March 2009 - Posts
Turandot is Puccini's last opera and the final scene was left unfinished when the composer died of throat cancer in 1924 , at the age of 65. Another Italian composer , Franco Alfano, completed the final scene from Puccini's sketches. At the 1926 world premiere at Milan's world famous La Scala opera house, the renowned Arturo Toscanini, who conducted, stopped the performance before the final scene and told the audience that this was where the composer had left the score at his death. The later performances used Alfano's completion.
Turandot is an exotic opera set in ancient China, in Peking, now called Beijing. The cruel princess Turandot rules the country , and has resoved ever to marry because of priincess who was an ancestor was brutally killed by invading barbarians. She has persuded her elderly father, the emperor to decree that if any man of royal blood wishes to marry her, he must answer three extremely difficult riddles, or enigmas correctly. If he cannot, he will be beheaded.
So far, many princes from throughout Asia have failed to answer correctly and have lost their heads. The opera opens as a Mandarin announces the law, and the Tatar prince Calaf, hose army has been defeated by the Chinese is in Peking with his father, the aged Tatar emperor Timur, and Timur's gentle Chinese slave girl, who is devoted to her master. Calaf sees Turandot appear in front of the populace where they are about to witness the execution of a Persian prince who sought her hand in vain. Calaf is dazzled by her beauty, but his father warns him against such folly.
And so do Turandot's three ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, who graphically describe the hideous tortures Calaf will receive before being executed. These three provide comic relief in the opera. But Calaf is determined, and strikes the fateful gong announcing his intention to attempt to answer the three riddles.
In the second act, Ping,Pang and Pong discuss the bloodthirstiness of the princess, and all the different princes from India, Burma and other countries who have been beheaded. They long to go back to their peaceful homes far from Peking. Trumpets announce the bloody rituyal about to start, and Calaf, Timur and Liu appear before the populace . The aged emperor tells Calaf that he is sworn to uphold Turandots vow. He urges the prince to reconsider for there has already been enough blood.
But Calaf is determined to undergo the ordeal. Turandot appears and addresses the populace and Calaf. Ages ago, her gentle ancestor ,princess Lou Ling was brutally murdered by invading barbarians who overtook the royal palace. She has sworn vengance on all men for this outrage. She warns Calaf that the enigmas are a guarantee of death. But Calaf insists, and answers the three riddles correctly, to the astonishment of all. The wise men pull out the scrolls and confirm his correct answers.
Turandot is furious. She pleads with her father to allow her to refuse to allow the marriage. But Calaf declares that since his name is unknown, he will yeild to Turandot if it can be discovered.
In the last act, Calaf meditates late at night on the situation. He resolves that he shall win. Turandot has declared that no one in Peking shall sleep until Calaf's name has been found. This is the famous aria "Nessun Dorma"(None shall sleep), made famous by Luciano Pavarotti, and even sung by pop singers. Ping,Pang and Pong try to tempt Calaf with riches and beautiful young women if he will reveal his name, but Calaf refuses to yield to them.
Turandot appears, and demands to know the name. She orders the slave girl Liu to be tortured in order to force her to reveal the name. But she refuses, and siongs an aria telling of her devotion to the prince , and stabs herself to death, to the crowd's horror. Timur is grief-stricken and warns that her unavenged ghost will wreak havoc.
Calaf and Turandot confront each other. They argue bitterly until the prince is able to sway her into loving him. Then, miraculously, Turandot announces to her father and the populace that the strangers name is- LOVE !
The opera ends with general rejoicicing. Turandot's icy defiance has been overcome. For this exotic score, Puccini studied actual Chinese melodies, and was able to vividly evoke the exotic Chinese atmosphere, and with his great mastery of orchestration create an opera of myriad colors. Franco Alfano's completion is in general use today, but more recently, the Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003) prepared his own version. Alfano wrote operas and orchestral works etc, but his music fell into obscurity until recent recordings and a revival of his opera Cyrano de Bergerac at the Metropolitan opera and elsewhere.
Famous sopranos such as Birgit Nilsson, Maria Callas and even Joan Sutherland, who never sang the role onstage, have recorded the role of Turandot. The recording of Sutherland and Pavarotti on Decca is considered a classic, and is probably your best bet in looking for a recording. There are also several live perfoirmances on DVD, including one from the Metropolitan Opera with the lavish and spectacular sets and costumes of Franco Zeffirelli. Whichever way, Turandot is a vastly entertaining opera.
In 1910, the Metropolitan Opera presented the world premiere of Puccini's latest opera, La Fanciulla Del West (Fan-CHOOL-a), or the Girl of the Golden West, which is set in 19th century California . It's the story of a spirited young woman,Minnie, who tends the saloon at the bar in a mining camp, and also teaches a kind of Sunday school for the miners. The opera is based on a play by the once popular American playwright David Belasco.
I suppose you could call this the first spaghetti western ! For this somewhat improbable story, Puccini used genuine American songs from the woild west and uses them for local color. The cast for the premiere included the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) as Minnie's beloved, the Mexican bandit Ramirez, and the once famous Czech soprano Emmy Destinn as Minnie. The great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini , a firiend and champion of Puccini,conducted, and the composer was there to supervise the production.
The opera never became as popular as Puccini's earlier operas La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, but has held its own for nearly a century. The music is still very beautiful and colorful.
In the first act, we see the miners in the saloon, singing, playing poker drinking and arguing. All of them are very fond of the beautiful Minnie, who often consoles them for their homesickness and read Bible verses to them, but she still doesn't have a steady beau. There are stories of a dangerous Mexican bandit threatening the town, and sheriff Jack Rance, a bitter,divorced man who has unrequited love for Minnie, is on the case.
A stranger comes in, calling himself Dick Johnson from Sacramento comes in, but is looked on suspiciously by the miners and sherrriff Rance. He's actually the bandit. Minnie and the stranger fall for each other. He tells her that she has the face of an angel.
In the second act, the two have gone off to Minnie's cabin in the hills. It's winter and there's snow on the ground, and Rance and the miners are after the Mexican bandit. Ramirez is shot, and Minnie keeps him hidden in her cabin. She learns of his true identity, but still loves him. Rance and the miners interrogate Minnie. They know the bandit is when a drop of blood falls from above. Rance and Minnie agree to play a game of poker. If she wins, she's free to go off with Ramirez. If she loses, they'll string him up. Minnie wins, with a little bit of cheating, and Rance reluctantly leaves.
In the 3rd act, Ramirez has been caught by Rance and the miners. They allow him to speak before the hanging, and he sings an aria saying that he hopes that Minnie will think he escaped and is alive. But suddenly, Minnie bursts in on her horse, and pleads with the miners to let him live. Because of their affection for her, the miners allow the two to go off to freedom together.
Sounds kind of improbable, doesn't it? But the opera works, and is very entertaining. Famous sopranos such as the late Renata Tebaldi, have loved to sing the role of Minnie, and great tenors such as Placido Domingo and Mario Del Monaco have been associated with the role of the bandit. Tebaldi has recorded the opera for Decca with Del Monaco, but the recording you ought to get is on Deutsche Grammophon with soprano Carlol Neblett, Domingo, and the great American baritone Sherrill MIlnes conducted by Zubin Mehta, and there is a DVD of the Met's current production.
Here's more on my classical CD collection ; I don't have the space to list everything, but there's a lot more interesting music I think you may find intriguing.. If you'd like to hear some of these, check arkivmusic.com, which has a fantastic selection of classical CDs and DVDs. However, I can't guarantee that everything I list is still available.
Among the operas are Nottre Dame, by the Austrian composer Franz Schmidt (1874- 1939), who was well-known in Germany and his native Austria before the second world war, and whose music is enjoying something of a resurgance today. That's right. This is based on Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, complete with Esmeralda and Quasimodo. It deserves to be better known.
There are several operas from the "Degenerate Music" series of recordings from the Decca label, which may or may not be folding. These are recordings of long neglected works by composers whose music was banned by the Nazis as"degenerate", either because the composers were Jewish, or they composed in a manner of which Hitler and the Nazis disapproved. Some died in concentration camps, depriving the world of significant compositional talents.. They include the once popular Jazz influenced opera by Austrian Ernst Krenek(1900-1991), who settled in America. This opera as a smash hit all over Europe in the 1920s and was even performed at the Metropolitan at the time. Krenek later adopted the 12 tone system and the opera languished in obscurity for many years untill recently.
Die Vogel (The Birds) by German Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) is based loosely on the Greek play, and is a fanciful allegory about the birds building a castle which rises to the heavens until Zeus strikes it down. The music is gorgeous, and the Los Angeles opera eill be perfoming it soon. Braunfels was well-known in Germany but his music was banned because he was half Jewish, and his music was forgotten.
Turning to more Russian opera,The Fiery Angel by Prokofiev was written in the 1920s, but adverse circumstances prevented it from being performed until a couple of years after he died in 1953, on the same day as Stalin! This is possibly the weirdest and most spooky opera ever written. it's a truly creepy story of sorcery and demonic possession in 16th century Germany and deals with demonolgy in a truly frightening way. This could be called the operatic equivalent of one of those creepy Stephen King novels. It's fascinating, but may give you nightmares ! There is a DVD of a performance conducted by Prokofiev specialist Valery Gergiev, but it's hard to fond currently.
Oedipe,or Oedipus, in French by Romania's greatest composer Gheorghe Enescu, best known for his Romanian Rhapsody no 1, is a powerful and haunting retelling of the Oedipus legend. It's Enescu's only opera, and considered his greatest work. There have been several productions of it in Europe in recent years. Enescu lived from 1881 to 1955. He was also a renowned violinist and taught Yehudi Menuhin among others.
Turning to non-operatic music, I have a number of challenging works by uncompromising cntemporary composers, such as Elliott Carter, who turned 100 in December. If you want to be adventurous, try works of his which I have such as the piano concerto and variations for orchestra. Forget it if you nsist on easy listening. I also have the thorny three piano sonatas of famed French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who turned 84 this week. Phototopsis by the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann is an orchestral work which attempts to depict the composers difficulties with eyesight, and seeing strange colors in his head. It's weird, but definitely interesting.
I have symphonies by 19th century Swedish composer Franz Berwald which are rather delightful; his music deserves to be better known, as well as rarely heard symphonies by Poland's Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), who is Poland's best known composer after Chopin, and ones by Russians Mily Balakirev, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Vassily Kallinikov, and Nikolai Myaskovsky which you're not likely to hear live unfortunately, and other rarely heard symphonies that are all well worth hearing.
The violin cncertos of Edward Elgar and Robert Schumann are very lovely, and I like the piano concerto of Englishman Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975). In the chamber music category, Schubert's lengthy but delightful octet for strings, clarinet, bassoon and horn is very much worth hearing,
Nobody could ever accuse me of having an uninteresting classical CD collection !
I've been collecting classical CDs for many years, and have a really interesting and varied collection. It's an eclectic collection, with music by composers of many different nationalities and periods, not only Dead White European Males, even though they're an important part of it. Alphabetically, the composers range from A to Z, although there are none with names starting with Q,U, or X. There are composers from every corner of Europe, including ones from countries such as Estonia, Americans, and even one from Mexico. I have only three by women composers, but would like to get more.
The earliest music in my collection is by the 12th century German Abbess and theologian Hildegard von Bingen, and is liturgical music for women's chorus. The most recent composer is American Christopher Rouse, born in 1949. There are other works by ancient composers such as Guillaume Dufay, Palestrina, Josquin Desprez, Carlo Gesualdo, William Byrd, Rolande de lassus, etc. These are French, Italian, English and Belgian composers who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries.
There is music by such establishd greats as Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, Brahms, Berlioz and others, and little known composers such as Finland's Unno Klami, Charles Koechlin of France, and Wilhelm Stenhammar of Sweden. I don't have a lot of famous works ,not because I don't love them, but because I already know and love these works and have always been on the lookout for interesting rarities.
No Vivaldi's Four Seasons. I've never been a Vivaldi fan. I've heard the four seasons so many times I wouldn't mind if I never heard it again. No Pachelbel Canon. Why eat at McDonald's when you can have gourmet food? I have a wide variety of operas, including many little known ones. Among them are Padmavati, by the French composer Albert Roussel(1869-1937), a colorful and exotic story of India during the Moghul conquest, the great Biblical opera Saul & David by Denmark's Carl Nielsen, whose music I covered some time ago here, great Russian operas such as Prokofiev's monumental War and Peace,based on Tolstoy, Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko, and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, and Kashchei the Immortal, based on Russian legends, Wagner's complete Ring in a box set with James Levine and the Metropolitan opera forces, great Czech operas such as The Cunning Little Vixen and The Excursions of Mr. Broucek by Janacek, The Devil and Kate by Dvorak, and Libuse (LI-bu-she) by Bedrich Smetana, and many other interesting operas.
I have the nine symphonies of Beethoven in a set with the Chicago Symphony conducted by the late great Hungarian conductor Sir Georg Solti, the four symphonies of Brahms, the nine Mahler symphonies,also in a box with Solti, the seven symphonies of Jean Sibelius. the six of Carl Nielsen, the nine of Bruckner with various conductors, and assorted symphonies by Mozart,Haydn, Schubert,Mendelssohn, Schumann, Dvorak, Elgar, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and others.
There are really interesting off beat works such as The Jungle Book by the French composer Charles Koechlin, based on Rudyard Kipling, the Asrael symphony of Czech composer Josef Suk, written as a memorial to his father-in law Dvorak, Dvorak's oratorio The Spectre's Bride, the spooky story of a young woman who encounters the ghost of her betrothed , who has been killed in battle, and the Cantata for the 20th anniversity of the Russian Revolution by Prokofiev, a blatant piece in support of the Soviet government, but musically very exciting, the Oratorio Of the German Soul by the once famous composer Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949).
I have music for piano by Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Nikolai Medtner, and others. There are concertos for piano, violin, cello, viola, flute, oboe, clarinet, and French horn by Mozart, Richard Strauss, Nielsen, Martinu, Roussel, Dvorak, Elgar, Khatchaturian, Medtner, and others.
And much ,much more. Of course, there are still countless things by so many composers, famous and obscure, I'd like to get. It's so frustrating to have so much available and not having the time, money and space for a Pentagon sized CD collection.
Remember the famous song "Take my hand, I'm a stranger in paradise", from the musical "Kismet" ? The melody is not original, but comes from the music of the Russian composer Alexander Borodin (1833- 1887). Borodin was one of the group of five 19th century composers who went by the name of the "Mighty Handful, including Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky.
He was not a professional composer, but was actually one of Russia's leading scientists, in the field of chemistry. One of his treatises on chemistry is still considered a classic in that field. He was the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince and a Russian mother, and was given the name of one of a serf in his family.
Borodin was an accomplished amateur cellist, and wrote a not very large body of music in his spare time. His life was rather hectic and chaotic, as he combined music with his busy career as scientist and professor at St. Petersburg university. Among his works are two completed symphonies and two movements of a third, the symphonic poem"In the steppes of Central Asia", a number of songs and piano pieces, and the sketches for the opera "Prince Igor", which was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov with the help of others after his death.
Prince Igor is based on medieval Russian history , and deals with Igor, ruler of the city of Putivl , and his struggle with the invading Polovetzians, nomadic Turkic tribesmen who frequently clashed with the Russians of the time. The so-called Polovetzian Dances is a ballet sequence from the opera which has often been performed and recorded separately, and is a very exciting piece.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and another Russian composer Alexander Glazunov took up the difficult task of putting Borodin's often chaotic sketches into a performable opera, and it is occaisionally performed today. There are several recordings and a DVD. In the opera, prince Igor and his son are captured in battle by the Polovetzians, or Kumans, as they called themselves. Their leader, Khan Konchak is so impressed Igor's bravery that he treats him more like an honored guest than a prisoner, and there is a colorful and exotic dance sequnce with chorus. In the end, Igor and his son return to Putivl, eagerly welcomed by the populace, after escaping.
The symphony no 2 in B minor is also a very colorful work, and its melodies, though original, have a decidedly Russian flavor. IN the Steppes of Central Asia" is a brief but evocative orchestral work which attempts to depict Russian soldiers wandering through the endless steppes of what is now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan etc, with sinuous oriental melodies as a contrast. There are numerous recordings of Borodin's music, and you should seek out the recordings of the first two symphonies with Valery Gergiev conducting and the opera Prince Igor on Phillips. Check arkivmusic.com.
After the violent and harrowing Elektra, Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmanstahl chose a vastly different story for their next opera, setting it among the aristocracy of 18th century Vienna. Musically, Der Rosenkavalier (The cavalier of the rose), was a complete musical turnaround for the composer ; the searing dissonances of Elektra and its grim, oppressive atmosphere are replaced with Viennese elegance, wit and sentimentality.
Der Rosenkavalier is the story of the wife of an Austrian fieldmarshall , known as the Marschallin, whose husband is often away on military affairs, and who is childless.. She is a beautiful and elegant lady in her 30s. The first act takes place in the boudoir of her Viennese palace. As the curtain opens on the first act, the Marschallin is having a torrid affair with the handsome and dashing young nobleman Octavian, who is only seventeen ! (The role is sung by a mezzo-soprano). The fieldmarshall is currently hunting in the Croatian forest, and does not appear in the opera.
The two are deeply affectionate, but she is worried about getting older and losing Octavian to some one younger and prettier. The Marschallin's boorish country cousin, the Baron Ochs Auf Lerchenau, visits the Marschallin and tells her that he is about to get married to a pretty young lady named Sophie, who is the only child of a wealthy Viennese businessman who has just been raised to the nobility. The baron is a skirt chaser to end all skirt chasers, and Octavian disguises himself as one of the Marschallin's maids. The baron flirts shamelessly with him cluelessly. Many of the characters use Viennese dialect throughout the opera.
the marriage will be a cash cow for the flirtatious baron, and he asks his cousin to recommend some fine young fellow to be the official rose bearer for the wedding announcement at his future father-in-law's palace. Naturally, she sends Octavian ! A number of people come in to entertain or petition the Marschallin, including a tenor singing an Italian song, a war widow and her children begging for help, two shady Italian characters called Annina and Valzacchi who will be involved in the plot, and Marschallin has her hair done.
The boorish baron gets involved in a dispute of wedding gifts with a lawyer. (He is constantly making an ass of himself throughout the opera). When the people leave, the Marschallin reflects on the passage of time, and how much she fears losing her youth and beauty, remembering the time when she was taken out of the protection of the church as a young girl and married off to the field marshall.
Octavian returns, and the two lovers argue over fidelity and other matters. Soon, Octavian will go to the palace of Fanninal, the baron's future father-in -law, to make the official presentation of a beautiful perfumed rose as a token of the wedding.
The second act takes place in the wealthy man's palace. The servants are all excited over the ceremony, and Sophie reflects on her upcoming marriage. Octavian enters elegantly dressed, and presents the exquisite perfumed rose to Sophie. The baron is scheduled to come later. The two young people engage in friendly conversation, and they instantly fall for each other ! The boorish and pompous baron enters and looks at Sophie as if her were evaluating a horse. He's so boorish and unpleasant that the young lady takes an instant dislike to him. (In an amuysing way, though). The music of the presentaion has an unearthly beauty that is unforgettable.
The baron's servants ransack the palace and create havoc; an argument between the baron and Octavian breaks out. He tells her that the girl doersn't like him. Octavian takes out his sword and deals a very minor wound to the baron, who bellyaches furiously and makes a terrible fuss. Sophie's father is aghast that such an incident could take place in his own palace and threatens to put her in a convent for life.
Meanwhile, the baron has gotten the help of Annina and Valzacchi to arrange an assignation at an inn outside Vienna with him and what he thinks is the Marschallin's maid mariandl, who was Octavian in disguise! He doesn't pay them enough and they plot to sabotage the affair.
The third an final act takes place in the inn. Servants are preparing for the assignation of the baron and Mariandl; Annina and Valzacchi are planning to create a scandal and upset the proceedings. The baron and Mariandl finally have some time together and he tries to ply her with wine, and she? is appalled to see a bed there. Octavian is very coy here. But suddenly, noises offstage happen, and faces look trough the blind window, and a woman comes in with a bunch of children saying"Papa,Papa". She claims to be his wife and demands that he support the children. Confusion reigns.
The police come in, and the commisar demands to know what is going on. They're the 18th century equivalent of the vice squad ! But the Marschallin comes in and clears everthing up. The whole affair was just a farce ! The baron leaves unceremoniously wiith his servants and agrees give up Sophie. The coachmen demand payment and the children still call Ochs Papa.
Sophie and Octavian are finally united. There is a meltingly beautiful trio in which the Marschallin accepts the situation and lets go of Octavian, and the two youngsters rejoice in their love. Sophie's father remarks,"That's young people for you. "
You will love the lush and elegant music of Strauss, and laugh at the tomfoolery too. There are Viennese waltzes which are technically anachronistic, as the waltz is an early 19th century invention, but they're so seductively beautiful, who cares? Der Rosenkavalier was first performed at the famous Dresden opera in 1911 and has gone on to become one of the most beloved operas of the 20th century.
Many great singers have become famous for singing and recording the opera, including Elisabeth Schwarzkop[, Lotte Lehmann, Regine Crespin, Christa Ludwig, Kurt Moll, and Renee Fleming, and eminent conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Sir Georg Solti, Karl Bohm, and others have recorded the opera complete. There are several performances on DVD in addition. Der Rosenkavakier is a heart-warming experience.
L'Elisir D'Amore, or The Elixir Of Love by Italian composer Donizetti (1797-1848) is just about as different from the harrowing Greek tragedy Elektra as you could imagine, rather like going from a slasher film to a Disney family comedy. It will be broadcast live from the Metropolitan opera early next month inbetween Wagnber's Das Rheingold and the rest of the Ring.
This charming and gently humorous pastoral comedy is full of the sweetest and most catchy melodies, and you are sure to love it. The story takes place in a rustic Italian village, where the lovestruck but fecless hero Nemorino, is in love with a charming young lady named Adina, who rather likes him but is attracted to a handsome but rather cocky and conceited sargeant from the local regiment . Nemorino is terribly worried about the presence of this rival.
Then, the townsfolk greet a travelling quack saleseman with a a magic panacea called"Dr." Dulcamara. He tells the rather gullible yokels that this potion(which is actually nothing but cheep wine), will cure any disease or ailment, make people more youthful and attractive and even find a mate. The good doctor tells the crowd that he is known throught the universe,"and other places".
Nemorino is intrigued and asks if the potion will work as an elixir of love, and guarantee that Adina will be his. He mentions that earlier, Adina had been reading aloud from a book of medieval legends about the love of Tristan and Isolde, who drank a love potion . The doctor says of course. Just try this potion ! Nemorino falls for this and drinks up the wine, and acts cokily with Adina in his inebriated state, and the girl resolves to marry the handsome sargeant instead, and in the next act, the wedding takes place, to Nemorino's dismay.
The next and last act opens on the merry wedding festivities. The doctor and Adina sing a duet for the guests about an elderly senator's love for a pretty young gondolier girl. Nemorino is desperate for more of the eliixit, but doesn't have the money. Desperate for the dough, he enlists in the army with the help of the sargeant, where he will get some money just for enlisting. The cocky sargeant thinks he has the poor young yokel under his thumb.
Then the news comes out that Nemorino's rich uncle has died, leavoing him a fortune. All the village girls try to flirt with him, but he is still determined to marry Adina. He sings the famous aria"Una Fuertiva Lagrima" (One furtive tear), and the two are finally united happily, and the good sargeant goes off, realizing that there are plenty of other fish in the sea. Doctor Dulcamara leaves town, not a minute too soon.
THis adorable comic opera is available in a number of complete recordings on CD and live ones on DVD. Don't miss the late,great Luciano Pavarotti here in one of his most famous roles as the dorky but lovaable Nemorino.
Famous sopranos who have recorded the role of sweet Adina include Dame Joasn Sutherland, Kathleen Battle and MIrella Freni.
For his next opera after the sensational and scandalous Salome, Richard Strauss turned to Sophocles for a setting of the play Electra. This was his first operatic production with the Austrian playwright and poet Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, who would provide him with the libretto for Der Rosenkavalier and other operas.
Elektra is set in ancient Greece years after the Trojan war. King Agamemnon, ruler of the Greeks, had sacraficed his daughter Iphigenia to the gods for their favor, and his queen Clytemnestra never forgave him. Their other children were the daughters Electra and Chrysothemis and the boy Orestes. After the Trojan war, Clytemnestra took a lover ,Aegisthus, and the two assasinated Agamemnon after his return to Greece.
By the time the opera opens, Elektra(German spellings of Greek names from here on) is obsessed with avenging her father's murder. The Queen Klytemnestra is now a brutal ruler and is suffering from all manner of physical maladies and the effects of guilt. Elektra is treated like a common servant and lives a life of degradation. Her genle sister Chrysothemis longs for marriage and children. Orestes was sent abroad as a boy, and the family has had no contact with him.
The opera is in one act; as the curtain opens, six servant maids are gossipping over Elektra, who is treated so terribly and has a weird obsession with revenge. As they leave the stage, Elektra comes in , reliving her father's brutal murder. She mounrs him and longs for the day when she or her brother Orestes will kill their hated mother and stepmother. Elektra's monologue is truly chilling.
Then her frustated sister Chrysothemis comes in and tells her that Queen Klytemnestra has had premonitions of evil and is sacrificing animals and possibly people to find the truth. Elektra laughs at her. The genler sister tells Elektra of her longing for marriage and children. She would not care if she were married to a peasant if she could only have children. Elektra pays little attention to her.
Klytemnestra comes in, preceeded by a furious orchestral introduction. Mother and daughter have a savage encounter. The queen is plagued by horrible nightmares, and she has many physical maladies too. She questions Elektra on how she might gain relief from both her nioghtmares and ailments. Elektra treats her coyly. The queen begs her to tell her who or what she must sacrifice. But Elektra terrifies her mother by telling her that SHE must be the sacrifice ! Terrified, Klytemnestra receives sudden news that Orestes is dead ! She is greatly relieved and laughs maniacally.
Chrysothemis rushes in, wailing that Orestes has been killed by horses in an accident. Elektra resolves to kill Klytemnestra and Aegisthus herself with an ax. She tries to get her sister to help by flattering her. Then, muttering to herself and brooding, she is approached by young man who announces that Orestes is indeed dead, and that he had been his close friend. Elektra is distressed. by the news.
But then,the young man announces that he is indeed Orestes, her long lost brother. Elektra is overcome with emotion.. Then, she begs her brother to kill the two evil ones, and Orestes resolves to do the terrible but necessary deed. Orestes has come with his elderly tutor, who urges the two to be quiet or be found out.
There is an unbearable silence. Then the horrible cry of the queen being murdered is heard. Elektra cries-Strike once more! Confusion in the palace ; maids and servants rush around in confusion. Then Aegisthus comes in, and asks about what all the commotion is. Elektra greets him with feigned politeness, saying that she has learned to behave finally and will no longer defy her stepfather.
Then, Aegisthus cries out ! Orestes is killing him! Does no one hear me?, he cries in terror. Elektra savagely cries out- Agamemnon hears you ! Chrysothemis rushes in with the news of Orestes return- the downtrodden palace dwellers are rejoicing. Elektra does her dance of vengance, and dances and dances furiously . Then she falls dead. Chrysothemis cries for Orestes.
For this brutal and harrowing story, Strauss wrote ferociously dissonant but not really atonal music. The mood of the opera is oppressively tense. You will be gripped by the brutal story and its heart-pounding music. But there are passages of tender lyricism in addition, such as whn Elektra realizes that her brother has returned.. The opera opens with the ominous Agamemnon theme which returns throughout the story.
The opera was premiered a century ago in 1909 in Dresden, whose famous opera house premiered several of the Strauss operas, and whose tradition of performing the orchestral and operatic music of this composer continues to the present. There are several notable recordings of Elektra by Sir Georg Solti, Karl Bohm, Wolfganf Sawallisch, Dimitri Mitropoulos and other conductors, and some DVDs. This is not an opera for the faint heated, but you'll never forget it if you try it
Salome was first performed at the Dresden Opera in 1905 . and was the first of the Richard Strauss operas to achieve international success and enter the operatic repertoire. Strauss had already written two operas which are almost never perforned today but have been recorded. Salome is a sensuous and decadent one act opera based on the once scandalous Oscar Wilde play, which was originally written in French. The opera libretto is a translation into German of the play with some parts cut out.
The risque subject caused something of a scandal in Europe, and a couple of years later, when the opera had it Metropolitan opera premiere, the scnadalous subject actually caused it to be banned ! Today, we're fortunately not so prudish, and the opera is performed everywhere, although I'm not sure if this is the most suitable opera for youngsters.
The opera takes place at a decadent banquet at the courst of king Herod and his wife Herodias, and the main character is the teenage sex kitten Salome, daughter of Herodias, and stepdaughter of Herod, who can't keep his eyes off the girl and gives her the creeps. There are assorted characters at the banquet, soldiers guarding the prophet Jochanaan, being kept in a cister. He is none other than John the Baptist, and Romans, Jews, Egyptians and sundry unsavory characters.
At the opening of the opera, Salome is weary of the banquet and her stepfather's leering, and the endless bickering of the guiests. The young Syrian captain of the guard Narraboth is smitten with Salome. Then, from the cistern, the stern voice of the prophet Jochanaan comes, and he rails at the sinfulness of Herod and Herodias, and proclaims that that Jesus shall be the ultimate prophet. Salome is entranced by the voice. She asks the guards who this is, and they tell her it is the prophet. They do not understand what he is saying.
Salome begs Narraboth to bring the prophet out so she may speak to him, but the captain of the guard says that Herod has forbidden this. She persists, and soon the prophet comes forth majestically, and condemns the abominations of Herod and Herodias. Salome is fascinated, and feels a strange attraction to him. She tries to flirt with him, but he resists her fiercely, saying that it was through woman that sin came into the world. But she fawns over him, tormenting him with her lust.
Narraboth is so overcome with his feelings that he stabs himself to death, but neither Salome nor the prophet notice. Jochannan pleads with Salome to repent and go to Jesus, who is working miracles everywhere and will see any one. He tells her to let Jesus save her from her sinful life. But she ignores him, and wants a kiss desperately. But the prophet furiously denounces her, and says she is accursed. He is sent back to the cistern.
Finally, Herod and Herodias come in . Herod is behavior is extremely neurotic and Herodias is furious at him for looking on Salome the way she does. The prophet continues to denounce Herod and Herodias, and Herodias is outraged. A group of Jews at the banquet have a furious theological argument about what the prophet is saying. None of them can agree on what he means.
Finally, the lustful Heord asks Salome to dance for him and the guests. Herodias is against this, but Herod swears that he will give Salome anything, any precious Jewels or whatever, or half of his possessions and riches. Salome asks if he will really give her what she wants. Yes ! She prepares to do the famous dance of the seven veils. After the sensuous dance, Herod is delighted and promises to give whatever her heart desires. What does she wanr? The head of the prophet !!! The Jews at the banquet are horrified, but Herodias is delighted. Herod is extremely reluctant. Please reconsider, I'll give you all the riches ,Jewelry,perals, exotic birds etc, anything but the head of the prophet.
But Salome is adamant. Finally, Herod agrees, and in an incredibly tense moment, the executioner beheads the prophet. His head is brought to Salome on a silver platter, and the girl exults perversely, saying that now she has his head. She sings an incredibly sick monologue about the prophet and his head, and says that if he had really looked upon her, hew would have loved her. Herod is horrified. Finally, she kisses the head. The moon comes out as this is evening. And Herod orders the guards to crush Salome under their shields. The opera ends in sudden brutal violence.
Whew ! What a steamy opera. It's not for the kiddies. But the music is truly gorgeous, and Strauss uses his large orchestra painting the decadent atmosphere in technicolor. The opera is incredibly tense and even nerve wracking. And the role of Salome is a very difficult one. It's hard to find a soprano with a huge voice and the required stamina who looks like a teenage Biblical proncess ! But many famous sopranos, such as Birgit Nilsson, Hildegard Behrrens, Ljuba Welitsch, Eva Marton, and others have performed and recorded the opera.
Eminent conductors such as Sir Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan, Clemens Krauss, Zubin Mehta, Giuseppe Sinopoli and others have made notable recordings, and there are several live perfomances opn DVD.
Gotterdammerung, or the twilight of the gods, begins with a gloomy scene in which the three Norns, who spin the fate of the world, reflect on the fateful events of the Ring Cycle so far, and wonder what will happen. Wotan no longer sends the Valkyries out to gather brave fallen heroes; he waits calmly in Walhall for the end. Suddenly, the thread of fate is torn, and the Norns descend down do their mother Erda.
The new day dawns, and Siegfried and Brunnhilde are still full of hope and enthusiasm. She sends Siegfried off on heroic deeds, and has rendered him invulnerable to wounds, except in his back, because he would never turn his back on an opponent. Siegfried rides down the Rhine on a small boat with the horse Grane, and comes to the castle of the Gibichung clan, headed by Gunther, his sister Gutrune, and their half-brother, the sinister Hagen, who is the son of Alberich by the mother of Gunther and Gutrune; the other two had a different father. Alberich had bribed their mother and fathered Hagen, whom he hopes to use to gain the ring again.
The three greet Siegfried enthusiastically. Hagen has a plan to marry off Gutrune to Siegfried, whom he knows is still faithful to Brunnhilde, even though they do not. He will also hatch a plot to make Siegfried forget Brunnhilde, and bring her to the Gibichung castle by deceit and marry him to Brunnhilde. This will set off a chain of fateful events. Hagen gives Siegfried a greeting drink which has a potion which makes him forget Brunnhilde and he falls madlly in love with the innocent Gutrune, who is thrilled to have the mighty hero as her husband. Gunther and Siegfried swear bloodbrotherhood, and agree that if either betrays the other, he will be killed to atone for this.
Gunther takes the Tarnhelm, and disguises himself as Siegfried , and he passes through the fire and then reverts to his regular form, and tells Brunnhilde that she is now his. Brunnhilde is furious and horrified by this betrayal. Then, Brunnhilde is brought back to the castle as Gunther's bride. Hagen summons the vassals and tells them to prepare for the double wedding of Gunther and Brunnhilde, and Siegfried and Gutrune. Every one is excited, but when Brunnhilde is brought in, she is furious and accuses Siegfried of betraying her, and the she belongs to Siegfried alone. Every one is confused and upset. What on earth is going on ? Brunnhilde swears an oath that she is telling the truth , and the cluless Siegfried still can't reember his relationship with Brunnhilde.
The gullible and weak Gunther asks his half-brother Hagen what to do. Hagen says that only Siegfried's death will solve the problem. Reluctantly Gunther agrees. The next day, Hagen, Gunther and Siegfried will go hunting along the Rhine, and Hagen will find a ruse to kill him. The joyous wedding festivities continue after this.
In the third and last act, we are back along the Rhine, and the Rhine maidens are still lamenting the loss of the precious gold. Siegfried has gotten separated from the hunters and meets the girls. They warn him of the treachery he is about to encounter, and beg him to return the ring to them. But Siegfried refuses. Hagen, Gunther and the vassals meet up with Siegfried, who tells them that he has yet to catch anything. Every one relaxes and Hagen asks Siegfried to tell them about his youth , and gives him a potion of remembrance.
Siegfried tells them of growing up in the forest with Mime, and how he forged Nothung anew and slew the dragon, and also Mime. Then he recalls meeting Brunnhilde- Wotan's ravens circle him, and Hagen stabs Siegfried in the back and savagely claims to have avenged the betrayal. Gunther and the vassals are horrified, and Siegfried expires while lovingly remembering Brunnhilde. A mighty funeral march in the orchestra is the transition to the fateful end of the Ring.
Gutrune is very upset and has fateful premonitions. Hagen comes in and announces that Siegfried has been killed by a wild boar- lying of course. He is the accursed boar ! Gutrune is horrified. Gunther tries in vain to console her. Gunther and Hagen quarrel over the ring, and Hagen strikes him dead. Brunnhilde comes in calmly. She now knows the truth. Siegfried will now go on the funeral pyre, and Brunnhilde will set the fire that will go up to Walhall, and the gods will go up in flames. She jumps on to Grane and leaps into the funeral pyre. The Rhine overflows and all is destroyed. In the meantime , as the Rhine overflows, Hagen grabs the Ring as it goes into the water, but the Rhinemaidens drag him down into the river depths.
Walhall goes up in flames. Everything has been destroyed. But the redeeming power of love remains, and perhaps a better new world will emerge from this cataclysm. Alberich's curse has been nullified at last. Wotan has payed for his wrongdoings.
What a fantastic story ! And what incredible music ! Don't miss the experience of getting to know Wagner's Ring.
Years before the curtain opens on the first act of Siegfried, the pregnant Sieglinde was found in the forest by Mime, who had set up a smith in the forest. Mime did what he could to help her, but she died giving birth to Siegfried, before giving Mine the broken sword Nothung and telling him to name the baby Siegfried.
Siegfried has grown up under Mime's tutelage into a rambunctious and headstrong youth. He is curious about his myusterious origin and does not like Mine at all. Mime knows that the giant Fafner escaped into the forest and turned himself into a giant poisonous dragon in order to guard the gold. He knows that Alberich still covets the ring and the tresure there, but he he lusts after the gold and ring too, and knows that he can use Siegfried to kill the horrible dragon, and then give him a sleeping potion, cut off his head and claim the treasure.
Siegfried is curious to know who his real parents are, but Mime tells him that he found his mother in the forest, where she died giving birth to him, and left him the magic sword, which Mime ,despite his great skill at sword making,has never been able to repair. Siegfied ,who has been taught to make swords, resolves to do the job. He is so strong and confident that he is incapable of feeling fear, and asks Mime to teach him what fear is. Mime tells him of the the giant Fafner who is now a dragon who kills any one or anything which he comes across; his saliva alone can corrode flesh ! Siegfried is instrigued, but not frightened.
While Siegfried goes off into the forest, Wotan, now calling himself the Wanderer, comes into Mime's hut and plays a sort of game of 20 questions with him(actually only three questions which Mime will first asks him, and three questions which he will ask of Mime. ). The two recount the previous story of the Ring cycle oin these questions. Finally, Wotan asks who will forge Nothung again, and Mine is terrified-if he can't how will Siegfried?
The Wanderer leaves and Mime has a hallucination about being devoured by Fafner. Then Siegfried bursts in and says he will repair Nothung. Mime is puzzled and agitated. He was never a good student at making swords, and how will he accomplish this task ? But the Wanderer had said that only one who knows no fear shall forge Nothung anew ! Siegfried proceeds to reforge Nothung in triumph, and Mime exults to himself that after Siegfried slays the dragon, he will puty him into sleep with a potion , cut off his head and claim the ring and the tresure. Alberich and Mime later meet and argue furiously over who deserves the ring.
In the second act, Alberich waits before Fafner's lair, while the dragon lies asleep, and rails against Wotan who robbed him of the ring. The Wanderer comes in and the two argue. Alberich curses the Wanderer, but the disguised god remains calm. Mime has led Siegfried into the forest, where he is to meet and kill Fafner. Siegfried is still curious as what fear is.
Mime leaves Siegfried alone, and the youth enjoys nature and wonders what his mother must have been like, and who his father might have been, knowing he fell in battle before he was born. He blows lustily on his horn,which Mime had made for him, and Fafner is awakened. The giant/dragon says that he had been looking for water to drink and that now he has found a meal ! Siegfried isn't the least bit frightened of the dragon, and easily kills him with Nothung. The dying Fafner tells him that he is the last of the giants, and that he must be aware of Mime's treachery. Siegfried tastes o drop of the dragon's blood, and can magically understand what a forest bird is singing. The bird warns him to be wary of Mime, who unctuously greets him and congratualtes him. The treacherous dward offers him a drink which has a sleeping potion, and strikes Mime dead. In the background, Alberich laughs savagely.
Exhausted from the fight, Siegfried drags the dragon's body out and claims the ring and the gold, not knowing of the terrible curse. The bird tells him to take the ring and Tarnhelm and go towards Brunnhilde's rock, penetrate the fire, and claim Brunnhilde as his bride.
The Third and last act takes place near Brunnhilde's rock. Wotan summons Erda and asks to know what will happen with the ring and the fate of the gods, but the earth goddess leaves him wanting to know more. She tells him of her other three daughters, the Norns, who spin the rope of fate for mankind.
Siegfried meets Wotan and acts disrespectfully to him, not knowintg that this is Wotan, his grandfather, Wotan warns him that the forest bird who has accompanied him is in danger of being killed by the god''s magical ravens. He blocks Siegfried's way toward the magical fire to test him, but Siegfried impetuously breaks Wotan's magical runic spear and Wotan, resigned to fate, tells him that he cannot bar him.
Siegfreid breaks through the magic fire, which gives way to his approach, and he sees the sleeping Brunnhilde, still in her armor and notices the steed Grane next to her. He is confused. He has never seen a woman before, and wonders naively if this could be his mother. With Siegfried's kiss, Brunnhilde awakens, and is overjoyed to meet Siegfried at last. She is still not accustomed to being a human, and feels fear at the prospect of being loved by the young hero. But Siegfried persuades her to be his, and the two embrace joyously as the cutain falls. They are ready to face anything. And in the last part of the ring, The fateful Twilight of the Gods, they face more treachery. To be continued.
Before the second part of the Ring- Die Walkure, or the Valkyrie begins, Wotan has fathered nine warrior maidens, or the Valkyries to protect Walhall by gathering brave warriors slain in battle to inhabit Walhall, in case Alberich, who is still furious and plotting vengance. He has also taken human disguise as Walse (vel-ze) and fathered a twin boy and girl, Siegmund and Sieglinde by a mortal woman. He hopes that Siegmund will help him against Alberich.
By the time the Valkyrie begins, the twins have been separated and have grown up without knowing each other. Siegmund is a loner, rejected by all tribes, and Sieglinde was capured and married of to a rough chieftan, Hunding, whom she does not love at all.
Siegmund is escaping a hostile tribe in a furious thunderstorm and wanders into Hundings hut, where Sieglinde tends the exhausted man, not realizing that he is her long lost twin. They are attracted to each other, and Huding enters and asks what is going on. Sieglinde tells him that the exhausted man wandered into their home and she tended him. He tells the two that he has had various names such as"Woeful" etc, and has never been accepted anywhere.
Eventually Hunding learns that he has killed some of his kinsmen, and offers him refuge for one night in his house, but in the morning they must fight to the death. He goes off, and Sieglinde converses with him,saying that she has given Hunding a sleeping potion.
The two soon realize that they are twins- and fall in love, resolving to escape and marry, and carry on the Walsung line. Siegmund pulls the mighty sword Nothung( No-toong) out of the tree. This is a magical sword made by Mime.
In the second act, Fricka has learned of the incestuous coupling and is furious at Wotan for allowing this. She demands that Siegmund must be killed by Hunding, who is furiously seeking the twins. Reluctantly, Wotan agrees. He was to have Brunnhilde, his favoorite Valkyrie protect htem, but sadly orders Brunnhilde to let Hunding win in battle. She bravely resists his orders, but Wotan furiously orders her to obey.
Siegmund and Sieglinde are now trying to escape Hunding,his kinsmen and dogs, and Brunnhilde meets Siegmund while the girl in asleep in the forest with him,exhausted. She tells him that she is Wotan's daughter, and that he is soon to die in battle with Hunding, and will follow her to Walhall, but learning that Sieglinde may not follow him, he refuses her offer.
Then, Siegmund and Hunding finally meet, and fight; Brunnhilde, in defiance of Wotan, tries to defend Siegmund, but Wotan interferes, break's Nothung in tow, and Siegmund dies. Brunnhilde takes the girl on her magical horse Grane( Gra-neh) off instantly . Furious, Wotan resolves to punish Brunnhilde. He announces bitterly that Fricka has been avenged, and angrily strikes Hunding dead with a mere gesture. He rushes off furiously to punish Brunnhilde.
The third and final act begins with the famous Ride of the Valkyries, often heard in concert as a separate piece without voices. The Valkyries have gathered on a mountain rock to gossip and collect the dead warriors. Brunnhilde frantically enters with Sieglinde and begs her warrior sisters for help, but the they are terrified of defying their father. Sieglinde is now pregnant with what will grow up to be the mighty hero Siegfried, grandson of Wotan, who hopes that the young man will redeem him from the curse.
Brunnhilde tells Sieglinde to escape to the forest and announces that she will bear the world's greatest hero, Siegfried. The other Valkyries quake when Wotan enters, demanding that they give up Brunnhilde to face his wrath. Wotan announces that Brunnhilde will be stripped of her godhood, and left to become the wife of the first man who finds her, as he will put her into a magic sleep. But Brunnhilde begs that she be left to marry only Siegfried when he becomes a young man. She is fit only for the bravest man. Wotan summons the fire of Loge, kisses her godhood away, and sets her asleep, surrounded by a magic fire. Wotan declares that only the bravest and most fearless hero shall ever pass through the fire, and bids her a fond farewell.
To Be continued.
On Saturday March 28, the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of Wagner's awesome "Ring Og The Nibelung will begin with the opening music deama of the tetralogy "Das Rheingold"(The Rhine Gold). Check to see if one of your local radio stations features the Met broadcasts; they can be heard at radio stations all over the US and abroad , but if yours doesn't, try Sirius.com for internet broadcasts oof the Met.
The broadcasts of the monnumental four part work will continue through April, with one interruption for an Italian opera. If you're unfamiliar with the Ring, which is based on Norse and German mythology, it may be a bit of a trial to hear the whole thing consecutively on the radio. It's VERY long and complicated, but if you give it a chance it's an enthralling experience and like nothing you've ever come across before. The Naxos records website Naxos.com offers downloads of many opera librettos with translations, and you may be able to find a Ring translation to follow. The broadcast announcer Margaret Juntwait will be very helpful during the broadcasts, as she always is. Here is a brief outline of the Ring story .
In Das Rheingold, the first scene takes place in the Rhine in mythical times, where the three rhinemaidens, Woglinde,Wellgunde and Flosshilde, guard the precious Rhinegold, which has magical but catastrophically dangerous powers if used wrongly. The three maidens swim and play merrily until a hideous dwarf named Alberich appears. He is one of the Nibelung dwarves who dwell inside the earth and are expert smiths.
Alberich is smitten with the pretty rhinemaidens and declares his love, but the three are disgusted by his ugly appearance, and they tease him shamelessly and flirt. Alberich is terribly upset, but all of a sudden, the Rhinegold begins to shine, and the maidens sing its praises. The dwarf is intrigued and asks what is going on. The maidens explain that if any one were bold enough to steal the gold, it would give him power over the whole world and infinite wealth. But there is one catch- in order to do this, you have to renounce love and crse it forever, (not sex ,but love in the sense of love for others), but the girls are convinced that no one would ever be so rash.
But Alberich is so tormented by the cruel teasing he has received that he resolves to curse love forever, and to the girls horror, he seizes the gold and rushes off laughing maniacically. The Rhine darkens, and there is a transition to the next scene. Now we are on a mountaintop , and Wotan, chief of the gods, and his wife Fricke, guardina of marriage are sleeping. The two awake, a Wotan beholds the mighty caste Walhall or Valhalla, which the two ginas Fasolt and Fafner have just finished building for the gods as a great residence. The god is delighted with the dwelling and dreams of infinite power. But Fricka warns him that he must pay the ginats for their labor, and he has foolishly offered the tow lumbering giants Freia, her sister and the goddess of youth and love as payment.
Wotan tells her that he has no intention of giving Freia up, and will handle the affair and deceive the stupid giants. Frei bursts in and is terrified of the giants who intend to take her. She tends the golden apples which keep the gods eternally young, and if she were lost, the gods would eventually age and die. The two giants appear and demand Freia. Wotan infuriates the two by saying he never really intended to give up Freia, but the giants demand some kind of substitute payment, and Fasolt is in love with Freia. His smarter but more ruthless brother Fafner is more interested in some other payment.
Freia's brothers Donner, god of thunder and the god Froh rush in to defend Freia and threaten the giants, but Wotan urges them to avoid violence. Runes and treaties are carved on his magic spear. Loge(lo-ghe), the shifty and cynical god of fire comes in and Wotan desperately asks him to fix the mess. Loge is a very crafty fellow. He explains that Alberich has renounced love ,stolen the Rhinegold and enslaved the Nibelungs and will soon threaten the gods with his power. The Rhinemaidens have explained this to him, and they are still mourning the loss of the gold.
Loge comes up with a clever plan: he and Wotan will descend into Nibelheim, home of the Nibelungs, steel the gold and the magic ring Alberich has forged and give the gold in payment to the giants. The ring Alberich has made from the gold has given him boundless wealth, enabled him to enslave the dwarves, and do pretty much anything he wants. Wotan and Loge descend into the earth and come to Nibelheim, where the third scene begins.
Alberich has terrified and enslaved the nibelungs and forced them to work endlessly mining the gold in mine shafts. He has created the Tarnhelm, which enables him to assume any form at will, become a shape shifter, or become invisible. His brother Mime (mee-me) is the best Nibelung smith, and he treats him cruelly, and has forced him to make the Tarnhelm and do anything he wants to get richer and achieve power.
Wotan and Loge meet the terrified Mime, who tells them of Alberich's terrible deeds and how he has enslvaed the dwarves. Alberich enters and looks suspicially at Wotan and Loge. They say they have heard of the mighty deeds Alberich has accomplished and are curious. Loge asks the dwarf to demonstrate the Tarnhelm; he transforms himself into a giant serpent. Then Loge asks him if he can change into something tiny. Foolishly, Alberich transforms himself into a toad, and is caught ! Coming back to human form, he realizes that he has been diuped. He is told that he must relinquish the ring to gain his freedom, but refuses. Wotan brutally grabs the ring from him and says he now has supreme power.
But the furious Alberich lays a terrible curse on the ring. Any one who possesses it shall be pursued by misfortune and ruin. Every one will lust for the ring's power, but no one will ever be happy with it. The curse will last until Alberich gets the ring again(which will not happen). Alberich orders the dwarves to bring the gold so it can be given to the giants and rushes off furiously.
Fourth and last scene: Wotan and Loge have returned to earth and are welcomed by the other gods. But Fasolt and Fafner, who had carried off Freia in the meantime, return with her, demanding payment. Loge is his usual crafy self and causes dissent between the brothers. Fasolt is in love with Freia and will miss her. She is covered with gold, and when she can no longer be seen, the gold has been payed and she is free to return. But the two lumbering giants argue over fair payment, and Fafner strikes Fasolt with his mighty club ,kills him, and greedily demands the gold. The curse has already started to work....
Then Erda, the earth goddess and mother of wisdom appears from inside the earth and warns Wotan of the terrible curse. He must give up the ring or the gods will be destroyed. Wotan resolves to spend more time with the earth goddess and learn more.
The gods are now ready to enter Walhall, and the god Donner invokes the thinderclap and a magic rainbow bridge appears for the gods to enter the mighty edifice. Wotan is deeply troubled but he and the gods enter Walhall magestically. Loge cynically observes that the gods are hastening to their end. From the distance, the Rhinemaidens are heard lamenting the loss of the gold. Wotan responds angrily but stricken with conscience, and Loge cynically offers the maidens residence in Walhall in a joking way, and the gods laugh. The opera ends magestically, but the curse will be wreaking havoc eventually. To Be continued.
Recently, there was a discussion at classicalmusicguide.com , to which I regularly contribute about the renowned conductor Valery Gergiev . There is a current thread about him, and one contributor was harshly critical of this sometimes controversial maestro. He stated that a concert by the Kirov Orchestra conducted by Gergiev while on tour in New York was a disgrace. The orchestra played poorly and the program was changed at the last minute.
I responed, saying that conductors and orchestras can be erratic at times, and that touring is a very difficult experience, hectic, stressful and full of difficulties and inconveniences. The response was that if a conductor can't be on form every performance, he or she has no business appearing before the public in concerthalls. I responded by saying that this individual had obviously never been a professional classical musician, and had no idea of how difficult this life can be.
That's right. Being an internationally famous conductor may seem like a glamorous life, or being the member of a world-class orchestra, or an opera diva, violinist pianist etc, but you're always under terrific pressure and stress. Travelling around the world and touring is no picnic. As every one knows, conditions at airports are very difficult. It's hard enough to fly for your vacation, but frequent touring is a hassle among hassles. Constantly staying in different hotels with less than great food, waiting for flights, the delays etc, are difficult enough. But tours are really stressful for orchestras, and even the world's best orchestras can have off nights on tour.
Even when not touring during the season at your orchestra's regular concert hall, performing in an orchestra is stressful enough. There is plenty of physical fatigue; musicians often complain of difficulty with muscles, tendons and other ailments brought out by performing on stringed instruments, and they are sometimes prone to things like capral tunnel syndrome etc. Brass players are subject to the strain of constant pressure on the lips from playing. I know this myself from experience performing; the lips become tender and sore from mouthpiece pressure during rehearsals and performances, and they need time to recover overnight.
Horn players always have to worry about missing notes and whether they will be able to get get that next high note without spattering it. That's pretty stressful. So if you go to a concert, give the musicians a break.
Near the end of the 19th century, Richard Strauss was the hottest composer in Germany, Europe or anywhere. He had written an acclaimed but often controversial series of symphonic poems such as Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Death and Transfiguration, Also Sprach Zarathustra, based on Nietzsche, and Don Quixote based on Cervantes. You may remember the classic Stanley Kubrick film 2001-A Spzce Oddysey, which used the majecstic opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra).
Strauss was also one of the leading orchestral and operatic conductors of the day, and was music director of the Royal opera in Berlin. He was a friend of Kaiser Wilhelm. He had yet to achieve success in opera; but starting in the early 20th century his operas Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier became world famous, and he had written many beautiful songs for voice and piano.
But his next symphonic poem aroused considerable controversy. It was an autobiographical work called "Ein Heldenleben", or a Hero's Life. (A more accurate transltion from the German would be a heroic life). This is an ambitious work for a very large orchestra including 8 horns, 5 trumpets, plenty of harps, a tenor tuba, as well as the usual winds and brass in the orchestra. Critics accused Strauss of egotism. and writing a loud, bombastic score; many still do ! It's in six continuous sections: The hero; which introduces the composer(or is it some generic hero?), in all his confidence and swagger. Then come the hero's adversaries. Here, shrill,sour woodwinds represent the hero's opponents and critics. It sounds very nasty and sarcastic, and is supposed to represent the pedantic conservative music critics who gave Strauss so many terrible reviews. The next section is the hero's companion, representing Pauline, the composer's wife, who was once a famous soprano. There is an elaborate and difficult part for the concertmaster, or lead violin in the orchestra which poortrays her in all her different moods. Sometimes she is coquettish, affectionate, and sometimes petulant , but the two really love each other. Then, distant trumpets announce the approaching battle between the hero and his adversaries. A furious battle ensues, but the adversaries are decisively beaten.
Then, the hero reites from his hectic life, and the music pecomes calm and peaceful. Strauss quotes from his previous tone poems as a sort of in joke, and his first opera Guntram, which had been a fiasco and which lay dormant for decades. In the final section, the hero supposedly takes leave of this world, and all ends quietly.
Was Strauss actually being egotistical in this outrageous work? I don't think so. He was actually using a lot of tongue in cheek humor. Whatever the composer meant, Ein Heldenleben is great fun. It's viscerally exciting and meltingly lyrical by turns, and the huge orchestra provides a wealth of color. It's a real workout for virtuoso orchestras, and the solo violin part is always on auditions for an orchestra's concertmaster, as well as the juicy but difficult horn parts at horn auditions. There is even a competition for solo horn players called the Heldenleben competition !
Many eminent conductors have recorded Ein Heldenleben, and is it any wonder? I have a recording by the composer himself with the Vienna Philharmonic from the 1940s , when he was about 80, and still active both as composer and conductor. Other great conductors who have recorded it include his disciples and friends, Karl Bohm and Clemens Krauss, and more recent ones by Herbert von Karajan, Rudolf Kempe, Zubin Mehta, Sir Georg Solti, and others. You can't go wrong with any of these recordings.
More Posts Next page »