facebook cover march 2-19.jpg

Program Notes by Rose Hinkle

Opera is a form of theater in which music has a leading voice role and the parts are taken by singers. It is typically a collaboration between a composer and a librettist (the person who writes the words) and incorporates a number of performing arts such as acting, scenery, costumes, and sometimes dance and ballet. The performance is typically given in an opera house accompanied by an orchestra.

The idea of a ‘season’ of publicly attended operas supported by ticket sales originated in Venice around 1637. This early Baroque opera, known as opera buffa, blended comedy with tragedy and became the leading form of Italian opera until the end of the 18th century. In the early 1800s, opera took a turn, emphasizing beauty of sound and brilliancy of performance rather than dramatic expression or romantic emotion. It became known as the Bel canto style. Singing became accented and articulated with the use of legato (long) and staccato (short) notes and included pauses based on phrasing. Frequent tempo alteration was used for to enhance the effect of the delivery of the phrase, and vibrato (vibrations on the same note) was saved for heightening the expression of certain words or long notes. This style was short lived however, and faded toward the end of the 19th century giving way to the more forceful, heavier, and less embroidered style.

The early 20th-century was dominated by the Italian tradition which usually featured the tragic death of the heroine, and new emphasis on realism, known as verismo.

Die Fledermaus Overture

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899)

Die Fledermaus, or The Bat, is a German operetta (a genre of light opera with regard to both music and subject matter) composed by Johann Strauss II. It was premiered on April 5, 1874 in Vienna and has been part of the regular repertoire ever since. The overture of an opera is an instrumental introduction and sets up the entrance of the singers. The opera is about the revenge of a practical joke between two friends. Gabriel von Eisenstein has left his drunk friend Falke in the middle of a town dressed in a bat costume, exposing him to ridicule the next day. As revenge, Falke invites Eisenstein and his wife and maid, and the head of the prison to a ball dressed in disguises to confuse Eisenstein. They are introduced to one another having a wonderful sense of camaraderie. The next day they find themselves at the jail, only for Eisenstein to realize he was hoodwinked. He is delighted by the prank and all has been forgiven.

Nessun Dorma from Turandot

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Turandot means daughter of Turan and is a common name used in Persian poetry. This opera, written by Giacomo Puccini, is based on one of the original seven stories in a 12th century work called The Seven Beauties written by Nizami, who is considered the greatest romantic poet in Persian literature. Puccini died unexpectedly and never got to finish the opera. It was completed by Franco Alfano, an Italian composer and pianist. The opera premiered in Milan on April 25, 1926 conducted by Arturo Toscanini with mixed reviews. Nessun Dorma is an aria (an expressive melody and a self-contained piece for one voice which may or may not have accompaniment) from the final act of the opera. It is one of the best-known tenor arias in all opera. It is sung by an unknown prince who falls immediately in love with a princess in China, Princess Turandot. However, plagued by a savage memory of an ancestress who was murdered at the harsh domination of a man, Princess Turandot swears never to be married. All suitors must answer three riddles correctly or they will be beheaded. The young unknown prince has astonishingly answered all three questions and offers the princess his own riddle. She must find out his name or he will sacrifice his life. He sings Nessun Dorma (None shall sleep) as he awaits the Princess’s solution. The unknown prince reveals his own name to protect his family from further torture and in doing so, the Princess has fallen in love with the young prince and shall be married.

Habanera and Toreador Song from Carmen

George Bizet (1838-1875)

George Bizet was a French composer best known for his operas. Although having a brilliant student career, much of his adult work achieved few successes before his final opera Carmen. An opera comique, a genre of opera that contains spoken dialogue as well as arias, is not always comic or light in nature. Carmen, the most famous opera comique, is a tragedy. It takes place in Seville, Spain around 1820, and tells of the love tale between the gypsy factory worker, Carmen, and Don Jose, a corporal in the calvary. Don Jose is set to marry another, but Carmen charms and enchants Jose and convinces him that she is the one for him. As Carmen is leaving the factory, she sings Habanera (Love is a rebellious bird), about the untamable nature of love. At the end, in an effort to gain Jose’s attention, she throws a flower at his feet. However, unconvinced of his love for her, Carmen grows bored with Jose and sets him free, becoming more interested in the handsome bullfighter who sings Toreador Song as he makes a grand entrance to the enthusiastic crowd. Jealous with rage, Jose kills Carmen at the end of the toreador’s victorious bullfight.

Quando m’en vo from La bohème

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

La bohème, composed by Giacomo Puccini, premiered on February 1, 1896 in Turin, Italy conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini. It is based on a series of loosely related stories set in Paris in the 1840s entitled Scenes de la vie de bohème written by Henri Murger. The stories romanticize an unconventional lifestyle in a playful way. Initially receiving mixed reviews, La bohème quickly became popular and has become part of the standard opera repertoire and one of the most frequently performed operas worldwide. The opera centers around the adventures of four poor, but happy, Bohemian friends: Rodolfo the poet, Marcello the Painter, Schaunard the musician, and Colline the philosopher. Rodolfo and Marcello fall in love with Mimi and Musetta, respectively.

While the opera centers around the back and forth relationship of Rodolfo and Mimi, Marcello and Musetta also experience a break up in their relationship. As the friends dine at a cafe one night, Musetta strolls in with a wealthy man in an attempt to make Marcello jealous. She sings Quando me’n vo (When I go along) to try and reclaim Marcello’s attention. The ploy works and they fall rapturously into each other’s arms. Both Mimi and Musetta again break up and find their way back to Rodolfo and Marcello, upon which Mimi dies of what is thought to be tuberculosis.

Au found du temple saint from The Pearl Fishers

George Bizet (1838-1875)

The Pearl Fishers was written by Georges Bizet and premiered in Paris on September 30, 1863. It is set in ancient times on the island of Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, an island country in South Asia located in the Indian Sea. The opera tells the story of two pearl fishermen, Nadir and Zurga, who are reunited and reminisce about their pasts when their friendship was threatened by their mutual love of a young priestess. They sing Au fond du temple saint (At the back of the holy temple), to once again affirm their friendship until death. Also known as the Pearl Fishers Duet, this is one of the best known duets in Western opera. Upon a new journey together, the young priestess, Leila, appears again and has vowed to protect them. But their passions are revived, and once again her conflict between secular love and the sacred oath as a priestess is threatened, as is the good friendship of Nadir and Zurga. In a bit of jealous rage, Zurga first sentences Nadir and Leila to death, then feeling remorse, he frees them from death and helps them flee. Despite a good reception by the public, press reactions were generally hostile and dismissive. The opera was not revived in Bizet’s lifetime, but from 1886 onward it was performed with some regularity, and from the mid 20th century has entered the repertoire of opera houses worldwide. Because the autograph score was lost, productions were based on amended versions of the score that contained significant differences from the original. Since the 1970s, however, large efforts have been made to reconstruct the score in accordance with Bizet’s intentions.

Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)

The Tales of Hoffman is an opera fantastique (a genre of opera that encompasses science fiction, horror, and fantasy) by Jacques Offenbach. It is based on three short stories by E.T.A. Hoffman, who is also the main character of the story. The stories used in the opera are The Sandman, The Cremona Violin, and The Lost Reflection. The opera was premiered in France on February 10, 1881 and has subsequently received over 700 performances. The opera takes place in a tavern in Nuremberg. Hoffman is approached by his inspirational goddess of literature, science, and the arts disguised as his best friend, Nicklausse. Meanwhile his nemesis, Councillor Lindorf, shows up with a plan to carry off Hoffmann’s current true love, Stella. Lindorf coaxes Hoffman to tell the tavern audience about his most unfortunate past three loves, an automaton who was torn apart and Antonia who died from singing. Hoffmann’s third love, Giulietta is introduced in the third act, in which she sings Belle nuit, o nuit d’amour (Beautiful night, oh night of love), the most famous barcarolle ever written (a traditional folk song sung by Venetian gondoliers). After Giulietta accidentally drinks poison, Hoffmann swears never to love again. The goddess reveals her true self and reclaims Hoffmann, while Lindorf and Stella walk off together.

The Journey to Reims Overture

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

The Journey to Reims is an operatic drama giocoso (using comic or horseplay in a silly, fun atmosphere) by Gioachino Rossini. It was written in Italian, but was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of French King Charles X in Reims, France in 1825, and has been acclaimed as one of Rossini’s finest compositions. Since this opera was written for a specific occasion, Rossini never intended it to have a life beyond a few performances. Three years later he reused about half of the music for another opera entitled Le Comte Ory. This opera does not have its own overture, but one that was invented in the 20th century. It derived from a set of dances from an opera that premiered a year later in 1826, Le siege de Corinthe. The “overture” was revised by Giuseppe Piccioli and was published and premiered in 1938, conducted by Richard Strauss. It was finally added later to the original score of the opera and remains one of Rossini’s most recorded works. The opera is about a diverse group of upper class internationals who find themselves stranded at a French spa on their way to the coronation of the new king of France. Luggage has been lost and there are absolutely no horses to be found to accompany them on their journey to Reim. So instead, they set up festivities in one of the Parisian’s homes and celebrate the coronation with their own party.

Non più andrai from The Marriage of Figaro

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

The Marriage of Figaro is an opera buffa (comic opera) with Italian libretto written by Mozart. It premiered in Vienna on May 1, 1786 and has since been a cornerstone of the repertoire, appearing consistently among the top ten operas frequently performed. It is based on the stage play performed just two years before by Pierre Beaumarchais, and is the second in the Figaro trilogy, preceded by The Barber of Seville and followed by The Guilty Mother. The Barber of Seville had already been made into a successful opera in a version, not by Rossini who hadn’t been born yet, but by Giovanni Paisiello, a popular opera composer of the time. The Marriage of Figaro, however, was initially banned in Vienna by the Emperor Joseph II, stating that the piece contained too many political inferences that were objectionable. Mozart’s librettist managed to get official approval for the operatic version by removing all of the original’s political references. The opera humorously tells the story of Count Almaviva, Countess Rosina, and Figaro, who has quit barbering and is now the head of their servant staff and has plans to marry Susanna, the gardener’s niece. Love, jealousy, and revenge become playfully intertwined as the Count pursues Susanna; Countess Rosina and Figaro seek revenge, and Cherubino, the flirtatious messenger boy, pursues the Countess. Rather than punishing Cherubino, since he himself has been guilty of such propositions, the Count sends Cherubino away to the military. Non piu andrai is sung by Figaro, who teases Cherubino for the flirtatious life he will no longer enjoy. The opera continues its jovial path, but in the end, all end up with their intended spouses.

Flower Duet from Lakmé

Léo Delibes (1836-1891)

Lakmé is one of Léo Delibes’ most notable works. He was a French composer of ballets and opera in the 1800s. The opera was written in 1881 and 1882, and premiered in Paris on April 14, 1883. Set in British India, where during the late 19th century many Hindus had been forced by the British to practice their religion in secret, Lakmé is based on Theodor Pavie’s story Les babouches du Brahamane and the autobiographical novel The Marriage of Loti by French author Pierre Loti. The delicate orchestration and melodic richness deemed Delibes a success with audiences, and by 1931 the opera had been performed nearly 1,000 times. The passionate elements of the opera are given a warm and expressive tone. After performing their rites in the sacred Hindu Temple, Lakmé and her servant Mallika head down to the river to collect flowers where they sing the famous Flower Duet. There, Lakmé meets a British officer, Gerald, and the two fall in love. Enraged by their love, Nilakantha, the Hindu high priest and Lakmé’s father, stabs Gerald. Lakmé takes him back to the forest to nurse him back to health. One evening, Lakmé goes to the forest to look for sacred water so they can exchange their vows and confirm their love. When she returns, Gerald, who meanwhile had been lectured and reminded of his duties by another fellow officer, seems distant and Lakmé realizes she has lost him. She dies with honor by eating a poisonous leaf.

Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci

Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919)

Pagliacci, literally meaning clowns, is an Italian opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo. It is his only opera still widely performed, and premiered in Milan on May 21, 1892, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Receiving mixed reviews at the world premiere, it became instantly successful and remained so ever since. Pagliacci is a story within a story, thus, the characters in the opera are acting in the opera itself. There is usually some sort of parallel between the two stories such that the inner story is used to tell the truth about the outer story. In this case the actors perform a stage play called Trouble with Clowns. As the story of infidelity amongst the clowns unfolds, so does the reality about the marital infidelity of Nedda, the wife of the head actor, Canio. Vesti la giubba (Put on the costume) is one of the most moving arias in the operatic repertoire and is sung by Canio when he discovers Nedda’s disloyalty, but must nevertheless prepare for his performance as Pagliaccio the clown. Canio’s pain is deeply portrayed in the aria and the notion of the “tragic clown,” smiling on the outside but crying on the inside, is powerfully exemplified. As the performance of clowns continues, Nedda’s lover is secretly making his way to the stage to protect her, but he is too late; Canio stabs Nedda and turns to kill her lover.

Soave sia il vento from Così fan Tutte

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Così fan tutte is an opera buffa (comic opera) written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It is a frothy opera about the faithfulness of two young women to their respective fiancés. Premiering in Vienna in 1790, the opera was only performed five times and was then stopped due to the death of Emperor Joseph II. Così remained just outside of the standard opera repertoire for more than a century. Although the subject matter did not offend the Viennese of the time, the late 19th and early 20th century population considered it risque and vulgar. Literally meaning “So do they all,” Così fan tutte is usually translated into English as “Women are like that.”

Set in Naples, two soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are gloating about the faithfulness of their fiancés, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, respectively, who are also sisters. But the men take a bet from an old cynical philosopher who believes that there is no such thing as a faithful woman. The two soldiers pretend to go to war and return in disguise to seduce the other’s fiancé. As they pretend to sail away, the philosophers, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, sing the beautiful trio Soave sia il vento (May the wind be gentle). Ferrando and Guglielmo return to the sisters in disguise trying to tempt them. Eventually overcome with despair, Dorabella gives Guglielmo a medallion in exchange for a locket, and Fiordiligi falls into Ferrando’s arms. After a pretend marriage given by the maid in disguise, the men reveal themselves and the women realize they were tricked. All is forgiven.

Song of the Moon from Rusalka

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Rusalka, the ninth opera written by Antonín Dvořák, premiering in Prague on March 31, 1901, is one of most successful operas of the Czech opera houses. Despite the beauty of the melodies and orchestral timbres, it was not a central part of international lyric theater until recently when, between the years 2008 and 2013 it had been performed by opera companies worldwide. Based on the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Urban and Bozena Nemcova, Czech writers of the mid 19th century, a rusalka is a water spirit from Slavic mythology usually inhabiting a lake or river. The plot contains elements which also appear in The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. The opera is set by the edge of a lake. Rusalka, the water nymph, tells her father that she has fallen in love with a human prince who hunts around the lake and she wants to become human to embrace him. He grudgingly sends her to a witch, upon which she sings, Song to the Moon, the most popular excerpt in the opera, to ask for the witch’s assistance to tell the Prince of her love. If she becomes human, she will lose the power of speech and immortality. Furthermore, if the Prince does not love her in return, he will die and she will be eternally damned. She agrees to the terms and drinks a potion. The prince finds Rusalka, embraces her and leads her away. But he is already entertaining a foreign princess, who becomes extremely jealous and curses the couple to hell. Rusalka goes back to the lake becoming a demon of death, and upon searching for her, the Prince asks for her kiss knowing he will die. Instead of sending him to hell, Rusalka thanks him for the experience to love a human and sends his soul to God, while she remains a demon of death.

Lo so che alle sue pene from Madame Butterfly

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Madame Butterfly is a tragic opera written by Giacomo Puccini in 1904. It is based on the short story Madame Butterfly by John Luther Long written in 1898, which in turn was based on stories in the semi-autobiographical French novel Madame Chrysantheme by Pierre Loti in 1887. The premiere on February 17, 1904 in Milan was poorly received, perhaps due to a late completion on Puccini’s part and thus inadequate rehearsal time. He revised the opera, however, and another premiere took place in Brescia on May 28, 1904 with great success. Puccini had made several revisions since, with the last being made in 1907. It remains a staple in operatic repertoire worldwide. The opera takes place in the Japanese port city of Nagasaki in the year 1904. This was a time of international presence and Japan was defining its global role. Nagasaki was one of the country’s few ports open to foreign ships. Temporary marriages for foreign sailors were not unusual. Pinkerton, a U.S. naval officer, has rented a house in Nagasaki for him and his soon-to-be temporary wife, Ciccio-San (Madame Butterfly in Japanese). After hosting the wedding ceremony, Butterfly’s uncle appears, uninvited, and denounces her for being excited to marry an American and converting to Christianity. Butterfly and Pinkerton then spend their first night together before he sets sail. Three years later he with his child and she is still waiting for him to come back. She is advised to move on and marry another, however she insists on waiting for Pinkerton, who eventually does return, but with an American wife. He is ashamed to see Butterfly in person as he realizes just how much she loves him. Lo so che alle sue pene (I know that her pain) is sung by Pinkerton, Pinkerton’s American wife, the American consul and Butterfly’s maid as they try to find the best way to tell Butterfly that Pinkerton and his American wife will take care of the child. After she is told, she says goodbye to her son and sends him off with Pinkerton. Then she hides behind a screen and cuts her own throat.

Bella figlia dell’amore from Rigoletto

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Rigoletto is an opera by Giuseppe Verdi based on the play Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo. One of the most bold and exciting operas in the repertoire, it had a triumphant premiere in Venice on March 11, 1851, despite the initial problems with the censors of the time. The tragic story centers around the corrupt and promiscuous Duke of Mantua, his hunch-backed court jester, Rigoletto, and Rigoletto’s beautiful daughter Gilda. The opera takes place in Mantua, Italy in the 16th century. The Duke and Rigoletto are at a ball in the palace discussing the women the Duke will seduce next and poking fun of their husbands, the courtiers. The courtiers are not amused and decide to take vengeance by announcing that Rigoletto has a lover. One courtier confronts the Duke and is immediately arrested, but before he is led to prison, he curses Rigoletto for mocking him. At home Rigoletto greets his beautiful daughter, Gilda, whom he has been hiding from the Duke. Unbeknownst to Rigoletto, the Duke already desires Gilda, having seen her in church. The Duke appears at their home and professes his pretend love to Gilda, but must leave early due to noises that are overheard. Meanwhile, the angry courtiers arrive and capture Gilda, whom they think is Rigoletto’s lover. They take her to the palace where the Duke learns it is Gilda they have captured. Excited, he heads toward her room and seduces her. When Rigoletto arrives and learns what has happened, he sings Bella figlia dell’amore (Beautiful daughter of love), and assures her that he is arranging for an assassin to kill the Duke. He attempts to send Gilda away, but she returns still in love with the Duke despite his infidelity. The assassin must produce a body, so she sacrifices herself and is mortally stabbed. But to Rigoletto’s despair it is Gilda who has been wounded. As she dies in his arms, Rigoletto cries out, ‘“he curse.”

Special thanks to Rose Hinkle for writing all of the Melrose Symphony’s program notes!