WDBX Opera Overnight: Beethoven, Puccini, Schubert

Playbill from the premiere of the 1814 version of Fidelio

Playbill of the first performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera Fidelio on 23 May 1814 at the Theater am Kärntnertor

Our first opera of the evening, Fidelio, was the only operatic work written by Ludwig van Beethoven, and it is considered to be one of his great masterpieces.  He used a libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner that was based on a work by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly (which was supposedly a true story), that had been used in two previous operas.  The subject matter fit right in with Beethoven’s revolutionary interests (you’ll remember the story of the composition of the Eroica Symphony), and in keeping with his practice, Beethoven wrote singing parts that are quite challenging and which require great vocal skill, especially the two lead parts of Leonore and Florestan (Florestan’s lines at the beginning of Act 2 are quite virtuosic, and require quite a good tenor who is comfortable and powerful in the high end of his range).

Fidelio was premiered in Vienna as a three act work on November 20, 1805.    Subsequent revisions shortened it to two acts, which were premiered later in 1805 and 1806 (with somewhat greater success), and finally in 1814.  The 1814 revision, with a premiere that featured Johann Michael Vogl and which was attended by a 17 year old Franz Schubert, was a considerable success.  The opera is noted for the four overtures that Beethoven wrote for it at various points in the revision process.  Three of the overtures have entered the regular concert repertoire, although I believe that what we will hear tonight will be the third.

Arturo Toscanini

Arturo Toscanini (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The recording history of Fidelio is fairly interesting.  Arturo Toscanini made Fidelio his first complete opera radio performance in December 1944, although he had done an abbreviated rendition a few years earlier via short-wave radio.  This performance was recorded by RCA Victor, and has been issued on LP and CD.  Toscanini’s choice of material was purposeful, as he believed that Beethoven would have been adamantly opposed to the sort of dictatorship practiced by Hitler and Mussolini.  A few years later, Wilhelm Furtwängler made similar remarks:

“[T]he conjugal love of Leonore appears, to the modern individual armed with realism and psychology, irremediably abstract and theoretical…. Now that political events in Germany have restored to the concepts of human dignity and liberty their original significance, this is the opera which, thanks to the music of Beethoven, gives us comfort and courage…. Certainly, Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician for the theater, or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary. That which disturbs us is not a material effect, nor the fact of the ‘imprisonment’; any film could create the same effect. No, it is the music, it is Beethoven himself. It is this ‘nostalgia of liberty’ he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears. His Fidelio has more of the Mass than of the Opera to it; the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a ‘religion of humanity’ which we never found so beautiful or necessary as we do today, after all we have lived through. Herein lies the singular power of this unique opera…. Independent of any historical consideration … the flaming message of Fidelio touches deeply.

We realize that for us Europeans, as for all men, this music will always represent an appeal to our conscience.”

Tonight’s recording is a 1998 recording that features Gosta Windbergh, Inga Nielsen, Wolfgang Glashof, Alan Titus, and Kurt Moll.  Michael Halász directs the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia and the Hungarian Radio Choir.

Our second opera of the evening is Madama Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini.  The opera 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.  It currently ranks as the 8th most performed opera in the repertory.

As I wrote extensively about the opera back in March when we heard a different recording of this brilliant piece of music, I am reluctant to repeat myself, when a glance at the March 26 edition of the Blogapus will suffice.  But I am struck by a few things while enjoying this gorgeous music:

  • Mirella Freni

    Mirella Freni, who made her stage debut in 1955 at age 19 (this appears to be from the ’60s)

    The piece is well known as a vehicle for star sopranos, yet the tenor role of Pinkerton really jumps out at me.  Tonight we hear Jose Carreras in the role, whereas last time we heard Jonas Kauffman, an up and coming singer at the time of that recording, who has quite arrived now – witness last week’s blog for a link to a recent review of his performance in Ariadne auf Naxos in Salzberg.  Essentially, if you like Italian tenors, you really can’t go wrong with this opera, even if the tenor isn’t the primary star of the show.

  • I mentioned something similar back in March, and I’ll say it here – I find it somewhat funny that we have an Italian composer writing an American character who sings in beautiful Italian, and even includes a Star Spangled Banner lietmotif early in the opera (and it is pretty overt – very hard to miss).  I suspect that this is most likely the only use of the Star Spangled Banner in an operatic work.  LOL
  • Back in March, our lead soprano was Angela Gheorghiu, a modern diva for our modern times.  Tonight, our lead soprano was Mirelli Freni, a childhood friend of Luciano Pavarotti, who was 52 when this recording was issued, yet was in fine voice.  I do enjoy hearing younger talent, but it is also good to hear those who have established their mastery of the craft.  I’m guessing that Madama Butterfly has special meaning for her, as she sang the showpiece aria “Un bel dì vedremo” in a singing competition when she was 10.

Tonight’s recording is a 1987 recording that features Mirelli Freni, Jose Carreras, Teresa Berganza, Juan Pons, Anthony Laciura, and Kurt Rydl leading a large cast.  The Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus is led by Giuseppe Sinopoli.

For our last recording tonight, we are going to hear a few excerpts from the German tenor Fritz Wunderlich’s legendary recording of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, a song cycle by Franz Schubert set to the poetry of Wilhelm Müller. a poet whose works Schubert used frequently (in addition to Die schöne Müllerin, Schubert also used Muller’s writings for the Winterreisse song cycle).  Wunderlich only made a few operatic recordings before his untimely 1966 death after falling down a flight of stairs, but some of his lieder and concert recordings are considered quite excellent (including a recent addition, a remastered recording of Wunderlich and the recently deceased Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau performing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Ehre live – I WILL be working on that one.. LOL); I was quite pleased to be able to pick up this remastered edition.  This recording features Hubert Giesen accompanying Wunderlich on the piano – as with much of Schubert’s lieder, the piano line plays a significant role in the music, and goes beyond simple accompaniment.  Whenever one listens to Schubertian lieder, one can gain almost as much pleasure from listening to the piano as one can by listening to the singer.

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