Category Archives: Puccini

Opera High Notes

Program Notes for May 4, 2019 Concert, by Loann Scarpato

Opera is a hybrid art form. It uses vocal and instrumental music, the theatrical arts of acting, scenery, costume, lighting; and, often, dance to tell a story. For most audience members, the high points are undoubtedly the spectacular arias and ensembles sung by the principal characters. But the less-applauded choral and orchestral portions serve important dramatic and logistical purposes. They move the story along by providing a sense of time and place and by setting a mood. The crowd scenes involving the chorus and the orchestral overtures and interludes have practical functions as well. Latecomers get seated during an overture; principal singers sometimes get a rest or a costume change during a choral number; audiences are re-engaged after an intermission by the prelude to the next act. Each of the numbers presented on this concert program fills at least one of these roles and sometimes several.

Richard WAGNER: “Freudig begrüssen” (Arrival of the Guests) from Tannhäuser (1845)

Landgrave (Count) Hermann of Thüringia

The title character is a medieval German minnesinger (“love-singer”), one of the knightly poets and minstrels who composed and performed songs of courtly love. There was an historical Tannhäuser, but little is known about him other than the legends that grew up around him. Wagner used those legends, along with the lore of the minnesingers’ song contests, to create a musical drama about conflict between chaste and erotic love. The opera provides plenty of musical declamation on both sides of that aisle, and both Sigmund Freud and Queen Victoria admired it. In the “Arrival of the Guests” scene, a parade of noble couples enters the singers’ hall of Wartburg Castle to greet their host, Landgrave (Count) Hermann. Castle, hall, and count are all historical, and so also may be the singers’ contest that is about to begin.

Tannhaüser from a 14th-century anthology of minnesinger poetry

Wartburg Castle

Photo by H.U. Schmitt of the Singers’ Hall in Wartburg Castle

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: Overture to King Stephen (1811)

This was not a fully-staged opera, but rather commissioned incidental music for a partly-spoken, partly-sung drama about the first king and sainted national hero of Hungary. The occasion was the opening of an elaborate new theater in Budapest in 1811, and the ulterior motive was flattery of its royal patron, the Habsburg Emperor Franz I. Beethoven seldom engaged in nationalistic writing, but there are two Hungarian-flavored themes here: an andante con moto introduced by a solo flute and a syncopated presto reminiscent of a whirling folk-dance. It is said that on his deathbed the 11th-century King Stephen lifted the Holy Crown of Hungary with his right hand and prayed to the Virgin Mary to protect his subjects. After he was canonized by Pope Gregory VII, his right hand and arm became holy relics. The crown was spirited out of Hungary during World War II for safekeeping and stored at Fort Knox until 1978.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis of the “Holy Right” hand of St. Stephen

King Stephen I of Hungary

The crown of Hungary

Giuseppe VERDI: “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco (1841)

Painting by Gebhard Fugel of the Babylonian Captivity

This, Verdi’s third opera, is the Biblical story of the “Babylonian Captivity,” when the ancient Israelites were captives of the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzer II after his forces invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 586 B.C.E. In a dungeon in Babylon, the enslaved Hebrews sing nostalgically of their homeland.  At some point this chorus gained the status of a patriotic hymn, and periodically it is proposed as Italy’s national anthem. It was sung in the streets of Milan as Verdi’s funeral procession passed, and it’s one of the very few opera choruses that is routinely allowed an encore, with audiences sometimes encouraged to sing along.

Verdi’s funeral procession in 1901

Georges BIZET: “Les voici!” from Carmen (1875)

Painting of a Toreador and admirer

This opera about a fiery Spanish gypsy, her fickle loves and violent death, is set in the streets and taverns of 19th-century Seville. Crowd scenes in operas often serve to depict a social milieu which makes the drama of the main characters credible. The “Entrance of the Toreadors” from Carmen is an example. It’s not only a spectacle, with street urchins capering about and cheering crowds welcoming the parade of alguaciles (public officials), chulos, banderilleros, and picadors (all members of the quadrilla, the team that assists each matador).  It’s also a demonstration of the rock-star popularity of bullfighters in Seville, something Bizet’s French audiences may not have been familiar with. Carmen is nothing if not a show-off, so of course she wants to flaunt very publicly her spot on the arm of the acclaimed espada (swordsman) Escamillo, thereby setting in motion the ensuing tragedy.

1875 French illustration of Carmen

Alexander BORODIN: “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor (1887)

Painting of Igor’s defeated army

Borodin’s only opera is an historical drama about a medieval Russian prince who was defeated and captured by the Polovtsian Khan Konchak. Konchak is trying to persuade Igor to become his ally, so he treats his captive as an honored guest and stages a grand entertainment in his honor, the ballet scene from which the “Polovtsian Dances” are drawn. Two different groups of people are represented by the chorus in this scene. The group singing “Glory, honor to our Khan!” are Konchak’s own people. The group singing the “Stranger in Paradise” theme are slaves who have been abducted by Konchak’s raiders and are forced to dance for his guests. They sing of their homeland far to the south.

In the camp of Konchak

Video of a staging by the Kirov Opera and Ballet

Giacomo PUCCINI: Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut (1893)

Set design for Act 2: Geronte’s house in Paris

This tragic opera was Puccini’s first great success. The title character, a naive country girl, has fallen in love with an impoverished student, Des Grieux, but she is enticed away from him to become the pampered mistress of a wealthy old Parisian, Geronte. Des Grieux finds Manon in Paris and she agrees to run away with him. But Geronte discovers their plan and has Manon arrested for “stealing” the lavish jewels he has given her. The penalty is deportation to the French colony of Louisiana, which, for some reason, Puccini imagined to be a desert. The intermezzo is played between acts two and three, where there is a major scene change from Geronte’s elegant house to a squalid waterfront prison.  

Set design for Act 3: Waterfront

Manon’s death in Louisiana (which Puccini imagined as a desert)

Giuseppe VERDI: “Triumphal Scene” from Aida (1871)

Poster for Aida

One of the elements of grand opera is spectacle, the visual grandeur provided by towering sets, ornate costumes, lavish props, and the movement of many people, both singers and supernumeraries, on and off and around the stage. Sometimes there are even animals involved, and ballets are a common part of such scenes. One of the grandest spectacles in opera is the “Triumphal March” in Aida. It includes ranks of soldiers, captives in chains, dancers, chariots, horses, even elephants — whatever the stage can hold, the production budget can provide for, and the building inspector permits. It also displays, musically and choreographically, the power of a kind of corporate character, the Chorus of Priests, whose implacable, stepwise treading theme recurs at the end of the opera when the priests condemn the hero and, unwittingly, the heroine to death. The most over-the-top staging of this scene on record was mounted in an open-air stadium in Shanghai in 2000. It employed a cast of 2200 humans, an elephant, camels, lions, tigers, and horse-drawn racing chariots. The audience of 50,000 watched through binoculars.

Photo by FSJKler of a 1999 German production

Trumpets custom-made for the opera

Video of the scene from a production in Verona

Music for Romantics

APRIL 16, 2016 CONCERT — Music for Romantics / Loann Scarpato

The Romantic period in Western music history was long – about 100 years from the early 19th century on into the 20th – and so densely populated with composers, virtuosi, genres, and forms that it is impossible to characterize succinctly. Advances in the design and fabrication of musical instruments increased their power and brilliance, and ensembles grew in size. The sound and configuration of players that we think of as “orchestral” began in the Romantic era. The palette of instrumental color and the dynamic range available to composers expanded tremendously, encompassing effects from the ethereal shimmer of tremolando strings at the very edge of audibility to an overwhelming wall of sound punctuated by the blare of brass and undergirded by thundering percussion. Composers took advantage of these capabilities for many purposes, one of which was the full-on expression of emotion. In European literature and visual arts, the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and balance had given way to an aesthetic that favored freedom of individual expression, the more intense the better, and music followed suit. Certainly emotion had not been absent from earlier music, but beginning with Beethoven composers used everything at their disposal to portray the heights and depths of human feeling, and audiences were happy to be carried along, not only applauding and cheering but weeping, fainting, and even sometimes rioting as the occasion moved them.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Preludio Sinfonico in A, Opus 1
One very direct musical correlate of emotion can be found in melody, especially when sung by the human voice or an instrument approximating it, and one of music’s greatest melodists was Giacomo Puccini. He could easily have been a character in one of his own operas. He was an unruly youngster, often expelled from school for misbehavior, and even as a conservatory student he was fined for skipping classes. Left fatherless at five, he helped his mother support their large family by earning money as soon as he could. At sixteen he was playing the organ in local churches and scandalizing the faithful by weaving operatic hits into his voluntaries. Like the young Brahms, he moonlighted as a pianist in altogether less reputable establishments, where he acquired the lifelong smoking habit that would eventually kill him. To keep himself in tobacco, he pilfered organ pipes and sold them for scrap metal. Then, to disguise the thefts, he had to improvise some rather odd music during services. Instead of assuming his father’s old position as church music director in his hometown of Lucca, Puccini headed for the bright lights and big cities of the opera world. His personal life was so chaotic as to lead one biographer to create a dedicated index entry for “Puccini, Giacomo – Affairs and scandals,” and there are quite a few listed. He was equally undisciplined in his work habits, preferring to hunt, drink, and play cards. He and a friend cheated by humming tunes whose pitches were a code that told what cards they were holding. Puccini composed so fluently that he was able to get away with procrastinating until the eleventh hour, and then he scrawled out his commissions in such haste that his illegible scores were the despair of copyists and publishers. After his operas made him wealthy, he owned multiple homes and liked fine clothes and fast cars, which he sometimes crashed. He wrote relatively little non-operatic music, most of it early in his life and none of it well-known, but it all sounds as if it belongs on the stage.

If, for instance, one were to imagine the Preludio Sinfonico as an opera scene and then asked to describe what sort of a scene it was, probably most people would say it sounded like a love scene, one with some pathos and yearning, perhaps involving unrequited love, or lovers parting, or lost love remembered. It was composed in 1882 as an examination piece for the Milan Conservatory when Puccini was 24. Although it owes something to Wagner and Massenet, who were both extremely popular in Italy at the time, it is recognizably Puccini from first note to last. The long melodic line seems to unspool endlessly, rising and falling back repeatedly without ever quite coming to rest. This is music that projects an intensely inward state and thus is “Romantic” to the core.

Listen to a performance by the Fulda Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Simon Schindler.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) Helios Overture, Opus 1Helios

A painting of Helios in his chariot

“Silence and darkness – then the rising sun with a joyous song of praise – it wanders on its golden way – and sinks quietly into the sea.”

This is the inscription the Danish composer wrote in the score of his Helios Overture. It’s an example of a new genre that arose during the Romantic era, the free-standing concert overture, often with an extra-musical “program” or plot (like, for instance, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture that we performed in May 2012 or the Brahms Academic Festival Overture from Dec. 2012). Nielsen wrote the piece in 1903 while on a trip to Athens. From his room overlooking the Acropolis he could see the sun rising out of the Aegean and was inspired to set to music the legend of the Greek sun-god. Each day, according to the myth, Helios drove across the sky in a gleaming golden chariot pulled by four fiery horses. Along the way he kept track of his great herds of white cows and sheep (the clouds) as well as the doings of mortals on the earth below. At day’s end he boarded a ship with his chariot and tired team. They rested during the night as they sailed back around the world to Helios’ eastern palace, where they would begin their journey anew. The piece is a great crescendo-diminuendo, rising out of the darkness in C to a scintillating climax in E and then returning to shadows and back to C. Oddly, at its first performance it was not altogether well received, because to listeners accustomed to excesses of bombast and sentimentality, it didn’t sound “Romantic” enough.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) Karelia Suite, Opus 11: Movement 3, “Alla marcia”

Coat_of_arms_of_historical_province_of_Karelia_in_Finland.svgThe Karelian coat of arms

This is an example of another phenomenon of the Romantic era, the use of music as a vehicle for the expression of nationalist feelings. Finland in Sibelius’ day had had a long history of domination first by Sweden and then by Russia. A movement for Finnish independence was gathering strength, and Sibelius was right in the thick of it. In 1893 he was asked to write incidental music for a series of historical tableaux to be presented at a “lottery soirée,” a form of entertainment cum fundraiser cum political rally that has no counterpart today. Ostensibly held to benefit various charities, these gatherings were actually demonstrations of Finnish solidarity in the face of Russian hegemony, with music, drama, dancing, plenty of eating and especially drinking, and hundreds of door prizes. Lavish tableaux vivants dramatized Finnish myths, history, and landscapes to the accompaniment of specially composed music.

Karelia is a region of southeastern Finland, much contested between Sweden and Russia, that represented the cradle of Finnish civilization, the homeland of its ancient myths and epics, and the symbolic center of the burgeoning nationalist movement. The “Pro Carelia” lottery included eight tableaux depicting events in Karelian history from 1293 to 1811. The soirée, the elaborately produced scenes, and Sibelius’ music were a smashing success with the well-lubricated audience. By the time the evening ended with the singing of the Finnish national anthem, Sibelius said the music could barely be heard for the cheering, stamping, and shouting. He later arranged three of the musical episodes into the Karelia Suite. The “Alla marcia” depicted troops marching to besiege an ancient castle. Sibelius originally titled this section “March to an Old Motive,” but the old tune has never been found. Taken out of context, this is “easy listening;” in its original setting, it was immensely effective protest music.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Messa a Quattro Voci con Orchestra (Messa di Gloria)

Lucca-italy-Torre_Guinigi-view6A view of Puccini’s home city of Lucca in Tuscany

Puccini wrote the Mass in 1880 as his graduation piece for the first music school he attended in his Tuscan hometown, Lucca. The “Credo” movement had been composed two years earlier. He wasn’t required to submit a liturgical composition; an instrumental or theatrical piece would have been equally acceptable. But given his work habits, perhaps it’s not surprising that he chose a composition for which a third of the labor had already been done. The Mass clearly shows the melodic gifts that would make Puccini’s operas so affecting, as well as his assured handling of instrumental color and texture. It’s particularly gratifying for the choral singers, to whom Puccini assigns passages that in an opera would be solos or ensembles sung by the principals: the “Crucifixus” and “Et unam sanctam” sections of the “Credo,” for instance, and the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” part of the “Gloria.” Musical programming practices seem to have been quite free in Italy at the time, even when performances took place in church, where Puccini’s Mass had its only hearing during his lifetime. On that occasion, he inserted a completely unrelated composition into the middle of the Mass, because it suited the event (the feast day of Lucca’s patron saint). In that spirit, we are taking the “Gloria” movement out of its liturgical sequence and performing it last, because it makes a most suitable finale.