Our first opera of the evening is widely considered to be the first opera written in the 20th century “avant garde” style. Alban Berg was a Viennese composer who was at first a student, then later a good friend of Arnold Schoenberg. He used many of Schoenberg’s methods, such as his infamous twelve-tone serialism technique, but he also brought his own ideas into his works, and his music is considered to be more emotional than that of Schoenberg’s. Both Berg and Schoenberg liked to contrast modernist techniques with older formal classical techniques. In tonight’s opera, Wozzeck, Berg does a number of very interesting things, from the liberal use of leitmotifs to the inclusion of a passacaglia in the fourth scene of Act 1, and a prelude and triple fugue in Act II. Berg also pulls out specific members from the orchestra to form a marching band and has them march onstage in Act 1 Scene 3, and then has several onstage ensembles playing in Act II. He began writing the opera in 1914, but was interrupted by the First World War, and was unable to complete the work until 1922. It was premiered with mixed results in 1925, but became successful enough that Berg was able to live on its royalties until the Nazis took control of Germany.
Tonight’s recording is from 1979, and features Eberhard Wächter and Anja Silja leading a large cast. Christoph Von Dohnányi directs the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera Chorus.
Our second opera of the evening is a work by Claudio Monteverdi. Monteverdi wrote his first full-length operas between 1606 and 1608 while he was in the service of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua. He left Mantua in 1612 to take the position of director of music at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. But while he wasn’t writing operas, he was still interested in theatrical music, and produced a shorter stage work, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, for the Venetian Carnival season of 1624-25. However, he did not return to writing full-scale operas until Venice opened its opera house in 1637, one of the first full-sized opera houses in the world. Monteverdi composed L’incoronazione di Poppea the work we hear tonight, in 1642 for the 1642-43 Carnival season, although the exact date of the premiere is unknown. There is some debate as to whether the work was completely authored by Monteverdi, as scholars have identified portions of the work that may have been written by others. Other theories suggest that the work may have been a collaboration that was supervised by Monteverdi. But in any case the work is an important one, one of the early examples of the use of historical context, and one of the first examples of the use of comedy in an opera. It was Monteverdi’s last work, and it is widely considered to be his greatest.
Tonight’s recording is from 2005, and features Arleen Augr, Della Jones, Linda Hurst, Gregory Reinhart, James Bowman, Sarah Leonard, Adrian Thompson, and Catherine Denley. Richard Hickox leads the City Of London Baroque Sinfonia.