Opera of the Week


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: CaptureCaptureCaptureCaptureCapture

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.


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The Barber of Seville


Opera: The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia)
Composer: Rossini
Other popular works by this composerThe 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 LevelBeginner 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 EnglishPrey/Berganza
Recommended video recording/s: Bayo, Florez; Metropolitan Opera HD live (Florez, DiDonato, Mattei)
Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCaptureCapture

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.

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Pique Dame (Queen of Spades)

Opera: Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades)
Composer: Tchaikovsky
Other popular works by this composer: Eugene Onegin
First performed: 1890
Language: Russian
Accessibility LevelBeginner 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: RostropovitchErmlerGergiev
Recommended video recording/s: Didyk, Magee; Liceu
Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCaptureCapture

Tchaikovsky wrote 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). In fact, 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 parts thanks to Tchaikovsky’s wonderful facility with melody and drama, which is on full display here. This work is one thrilling scene after another, and the amazing thing is 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 for a week-long visit. This was right around the centenary of his death, so 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 (the auditorium, which seats four thousand, wasn’t even ten percent full). 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 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 of Pushkin’s, 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 some similarities. The composer would be dead in just three years’ time at the height of his career, and 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 – it is sheer genius. Whether these feelings are vestiges of that impressionable night in New York many years ago – my first opera, my first time at the Met – I’m not sure, but this is one I treasure deeply. It is my desert island opera, and many scenes bring tears to my eyes – the music is that glorious.

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 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 between Herman, Liza, the countess and the prince:

The scene switches to Liza’s home, where she and her friends are singing some musical numbers at the piano. Two 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:

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 opening to Act II, and the second is the aria, sung by the wonderful (and recently deceased) 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 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 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):

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 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 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 great introduction, and after she descends the stairs).

Suddenly the countess’s ghost appears, telling Herman 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 as he hurries off to the gambling hall (lots of codependency in these operas . . . it 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 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 last, and 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 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. He spoke both languages, but the latter prevailed.

Sound recording was just being invented when Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died from cholera in November of 1893, after foolishly drinking a glass of contaminated water. There is a very brief recording of his voice on a wax cylinder that resides at the Tchaikovsky Museum in Klin, at the site of his final residence. It is indistinct 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.

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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 Explorer Aficionado
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/sChandos Opera in EnglishSills/Milnes/Kraus, Pavarotti/Nucci/Anderson
Recommended video recording/s: (none yet!)
Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCaptureCapture

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.

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La fanciulla del West (Girl of the West)

Opera: La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the West)
Composer: Puccini
Other popular works by this composer: La BohemeMadama Butterfly, Tosca, Turandot
First performed: 1910
Language: Italian
Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado
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/sNeblett/Domingo/Milnes
Recommended video recording/s: (none)
Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCapture

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.

Sound familliar?

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Opera: Fidelio
Composer: Beethoven
Other popular works by this composer: (none in this genre)
First performed: 1814
Language: German
Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado
Setting: Late 18th century Seville
Plot: The wife of a man unjustly imprisoned and condemned to death disguises herself as a prison worker in order to rescue him
Highlights: OvertureMir Ist So WunderbarO, Welche Lust!; Gott, welch Dunkel hierO namenlose Freude!Heil Sei Dem Tag
Recommended audio recording/sDernesch/Vickers/Karajan;Brewer/Margison/Parry (In English)(The English recording is recommended to familiarize yourself with the plot; the Karajan recording is preferred overall)
Recommended video recording/s: Janowitz/Popp/Bernstein; Mattila/Heppner/Levine
Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCaptureCapture


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.

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Les contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann)

Opera: Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann)
ComposerJacques Offenbach
Other popular works by this composer: Orphee aux enfers, La belle Helene, La Perichole
First performed: 1881
Language: French
Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado
Setting: Bavaria, Germany
Plot: A tortured poet recounts his disastrous past love affairs
HighlightsChanson de Kleinzach, Entr’acteLes oiseaux dans la charmilleBelle nuit, ô nuit d’amour
Recommended audio recording/sGedda/Schwarzkopf/de Los Angeles/Cluytens
Recommended video recording/s: None yet!

Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCapture

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 nuit d’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!

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L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love)

Opera: L’Elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love)
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Other popular works by this composer: Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale
First performed: 1832
Language: Italian
Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado
Setting: Late 18th-century Spain/France
Plot: A lovesick peasant buys a love potion from a snake oil salesman to win over his beloved, unaware that it is simply wine
Highlights: Quanto è bella, Una furtiva lagrima
Recommended audio recording/s: Banks/Plazas/Holland/Shore/Parry [in English]; Pavarotti/Sutherland; Carreras/Riccarelli
Recommended video recording/sVillazon/Netrebko

Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCaptureCapture

Donizetti’s operas, of which he wrote over seventy, do not generally rank in my list of  favorites. In all honesty, however, I’ve only casually listened to a few of the more famous ones, so I still keep an open mind. There are lots more to explore (and we’ll cover many of those in the weeks – and years – ahead). Furthermore, at times you’ll like operas right away, on first listening, and other times they grow on you with repeated listening and as your sophistication level increases. They can be like fine wine. And, speaking of wine, it has a prominent role in this story.

I liked the opera immediately. In fact, I loved it. It has a lot of infectious, lively tunes, one ultra-famous, heartbreaking one and lots of choral interjection, which I always love. It is an opera buffa, or comic opera (think “buffoon”), and as such is a lot of fun to listen to. What’s more, the story is both touching and relatable, unlike many operas that have bizarre or overly melodramatic plots. Donizetti wrote this opera in only six weeks, and wisely added its most famous number after the original drafts were complete. It is one of the twenty most performed operas in the world.

The music in this opera reminded me very much of that of Rossini – not surprising, considering it is from the same time period and has a madcap plot not unlike Rossini’s Barber of Seville. In fact, only a few years prior to this opera being premiered, Rossini had just finished writing his last one (William Tell). Here, Donizetti picks up his mantle, with enormous success (and with more than a few similarities to his forebear’s work).

I highly recommend listening to this opera sung in English first. This is always good advice as it helps with understanding the plot, but especially so when the story is so much fun to follow (with some operas, you’re better off not knowing the convoluted and ridiculous plot!) It also happens that the recording of this opera in English, pictured above, is of excellent quality (for an original-language (Italian) recording there are several good choices, including those sung by Pavarotti and Carreras). Andrew Shore, who sings the role of Dr. Dulcamara (the love potion hawker) in the English-language version, is wonderfully demonstrative and emphatic (check him out in the English-language Barber Of Seville and Don Pasquale as well).

Now, on to the Three’s Company-worthy plot:

Nemorino, a poor peasant, is in love with Adina, whom he perceives to be out of his league – she’s educated and wealthy, both of which he is not. Adina is indifferent to his affection, and is also being pursued by the soldier Belcore. She’s not really interested in him, either, and prefers to play the field. She’s a free spirit, she is.

The opera opens with a jaunty tune sung by the peasants, extolling their simple village life. Nemorino then spies Adina, and sings of his love for her in the tenor standard Quanto e bella (“she’s so beautiful”):

Enter Belcore, the soldier, who also woos Adina with his own (less famous) aria, after which the whole cast sings a highly energetic number that slowly builds to a frenetic pace. This, more than anything, reminded me of Rossini, employing a technique he used to build excitement in a song by gradually increasing its tempo and volume.

“Doctor” Dulcamara makes his grand entrance next, rolling his cart of potions and magical cures behind him (again, I am reminded of Fiagro’s similar entrance in The Barber of Seville, cart and all). Dulcamara brags of his ability to cure any and all ills with his mysterious concoctions. This, of course, gives the lovesick Nemorino an idea. He pays all the money he has for a “love” potion, which is really nothing but alcohol. The “doctor” tells him it takes twenty-four hours to take effect, which, in reality, allows him to leave town before Nemorino discovers he’s been swindled. Nemorino takes a couple of swigs and starts to feel giddy. Adina walks by but he ignores her, afraid to interact with her before he gets the full effect of the potion. She takes this as a snub, and seems a bit . . . disappointed. She may have feelings for Nemorino that she does not admit to.

Belcore returns asking Adina to marry him (things happen quickly in opera plots!). She agrees to do so in six days time, just to spite the suddenly indifferent Nemorino, having no intention of following through. Nemorino overhears the proposal but is unconcerned, confident that his potion will make Adina his in just one day, not six. However, when Belcore is given military orders to leave the next day, Adina agrees to marry him right away, and Nemorino is now very concerned. He sings a plaintive aria (Adina Credimi) pleading with Adina to wait just one more day. Adina and the villagers join in for a rousing finish. Here it is sung by Luciano Pavarotti:

Adina is unmoved and determined to continue with her plans, however, and Act 2 opens with a jaunty wedding feast:

When Adina sees that Nemorino is not present, she delays the nuptials until evening (she’s apparently got it for him bad, as much as she desperately tries to make him jealous!) Nemorino is beside himself, and begs the doctor for more potion, but he has no money. He therefore agrees to enlist as a soldier to earn an immediate signing bonus. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, Nemorino’s uncle has died and left him a fortune (I told you this was like a Three’s Company plot!) Also, Adina discovers that Nemorino bought the potion from the doctor to win her love and she now feels remorse for treating him badly.

Nemorino walks on stage alone to sing this opera’s greatest number, and, indeed, one of opera’s greatest tenor arias. Surely it is the greatest one that Donizetti penned: Una furtiva lagrima (one secret tear – a reference to Nemorino’s realization that Adina loves him after all when he witnesses her shed a tear for him). While I’ve always loved Pavarotti’s treatment of this aria, I was blown away when I heard Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon sing it on his DVD performance from 2006, which I very highly recommend. It is funny, playful, and extremely well sung and acted. Villazon is incredibly versatile – he is like Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character with his comical contortions and facial gestures, and he even juggles on stage while singing. The audience gives him a thunderous and warm ovation (twice!) after his famous aria, and demands an encore. It’s a joy to watch, and we have to wonder if he is in or out of character while he bashfully absorbs the audience’s earnest admiration:

Adina gets Nemorino out of his military contract and begs him to stay. She finally and passionately admits her love for him and vows to love him forever. Dulcamara declares his love potion a smashing success (not only does it make you fall in love, but rich, too!), and Sergeant Belcore takes his loss in stride, declaring there are plenty of other women to marry. The transformation in the two main characters in the Villazon/Netrebko video performance is incredibly heartwarming and gets a long, enthusiastic ovation in the final scene. It is wonderful to see such chemistry and authenticity between two principals, and it’s an opera that has a rare happy ending. L’elisir d’amore – an elixir to make you fall in love – with opera!

(I apologize for the foreign subtitles – copyright laws prohibit the American/English version from being posted online).
 I found it curious that during the bows, two male performers were thrown flowers (those playing Belcore and Dulcamara), but not the female (Netrebko) or male lead (Villazon)!

The Villazon/Netrebko DVD

The Pavarotti CD

The Carreras CD

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Opera: Werther
Composer: Jules Massenet
Other popular works by this composer: Manon, Le Cid, Thais
First performed: 1892
Language: French
Accessibility level: Beginner Adventurer Explorer Expert
Setting: Late 18th-century Germany
Plot: A melancholy and suicidal young poet pines over another man’s woman, with tragic results
Highlights: O Nature, pleine de grâce; Pourquoi me réveiller
Recommended audio recording/s: Bocelli/Gertseva
Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCapture

Werther, a poet and the protagonist of this opera, is a man after my own heart: brooding, introspective, focused on what (and whom) he can’t have. He’s serious and full of gloom. The opera is based on Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, but a good substitute title would be “Fatal Attraction.”

The opera starts with a prelude that begins, appropriately, on a dramatic and tragic note, but then veers off into innocence and tenderness. The first scene opens on children practicing a pleasant Christmas song, which will come back in a haunting way later in the story.  Reference is made to Charlotte, the object of Werther’s longing, and Albert, her betrothed. Werther enters in a rather contemplative mood, extolling the beauty of nature in poetic observations via a lovely aria, O Nature, pleine de grâce (O nature, full of grace). He has come to escort Charlotte to a ball since her fiance is away. This could perhaps be the reason for his magnanimous mood . . .

Werther expresses his love for Charlotte. She gently rebuffs him, especially after being informed that her soon-to-be husband Albert has made a surprise return home. Werther laments that his life would be wonderful if only Charlotte were his. She then rhapsodizes about her deceased mother, who made her promise to marry Albert, while Werther inappropriately steers the conversation back to her lovely eyes and mouth. In an act of pity and affection (and forbidden love?), Charlotte agrees to meet up with Werther, platonically, at Christmas, inadvertently keeping his desperate hope alive. In spite of this, he philosophizes casually on death by suicide should he continue to suffer disappointment (operas frequently feature characters with exaggerated and extreme emotions, and this one is no exception).

Albert figures out that Werther is in love with his (now) wife, and Charlotte begins to have stronger feelings for Werther in light of the letters he’s written her. Werther indeed visits her at Christmas, and they reminisce. We then come to this opera’s pièce de résistance and Massenet’s greatest aria – Pourquoi me reveiller (why do you awaken me?), an ultra-dramatic tenor showpiece wherein Werther is reciting a poem by Ossian that he is fond of. It is brooding and pessimistic, like our protagonist, with soaring angst and bitter resignation. The singer asks why spring teases him with warmth and joy, when it will only be followed by eventual sorrow. There are many wonderful renditions of this aria by the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Pavarotti and countless others, but the version below, by my third-favorite tenor, Juan Diego Florez, is especially heartfelt and moving. If this doesn’t stir you, check your pulse.

Werther expresses his love for Charlotte strongly, and while she seems to weaken, she ultimately rejects it. He leaves, and Albert soon appears, suspicious. A servant arrives with a note from Werther, asking to borrow Albert’s pistols since he is going away. Albert gladly obliges, and Charlotte is horrified. In the final act, she hurries to him and finds he has shot himself. She finally declares that she loves him, and did all along. In the background, the children sing their Christmas hymn as Werther dies in Charlotte’s arms, fulfilling the sorrow he foretold in his famous aria.

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