Chinese presenters have made their bid for grand opera’s international ranks with the very piece that marks the end of that tradition—Puccini’s Turandot.
The irony reaches further. In the country where Chinese singers have the greatest advantage, these productions have primarily featured Western performers; a piece that had been conspicuously absent from the country where it purports to take place has wound up essentially becoming China’s national opera; and the original story was never about China in the first place—it came from a French translation of a Persian folk tale that was adapted by an Italian playwright and later reinvented by a German writer whose version inspired Puccini.
This according to “A princess comes home” by Ken Smith (Opera LXIII/12 [December 2012] pp. 1473–1479). Above and below, excerpts from Turandot at the Forbidden City, directed by Zhang Yimou.
The opera-ballet Mlada was commissioned in 1872 by Stepan Gedeonov, director of the imperial theatres in St. Petersburg, Russia. Collaboratively taken on by five composers— Cezar’ Kûi, Modest Musorgskij, Nikolaj Rimskij-Korsakov, Aleksandr Borodin, and Ludwig Minkus—it was left unfinished. Some of the music was never written or has been lost, while most of what remains exists only in short score.
For the first time, the surviving original scenes and numbers of Mlada are now published in their entirety (Middleton: A-R Editions, 2016), including reconstructions of two incompletely transmitted numbers that render acts and I and IV complete. This edition turns Mlada—this “phantom of an opera”—into something palpable that will change our understanding of the music derived from it, such as the bulk of Borodin’s Knâz’ Igor’ and some of the scenes from Musorgskij’s Soročinskaâ ârmarka and Rimskij-Korsakov’s Majskaâ noč’.
Below, the prologue to Borodin’s Knâz’ Igor’, which recycles materials that he originally wrote for Mlada.
Nineteenth-century Italian operas portraying an emphatically virginal heroine—a woman defined by her virginity—were often set in the mountains, most frequently the Alps.
This convention presents an unusual point of view—a theme rather than a composer, a librettist, a singer or a genre—from which to observe Italian opera over a century. The clarity of the sky, the whiteness of the snow and the purity of the air were associated with the innocence of the female protagonist.
This according to Landscape and gender in Italian opera: The Alpine virgin from Bellini to Puccini by Emanuele Senici (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Above, Uliana Alexyuk in Bellini’s La sonnambula, one of the operas discussed by Senici; below, Renata Scotto in another of the book’s case studies, Verdi’s Luisa Miller.
Although Arrigo Boito devoted 56 years to the composition of his Nerone, at his death the opera was still incomplete; Arturo Toscanini bustled to refine and finish the last act for the work’s premiere at La Scala on 1 May 1924.
Since the figure of the mad psychopath Nero is best remembered in the collective imagination as he plays and sings while observing the Great Fire of Rome, for the first staging of the opera a true kithara was made by the lute maker Piero Parravicini at the Milan workshop of Antonio Monzino e Figli; today the instrument is on display at the Civico Museo degli Strumenti Musicali in Milan.
This according to “‘Or che i Numi son vinti, a me la cetra, a me l’altar!’: Kithara constructed for the premiere of Arrigo Boito’s Nerone” by Donatella Melini (Music in art XL/1–2  pp. 267–72).
Above, the instrument in question (click to enlarge); below, the scene referred to in the article’s title.
The stunning success of Der dumme Gärtner aus dem Gebürge, oder, Die zween Anton at Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden (12 July 1789) led quickly to a sequel in the same year, Die verdeckten Sachen (26 September). Like its predecessor, the music was a collaborative composition by Franz Xaver Gerl, Benedikt Schack, Johann Baptist Henneberg, and probably Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist.
Mozart had high praise for what he called The Antons, and he composed his final set of piano variations on one of the most celebrated arias in Die verdeckten Sachen, “Ein Weib ist das herrlichste Ding auf der Welt”. This edition presents this aria for the first time in its original orchestration. With the recent identification of performing materials for Die verdeckten Sachen in Rudolstadt, Thuringia, we can now investigate this opera in detail.
A new critical edition, drawing on this new source, has recently been issued as Two operas from the series Die zween Anton. Part 2: Die verdeckten Sachen (Middleton: A-R Editions, 2016).
Above, a portrait of Schikaneder (click to enlarge); below, Mozart’s K.613, performed by Gerhard Puchelt.
BONUS: The imaginary Schikaneder production from Amadeus.
Among the forgotten but highly popular operas of the late 18th century, Der dumme Gärtner aus dem Gebürge, oder, Die zween Anton (The dumb gardener from the mountains, or, The two Antons ) seems particularly worthy of reexamination.
The Antons (as Mozart called it) was the subject of much commentary and praise; it was performed in almost every German theater over the next two decades, and it was translated into Czech. The success of the opera inspired six sequels and secured the place of its author, Emanuel Schikaneder, in the popular imagination of the Viennese public. This success also made possible the series of fairy-tale operas that included Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (1791).
Die zween Anton was also the first original opera by Schikaneder produced at the Theater auf der Wieden after he had taken over its direction; the music was a collaborative composition by Franz Xaver Gerl, Benedikt Schack, Johann Baptist Henneberg, and probably Schikaneder himself. With the recent recovery of a Viennese manuscript copy of Die zween Anton in the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg we can now investigate this opera in detail.
A new critical edition, drawing on this new source, has recently been issued as Two operas from the series Die zween Anton. Part 1: Der dumme Gärtner aus dem Gebürge, oder, Die zween Anton (Middleton: A-R Editions, 2015).
Above, a portrait of Schikaneder (click to enlarge); below, the opera’s overture.
The so-called model works (yangbanxi)—ten operas, four ballets, two symphonies, and two piano pieces—monopolized China’s theatrical and musical stages for a decade.
Repercussions of these works can be traced in recent Chinese rock, pop, and art music. Contrary to the popular assumption that the model works were characteristic products of Cultural Revolution ideology, they are manifestations of a hybrid taste that calls for the transformation of Chinese tradition according to foreign standards, a taste which has for more than a century determined compositional practice in China.
One of the earliest and best-known works, the collectively written jingju Zhi qu Weihu Shan (Taking Tiger Mountain by strategy), is an example; its traditional Chinese and European musical and dramatic elements illustrate how the particular forms taken by musical modernization during the Cultural Revolution were—except in their degree of semantic overdetermination—typical of compositional practice in today’s China.
This according to “Cultural Revolution model works and the politics of modernization in China: An analysis of Taking Tiger Mountain by strategy by Barbara Mittler (The world of music XLV/2  pp. 53–81).
Above, a still from the 1970 film; below, an excerpt.
BONUS: CCTV host Bi Fujian entertaining friends at the dinner table with a rendition of a scene using chopsticks for percussion.
BONUS BONUS: An updated version from a 2013 variety show (Star Wars Opera Night/Quanneng Xingzhang Xiqu zhi Ye) with the renowned singer Sun Nan.
In the opening duet of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Figaro makes Freudian errors in counting and in singing. Susanna, needing emotional support and sensitive to Figaro’s psychology, directs his therapy in a manner both manipulative and helpful.
The brief scene is paradigmatic for the opera as a whole, and the duet’s dramatic action is projected by the music at every level, from small details to aspects of global structure.
This according to “Figaro’s mistakes” by David Lewin (Current musicology 57 [spring 1995] pp. 45–60).
Le nozze di Figaro is 230 years old this year! Above, Lydia Teuscher and Vito Priante as Susanna and Figaro; below, the scene in question.
The German physician Hans Leicher undertook an operation on Richard Strauss’s nose in 1928, when the composer was working on his opera Arabella.
Leicher subsequently recalled that Strauss drafted two numbers for the work in the hospital immediately following the operation, after two cotton balls impregnated with a 2% cocaine solution had put him into such a state of stimulation that instead of resting he was inspired, and worked intensively.
The numbers were the duets Aber der Richtige, wenn’s einen gibt für mich and Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein, often described as the finest moments in the score.
This according to “Richard Strauss und die Hals-Nasen-Ohren-Heilkunde: Zur Entstehungsgeschichte der zwei schönsten Duette der Oper Arabella” by Herbert Pichler (Richard Strauss-Blätter I [June 1979] pp. 46–53).
Above, the 1918 portrait by Max Liebermann; below, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Anny Felbermayer sing Aber der Richtige.
Launched in 2015 by the Università di Catania, Bollettino di studi belliniani is the digital journal of the Centro di documentazione per gli Studi Belliniani and the Fondazione Bellini.
The inaugural issue includes studies of the reception of Bellini’s operas in 19th-century London, contextual discussions of aspects of Norma and La sonnambula, and a prospectus for a critical edition of the composer’s correspondence.
Below, Maria Callas sings Casta diva from Norma.