Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic – Program Notes – An Evening of Opera Overtures and Arias – May 6, 2016
( Scranton Cultural Center @ 8 p.m.)
By Peter Wynne
On our final musical journey of the 2015-16 season, we explore the operatic worlds of France and Italy and take a quick visit to Bohemia.
In the grand-old operatic tradition, we open our program tonight with an overture — specifically the Overture to Luisa Miller, which Giuseppe Verdi wrote in 1849 for a “melodrama tragico” that was well received but which has never become part of the standard opera repertoire. The libretto was based on a play by the German dramatist Friedrich von Schiller: “Kabale und Liebe” — “Intrigue and Love” — a title that hints at a plot too complicated to describe here in detail, but here’s the 15-second summary:
Luisa loves Carlo, who’s really named Rodolfo and who’s really in love with her. Rodolfo is tricked into poisoning her and himself, but lives long enough to do in the dastardly Wurm (“worm” in German), the intriguer who causes the disaster.
The overture is based almost entirely on the theme which opens the piece and which Verdi used again to begin Act III, albeit with a change in tempo. One of Verdi’s best overtures, it begins a bit somberly, hinting at the tragedy to come, then quickly turns up-tempo and includes a spirited passage for solo clarinet.
Next we turn our attention to another Verdi opera and one of the composer’s best known tunes — La donna è mobile from Rigoletto. The opera premiered 16 months after Luisa Miller and quickly became a big international success and has remained so ever since. Set in the 1500s, the plot revolves around the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto, his daughter, Gilda, and his employer, the ever-libidinous Duke of Mantua. The duke seduces Gilda, and Rigoletto plots a revenge that quickly goes terribly wrong. Along the way, the duke (sung tonight by tenor Scott Ramsay) discourses on women in an aria that psychologists would call a classic case of projection: “Women are as fickle as feathers in the wind…” — La donna è mobile qual piuma al vento…”
Now it’s the soprano’s turn to be patronizing to the opposite sex. As the aria Quel guardo il cavaliere from Don Pasquale begins, Norina (soprano
Meredith Lustig tonight) is reading an old romance about a knight whose heart is so utterly pierced by a lady’s glance he falls to his knees and swears he’ll never even think of another woman. With a laugh, the opera’s high-spirited young heroine declares she knows all about the magic a well-timed tear or smile can work on a man’s heart; then she goes on to prove it in composer Gaetano Donizetti’s 1843 comic masterpiece.
Once again, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra takes center stage as the ensemble and maestro Loh spirit us off to an orgy with the Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah. Camille Saint-Saens’s 1877 opera recounts in music and dance the tale of Samson, the mighty champion of Israel, and Delilah, the treacherous Philistine woman he loves, and it’s the dance side of the opera that interests us here. Shorn of his flowing locks and blinded, Samson is now the prisoner of the Philistines. What better excuse for an all-out orgy with ballet?
The setting is Gaza and the Temple of Dagon, the Philistines’ god of agriculture and fertility. In spirit, he’s a cousin of the Roman god, Bacchus, who lends his name to the ballet Saint-Saens composed. The music has a pervasive middle-eastern flavor with the composer using an Arabic musical scale, lots of percussion and, to start off the piece, an oboe solo that can bring to mind the double-reeded rhaita used in North African music.
After that exotic introduction, the music grows in excitement as the dancing quickly begins and the revels get under way, then turns almost dreamy with reminiscences of the love affair between Samson and Delilah. But sensuous romance ultimately gives way to dance music as the revelers become more and more frenzied until sated with their pleasures they fall from sheer exhaustion.
Next up is the best-known aria from an opera and a composer mostly overlooked today: O paradis from L’Africaine by Giacomo Meyerbeer. Premiered in 1865, it was the last opera of a man who was probably the most successful opera composer of his day. The plot is an elaborate blend of history and fiction (mostly the latter) revolving around Vasco da Gama. The 16th-century Portuguese explorer is being held prisoner on an island off the east coast of Africa. Still dreaming of conquest, he sings of the beauty of this place he expects to offer as a prize to his homeland and his king.
One of the most charming soprano arias in all of opera is the Jewel Song from Faust,
Charles Gounod’s 1859 retelling of the centuries-old Faust legend. The aging scholar turned handsome young swain is trying his best to lead Marguerite astray. To lure her on, Faust leaves a coffer of jewels (provided by Méphistophélès) in a spot where the young woman is sure to find them. She does and, dazzled by their beauty, tries wearing some of them, admiring herself in the mirror the devil has thoughtfully placed at the bottom of the coffer. You look like a lady, she exults, or maybe the daughter of a king.
Jules Massenet wrote more than thirty operas, of which only two, his 1884 Manon and is 1892 Werther, are staged with any frequency. The Méditation from Thaïs is the best-known number from a less-known work dating from 1894. The setting is fourth-century Alexandria, and the beautiful courtesan Thaïs has the city enthralled. The hermit and ascetic Athanaël leaves his desert hideaway determined to convince her to give up her wicked ways. He succeeds, but along the way falls hopelessly in love with her. The lovely Méditation for solo violin and orchestra is played between the two scenes of the opera’s second act, after Thaïs has spent the night searching her soul and has decided to become a follower of Athanaël.
To conclude the first half of our program, we turn to the Act One finale from La Bohème, Giacomo Puccini’s musical dream of life and love among the young artists and intellectuals living on the Left Bank of 1840s Paris. The scene is an attic garret shared by four of these bohemians, as they were styled, and it’s Christmas Eve. One of their number, the poet Rodolfo, has some hack work to finish, so he decides to stay behind while his three room-mates go off to a nearby cafe to celebrate the season. He hears a knock on the door and, when he opens it, discovers that it’s the young woman from downstairs, who offers the feeble explanation that her candle has blown out and she has no way of lighting it. She’s also out of breath from climbing the stairs and promptly faints dead away, dropping the key to her room.
After she revives, she realizes she has dropped her key, and the two of them start searching for it. The garret now is in near total darkness, Rodolfo’s candle having conveniently gone out as well. Feeling around on the floor, Rodolfo puts his hand on hers (he has already found the key) and is struck by the chill he feels.
“How cold you little hand is! Let me warm it for you,” he sings, and soon he’s telling her his life story, how he’s a poet and living in happy poverty and how his happy dreams have just now been stolen away by a pair of pretty eyes. Rodolfo’s very romantic aria — “Che gelida manina” in Italian — is interesting for reaching its dramatic climax well before its finale and then ending on quiet note.
At Rodolfo’s bidding, his neighbor now introduces herself, which is the real reason she climbed those stairs. “They call me Mimì, but my real name is Lucia,” she sings. She works at home in her tiny room, embroidering lilies and roses on silk and satin. She loves beautiful things, she says, things that talk of love and spring and poetry. Her aria, “Mi chiamano Mimì” begins gently, almost tentatively, but grows in power in its second half as she sings of the April sun in an opera where warmth and cold are recurring themes and where cold will ultimately triumph.
Rodolfo is smitten. A heartbeat later, he’s declaring his love. “Oh! lovely girl! Oh, sweet face bathed in moonlight. In you I see the dream I want to dream forever!” The orchestral passage that introduced “O soave fanciulla” now swells thrillingly as Mimi’s and Rodolfo’s voices join in unison. Then it’s back to playful byplay as the two debate whether they should spend the evening where they are or join Rodolfo’s friends at the cafe. They walk out arm in arm, proclaiming their new-found love.
The opera world remembers composer Amilcare Ponchielli for two things: for writing a first-class 1876 opera about a 17th-century Venetian ballad singer nicknamed La Gioconda and for being the teacher of or a major influence upon three of the other composers on tonight’s program: Giacomo Puccini, Umberto Giordano and Pietro Mascagni. The Dance of the Hours is the ballet music Ponchielli wrote for his opera’s lavish third-act finale. The scene is the Ca’ d’Oro, the palace of the Contarini family that still stands in Venice. The ballet has five sections, each representing a portion of the day: dawn, day, dusk, night, and morning once again.
The Dance of the Hours is probably the only opera ballet that has established a life of its own in both the concert hall as a stand-alone orchestral work, as you’ll be hearing it tonight, and in pop culture: Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia, for example, used the music for a ballet performed by tutu-clad hippos, ostriches, alligators and elephants. And in 1963, parodist Alan Sherman set words to the tune of Ponchielli’s day music with its all-too-familiar four-note theme. Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp)” hit No. 2 on the pop charts.
Antonin Dvořák’s 1901 fairy-tale opera, Rusalka, has a lake and its environs as its setting. The title character is a the daughter of Vodnik, the water spirit who rules the lake, and she tells her father she has fallen in love with a human, a prince who came and swam in the lake. She says she wants to become human so she can live on the land and be with him. Papa warns her that this is a bad idea but adds she’ll have to catch up with the witch Ježibaba and ask her for help, which she does. In the meantime, the impatient Rusalka sings her Song to the Moon, begging the goddess of all watery creatures to tell her beloved that’s she’s waiting for him, that even now she’s embracing him.
One of Gaetano Donizetti most enduring successes has been his 1835 Lucia di Lammermoor, inspired by a novel that writer Walter Scott set during the time of Queen Anne in the Lammermuir Hills near Edinburgh. Edgardo and Lucia, as they’re called in the opera, have promised to marry; she’s then tricked into marrying someone else and is so devastated she can’t even explain to her once betrothed how this happened. In the aria Fra poco a me ricovero, the distraught Edgardo goes to his family’s graveyard, where he expects to feign fighting a duel with Lucia’s brother and fall on his opponent’s sword. Imagining his beloved with her new husband, Edgardo entreats his darling to honor his ashes by never visiting his tomb or even shedding a tear for him.
No opera composer’s overtures have been welcomed more heartily into the concert hall than those of Gioacchino Rossini. His Overture to Semiramide shows up frequently on concert programs, although the 1823 stage work it introduced is but seldom performed. When the Metropolitan Opera offered Semiramide in the early 1990s, for example, it was the first time the company had done so in very nearly a century. And there are reasons why Rossini overtures are popular concert pieces: His melodies are made for humming, and his craftsmanship and orchestration are simply perfect. And then there are those irresistible, signature Rossini crescendos — two of them in this overture.
Structurally, the Semiramide overture is very like the opening movement of a classical symphony in what’s called sonata-allegro form. It begins with a slow introduction, followed by a middle section with a pair of contrasting themes, followed by a recapitulation and a coda.
After some initial flourishes, the overture starts in earnest with an extended introduction in which a quartet of French horns and then the woodwinds play a hymn-like tune that Rossini took from his first act where the chorus praises Queen Semiramide. More orchestral flourishes announce the main (Allegro) portion of the overture, with the first theme here taken from the introduction to the opera’s final scene. That scene is the bloody climax of this tragic opera, but you’d never know it from that jolly introductory theme. The second Allegro theme, first played by clarinet and bassoon and then by the piccolo, is a bit more march-like but equally cheery. A long crescendo passage and a string interlude lead back to a repeat of the opening Allegro material and then that second “Rossini crescendo” before the frenetic finale.
Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème has its comic moments, although not in the selection we heard earlier, and O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi comes from the composer’s only operatic comedy, but the selection we’ll hear isn’t particularly comic. Such is life. We’re now in Florence in the year 1299, and wealthy old Buoso Donati, a very few minutes deceased, has left his fortune to the church. His would-be heirs call upon the quick-witted Gianni Schicchi, a self-made man, to come up with a more favorable will.
Schicchi is disgusted with the hypocrisy and avarice of these Florentine aristocrats and is about to leave, when his daughter Lauretta declares she intends to marry the only decent member of the family, a young man named Rinuccio. In her aria, Lauretta tells her “dear little daddy” (her “babbino caro“) that if she can’t have Rinuccio she might as well jump from the Ponte Vecchio and drown. “Pity me, Daddy,” she begs. This is one of the very few old-fashioned arias Puccini included is his very modern score, which premiered at the Met in 1918, but it’s a real show-stopper.
One of Umberto Giordano’s best-known tunes is Amor ti vieta from Fedora, his
second-best opera. His 1896 Andrea Chénier is a opera house standard, but Fedora, which premiered two years later, makes only occasional appearances. Set in 19th-century Russia, the opera is named for its heroine, Princess Fedora Romazov. Count Loris Ipanov is in love with her and urges her to return his love in this charming arietta, which is barely two minutes long. Tenor Enrico Caruso as Loris encored the piece the night the opera opened and can be heard singing the tune on a 1902 recording with the composer himself playing the piano.
Both the opera and the fedora hat find their roots in the 1882 play Fédora that French dramatist Victorien Sardou wrote for Sarah Bernhardt. The libretto of Giordano’s opera was based on the Sardou drama in which Bernhardt played the title character wearing a center-creased, soft-brimmed felt hat. The hat was quickly taken up by stylish women and those campaigning for women’s rights. It became a popular male fashion accessory only after the future King Edward VIII of England started wearing fedoras in 1924.
Italian “verismo” operas, as they’re called, emphasized quick narrative pace and true-to-life regional characters and plots. The Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana doesn’t exactly fit that description, but it fits Pietro Mascagni’s 1890 opera quite perfectly, and that opera is generally reckoned the first example of the verismo genre.
The setting is the town square in a little village in Sicily sometime in the 19th century. A church stands at one side. Before the curtain rises, the young villager Turiddu returns from military service to discover that his fiancée, Lola, has married another man, the carter Alfio. In a fit of pique, Turiddu seduces Santuzza, a young woman of the village, but now Lola and he have begun an adulterous affair. Santuzza begs Turiddu to return to her and, when he rebuffs her, she tells Alfio what’s going on.
Before the intermezzo begins, the villagers — Lola and Turiddu included — have all left the square and gone into the church to hear mass. Alfio has gone off to gather his kinsmen for what will be a stiletto fight to the death with Turiddu. The tender introduction suggests the peace of village life, and the main theme, which is based on a hymn that was heard earlier from inside the church, continues that bucolic feeling but also hints at the passions of the principal characters.
Like Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, Mascagni’s Intermezzo has gained a certain popular renown through its use in movie soundtracks like those for the 1980 Raging Bull and, two years later, The Godfather, Part III, plus a host of less notable movies and television series.
We wind up our program tonight with the Brindisi from La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi’s masterly musical account of the relationship between a celebrated Parisian courtesan and a young man who adores her. Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave called the woman Violetta Valéry, but she was a real person named Marie Duplessis, and she was the heroine of an 1848 novel and, later, play entitled La Dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas fils, who was one of Marie’s lovers.
In the opera, Violetta is giving a lavish party at her home in Paris. Among the guests is a young man recently arrived from the provinces named Alfredo Germont. (In the novel his name is Armand Duval, who has the same initials, far from coincidentally, as Alexandre Dumas.) The guests decide it’s time for a toast– a brindisi in Italian — and, when Violetta’s current protector, Baron Douphol, declines, the honor falls to Alfredo. He begins to sing in a spirited triple meter, and Violetta quickly takes up the tune in one of opera’s best-known duets.