Vissi d'arte

from lullaby to requiem

Sunday, October 01, 2006

20 Operas - part I

The following is a list of the world's most loved and most famous Operas... ^_^

20 Operas for the Uninitiated and the Cognoscenti

In no particular order:

The Magic Flute
La Boheme
La Traviata
Il Trovatore
Madama Butterfly
The Barber of Seville
Cavaleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci
Lucia di Lammermoor
Tristan und Isolde

Der Ring das Nibelungen
La Sonnambula

1. Norma – Vincenzo Bellini
A must for all opera-goers; this is the tragic tale of three lovers – Norma is the Druid High Priestess who has forsaken her sacred duties for her love of the Roman proconsul Pollione, who has left her for another priestess, Adalgisa. The opera’s music reflects the beauty of Norma’s love, her rage towards her philandering lover, Pollione’s passion for Adalgisa, and Adalgisa’s youth and confusion.

Points to look forward to: Nearly every scene is filled with thrilling moments and glorious music which, coupled with the proper technique of singing, can rocket a singer to fame – or crush that singer’s dreams to smithereens! Act 1, Scene 1 ends with Norma’s prayer (Casta Diva – Chaste Goddess) and its cabaletta (the tail end of an aria – a short verse whose key goes up each time it is repeated). Scene 2 ends with a trio – Norma cursing and threatening Pollione, Pollione entreating Adalgisa to come with him, and Adalgisa swearing to be faithful to Norma. The opera ends with a shocking revelation that sends Norma and Pollione to the funeral pyre together, sparing Adalgisa and her youth.

2. Carmen – Georges Bizet
The world’s favorite opera, and arguably its most famous, Carmen is the story of a gypsy and her doomed love for a guard captain – Don Jose. For the first time in operatic history, sopranos step back and allow mezzos to revel in their limelight. Carmen’s music has become so popular, it’s been used in several TV ads – from tissue paper to canned milk – and even in many cellular phone ring tones.

Points to look forward to: Carmen’s songs – the ever-famous Habañera, her Gypsy Song, and her semi-trio, the Card Song, brings out the beauty, coquettishness, and versatility of many great mezzos (and even some sopranos!). On the other hand, Don Jose’s Flower Song is a great showcase for the tenor voice, and Micaela’s aria, for the soprano soubrette. The opera is also filled with fabulous orchestral pieces – the Overture and the 4th Act Intermezzo in particular – which have helped immortalize the opera. Plus, you also have a great selection of scenes and ensembles to choose from: The chorus for the little orphan boys, the Toreador song, and the last scene where Jose confronts (and kills) Carmen.

3. Aida – Guiseppe Verdi
The timeless tale of a love so forbidden, it leads an enslaved princess and her pharaoh-to-be lover trapped and buried alive within a pyramid. Aida is the Ethiopian princess who has become Amneris’ (the Pharaoh’s daughter) slave. She has fallen in love with the Egyptian Army Captain, Radames, who is betrothed to Amneris. The opera was later translated into a Broadway musical, with the same name and relatively the same plot, by Sir Elton John.

Points to look forward to: Ritorna vincitor! Aida’s outcry (Return victoriously!) at the end of the first act is always a big crowd pleaser. Sung properly with the correct balance of loathing for the Egyptian troops and longing (and love) for their Captain, Aida’s first aria may make or break the opera. Her second aria, O patria mia (My dearest country), is more dramatic and tragic than her first outburst. Here, the princess longs for the country which she has been forced to leave, and dreads that she may never see her homeland again. Amneris (mezzo-soprano) is given the wonderfully devious aria, L’aborrita rivale a me sfuggia (My rival has fled me), in which she plans her revenge on Radames and his lover. After questioning Radames about Aida, and asking him to denounce the slave in favor of the pharaoh’s daughter (which he, of course declines), she sends him off to his doom. Regretting her decision to end a good man’s life, she ends the opera with a prayer to the gods to allow Radames (and Aida) to find peace in death.

4. The Magic Flute – W.A. Mozart
The fairytale-ish story of Zarastro (bass) and his battle with The Queen of the Night (coloratura soprano) is another of the world’s most frequently performed operas. The opera is filled with dualities and counterparts – the Queen and the Priest Zarastro, Tamino and Tamina, Papageno and Papagena.

Points to look forward to: One of the most desired voices in the operatic repertoire is the coloratura soprano. Her aria’s are among the most famous aria’s in the world – O zittre nicht (Do not be afraid), and her coloratura tour de force, Der holle rache (Hellish rage), which has been used in a number of movies (like Miss Congeniality 1). Also the chorus Isis und Osiris, and the Chorus of the Three Graces are among the most popular songs in opera.

5. La Boheme – Giacomo Puccini
The inspiration behind the Broadway musical Rent is the story of four Parisian friends living the bohemian lifestyle: Musetta is your typical Parisienne, a coquettish, flirty, beautiful little thing; Mimi is a consumptive seamstress; Rodolfo is a poet; and Marcelo, the painter. You can see very clear parallels between the characters of Rent and La Boheme. Rent has the junkie Mimi, dying of an OD, while Boheme has Mimi’s tuberculosis; Musetta is your average prima donna wannabe, Maureen has her tango; Marcelo has a portrait, Marc, a documentary; Colline the philosopher has become Collin, the teacher; Rodolfo has insecurities about Mimi’s mysterious aura, so does Robert.

Points to look forward to: Mimi’s arias – her hello (Si, michiamano Mimi – Yes, they call me Mimi) and her farewell (Donde lieta usci – Back at the place I left). As there are parallels with the characters, there are parallels with the songs. Rent’s La Vie Boheme can be likened to the Boheme quartet; Maureen’s fight with her lover is a distorted version of Musetta’s Waltz, where she walks through the street while men keep staring at her. The great love duet (O soave fanciulla – O beautiful little girl) between Rodolfo and Mimi in Act I has been transformed into a lesser love duet (Will you light my candle?) ending, this time, with Boheme Mimi’s ‘they call me, they call me… Mimi.’

6. La Traviata – Guiseppe Verdi
The One who Strayed – the tale of yet another operatic consumptive, Violetta, is a story of a love interrupted by family reputation and brought to an end by pride. Violetta, a courtesan, has fallen in love with Alfredo Germont – who comes from a relatively well-known and well-reputed family. Alfredo’s affiliation with a courtesan has upset his father, and he comes to Violetta to end their affair. Violetta shows the elder Germont the nobility of her heart by showing him that Alfredo has not spent a penny since they have been together. She agrees to part with the younger Germont to save their reputation on one condition – that Alfredo be left in the dark with regard to their agreement. Alfredo takes Violetta’s withdrawal from him as a personal insult (thinking that Violetta left him because of their financial situation) and insults her back publicly.
Left alone and dying, Violetta reminisces the joys of the past and makes herself ready for death. Until her maid bursts in announcing Alfredo’s return. The older Germont has told Alfredo of Violetta’s sacrifice, and now they have come to make amends. But all is too late. Violetta gets up and dresses to go out (to Church – to thank God for Alfredo’s return); just as she feels her old strength returning, Violetta stumbles onto a couch and dies. Based on a book (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas fils, and immortalized on black and white in the film Camille with the great Greta Garbo.

Points to look forward to: Violetta’s tour de force and first aria, E strano… Sempre libera (How strange… Forever free), has her musing about Alfredo’s love and affection, and dismissing them as follies, consoling herself to a lifetime of fleeting joys and freedom. Her moving duet with the older Germont (baritone) is also something to look forward to. Her last aria, Addio del passato (Farewell to the past), is a showpiece for great sopranos who can weep using their voices.

7. Rigoletto – Guiseppe Verdi
Another of Verdi’s great masterpieces, Rigoletto is the story of a bitter old hunchback and his youthful, arrogant, womanizing master. In vain, the hunchback court-jester tries to keep his only daughter – Gilda – away from his master, the Duke, only to find out that Gilda has fallen in love with him already. Rigoletto’s plot to murder the Duke goes awry and Gilda ends up being killed… tragic, but with infinitely beautiful music.

Points to look forward to: One of the highlights of this opera is Gilda’s aria, a coloratura must, Caro nome (Sweet name), in which the young girl muses about her affections for the Duke (who has disguised himself as a student). The two duets between father and daughter are also quite thrilling. Rigoletto’s Pari siamo (We are equally skilled) is a difficult aria, which requires an artful understanding of Rigoletto’s inner turmoil, is also a great aria. Of course, we cannot mention Rigoletto without the Duke’s showpiece aria La donna e mobile (Women are fickle). This aria is another crowd favorite, and the second most popular tenor aria, after Nessun Dorma.

8. Il Trovatore – Guiseppe Verdi
Yet another Verdi classic, Trovatore is the story of Manrico (a rebel troubadour), Leonora (a courtier loved by Manrico), Azucena (Manrico’s step-mom and your local Gypsy weirdo), and the Count di Luna (Manrico’s brother, although only Azucena knows this). The story is built on a tragic tale of a gypsy being burned at the stake for witchcraft and her charge to her daughter for vengeance. Azucena is the gypsy’s daughter; she abducts one of the Count’s sons, and while carrying her own child, takes pity on the baby. In a delirium caused by her mother’s cries for revenge, she mistakenly throws her own child into a pyre. She raises, instead, the Count’s son who has grown up to be Manrico. The new Count di Luna has been trying to capture the rebel Manrico, who also happens to be his rival with regard to Leonora.
Upon capturing Manrico (and Azucena), Leonora gives herself up to the Count in exchange for his freedom. But before the Count can marry her, she poisons herself. In the end, Count di Luna has Manrico executed, amidst Azucena’s victorious cries of Sei vendicata, o madre! (I have avenged you, mother!)

Points to look forward to: The opera has four acts, all acts have endings as thrilling as many musicals (some, perhaps, even more thrilling). The first act has Leonora’s aria Tacea la notte placida (The night was quiet and still), and her trio with di Luna and Manrico for its ending. Act 2 opens with the famed Anvil Chorus, and Azucena’s aria, Stride la vampa (The fire is crackling). Act 3 ends with Manrico’s famous Di quella pira (The flames of the pyre) which is another powerhouse aria for tenors. Finally, di Luna has Il balen (Her smile), an aria almost too serene for a baritone. Act 3 has Leonora’s solos – D’amore sull’ali rosee (On the rosy wings of love), the Miserere, and her cabaletta Tu vedrai (You will see), which is almost always cut from the opera. The opera ends with a quartet between all the leads.

9. Tosca – Giacomo Puccini
One of the most oft performed operas in today’s repertoire, based on Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca. It is the story of how a diva (Tosca), and her lover (Mario), fall prey to an evil (and lusty) Baron (Scarpia) who just happens to be Rome’s police chief.

Points to look forward to: Tosca is mostly a tenor’s opera – two glorious arias (Recondita armonia - Strange harmony, in the first act; and E lucevan le stelle – The stars are gleaming, in the final act) and a riveting cabaletta (Vittoria! in the second act). Tosca is left, though, with a marvelously difficult aria – Vissi d’arte (I lived for art); an aria which is perfect for sopranos who can weep using their voices. The baritone Scarpia has his glorious moments as well: the ending of the first act and the beginning of the second act.

10. Fidelio – Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s only opera, his baby – first entitled Leonore, but then changed to Fidelio when another work was released with the same title. It’s a relatively simple story – Leonore has had her husband imprisoned. She dresses up as a man (Fidelio) to save him, and she does in the end, when the Count (or Duke?) comes to pardon all the prisoners and sets them free from the cruel jailer.

Points to look forward to: Beethoven is a god. Let’s leave it at that. Leonore’s Abscheulicher! (Monster!), Marzelline’s O war’ich schon mit dir vereint (I would be so happy), several quartets and terzettos… The entire opera is an exercise in the beauty of music – and singing.


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