Operatic A-Z, part 2

9 February 2021

The history of opera abounds with stories, tales, anecdotes, facts and factoids. Here is part 2 of our random and totally subjective selection – perfect reading for the time of the ongoing Opera Rara Festival!

Let’s start with Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (almost five hours), Parsifal and Lohengrin (four hours minimum), and the four-part epic The Ring of the Nibelung (a total 15 hours). But that’s nothing compared to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s entire Licht cycle which would take around 29 hours – and is yet to be attempted! Handel’s Giulio Cesare was seen as a marathon example of Baroque opera, yet at under four-hours it seems almost brief. An excellent antidote to the Wagnerian grandeur can be found in Darius Milhaud’s The Abandonment of Ariane: written for four solo voices and choirs, the entire opera lasts just seven minutes. It can be done!

Until the 18th century, posters advertising operas were emblazoned with the names of librettists, with the composer added in small print almost as an afterthought. The authors of the wild stories abounding with intrigue, twists and turns, outrageous identity swaps, orphans found after years in obscurity, absurd divine interventions and undying passions ready to be extinguished by idle gossip or misheard word were widely – and rightly – revered.
But let us not be too harsh about the preposterous tales – librettos are a specific literary form and they make an important contribution to the success of opera as a whole. Would we be as captivated by the fates of Figaro or Don Giovanni had Mozart’s librettos been penned by someone other than Lorenzo Da Ponte? Would Carmen be as immortal (well, despite her death in the final scene – spoilers!) had she not been written Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac to Bizet’s music? Would we be so heartbroken by the fates of Puccini’s Tosca and Cio-Cio-San had they not been described by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica?

The absolute giant of 18th-century opera, Pietro Metastasio penned around 30 librettos and countless cantatas, oratorios and serenates, set to music over 800 times! His unmistakeable style, technique and dramatism, and the depth of his characters, meant that his librettos were highly sought-after by masters of the genre including Leonardo Vinci, Nicola Porpora, Antonio Caldara and Johann Adolph Hasse. Metastasio’s staggering popularity lasted until almost the end of the 18th century, fading only following Gluck’s operatic reform, the growing influence of opera buffa and a shift in audience tastes. The last time his libretto was used was likely in 1791 by Mozart in his La clemenza di Tito.

Metastasio (pen name of Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, 1698-1782), source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, public domain
Metastasio (pen name of Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, 1698-1782), source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, public domain

It has accompanied opera since its earliest days: the first work now regarded to be an opera is Jacopo Peri’s mostly-lost Dafne, first performed in Florence during the carnival of 1598. This take on the tale of the naiad trying to evade Apollo’s unwanted advances captivated audiences so much that Peri followed it with Euridice two years later. And that was just the start… Greek and Roman mythology continues to inspire composers and librettists until the present day; some examples from the 20th and 21st centuries include Richard Strauss’s Elektra, Daphne and Ariadne on Naxos, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Déjanire, Arthur Honneger’s Amphion, Wolfgang Michael Rihm’s Oedipus at Colonus, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Phaedra which the composer planned for years and sadly never finished.

Jacopo Peri in the intermezzo La Pellegrina (1589) in a sketch by Bernardo Buontalenti, public domain
Jacopo Peri in the intermezzo La Pellegrina (1589) in a sketch by Bernardo Buontalenti, public domain

We simply had to include him in our little operatic encyclopaedia. The tragic story of the legendary bard desperate to retrieve his beloved wife from the underworld is one of the most popular Greek myths of all time. We already mentioned the pioneering Peri and his Euridice; Claudio Monteverdi, widely regarded as the godfather of opera, launched his career with L’Orfeo in 1607. The following 400 years brought over 20 works focusing on the tragic tale, including Christoph Willibald Gluck’s sensational interpretation (1762), Joseph Haydn’s final opera (1791), Pierre Henry and Pierre Shaeffer’s musique concrète opera (1953) and Philip Glass’s chamber version (1993). And let’s not forget the comic opera Orpheus in the Underworld (1858) in which Jacques Offenbach reaches for the timeless myth to satirise debauched Parisian elites. Despite initial vehement indignation, the opera proved to be a triumph and ran for a whopping 228 performances. Its timeless message has made it a firm favourite on stages ever since.

But of course! Plenty of librettos describe revolt thinly veiled by historical or mythological pretences, clamouring with calls to barricades and inciting audiences to throw off the shackles of tyrants; some had even led to political turmoil. The 1647 performance of Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo in Paris stoked popular discontent against Cardinal Mazarin, which soon broke out into full-scale rebellion. The court and musicians were forced to flee Paris, and the series of civil wars known as the Fronde broke out soon after. Widespread riots erupted in Brussels during the performance of Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in 1830, marking the start of the Belgian Revolution. Va, pensiero, the chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco (1842), was chosen as their anthem by activists during the Risorgimento movement fighting for the unification of Italy in the 19th century, as they saw it as a metaphor with their struggle against Austrian occupation. And what about Fidelio, Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, whose libretto reads like a propaganda pamphlet of the French revolution? Still think that opera is just light entertainment?

In its earliest days, opera was a highly exclusive affair, presented to small groups assembled at aristocratic courts. With time it became more democratic and entered the realm of public entertainment. San Cassiano, the oldest opera theatre open to all (who could afford it), opened its doors in Venice in 1637. The longest-running stage today is Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, founded in 1737. For a 40 short years it was the most prestigious theatre in Italy, until the opening of the world-famous La Scala in Milan, whose audiences remain the most demanding until the present day.
We could tell endless stories about theatre, but let’s keep things short. Prague’s Stavovské divadlo is the only still-running stage which once welcomed Mozart. At the Parisian Palais Garnier, the stage was completely invisible from the highest balconies – audiences bought those seats to watch other, much wealthier guests (and pelt them with rotten eggs and vegetables bought from stalls right by the side of the building). Staatsoper in Vienna hosted the longest ovation ever heard: following his performance as Otello in Verdi’s opera, Plácido Domingo was called back to the stage a whopping 101 times and the applause lasted an hour and twenty minutes!

Teatro alla Scala, anonymous print, 19th century, public domain
Teatro alla Scala, anonymous print, 19th century, public domain

Voice is an absolute sine qua non of opera – at least a single voice as in Arnold Schönberg’s Erwartung and Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine. At the other end of the scale we have Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace, in which the eight leading roles are joined by over 70 supporting characters named in the libretto. And we can be certain that the composer still took major shortcuts in his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel…

Opera Rara Festival 2018, Arnold Schönberg, Erwartung, dir. Paweł Świątek, singer: Evelina Dobračeva
Opera Rara Festival 2018, Arnold Schönberg, Erwartung, dir. Paweł Świątek, singer: Evelina Dobračeva

“The joy and admiration stirred in the souls of the listeners by the new performance Dafne cannot be expressed; all I can say is that no matter how many times it was performed, it always inspired the same joy and the same admiration,” wrote Marco da Gagliano, early 17th-century Italian composer and maestro da cappella at the Medici court, following the performance of Jacopo Peri’s pioneering work. And just as opera brought zing to witnesses of events of over 400 years ago, so it continues to bring joy to our lives today, be it Carnival or not – opera is a friend for all seasons! (Barbara Skowrońska)

Check also the first part of our Opera A-Z: http://karnet.krakow.pl/en/artykul/1093/operatic-a-z-part-1


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