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Every opera lover enjoys a performance more when accompanied by a knowledgeable friend. In this indispensable guide, well-known opera critic Charles Osborne provides exactly that. Osborne fills in the details on 175 of the world’s most frequently performed operas, including facts about the composer and the music, a plot outline, accounts of famous performers, and much more.
"This book is exactly what the title claims: an opera lover's companion. Reading it is like going to the opera with a knowledgeable friend who tells you enough to make you want to see the piece but not so much you're drowned in superfluous detail."—Richard Fawkes, Opera Now
"What this invaluable book contains is the ideal rundown on 175 operas from Auber's Fra Diavolo to Zimmerman's Die Soldaten, in each case putting the work in context within the composer's development, with a list of characters, a short synopsis and pointers towards the most imortant arias, duets and ensembles, all in a personal congenial tone, like unto an operatically wise and loving uncle."—Denby Richards, Musical Opinion
“An erudite, instructive and unpretentious guide.”—Michael Kennedy, The Sunday Telegraph
"It’s hard to imagine any other book on the subject more informative and helpful to the average enthusiast. . . . This book is one you’ll cherish."—Books in Canada
Fra Diavolo, ou L'hôtellerie de Terracine (Fra Diavolo, or The Inn of Terracina) opéra comique in three acts (approximate length: 3 hours)
Fra Diavolo, a bandit chief tenor Lord Cockburn, an English traveller tenor Lady Pamela, his wife mezzo-soprano Lorenzo, an officer tenor Matheo, an innkeeper bass Zerline, his daughter soprano Giacomo, a bandit bass Beppo, a bandit tenor
LIBRETTO BY EUGÈNE SCRIBE; TIME: 1830; PLACE: THE COUNTRYSIDE NEAR ROME; FIRST PERFORMED AT THE OPÉRA-COMIQUE, PARIS, 28 JANUARY 1830
The composer of forty-eight operas, most of them in a light vein and written in collaboration with the librettist Eugène Scribe, Auber was one of the leading figures in the development of nineteenth-century French opera. His Gustav III (1833) is the work whose libretto Verdi made use of for Un ballo in maschera twenty-six years later. Le Dominonoir (The Black Domino, 1837) has one of Auber's most elegant scores,and a performance in Brussels in 1830 of La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) is said to have sparked off the Belgian revolution.
Fra Diavolo, the most successful of Auber's operas when it was first staged in 1830, had by 1907 been performed more than nine hundred times at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Alessandro Bonci and, later, Tito Schipa were famous Diavolos. The opera is still to be encountered, especially in France, Germany and Italy, and in 1969, making his San Francisco debut, the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda was a greatly admired Diavolo. In 1933 those great comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy starred in Fra Diavolo, a highly amusing movie burlesque of the opera, with its principal numbers retained. Laurel and Hardy played Stanlio and Olio, two wandering vagrants who become accomplices of Diavolo (performed by Dennis King, a popular American operetta tenor of the day). The film turns up occasionally on TV and still retains its ability to entertain.
Act I. A tavern. The bandit Fra Diavolo, calling himself the Marquis of San Marco, is involved in a plan to steal money and jewels from two English travellers, Lord and Lady Cockburn. (Diavolo was based by Scribe on a real-life bandit, Michele Pezze, who flourished in southern Italy around 1810.) At the inn where the English couple are staying, in the vicinity of Terracina, Diavolo contrives to remove Lady Pamela's diamond necklace while she is wearing it. A sub-plot involves Zerline, the innkeeper's daughter. She is in love with Lorenzo, a poor officer in the Roman dragoons, but is being forced by her father to marry Francesco, a rich farmer.
Act II. Zerline's bedroom. Diavolo, still posing as the Marquis, enters Zerline's room, hoping to gain access from it to the rooms occupied by the English couple, and is joined by his fellow bandits,Beppo and Giacomo. When his presence is discovered he pretends to have been summoned by Zerline to a rendezvous, thus arousing Lorenzo's jealousy.
Act III. The mountains nearby. Fra Diavolo conceals his instructions to Beppo and Giacomo in a hollow tree. The wedding procession of Zerline and Francesco appears, and Diavolo's two followers find their instructions and mingle with the guests, among them Lorenzo who is in despair at having lost his Zerline. Betray- ing themselves by talking carelessly, the two bandits are arrested and forced to give their chief the signal to appear. When Diavolo suddenly emerges on the rocky hillside he is shot by Lorenzo's dragoons and falls to his death. (In Auber's original ending Diavolo is merely taken prisoner.) But the opera ends satisfactorily for Lorenzo and Zerline, who are allowed to marry.
The most attractive numbers in Auber's light, tuneful and, in places, Rossinian score include a rousing drinking song at the beginning of the opera and, later in Act I, a charming aria, 'Voyez sur cette roche', in which Zerline describes to the supposed Marquis the exploits of the bandits. An Act I duet for the aristocratic English couple is amusing, and so is the quintet that follows it. Diavolo's aria at the beginning of Act III is a real tour de force, giving the tenor fine opportunities for vocal display. Throughout this comic opera Auber's delightful melodic facility is well in evidence.
Recommended recording: Nicolai Gedda (Diavolo), Mady Mesplé (Zerline), Jane Berbie (Lady Pamela), Thierry Dran (Lorenzo), Remi Corazza (Lord Cockburn), Jules Bastin (Matheo), Michel Hamel (Beppo), Michel Marimpouy (Giacomo), with the Jean Laforge Chorale Ensemble, and the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Marc Soustrot. EMI CDS7 54810-2. Nicolai Gedda brings his lyrical charm and high-ranging tenor to Diavolo, Mady Mesplé is a faultless Zerline, and Remi Corazza a delightful Lord Cockburn, though his English accent comes and goes.
SAMUEL BARBER (b. West Chester, PA, 1910 - d. New York, 1981)
Vanessa opera in four acts (approximate length: 2 hours)
Vanessa soprano Erika, her niece mezzo-soprano The Old Baroness, her mother contralto Anatol tenor The Doctor baritone Nicholas bass Footman bass
LIBRETTO BY GIAN CARLO MENOTTI, BASED ON A STORY BY ISAK DINESEN; TIME: AROUND 1905; PLACE: AN UNSPECIFIED NORTHERN COUNTRY; FIRST PERFORMED AT THE METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE, NEW YORK, 15 JANUARY 1958
A nephew of the famous contralto Louise Homer, and himself a baritone (taught by his aunt), Barber began composing while still a child, and later studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He showed a particular interest in vocal music throughout his career, and an early work, his setting for voice and string quartet of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach in 1931, made his name known outside the United States. It was, however, not until the 1950s that he composed his first opera. He was a friend of the opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti, and it was to a large extent at the instigation of Menotti that he composed Vanessa, for which Menotti wrote the libretto, based on a story in Seven Gothic Tales by the Danish short-story writer Isak Dinesen (published in 1934). Vanessa was staged at the old Metropolitan Opera House, New York, in 1958, and later in the same year at the Salzburg Festival. A revised version in three acts had its premiere at the old Met in 1964, but it is the original four-act opera that is now usually performed. When the Metropolitan Opera moved to its new home at Lincoln Center in 1966, Barber was commissioned to compose the opening opera, Anthony and Cleopatra. Unfortunately, it was generally considered a failure.
The entire action takes place at Vanessa's country manor house.
Act I. Vanessa, her mother the Baroness and her niece Erika are awaiting the return of Anatol, Vanessa's lover who left her twenty years ago. The Anatol who arrives, however, is the son of Vanessa's lover who is no longer alive. Mistaking the young man for his father, Vanessa asks if he still loves her and is devastated when she realizes her mistake. Her niece Erika entreats Anatol to leave, but he refuses.
Act II. A month later. Erika confesses to the Baroness that Anatol seduced her on the night of his arrival, and that she refused his offer of marriage. Vanessa and Anatol return from ice-skating, and announce plans for a splendid ball on New Year's Eve. Erika realizes that her aunt is in love with Anatol.
Act III. New Year's Eve. At the ball, Anatol and Vanessa pledge their love in public. Erika, carrying Anatol's child, stumbles out into the cold towards the lake.
Act IV. Erika is recovering after having attempted suicide. Anatol and Vanessa, now married, are about to depart for Paris, while Erika prepares to withdraw from the world.
Barber's late Romantic style is agreeable and assured, and the score of Vanessa is rich in harmony and melodically generous, though not strongly individual. The opera is composed as individual numbers linked by arioso or recitative, and the finest number is a dramatic quintet in Act IV ('To leave, to break, to find, to keep').
BÉLA BARTÓK (b. Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, 1881 - d. New York, 1945)
Duke Bluebeard's Castle (A kékszákallú herceg vára) opera in one act (approximate length: 1 hour)
Duke Bluebeard bass Judith, his wife mezzo-soprano Prologue spoken role
LIBRETTO BY BÉLA BALAZS; TIME: THE LEGENDARY PAST; PLACE: A ROOM IN DUKE BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE; FIRST PERFORMED AT THE OPERA HOUSE, BUDAPEST, 24 MAY 1918 (IN A DOUBLE BILL WITH BARTÓK'S 1917 BALLET The Wooden Prince)
Most of the major works of Bartók, the foremost Hungarian composer of the twentieth century, are orchestral or instrumental. Of his three pieces for the stage, all of which date from the early part of his career, two - The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin - are ballet scores. The one-act Duke Bluebeard's Castle, composed to a libretto in Hungarian, is his only opera.
The character of Bluebeard is taken from the fairy tale 'La Barbe-bleue' in Charles Perrault's 1697 collection Les Contes de ma Mère l'Oye (Tales of Mother Goose). The symbolism of Balazs's text is open to more than one interpretation, but the work is generally understood as an allegory on the essential loneliness of the human condition. This short opera, lasting less than an hour, was composed in 1911. However, it had to wait until 1918 for its first production, after which it was not performed again in Hungary for nearly twenty years, because the country's reactionary regime would not allow the librettist's name to be credited since he was a socialist, and Bartók would not allow performances if it were not.
A speaker introduces the action, which takes place in the vast windowless hall of a Gothic castle with seven huge doors leading from it. Through a smaller door, Duke Bluebeard enters with his new wife Judith, whom he leads by the hand. She seems nervous of him, but when he gives her a chance to reconsider her decision to share his life she insists that she will stay with him for ever. As she begins to regain her courage, she asks that the seven doors be opened to allow light and air into the hall.
Bluebeard refuses, but Judith persuades him to give her the key to the first door. The castle seems to emit a sigh as she opens the door to reveal a torture chamber, graphically conjured up by a beam of red light from beyond the door and, in the orchestra, harsh scale passages from the woodwind and xylophone. On the walls of the chamber there is blood, but Judith, undeterred, interprets the red as being the colour not of blood but of dawn. She reaffirms her love for Bluebeard and demands the remaining keys.
The second key unlocks the door to Bluebeard's bronze-coloured armoury, its weapons bloodstained. When Judith opens the third room, a golden treasury, she enters it and emerges with a jewelled robe and a crown. The fourth door opens to reveal the bluish light of a garden on whose flowers there is blood, and the fifth opens on the dazzling white light of Bluebeard's kingdom. But there is blood even here, in the clouds hanging over the kingdom.
Although warned by Bluebeard not to continue, Judith next opens the sixth door, to the accompaniment of harp and clarinet arpeggios, revealing a lake which Bluebeard tells her contains the water of tears. He takes her in his arms and attempts to dissuade her from opening the seventh and last door. Judith asks him if he has loved other women before her. When he evades her question, she demands the key. As she opens the seventh door, the light in the hall becomes dimmer, and three beautiful women, Bluebeard's former wives, step forth. Bluebeard addresses them as his loves of the morning, noon and evening of his life, and assures Judith that she, the most beautiful of them all, is his last love, the love of his night-time. Judith follows the other wives back through the seventh door, which closes behind them leaving Bluebeard finally alone to face eternal darkness.
Bartók's powerful score, with its wide range of colour and its voice parts written in an expressive arioso, is intensely dramatic - the magnificent C-major blaze of sound from the orchestra when the fifth door is opened is a superb moment.
Recommended recording: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Bluebeard), Julia Varady (Judith), with the Bavarian State Orchestra, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. DG 2531 172. 'The passionately insistent voice of Varady and the sad, foredoomed tones of Fischer-Dieskau carry the drama', wrote Arthur Jacobs in Opera. Wolfgang Sawallisch brings out superbly the inner richness of the score.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (b. Bonn, 1770 - d. Vienna, 1827)
Fidelio opera in two acts (approximate length: 2 hours, 15 minutes)
Florestan, a prisoner tenor Leonore, his wife, alias Fidelio soprano Rocco, a gaoler bass Marzelline, his daughter soprano Jacquino, assistant to Rocco tenor Don Pizarro, governor of the prison baritone Don Fernando, minister of state bass
LIBRETTO BY JOSEPH VON SONNLEITHNER AND GEORG FRIEDRICH TREITSCHKE, BASED ON JEAN-NICOLAS BOUILLY'S LÉONORE, OU L'AMOUR CONJUGAL; TIME: THE LATE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY; PLACE: A PRISON NEAR SEVILLE; FIRST PERFORMED IN ITS FINAL FORM, AS FIDELIO, AT THE KÄRNTNERTORTHEATER, VIENNA, 23 MAY 1814 (TWO EARLIER VERSIONS, BOTH ENTITLED LEONORE, FIRST PERFORMED AT THE THEATER AN DER WIEN, VIENNA, 20 NOVEMBER 1805 AND 29 MARCH 1806)
Beethoven, generally regarded as one of the greatest composers, concentrated on symphonic, orchestral and chamber music, producing nine symphonies, sixteen string quartets, thirty-two piano sonatas, five piano concertos and a violin concerto which are central to the experience of most music lovers. Less at ease with vocal music, in which it seems his imagination was hampered by the physical limitations of the human voice, he completed only one opera, Fidelio, at a period in his life when he had already composed his third symphony and his first group of six string quartets.
When, during the winter of 1803-4, his attention was drawn to a libretto, Léonore, ou L'Amour conjugal, by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, which had been set by French composer Pierre Gaveaux and performed with great success in Paris in 1798, Beethoven abandoned his opera Vestas Feuer, of which he had written no more than the first scene. He had Bouilly's libretto translated into German and revised by the Viennese court secretary Joseph von Sonnleithner, and by the end of January 1804 he was at work on his Leonore.
Excerpted from The Opera Lover's Companion by CHARLES OSBORNE Copyright © 2004 by Charles Osborne. Excerpted by permission.
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