Posts Tagged 'opera'

Power of the Word

Librettos, seen ‘cold’ on the page, can appear preposterous; but, Michael Oliver demonstrates, the librettist’s craft is as great as any playwright’s.

What makes a good libretto? A cynic might reply with the old maxim that if anything’s too stupid to be spoken then let it be sung, no doubt adding that quite a few marvellous operas have appalling libretti. Take Il Trovatore, for example: two rivals in love, unaware that they’re brothers; a crazed all gypsy woman who throws the wrong baby on the fire! Preposterous!

In fact, the libretto of Il Trovatore is perfectly suited to its purpose, a superbly crafted machine for bringing irreconcilable emotions into violent conflict: a machine for manufacturing pretexts for arias. Just what Verdi wanted and needed. A good libretto is one that inspires a composer to produce his finest music. It’s incomplete without the music, and to criticise a libretto without taking account of the music is like condemning a recipe without tasting the dish.

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Opera’s Romantic Crusader

Compared to Verdi he is seen as old-fashioned. But Donizetti was a great innovator and the creator of Italian romantic opera. 200 years after his birth, we ask were his 60 operas the death of him?

Things seem to have gone so smoothly for Gaetano Donizetti. Any composer who writes close on 60 operas is bound to have one or two flops, but apart from that… As an unknown 21-year-old he had an opera commissioned by the San Luca Theatre in Venice, and sung by a dream cast. His next was commissioned from the popular composer Johann Simon Mayr, who happened to be his teacher and withdrew to give his young pupil a chance.

This success attracted the attention of the impresario Domenico Barbaja, who asked for more operas (Barbaja ran three theatres in Naples) and gave Donizetti a job as resident composer. By the time he was 30 he was famous all over Italy. By the end of his career he could ask what fee he chose from any opera house in Europe. From the retirement of Rossini to Verdi’s maturity he was (with Bellini, who died very young) unquestionably the Italian composer.

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The Long Voyage to Peter Grimes

The cruel story of a Suffolk fisherman accused of murdering his boy apprentices has gripped opera audiences for 50 years. Andrew Stewart looks at the social compassion, homesickness and white-hot creativity which led to the twentieth century’s most important British opera.

Fifty years after the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, it is easy to take the work’s international success for granted. But the decision to reopen Sadler’s Wells Theatre on 7 June 1945 with a new and ‘difficult’ work was not universally approved by members of the resident opera company, back in London after a depressing, energy-sapping period of wartime regional touring.

The bleak tale of narrow-minded Suffolk folk and a ‘sadistic fisherman’ hardly seemed suitable for the restoration of operatic life to the capital. But the company’s manager, Joan Cross, kept faith with Grimes, defending it against attack from a group of hostile singers, and was rewarded by the approval of critics and public alike.

Eric Crozier, who directed the work’s original production, recalled that ‘the title Peter Grimes was not an obviously attractive one; yet on the first night and at subsequent performances an atmosphere was engendered in that theatre which in my experience was unique.’ Almost overnight, Britten was recognised as the creator of an ‘English’ work fit to hold its place in the repertoire of the world’s leading opera houses.

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The British Isles: A Musical Tour – Scotland

Hardly surprising, Scotland, with its rugged landscapes, rough seas and die-hard nationalism, has provided the inspiration for some powerfully evocative music and has enticed composers from far beyond its borders. One question begs to be asked, though: ‘Why do women in Scottish operas all seem to go insane?’ Answers on a suitably picturesque postcard, please…

Edinburgh
Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3 (‘Scottish’)
It is not just the Hebrides Overture that owes its existence to Mendelssohn’s Scottish travels – the composer’s Third Symphony was inspired by visits to the palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Park in Edinburgh. As he wrote at the time: ‘Few of my Switzerland reminiscences can compare to this; everything here looks so stern and robust, half enveloped in haze or smoke or fog.’

Perth
Bizet – The Fair Maid of Perth
Bizet’s four-act opera is set in various locations in Perth, including the city square. The plot, taken from Walter Scott’s novel of the same name but sometimes rather remote from it, revolves around a smith’s love for the local glover’s daughter, his suspicions of infidelity on her part, her subsequent madness and their eventual reunion. Contrived stuff indeed.

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The British Isles: A Musical Tour – North of England

With Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Bradford and Leeds, the North Country has some of the country’s finest cities offering a vast range of attractions. But with Northumberland, the Lakes, the Peaks, the Moors and the Dales this region has more miles of unspoilt natural countryside than any other – not surprisingly a popular place with composers then.

Liverpool
McCartney – Liverpool Oratorio
Mention music in the same breath as Liverpool and it won’t be long before the Beatles enter the conversation. Fans of the Fab Four can visit a museum, the Cavern nightclub in Matthew Street and even the National Trust house where Sir Paul McCartney was born. The venues which inspired many Beatles songs – for instance, Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane – can all be enjoyed from the Magical Mystery Bus Tour. The magnificent Anglican cathedral staged the premiere of the Liverpool Oratorio, Sir Paul’s first venture into orchestral and choral forms.

Haworth
Herrmann – Wuthering Heights
This little moorland village is the home of the Brontë sisters. The dark-stoned parsonage where they wrote their poems and novels is now a museum and centre of pilgrimage for lovers of literature. With their Byronic heroes and raw passions it is surprising that the novels have so seldom been adapted into operas. However, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights did inspire one – albeit rarely performed – from Hitchcock’s film score writer Bernard Herrmann. Pop singer Kate Bush had a hit with her song of the same name and Sir Cliff Richard played Heathcliff in his musical based on the novel.

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