Mark Twain’s reactions to grand opera are epitomized by a passage from A tramp abroad in which he described a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin.
“The banging and slamming and booming and crashing were something beyond belief. The racking and pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time that I had my teeth fixed.”
“There was little of that sort of customary thing where the tenor and the soprano stand down by the footlights, warbling, with blended voices…no, it was every rioter for himself and no blending. Each sang his indictive narrative in turn, accompanied by the whole orchestra of sixty instruments, and when this had continued for some time, and one was hoping they might come to an understanding and modify the noise, a great chorus composed entirely of maniacs would suddenly break forth.”
“We only had one brief little season of heaven and heaven’s sweet ecstasy and peace during all this long and diligent and acrimonious reproduction of the other place. This was while a gorgeous procession of people marched around and around, in the third act, and sang the Wedding Chorus. To my untutored ear that was music—almost divine music. While my seared soul was steeped in the healing balm of those gracious sounds, it seemed to me that I could almost re-suffer the torments which had gone before, in order to be so healed again.”
“There is where the deep ingenuity of the operatic idea is betrayed. It deals so largely in pain that its scattered delights are prodigiously augmented by the contrasts. A pretty air in an opera is prettier there than it could be anywhere else, I suppose, just as an honest man in politics shines more than he would elsewhere.”
Excerpted from “Mark Twain on opera” (The NATS journal XLIII/3 [January–February 1987] pp. 19, 49).
Above, the author around 1880, the year A tramp abroad was published; below, the “little season of heaven” at Bayreuth in 2010.
In 2018 A-R Editions issued the first critical edition of John Eccles’s opera The judgment of Paris.
The work was one of at least four operas on the same libretto (written by William Congreve) composed for the 1701 Prize Musick competition sponsored by London’s Kit-Cat Club with the aim of promoting native English, all-sung opera; it won second place in the competition, after John Weldon’s setting, though it later became the most popular of the settings composed for the competition.
Scored for soloists, chorus, strings and continuo, with individual movements featuring transverse flute, recorders, and trumpets and timpani, the opera unfolds within a single act and depicts the mythological story of Paris and the three goddesses. Below, the opening of a 2016 performance by the Columbia New Opera Workshop.
The Marx Brothers’ film A night at the opera is best known for its travesty of the high-society manners of the opera house and its sendup of Verdi’s Il trovatore. Underneath this farce, however, the film suggests deep affection for opera—a stance prompted, ironically, by the demands of the studio system.
The Hollywood movie is the heir and rival of opera as an entertainment medium, and both its follies and splendors are rooted in the immigrant experience of early–20th-century America.
This according to “The singing salami: Unsystematic reflections on the Marx Brothers” by Lawrence Kramer, an essay included in A night at the opera (London: Libbey, 1994 pp. 253–65).
Above and below, classic Marxian mayhem.
Writing in 1955, a colleague recalled Lily Pons’s 1931 Metropolitan Opera debut:
“If all goes well on the first night of a new career in America, ‘a new Pope has been chosen’, as an old saying goes. Lily was a success and remained one.”
“In Lucia, though her age was something on the order of 30, she looked like a teenager. It was rumored that she was only 18; she was so dainty, petite, and graceful that everyone was willing to believe it.”
“For the first time in history a French coloratura had conquered America, and the novelty of it seemed to please everyone. Lily became their favorite toy, their baby doll, replete with Jaguars, Siamese cats, or Tibetan dogs with jeweled leashes accompanying her everywhere, like the descendant of some Grand Lama.”
This according to “Coloraturas at the Metropolitan” by Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, reprinted in Lily Pons: A centennial portrait (Portland: Amadeus, 1999, pp. 38–45).
Today is Pons’s 120th birthday! Above, costumed for Lakmé, with a friend; below, performing that opera’s Où va la jeune Hindoue? (popularly known as Bell song), one of Pons’s signature arias.
Händel filled his operas with arias that make reference to animals; rich in symbolism, the perceived virtues and vices of the lion, bee, nightingale, snake, elephant, and tiger, among others, resonate in his works.
The aria Qual leon, from Arianna in Creta, was written for Händel’s longest-serving singer, Margherita Durastanti, and it gave her a chance to sing full force about revenge and punishment: “Like an enraged lion whose young have been stolen, so will I, armed with anger, strike in battle.” The accompanying horns evoke the lion’s fierce and regal power.
This according to Handel’s bestiary: In search of animals in Handel’s operas by Donna Leon (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2010).
Below, hear Ann Hallenberg roar.
Issued by A-R Editions in 2018, Arie a voce sola de diversi auttori (Venice, 1656), a collection of secular monodies for voice and basso continuo, complements the edition of the contemporaneous sacred collection Sacra Corona (Venice, 1656), which A-R published in 2015. It contains short arias by various composers, some of whom had also contributed to Sacra Corona.
As in Sacra Corona, distinct Venetian and non-Venetian groups of composers can be identified within Arie a voce sola, and the printers, compilers, and dedicatees of both anthologies occupied similar social and economic milieus.
Arie a voce sola can be seen both as a continuation of the early seventeenth-century vogue for strophic arias, which were published in quantity in booklets during the first two decades of the century, and as the forerunner of the trend toward shorter operatic arias, observable in Venetian operas a few decades later.
Below, Maurizio Cazzati’s Mi serpe nel petto, one of the arias in the collection.
The world premiere of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele on 5 March 1868 at Teatro alla Scala was a disaster.
On the aesthetic level, the opera’s unconventional melodies, harmonies, allocation of voices, and voice leading were jarring for the puzzled audience.
Even worse, in this work Boito repudiated the era’s emphasis on Italian nationalism and sought to stimulate philosophical thought and analysis. This cultural treason was viewed as a serious offense during the Italian Risorgimento, and Boito was forced to revise the opera; his reputation as a librettist suffered as well.
This according to La prima de Mefistofele e il Risorgimento: Pubblico e riforma del teatro musicale nella Milano postunitaria by Stefano Lucchi, a dissertation accepted by Universität Wien in 2009.
Today is the 150th anniversary of Boito’s disastrous premiere! Of course, now the opera is his best-loved work. Below, Renata Tebaldi sings the celebrated aria L’altra notte in fondo al mare.
Felice Romani revolutionized the Italian opera libretto, creating a clearly contoured melodramma romantico that was suitable for a through-composed setting.
Romani’s libretto for Donizetti’s Anna Bolena produced a virtually through-composed opera, making the meter conform to the dramatic situation and mood. In Act I, all the characters enter immediately after the prima donna, so that in place of the usual introductory aria there is now an ensemble. The entry of the seconda donna now leads as a rule to a concerted piece, the stretta of the pezzo concertato unleashing all the passions of the protagonists.
Act II proceeds similarly, except that its final scene is treated as a composition in its own right: Out of a stretta the concertato emerges, structured as a concert piece.
This according to Felice Romani–Gaetano Donizetti–Anna Bolena. Zur Asthetik politischer Oper in Italien zwischen 1826 und 1831 by Richard Hauser, a dissertation accepted by Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg in 1980.
Today is Romani’s 230th birthday! Below, Sondra Radvanovsky sings Anna Bolena’s finale.
The catalogue arias of late eighteenth-century Italian opere buffe focus on lists; subjects may include enjoyable activities, foods, things for sale, or types of people (by nationality, social rank, occupation, personal qualities, and so on).
Their progress often involves shorter and shorter syntactic units: Sentences give way to phrases, then to one- or two-word groups, accelerating the rate of accumulated information—the comic frenzy is actually built into the text itself. This textual compression often involves two rhetorical devices: asyndeton (omitting conjunctions) and anaphora (beginning successive lines or phrases with the same word).
This according to “Catalogue arias and the ‘catalogue aria’” by John Platoff, an essay included in Wolfgang Amadé Mozart: Essays on his life and his music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 296–311).
Above, Lorenzo da Ponte, author of the celebrated catalogue aria Madamina, il catalogo è questo, from Mozart’s Don Giovanni; below, Luca Pisaroni does the honors.