December 2008 - Posts
PBS is offering plenty of festive classical music to celelbrate the new year. Tonight, the New York Philharmonic will present a gala concert led by music director Lorin Maazel to usher in the new year, and the acclaimed American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will be the soloist. The program will include sparkling music by Giuseppe Verdi, Giocchino Rossini, Mozart, Franz Lehar, Camille Saint-Saens, Jacques Offenbach, George Bizet, Brahms and Manuel de Falla.
And as I mentioned in a recent post, the traditional Johann Strauss concert by the Vienna Philharmonic will be broadcast on tomorrow, January 1 , conducted by Daniel Barenboim, with Julie Andrews as the host.
And as a special treat, PBS will be showing no fewer than six previously telecast operas on new year's day, which were also shown on High Definition movie broadcasts across the USA. If you missed these, now is your chance to experience them.
The operas include Verdi's Macbeth, Puccini's La Boheme, Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment, and Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel . The last is perfomed in an English translation.
On the radio, WQXR , 96.3 FM , the radio station of the New York Times , is offering its "Classical Countdown", playing the works listeners have voted their favorites, all day long. If you do not live near New York, you can hear this station on the internet at WQXR.com.
Happy New Year every one ! And please continue to make classical music a part of your life !
Last night I finally got to see one of the most eagerly awaited new operas of our time on television. Unfortunately, there wasn't much publicity on PBS so I didn't get a chance to mention it here beforehand, but it will no doubt be repeated this weekend, and will definitely show up on DVD sometime soon.
The music is powerful and compelling, although some critics did not like the libretto by the controversial opera and theater director Peter Sellars. The Met production broadcast last night is the third production in America since the world premiere in San Francisco three years ago, and there has also been a production in Amsterdam which is already available on DVD. The Met production will soon travel to the English National opera in London.
The story deals with the invention of the Atomic bomb in New Mexico by the great scientist J Robert Oppenheimer, who is the protagonist, and also features his wife, and others involved in this historic project such as scientist Eward Teller. There is conflict between the scientists and the military brass, and Oppenheimer's wife worries a great deal.
Composer John Adams (1947-), has written a tense, pulsating score which also makes use of electronic instruments for special effects. You won't leave the theater humming the melodies, but that's not important. The opera works on its own terms.
French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875 ) was a child prodigy and died tragically young, but he left the world one of the most popular operas of all time - Carmen, the sordid but exciting tale of a smoldering Spanish Gypsy woman who is irresistable to men, and her tangled dealings with them.
Bizet had written several earlier operas, now quite obscure, although "The Pearl Fishers," set in what is now Sri Lanka, is occaisionally performed, as well as an engaging symphony written as a teenager, and a number of other works. The 1875 premiere in Paris of Carmen was something of a fiasco, and Bizet died bitterly disappointed shortly afterwards, but the brilliant opera soon achieved great success in opera houses everywhere, and many of the greatest sopranos and mezzo-sopranos (the role of Carmen has been sung by both), have become famous for their portrayals of the Gypsy Femme Fatale.
Even if you aren't familiar with opera, you have no doubt heard some of the catchy melodies from Carmen, such as the "Toreador Song". And Carmen is an ideal introduction to opera for newcomers.
The first act is set in a square in Seville with people and soldiers milling about. There is also a cigarette factory where Carmen works A young girl, Micaela, is looking for Don Jose, a young corporal, and asks the soldiers about him. She is a childhood friend of his, and has come to tell him about his mother, who lives far away, and is anxious about him. The two sing a gently lyircal duet.
The girls who work in the cigarette factory come out for a break singing about the joys of smoking (not politically correct !), and the soldiers and young men are curious about the seductress Carmen. She comes out and sings the famous "Habanera", a melody you will no doubt recognize, observing how unpredicatable love can be, and she tosses a flower at Don Jose, who is smitten with her.
Later, Carmen is involved in an altercation with the other girls working at the factory, and Don Jose is ordered to arrest her. But he falls under her spell, and he lets her escape, and is himself arrested and put in (this is not in the action; we hear about this in the second act).
In the second act, Carmen and her Gypsy girlfriends are singing and dancing up a storm in a tavern in Seville owned by Carmen's friend Lilas Pastia late at night. Carmen is now involved with a group of contrabandists, and there is intrigue in the tavern as it closes. The handsome Toreador Escamillo enters, and sings the famous Toreador song, describing his exploits in the bullring. Carmen is smitten with him, and is no longer interested in Don Jose.
But the soldier has just been released from jail and demoted., and he is still obsessed with Carmen. He sings a passionate aria describing how he kept the flower which she threw him throughout his prison stay, and could not get her out of his thoughts. She teases him by asking him to join her and the contrabandists in the mountains, and he deserts the army and joins her in the third act.
The third act opens in the mountains, and Carmen and her companions are at work. During a break, Carmen and her girlfriends play cards and predict their fortunes with them. The other girls see nothing but good luck, but Carmen predicts her own inevitable death, which she is determined to face stoically.
Micaela summons her courage to reach Don Jose to tell him that his mother is dying, but he is still obsessed with Carmen, despite her infatuation with the toreador. Don Jose encounters him, and the two have an argument of the Gypsy woman and fight.
The last act takes place in Seville outside the bullring where Escamillo is about to face the bulls. There is a colorful scene with Spanish dances, and Carmen and Escamillo sing of their love for each other. But when the crowd moves into the bullring, the now unhinged Don Jose confronts Carmen. He pleads desperately for her to return his love, but she tells him that all is over between them. Jose will not take no for an answer. Carmen tells him to let her pass or stab her to death . And sure enough, he kills her, and gives himself up to the authorities, saying he still loves her.
This opera has everthing - catchy melodies, vivid drama, local color and colorful orchestration. No wonder audiences have loved it for nearly 140 years. I will be playing excerpts from it for my program for residents at a nursing home on January 2 . The lady who was disgruntled last week will really enjoy this program, no doubt about it.
There are a number of excellent complete recordings of Carmen with such famous opera divas as Leontyne Price, Maria Callas, Marilyn Horne, Victoria De Los Angeles, Jessye Norman, Regina Resnik, Teresa Berganza and others as Carmen, and other great singers, led by such great conductors as Karajan, Beecham, Bernstein, Solti, Abbado, etc as well as a number of DVDs of live performances. Check arkivmusic.com.
I forgot to mention that you should check your local television schedule for the time of the New Year's day Johann Strauss concert. Sorry.
If you haven't seen the annual Johann Strauss concerts from Vienna on New Year's day broadcast on PBS , don't miss the next one coming up next Thursay, January first. I't's been a tradition for the great Vienna Philharmonic orchestra for many years to play a concert on this day of waltzes, polkas and overtures etc by Johann Strauss the waltz king with eminent conductors chosen by the orchestra itself. Among these conductors have been such illustrious names as Herbert von Karajan, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and this time, Daniel Barenboim.
It's always a glamorous and joyous occaision, and will set off your new year on a festive and optimistic note. The concerts are broadcast from the gorgeous and ornate Musikverein concert hall, home of the Vienna Philharmonic. This is a historic Viennese landmark dating from the 1870s, and is famed for some of the best acoustics of any concert hall in the world . The host will be none other than Julie Andrews, of Sound of Music fame, and she will be taking over from Walter Cronkite, who had been the Television host for so many years, but who is stepping down , as he is now 92 years old.
It's been traditional during telecasts to pan away from the concert hall to show members of the ballet corps of the Vienna State Opera dancing at times, dancing along to the melodious music, and there are views of the Vienna woods and the city of Vienna.
In case you miss it, the concert will most likely be released on DVD later, as has happened with previous concerts in this series.
Yesterday, for my Friday classical music program at a nursing home in New Rochelle, New York, I played some songs for voice and orchestra by Mahler, from his delightful collection of songs called "Des Knaben Wunderhorn", or The Boy's Magic Horn. I thought my audience would really enjoy these, and for the most part they did.
But one nice lady, whose favorite composer is Rachmaninov, wasn't pleased at all with the songs, and complained about them in no uncertain terms. Then she proceeded to leave before I had finished playing all the songs. This was puzzling. These songs, based on German folk poetry, are so tuneful and charming. I read the English traslations of each song, which come with the CD, before playing them.
The songs are by turns humorous, sad, and fantastical and deal with love, hate, military life, the beuty of nature, tragedy and happiness. One deals with a drummer boy who keeps on drumming through the battle, until only the skeletons and ghosts of him and the soldiers are still there. Another concerns a flirtatious shepardess who tries to hit on a young shepard who won't have anything to do with her.
In one tragic song, a hungry child begs her mother for bread, but she just keeps promising her that the wheat is soon to be harvested, and that it will only be a short time before the bread is ready. But by the time the bread is there, the child has died of hunger. There is a sardonic song about Saint Anthony of Padua, when unable to find a human audience for his sermons, goes to river and preaches to the fish ! The fish love the sermon, but afterwards they go back to the same old vices they had before. Mahler uses the melody from this song in the famous symphony no 2, or Resurrection symphony, which I recently discussed.
In another wacky song, the cuckoo and the nightingale decide to have a contest between them to see who is the better singer. They go to a donkey to judge them. The nightingale sings beautifully, but the donkey can't understand the song, and awards the prize to the cuckoo ! This song pokes sly fun at music critics who could not or would not appreciate Mahler's music.
The lady in question told me she doesn't like Mahler, but I thought these simple, meloidious songs would really please everybody. But I was wrong. But Mahler's inventive and colorful orchestrations of the songs are not simple at all.
Most composers of what are called "Art Songs", or lieder in German (pronounced leader), write for voice and piano alone, but all of Mahler's songs are written with orchestra, although piano versions exist. There are also songs in French, Italian, English and Russian etc, by various composers, including Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, Gabriel Faure, Tchaikovsky, and others.
Many famous opera singers have also regularly performed and recorded lieder, such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Christa Ludwig, Ian Bostridge, Bryn Terfel, Hermann Prey, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and others. Most CD albums of the songs come with English translations. Try them; you might be surprised.
Der Fliegende Hollander, or the Flying Dutchman, is Wagner's first mature opera, and dates from the 1840s, when he was music director of the Royal Saxon Opera in Dresden, now the Saxon State Opera . It's based on the legend of a Dutch sea captain who has been doomed by Satan to wander the seas eternally with his crew, now ghosts, until he can find a woman who will be faithful to him unto death. In the opera, the tormented Dutchman is permitted to come ashore once every seven years to look for such a woman, but all his attempts have been in vain.
According to the legend, the Dutchman had been determined to sail around a cape, but was repeatedly unsuccessful. He swore to do this, even if he had to defy Satan himself, and was thus doomed. At the beginning of the opera, after the famous overture, often heard at concerts, he has landed in a remote Norwegian bay.
A Norwegian ship has just just arrived here also, with its captain, the gruff skipper Daland. He and his crew do not realize that they are about to have a fateful encounter with the Flying Dutchman, who is the terror of the seas. Even Pirates avoid his ship. The young steersman, tired from his long voyage, sings a song about his longing to return to his sweetheart on shore, falls asleep, and all of a sudden there is a loud crash - Daland's ship has run into the Dutchman's phantom ship !
The Dutchman sings a long monologue revealing his tormented existence, unable to reach his home country and his endless , tormented search for a woman who could bring him redemption. But all has been in vain. He gloomily looks forward to the judgement day, when he will fade into oblivion.
Daland and the Dutchman exchange information about each other. The Dutchman says that his ship is filled with all manner of precious jewels and gold, and that if Daland will give him shelter for the night, he will gladly give him his precious cargo. He also asks if Daland has a daughter. Indeed he does, and she is his greatest treasure. The Dutchman asks if he may marry her, and the Norwegian captain cannot believe his luck.
In the second act, we meet the Captain's daughter Senta, who is at home while her girlfriends are at their spinning wheels, and awaiting their sweethearts, back from the long voyage. To them, Senta is a strange, dreamy girl, who has a weird obsession with the legend of the Dutchman. A Portrait of him is in the spinning room. She sings a ballad telling of how the Dutchman defied Satan and was ultimately doomed, and her nursemaid and the girls are spooked.
Suddenly, Senta's erstwhile betrothed, the hunter Erik comes in. He loves her, but is concerned about her strange obsession. He tells her of a premonition he has had in a dream that the Dutchman is coming to the house with her father. And sure enough, they appear. Daland introduces the two, suggests that they marry, and leaves them alone to converse.
The two have finally come together The Dutchman warns her that she must be faithful to him or be eternally damned herself, but Senta is determined to save the Dutchman and Daland is overjoyed at the prospect of all the wealth. The final act takes place at the harbor, where Daland's ship and crew are having a celebration of their landing with Senta's girlfriends..
All is merry at first, but something spooky is happening. The merrymakers notice the Dutchman's gloomy ship with its blood red sails, and the ship's phantom crew sing a terrifying ghostly chorus. Then there is an eerie silence. Erik rushes in, pleading with Senta not to abandom him and go with the Dutchman. The Dutchman sees them, and believes that Senta is not really faithful, even though he is wrong. He reveals himself to all as the Flying Dutchman, the terror of the seas, and prepares to set sail again.
But at the last minute, Senta tells him that she will be true to him and plunges into the waters. All are horrified, but the Dutchman has been redeemed, and the two will be together for eternity.
This is the shortest of Wagner's operas, only about two and a half hours long, unless you count Das Rheingold, the first of the Ring music dramas, about the same length, and is the ideal opera with which to introduce yourself to Wagner. It can be perfomed either in three separate acts, or in the version where all three are continuous. Either way, it's an exciting and supremely atmosheric tale. You will almost be able to smell the salt water and feel the waves !
There are a number of excellent recorded versions on CD, by prominent Wagner conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Sir Georg Solti, Otto Klemperer, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Karl Bohm, and others, plus several DVDs of live performances, including from the world famous Bayreuth festival. However you experience it, it's a gripping opera.
1. I hope that more people in America and elsewhere will discover the joys of listening to classical music, live or recorded, and make it a part of their lives.
2. Our symphony orchestras, opera companies and other groups will make it through the current economic crisis and emerge unscathed.
3. I hope that they will find new sources of financial help so that they will not be forced to go out of business, or to function in diminished circumstances, with lower pay for the musicians and fewer performances per year.
4. I hope that more people will purchase classical CDs, DVDs, listen to classical radio stations, and performances on the internet.
5. That more people will attend the Metropolitan Opera's High Definition performances in movie theaters everywhere, and those of other opera companies.
6. That more classical music blogs and websites will come into existence.
7. That more classical music critics on our newspapers will not lose their jobs.
8. The New York City opera in Lincoln Center will find an outstanding and dynamic general manager to fill the position in the wake of the resignation of controversial Belgian arts administrator Gerard Mortier before taking over. (He has just been appointed general manager of the Teatro Real opera company in Madrid).
9. The following US orchestras will not be forced out of existence : Columbus Ohio, Honolulu, Hawaii, Shreveport, Louisiana, Virginia Symphony. And the Baltimore Opera in Maryland.
Happy Holidays, Everyone !
A number of great classical works have come to be associated with Christmas or other holidays. Perhaps the most famous is Handel's enormously popular oratorio "Messiah", which is performed everywhere at Christmastime, and not only then. Actually, the oratorio was meant to celelbrate Easter, and much of it covers the crucufiction and resurrection, with lines drawn from the Bible.
The so-called "Christmas Oratorio" of Handel's great contemporary Bach, is in German, and is actually a set of six Cantatas drawn from scripture dealing with the birth of Christ. The six were written separately, and are sometimes performed and recorded as a whole evening's performance.
A work for strings by the late 17th century Italian violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli, who died when Bach and Handel were young men in the early 18th century, has come to be known as the "Christmas Concerto".
The recently deceased Italian born, but American based composer Gian Carlo Menotti ( 1911- 2007) is famous for his operas, among them the brief and simple story "Amahl and the Night Visitors", which was premiered on Television many years ago, when classical music could actually be heard and scene on networks other than PBS. This is the almost childlike tale of the poor and crippled shepard boy Amahl and his mother, who encounter the three wise men on their way to the infant jesus. Through a miracle, Amahl is healed of his lameness. This opera was once very popular, is still performed and can also be heard on CD.
Puccini's beloved opera "La Boheme ", about the struggling young poets and artists in Paris, has its riotous and colorful second act set during the Christmas celebrations in Paris. The Metropolitan opera's spectacular staging of this act can be seen on DVD, as well as the rest of the opera. Incidentally, the 150th anniverary of Puccini's birth was this December 22.
Another opera which takes place at Christmastime is "Werther" by Jules Massenet, composer of the opera Thais just revived by the Metropolitan. This is a tragedy based on the once popular novel by Goethe about a young poet, Werther, who is hopelessly in love with a young woman by the name of Charlotte, whose father insists that she be married to another man. Charlotte loves the young poet, but yields to her fathers wishes, but Werther commits suicide in despair on Christmas day. This may be a rather sappy and sentimental story, but audiences love the gorgeous music of Massenet, and the Met and other opera companies still perform it. It's said that the original novel is based on a similar situtation the young Goethe went through, although fortunately he didn't commit suicide.
"L'Enfance Du Christ" , or the Childhood of Christ by Hector Berlioz, is a wonderful oratorio about the flight of Joseph , Mary and the infant jesus to Egypt to escape Herod's massacre of infants, for soloists, chorus and orchestra. This is a much more gentle and restrained work than most of the output of this highly original composer, who wrote so many other spectacular masterpieces.
All of these works can easily be found on CD, and the operas on DVD. Check arkivmusic.com to order. You can search composers alphabetically, and there is a separate opera category.
Another great opera I've been listening to on CD is Wagner's Tannhauser, one of his early operas from the 1840s. It's pronounced Tahn-hoy-zer, and there are two dots over the second A. It's an intriguing mix of medieval German myth and history, and there was an actual German troubador by the same name around the 12th century.
It's in three acts, and takes place in medieval Germany . At the time at royal German courts, there were members of the nobility who were German troubadors, or Minnesanger, (min-ne-zenger), and they would sometimes hold competitions among the troubadors to celebrate medieval chivalry.
According to ancient German legend, the Roman Goddess Venus did not vanish with the other Roman Gods , but went to a remote German cave with a grotto, and seduced men into her pagan orgies and kept them slaves. This is what has happened to Tannhauser, who has left the court of Thuringia and his chaste love of young Elisabeth, niece of the Landgrave of Thuringia, and his friend and fellow Troubador Wolfram.
The Troubadors celelbrate chaste love, and abominate pagan lust. But Tannhauser, at the beginning of the opera, has grown weary of the Venus and the constant papan bacchanals of her lair, the Venusberg. He pleads with her to let him go and rejoin his fellow troubadors and Elisabeth at the court. She is furious with him, and tells him that if he leaves her, he will be doomed never to know happiness again. But he swears by the Virgin Mary, and the grotto disappears and he instantly finds himself on the plain surrounding the Wartburg, or the castle of the troubadors, and hears pilgrims going to Rome for penitence and forgiveness for their sins, and meets a shepard boy who greets him.
Soon he meets his fellow troubadors, including his best friend Wolfram and the landgrave, who are hunting. They eagerly greet him and ask where he has been, but he only says that he has been wandering in foreign lands. They beg him to rejoin them at court, and when they tell him that Elisabeth is longing to see him again, he agrees to return. Wolfram also loves Elisabeth, but keeps his distance politely.
In the second act, there is a contest of the troubadors at the castle in its main hall. Elisabeth is excited about the prospect of seeing Tannhauser again, and the two sing a joyous duet. The noble guests arrive for the competition, and the landgrave announces that the troubadors shall sing about the nature of chaste love. Wolfram sings of this, but Tannhauser, loses control of himself and sings ecstatically of carnal love and admits that he has been to the Venusberg and known profane love. The troubadors and guests are horrified. For Tannhauser to have done this is shocking..
Angrily, the troubadors call for Tannhauser's death. But Elisabeth, who is also horrified, pleads with them to spare his life and allow him to repent. Moved by her entreaty, they relent. The landgrave orders Tannhauser to join a group of pilgrims going to Rome to ask the Pope to grant them remission of their sins.
In the third act, Elisabeth and Wolfram are eagerly awaiting Tannhauser's return and hoping for the best. Wolfram sings a song to the evening star hoping for Tannhauser's forgiveness, and Elisabeth, who has been fasting and is weakened, prays to the Virgin . But they do not see Tannhauser among the returning pilgrims.
Finally, Tannhauser meets Wolfram. He is a physical and spiritual wreck, and in utter despair. Tannhauser sings a long and bitter monologue about his journey to Rome with the other pilgrims. He has fasted and denied the flesh along the journey, walking barefoot and sleeping in the snow. He blindfolded himself when he reached Italy, so that he could not see the beauty of the countryside and meadows.
When he reached Rome, the Pope blessed and resolved the pilgrims of their sins. But he spoke to him and admitted that he had stayed in the Venusberg. The Pope sternly tells him that he is damned for eternity, and points to his wooden staff, saying that just as this former piece of wood will never bloom with flowers again, Tannhauser will never know salvation. He retyurns dejectly to Thuringia. He sees a vision of Venus , who tempts him again, and tells Wolfram that he must go there again. Buit Wolfram pleads with him in horror, and tells him that Elisabeth has died and is in heaven and prayed for his soul. But a miracle has happened ; the Pope's staff has actually brought forth flowers, meaning that Tannhauser has been granted salvation, and he dies as the pilgrims and troubadors rejoice.
This powerful opera vividly contrasts medieval pagentry with the voluptuousness of the lair of Venus, and exists in two versions, the original which was first performed with Wagner conducting in Dresden, and the revised version which he wrote for the Paris Opera which had a scandalous first oerformance there in 1861, when the members of a fashionable Parisian men's club sabotaged the performance with ample booing and disturbances because it was customary for operas to have a ballet scene in the second act, and the Venusberg ballet is in the first act in Wagner's opera. It seems that the men's girlfriends were members of the ballet, and they always came to the opera after the first act to see the young ladies dance !
Wagner refused to write second act ballet music, as this would have been totally out of place in the medieval German court. The overture to Tannhauser is often played at orchestra concerts, and Wagner wrote extended orgiastic music for the Paris version. There are recordings of both Dresden and Paris versions. Try the recordings conducted by Sir Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic on Decca, Giuseppe Sinopoli on Deutsche Grammophon, (Paris version, or Bernard Haitin on EMI (Dresden), or the Phillips recording conducted by Wolfganfg Sawallisch on Phillips, live from the Bayreuth festival.
There are also a few DVD versions, and you can check all these out at arkivmusic.com.
I suppose it was going to happen sooner or later, but all was not well after wealthy financier , Mahler devotee and amateur conductor Gilbert Kaplan led the New York Philharmonic, chorus and soloists in Mahler's great "Resurrection " symphony at Avery Fisher hall last week.
Some members of the orchestra were not exactly thrilled with Mr. Kaplan's conducting abilites, and at least one of them said so in no uncertain terms on his blog. Perhaps we'll have to call it the "Insurrection" symphony from now on. David Finlayson, a trombonist with the orchestra made some scathing comments about Kaplan's less than accomplished conducting technique , difficulty holding the orchestra together , failure to observe many of the specific indications marked in the score, and his inability to inspire the orchestra to do its best. You can read his commentary at davidfinlayson.typepad.com. His blog is called "Fin Notes".
There was also an article about the whole affair at the New York Times by arts writer Daniel J Wakin on December 18, which you can read at the New York Times website. Friction between conductors and orchestras is nothing new ; their relation has often been likes cats and dogs together, although orchestras respect and admire some conductors very much.
What I found particularly fascinating were the comments which a variety of people left on the blog ; the differences in opinion were amazingly wide. Some of the commenters were professional orchestral musicians, including well-known trombonists, critics and others. Others were non musicians who simply enjoy attending orchestra concertrs.
Some praised Finlayson for pointing out the Emperor's new clothes and agreed completely with him about how shameful it is for amateurs like Kaplan to use their wealth to foster their egotistical but unjustified ambitions. Others defended Kaplan, and praised him for his generous finantial contributions to orchestras and classical music in general.
Others pooh-poohed the whole thing and advised that the situation not be blown out of proportion. Others gloomily used the concert as an excuse to lament the decline of classical music and western culture on the whole.
But as some have said, there's no such thing as bad publicity ; at least classical music, which has been marginalized so much in popular culture, is getting some valuable exposure. Maybe they have a point.
Here is some information on the January Saturday afternoon Met radio broadcasts. Check your local newspaper for the broadcast times, which may vary depending on where you live. You can also hear them at Sirius.com, if your local radio station doesn't have the broadcasts.
On January 3 it's the beloved operatic evergreen La Boheme, by Puccini, which the Met has performed more times than any other opera in its 125 year existence. The strugging Bohemian artists in Paris are the subject, as well as the doomed love between the beautiful but frail young seamstress Mini and the poet Rodolfo, as well as the colorful festivities of Paris at Christmas.
On January 10, you can hear the Met's new production of Puccini's much less frequently performed opera " La Rondine",(The Swallow), which has not been performed here for many, many years. Also set in Paris, this story has similarities to Verdi's La Traviata, in that a worldy Parisian beauty, mistress of a wealthy man, falls in love with a young man from Provence, even though they eventually split up because of the heroine Magda's less than respectable background . But fortunately, Magda does not die. Puccini's music is still gorgeous, though. The glamorous Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu is Magda, and her husband ,French-born Sicilian tenor Robert Alagna is Ruggero, her love interest.
On January 17, you can hear the Met broadcast premiere of "Doctor Atomic", by American composer John Adams. This will not be a live performace, but a taped one, as the run of performances ended before the broadcast season. This is based on actual events just after the end of WW2 , and depicts the lives of the great scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty as they agonize over the awesome implication of Oppenheimer's terrible new creation, and their relationship with Army commander General Leslie Groves and other scientists. The opera ends with the terrifying detonation.
On January 24, you can hear one of the oldest operas in the active operatic repertoire, Orfeo & Euridice, by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787). This is the simple story, based on Greek mythology of Orpheus, who defies hades to bring back his beloved wife Euridice, who has just died. There are only three characters, Orpheus, Euridice and the Goddess Amor, plus chorus. All ends happily, however.
Finally. on January 31, Verdi's Rigoletto is offered. This is a grim tale set among the decadent aristocracy of 16th century Mantua, Italy , with an almost Hitchcockian tragic surprise ending.
The hunchback Rigoletto is court jester to the handsome young Duke of Mantua, who is a shameless libertine. Rigoletto is bitter and cybical and hates the Lascivious Duke and his cruel courtiers. He has a viciously witty tongue. But unknown to the court, he has a beuautiful young daughter Gilda (Jill-da), and he is terrified that the heartless Duke may seduce the innocent young girl.
Unfortunately, this happens. The Duke introduces himself to Gilda as a young and impecunious student, and it's a worst case scenario from here on. Rigoletto has hired a professional renaissance hit man to "whack" the Duke. But everything goes wrong, and an ironic tragedy ensues. You may recognize the famous tune "La Donna e Mobile" (women are ficle) , which is one of the all time great hits of opera.
Check out the Met's website metopera.org, and sirius.com for more information. Also check out metplayer.org for informnation about HD Met broadcasts in your own home. It's never been so easy to enjoy opera.
The Simpsons has sometimes featured classical music and opera spoofs , as well as the Family Guy, which is sort of like The Simpsons on speed. Watching a Simpsons episode last night inspired the idea for this post.
In this episode, the Simpsons are in Italy, along with Krusty the Klown and the dastardly Side Show Bob, who has moved to Italy and taken an Italian wife with whom he has a small son . The family goes to an outdoor performance of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci , which I discussed in my last post, and Homer is aghast when he learns they are about to see this performance . "Opera? You mean they have opera in Italy too? " He's apparently unaware that opera was invented here about 400 years ago !
Krusty's attempt to sing "Ridi Pagliacco" (laugh clown,laugh) in a sort of English is a blast. On another episode, Lisa is taking ballet lessons at the Springfield ballet school. Next to the school is a school for opera singers. A sign on the ballet school says "No fat chicks wanted", and a sign on the opera school says "No skinny chicks wanted!".
On another episode, Homer learns that he has a beautiful operatic voice, but for some reason only when he's lying down ! The Springfield opera is created for him, and little Lisa is so proud that her dad is contributing to the cultural life of Springfield. None other than the great Placido Domingo appears on the show briefly and contributes his voice to the show.
On another episode, the eminent architect Frank Gerhry is persudaded by Marge Simpson to design a new concert hall for Springfield. But when the hall opens, and the Springfield Philharmonic plays Beethoven's Fifth symphony , and the rather less than cultured Springfield audience starts walking out after the orchestra plays "Da-dah-dah Daaah- They've already heard this, and some have it as their ring tones. Who needs to hear more ? Then Marge urges them to stay to listen to a work by minimalist composer Philip Glass. But the audience starts stampeding in terror ! The concert hall is unable to sell tickets for anything, and Mr. Burns buys it and turns it into a for profit prison !
It may be heretical to say this, but I actually prefer Fox'es The Family Guy to the Simpsons ! Its warped sense of humor ticles me pink. It's insanely funny and wildly irreverent. On one episode, Brian the talking family dog, who is the most sensible individual in the deliciously weird Griffin family, is on a date in a restaurant with a pretty young lady of questionable intelligence. He has recently been to a performance of Mozart's great opera "Don Giovanni", and is rhapsodizing on what a great masterpiece it is. Needless to say, the young lady is completely baffled by all this. I laughed so hard my insides hurt. Say whatever you may about vapid and shallow entertainment on television, but the Family Guy is one of the best things on TV today. It's absolutely inspired comedy.
However, please don't get the idea that these spoofs are in any way an accurate portrayal of classical music or opera !
The composers I'm about to discuss actually wrote more than one work, but for some reason, only one or two of their works acheived lasting popularity, although there have been occaisional revivals of the forgotten muisc and recordings.
It's hard to know why only one thing these composers wrote became popular; in some cases the other works just weren't very good, but in some cases the neglect was undeserved. But orchestras and opera companies have often been very conservative in programming and choice of repertoire; they have often stuck to the tried and true, and some audiences want to hear what they know and love, and are reluctant to hear anything unusual. But things have been changing, and now the entire classical repertoire has fortunately become more diverse and inclusive than ever before. In addition, vast amounts of obscure but often interesting music are now available on CD.
The 19th century Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli is known for one opera, "La Gioconda", which was recently revived by thge Metropolitan opera. This is a melodrammatic tale of intrigue and betrayal set in 15th century Venice about a street singer,La Gioconda, in love with a Dalmatian nobleman Enzo, who is actually in love with Laura, wife of a Venetian nobleman, and the tangled conflict between them complicated by the evil Barnaba, a spy for the inquisition, who lusts after La Gioconda, who hates him. It's great fun, and includes a famous ballet sequence called the Dance of the Hours, used in the Walt Disney film Fantasia, and immortalized by Shelly Berman as"Hello Muddah,Hello Fadah". Ponchielli wrote other operas and miscellaneous things, including an opera set in all places, medieval Lithuania, but these have been forgotten.
The Italian composers Pietro Macagni (Mas -CAN- yee) and Ruggero Leoncavallo , who flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became known for two short operas which have often been performed together ona double bill; Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), and Pagliacci (The Strolling Clowns), which inaugurated the Italian operatic genre "Verismo", or realism, in which operas about the realistic lives of ordinary people written, instead of ones about aristocrats or mythical figures.
Pagliacci is the tale of a leader of a group of itinerant comic actors in southern Italy kills his unfaithful wife at an actual performance in front of a stunned audience, and features the famous"Laugh Clown,Laugh" aria beloved of famous tenors such as Caruso and Pavarotti. Cavalleria Rusticana is a tale set in Sicily about a young man who has an affair with another man's wife, while abandoning his pregnant girlfriend, who has been excommunicated. The young man, Turiddu, is challenged to a duel and killed.
These composers both had early success with these two operas, and won prizes in an opera composing contest as young men. They wrote a considerable number of other operas, and songs etc, which were performed during their lifetimes , but somehow never achieved a lasting place in the operatic canon. Several of these have been recorded . Leoncavallo also wrote "La Boheme", based on the lives and loves of struggling artists in Paris, but Puccini's La Boheme became one of the most popular operas of all time. The Leonacavallo version has been recorded a few times; there are dozens of recordings of Puccini's.
Engelbert Hunperdinck (The real one) (1854-1921), was a German composer who became a disciple and amanuensis to Wagner as a young man. His delightful opera"Hansel and Gretel", which I've already discussed , was premiered in 1893, and has remained popular ever since. It's not just for kids; the music is quite sophisticated and complex.
There is another opera by Humperdinck, which I heard on LP many years ago and which has also been available on CD- Konigskinder, or the Royal children, which was premiered in 1910 at the Metropolitan opera. It definitely deserves to be revived by more opera houses, including the Met, and concerns two teenagers who fall in love but are orphans of Royal birth without knowing of this, but die without being recognized, and are buried toegether.
Some non-operatic works by composers who became famous for only one work are "The Sorceror's Apprentice" by French composer Paul Dukas, a teacher of Olivier Messiaen. This was also used in Fantasia. It's a short orchestral piece about an apprentice to a sorceror who in his inexperience causes a near flood by commanding a pail to fetch water, and only the arrival of his master prevents disaster. I'ts a colorful and exciting piece, but Dukas also wrote a magnificent symphony which is sadly neglected, a great opera about Bluebeard and his wives "Ariane et Barbe Bleue", recently revived by the New York City opera, and a handful of other works.
Unfortunately, Dukas was extremely self critical, and destroyed all but a handful of his works. Who knows what may have been lost ? The German composer Carl Orff (1895-1982) is famous for the ubiquitous choral work "Carmina Burana", (Songs of the Ottobeuren monastary in Bavaria). You may have heard parts of it on movies and TV. It's great fun and the correct pronunciation is CAR-mi-na, not car-MI-na . This is based on profane poems left by medieval students and runaway monks in Germany, and celebrates the joys of love, gambling ,wine,women and song, and the inexorable power of blind fate. It features soprano,tenor and baritone soloists as well as chorus.
Most of Carmina is in Latin, and parts are in medieval German.
Orff was also famous for devising means of music education for children which are still studied and used, and wrote several operas and other choral works etc, which have never been widely performed but are available on recordings. "Catulli Carmina", (The songs of the Roman poet Catullus), which is somewhat similar to Carmina Burana and aslo deserves to be heard. "Die Kluge" (The wise woman), is a short opera based on old German legends, as well as "Der Mond"(the moon), a fable about German yokels who steal the moon, sung in Bavarian dialect , can also be heard on CD.
You can investigate all of these works and more by checking arkivmusic.com, and order the CDs and DVDs if you are interested from this invaluable website.
Another great opera I've been listening to is so vastly different from the 19th century ones I discussed in my last post that it might seem to come from another planet. Wozzeck (vot-seck) , by Austrian composer Alban Berg (1885-1935) is the first atonal opera- that is, the music deliberately avoids any sense of being in a key, and had its world premiere in 1925 at the Berlin State Opera. Despite the hostility of many music lovers to this kind of music, it has been performed with great success at opera houses all over the world, and many distinguished 20th century opera singers have performed the leading roles, and great conductors have championed it.
Alban Berg studied as a young man with the great but constroversial Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), who devised the 12 tone system of atonal composition, but remained very much himself as a composer. For his first opera Wozzeck, he chose a grim 19th century German play about a hapless , downtrodden soldier whose girlfriend cheats on him, driving him to insanity and murder, after which he dies himself.
The opera is in three brief acts, each consisting of five short scenes. Berg constructs each scene as an example of different musical forms, such as sonata, fugue, passacaglia, rondo etc, although these are not ment to be conciously felt by the audience. Despite the atonality, there are some recognizable thematic ideas which re - occur throughout the opera. Many critics, musicologists and theorists have marveled at Berg's ingenious construction of the opera.
The music is often harshly dissonant and sometimes grotesque sounding, but always highly expressive, but there are gentler and more lyrucal passages, too. The singers sometimes use something called "Sprechstimme" in German, which is somewhere between speech and singing, without definite pitches but with upward and downward inflections indicated in the score. This literally means speaking voice .
Franz Wozzeck is a simple German soldier, and an orderly to his pompous, garrulous, paranoid and sometimes sentimental captain. who rebukes him for having an illegitimate child by his girlfriend Marie, whom the soldier visits on off time, while he is being shaved . . The captain reprimands Wozzeck for his immorality,, but Wozzeck replies that only the wealthy can afford to be virtuous..
Wozzeck is moody and prone to strange fantasies, and this disturbs Marie and his other companions. A quack doctor has been paying him a little extra money for doing questionable experiments on him, such as strange modifications of his diet. But Marie has a wandering eye, and is seduced by a handsome but brutally macho and arrogant regiment drum major. The captain and the doctor taunt him with rumors of her affair, and Wozzeck's sanity is going. Wozzeck encounters Marie and the drum major dancing lasciviously at a village tavern, and a village idiot predicts that something bad will happen.
While Wozzeck is trying to sleep at the barracks, the drunken drum major bursts in boasting of his conquest of Marie, and he fights with Wozzeck and beats him up. Later, Marie feels guilt for giving in to the drum major, and reads the passage from the Bible where Jesus forgives an adulterous woman, and tells her to sin no more.
Later, at night Wozzeck and Marie meet in a secluded spot, and Wozzeck, now no longer sane, accuses Marie of betraying him and stabs her to death, in one of the most chilling scenes in all opera. He goes to a tavern , but people notice blood on him, and he rushes out to the pond where he had dropped the knife he had used, but in his confused mental state he drowns, while the cptain and doctor suspect something.
In the final scene, children are playing, and one of them comes in with the news that Marie's body has been found, and tells Marie's little boy, who is too young to understand, that his mother is dead. The child continues hopping on his hobby horse, unaware that he is now an orphan.
Wow ! This certainly isn't pretty ! But it's one of the genuine masterpieces of opera, and you should definitely try it, and give it repeated hearings on CD or DVD, and you won't regret it. There are excellent reocrdings conducted by such eminent maestros as Claudio Abbado, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Karl Bohm, Daniel Barenboim etc, and several DVDs.
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