A life at the opera

A Life at the Opera

Il Trittico

Opera, as an art form, has a long history in Italy, and other parts of Europe, dating from more than 400 years ago. Alhough styles have changed over the years, the essential elements consist of music and words, together with any other art forms that can be accommodated.

When I mention a specific opera or collction of operas, such as Il Trittico, you can be sure that many fine performances are available on YouTube. Similarly, particular musical items, such as O mio babbino caro, are there for your enjoyment, sung and played by famous singers and orchestras.

Il Trittico was first performed 15 years before I was born and I would have seen it performed in Auckland when I was about 20. Two of the three works which comprise this three-part opera evening, have faded from my memory but, over the years, I have retained a close connection with Gianni Schicchi, the only comic opera by Giacomo Puccini.

Gianni Schicchi

This resourceful man and his daughter Lauretta were judged to be of a lower class than the wealthy Donati family, led by the patriach Buoso Donati. Lauretta hoped to marry Rinuccio, a member of this family but was out of her league unless Schicchi could provide a generous dowry. She sang the wondeful aria O mio babbino caro to her father. This is not so much a song of daughterly affection as a threat to drown herself if she does not get her own way.

Schicchi has a chance to indulge his daughter when Buoso dies and leaves his fortune to a monastery. The family persuade Schicchi to impersonate the dead man and dictate a new will to a notary with poor eyesight. He gives family members the bulk of the estate but diverts some plum items to himself. Although he gets away with it and can afford to gentrify Lauretta, he is doomed, according to Dante, to an eternity in hell.

Gianni asks the theatre audience what they think. Maybe he deserves to be treated more lightly after getting his own back on the Donati snobs and giving opera lovers an entertaining evening.

La Bohème

Puccini's earlier opera is about the Bohemian Life and some fellows who live this life. It's very hard not to like the band of would-be artists, writers and composers who populate a tiny garrett in Paris but, in real life, you might never want to meet such indolent young men. They would rather get their landlord drunk than pay the rent.

Rodolfo has more work to do on a poem he is writing and tells his fellow Bohemians to go on ahead to a cafe which, we suspect, they really won't be able to afford. And then, as he sits and works alone, a scene of pure magic unfolds.

What's that noise outside the door? On the landing a young woman is searching for her key on the floor. Rodolfo goes to help her and in the dark their fingers touch. Che gelida manina. How frozen your little hand is. Rodolfo introduces himself in this beauiful aria. I am a poet. What is a poet? Someone who builds castles in the air. But how do I live? I live. I have heard this performed by some of the greatest operatic tenors in the world but I can't understand why Vivo (I live) is not sung with a sense of triumph and pride.

But what about you? In her reply, Sì, mi chiamano Mimì, Lucia tells him her name, although people call her Mimi, and that she is a seemstress who makes clothes for wealthy ladies. Then they sing together O soave fanciulla and their love, at first touch, is cemented. For me my love for this young couple, and for their turbulent, and eventually tragic, life together, began at the first notes they sang.

They join the other Bohemians at the cafe where Mimi is readily accepted as one of them. At the next table an old Roue takes his place, accompanied by Musetta, a former girl friend of Marcello. Looks are exchanged and Musetta decides to change her allegiance back to her previous lover. She sings her famous waltz song Quando me'n vo' . This is no Beautiful Blue Danube waltz but is, at the same time, both seductive and falsely tragic. Marcello is ready to accept her back into his life but she has to decide how to get rid of her paramour. This is solved by pouting about some shoes she saw in a shop a few minute's walk away. When the old man returned from his wild goose chase, Musetta had gone, as had the Bohemians, but the bills for both tables were waiting for him to deal with.

I will not attempt to follow the lives of Mimi and Rodolfo, through all the turns of passion and pain and jealousy and joy, overlaid with the deterioration of Mimi's health through consumption. Her short life ended in the same garrett where she had first found love.

The Mozart-Da Ponte operas

If sex, politics and religion are subjects to avoid in polite conversation, then a discussion of the life and work of Da Ponte, Mozart's greatest libretist, could be impolite in each of the three ways. He certainly involved himself in political intrigues and he was at the same time a womaniser and a Roman Catholic priest.

Don Giovanni

This story of a dissolute nobleman has all the ingredients sex, politics and religion, except for the politics and religion. When the curtain comes up, Don Giovanni is forcing himself on Donna Anna inside her mansion while the entrance is being guarded by his servant Leporello who sings Notte e giorno faticar. Beethoven, in his Diabelli variations, discovered and exploited a similarity between Leporella's song of a servant's discontent and Diabelli's cheerful little waltz. But I digress. The scene goes on to include a sword fight between Giovanni and the father of Donna Anna, Il Commendatore, a good and noble man. This leads to the death of the great man and the escape of the Don.

The operatic story which starts with this exploit in the present, also contains a remembered exploit from the past, and a thwarted exploit intended for the future. When the Don stumbled across a peasant wedding party, he decided that seducing the bride, Zerlina, would be something he could do and he started off by kidding her about the better prospects she would have with him than with her fiance Masetto. The next step would be to hold her hand: La ci darem la mano. She replied in this duet that she could but perhaps she shouldn't. As they sang together she softened and agreed to go with him. But Masetto interrupted and thwarted their plans and her priority had to change to sweetening him. She did this with the flirtatious and mockingly apologetic Batti, batti, O bel Masetto.

The subject of the exploit from the past, Donna Elvira, believed that she and Giovanni were actually married and that he has deserted her. She is hunting him down either to obtain revenge or to repair a broken relationship. She is very confused but that is her nature. When Leporello hears her bemoaning her fate, he lets her know that she isn't the first and she won't be the last. He presents a calatogue of his master's conquests Madamina, il catalogo è questo. The list contains names from many countries including 1003 from Spain alone. Elvira is shocked and humiliated to see her own name amongst this number. She soon teams up with Anna and her fiancé, Don Ottavio, to bring about the exposure and downfall of the Don who has destroyed all their lives.

I should have mentioned Ottavio earlier but he is an easy person to overlook, except for two magnificent arias. He is a less forceful character than other players in the opera. Giovanni, is larger than life and pushes himself to the limit of human behaviour. Don Ottavio, on the other hand, even when he came to support Donna Anna after her ordeal and the death of her father, is quiet and understating and a strict adherent to his correct role and conduct in society.

The aria Il mio tesoro, which appeared in the first (Prague) production, is addressed to Anna and assures her of his love for her and his resolve to avenge her loss. Because of the different capabilities of the tenor who sang Ottavio's part for the later Vienna production, a different aria Dalla sua pace, was substituted. In modern performances, both of Ottavio's great pieces are performed.

Cosi fan tutte

All I will say about this third opera of the Da Ponte-Mozart collaboration, is that it contains many wonderful arias, duets, and other ensembles. Amongst these is the trio Soave sia il vento. If there is anything more beautiful in all music, I don't know what it is.

Le nozze di Figaro

The Figaro plays of Pierre Beaumarchais were controversial both before and after the French revolution. Before, because they put a fictional aristocrat, Count Almaviva, in a bad light and after, because the use of titles, such as count, was proscribed. At the time Da Ponte and Mozart worked on Le nozze, the original Marriage of Figaro was banned in most of Europe. The opera iself was subject to censorship and watering-down of the text was necessary.

At the start of the story, Figaro, with his fiancée Sussana, is measuring up the room, Cinque, dieci, venti, that the count has provided for them to begin their married life. How kind he is, Figaro supposes because, when he is called by his master, it will only be a short walk and when the countess needs the help of Sussana,the same will apply to her. But then Sussana reminds Figaro that Almavia is their lord and is thinking about reclaiming a feudal right he thought he had and applying it in the case of Sussana. Instead of Almaviva ringing the bell for Figaro, or the countess for Sussana, the count is likely to ring the bell for Sussana. When this has sunk in, Figaro addresses an imaginary count and sings what he could not say to his face, Se vuol ballare, signor Contino, Dance if you wish, Mr Little Count, but I'll call the tune.

In addition to Figaro, Sussana, the Count and the Countess, the other members of the court include

  1. Cherubino is a young dandy with a precocous interest in older women, espcially the countess. He appeals to her and to Sussana to explain to him what love is Voi che sapete che cosa è amor
    1. Fidelio

      This Singspiel by Beethoven has to be regarded as a special case, because it is his only veture into the operatic genre. Perhaps the quartet from Act 1, Mir ist so wunderbar, can be used to introduce some of the main characters and say what it is all about. The quartet is in canon form and the four singers enter in turn.

      1. Marzelline is the daughter of the jailer Rocco. She mistakenly thinks that Leonore is a man and, even more mistakenly, that Leonore is in love with her.
      2. Leonore is disguised as a man named Fidelio and works as an assistant to Rocco, and is in the prison for one reason only: to try to find her husband Florestan who is believed to be unjustly imprisoned. She finds it very awkward that Marzelline has taken a liking to her.
      3. Rocco, the head jailer is very pleased to see his daughter take an interest in his new assistant.
      4. Jaquino works at the prison. He is dismayed to see his hope of future happiness with Marzelline slipping away.
      5. This rather unlikely scene seems a poor start to the great hymn to freedom and justice and married love which is Fidelio but as the voices of the four singers pass over you, you can believe anything. Other people, besides those in the quartet, are

      6. Don Pizzaro is the corrupt governor of the prison.
      7. Don Fernando is the Minister of State. Towards the end of the opera he will arrive to carry out an inspection in the light of reports of abuse and cruelty of the prisoners.
      8. Florestan, the husband of Leonore, is held in the deepest dungeon.

      During an absence of Pizarro, Leonore persuaded Rocco to let a group of prisoners enjoy a few moments of sunlight and fresh air. Her hope of seeing Florestan among them was dashed. O welche Lust, sung by the prisoners, is a great cry for freedom.

      When Pizarro receives early warning of the imminent arrival of Don Fernando to inspect the prison, he sets about getting rid of Florestan entirely. This murder is something that Rocco would not do. Pizarro then orders Rocco and Leonore to dig a grave in the floor of Florestan's cell, and he will do the murder himself.

      In the second and final act of Fidelio, Florestan appears for the first time. In Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!, he sings about the overwhelming darkness and goes on to recall his life In des Lebens Frühlingstagen

      As he collapses into a troubled sleep, Rocco and Leonore enter his cell and start digging the grave. When they pause from this work, Fidelio has the opportity to verify that the prisoner really is Florestan. Eventually Pizarro enters the cell armed with a dagger and confonts his intended victim. Leonore steps between them and reveals her hidden pistol. "Before you kill him, you must kill his wife". During the delay arising from this confrontation, the trumpet fanfare is heard announcing the arrival of Don Fernando and his entourage. Pizarro is arrested and the lovers are united. During the rejoicing, they sing the marvellous duet O namenlose Freude in which they express their nameless joy.

      Der Rosenkavalier

      Items to work on in the future

      1. Complete Don Giovanni
      2. Complete Figaro
      3. R. Strauss Rosenkavalier
      4. J. Strauss Die Fledermaus
      5. Shakespeare operas
      6. Falstaff (Verdi)
      7. Operas inspired by Goethe
      8. Les Hugeunots
      9. Voltaire and Candide (Bernstein)
      10. Ballad operas
      11. Beggars opera and Threepenny opera