WDBX Opera Overnight: Monteverdi and Strauss

Frontispiece of Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo, pr...

Front page to the 1609 version of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo

Part of our interest here on Opera Overnight is to illustrate some of the interesting history behind the form of music that we call opera.  Tonight we begin the show with one of the earliest surviving examples of opera, Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.  L’Orfeo was written in 1607 for a court performance during the annual Carnival at Mantua.  It is not the first actual opera – the first composition that is considered to have been opera was Dafne by Jacopo Peri, a lost work that was written in 1597.  It is not even the earliest surviving opera.  But it is the earliest surviving opera that is still regularly performed.

The format, structure and instrumentation of this opera are different from what we are used to.  Monteverdi designated specific groups of instruments to represent various forms of scenery and characters, with strings, harpsichords and recorders representing the pastoral fields of Thrace and its residents, while heavy brass represented the underworld and its characters.  Thus, Monteverdi employed all of the resources he had available to him at the time.  As they were still a few years removed from the Renaissance, Monteverdi followed the standard practice of the day and gave his musicians considerable freedom to improvise.  This means that each performance of L’Orfeo is a uniquely individual performance.

One may notice over the course of the opera certain patternistic flourishes that are quite typical of late Renaissance music, such as the horn arrangements (which will be recognized by anyone familiar with the numerous compositions of Giovanni Gabrielli for brass choir), or the persistent usage of certain chords and leading chordal progressions when ending musical phrases.  In this manner, the music brilliantly touches base with the achievements of the Renaissance (Monteverdi had already written five of his well-known books of madrigals by 1607, and had been the court conductor since 1602) while vividly pointing ahead to the future of music.

Tonight’s recording is from 1992 (it may have been actually recorded in 1985), and features the following cast:

Next, we have a classic 1956 recording of Richard StraussDer Rosenkavalier (“The Knight of the Rose”).  Der Rosenkavalier is a comic opera in three acts, with an original German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (a frequent collaborator with Strauss) that was loosely adapted from novels by Louvet de Couvrai and the great French playwright Moliere.  It was premiered in January 1911 in Dresden, and is quite frequently performed, with 17 different productions in 2010 alone.  Stylistically, it is a rather unique piece of music, with strong 20th century overtones, yet containing a strong waltz flavoring (even though waltzes were out of favor at the time of composition) and other components that hint of the neo-classical trend that was yet to come.  But the opera is by no means neo-classical – a composition like this could only have happened in the 20th century, with bold harmonic and compositional ideas represented throughout.

Strauss was quite fond of the female voice (if one thinks about it, most, if not all, of his operas feature females in the lead roles), and he gave female voices the two lead parts (one of which is a male character, Octavian, sung by mezzo-sopranos), and three out of the five primary roles.  The role of the Marschallin (sung here by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) is considered a tour-de-force role for sopranos.  All of this results in notable trios and duets that close out the opera.

The cast:

  • Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – one of the great sopranos of the mid/late 20th century, whom we recently heard in Don Giovanni
  • Christa Ludwig – noted German mezzo-soprano with a wide repertory range, going from Mozart to Wagner.
  • Otto Edelmann – Austrian bass, noted for his roles in comic operas, but who also did a lot of Wagner
  • Eberhard Wächter – noted Austrian baritone; like with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, we heard him a few weeks ago in Don Giovanni
  • Teresa Stich-Randall (1927 – 2007) – American soprano, who was described by Arturo Toscanini as “the find of the century”.  In 1962, she became the first American to be named by the Austrian government as a “Kammersingerin”, a title given to esteemed vocal artists.
  • Ljuba Welitsch (1913 – 1996) – Bulgarian soprano, noted for her Salome, which she performed under the direction of Strauss himself in 1944.  Unfortunately, she did not make many recordings.
  • Paul Kuen – German tenor, noted for his character roles, who did a lot of Wagner
  • Kerstin Meyer
  • Nicolai Gedda (b. 1925) – Swedish tenor, said to be the most widely recorded tenor in history, with some 200 recordings having been made, as recently as 2003.  His repertoire includes roles that are considered among the most difficult in the entire operatic repertoire.

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