Our first opera of the evening (which was originally to be the second, except for a technical glitch that forced me to rework tonight’s lineup) is a work by Christoph Willibald Gluck, and his first major reform opera. He wrote Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762 as part of an effort, along with other composers and dramatists, to get away from the opera seria trend, refocus operas on human drama and passion, and make the words and music to be of equal importance. His efforts were wildly successful, and he is seen as being a big influence on Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and Wagner, and on German opera in general, even though this actually qualifies as French opera. Variations on the plot used in Orfeo were also used in The Magic Flute, Fidelio, and even in Das Reingold. So it can be said that the opera that we are about to hear constitutes one of the major turning points in the history of opera.
Tonight’s recording is a 1993 recording that features Sylvia McNair (sop), Derek Lee Ragin (counter-tenor), and Cyndia Sieden (sop). The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists are directed by John Eliot Gardiner.
Our next opera is the only opera written by the great Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, and is considered to be one of his masterpieces. Mussorgsky began writing Boris Godunov in 1868, using a play by the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin as its basis. He submitted it to the Russian censors in 1870. His original submission was rejected by the censors for various reasons, ostensibly because it did not have a major female role, so Mussorgsky engaged in a radical expansion, adding multiple scenes, a female lead, and expanding several other female roles. This second version was premiered on January 27, 1874 with great success. Although it left the standard repertory for a while after Mussorgsky’s death, the efforts of the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin resurrected it, and it has been performed regularly ever since. It is a showpiece for the great bass singers, with multiple lead bass roles, and also has numerous strong choral parts. Beyond the preeminence of the bass parts (and this is one of the great bass roles in the entire operatic repertoire), the real star of the show is Mussorgsky’s writing, as I have difficulty imagining any other operatic work that comes close to achieving the sort of regal, grand Russian style that Mussorgsky achieved here.
Earlier this year we played an archival recording from the 1920s that featured Feodor Chaliapin. Tonight we’re going to hear a 1972 live recording that features another one of the great historical basses, the Bulgarian Nicolai Giaurov, along with bass Mark Reshetin, Aleksandr Vedernikov, Ludovic Spiess, Ruza Baldani, and Antonin Grigoriev leading a large cast. The RAI Rome Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is directed by Boris Khaikin.