WDBX Opera Overnight – Verdi, Prokofiev

English: Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso in &q...

Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso in La forza del destino (1869), an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Date of photo unknown (the signature is by Ponselle) (Image via Wikipedia)

We started tongiht with a rather popular piece by Giuseppe Verdi, La forza del destino, translated as “The Force of Destiny”.  It was based on an 1835 play by the Spanish playwright Ángel de Saavedra, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino, and premiered on Nov 22nd, 1862 in the Bolshoi Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, which had commissioned Verdi to write the opera.  Verdi later made revisions (the original 1861 score was never performed as written until new critical editions of the various revisions were assembled in 2005), and the version most commonly heard was premiered in Milan in 1869.  It is a frequently performed piece, and the overture is also part of the standard repertoire for symphony orchestras.

There are a number of superstitions that surround the opera, many of them involving the death of American baritone Leonard Warren during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1960.  Luciano Pavarotti, being rather superstitious, notably refused to take on the lead tenor role of Don Alvaro for that very reason.

Tonight’s recording features a large cast, led by Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Shirley Verrett, Giorgio Tozzi, Ezio Flagello, with the RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus as conducted by Thomas Schippers.

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Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Picture c. 1918. Image via Wikipedia

Our second opera of the evening is a recording that I diligently pursued for about a month, with excellent results. Sergei Prokofiev wrote The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33, in 1919, the result of a commission by the Chicago Opera Assciation, using a Russian libretto that was based on the Italian play L’amore delle tre melarance by Carlo Gozzi.  While he was writing for an American audience, his English was so problematic that he ended up writing the opera in French.  It was premiered in 1921 in Chicago, with Prokofiev himself conducting.

Prokofiev’s career and biography is an interesting story, one that takes place in stages.  His early compositions are often strikingly forward looking and avant garde, of which tonight’s opera is one.  He left Russia in 1918, as he saw little room for his experimental music with the Bolsheviks, and for a number of years he lived in the United States, and then in Paris, holding a position as one of the more visible Soviet exiles.  But by the mid 1930s he had grown homesick, and returned to the Soviet Union permanently in 1936.  This is in spite of the fact that the Soviets were repressing artists and musicians, and Prokofiev was treated no differently.  But while Prokofiev’s work was less experimental in later years, he still wrote some exquisitely beautiful music, most notably his various piano concertos and sonatas, many of whom were written with the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter in mind (Prokofiev named his own son Sviatoslav).  Several of his later works clashed somewhat with the official Soviet line, or had hidden meaning that didn’t mesh well with the goals and ideals being promoted as the Soviet way of doing things – quite a courageous thing to do in the Stalin-controlled Soviet Union.

Since the opera’s initial composition, it has since been translated and recorded in the original French, English, and Russian.  The recording that we are hearing tonight is of the Russian version, a 2001 recording that features a rather large cast that includes Evgeny Akimov, Larissa Diadkova, Mikhail Kit, Konstantin Pluzhnikov, Larissa Shevchenko, Vladimir Vaneev, Alexander Morozov, Zlata Bulycheva, Lia Shevtsova, and Anna Netrebko in one of her early recordings (she is in only two scenes, but her character is an important character, and she was in quite fine voice).  Valery Gergiev leads the Kirov Orchestra & Chorus.

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