Program Notes

2004 Spring – Opera Choruses

Opera Choruses

As the theme of this concert—Love, Honor & Betrayal—suggests, these eleven opera choruses come mostly from 19th-century tragic dramas. Of the eight composers responsible for these works, only one– Mozart— died before 1800, and though three lived past 1900, only one of these operas premiered in the 20th century. These choruses are selected from a collection edited by the contemporary English composer and conductor, John Rutter. Rutter offers his own English translations of these choruses; the Chorus uses his texts in two selections, with some emendations, but most of this concert is in the original languages. One other element is common to most of these choruses: Excepting “Va, pensiero”, they convey confidence, celebration, or joy; even Macbeth’s witches cackle gleefully as they contemplate their mean-spirited ends. Yet, almost all presage great tragedy: The dramatic impulses of these great composers converge on a happy lilt, a stirring refrain, or a calm serenade, to set the stage for the sadness to come. Small wonder that so many great choruses were composed for plays which plumb the depths of human sorrow! The Naperville Chorus last performed a concert including opera choruses in 1992, during Maestro Martinez’ third season; two works in this concert were also on that program, which delved into Broadway musicals, as well. The Chorus also gave a 1994 concert of Gilbert and Sullivan works— very different in character from these selections.

Below, we provide background for each of these selections:

Chorus of Wedding Guests from Lucia di Lammermoor, by Gaetano Donizetti

In 1835, when Lucia premiered in Naples, Donizetti was the rising star of Italian opera. He had written several internationally successful operas in the previous five years, and now had a smash hit— “the archetype of Italian Romantic opera”— with a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, “The Bride of Lammermoor” Sadly, within a decade Donizetti was in an asylum, and died in 1848 at the age of 51. Many of Donizetti’s operas remain in today’s repertory, and he was extraordinarily successful in tailoring his operas to the needs of the singers. Cammarano’s story is set in Scotland in the late 1600’s: Lucia is the sister of Enrico Ashton, Lord of Lammermoor; she is secretly in love with a rival peer, Edgardo, master of nearby Ravenswood. Enrico learns of the romance and resolves to break it up by marrying his sister to wealthy Lord Bucklaw. The plot almost succeeds; Edgardo is banished, and Lucia signs the wedding contract. This chorus has the wedding guests celebrating in the hall of Lammermoor Castle; the bridegroom sings his pledge to be one of them, then goes upstairs to join his bride while the celebration continues. This happy scene terminates when the priest Raimondo tells the horrified guests that Lucia has killed her husband and gone mad. The famous ‘mad scene’ follows, Lucia dies, and Edgardo, on learning this, kills himself to be with her in death.

Voyagers’ Chorus from Idomeneo, King of Crete by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart was living in Salzburg in late 1780, playing at court and composing, but still seeking a commission for an opera, when opportunity knocked from Munich, and Idomeneo premiered successfully there in January 1781. While this was Mozart’s eighth opera, and demonstrated impressive talent, the works by which he is known today still lay ahead—as did death and a pauper’s funeral less than 11 years later. Idomeneo, on his way home from the Trojan wars, is lashed by terrible storms, and for his salvation vows to sacrifice the first person he meets on returning home. To his horror, the greeter is his son Idamante. Idomeneo sends Idamante off on a ship, hoping to avoid the issue; it is at this point that the voyagers sing of the placid, calm waters. However, just as they are about to embark, another storm forces a delay, and Idomeneo, realizing that Neptune is punishing him, reveals all. This story has something of a happy ending— Idomeneo abdicates in favor of his son and his son’s bride.

Witches’ Chorus from Macbeth, by Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi was entranced by Shakespeare’s works; Macbeth (1847), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893) became part of his legacy. Despite several attempts, he was unable to render King Lear in operatic form. Although the witches open Macbeth, librettist Piave based this text loosely on their appearance in Scene III of Act 1, as they prepare to meet, and prophesy, to Macbeth and Banquo. The cursing of a sailor’s wife, who in the Bard’s tale denied one witch some of her chestnuts, is ascribed in this chorus instead to slighting words; moreover, Piave lets them invoke sinking of the sailor’s vessel, while Shakespeare has them only frighten him (but for 81 weeks!). Much of this chorus repeats the sisters’ boasts of global powers, treated only lightly in the play. But the effect is certainly witchy enough; Verdi’s own marking, staccato e marcato assai, is underlined by his note: “Don’t forget that these are witches who are speaking!”

Va, pensiero, from Nabucco, by Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi is one of two composers represented more than once on this program –- fittingly, with not two, but three, works, for Verdi’s shadow dominates 60 years of 19th-century Italian opera. However, in 1841, only one of the 28-year-old Verdi’s operas was even a moderate success; moreover, he was still grieving the death of his young wife eight months previously. He told the impresario to whom he was under contract that he did not wish to compose any further. The impresario, pleading his own need, proferred a libretto by Temistocle Solera– loosely based on the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar– which had been rejected by the German composer Otto Nicolai. The morose Verdi took it home and dropped it, where it fell open to the text, “Va, pensiero sull’ ali dorate” (“Fly, my thought, on wings of gold”), which expresses the longing of the Hebrew captives in Babylon for their homes far away. That fleeting glance cost Verdi a sleepless night, but by morning he had nearly memorized the libretto. He hesitated to compose, but by August of 1841 he had a score for the opera. It premiered in March, 1842 in Milan, and, said one critic: “A rare display of praise was given Maestro Verdi (after the chorus ‘Va, pensiero’) and all hands clapped to demand an encore, in spite of the rule that forbids them; and the universal wish was splendidly granted… .” One must understand that it was the occupation authorities that had forbidden encores, as they had forbidden most public gatherings; for much of northern Italy was then under the rule of the Habsburg empire of Austria, which feared an uprising. While the Milanis were not the Hebrew expatriates of Act III, they saw a parallel. Nabucco’s nationalistic aspects were probably coincidence, although Verdi later trod much closer to the line. In any event, Verdi was thrust to the pinnacle of Italy’s composers, and he never again lacked for commissions. He lived, productively, to the age of eighty-seven, wealthy, and a national hero.

At Verdi’s second funeral in February 1901— his first funeral, a simple one which by his request had no music, took place a month earlier– for the formal relocation of his body and his second wife’s to their final resting place, hundreds of thousands of people gathered. Accounts differ—some say that Arturo Toscanini led the action– but the crowd sang ‘Va, pensiero’ almost as a single voice…

Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini

Puccini became, in the popular eye, Verdi’s successor (although Verdi was still writing successful operas in 1893 when Manon Lescaut did for Puccini what Nabucco had done for Verdi 51 years earlier). Madama Butterfly was written in 1903 while Puccini was recovering from injuries suffered in an auto accident; the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa was based on a 1900 play by the American David Belasco, which was based on an 1897 story by John Luther Long, which was alleged to have been based on a real event. The opera was a failure at its 1904 premiere at La Scala in Milan, but was revised and caught public fancy within the year, becoming one of Puccini’s most admired works.

The “Humming Chorus” ends the second act of the opera; it serves as a lullaby for Suzuki, the servant of the geisha Cio-Cio-San (“Butterfly”), and for Butterfly’s toddler, as the three wait through the night for the return of the American Lieutenant Pinkerton— Butterfly’s husband, whom she has not seen in three years, and father of her child. Butterfly does not sleep, and the audience by this time knows that Pinkerton has brought an American wife, which will lead to Butterfly’s suicide. Once again the music is the calm before the storm.

Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky

Mussorgsky, despite long-term help from his friend Balakirev, was conspicuously unsuccessful in most of his musical pursuits; in 1874, on his third attempt to get Boris Godunov produced, he finally succeeded, and within the next few years turned out several other enduring works, including Pictures at an Exhibition— but never finished another opera.

The libretto for Boris is Mussorgsky’s own, drawn from Pushkin’s 1831 drama in verse; it propounds the historically questionable notion that Boris, who had been one of a prior ruling junta, was responsible for the 1591 death of the young heir apparent, Dmitri. The action takes place in 1598, when, after the death of the last of the previous dynasty, Boris has been elected Tsar by the Zemski Sobor (the supreme assembly), and is being crowned. He is introduced by a nobleman, Prince Shuisky, and the crowd then welcomes Boris, who prays for help in his rule (which lasted only seven years), and declares a feast for all of the people.

Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana, by Pietro Mascagni

Mascagni wrote his short first opera, based on a short story by Verga, in 1889 for a competition, which it won. Although he lived nearly 82 years, he was not able to duplicate that first success; he said of himself, “”…I was crowned before I became king”. The opera opens on Easter Sunday morning in a Sicilian village square in the late 1800’s. The strains of the Marian invocation, “Regina Coeli”, sung from within the church by the choir, call the villagers to process into the church. Santuzza, a village girl, who is in love with Turiddu, a soldier, cannot enter because she has been excommunicated. However, she implores Turiddu’s mother Lucia, who has come to church, to find him, because she knows he has been having an affair with Lola, wife of a local teamster. This will lead to a duel and Turiddu’s death. The exultant Easter hymn, “O sing praise to the Lord, he has broken the bonds of his prison!”, serves to heighten the contrast with the reality of coming tragedy.

Libiamo, libiamo (Brindisi) from La Traviata, by Giuseppe Verdi

Brindisi is a term for a toasting or drinking song. In this case, the toast is offered by young Alfredo to his hostess, Violetta, to whom he has just been introduced; privately, he thereafter confesses he has had a crush on her for over a year. The jolly mood of the party contrasts with what is to become a less-than-idyllic romance, as the audience soon begins to sense. The 1853 libretto by Francesco Piave is based on a story by Alexandre Dumas, and the locale is outside Paris in about 1840; but even in Verdi’s time, liberties were often taken with the era.

Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner

Tannhäuser was written in 1845 while the 32-year-old Wagner was kapellmeister of the Dresden opera. Of his six previous operas, four had been failures, and the initial fate of this was no better. Tannhäuser is a fallen minstrel-knight who is trying to atone for a year’s excesses; in a valley below Wartburg Castle, he hears the singing of pilgrims, on their way to Rome. Former colleagues then invite him back to Wartburg, whence he is sent to Rome as a pilgrim himself, to plead for papal absolution. Unsuccessful, he returns to die alongside the body of his beloved, Elizabeth.

Habanera from Carmen, by Georges Bizet

Bizet was in many respects a tragic figure: A true prodigy, studying at the Paris Conservatoire at age 9; a pianist whom Liszt declared his own equal; friend or acquaintance of Gounod, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Dubois, Massenet, and Offenbach, among others; enormously productive– at least eight operas or dramatic works, overtures, a symphony, some 50 songs, a score of piano works, and countless transcriptions of other composers’ orchestral works for piano; and dead at age 36, exactly three months after the premiere of his greatest opera—probably the best-known opera in the world, Carmen, set in a city and country he never visited (Seville, Spain).

Carmen was based on an 1845 novelette by Prosper Mérimée, and the libretto was the work of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, the latter a cousin of Bizet’s wife. Bizet based his Habanera—the name identifies a dance supposed to originate in Havana, Cuba— on what he thought to be a folk song; it actually was written by Iradier, a Spanish composer. In the opening scene, Bizet has the gypsy Carmen, on break from her job at the cigarette factory, sing it to taunt the soldier Don Jose, just arrived for his guard duty. Her sultry song comparing love to a beautiful bird is punctuated by the chorus—almost as a Greek chorus– with the refrain “Prends garde a toi!” (“Young man, take care!”) While setting the stage for the story of the good soldier driven mad with desire, Carmen’s torch song also sets an eternal standard for sexiness and abandon.

Toreador Song from Carmen, by Georges Bizet

There is a legend that the Toreador Song was not part of the original score, and that Bizet added it at the urging of the management of the Paris Opera Comique, which was to produce Carmen, in order to make the opera more popular. Supposedly, Bizet grumbled, “Well, if they want tripe, we will give them tripe”, and dashed off the song. The story is unproven but certainly possible; when the opera was rehearsed in 1874, there were abundant complaints from the chorus, orchestra, and theater management. The latter feared, correctly, that the lust and violence of the plot would lose them the “PG” rating they enjoyed at the time; after all, a character dying violently onstage in the final scene was hardly family fare. However, while the opera was criticized in reviews and by the clergy, it nonetheless played 33 performances in Paris before Bizet’s death and by the following November was being produced in 20 cities, with the “tripe” among its most recognizable signatures. The bullfight music is the background in the last scene, while the fatal confrontation between Don Jose and Carmen—unrepentant to the last—is taking place outside the bullring. It is sung here in English, with the crowd—including children, who jeer the appearance of the Alguazil, the chief functionary of the bullfighting commission— delighting in each new appearance in the stylized bullring parade, and finally shouting bravos for torero Escamillo, who has replaced Don Jose in Carmen’s affections.

J. R. Fancher, March 2004