WDBX Opera Overnight – Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Day 1; Puccini, Britten, Barber

The giants seize Freya. One of Arthur Rackham'...

The giants seize Freya. One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations from 1910 to Wagner’s Das Rheingold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight we shall be starting a series that I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time – perhaps as long as 17 years, the length of time that I’ve been hosting radio programming here at WDBX.  For the first time since I’ve been here, we are going to do a Ring Cycle.  The Ring Cycle, of course, refers to Richard Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, The Ring of the Nibelung.  Wagner considered it as a trilogy with an Vorabend (“ante-evening”, or a preliminary evening), and he intended the cycle to be performed on consecutive nights.  The effort required of the singers is immense, without match in the operatic world, and the singers who are able to withstand the demands of a full cycle are a rare breed, and often become specialists in the music of Wagner.  This is not just because of the length of the four operas, but also because of the difficulty of the parts, which require voices of unusual range and strength.  Wagner wrote the music for the cycle over the course of 26 years, starting in 1848 and completing the cycle in 1874.  Eventually he had a theater built specifically to house productions of the cycle, and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus remains a mecca for opera lovers with its annual productions of the Ring Cycle.

 

A page from Wagner's autograph score of Das Rh...

A page from Wagner’s autograph score of Das Rheingold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are numerous difficult choices to make when choosing a Ring Cycle set for our show.  There are numerous recordings of the complete cycle, and there are also numerous recordings of the individual parts.  For our first Ring Cycle, I’ve acquired a set of live recordings of Bayreuth’s 1966 cycle, considered by many to be among the best recorded representations of the cycle, and which gives excellent sound quality.  So, we start with Wagner’s “vorabend”, Das RheingoldAlthough this was written as a prelude, it was actually the last of the four operas that Wagner conceived, as he planned the opera backwards, starting with the eventual death of the hero and then working back to include the hero’s youth, and the backstory of the heroine Brünnhilde.  At one point in 1851 Wagner was planning for the Cycle to be a trilogy, but by December of that year he decided that a prelude was needed.  Wagner completed the libretto by December of 1852, and a fair copy of the opera was completed on September 26, 1854.  It was premiered in Munich on September 22, 1869, and it was first performed as part of the Cycle on August 13, 1876.

 

Richard Wagner Festspielhaus am Grünen Hügel i...

Richard Wagner Festspielhaus am Grünen Hügel in Bayreuth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I said, tonight’s recording comes from the 1966 Bayreuth Festival, considered by many to rank among the better full-Cycle recordings.  The cast consists of Theo Adam, Gustav Neidlinger, Wolfgang WindgassenAnja Silja, Martti Talvela, Annelies Burmeister, Kurt Böhme, Gerd Nienstedt, Hermin Esser, Věra Soukupová, and Erwin Wohlfahrt.  Karl Böhm directs the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, as he did for all four operas in the cycle that we shall be hearing over the course of the next four weeks.

 

Italiano: Frontespizio del libretto d'opera &q...

Italiano: Frontespizio del libretto d’opera “Turandot” di G. Adami e R. Simoni musica di Giacomo Puccini – edizioni G. Ricordi & C. Milano – Prima rappresentazione alla Scala di Milano 25 aprile 1926 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For our second opera this evening, we’re going to hear the last composition by Giacomo Puccini, Turandot.  Puccini began composition in January of 1921, using a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni.  He had completed all but a final duet by March of 1924, but was dissatisfied with the text for the duet.   He finally received a version of the text that he found satisfactory on October 8th, but two days later was diagnosed with throat cancer.  He continued writing while undergoing what was then an experimental radiation treatment, but died of a heart attack on November 29th, 1924.  He left 36 pages of sketches, along with instructions for how it was to be completed and whom should complete it – the last part of which Puccini’s son objected to.  The job was eventually handed to Franco Alfano, whose contributions were edited by conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had worked extensively with Puccini in the past, and who conducted the premiere.  Although there have been a number of recent attempts at revising this last portion, none have managed to stick, and the edition with Alfano’s contribution is the version that is usually heard.

 

Tonight’s performance is a 1966 recording that features top vocalists Birgit Nilsson (whom we’ll be hearing a lot from over the next few weeks, as she is prominent in our Ring Cycle, just not tonight’s recording) and Franco Corelli, two of the greatest voices of their era, along with Bonaldo Giaiotti, Renata Scotto, Angelo Mercuriali, and the Rome Opera House Orchestra & Chorus under the baton of Franco Molinari-Pradelli.

 

Our next piece is a short song cycle by Benjamin Britten, written for what he described as “high voice and orchestra”.  Our Hunting Fathers, Op. 8, was based on a paper Britten wrote as a schoolboy, titled  “Animals”.   The paper was so controversial in its pacifism that it got Britten expelled from school, but pacifism remained a life-long passion for Britten, and he held the work in such high regard that he often referred to it as his “Opus 1”.  He wrote it for orchestra, even though he had never had done such a composition before, and the work demonstrates a great degree of skill for such arrangements.  Tonight’s recording features Phyllis Bryn-Julson with the English Chamber Orchestra.

 

English: Leontyne Price (b&w) by Jack Mitchell

Leontyne Price, photographed by Jack Mitchell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our last work of the evening is another short song cycle, this time by Samuel Barber.  Despite and Still, Op. 41, was one of Barber’s last compositions, and was written for and dedicated to Leontyne Price, who had originated a number of Barber’s works.  Price premiered the piece in 1969, and she also sang the piece at Barber’s memorial service in 1981.  Tonight’s recording is by Thomas Hampson, with John Browning accompanying on piano.

 

WDBX Opera Overnight – Wagner, Puccini

Richard Wagner, Paris, 1861

Photograph of composer Richard Wagner, Paris, 1861 (catalog number 007); this was taken when Wagner was in France for the premiere of Tannhauser.

We have another interesting show for you this evening, with two great operas featuring two great tenor/sopranos duos.  We begin the evening with Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.  Wagner based the libretto on a poem by Heinrich Heine, the same poet who inspired Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, although Wagner also found some inspiration in a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann,  the 15th century folk ballad Das Lied von dem Danheüser, and a collection of folk legends from Thuringia called Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thüringerlandes.  Heine published his poem in 1837, and Wagner (who wrote all of his own librettos) wrote a draft libretto in prose in 1842.  He began the composition of the music in the summer of 1843, and completed the full score on April 13, 1845.  It was premiered on October 19 of that same year, with Wagner’s niece Johanna (who had assisted him during the compositional process by singing the parts as he wrote them, thereby serving as a partial inspiration for Wagner’s vision of the lead soprano part) singing the part of Elizabeth.  The opera was not initially as successful as some of Wagner’s previous works, and he spent parts of 1846 and 1847 revising it.  He also produced a well known revision of the opera in 1860 for a special performance in Paris, and that revision was itself revised in 1875.

Grace Bumpry

Grace Bumpry, from some time in the 1960s, during a performance of Carmen

Tonight’s recording is a legendary live recording from the 1962 Bayreuth Festival.  It is commonly referred to as the “Black Venus” because of the presence of Grace Bumpry, the first black singer to appear at Bayreuth.  Along with Grace Bumpry (whose Venus is quite prominent in Act 1), we hear Wolfgang Windgassen and Anja Silja in the lead roles, along with Eberhard Wächter, Gerhard Stolze, Franz Crass, Georg Paskuda, Gerd Nienstedt, and Else-Margaret Gardelli.  The Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra is conducted by Wolfgang Swallisch, and the production was staged by Wagner’s grandson Wieland Wagner, who for years ran the Bayreuth Festival and is credited for initiating the modernist trend in Wagnerian productions (and who was in a relationship for a while with Anja Silja, tonight’s lead soprano).

Anja Silja, c. 1966

Anja Silja, c. 1966

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini's opera...

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini's opera "Turandot", from 25 April 1926. (Image via Wikipedia)

For our second opera this evening, we’re going to hear the last composition by Giacomo Puccini, Turandot.  Puccini began composition in January of 1921, using a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni.  He had completed all but a final duet by March of 1924, but was dissatisfied with the text for the duet.   He finally received a version of the text that he found satisfactory on October 8th, but two days later was diagnosed with throat cancer.  He continued writing while undergoing what was then an experimental radiation treatment, but died of a heart attack on November 29th, 1924.  He left 36 pages of sketches, along with instructions for how it was to be completed and whom should complete it – the last part of which Puccini’s son objected to.  The job was eventually handed to Franco Alfano, whose contributions were edited by conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had worked extensively with Puccini in the past, and who conducted the premiere.  Although there have been a number of recent attempts at revising this last portion, none have managed to stick, and the edition with Alfano’s contribution is the version that is usually heard.

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot, possibly for a Metropolitan Opera performance, date unknown

But a mere recounting of the music’s history fails to touch on the beauty that inhabits this music.  Puccini’s music, while a continuation of the Italian musical tradition established by such great writers as Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi, was fully modern for the 1920s.  He showed with traces of Wagnerian inspiration, but also suggesting hints of influences from Debussy and, later in his life, Stravinsky.  Puccini also had a taste for exotic locations and influences, as many of his operas were set outside of Italy, and two of them (Turandot and Madama Butterfly) were set in the Orient.  Puccini wrote demanding roles, and Turandot attracts the best sopranos and tenors.  He also had a gift for melody, and Nessun Dorma, the soaring tenor aria that helps lead off Act 3, is one of the more easily recognized melodies in all of music.

Tonight’s performance is a 1966 recording that features top vocalists Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli, two of the greatest voices of their era, along with Bonaldo Giaiotti, Renata Scotto, Angelo Mercuriali, and the Rome Opera House Orchestra & Chorus under the baton of Franco Molinari-Pradelli.