Program Notes

2012 Spring – Opera Choruses

Opera Choruses

While operas typically are the province of a few soloists, many have lovely choral parts as well. This is the third such program Dr. Martinez has assembled since he assumed Directorship of the Chorus in 1989. Some of the numbers are repeats from our earlier concerts, but many are new. The notes below will help you get a sense of the context for each number.

G. F. Handel: Chorus of Enchanted Islanders (from Alcina, 1735)

The plot of Alcina is as outlandish as a bad dream, which may explain why this opera was out of production from 1738 until 1928. The title character and her sister are sorceresses who inhabit their own island; Alcina plays with her lovers, and, when she tires of them, turns them into rocks, waves, bushes, or animals. The knight Ruggiero is her latest victim, and his lover Bradamante, disguised as her own brother Ricciardo, is trying to rescue him. This lovely chorus describes Alcina’s island in glowing terms; but it clearly has a darker side, which becomes apparent as the opera progresses.

Giuseppe Verdi: Anvil Chorus (from Il Trovatore, 1853)

This opera is set amid a rivalry of armies led by, on one hand, the Count de Luna, and, on the other, the Prince of Biscay. Leonora, lady-in-waiting to the Queen, is in love with Manrico, the leader of the Biscayan army, who has been serenading her as the titular troubador; but the Count also covets her. In this scene, Manrico and his gypsy mother Azucena are in a Biscayan camp where the gypsies are forging tools and weapons and singing of the pleasures of gypsy life, women, and wine.

Jacques Offenbach: Barcarolle (from Tales of Hoffman, 1881)

The poet E. T. A. Hoffman, a character based on a real individual!– is here portrayed as thrice unlucky in love. In this scene he is telling of his courtship of Giuletta, his second love, in her palace in Venice. In the original, this duet extolling the night and love is sung by Hoffman’s friend Nicklausse and Giuletta; our version gives the duet to two soprani. A barcarolle is a boat song, which, in Venice, of course, means gondolas.

Gaetano Donizetti: Chorus of Wedding Guests (from Lucia di Lammermoor, 1835)

Based on a story by Sir Walter Scott, this scene takes place at the wedding of the title heroine and Lord Bucklaw, a marriage that has been arranged by Lucia’s brother Lord Ashton, who has forged a letter to convince Lucia that her real lover, Edgardo, has forsaken her. The guests are celebrating a marriage which in reality will not be consummated, when Lucia, driven mad, murders her groom.

Verdi: Triumphal Scene (from Aida, 1871)

Probably the most elaborate scene in all of opera, its staging at least equals Wagner’s most opulent, this episode depicts the triumphal re-entry of the Egyptian army from its conquest of Ethiopia. But Radames, commander of the Egyptians, is secretly in love with Aida, an Ethiopian slave; and his love is also coveted by Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt. Verdi, already Italy’s leading operatic composer, wrote this opera on an Egyptian commission and it premiered in Cairo. Verdi did not write another opera for 16 years; his last two operas were based on Shakespeare’s Othello and Falstaff.

Pietro Mascagni: Easter Hymn (from Cavalleria Rusticana, 1890)

The single-act tragedy Rustic Chivalry put Mascagni on the operatic map; as he would later admit, it was his only real success. Santuzza, a village girl, is in love with a soldier, Turiddu, who, she knows, has a penchant for infidelity. The strains of the Marian Easter hymn, Regina Coeli, are heard and as the populace enters the church, Santuzza, who has been excommunicated, stays behind in the square, occasionally singing along wistfully with the music coming from the church. Despite the concerns of Santuzza and Turiddu’s mother, Mama Lucia, Turiddu will die shortly in a duel with a teamster whose wife he has seduced.

Georges Bizet: March of the Toreadors (from Carmen, 1875)

Carmen is certainly among the best-loved operas in this country and is still immensely popular abroad. Bizet had little success with operas during his lifetime; The Pearl Fishers is his only other work still performed. Carmen, however, became incredibly successful within its first year. This well-known march appears three times during the opera: As part of the background for the initial scene; accompanying the toreador Escamillo, in Act 2, at the tavern of Lillas Pastia; and in the final scene, where the crowd hails Escamillo’s exploits in the bull ring even as Carmen’s rejected lover Don Jose stabs her to death outside. Bizet’s reuse of this theme, among others, led to criticism that he had adopted Wagnerian methods, but of course this is not a leitmotiv as Wagner would have used it: Bizet’s work is quintessentially French. He died three months after Carmen premiered.

Bizet: Song of the Cigarette Girls (from Carmen)

When the opera opens, soldiers at their guard post are watching girl workers from the cigarette factory across the street. This is obviously a daily lunchtime diversion. The girls sing of smoke (smoke, here, having a secondary meaning with respect to love and life!). Don Jose is one of the soldiers, and he is unimpressed until the gypsy worker, Carmen, sings and dances in front of him, throwing him a flower as she leaves to go back to work.

Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor, 1890)

Borodin’s sole opera, indeed, it was unfinished at his death, and its completion was left to Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, tells of the capture of the 12th-century Prince Igor and his son Vladimir by the Polovtsi, who were Tartars of central Asia. The Polovtsian ruler, Khan Konchak, entertains Igor, hoping to win a non-agression pact in return for freeing his captives. The dancers are slaves and women of the Khan’s empire. Igor refuses the offer, and escapes, but his son stays to wed the Khan’s daughter. (You may recognize some of this music from its association with another drama, the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet!)

Arthur Sullivan, with W. S. Gilbert: Oh Joy, Oh Rapture! (From HMS Pinafore, 1878)

The duo of Gilbert and Sullivan produced at least 13 comic operettas, of which Pinafore was the fourth; most of them premiered at London’s Savoy theatre. Sullivan yearned to be a serious composer, and indeed, some of his serious works are still in the literature, the Chorus performed a Sullivan Festival Te Deum in 2007, along with a semi-staged version of Pinafore. But it was his collaboration with the humorist Gilbert, lasting nearly 15 years, which cemented Sullivan’s place in musical annals. This segment pertains to the upcoming nuptials, via elopement!– of Josephine, daughter of Captain Corcoran of the Pinafore; and Able Seaman Ralph Rackstraw, one of the Pinafore’s crew. The soon-to-be-wed lovers, with co-conspirators Cousin Hebe, a first cousin of Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Boatswain’s Mate Bill Bobstay, are celebrating their plan to accomplish that marriage, which of course violates English class consciousness. One obstacle to their plan is Able Seaman Dick Deadeye, who warns them in villainous fashion of their peril. But the plan goes on anyway. (Gilbert, in typical Gilbertian fashion, makes it all come out right with a surprise twist later.)

J. R. Fancher, April 2012