The Verdi Requiem

The Verdi Requiem

The Verdi Requiem was first performed in 1874 to mark the first anniversary of the death of Alessandro  Manzoni, a famous Italian writer and patriot whom Verdi greatly admired. It is also sometimes referred to as the Manzoni Requiem.

There is no doubt that the music is beautiful, as beautiful as any music that Verdi composed for the greatest of his operas. Indeed, the Requiem is often favorably compared to Verdi’s operas and is often described as “operatic”.  The tenor solo section, called the “Ingemisco” may be one of the most beautiful pieces that Verdi, or anyone else for that matter, ever wrote.

Please keep in mind that this is NOT an opera performance. There are four soloists and a large chorus. The whole thing lasts around 75-80 minutes and there is no story.

Should You Go?

This depends on you. If you are anxious to see a live performance of a great choral work with a good cast of singers then you should certainly attend. But if you prefer to go to the Met in a week when only full-length operas are being performed, then it would be better to stay home and listen one of the many fine recorded performances of the Verdi Requiem. My own favorite is the old one with Gigli and Ezio Pinza.

 

Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly

Even people who do not follow opera are somewhat familiar with Madama Butterfly. This is one of Puccini’s “Big 3” masterpieces, along with La Boheme and Tosca. All three of them will be seen at the Met this season. This is Anthony Minghella’s stunning production, which had its Met premiere in 2006.

The Story

The story of Madama Butterfly may be familiar to you. In the early 1900’s an American navy seaman, Pinkerton, takes a temporary Japanese wife for the period that he will be in Nagasaki. Cio Cio San is 15 years old and is known as “Madame Butterfly”. The tragedy is that she does not realize that the marriage is only temporary and not legitimate. So when Pinkerton goes back to the United States she waits and pines away for him, singing the opera’s most famous aria in Act II, Un Bel di  about how “one fine day” Pinkerton will return to Japan and to her.

By Act III she has given birth to Pinkerton’s baby. Pinkerton finally comes back to Japan, but with an American wife accompanying him.

Even though Pinkerton is a bit of a cad and has used Cio Cio San for his own pleasure he is guilt-ridden about what has happened to her.

But he is not in the least ready to give up his “real” American wife to make amends.

Cio Cio San reacts by committing hara kiri suicide at the end of the opera.

The Music

The music of Madama Butterfly has a lot more than Un Bel Di. This is some of Puccini’s lushest and most melodic music.
The composer incorporates some Japanese harmonies into the score. Even though the soprano, Madame Butterfly, is the lead character, the tenor, Pinkerton, has much of the most beautiful music. The love duet that ends Act I and the duet in Act III are my own favorite parts of the score.

Should You See It?

The three Puccini operas being performed this season, Butterfly, Boheme and Tosca are among the most popular operas in the basic repertory. You should try to see at least one of them. Even though the story of Butterfly is somewhat old-fashioned and sentimental the music elevates it to a work that can still move the audience.

 

Turandot

Turandot

 

This may be the most spectacular staging of an opera this season – the famed Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s last opera, Turandot.

The opera tells the story of Prince Calaf, who falls in love with the ice-cold Princess Turandot. To obtain permission to marry her, a suitor has to solve three riddles; any wrong answer results in death. The heads of former suiters who have failed the test are displayed on pikes at the start of the opera. The Prince of Persia, who has just failed his test is led out to be beheaded as the opera begins.

Calaf passes the test, but Turandot still refuses to marry him. She is obviously a sore loser. He offers her a way out: if she is able to learn his name before dawn the next day, then at daybreak he will die. It is at this point that Calaf, the tenor, sings the famous aria Nessun Dorma (No one sleeps). The reason no one is sleeping is that Turandot has her troops going around torturing people in order to learn Calaf’s name.

Of course, this aria has been made famous by the Three Tenors, perhaps too famous by now.  It is never quite clear why Calaf or all the other suitors want to marry Turandot in the first place since she is not a very nice person. But this being opera, we must accept the story as it is.

The opera was unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death in 1924, and was completed by Franco Alfano in 1926. There is a well-known anecdote of the world premiere – when Toscanini got to the point at which Puccini died he stopped conducting, turned to the audience and said “Here the composer laid down his pen.”

The last few minutes of the opera, composed by Alfano, do not sound like real Puccini in my opinion, only “pseudo-Puccini”. We can clearly hear the difference between the music of a genius and a hack. Still you should not miss one of the Met’s all-time famous productions, especially since other great Zeffirelli productions such as Tosca and Falstaff have been retired.

Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)

Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)

 

This is one of the Met’s most wonderful productions, Julie Taymor’s conception of the Magic Flute using giant puppets with great effect. Julie Taymor is famous for Disney’s Lion King and other hits, but her Magic Flute is in a class by itself. Of course, Mozart’s great music is still the main thing here.

Mozart finished the Magic Flute shortly before he died in 1791. Although on the surface the opera may appear to be no more than a fairy tale, this is a work of deep meaning and sublime music. Mozart himself was a Mason and many people find Masonic elements in this opera. The character of Papageno, the bird-catcher who aids Prince Tamino in his fight against the forces of ignorance and bigotry, is one of opera’s most wonderful characters. And his music is irresistible.

This is one of my favorite Met productions. For some reason the scene with the three little boys, who are seen sitting on a tree branch with long white beards, is the most memorable of all. Try to see it.

What is Opera?

What is opera?

“Opera, the fine art of emotions?”

Opera is considered by many to be a “total” art form because it blends music, singing, drama, poetry, staging and occasionally dance, into an extraordinary performance.

It is this complex combination that makes an opera performance one the few entertainments where all human emotions and passions are at work. Read More

Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann)

Scenes from the Paris premiere

Tales of Hoffmann

Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (or in its original French title Les Contes d’Hoffmann) is a wonderful opera which is based on three tales by the 19th-Century German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Is This a Good Opera to Attend?

This should be a very good performance, with a strong  Italian tenor, Vittorio Grigolo taking on the demanding role of Hoffmann and three strong female singers, each portraying one of the tenor’s failed loves.

The Storyline

Following an introductory scene in which the drunken poet Hoffmann outlines each of the three love affairs which end in disaster for him, the following three acts of the opera portray each of these love affairs in detail.

Unfortunately, Hoffmann has terrible taste (and luck) with women.

For example, his first love, Olympia, turns out to be a mechanical doll. This, obviously, does not form the basis for a good relationship.

About the Music

The opera’s most famous piece is the duet for two female voices known as the Barcarolle.

This takes place in the marvelous scene set in Venice in Act II of the opera, when Hoffmann is pursuing the courtesan Gulietta (another affair which does not end happily).

The Barcarolle is far from being the only great music in this opera and I feel that anyone seeing it for the first time will not be disappointed.

The music is wonderful and the production is very fine. This was Offenbach’s last work and he died before it’s premiere.

Like Sir Arthur Sullivan in England, Offenbach was known for his operettas but wanted to be taken seriously as an opera composer.

In this respect, he had more success than Sir Arthur, whose attempts at opera ended in failure.

La Boheme

Original 1896 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein

La Boheme – the Bohemian Girl

This is the famous Zeffirelli production, with over 200 people on stage in Act II.

Is This a Good Opera to Attend?

One of the greatest operas ever written and, certainly, in my humble opinion, the greatest portrayal of young love in any art form.
If you have never seen Boheme performed at the Met this is a great opportunity, with a young, attractive cast adding reality to the tale of love and loss among Paris artists in the 19th Century.

The Storyline

La Boheme translates as the Bohemian girl, who is named Mimi in the opera. She meets a starving young poet named Rodolfo in Act I. They each sing a beautiful aria telling about themselves and then follow this up with a rapturous love duet.

This being opera, however, there has to be some unhappiness involved. Mimi and Rodolfo break up. They reconcile in Act III and then break up again. Mimi comes back to Rodolfo at the end of the opera and dies of consumption.

About the Music

I have seen and heard this opera many, many times and I never fail to be moved by it. In recent years there has been more stress in world opera houses to find singers who can not only sing the parts of Mimi and Rodolfo but can also portray them realistically on the stage.
The Met will be offering several different casts for Boheme this season. They should all be good, but some may be better than others.

La Traviata – The Fallen Woman

Poster for the world premiere of La Traviata

The Fallen Woman or La Traviata

La Traviata (Italian: The Fallen Woman) is an opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi set to an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.

It is based on La Dame aux Camélias (1852), a play adapted from the novel by Alexander Dumas, fils.”The opera was originally titled Violetta, after the main character.

It was first performed on 6 March 1853 at the La Fenice opera house in Venice.” ~ Source Wikipedia

The Story

The plot of La Traviata is fairly straightforward. Violetta is a courtesan (a polite way of calling her a high-priced cal girl). She meets and fals in love with the tenor, Alfredo. They go off to live blissfully (for a while) together in the country. But Alfredo’s father shows up and tells Violetta that by living openly with Alfredo she is ruining the chances of Alfredo’s sister for a successful marriage. After a beautiful duet Germont, Alfredo’s father, wears Violetta down and she agrees to leave Alfredo.

But Alfredo does not know why she has made this sacrifice and turns against Violetta and denounces her before a crowd of people in Act III.

They are finally reconciled at the end of Act IV when Violetta is already dying from that favorite of operatic diseases, consumption (TB).

Is This a Good Opera to Attend?

La Traviata today is one of Verdi’s most popular operas and it is likely that some of the music will be quite familiar to you.

In fact, I would say that La Traviata has some of the most beautiful and accessible music in all of opera.

But at the time of it’s world premiere the opera was not immediately as successful as many of Verdi’s earlier works.

This was mainly because Traviata was set in a period only a few years earlier than the operas composition.

Opera audiences were used to seeing operas set in ancient or historical periods and were jolted to see an opera in a present-day setting.

Many people remember the Great Garbo/Robert Taylor movie Camille, from 1936, which shows up on TV from time to time. This is the same story as La Traviata.

I myself much prefer the musical version by Verdi.