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 – Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Day 1; Puccini, Britten, Barber

The giants seize Freya. One of Arthur Rackham'...

The giants seize Freya. One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations from 1910 to Wagner’s Das Rheingold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight we shall be starting a series that I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time – perhaps as long as 17 years, the length of time that I’ve been hosting radio programming here at WDBX.  For the first time since I’ve been here, we are going to do a Ring Cycle.  The Ring Cycle, of course, refers to Richard Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, The Ring of the Nibelung.  Wagner considered it as a trilogy with an Vorabend (“ante-evening”, or a preliminary evening), and he intended the cycle to be performed on consecutive nights.  The effort required of the singers is immense, without match in the operatic world, and the singers who are able to withstand the demands of a full cycle are a rare breed, and often become specialists in the music of Wagner.  This is not just because of the length of the four operas, but also because of the difficulty of the parts, which require voices of unusual range and strength.  Wagner wrote the music for the cycle over the course of 26 years, starting in 1848 and completing the cycle in 1874.  Eventually he had a theater built specifically to house productions of the cycle, and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus remains a mecca for opera lovers with its annual productions of the Ring Cycle.


A page from Wagner's autograph score of Das Rh...

A page from Wagner’s autograph score of Das Rheingold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are numerous difficult choices to make when choosing a Ring Cycle set for our show.  There are numerous recordings of the complete cycle, and there are also numerous recordings of the individual parts.  For our first Ring Cycle, I’ve acquired a set of live recordings of Bayreuth’s 1966 cycle, considered by many to be among the best recorded representations of the cycle, and which gives excellent sound quality.  So, we start with Wagner’s “vorabend”, Das RheingoldAlthough this was written as a prelude, it was actually the last of the four operas that Wagner conceived, as he planned the opera backwards, starting with the eventual death of the hero and then working back to include the hero’s youth, and the backstory of the heroine Brünnhilde.  At one point in 1851 Wagner was planning for the Cycle to be a trilogy, but by December of that year he decided that a prelude was needed.  Wagner completed the libretto by December of 1852, and a fair copy of the opera was completed on September 26, 1854.  It was premiered in Munich on September 22, 1869, and it was first performed as part of the Cycle on August 13, 1876.


Richard Wagner Festspielhaus am Grünen Hügel i...

Richard Wagner Festspielhaus am Grünen Hügel in Bayreuth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I said, tonight’s recording comes from the 1966 Bayreuth Festival, considered by many to rank among the better full-Cycle recordings.  The cast consists of Theo Adam, Gustav Neidlinger, Wolfgang WindgassenAnja Silja, Martti Talvela, Annelies Burmeister, Kurt Böhme, Gerd Nienstedt, Hermin Esser, Věra Soukupová, and Erwin Wohlfahrt.  Karl Böhm directs the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, as he did for all four operas in the cycle that we shall be hearing over the course of the next four weeks.


Italiano: Frontespizio del libretto d'opera &q...

Italiano: Frontespizio del libretto d’opera “Turandot” di G. Adami e R. Simoni musica di Giacomo Puccini – edizioni G. Ricordi & C. Milano – Prima rappresentazione alla Scala di Milano 25 aprile 1926 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For our second opera this evening, we’re going to hear the last composition by Giacomo Puccini, Turandot.  Puccini began composition in January of 1921, using a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni.  He had completed all but a final duet by March of 1924, but was dissatisfied with the text for the duet.   He finally received a version of the text that he found satisfactory on October 8th, but two days later was diagnosed with throat cancer.  He continued writing while undergoing what was then an experimental radiation treatment, but died of a heart attack on November 29th, 1924.  He left 36 pages of sketches, along with instructions for how it was to be completed and whom should complete it – the last part of which Puccini’s son objected to.  The job was eventually handed to Franco Alfano, whose contributions were edited by conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had worked extensively with Puccini in the past, and who conducted the premiere.  Although there have been a number of recent attempts at revising this last portion, none have managed to stick, and the edition with Alfano’s contribution is the version that is usually heard.


Tonight’s performance is a 1966 recording that features top vocalists Birgit Nilsson (whom we’ll be hearing a lot from over the next few weeks, as she is prominent in our Ring Cycle, just not tonight’s recording) and Franco Corelli, two of the greatest voices of their era, along with Bonaldo Giaiotti, Renata Scotto, Angelo Mercuriali, and the Rome Opera House Orchestra & Chorus under the baton of Franco Molinari-Pradelli.


Our next piece is a short song cycle by Benjamin Britten, written for what he described as “high voice and orchestra”.  Our Hunting Fathers, Op. 8, was based on a paper Britten wrote as a schoolboy, titled  “Animals”.   The paper was so controversial in its pacifism that it got Britten expelled from school, but pacifism remained a life-long passion for Britten, and he held the work in such high regard that he often referred to it as his “Opus 1”.  He wrote it for orchestra, even though he had never had done such a composition before, and the work demonstrates a great degree of skill for such arrangements.  Tonight’s recording features Phyllis Bryn-Julson with the English Chamber Orchestra.


English: Leontyne Price (b&w) by Jack Mitchell

Leontyne Price, photographed by Jack Mitchell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our last work of the evening is another short song cycle, this time by Samuel Barber.  Despite and Still, Op. 41, was one of Barber’s last compositions, and was written for and dedicated to Leontyne Price, who had originated a number of Barber’s works.  Price premiered the piece in 1969, and she also sang the piece at Barber’s memorial service in 1981.  Tonight’s recording is by Thomas Hampson, with John Browning accompanying on piano.


WDBX Opera Overnight – Verdi, Prokofiev

English: Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso in &q...

Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso in La forza del destino (1869), an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Date of photo unknown (the signature is by Ponselle) (Image via Wikipedia)

We started tongiht with a rather popular piece by Giuseppe Verdi, La forza del destino, translated as “The Force of Destiny”.  It was based on an 1835 play by the Spanish playwright Ángel de Saavedra, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino, and premiered on Nov 22nd, 1862 in the Bolshoi Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, which had commissioned Verdi to write the opera.  Verdi later made revisions (the original 1861 score was never performed as written until new critical editions of the various revisions were assembled in 2005), and the version most commonly heard was premiered in Milan in 1869.  It is a frequently performed piece, and the overture is also part of the standard repertoire for symphony orchestras.

There are a number of superstitions that surround the opera, many of them involving the death of American baritone Leonard Warren during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1960.  Luciano Pavarotti, being rather superstitious, notably refused to take on the lead tenor role of Don Alvaro for that very reason.

Tonight’s recording features a large cast, led by Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Shirley Verrett, Giorgio Tozzi, Ezio Flagello, with the RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus as conducted by Thomas Schippers.

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Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Picture c. 1918. Image via Wikipedia

Our second opera of the evening is a recording that I diligently pursued for about a month, with excellent results. Sergei Prokofiev wrote The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33, in 1919, the result of a commission by the Chicago Opera Assciation, using a Russian libretto that was based on the Italian play L’amore delle tre melarance by Carlo Gozzi.  While he was writing for an American audience, his English was so problematic that he ended up writing the opera in French.  It was premiered in 1921 in Chicago, with Prokofiev himself conducting.

Prokofiev’s career and biography is an interesting story, one that takes place in stages.  His early compositions are often strikingly forward looking and avant garde, of which tonight’s opera is one.  He left Russia in 1918, as he saw little room for his experimental music with the Bolsheviks, and for a number of years he lived in the United States, and then in Paris, holding a position as one of the more visible Soviet exiles.  But by the mid 1930s he had grown homesick, and returned to the Soviet Union permanently in 1936.  This is in spite of the fact that the Soviets were repressing artists and musicians, and Prokofiev was treated no differently.  But while Prokofiev’s work was less experimental in later years, he still wrote some exquisitely beautiful music, most notably his various piano concertos and sonatas, many of whom were written with the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter in mind (Prokofiev named his own son Sviatoslav).  Several of his later works clashed somewhat with the official Soviet line, or had hidden meaning that didn’t mesh well with the goals and ideals being promoted as the Soviet way of doing things – quite a courageous thing to do in the Stalin-controlled Soviet Union.

Since the opera’s initial composition, it has since been translated and recorded in the original French, English, and Russian.  The recording that we are hearing tonight is of the Russian version, a 2001 recording that features a rather large cast that includes Evgeny Akimov, Larissa Diadkova, Mikhail Kit, Konstantin Pluzhnikov, Larissa Shevchenko, Vladimir Vaneev, Alexander Morozov, Zlata Bulycheva, Lia Shevtsova, and Anna Netrebko in one of her early recordings (she is in only two scenes, but her character is an important character, and she was in quite fine voice).  Valery Gergiev leads the Kirov Orchestra & Chorus.

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