WDBX Opera Overnight: Strauss, Handel

Theaterzettel zur Premiere der Richard-Strauss...

Playbill from the premiere of Salome, at the Dresden SemperOpera, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our first opera tonight is perhaps one of the more controversial operas in operatic history.  Salome was premiered in 1905, and within two years was banned in London and New York.  Of course, this should not be surprising, given the opera’s infamous Dance of the Seven Veils (which is a striptease, with many modern performers finishing the scene nude), and the finale in which Salome kisses the beheaded head of John the Baptist.  Yet the music is downright exquisite, a showpiece for strong-voice sopranos, and ranks among some of the most forward-looking music of the early 20th century.

Tonight’s recording is considered one of the best available recordings of the work, featuring the legendary soprano Birgit Nilsson and and Gerhard Stolze, along with Grace Hoffman and Eberhard Wächter leading a fine cast.  Sir Georg Solti leads the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

Our next opera was financially considered one of George Frideric Handel’s greatest failures.  Ezio only received 5 performances when Handel premiered it in 1732, then fell from the repertoire and was not performed again until 1977 (a victim of the decline in popularity of the opera seria style).  Tonight’s performance is a 2009 recording with Ann Hallenberg, Karina Gauvin, Sonia Prina, Marianne Andersen, Anicio Giustiniani, Vito Priante; Il Complesso Barocco is conducted by Alan Curtis.

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WDBX Opera Overnight – Handel, Verdi, Praulens

Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy (1754)

Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy (1754) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israel in Egypt (HWV 54) is a biblical oratorio by the composer George Frideric Handel. Many historians believe the libretto was compiled by Handel’s collaborator Charles Jennens, and it is composed entirely of selected passages from the Hebrew Bible, mainly from Exodus and the Psalms.  Handel premiered it in April of 1739, one of a series of works that began with Alexander’s Feast in 1736, and which culminated in 1742’s Messiah.  Israel in Egypt came at a transition point for Handel, as the oratorios were so generally successful that he was using more choral parts and less soloists, with Part 1 of Israel in Egypt consisting entirely of choral parts.  Handel later moderated this practice, and he later made a revised version of Israel in Egypt in 1756, balancing the choral parts with solo parts, similar to what he had done with Messiah.  Tonight’s recording gives the listener both options, but we shall hear the original version, as Handel premiered it in 1739.  The recording is a truly excellent one, one of the 2013 Grammy nominees for Best Choral Recording (a well deserved nomination).  The Trinity Wall Street Church Choir and Orchestra are conducted by Julian Wachner.

Aida, one of Giuseppe Verdi‘s truly great works, was commissioned by an Ottoman governor of Egypt, and as such is set in Egypt during the Old Kingdom, and was premiered in Cairo, Egypt, in 1871.  Verdi did not write an overture for the opera, so it just dives right into the action.  It ranks as the 13th most performed opera worldwide, with more than 1,100 performances at the Met.  It was the first opera to be televised, has been made into several motion pictures, and the story was used as the basis for a musical by Elton John and Tim Rice.

Leontyne Price's Aida album cover (1962)

Leontyne Price’s Aida album cover (1962)

Tonight’s recording is a 1962 recording, featuring Leontyne Price, Jon Vickers, Robert Merrill, Rita Gorr, Franco RiccardiSir Georg Solti conducts the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro del’Opera di Roma.  The recording is not without some controversy, as some think that Solti was too bombastic with how he handled the orchestra, and that he took the opera into Wagnerian territory.  This is fairly natural, as Aida is probably the closest that Verdi came to Wagnerian proportions.  But many will argue that this may be one of the best Aida recordings available.

Our last piece this evening is a choral piece from the Danish composer Ugis Praulins.  The Nightingale is a 2010 composition that is based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen.  It was nominated for two 2013 Grammy Awards, for Best Choral Recording and for Best Contemporary Composition.  Michala Petri performs on recorder, with Stephen Layton leading the Danish National Vocal Ensemble.

WDBX Opera Overnight: 200 years of Verdi

English: The Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi Azərba...

Giuseppe Verdi, in a well-known portrait by Giovanni Boldini, 1886.

We’re going to devote tonight’s show to a celebration of the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, whose birthday was this past Thursday.  This week starts Verdi’s bicentennial year, as he was born on October 10, 1813, and there are a number of opera companies that will be prominently featuring Verdi works in their schedule for the year.  Tonight, we’re going to start the show with Aida (pronounced a – I – da), one of his truly great works.  Aida was commissioned by an Ottoman governor of Egypt, and as such is set in Egypt during the Old Kingdom, and was premiered in Cairo, Egypt, in 1871.  Verdi did not write an overture for the opera, so it just dives right into the action.  It ranks as the 13th most performed opera worldwide, with more than 1,100 performances at the Met.  It was the first opera to be televised, has been made into several motion pictures, and the story was used as the basis for a musical by Elton John and Tim Rice.  However, when you get beyond the historical info, the reality is that the opera is a musical thrill ride, demanding strong performances from strong singers – truly a great piece of music.  One of the great epic operas.

Tonight’s recording is a 1962 recording, featuring Leontyne Price, Jon Vickers, Robert Merrill, Rita Gorr, Franco RiccardiSir Georg Solti conducts the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro del’Opera di Roma.

Italiano: Libretto Luisa Miller,melodramma tra...

A period libretto for Luisa Miller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second portion of our Verdi birthday celebration will be Luisa Miller.  This opera in three acts premiered on December 8, 1849, and although it is not Verdi’s most well-known opera, it still sees regular performances.  Indeed, several performances of the opera are currently planned in celebration of the bi-centenary year that began last week.  Tonight’s recording is a 1964 recording that features Anna Moffo, Carlo Bergonzi, Cornell MacNeil, Shirley Verrett, Giorgio Tozzi, and Ezio FlagelloFausto Cleva leads the RCA Italiana Opera Chorus and Orchestra.

WDBX Opera Overnight – Verdi, with a bit of Mozart at the end

The second performance of the Requiem, at La S...

The second performance of the Requiem, at La Scala on 25 May 1874, with Verdi conducting. The soloists depicted are (left to right) Ormondo Maini, Giuseppe Capponi, Maria Waldmann, and Teresa Stolz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have two works by Giuseppe Verdi for you tonight, and we’re going to start with one of his few sacred works, his Messa da Requiem.  The work originated with the death of another great Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini.  When he died in 1868, a group of Italian composers, including Verdi, got together at Verdi’s suggestion to compile a Requiem in Rossini’s honor.  The music was prepared, with Verdi contributing the conclusion to the work, a Libera me.  However, the performance of the work was cancelled just prior to its scheduled performance in November of 1869.  A few years later, the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni passed away.  Verdi was a fan of Manzoni, and decided to revise the Libera me that he had written in Rossini’s honor and use it as part of a Requiem for Manzoni.  The completed work was premiered on 22 May 1874, with Verdi himself conducting.  While it was not a part of the standard choral repertoire for a while, it has been performed regularly since the 1930s.

Tonight’s recording is a 1965 recording that is considered to be among the best available recordings of the Requiem.  It features a great performance from the legendary Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson, along with Lili Chookasian, Carlo Bergonzi, and Ezio Flagello.  Erich Leinsdorf leads Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Chorus Pro Musica.

Title page of a libretto for an 1869 performance of Verdi's Don Carlo

Title page of a libretto for performances at the Teatro Pagliano in Florence in April–May 1869 which used the Italian translation by Achille de Lauzières

Our second Verdi work of the evening is his longest opera.  Verdi was commissioned by the Paris Opera to write Don Carlos in 1866.  He completed the music that year, but the length of the piece was already at the point where, with a ballet to be added to conform with Paris Opera traditions, it was too long.  He edited the opera down, but upon the beginning of rehearsals for its 1867 premiere, found that the opera as it then stood would run past midnight.  So he made more changes, and this version was premiered in Paris on March 11, 1867.  An Italian translation was premiered in London on June 4th of that same year.  In the following years, Verdi made numerous edits and alterations, more than he did for any of his other works.  The original edition, with 5 acts, runs in excess of four hours.  Tonight’s version, which has only three acts, runs for about 3 hours and 15 minutes.  However, in recent years, many performances of the opera have used the original French version and its initial Italian translation.

Tonight’s recording is from 1965, and features Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi, Nicolai Ghiaurov (whom we heard last week in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and who again gives an excellent demonstration of his strong bass voice), the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Grace Bumpry, and Martti Talvela.  Georg Solti directs the Royal Opera House Orchestra & Chorus.

English: Violet and yellow violets (Viola) Fra...

English: Violet and yellow violets (Viola) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We close the show this evening with a selection of songs written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  While Mozart is certainly well known for his larger scale works, he also wrote a number of art songs.  In German, the art songs are referred to as “lied” (singular) or “lieder” (plural), and Mozart was, along with Beethoven, one of the early great practitioners of the form that was at that time only beginning to develop, in conjunction with the dawn of the Weimar Classicism period of German literature.  Although he only wrote a few lied (as opposed to Franz Schubert, who wrote over 600), the songs that he wrote are quite notable for their quality, and are frequently performed in lieder recitals.  Tonight we’ll hear:

  • Das Veilchen, (“The Violet”), K. 476 – written on June 8, 1785, the only poem by the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that Mozart set to music.  The song is only 65 bars in length, and Mozart added two stanzas of his own in a brief coda.  The same poem was also set to music by numerous other composers, including Felix Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann.
  • Dans un Bois Solitaire, K. 308 – Written in 1777 – 1778 for the daughter of a flutist in the Manheim orchestra, using a five verse text by Antoine Hodart de la Motte.
  • Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling, K. 596 – written in 1791, using a text by Christian Adolf Overbeck.  The title translates as “Longing for the Spring”, and serves as a cheerful glorification of various points of the season.  The piece was actually written for children, but has achieved fame as a lied.  The theme is reminiscent of his last piano concerto, but with differences.

WDBX Opera Overnight – All Strauss, all the time

Tonight we heard two pieces by Richard Strauss that I had been trying to incorporate into the show for several months now.  The fact that I am playing them both on the same night is really just happenstance – the way things fell, they fit together pretty nicely.

Strauss with his wife and son, 1910.

Strauss with his wife and son, 1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first work of the evening is Die Frau Ohne Schatten (“The Woman Without a Shadow”).  Strauss began composition in 1911, working hand-in-hand with his frequent librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthall, who used a variety of sources, ranging from several works by Goethe to Grimm’s fairy tales and portions of the Arabian Nights set of tales.  But the composition became an extended effort, and was not completed until 1915.  Then, as Europe was in the midst of war, the piece would not be produced until 1919.  When this finally occurred, it met with mixed reaction.  The libretto was complicated and highly symbolic (something that Hoffmansthal had fought to maintain in the face of attempted changes by Strauss), the score was written for a 164 piece orchestra, and the staging is complicated and difficult, even for modern opera companies (one scene calls for children singing out of a frying pan).  Moreover, the opera calls for five top singers in the primary roles and first-rate singers in the secondary roles, something which is prohibitively expensive.

Yet, even with all these cons weighing against the work, the music itself ranks among Strauss’ most compelling works.  Strauss used a similar style of musical dreamscape to that which he achieved with Der Rosenkavalier (also written in 1911), replacing the waltzes and neo-classical staging with a sort of Wagnerian heft that few other composers could hope to achieve.  Yet the music was distinctly that of Richard Strauss, carrying stylistic tags that one hears in many of his works, operatic and otherwise.  So, while the opera is rarely staged, it is musically one of his best.

Tonight’s recording is a 1988 edition that features Rene Kollo, Cheryl Studer, Hanna Schwarz, Andreas Schmidt, and Alfred Muff, with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.

Theaterzettel zur Premiere der Richard-Strauss...

Playbill from the Premiere of Salome, Semper-Oper Dresden, 9. December 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our second opera of the evening is Salome, an opera in one act.  Strauss based the opera on his own translation into German translation of Oscar Wilde’s French play Salomé.  Wilde’s play was itself controversial, but the controversy was far exceeded by the December 1905 premier of Strauss’ opera.  In 1905, the controversy was caused by Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils“, essentially a striptease that many modern performers finish nude (others finish it in a body stocking).  This caused the work to be banned in London and New York, and Gustav Mahler was not allowed to conduct it in Vienna until 1918.  In our modern times, audience members may not be as startled by Salome’s dance as they are by the final scene, in which she famously received the beheaded head of John the Baptist (“Joachanaan” in the opera) on a silver platter and kisses it.

Richard Strauss München, 1910

Poster for a week-long festival of music by Richard Strauss, held in München, 1910. Salome is depicted holding a staff.

The title role is usually sung by dramatic sopranos (the sort usually heard in Wagnerian works), and is unusually demanding for sopranos in general.  The range goes from high B, normal for a dramatic soprano or a mezzo soprano, to a low G flat at the lowest, which normally falls in the contralto range.  Mezzos who attempt to sing this role strain to sing the higher parts, and are exhausted by the finale, which is crucial to the opera.  Hence, the soprano who is able to sing this role has to have sufficient strength to withstand the rigors of the role, leading to its popularity for dramatic sopranos.

Another interesting aspect of the role is the dance requirement established by the Dance of the Seven Veils.  The dance is such that one could easily be required to be a ballerina as well as a top dramatic soprano.  Historically, a number of sopranos have used body doubles (the creator of the role, Marie Wittich, refused both the dance and the kiss of Jochannaan’s severed head, saying “I won’t do it; I’m a decent woman.”), although some notable sopranos (i.e. Catherine Malfitano, and most recently Karina Matilla) have performed the dance themselves and finished in the nude.  But the situation, along with the vocal requirements, demonstrate the contradiction (also present in a number of Wagnerian roles) between the character’s description (that of a young woman), and the requirement for a soprano with years of training and seasoning that allow her to be able to handle the immense technical requirements of the role.

The famously dissonant chord and cadence occurring at the end of Salome's monologue at the end of the opera Salome (1905) by Richard Strauss.

Another thing of note in the opera again comes in the infamous finale.  After Salome kisses Jochannaan’s severed head, the score calls for a most unusual chord.  Marked in the reduced score shown above by the sfz marking (sfz = sforzando, a note with a sudden, strong emphasis – the word in Italian literally means “forcing”), the chord has been referred to as “the most sickening chord in all opera”, an “epoch-making dissonance with which Strauss takes Salome…to the depth of degradation”, and “the quintessence of Decadence: here is ecstasy falling in upon itself, crumbling into the abyss”.  The chord is polytonal, with a low A7 merged in with a higher F sharp major chord.  It forms part of a cadence in C sharp major, and is approached and resolved from C sharp major chords.  This is representative of Strauss’ use of keys and lietmotifs to represent characters and their feelings and emotions, and the revulsion inspired by Salome’s actions is reflected in this startling chord.

Birgit Nilsson as Salome, year unknown

Birgit Nilsson as Salome, year unknown

(Don’t get the impression that, because I talk so much about Birgit Nilsson and the title role, that the opera is all Salome.  Fact is, Jochannaan is also a premium role that requires a strong voice.  Eberhard Wächter sings rather well in this recording.  But Strauss had a tendency to emphasize the female roles, and here is no different.)

Tonight’s recording is considered one of the best available recordings of the work, featuring the legendary Birgit Nilsson (yet another work that this great soprano was noted for) in a 1962 performance that also features Gerhard Stolze as Herod, Grace Hoffman, and Eberhard Wächter as Jochannaan.  Sir Georg Solti leads the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.