Tuesday, 15 January 2019

The ten greatest/funniest/most interesting operas I've recently watched, Part 1: Parsifal, Orfeo and Euridice, The Barber of Seville, Der Freischutz and L'elisir d'amore

I have somehow managed to watch 35 operas since the end of November. I so enjoyed the experience of listening to the whole of The Ring Cycle on CD that I decided to try one or two others, and it just snowballed from there. I haven't enjoyed all of them - for a variety of reasons, Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Donizetti's Lucia Di Lammermoor and Bellini's Norma all failed to hit the spot - but my response to the majority has been overwhelmingly positive. Here's the first half of my top ten:

1. Wagner's Parsifal, despite a reputation for being long-winded and vaporously religiose, is an absolute masterpiece - endlessly dramatic, emotionally involving and full of what may be the most stunningly beautiful music I've ever heard. Was it the overt Christianity that put some people off? The fact that it was written by an exhausted, sick old man at the very end of his life (Wagner was in his early seventies, and suffering a series of debilitating heart-attacks) is irrelevant - this is the work of a musical genius at the very height of his creative powers. Probably only someone with Wagner's colossal self-belief and sense of mission would have embarked on such a crazy project - the opera lasts some for some four hours - and one can only assume Wagner was attempting, in his own terms, to match the heroic feats of Parsifal himself, while suffering the pains of Amfortas, the chief guardian of the grail, who, as the opera opens, is in agony from the wound dealt him by the self-castrated magician Klingsor, using the spear which pierced Christ's side.

This 1981 Bayreuth production's beginning to look a bit long-in-the tooth, and it keeps going out of sync, but it has English subtitles, and it's the one I watched and enjoyed (if you're looking for other productions, be warned - it's a work that egomaniacal "directors" really seem to enjoy screwing up):

Though not quite in the same league as Parsifal, what is now regarded as the first of Wagner's mature masterpieces - Lohengrin - is well worth seeing. The eponymous hero turns out to be the son of Parsifal (see above), who would have to wait 32 years for his very own opera. It features one of the most splendidly evil women in all opera, the Lady Macbeth-like Ortrud. Needless to say, Wagner's next opera, Tristan and Isolde - the work whose unresolved chords changed music forever - is another absolute masterpiece, as is wholly benevolent The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, which followed (then came The Ring Cycle and Parsifal). I also thoroughly enjoyed Tannhäuser, which preceded Lohengrin, and which was for a long time audiences' favourite Wagner opera, until critics decided to reclassify it as one his more callow works - i.e. the ones the composer wrote before he went Full Wagner. Musically, that may be true, but, like almost all of Wagner's work, Tannhäuser positively steams with sex - it starts with our (anti) hero deciding to leave the Venusberg, where he has spent months enjoying the fleshly delights offered by the goddess herself, and features a singing contest back on earth, where our shagged-out knight somewhat sweatily espouses the delights of erotic love, to the dismay of his audience - in particular the nice girl who loves him and whom he wants to marry.

2. Gluck's most popular opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, first performed in Vienna in 1762, was an unexpected delight. It was apparently a "reform"opera, in which the composer was attempting to undermine the over-complexity and artificiality of the prevailing style by aiming for simplicity in plot, emotion and music - he succeeded triumphantly, producing a wholly engrossing and touching work, although Euridice's tendency to whine eventually becomes wearing - patience, woman, patience! 

This 1981 Glyndebourne production is also visually well past its sell-by date - but Dame Janet Baker (as Orfeo) is in sublime form:

I also enjoyed what's often described as the first true opera, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, a somewhat different take on the same story. It was written for a court performance during the 1607 carnival at Mantua. The ladies in the audience were apparently overwhelmed with emotion, a repeat performance was demanded a few days' later, and an insanely popular new musical form was born.  This version, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the Zurich Opera House, is distinctly more traditional than the one I saw, but it looks worth watching, and it has English subtitles:

3. Rossini's The Barber of Seville (1816) was an utterly joyous, uplifting experience - never less than amusing, it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and the humour comes from the libretto, the plot and the glorious music, rather than from clever staging. It's a two-and-three-quarter-hour comic masterpiece packed with superb arias, duos, trios and "patter" songs which doesn't flag for a single instant. It's all a load of ridiculous folderol, of course - but who cares? That Rossini - what a bloody genius!

There are plenty of subtitled versions available on YouTube - but not, unfortunately, the one I saw. Here though, is the famous "Figaro" patter song from that production:

4. I've only previously know the German composer Carl Maria von Weber from an LP of his overtures owned by my brother (a fan), and, consequently, Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter), 1821, was the first of his operas I'd seen. It apparently took German opera in a new direction - one it was to follow for the next 60 years - thanks to its emotional directness, folk themes (the story is about genuine peasants rather than an aristocratic, rococo version of them), its nationalism, and its use of the sort of supernatural beliefs harboured by ordinary folk at the time, rather than the world of Greek gods and goddesses beloved of opera composers up to that point (for instance, there's a genuinely creepy, groundbreaking scene set in the eerie Wolf's Glen at night  - a place wisely shunned by locals - featuring the demon Black Huntsman, Samiel, during which you can almost smell the damp earth, the fear, the evil, and the brimstone). Great music throughout, apart from some talking sequences. The youthful Wagner was a big fan - and it shows in his later work.

Here's that famous Wolf's Glen scene from the rather ancient subtitled version I enjoyed:

5. While I may not have got on with Donizetti's dramatic works so far, his L'elisir d'amore (1832) - which I had assumed would consist of one great aria and a lot of arsing around - is another opera buffa masterpiece, with a rather more prosaic setting than The Barber of Seville: a delightful, village-set rom-com swirling around a fake love potion hastily concocted by a travelling snake-oil salesman to satisfy a love-struck young man's belief that ne needs to use magic to win the heart of his scornful beloved. Rather than one great aria, it consists of an almost continuous stream of glorious melody. No wonder opera audiences love it.

The subtitled version I saw isn't available on YouTube, so I'll leave you with Pavarotti performing that aria, Una furtiva lagrima - okay, the fat guy couldn't act, but he sure could sing!:

Part 2 of this post will follow shortly.

1 comment:

  1. "Was it the overt Christianity that put some people off."
    That could be an interview question.
    In common with SDG I'm a "favourite excerpts" man.
    These two posts will act as a reference - my little knowledge of Opera has increased a thousand fold.
    May blessings be upon you Effendi.