We start the evening with a pirated work. Not the sort of pirated music that would get us in trouble, but rather an opera that was famously successful in spite of its pirated libretto. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), while not his first success, was the opera that established his reputation as a composer. It is also interesting in that it was an early example of an opera sung in German, as part of a project sponsored by the Austrian emperor Joseph II to have works performed in the German language. The libretto was originally written by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner, with numerous alterations by Gottlieb Stephanie, the director of the company which would be producing the opera, who had been tasked with finding Mozart a suitable libretto. Of course, Stephanie made all of these alterations without Bretzner’s permission, and Bretzner was very public in airing his grievances. The opera was hugely successful, although Mozart was paid a flat fee up front, and received no profits from subsequent performances.
It is interesting to note the manner in which Mozart augmented the orchestra, with bass drum, cymbals, a triangle, and a piccolo. These instruments play a notable part in the piece, starting with the opening overture. This is only natural, as the opera takes place in what we now know as Turkey, and “orientalism” was quite in vogue at the time. Hints of this can be found in representations of Masonic rituals, and a few months ago we heard another opera that was influenced by “orientalism”, Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s Zoroastre.
Outside of the instrumentation, the opera is quite challenging for the singers, as Mozart wrote the opera with some excellent talent in mind to sing the parts. The roles of Osmin (a bass part, which in one instance is required to sing low D, one of the lowest notes ever required of a singer in opera) and Konstance in particular are considered among the most challenging roles in Mozart’s catalog. Indeed, the role of Osmin was originated by Ludwig Fischer, one of the more notable basses of his day.
Tonight’s recording is from 1985, and features Matti Salminen, Peter Schreier, Yvonne Kenny, Wilfried Gamlich, Lillian Watson, and Wolfgang Reichmann. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conducts the Mozartorchester und Choir of the Zurich Opera Houses.
Our second opera was extremely controversial in its day. Giuseppe Verdi was commissioned in 1850 by the La Fenice opera house in Venice to write an opera, and he eventually chose to base his work on a play by Victor Hugo, Le roi s’amuse. Hugo’s play had been banned in France, and the local authorities (Venice was under Austrian control at the time) did not take too kindly to the play’s depiction of a immoral and cynical king. After extensive negotiation between Verdi, Francesco Maria Piave (Verdi’s librettist) and the censors, they eventually agreed to move the action to the Dukedom of Mantua and to make the immoral king into a duke, so as not to risk offending anyone. With these and other changes, the work became known as Rigoletto. It was premiered on March 11, 1851, and was a major success. It currently ranks as the 10th most performed opera in the repertoire.
We complete the evening with a 1923 work by Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg’s Serenade, Opus 24, is a twelve-tone piece written for seven instrumentalists and bass vocal. Schoenberg wrote the piece in seven sections, each of which explores a traditional musical form (march, minuet, a variation, a sonnet, a dance, and a lied) while using the experimental twelve-tone compositional technique. Tonight’s recording is a 1979 recording that features bass John Shirley-Quirk, with Pierre Boulez leading the Ensemble Intercontemporain.