WDBX Opera Overnight – Wagner, Puccini

Richard Wagner, Paris, 1861

Photograph of composer Richard Wagner, Paris, 1861 (catalog number 007); this was taken when Wagner was in France for the premiere of Tannhauser.

We have another interesting show for you this evening, with two great operas featuring two great tenor/sopranos duos.  We begin the evening with Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.  Wagner based the libretto on a poem by Heinrich Heine, the same poet who inspired Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, although Wagner also found some inspiration in a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann,  the 15th century folk ballad Das Lied von dem Danheüser, and a collection of folk legends from Thuringia called Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thüringerlandes.  Heine published his poem in 1837, and Wagner (who wrote all of his own librettos) wrote a draft libretto in prose in 1842.  He began the composition of the music in the summer of 1843, and completed the full score on April 13, 1845.  It was premiered on October 19 of that same year, with Wagner’s niece Johanna (who had assisted him during the compositional process by singing the parts as he wrote them, thereby serving as a partial inspiration for Wagner’s vision of the lead soprano part) singing the part of Elizabeth.  The opera was not initially as successful as some of Wagner’s previous works, and he spent parts of 1846 and 1847 revising it.  He also produced a well known revision of the opera in 1860 for a special performance in Paris, and that revision was itself revised in 1875.

Grace Bumpry

Grace Bumpry, from some time in the 1960s, during a performance of Carmen

Tonight’s recording is a legendary live recording from the 1962 Bayreuth Festival.  It is commonly referred to as the “Black Venus” because of the presence of Grace Bumpry, the first black singer to appear at Bayreuth.  Along with Grace Bumpry (whose Venus is quite prominent in Act 1), we hear Wolfgang Windgassen and Anja Silja in the lead roles, along with Eberhard Wächter, Gerhard Stolze, Franz Crass, Georg Paskuda, Gerd Nienstedt, and Else-Margaret Gardelli.  The Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra is conducted by Wolfgang Swallisch, and the production was staged by Wagner’s grandson Wieland Wagner, who for years ran the Bayreuth Festival and is credited for initiating the modernist trend in Wagnerian productions (and who was in a relationship for a while with Anja Silja, tonight’s lead soprano).

Anja Silja, c. 1966

Anja Silja, c. 1966

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini's opera...

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini's opera "Turandot", from 25 April 1926. (Image via 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.

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot, possibly for a Metropolitan Opera performance, date unknown

But a mere recounting of the music’s history fails to touch on the beauty that inhabits this music.  Puccini’s music, while a continuation of the Italian musical tradition established by such great writers as Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi, was fully modern for the 1920s.  He showed with traces of Wagnerian inspiration, but also suggesting hints of influences from Debussy and, later in his life, Stravinsky.  Puccini also had a taste for exotic locations and influences, as many of his operas were set outside of Italy, and two of them (Turandot and Madama Butterfly) were set in the Orient.  Puccini wrote demanding roles, and Turandot attracts the best sopranos and tenors.  He also had a gift for melody, and Nessun Dorma, the soaring tenor aria that helps lead off Act 3, is one of the more easily recognized melodies in all of music.

Tonight’s performance is a 1966 recording that features top vocalists Birgit Nilsson 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.