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