: Mantua, Italy; 16th century Plot: A hunchback jester who is overprotective of his infatuated daughter experiences a curse that has tragic consequences for him – and his young innocent Highlights: Questa o quella, La donna e mobile, Bella figlia dell’amore Recommended audio recording/s: Chandos Opera in English, Sills/Milnes/Kraus, Pavarotti/Nucci/Anderson Recommended video recording/s: (none yet!) Rating (1 to 5):
I’ve been a sloth when it comes to Verdi’s operas – relatively slow to recognize their delights. The first few times I heard Rigoletto, it didn’t really grab me. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right recording, or perhaps listening undistracted with headphones. I first listened to a Callas recording (whom I adore), then Pavarotti (whom I also adore). I then watched an older video performance featuring a very young Placido Domingo and the wonderful Cornell MacNeil. But it wasn’t until I listened to the Chandos recording of this opera – in English – that it really spoke to me. Maybe I needed to know what they were singing about, or maybe it was just the crisp, resonant sound of this recording, or maybe it just took a few listens overall, but this is now one of my favorite operas. There are glorious arias and duets, and a delicious quartet that will lull you into a transcendental state better than a deep meditation. While, like many operas, the plot is a bit odd (which is maybe why the Metropolitan Opera recently updated it to 1950s Vegas), perhaps it is not so hard to sympathize with Rigoletto’s starry-eyed daughter when we remember the intensity of our own first love.
The opera opens with an overture that forebodes the drama to come, then switches abruptly to a gay soiree that is taking place at the Duke of Mantua’s pad. He’s a bit of a Don Juan, this duke, and Verdi wastes no time in starting us off with the duke’s famous aria (Questa o quella – this one or that one), bragging about his flitting from one affair to the next.
Seems the duke has been eyeing this girl in church (in church, no less! Is nothing sacred?), who happens to be his court jester Rigoletto’s daughter. Rigoletto only lets her out of the house to go to church, but clearly that is not going to protect her from being noticed. After gushing about this girl, the duke’s roving eye starts wandering and he hits on the ladies at his party, including the wife of Count Monterone. The count confronts the duke, and Rigoletto dutifully makes fun of the old man. Monterone then curses Rigoletto, scaring the bejeebers out of him. He’s a superstitious one, Rigoletto.
Meanwhile, the men at the party discuss how Rigoletto has a woman holed up in his house who they think is his mistress (it is really his daughter, Gilda). They decide to abduct her to get back at him for always making fun of them. Later at Rigoletto’s house, Gilda gets a surprise visit from the licentious duke, who professes his love for her. She is duly wooed, and after he leaves she sings another famous aria about her complete infatuation with him and his name, Caro nome (dearest name). Yup, she’s got it bad.
The duke’s pals abduct Gilda (with Rigoletto’s unwitting help – that damned curse!), and bring her to his palace. Of course, in typical Three’s Company fashion, they don’t know the duke is enamored with her, or that she is Rigoletto’s daughter. But all is soon revealed, and Rigoletto angrily condemns the courtiers and the duke, and sets out to prove to his daughter what a pig the duke is. He takes her to spy on the duke as he woos yet another woman. The duke is busy bragging again in another ultra-famous aria, La donna e mobile (“women are fickle” – he’s one to talk!), which will figure prominently in the plot later on.
While Gilda and Rigoletto are spying on the duke, a wonderful quartet ensues between them (outside) and the duke and his new lover (inside). WARNING: Cleavage alert!
Gilda is still smitten with the duke in spite of his unfaithfulness, and when she discovers that someone has hired an assassin to kill him (unbeknownst to her, it was her father), she, dressed as a man, arranges to take his place. The assassin kills her. When Rigoletto returns to pay him, he hears the smug duke singing “La donna e mobile” and realizes that he’s been duped. When he opens the sack with the corpse and discovers it’s his daughter Gilda inside, he knows the curse has come to fruition.
I’d highly recommend listening to this opera in English first, and then venturing out to either the Sills/Milnes set, or the Pavarotti one. There are many recordings of this opera. Sample a number of them to determine which one sounds best to you. When you find that one, it will be an eternal treasure.
Opera: La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the West) Composer: Puccini Other popular works by this composer: La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Turandot First performed: 1910 Language: Italian Accessibility Level: Beginner ExplorerAficionado Setting: The California Gold Rush, 1849 Plot: A female saloon owner falls in love with a man who turns out to be a bandit on the run; she gambles (and cheats!) in a poker game for his freedom Highlights: Ch’ella mi creda Recommended audio recording/s: Neblett/Domingo/Milnes Recommended video recording/s: (none) Rating (1 to 5):
This is one of those operas (and there are many) that is more interesting to watch than listen to, which doesn’t speak highly of the music. It reminds me of a film score – perfectly adequate to accompany a movie, but not something you’d really want to listen to on its own (in spite of this, movie soundtrack albums continue to sell – I have more than a few). This opera is very different from Puccini’s much better-known works (La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca, all of which rank in the top ten most-performed operas worldwide) in that it is “through-composed”: there are no gaps in the music, it just keeps on going. And going – again, like a film score would. There are no convenient pauses for the audience to applaud (not that they’d want to . . . ), and it is not full of show-stopping arias (well, there is one). I don’t have a problem with this, per se, if the music is interesting enough. In this case, it wasn’t. It all sounded kind of the same, and there wasn’t nearly enough variety to hold my interest for long. I found myself web-surfing during it, never a good sign.
This work doesn’t get much respect in the opera world, and it is not performed very often. Some point to the unrefined subject matter, which reminds people too much of Hollywood westerns to be suitable for an opera. That, combined with the lack of variety in the music, the absence of standout tunes, and the fact that it takes place in (gasp!) English-speaking America sets it up for difficulty (it’s not unlike the snobbery of those who disdain operas sung in English, even though this one isn’t). Regardless, there are those who consider it one of Puccini’s best works. I am not one of them. There are no recordings of this opera in English, but you will recognize two words: “Hello!” and “Mr. Johnson,” both of which are used frequently (it’s a bit jarring, interspersed with the Italian). Puccini liked to explore exotic locales in his operas, which he did in both Madama Butterfly (turn-of-the-century Japan) and Turandot (ancient China). Gold-rush era California was no doubt just as exotic way back in 1900. But while he wrote music that borrowed from the cultural setting in Butterfly and Turandot (or, at least, represented his idea of that culture’s music), La fanciulla del West does not conjure up the music of the American West. Again, watching this opera would do a much better job of immersing you in that setting. So, being rather bored with the audio recording, that’s exactly what I did. I watched a fairly recent production (and those are rare!) of this opera, led by the superstar Jonas Kaufmann and Swedish soprano Nina Stemme.
Oh my. This production is very odd, which at least took away my boredom. Did the set and costume designers just throw together (or just plain throw up) everything they could find at a local garage sale? Were they high? This was one of the most bizarre settings I’ve ever seen, and it did absolutely nothing to add to the production – in fact, I spent way too much time trying to figure out what time period and culture they were trying to invoke, if even they knew. There were propaganda posters and other hints of the World War II era, a neon-lit machine of some kind (slots? a jukebox? day-old sandwiches?) that looked like it belonged in Vegas in the fifties, a dangling piece of art that would fit nicely in the seventies – and yet they are all singing about gold-rush era California (circa 1849). I was beginning to think there was something wrong with my comprehension skills until I read some of the reviews. The bad lighting cast way too many odd shadows. As for costumes, the sheriff’s leather uniform made him look more like a motorcycle cop (or perhaps a member of the Village People). Another character was dressed like a ’30s mobster in pinstripes, and Minnie, with her frumpy outfit and Raggedy Ann hair, looked like she was ready for a Saturday morning cleaning out the basement (maybe for that garage sale). What’s more, the two lovers did not seem like a match at all – Minnie looked more like the handsome young Johnson’s mother. Her motley crew of customers donned baseball caps and hardhats and ski caps, but not a cowboy hat was in sight. Johnson was the only one dressed sensibly. Aside from him, the only hint of the “west” of the opera’s title was the decorative scrolling on the sheriff’s shirt. Their mining camp looked like something out of Hogan’s Heroes with its excessive use of metal, and was overall sparse and depressing to look at. The whole ordeal was just a confusing mess, and detracted from the fine singing and excellent orchestra. You’re better off closing your eyes on this one and just listening. Clever (read: stupid) updating of opera settings rarely work well. Opera plots are often bad enough, but yanking them out of their intended context just makes things worse. I half expected this cast of oddly-festooned characters to break into a chorus of “Y.M.C.A.” at the end (and in Italian, no less)!
I’d include the usual highlight excerpts of the opera here, but nothing really stood out to me. There is one famous aria, Ch’ella mi creda (“let her believe”), which is wonderful and more like Puccini’s standard blockbuster fare, so I’ll give you two versions of that. The first is by the great Pavarotti (somewhat poor audio, but still awesome), and the second, a crystal clear rendition by the creamy-voiced Andrea Bocelli. In this aria, Johnson is about to be executed and asks that his killers tell his lover that he escaped instead. This song was popular during WWI among Italian soldiers.
So aside from that, and the interesting fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber was sued for supposedly plagiarizing from this opera when writing “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera (see below), I don’t have much to recommend here. I’d pass on this one. Sorry, Puccini. Everyone is allowed a dud. Even you.
What is Beethoven’s most famous opera? It’s a trick question; he only wrote one, but he wrote it about four times (it went through many alterations!) I must admit that in spite of being a huge fan of Beethoven’s symphonies and many other inspired works, I wasn’t particularly impressed with his lone opera when I first casually listened to it a few years back. However, after giving a careful listen (or three) to the Karajan recording this week (pictured above), my attitude toward it has totally changed. What, I wondered, had kept me from ranking this among Beethoven’s (and opera’s) greatest works? I’ve certainly had this change-of-heart phenomenon happen with symphonic music, where I dislike a work upon first hearing it yet later love a recording of it by someone else. The same can happen with opera. Sometimes you’re just not ready for a work, and other times it’s just a matter of the right performance to open your eyes and ears. Fidelio is rife with glorious music, especially in the right hands (and legendary German conductor Herbert von Karajan certainly qualifies). Beethoven penned, and Karajan conjures, the kind of sublime sounds I thought were unique to Mozart, sounds that gently rise up out of silence, force you into the sobering present moment and achieve something other-worldly and ethereal. Beethoven, of course, was a contemporary and inheritor of Mozart (he was twenty when Mozart died), and while this opera would be immediately recognized as a work of Beethoven’s by anyone familiar with his music, it also has echos of Wolfgang Amadeus – and neither of these is a bad thing. I have pointed out no less than six highlights in the links above, more than usual, and could have mentioned others. This opera is one highlight after another. In fact, I can’t stop listening to it right now!
Let’s begin with the overture, of which there are four versions. It is referred to as the “Leonore Overture,” because this opera was originally called “Leonore” (the name of the opera’s heroine). The opera went through many revisions, and at some point it was feared that Beethoven’s overture would be too overpowering for the beginning of the work. It was therefore scaled down in order to be a more suitable introduction. The overture is famous in its own right, and likely familiar to many fans of classical music who may not be fans of opera. Personally, I prefer the long, “overpowering” version of it (known today as “Leonore Overture No. 3”), but agree that it is too powerful as an introduction to the opera. Here it is anyway, in all its Beethovian drama and power. It’s a thrilling piece. The dramatic trumpet call mid-overture (at timestamp 8:30 in the clip below) plays a very key role in the plot. Listen to it as you read:
The opera opens in the prison, as prison assistant Jaquino is expressing his interest in the warden’s daughter, Marzelline. He wants to marry her, in fact. Marzelline, however, is in love with the new prison worker Fidelio, who is really a woman named Leonore disguising herself as a young man. Her husband, Florestan, is falsely imprisoned and being starved to death, and she has gone undercover to try to rescue him. The prison warden, Rocco, is very impressed with the disguised Fidelio (Leonore), and wants to see him (her!) marry his daughter. With me so far? (Why are all these opera plots like Three’s Company episodes? And why can no one spot a lady in drag?)
Here we come to the first standout piece in the opera, a gorgeous quartet sung by Fidelio, Marzelline, Rocco and Jaquino about their various situations, Mir ist so wunderbar (a wonderful feeling fills me). It’s beautiful, especially as each voice joins in (and you thought Beethoven was a craggy old curmudgeon!):
The governor of the prison, Don Pizarro, who had imprisoned Florestan (Leonore’s husband) for threatening to expose his crimes, gets word that the King’s minister is visiting the next day and he is hot on the subject of prison reform. Pizarro does not want the minister to discover the unjustly held Florestan, so he decides to kill him. He orders warden Rocco to dig a grave, and to alert him when it is ready. Fidelio overhears this and becomes quite agitated to learn of her husband’s pending fate. She convinces the warden to let the long shut-in prisoners outside to enjoy the beautiful weather, hoping to discover her husband among them. The warden agrees after further persuading from his daughter, which brings us to the second sublime piece of music in this work. As the prisoners walk out into the sunlight for the first time in many months, Beethoven’s music, O Welche Lust! (Oh what joy!) beautifully evokes the wonder and hope cautiously rising up from their gloomy despair. Here one cannot help but think of the real-life prison of Beethoven’s deafness, which at this point in his life was almost complete. That a deaf man could write such a gorgeous, uplifting piece of music as this is remarkable, and we can almost imagine him among the chorus of prisoners in spirit, yearning for relief along side them (later in the opera, Leonore coincidentally sings, “I will loose your chains whoever you are, unhappy man, by God I will save you and set you free”).
Pizarro, the prison governor, gets angry that the prisoners were let out and they are ushered back in. He gives the warden permission to have Fidelio help dig what will be her husband’s grave, as he is to be killed within the hour. At this point, in Act 2, we finally meet the condemned man. He sings a dramatic aria, Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! (God! It’s so dark here!) first extolling his faith, and then recounting a vision he had of his wife coming to save him (tenor Ben Heppner makes a wonderful Florestan in the Levine-led video performance from the Metropolitan Opera. Sadly, it is not available for me to show here).
Fidelio and Rocco finish digging the grave, and Fidelio, still in disguise, gives her husband some bread and water with Rocco’s permission. Pizarro is informed that all is ready for him to kill Florestan. He descends into the dungeon to do the dirty deed, first taunting Florestan with a revelation of who he is and why he is exacting his delicious revenge. As he moves to make the kill, Fidelio intervenes and reveals herself to be Florestan’s wife. Just then the famous trumpet call heard in the overture sounds, signaling that the minister, who is investigating prison abuse, arrives. It is therefore too late for Pizarro to murder his prisoner, for he will be caught in the act. He escapes, and Fidelio (now as Leonore) and Florestan sing an incredibly joyous song celebrating their reunion, O namenlose Freude! (Oh nameless joy!). It is quite an emotional piece – Beethoven outdoes himself in portraying their rapture. Again, it is quite moving in the Levine/Heppner/Mattila video, but here is a great audio version with the wonderful Jessye Norman:
Florestan is free, Pizarro is found out, and the abused prisoners are redeemed. It’s a very happy ending (well, except for poor Marzelline, who just found out her husband-to-be is a woman). The prisoners and the entire company join in a jubilant, rousing final victory celebration, Heil Sei Dem Tag! (Hail to the day!), a classic Beethoven effusion of joyful exuberance, not unlike the endings to his fantastic Choral Fantasy (< watch that video, it’s amazing) and his masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony. It’s one of the most sustained musical expressions of joy you’re likely to hear, barring the masterpiece just mentioned:
If you like Beethoven’s orchestral music, chances are you’ll be impressed with this opera if you give it a chance. I am very glad that I discovered its merits, as it is now one of my favorites. And Happy Birthday, Beethoven. He turned 247 this week. In just three years, we will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birth, which is sure to include many performances of this great opera dedicated to hope and freedom, causes dear to Beethoven’s heart.
You know Jacques Offenbach. Yes you do. He wrote the famous and wildly infectious Galop Infernal (more popularly known as the “can-can”) burlesque number from Orpheus in the Underworld. He also wrote many operettas, some that were quite risque for the time and that delighted in poking fun at French society (much as Gilbert and Sullivan liked to do to English society). The Tales of Hoffman was his last opera; in fact, he died before finishing it, in spite of his desire to live long enough to attend its premiere. It is arguably his most popular work, even if the plot is rather hard to follow (this is not at all unusual in the opera world – the plots can be quite convoluted!) God knows I had to listen to, view, and read up on this opera numerous times before I was entirely sure what was going on! The music, however, is wonderful, as Offenbach really knew how to write and work a melody. And be irreverent. That, however, is kept largely in check in Hoffmann. Not that I mind a good dose of irreverence.
The namesake of this opera was a real person, E.T.A. Hoffmann, the German writer best known for penning the tale that ultimately became The Nutcracker. Hoffmann’s stories often invoke fantasy, as is the case with both The Nutcracker and the opera presently under discussion. The opera makes use of three of Hoffmann’s supernatural tales, framed by the author himself who is recounting them as if he personally lived through them. In each tale, he is in love with a woman whom he cannot have, thwarted by a nemesis, and ultimately left humiliated and devastated. This is, presumably, pure fiction (he was married but died of syphilis, so make of that what you will).
What makes keeping track of this seemingly simple plot difficult is that there are a large number of similar characters, many of whom are essentially the same person (in some productions, literally the same person, in different disguises), or at least personifications of the supposed loves and struggles in Hoffmann’s life. In the outer story that frames the three tales, his muse (his poetical inspiration), a woman, transforms into his best friend Nicklaus, a man (this role is consequently sung by a woman, dressed as a man). She/he aims to win Hoffmann for her/himself so that he will keep writing and forget this silly love business. Confused yet? You will be before we’re through (and I skip a lot of the details). Let’s begin.
The opera starts off in a bar where an opera (Mozart’s Don Giovanni) is being performed on an adjoining stage. The patrons rush in during intermission to drink and toast the new prima donna, Stella, whom Hoffmann is in love with. However, so is the sinister Councilor Lindorf. Stella sends Hoffmann a note and the key to her room; Lindorf intercepts it. Hoffmann then entertains his drinking buddies with a colorful song about a dwarf named Kleinzach, the opera’s first well-known number that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the plot:
Before we get into the bizarre details of the tales themselves, I must mention the delightful entr’acte that takes place before they begin. An entr’acte (French for “between acts”) is a brief musical intermission that sets the stage, as it were, for the next act, much like an overture sets the stage for the whole work. It’s like a musical hors d’oeuvre (in keeping with our French theme!) Not all operas have entr’actes but many do, especially the French works (Carmen has some famous ones). This opera has four of them, and the first is wonderfully upbeat and joyous. It is also sung later on in the act by a chorus, to rousing effect. Here it is in the instrumental form:
Now that the stage is set, Hoffmann proceeds to tell of his three loves (not counting the aforementioned Stella). There are numerous versions of this opera (thanks to Offenbach not totally completing it), and the three tales are not always told in the same order. However, the first one is almost always the tale of Olympia, a mechanical doll created by an inventor named Spalanzani and his buddy Coppelius. Hoffmann does not know Olympia is just a lifelike doll because of special glasses he is wearing (given to him by his nemesis in this act, Coppelius) that make her appear real. He promptly falls in love with her. The doll sings a famously difficult aria, Les oiseaux dans la charmille (a.k.a. “The Doll Song”), having to be wound up several times when she starts to run down. This is a comical showpiece in the hands of more gifted performers and a real workout for the soprano in terms of acting, moving stiffly and singing the difficult passages:
Hoffmann’s nemesis destroys the doll out of spite and everyone laughs at him for having loved an automaton. Next up (depending on which version you watch) is the tale of Hoffman’s love for Antonia, who is sick and forbidden to sing by her father, Crespel, as it makes her weaker. The incarnation of Hoffmann’s nemesis in this scene is the sarcastically-named Dr. Miracle, who promises to make Antonia better but actually forces her to sing, which kills her. One of the highlights of this act is the comic performance of Frantz, Crespel’s somewhat inept and flamboyant servant (gotta love the French – watch this!):
The last tale opens with the opera’s most famous number, a barcarolle or boat song called Belle nuit, o nuitd’amour (beautiful night, oh night of love), which you have surely heard before. I have posted two videos of it below, one instrumental led by the wonderful French conductor Georges Pretre, and one vocal sung beautifully by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca. Gorgeous!
This final tale involves Giulietta, a courtesan (a nice word for a high-class prostitute). She pretends to love Hoffmann, but is really doing so to get a diamond ring offered by his nemesis, Dapertutto, who wants her to steal Hoffmann’s reflection (I’m still not sure why). She does so, abandons Hoffmann, and ends up dying like the other two lovers. Poor Hoffmann! Foiled and embarrassed again!
We come full circle to the same tavern that opened the story, where Hoffmann swears off of women (who can blame him at this point?) His friend Nicklause reveals himself to really be his muse, who loves him. Hoffmann returns to her, and poetry, and the devious Lindorf (represented by the evil men in each of the tales) leaves with Stella, Hoffmann’s original love – different aspects of whom were also personified in each of the tales (in some productions the three evil men are played by the same singer, as are the three women. The latter is rarer, however, due to the very different types of singers required for the women).
I highly recommend the recording of this opera pictured at the top of the page, led by French conductor Andre Cluytens. I have listened to numerous renditions of this work, and the Cluytens recording is a clear favorite. The music stands out in terms of the drama, tempo and reverence that Cluytens expertly imparts on this delicious score.
There is no recording of this opera in English, so if you want to follow the complex story (bless you) you’ll have to read along with the libretto and its translation (included with most CDs), or watch a video performance with subtitles, which is far easier. The Metropolitan Opera performance I’d recommend, from which the doll song above is excerpted, is not yet available on DVD. Of course, you can also just listen to the wonderful music without following the plot, as I often do. Until next time, bon apetit!