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A Season of Opera

A Season of Opera: From Orpheus to Ariadne

Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 254
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  • Book Info
    A Season of Opera
    Book Description:

    Father Lee is internationally known for his commentaries on opera. This book gathers his best commentaries and articles on 23 works for the musical stage, from the pioneering Orpheus of Monteverdi to the forward-looking Ariadne of Richard Strauss.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7047-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
    M. Owen Lee
  4. 1 The Birth of Opera from the Spirit of Orpheus
    (pp. 3-12)

    How does a new art form come to be?

    If we think of myth as the basic stuff of art, we may say that it happens in this way. In the beginning there is a myth, some fanciful tale embodying a truth about man and the universe, often told perhaps, but still waiting for full expression. And there is a poet who has not yet found his theme. The poet woos the myth. And the myth is so potent, so imaginative, so beautiful that it makes new demands on the poet. It invites him to step beyond the limits he...

  5. 2 Du Musst dein Leben Ändern: Orfeo ed Euridice
    (pp. 13-18)

    Gluck’sOrfeo ed Euridiceis invariably cited as thework which reformed opera in the eighteenth century, spearheading a reaction against complicated Metastasian plots and extravagant Neopolitan vocalizing. Every history of musical drama notes the twofold reform: Gluck’s librettist Calzabigi reduced the Orpheus myth to its simplest elements, and Gluck wrote for it music that was almost austere and always a faithful illustration of the text. Later writings of both librettist and composer, especially Gluck’s preface toAlceste, are often used to support these observations.

    But it can be misleading, even damaging, to see Gluck’sOrfeo ed Euridiceonly, or even...

  6. 3 The Opera of All Operas: Don Giovanni
    (pp. 19-26)

    One of the best stories ever written about a famous composer, a story to tease us out of thought, is Eduard MÖrike’sMozart auf der Reise nach PargMozart on the Journey to Prague. The young composer is writingDon Giovanni, hastily, for its premiére in Prague just a few days away. The Bohemian capital has gone wild over hisMarriage of Figaro, a comedy about the ironies and ecstasies of love, and has called for more of the same. So Mozart’s new opera will, likeFigaro, concern itself with the many guises of love, and with the most famous of...

  7. 4 The Music of Intuitive Angels: The Magic Flute
    (pp. 27-40)

    A quarter of a century ago, I went to Vienna for the first time. Of all the cities in the world, Vienna calls music most to mind. Many of the great composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries lived and worked in its graceful environs. The central cemetery contains, with a million anda half other graves, those of Gluck, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and the two Johann Strausses. And although Mozart was from Salzburg and had his best successes in Prague, and travelled as far as Naples and Paris and London in his young days as a child prodigy, it was...

  8. 5 Music to Set the Spirit Free: Fidelio
    (pp. 41-53)

    A few years ago I sawFidelioat the Met, from the top of the Family Circle, where you can see an opera for the price of a movie. Standing room up there is one of the great bargains to be had anywhere. The sound is good in any part of the Met, but up there it’s blessedly beautiful.

    The best opera fans are up there too. The ones who really know and love, or want to know and come to love, the music. A lot of them are young. There’s the Korean girl who’s pursuing law studies, and the...

  9. 6 Show Business Sense: L’Elisir d’Amore
    (pp. 54-59)

    Every theatrical season the trade papers are filled with details of the tryout afflictions of a new clutch of Broadway-bound musicals. There are rumours of hectic revisions and last-minute replacements, of new songs and new sets, of bad reviews, temper tantrums, and bleeding ulcers. Sometimes there are losses in the millions of dollars. Sometimes there are successes that run for thousands of performances. It’s all show business.

    Some of this has been true with opera. Verdi seems to have had as much difficulty with his kings and queens as Lerner and Loewe had with their Arthur and Guenevere. But most...

  10. 7 Oh, Sweet Music of Donizetti! Lucia di Lammermoor
    (pp. 60-66)

    Lucia di Lammermoor, a masterpiece of Italian bel canto based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, has left its mark on the literatures, including the novels, of many languages. It was at a performance ofLuciain Rouen that the passionate Madame Bovary regretted ever marrying her husband, and it was almost certainly at a Moscow performance ofLuciain Petersburg that Anna Karenina was moved to flee guiltily from her lover. On the other hand, fictional people without passion seem unable to comprehend Donizetti’s famous opera. In E.M. Forster’s novelWhere Angels Fear to Tread, a proper English...

  11. 8 Elemental, Furious, Wholly True: Il Trovatore
    (pp. 67-77)

    You don’t believe thatIl Trovatorehas a good libretto? You say it’s crude, confused, ludicrous? How could you have come by such a judgment, when the plot ofIl Trovatoreis so deftly spun out? When the characters not only fill the theatre with passionate song but also point beyond themselves, as characters do in all great dramas, to larger truths? When the whole opera is tightly controlled by a vision of reality that is bold, brave, and, given Verdi’s own convictions when he wrote it, searingly beautiful? You don’t think me mad as Azucena? You’ll let me go...

  12. 9 The Requisite Miracle: La Traviata
    (pp. 78-83)

    I once met a priest from a downtown parish in New York. He was of Italian descent, poor, devout, and well read, especially in Dante. Our conversation turned, naturally enough, to Verdi, and eventually toLa Traviata. About Violetta Valéry, thetraviataor ‘fallen woman’ in Verdi’s opera, he said, simply, looking me straight in the eye, ‘È una santa.’ ‘She is a saint.’

    That was hardly the opinion voiced from pulpits at the timeLa Traviatafirst appeared. Preachers of all persuasions railed against its immorality. Promiscuous men might be allowed on the stage if, as in Mozart’s operas,...

  13. 10 The Whole Checkered Play of Life: La Forza del Destino
    (pp. 84-89)

    Every commentator on Verdi’s La Forza del Destino has recourse soonerr or later to the same inevitable adjective – ‘sprawling.’ The adjective is inappropriate, so long as it is not used pejoratively. But it is inadequate.Forzasprawls only as a vast naturalistic canvas by a master painter – by Goya, say, or Velasquez – may be said to sprawl. Verdi’s canvas inForzais crowded with varied figures but, as with the great Spanish painters, it uses more than one angle of vision. That is how Velasquez invited his beholder to search for his meanings – through various angles...

  14. 11 Melt Egypt into Nile: Aida
    (pp. 90-96)

    Verdi’s last two operas,OtelloandFalstaff, are based on Shakespeare, are immensely respected by critics, and, especially in recent years, have won a wide public as well. The opera that precedes them is the un-ShakespearianAida, his greatest popular success but so very successful that there is an occasional critical reaction against it. One reads that its characters are two-dimensional, its local colour laid on too thickly, its ballet interludes substandard, its ‘circus atmosphere,’ at least in most productions, too pronounced.

    Over the years I had come to concur with those criticisms. In my salad daysAidawas easily...

  15. 12 A Figure as Old as Comedy: Falstaff
    (pp. 97-100)

    If you are one of the millions of young opera-lovers who have come to favour Verdi above all other composers, you may, on encountering hisFalstafffor the first time, have felt some disappointment, even something of a shock. This is notLa Traviata. It does not, when we first hear it, seem to have anything in common at all withLa Traviata, orIl Trovatore, orAida, or – name your favourite Verdi opera.

    Yet for some people who have loved Verdi all their lives,Falstaffis their favourite of the master’s works. And I don’t mean just the...

  16. 13 The Exasperated Eagle and the Stoic Saint: Les Troyens
    (pp. 101-110)

    Hector Berlioz sometimes wished he could have lived at the same time as Virgil, and known him intimately. ‘I seem to see him,‘ he said, ‘dreaming in his Sicilian villa: he must have been gentle, gracious, hospitable.’ Other authors, especially Shakespeare and Goethe, may have had as much influence as Virgil on Berlioz ’s creative life, but it was Virgil who came to him first and never left him.

    The characters of theAeneidhaunted his boyhood imagination. ‘My mind was possessed by the glory,’ he says of first reading about Mezentius and Lausus, Pallas and Evander, Amata and Latinus....

  17. 14 The Sins of Wagner’s Youth: Rienzi
    (pp. 111-117)

    Nicola Laurenti, aka Cola di Rienzo, whom the young Richard Wagner put on the stage as Rienzi, is a historical figure. You can read about him at the end of Edward Gibbon’sDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The fourteenth – century patriot in Gibbon’s pages differs from Wagner’s hero in several important respects, but Gibbon enables us to see what there was about him that would fire the imagination of the twenty-five-year-old composer: Rienzi was a visionary, a patriot with a flair for self-promotion, superbly confident in the rightness of his cause, and out to change the world....

  18. 15 Long Day’s Journey into Night: Tristan und Isolde
    (pp. 118-138)

    Some years ago a friend of mine went to see a performance ofTristan und Isoldeat the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York, on 39th Street and Broadway. He sat alone in a box at what was by all reports a superlative performance and, as he put it himself, he suffered the torments of the damned. He thought Act I ear-splitting and intolerably long. Act II was occasionally quieter, but seemed even longer. And through both acts, he felt like that martyr in a medieval painting often mentioned in connection withTristan– the unfortunate whose innards are...

  19. 16 The Making of a Musical Legend: Palestrina
    (pp. 139-146)

    Hans Pfitzner called his twentieth-century operaPalestrina‘a musical legend’ and thereby intentionally aligned it, not just with the sixteenth century in which it is set, but with still earlier Christian centuries, whose legends described in vivid detail the sufferings of God’s chosen ones, the martyrs and miracle workers of his Church. Legends are based on history. They may not be literally true, but a good legend touches something archetypal and true in the consciousness of the one who writes and the one who reads. Everything about a legend, save the literal facts, is true.

    Pfitzner’sPalestrinais based on...

  20. 17 The Moon Is Like the Moon: Salome
    (pp. 147-152)

    We are coming to a century’s end, and the art and thought of one hundred years ago can not but have a special fascination for us. There is a term for the art of that time –fin de siècle, century’s end. We associate it with the languid, overripe, neo-pagan yearnings of artists like Gustave Moreau and Aubrey Beardsley, and especially with an almost hallucinatory, delicately coloured play, inspired by Moreau’s paintings and in turn inspiring Beardsley’s illustrations, written in one mad night in elegant French by an impassioned Irishman: theSaloméof Oscar Wilde.

    Nothing could be moreJin...

  21. 18 Genius and Morbidezza: Manon Lescaut
    (pp. 153-157)

    The libretto of Puccini’s first successful opera,Manon Lescaut, credits no author. Puccini used at least four librettists, accepted the additional suggestions of his publisher Ricordi, and – save for actual versification – may have been as responsible as any of them for the final result. Many hands were needed, for Massenet’s seven-year-old opera on the same subject had already given all-too-memorable expression both to the brief period of happiness Manon Lescaut and her Chevalier Des Grieux had enjoyed on the Rue Vivienne and to his subsequent attempt to forget her at St Sulpice. And before Massenet, Auber had dramatized...

  22. 19 Mists, Sails, Sounds, and Impressions: Pelléas et Mélisande
    (pp. 158-169)

    I’ve always thought that the final page of Claude Debussy’sPelléas et Mélisande– part lullaby, part requiem, with its slowly descending arpeggios, its distant bell tolling, its suggestion of the sea glimpsed through charmed magic casements and its muted trumpet sounding the flight of the soul from faery lands forlorn – is the most beautiful ending any opera was ever given. But then, I’ve been in love with the music of Debussy ever since, in my early teens, I first discovered the twenty-four piano Preludes performed on old 78s by Walter Gieseking, and first tried, with minimal success, to...

  23. 20 It Is Your Turn to Speak: Dialogues des Carmélites
    (pp. 170-181)

    My year in the novitiate was perhaps the happiest of my life. My novice master, who had seen Caruso sing and could detect the outlines of operatic arias in bird songs, seemed to me the oldest, gentlest, and wisest man in the world. I lived and prayed with twelve other novices who were close to me in age and shared my hopes and dreams. We read Shakespeare and studied Greek and Latin to keep our young minds busy, for we were going to be teachers one day. But it wasn’t, primarily, a year of study. It was a life of...

  24. 21 An Opera Made of Songs: Porgy and Bess
    (pp. 182-190)

    I’ve often thought that the reason why George Gershwin’s operaPorgy and Bessis still unappreciated in some critical circles is that some critical circles have too little appreciation of the golden age of American song.

    The classic American popular song was born on 24 August 1914, when Julia Sanderson first sang Jerome Kern’ s ‘They Didn’t Believe Me,’ to a lyric by Herbert Reynolds, on Broadway. By the time Julie Andrews sang Lerner and Loewe’s charming ‘What Do the Simple Folk Do?’ with Richard Burton inCamelotin 1960, the popular song in America, apart from a few scattered...

  25. 22 The Music Wrote Itself: Oklahoma!
    (pp. 191-196)

    WhenOklahoma!first blossomed on Broadway in 1943, the adjective invariably applied to it was ‘fresh.’ It was many other things, too, but what most came at you from the stage of the St. James Theater, or almost minute-to-minute over the radio, or from the piano in virtually any living room that had one, was a freshness best described by librettist Oscar Hammerstein II himself, when he wrote that the wavin’ wheat could sure smell sweet when the wind came right behind the rain.

    We were in the thick of the Second World War then, and it was becoming increasingly...

    (pp. 197-216)

    Our century is hurrying to its end, and anyone who has lived through even a small part of it is likely now to wonder what it has meant, where we are headed, and what will speak for us after we are gone. He might also wonder, if he has any interest in such matters, what twentieth-century opera has had to say about the ten turbulent decades that have produced it, and what hope it holds for the future.

    These are daunting questions. I wouldn’t be addressing them had I not been invited to, and I apologize in advance for what...

  27. Further Reading
    (pp. 217-220)
  28. Recordings and Videos
    (pp. 221-230)
  29. Index
    (pp. 231-241)