We’re going to start the evening with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, The Magic Flute. This opera was premiered in September of 1791, using a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, who also was the original Papageno. Mozart had been involved with Schikaneder’s theatrical troupe since 1789, and constructed the opera so that it could be sung by both virtuosos and ordinary comic actors. The notable exception is the Queen of the Night role, which was originated by Mozart’s sister in law Josepha Hofer (sister of Mozart’s wife Constance, both of whom were half-sisters to composer Carl Maria von Weber), and is noted for its difficulty, which includes a rare high F6 in the aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen. In this manner the opera takes the form of a singspiel, with both spoken and sung elements. The opera is infused throughout with a number of Masonic elements, which should not be surprising as Schikaneder and Mozart were both in the same Masonic lodge. It was an immediate success, and had already been performed 100 times by November of 1792.
Tonight’s recording is a well-regarded set that was made in 2005, and features a fine cast of current generation singers, including Dorothea Röschmann (a soprano with a lovely voice, who can range from Mozart to Wagner), Christoph Strehl, Erika Miklósa (a noted Queen of the Night specialist), Rene Pape (Sarastro), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Papageno), Julia Kleiter (Papagena), and Kurt Azesberger (Monostatos). The Mahler Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Claudio Abbado.
Our second opera of the evening is Madama Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini. The opera used a libretto by frequent Puccini collaborators Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, and was based in part by a story by John Luther Long, which had been dramatized by David Belasco, and was premiered at La Scala in Milan on February 17, 1904. It was poorly received due to lack of rehearsal time, so Puccini made revisions, including splitting the 2nd act into two parts. The revision was premiered on May 28, 1904 and was quite successful. Puccini made other revisions over time, and eventually produced five different revisions, with the fifth now considered as the “standard version” that is most frequently performed, although the original 1904 version is also occasionally staged. It currently ranks as the 8th most performed opera in the repertory, and the Act 2 soprano area “Un bel di Vedremo” is one of the most popular soprano arias in the literature.
It is interesting to note the location of the opera. Puccini enjoyed exotic locations, and as a result many of his operas actually take place outside of Italy (even though they are still sung in Italian). So, like with Turandot, you have a notably ethnic character that is rarely sung by a person of the same ethnicity. The difference in ethnicity is usually resolved through the use of makeup, although this has not always been the case (Japanese opera singer Tamaki Miura was well known for her performances in the title role between 1915 and 1920). Given the popularity of the Un bel di vendremo aria, the opera is considered a favorite vehicle for major soprano stars, especially Italian sopranos. Also, as with Turandot, Puccini infused a number of local folk tunes into the music, and one will also hear the use of the Star Spangled Banner as a lietmotif when Pinkerton, the lead male character, first enters the action.
Tonight’s performance is from 2009 (in a lovely package), and features Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann (a rather popular German tenor with excellent vocal power), Enkelejda Shkosa, Fabio Capitanucci, Gregory Bonfatti, and Raymond Aceto. Antonio Pappano conducts the St. Cecilia Academy Orchestra & Chorus.