Tonight we are going to focus our efforts on two relatively recent recordings, something that I really enjoy doing. We opened the show with a lovely recording of Handel’s “musical drama” Hercules. It was composed in the summer of 1744, using a libretto by the Reverend Thomas Broughton, which in turn was based on Sophocles‘s Women of Trachis and the ninth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The work was premiered on 5 January 1745, as a concert, as opposed to a stage drama. As with other Handel works of his oratorio period, the work was written, and is performed, in English. The late-Baroque era listening public found the piece, with its description of Hercules as an uncommunicative, war-scarred veteran, and its in-depth psychological examination of Hercules’ psyche, a bit too harrowing, and the piece was a relative failure, with only two performances in its original run (Handel was forced to suspend his season), and three more between 1748 and 1752. However, such things are more common for our modern audiences, and its recent revival began in Münster in 1925. More recently, Peter Sellars directed a production of the piece for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2011, with Richard Croft and David Daniels from tonight’s 2001 recording reprising their recorded roles.
For further reading:
- Opera review: Peter Sellars stages Handel’s ‘Hercules’ in Chicago
- OperaToday reviews a Luc Bondy production of Hercules at the 2004 Aix en Provence Festival
For our next opera, we are going to hear a fairly recent recording of a great work by Giacomo Puccini, La Bohème. The libretto was written by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, which in turn was based on the novel by Henri Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème. It was premiered in 1896, in a performance conducted by a very young Arturo Toscanini. The work was immediately successful, with its modern instrumentation and soaring tenor and soprano arias and duets, and that success only increased going into the 20th century. It is ranked as the fourth most frequently performed opera in the repertoire, and is one of the major items in the repertoire for both sopranos and tenors. The great Enrico Caruso was closely associated with the lead tenor role of Rodolfo, and made recordings of several arias from the opera, going back as far as 1906. One particular aria, “Che gelida manina“, has been recorded by 500 different tenors between 1900 and 1980, and the aria’s melody is one of the most easily recognized arias in the entire repertoire. Toscanini, the conductor of the premiere, made a complete recording of the piece in 1946 that is the only Puccini opera recorded by the original director. More recently, the libretto was turned into Rent, a Tony-winning musical, in 1996.
Another point to note about Puccini’s operas is that he tends to point the way towards the verismo operatic tradition. Verismo (from the Italian “vero”, meaning “true”), denotes a shift in plots away from the supernatural (i.e. the gods and goddesses of Wagner, or the ancient Egypt of Aida), towards more realistic characterizations. The music in verist operas tend to blend together seamlessly, offering fewer identifiable solo “numbers”, although there are still some that are frequently isolated and highlighted. Verismo is associated primarily with composers such as Mascagni, Leoncavallo, or Giordano, but some experts also classify Puccini as being at least partially “verist”. There are some who describe La Bohème as possibly being the perfect “realist” opera. In any case, when one listens to Puccini, one hears a distinct progression into the 20th century. Puccini used lietmotifs to represent characters and concepts, not unlike Wagner, but his lietmotifs tended to be more static. Puccini also displayed a bit of influence from a number of contemporary trends, including that of impressionism, and this is something that I think can be heard in his arrangement of strings (not terribly unlike the Debussy that we heard last week). One might make a comparison between Puccini and Richard Strauss – there are clear differences of style and direction, but each composer’s music shows similar qualities in terms of their use of the string section, and the arrangement of the arias.
Tonight’s recording is an excellent recording from 2008, possibly the most recent rendition available, and features the great combo of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón in the lead roles, along with Nicole Cabel, Boaz Daniel, Stéphane Degout and Vitalij Kowaljow. Bertrand De Billy conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.