Kelly Kaduce with the Santa Fe Opera’s 2010 production of Madame Butterfly
Outside a little house overlooking the Nagasaki harbor, Pinkerton, an American naval officer, is making the final arrangements with the marriage broker, Goro, for a Japanese wedding. According to law, the marriage will not be binding, and Pinkerton revels in the carefree arrangement. The American Consul, Sharpless, warns Pinkerton that his bride, Cio-Cio-San (called Butterfly by her friends), is serious about the marriage.
Butterfly and her relatives arrive. She tells Pinkerton about herself, her family and her age – which is only 15 – and shows him the few possessions she has brought, including the ceremonial dagger with which her father killed himself. The brief ceremony is performed and as the celebration begins, an ominous figure appears. He is Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, a Japanese priest, who curses Butterfly for abandoning the Japanese gods in favor of Christianity. All the relatives side with the Bonze, and they turn on the young bride. But Pinkerton orders them all away, and in the long and tender love duet that closes the act, Butterfly forgets her troubles. Together, Pinkerton and Butterfly enter their new home.
Part one Three years have passed since Pinkerton sailed for America, but Butterfly remains loyal and describes to Suzuki her dream of his return. Sharpless, knowing that Pinkerton has taken an American wife and will soon be arriving in Nagasaki with her, attempts to prepare Butterfly for the shock, but she is too excited by news of Pinkerton’s return to listen. Goro enters with the wealthy Prince Yamadori, who is courting Butterfly. When Goro and Yamadori leave, Sharpless gently advises her to accept the Prince. That is out of the question, she insists, and she brings in the reason for that impossibility – her young son, named Sorrow. But, she adds, he will be called Joy when his father returns. Defeated, Sharpless leaves, promising to tell Pinkerton of the boy.
Part two A cannon is heard, and Butterfly and Suzuki see Pinkerton’s ship coming into the harbor. Butterfly jubilantly prepares for his return, filling the room with flowers and again donning her bridal costume. As night falls, Butterfly, Suzuki and the child wait, motionless.
Part two Dawn finds Butterfly, Suzuki and Sorrow just where they were at the close of the last scene, except that the maid and the child are fast asleep. Butterfly takes her sleeping son into another room, singing him a lullaby. Sharpless enters with Pinkerton and his wife, Kate. Suzuki almost at once realizes who this is. She cannot bear to tell her mistress, and neither can Pinkerton. He sings a passionate farewell to his once-happy home, and leaves. But Butterfly, entering, sees Kate and realizes the painful truth. With dignity she tells Kate that she may have her boy if Pinkerton will come soon to fetch him. Left alone with the child, she makes an agonizing farewell, blindfolds the boy and goes behind a screen where she stabs herself. Pinkerton comes rushing back, but it is too late.
Kelly Kaduce is a talented soprano whose “warm and tender singing convey[s] the aching vulnerability of the foolishly trusting Butterfly.” We asked her a few of our favorite questions from the Proust social…check out her answers here!
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Living in a state of personal unawareness.
What is your idea of earthly happiness?
Who are your favorite heroes of fiction? Who are your favorite heroines in real life?
Fiction: Elizabeth Bennett
Real Life: Hillary Clinton
The quality you most admire in a man? The quality you most admire in a woman?
Man: Humility Woman: Fortitude
What natural gift would you most like to possess?
What is your motto?
“Have fun storming the castle!”
What is your present state of mind?
I wish my son were napping right now instead of blowing raspberries.
Do you have a website, Facebook fan page, or a Twitter for everyone to follow?
Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Kelly-Kaduce/103465749688411
How do you eat your eggs?
Soft scramble or soft poach
Favorite backstage moment:
First time my husband and I brought our son onstage before a show and walked the set with him.
In our upcoming production of Madame Butterfly, you may hear some sounds you don’t recognize coming from the pit. More likely than not, Ralph Hepola on his cimbasso is the culprit! Most often played by the orchestra’s tubist or bass trombonist, the cimbasso was invented in the 1800′s and was favored most famously by Giuseppe Verdi.
“The Cimbasso is an Italian contrabass trombone in F with valves. Typically, the orchestra tuba player plays it on all Italian operas which have four low brass parts: 3 trombones and 1 Cimbasso.”Ralph Hepola on the Cimbasso
“Italy was somewhat isolated from the rest of Europe, by the Alps & the distance, so Italian musicians developed a few of their own ideas; the Cimbasso being one of them. Verdi utilized the Cimbasso the most of all Italian composers.”
Term used in Italy since the early 19th century for various bass and double bass lip-reed aerophones.
(1) A type of upright wooden serpent with a large flared bell of brass and between one and four keys. The instrument is peculiar to Italy, differing from the French basson russe (see Russian bassoon) in both bell shape and in the arrangement of keys. Its name may be derived from the abbreviated form of ‘corno in basso’ (‘c. in basso’); variants are encountered, such as simbasso, gimbasso, and even gibas. Produced by makers such as Magazari, Piana and Papalini, the wooden cimbasso replaced the serpent as the lowest member of the brass family in about 1816, making its first appearance at La Scala where it was noticed by Spohr. Paganini was perhaps the first composer to adopt the instrument, in his Violin Concerto no.1 in E (1816); he was followed by many Italian composers, including Donizetti, Bellini and Giovani Pacini. It cannot be stated with certainty that these parts were always played on a true cimbasso; where the instrument was unavailable, the part could have been played on a keyed ophicleide, an instrument known to have been in use at this time despite its absence from contemporary Italian scores. The wooden cimbasso remained popular until at least the mid-1830s.
Renato Meucci. “Cimbasso.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 22 Mar. 2012 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/05789>.
Make sure to listen for it when you see Madame Butterfly, which opens on April 14th! Get your tickets online at www.mnopera.org
Lucia di Lammermoor’s mad tragedy in Donizetti’s mad life
Lucia de Lammermoor’s popularity rests on its wild third act. But this was to have tragic echoes in the life of its composer, Donizetti
Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was first performed in Naples in 1835, and has been on and off the boards ever since. While unusually full of memorable tunes, the main reason for its popularity across nearly two centuries, and why audiences still flock to it today, rests on one moment. This is the famous third-act mad scene for the heroine Lucia. Although she loves another, Lucia has been coerced into an arranged marriage, but then stabs her new husband to death on their wedding night; with bloody nightdress and hair in pleasing disarray, she wanders among the horrified wedding guests and sings forth her derangement.
Donizetti, never one to miss a great scenic opportunity, pulled out all the stops. First Lucia is assailed by orchestral themes: some are reminiscences of earlier numbers, but in her disordered state she can respond to them only in agonised vocal fragments. As she retreats into fantasies of a happy union with her true beloved, though, her singing becomes more and more florid; by the end of the scene she has turned into a vocal whirling dervish, streaming forth cascades of vocal display.
What are we to make of this wild excess of singing? A small industry has grown up around Lucia’s madness, with producers and other arbiters of operatic fashion all seeking to tell us what such extravagance might mean. Some remind us that, in the 19th century, madness, both in the real world and in opera, was typically a “female malady”: Lucia’s manic vocalism is another sign of her imprisonment in a cruel, male world. She is trapped in beautiful, ornamental singing just as she is trapped by society at large.
Others find this reading too depressing, and stand it on its head. According to them, Lucia’s flights of vocal fancy are a feminist victory, a proud refusal to obey the rules of convention: her extravagant vocal finale now marks a triumphant release from male authority.
The fact that both interpretations use as evidence exactly the same music suggests that both may reach for too precise a relationship between the notes and their cultural meaning.
The message of the Lucia mad scene is probably best seen as more basic. Once upon a time in opera, elaborate vocal ornament was the province of all opera characters: think of Handel or Rossini, where basses and tenors warble just as frantically as sopranos. But in opera’s Romantic age, florid singing was, like colourful costume, becoming a marker of the feminine. Small wonder, then, that if you contracted the “female malady” your prime symptom was an uncontrollable excess of singing.
Because it makes its effects so starkly and memorably, the Lucia mad scene has had a fascinating afterlife. Around 1880, the Australian soprano Nellie Melba, striving to raise the vocal stakes still further, began to insert an extended cadenza in the middle of the scene: an incredible high-wire vocal act in which the soprano has an “anything-you-can-play-I can-sing-higher” competition with the solo flute, which has been an important foil for Lucia through most of the scene.
This cadenza then became a famous test of vocal daring, and is to this day faithfully reproduced by most Lucias, even though it obviously reflects a style of soprano vocalism much later than Donizetti’s. Much more recently, scholars have tried to reinstate something nearer what the composer originally wrote, and have been helped by an important discovery: the scene as first written had a prominent solo not for the flute but for the glass harmonica, an instrument whose exotic and distinctly eerie timbre had long been associated with the supernatural.
Unfortunately, and as so often in opera, practical difficulties got in the way of art. The resident glass-harmonica player in Naples got into a row with the theatre – he thought he was being underpaid – and, just before the premiere, he picked up his instrument and walked out. Donizetti, as ever pragmatic, crossed out the part and substituted the solo flute. Modern performances often now restore the glass harmonica, which refreshes the scene by giving it a wonderful new colour.
And so, with the help of crazy cadenzas and exotic old instruments, Lucia has survived momentous changes in operatic fashion, ones that might otherwise have made the entire drama seem ridiculous. A very early indication that its violent contrasts were becoming dated occurs in one of the most famous of novelistic opera scenes. In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, adulterous Emma and her dull husband Charles go to see Lucia di Lammermoor in provincial Rouen.
Flaubert, then a poster boy for literary realism, clearly disapproved of the extravagant, old-fashioned operatic acting. He described the famous second act sextet with all his famous precision of language: “They were all in a row gesticulating, and anger, vengeance, jealousy, terror and stupefaction breathed forth at once from their half-opened mouths. The outraged lover brandished his naked sword; his guipure ruffle rose with jerks to the movements of his chest, and he walked from right to left with long strides, clanking against the boards the silver-gilt spurs of his soft boots, widening out at the ankles.”
But the ridiculous physical exertions on stage become unimportant as Emma Bovary is drawn into the operatic spectacle, in particular into the orbit of the principal tenor: “The mad idea seized her that he was looking at her … She longed to run to his arms, to take refuge in his strength, as in the incarnation of love itself, and to say to him, to cry out, ‘Take me away! carry me with you! Let us go! Thine, thine! All my ardour and all my dreams!’”
The tawdry dramatic details are forgotten as Emma, Lucia-like, constructs an elaborate fantasy about an alternative life. What’s more, the mood generated in her that evening leads to decisions that change her life disastrously and forever.
The final irony about Lucia and its famous scene is that Donizetti’s own last years were spent locked away in a Paris insane asylum, paralysed by syphilis. As befitted the time, contemporaries wrapped his infirmity in layers of romantic narrative. His French publisher left a memoir suggesting that he had been driven insane by an imperious soprano, who had forced him to make damaging changes to his final grand opera. The story has scant basis in fact, but it is even now often repeated, so neatly does it chime with the view that female opera singers, with their famous freedoms, are the enemies of “serious” (male) composers.
Other famous acquaintances were even more elaborate. The poet Heinrich Heine reported a surreal picture: “While his melodies cheer the world with their merry playfulness, he himself, a terrible image of imbecility, sits in a sanatorium near Paris. Only with regard to his appearance has he, until lately, retained some childish consciousness, and had to be carefully attired every day in complete court regalia, his coat adorned with all his decorations; and would thus sit without moving, from early morning until late at night.”
Heine’s fantasy skilfully recyles two German stereotypes about Italian opera: about its lack of seriousness – he calls it “merry playfulness” – and about the readiness of Italian composers (unlike, it is implied, earnest German ones) to please at all costs, to be endlessly waiting for a new commission or for audience applause to call them on stage.
But one last anecdote is the most poignant of all. It recounts that there was just one piece of music that could make any impression on the stricken composer, cause him to raise his head, open his eyes and beat time. It was, of course, the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor.
Rufus Wainwright, a popular music artist, explains some of his influences in creating his new opera, “Prima Donna”
click on the link below for the full article:
These operas span four centuries and give a flavour of repertoire’s huge range and variety
Fiona Maddocks, The Guardian
Claudio Monteverdi Mantua, Italy, c1607
With a mythological musician as hero, L’Orfeo ranks as the first great opera. Monteverdi was the “founding father” of operatic form. Euridice dies from a snake bite. The sorrowful Orpheus, through his music, tries to save her from the Underworld. A popular operatic subject (Gluck, Jaques Offenbach, Philip Glass), L’Orfeo is emotional, melancholy and transcendent.
Henry Purcell London, UK, 1689
A lone English operatic success until the 20th century, Dido recounts the tale of the tragic Queen of Carthage and her love for Aeneas, inconveniently en route to found a new Troy. In addition to sailors and witches, Purcell gave us one of the most sublime laments in opera: Dido’s When I Am Laid in Earth.
George Frideric Handel London, UK, 1724
An epic of love and war often considered Handel’s finest work, Giulio Cesare has a richly intricate plot and the bonus of a brilliantly characterised and outrageously seductive Cleopatra (see Glyndebourne’s Opus Arte DVD with the dancing Danielle de Niese as Cleo). Caesar, written for castrato, is often sung by a countertenor. Other good Handel: Rinaldo, Radamisto, Tamerlano, Rodelinda, Ariodante, Alcina.
Handel London, UK, 1738
Opens with one of Handel’s best known arias, Ombra Mai Fu, sung by Serse, King of Persia, in honour of a plane tree and its shade. A plot of jealousy, infidelity and treachery results in a cocktail of bravura music. ENO’s 1992 production by Nicholas Hytner helped put Handel’s operas back on the map.
Christoph Willibald Gluck Vienna, Austria, 1762
Written in Italian, this intense drama was later revised as the French Orphée. A mix of old and new styles, poised at the birth of Romanticism, this is regarded as one of the key operas of the 18th century. Maria Callas made J’ai Perdu Mon Eurydice a stand-alone hit.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Munich, Germany, 1781
Not one of the composer’s best known, this opera seria is treasured by Mozartians as containing some of his greatest operatic music, hinting at glories yet to come. Despite its imperfections as drama and a too neat happy ending, Mozart’s retelling of the story of the King of Crete forced to sacrifice his son has slowly earned its status as a masterpiece.
Mozart Vienna, Austria, 1786
Together with Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte, which make up Mozart’s trio of masterpieces with libretti by Da Ponte, Figaro is for many the perfect opera: a balance of wit, humanity and astounding, glorious music. Others find it too long, and the garden scene dreary. The Queen called it “the one about the [lost] pin”.
Mozart Vienna, Austria, 1791
The monstrous Queen of the Night, the birdcatcher Papageno, lovers, philosophy, Freemasonry – The Magic Flute has it all. The music is ravishing, some of it probably familiar. Its prominent use of dialogue makes it a challenge to stage. Despite appearances, it’s not as easy for children as it may look; wait a while. Mozart died only weeks after completing it.
Gioachino Rossini Rome, Italy, 1816
Pure, inane, fizzing delight, ferociously difficult to sing: The Barber of Seville, written in a fortnight by a composer who had penned 35 operas by the age of 37 then abruptly retired, tops the list of all operatic comedies. It includes the famous Figaro-here, Figaro-there Largo Al Factotum. Check out the Royal Opera House DVD with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.
Gioachino Rossini Paris, France, 1829
The William Tell overture is one of the most famous pieces of classical music. Yet Rossini’s enormous, final opera, involving the fight for Swiss freedom, remains a rarity – despite thrilling arias and exciting choruses. A BBC Proms performance and a new EMI CD conducted by Antonio Pappano may restore interest.
Vincenzo Bellini Milan, Italy, 1831
Boasting the famous Casta Diva aria, Norma is the ultimate bel canto tragedy about a druid priestess who, secretly, has two children and an erring lover, with catastrophic results. Bellini’s extravagant, melodic operas – Il Pirata, La Sonnambula – provide a musical stepping stone from Rossini to Verdi.
Gaetano Donizetti Milan, Italy, 1832
Frequently performed and a cheerfully reassuring first step into opera, this is the comic tale of the fraudulent quack Dulcamara who dupes the poor, lovesick Nemorino with his “elixir”; melodic, witty, heart-warming and touchingly silly. The exuberant and prolific Donizetti’s sharp humour is at play in the shrewish character of the love object, Adina.
Gaetano Donizetti Naples, Italy, 1835
No one provides a better coloratura “mad scene” – a 19th-century Romantic opera habit – than Donizetti in Lucia, based on Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. Scott’s novels were all the rage in Europe, with 16 turned into operas by, among others, Bellini, Rossini and Bizet.
Giuseppe Verdi Venice, Italy, 1851
Verdi, one of opera’s greats, had a long career. For many his Egyptian Aida is an ideal first opera. For dramatic intensity, Rigoletto – compact, tuneful, melodramatic – is even better. The hunchback prompts pity when he tries to protect his daughter. It’s never been the same since ENO’s 1982 “Mafioso” staging had the Duke singing La Donna e Mobile at a jukebox in a diner.
Giuseppe Verdi Venice, Italy, 1853
Perhaps Verdi’s most performed work, La Traviata contains all the elements of operatic addiction: a beautiful, consumptive, fallen-woman heroine, grand Parisian party scenes, the travails of love, a troubled father and a deathbed scene, all set to Verdi’s faultless score. Hard to beat.
Giuseppe Verdi Paris, France, 1867
Known in both its French and Italian versions, this enormous five-act work based on Schiller shows Verdi at the height of his powers. Politics, kingship, heresy, adultery and love combine with incomparable pomp and solemnity, with a score to match. The bass role of King Philip II of Spain is one of opera’s loneliest.
Giuseppe Verdi Milan, Italy, 1893
Like Otello (written in a final, brilliant outpouring in 1887), Falstaff – after Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor – is a Verdian favourite among buffs, though some find its quixotic, quick-fire charms less beguiling. Knowledge of the final fugue, celebrating the folly of the human condition (Tutto nel Mondo) is essential to any opera lover’s armament.
Ruggero Leoncavallo Milan, Italy, 1892
Considered the stronger half of the popular “Cav and Pag” double bill, Pagliacci (the clowns) is Leoncavallo’s one surviving hit, usually paired with Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Pag cleverly uses a commedia dell’arte troupe to enact a verismo tragedy. Top tenors love to sing the broken-hearted clown’s Vesti la Giubba (Put On the Motley).
Giacomo Puccini Turin, Italy, 1896
If Puccini himself cried after composing the final scene of Bohème, one of the most adored of all operas, how can the rest of us resist? Mimi, the Bohemian seamstress of the title, her poet lover Rodolfo and their destitute Parisian friends capture the pains and pleasures of young love in an attic.
Giacomo Puccini Rome, Italy, 1900
Dubbed a “shabby little shocker”, Tosca opens with three crashing orchestral chords and never lets up until the opera-singer heroine, having stabbed the villain Scarpia and watched her artist-lover Cavaradossi die, leaps to her own death. Her Vissi d’arte and Cavaradossi’s E Lucevan le Stelle epitomise opera’s power to stir passion. Famous Toscas: Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Angela Gheorgiu.
Giacomo Puccini Milan, Italy, 1904
Puccini first saw David Belasco’s hit play Madame Butterfly in London in 1900. The teenage Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) falls in love with an American naval lieutenant in Nagasaki. He abandons her, then returns with a wife. Catastrophe ensues. After a first-night disaster, it became one of the best-loved operas. One Fine Day, the Stars and Stripes music and the Humming Chorus are highlights.
Giacomo Puccini Milan, Rome, 1926
Football fans know Nessun Dorma thanks to Pavarotti and the 1990 World Cup. Puccini’s final opera is about the man-hating Chinese queen Turandot, and Calaf, the man who finally melts her icy heart. When Puccini died leaving the opera incomplete, it was finished by a composer friend, Alfano. Others have also tried, but Alfano’s is the version commonly used.
Ludwig van Beethoven Vienna, Austria, 1805
Written to a backdrop of revolution, Beethoven’s only opera is a hymn to freedom and marital love. Leonora dresses as a man, Fidelio, to rescue her husband Florestan from imprisonment. The spoken dialogue and huge orchestra present performance challenges but the rewards – the Mir ist So Wunderbar ensemble, the Prisoners’ choruses, Florestan’s cry of “Gott!” – are unrivalled.
Carl Maria von Weber Berlin, Germany, 1821
The title of this opera translates as The Marksman and it is set in a Bohemian forest during the 30 years war. It concerns the shooting trials of young hunters to win their lovers. The hero Max transgresses by using “free” magic bullets. Good and evil struggle in a vivid, tuneful display of high German Romanticism. Not often staged. Catch it when it is.
Richard Wagner Weimar, Germany, 1850
Wagner’s last “early” work (after Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser) before his mature masterpieces. This is perhaps the last great Romantic opera, rich with symbolism, myth, taboo: the innocent Elsa of Brabant is accused of murdering her brother. A knight in shining armour arrives in a swan-drawn boat. He will help her so long as she doesn’t ask his name. She does. You can guess what it is.
Richard Wagner Munich, Germany, 1865
The ultimate, transcendent, no-holds-barred “love in death” experience, ending with Isolde’s Liebestod. As usual, Wagner wrote his own libretto. Isolde is betrothed to King Mark. After a mix-up, she and Tristan drink a love potion and fall cataclysmically in love. This is “extreme opera”, full of ecstatic thrills in very slow motion, but worth every note. Be prepared.
Richard Wagner Munich, Germany, 1868
Written over two decades, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg is Wagner’s only “comic” opera, full of generous humanity, especially in the great figure of the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs. The plot revolves around a song contest, and celebrates all art, especially German. Meistersinger may have been Hitler’s favourite but don’t be deterred. The music is uplifting, the choruses magnificent.
Richard Wagner Bayreuth, Germany, 1876
The Ring Cycle, a pinnacle of the genre, consists of four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdammerung – which last about 15 hours in total and took Wagner 28 years to write. The story of gold, gods, giants, dragons, once you sort it all out, is really an epic exploration of man’s desire, greed and folly. By any reckoning The Ring is among the mightiest single monuments of art created by one person.
Franz Lehár Vienna, Austria, 1905
Together with Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, Lehár’s Die Lustige Witwe sums up the joys of Viennese operetta: infectiously, waltzingly melodic, with dinners chez Maxim, dancing girls and a glimpse of Balkan Europe in the last days of old aristocracy. The eponymous widow, Hanna Glawari, is not only merry but fabulously rich. Too much fun for some tastes.
Richard Strauss Dresden, Germany, 1905
Still considered shocking by some, and certainly startling, Salome, after Wilde’s play, leads the way to modern opera: its radical harmonies, its vocal challenges and its violent biblical story revisited in the age of Freud. Salome desires John the Baptist. After dancing naked for Herod, she only gets his head but that’s enough.
Richard Strauss Dresden, Germany, 1911
The title – The Knight of the Rose – gives no hint as to why this enormous, voluptuous, waltz-laden operatic concoction has become a favourite of connoisseurs. In this bitter-sweet comedy an older woman (the Marschallin) sees she must send her young lover into the arms of another. The final trio sends opera-buffs into an ultimate swoon.
Hector Berlioz Paris, France 1863 & 1890
Opera hardly comes more grand than Berlioz’s five-act retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid: 22 roles, a huge orchestra, large chorus, ballet, battles, bloodshed and high emotion. Immensely expensive to stage, The Trojans is sometimes split across two evenings. Witness the fall of Troy and the tragic love of Didon and Enée in full operatic Technicolor. Never pass up a chance to see it.
Georges Bizet Paris, France, 1875
Is there an opera more popular, sexy, scandalous or with better tunes? The Gypsy dancer at the cigarette factory who breaks hearts and meets her doom outside the bullring offers an ideal start to opera. It’s long, but the action is thrilling, the music infectious. Don José’s Flower Song, the Toreador Song and Carmen’s Habanera are the best known of the many spectacular set pieces.
Jules Massenet Paris, France, 1884
The prolific and melodic Massenet is best known today for Manon, a linchpin of French 19th-century opera (from Abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut, also set by Puccini). The heroine can’t choose between love and money, until too late. Confusingly called an opéra comique because it has spoken dialogue, its subject is tragic.
Claude Debussy Paris, France, 1902
This sensuous, Symbolist tragedy in 12 tableaux marks a radical departure: instead of arias and set pieces, the text is declaimed, inspired by Wagner, over an ever-moving orchestration. The story of the frail Mélisande and her adulterous love for her brother-in-law is a mix of reality and interior mystery. An acquired taste – but well worth acquiring.
Bedrich Smetana Prague, Czech Repulbic, 1866
Smetana took several attempts to get his gentle, catchily tuneful comedy right. Folk-inspired dances, a drinking song and a story of young lovers thwarted by an official betrothal make this an engaging Czech tale of village life. That said, for today’s tastes the stammering simpleton Vasek, butt of village humour, may be seen as too mean a characterisation for comfort.
Modest Mussorgsky St Petersburg, Russia, 1874
Experts still argue over which version of Mussorgsky’s historical epic is definitive. The reluctant Boris, filled with foreboding and guilt for a murder, is appointed tsar. The people grow hungry and rebellious. Pretenders vie for the throne. Boris becomes deranged, the soul of Russia – expressed through anguished choruses – troubled. This is one of the Russian operatic greats.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Moscow, Russia, 1879
Among the most intimate and heart-rending of operas, this setting of Pushkin’s verse tale has a spectacular birthday ball, a duel and, early on, the Letter Scene, in which the impetuous young Tatyana pours out her heart to the cold Onegin. Tchaikovsky’s understanding of the human heart is all-encompassing, his music full of warmth and pathos.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky St Petersburg, Russia, 1890
After Pushkin’s story, complete with two suicides and a ghost, the former gambler of the title, an old woman now close to death, holds the secret of winning at cards. Her granddaughter Lisa falls in love with a young officer, Hermann, who is desperate to learn that secret. A hot-blooded thriller set to impassioned music.
Dmitri Shostakovich Moscow, Russia, 1934
Attacked in a Pravda article as being “chaos instead of music”, Lady Macbeth was forgotten until the 1960s, but its vital importance to modern opera is now recognised. While her husband is away, the bored, frustrated Katerina Izmailova murders her father-in-law and takes a lover. A tragic soap opera unfolds. Only a remote connection with Shakespeare.
Sergei Prokofiev Moscow, Russia, 1944
Oppressed by the Soviet authorities as so often in his career, Prokofiev had to add heroic choruses and marches to satisfy his political overlords, and never lived to hear a complete performance of his opera in five acts, based on Tolstoy’s epic novel. Despite the attractions of The Fiery Angel, and the comic Love for Three Oranges, this is his most successful opera.
Igor Stravinsky Venice, Italy, 1951
To a libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s opera is inspired by William Hogarth’s engravings. Tom Rakewell falls under the spell of Nick Shadow, and opts for a sybaritic life of easy riches. But Nick is the devil. Tom ends up penniless and mad in Bedlam. Watch the DVD of Glyndebourne’s 1975 staging with sets by David Hockney.
Leoš Janáček Brno, Czech Republic, 1904
Together with Katja Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropoulos Case, Jenůfa has been restored to the mainstream repertoire. Janáček’s singular musical style and piercing understanding of his female heroines, who face shocking dilemmas, has struck a chord today. In Jenůfa, a child is born in secret; a stepmother (Kostelnička) fearing scandal, drowns the baby. Guilt rips through a Czech village community.
Béla Bartók Budapest, Hungary, 1918
Chilling and enigmatic, Bluebeard is a psycho-drama for two voices about a lonely man who brings home his new bride, Judith, but will not reveal his past. She demands that he unlock the doors of his castle. Blood, money, a lake of tears and other wives lurk behind them. The score is ravishing, the impact disturbing.
Alban Berg Berlin, Germany, 1925
The subject matter – based on Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck about a victimised soldier – is brutal, dark and modernist in mood. Yet Berg’s score glitters with a warmth and lyricism, which has established it as a masterpiece of the early avant garde. In 2001, Birmingham Opera Company mounted a community version in a warehouse, renaming it Votzek; it was a sellout, its story instantly comprehensible.
George Gershwin New York, US, 1935
Hailed as a true American opera, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, the plot is about the crippled Porgy and his Bess in the poor American deep south. Every folk-jazz inspired number is a hit: A Woman is a Sometime Thing, Leavin’ for the Promised Land, Bess, You is My Woman Now and, best known of all, Summertime. Confused issues of racism linger.
Benjamin Britten London, UK, 1945
Ranked by many as one of the best operas of the 20th century, Britten’s tale of the violent social-outcast fisherman, taken from George Crabbe’s poem The Borough, is heart-rending and majestic. The orchestral Sea Interludes are frequently heard separately as concert pieces. The title role was created for Britten’s partner, tenor Peter Pears.
Benjamin Britten Venice, Italy, 1954
It’s hard to choose a second representative Britten opera, from the equally enjoyable Billy Budd, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Albert Herring or Death in Venice. But his setting of Henry James’s ghost tale, The Turn of the Screw, about a governess, the two children in her care and two dead servants, makes this chamber opera one of the most dramatically appealing. It also makes you think twice about seeing and believing.
Michael Tippett Coventry, UK 1962
Tippett’s operas to his own libretti – including Midsummer Marriage and The Knot Garden – haven’t yet found their way back into fashion but there’s some exquisite music; their time will come. His retelling of the tragedy of Priam, King of Troy, is intense, violent, poignant and highly original.
György Ligeti Stockholm, Sweden, 1978
Opening with a blast of four car horns, Ligeti’s farce is mercurial, fast moving and eclectic. The Grand Macabre announces that at midnight the world will end. When the time arrives, no one is quite sure whether Armageddon has occurred or not so they party on, accepting there’s no escape from death.