When puzzling events happen in life -- things that simply can't be explained, or at least can't be explained simply -- people often put them down to fate. It's as though ascribing our troubles to inescapable destiny somehow relieves us of the responsibility to understand and confront them.
But what is fate, really? At best it's a difficult concept to grasp, much less explain in words. That may be why so many evocations of fate can be heard in music, a medium in which words are strictly optional.
The most iconic musical tribute to fate may or may not have been intentional: It's uncertain whether Beethoven actually considered the opening notes of his Fifth Symphony to be "fate knocking at the door," as they've often been described. But other examples are more obvious, and they come in a wide range of music: from Fatum, a portentous tone poem by Tchaikovsky, to the heavy metal tune "Fates Warning" by Iron Maiden.
Naturally, there are also plenty of operas that dwell on fate, though few do it so dramatically as Verdi's La Forza del Destino -- The Force of Destiny.
Verdi composed the opera to end an extended hiatus from music -- a three year span in which he wrote no new operas and actually told friends that he was no longer a composer. The commission that brought him back to the opera house came from the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg. After considering a number of subjects for a new opera, Verdi chose a Spanish play called La fuerza del sino -- The Power of Fate. It was adapted by librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who also worked with Verdi on several other operas, including Macbeth and Rigoletto.
As for the story itself, it's surely appropriate for an operatic exploration of fate: Like so many real life events that are attributed to fate, the goings on in the opera are hard to explain in any other way. The result is a drama that sometimes leaves even diehard Verdi lovers shaking their head. The story can be as confounding as the music is compelling, with a plot in which a single, unfortunate happenstance drives characters to lifetimes of enigmatic behavior. There's one character who travels the world, braving war and desolation, in an obsessive quest to murder his own sister.
Still, like fate itself, the power of Verdi's score for the opera is undeniable. The music transforms a thorny story line into one of the most compelling of all his operas.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents La Forza del Destino in a production by the Paris National Opera. The stars are soprano Violeta Urmana as Leonora, tenor Marcello Giordani as her beloved Alvaro and baritone Ludovic Tézier as Carlo, who for a moment is Alvaro's ally, but soon becomes his most deadly enemy. The performance, from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, is led by conductor Renato Palumbo.
Do you know which, age old story has inspired everything from a buoyant opera by Haydn to a doleful ballet by Stravinsky, an elegant operetta by Offenbach and a sullen madrigal by William Byrd?
Well, maybe the titles of those works will provide the necessary hints. The Haydn opera is called Orphée et Eurydice. The operetta by Offenbach is Orphée aux enfers. The works by Stravinsky and Byrd both bear the name of the same title character, but in a different language: Orpheus.
Right. The inspiring story in question is the tale of a beguiling singer, Orpheus, who embarks on a dangerous quest to win back lost love, by rescuing his dead wife Eurydice from the underworld.
The myth of Orpheus is among the most ancient in Western literature, and when it comes to opera, the story has been around from the very beginning: It's the subject Monteverdi chose when he wrote what's widely regarded as the first great opera ever composed, Orfeo, which appeared in 1607.
Then, about 150 years after Monteverdi's Orfeo, at a time when opera had fallen into a sort of musical rut, Christoph Willibald Gluck chose the same story to put the genre back on track. He did it with the remarkable score that's featured here, a drama that reinvented opera.
When Gluck's version of the Orpheus legend appeared in 1762, in Vienna, concept of opera wasn't very old by historical standards. Yet, to some ears anyway, it was already going stale. The straightforward, intensely expressive style pioneered by Monteverdi had given way to something called opera seria.
To be sure, there were composers who were masters of opera seria, writing profound works of great beauty. Handel is one example. But there weren't many Handels around, and the form did have its drawbacks. There wasn't much to it but dry, unaccompanied recitatives and florid virtuoso arias. And eventually, the virtuosity of the singers had become opera's main attraction.
So some composers, including Gluck, decided to make a few changes. In his Orfeo, Gluck uses the orchestra throughout the drama, basically eliminating the breaks in the action caused by opera seria's dry recitatives. He also dispensed with the standard da capo aria -- in which long passages of music were repeated, with increasingly showy ornamentation.
Gluck thought that sort of music detracted from the story. Instead, he aimed at what he called, a "noble simplicity." His arias were shorter and more direct, with the music intended to reinforce the drama, rather than bog it down. The resulting score arguably has more in common with the early musical dramas of Monteverdi's time than with the works of Gluck's contemporaries, and the premiere was among the most significant events in all of 18th-century opera.
On WORLD OF OPERA, host Lisa Simeone presents Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice in a production by Boston Baroque, presented in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory. The stars are countertenor Owen Willetts and soprano Mary Wilson in the title roles, in a performance led by conductor Martin Pearlman.
Is it possible for a musical artist to come up with a work so successful that it actually ends up hurting its creator's reputation? It sounds unlikely, but let's have a look at one possible example.
Mention the name Georges Bizet to a roomful of music lovers and responses will vary widely. Some might consider him "one of the all-time greats," while others would deride him as "a lightweight tunesmith" -- and every one of the varying opinions might just rest on a single composition. It's a mega-hit that tends to relegate his other works to second string status, leading some to dub Bizet as a "one hit wonder."
Carmen, Bizet's final opera, was largely panned at its Paris premiere in 1875, and the composer died just a few months later. So he never saw what it ultimately became: one of the most popular and frequently performed operas of all time. Carmen's "Habanera," the "Toreador March" and Don Jose's "Flower Song," are just a few of its many hit numbers -- which can make it seem as though that single score must surely contain all of Bizet's finest music.
So it's easy to forget that another of the composer's best-loved tunes comes from a different opera, and reveals that there's more to Bizet than just Carmen.
The opera is The Pearl Fishers, and it boasts a tenor-baritone duet, called "Au fond du temple saint," that sits right beside those famous numbers from Carmen on the Bizet hit parade; you can hear it in versions ranging from big band jazz arrangements to synthesized elevator music. But The Pearl Fishers itself has remained in Carmen's shadow -- which is too bad, as it has far more to recommend it than just one, ubiquitous duet. It also reveals another dimension of Bizet's brilliance.
The Pearl Fishers premiered in 1863 and, like Carmen, it got a rocky reception. But there was one prominent critic who saw things differently right from the start. In one of his last reviews, published a week or so after the opera's first performance, Hector Berlioz cited The Pearl Fishers as evidence of Bizet's "characteristic genius" and described the opera as having "a considerable number of beautiful, expressive pieces, filled with fire and rich coloring." Listen for yourself, and you might just decide that Berlioz was right.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Bizet's The Pearl Fishers from the renowned Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, a hall which many feel has the world's finest acoustics. Tenor Charles Castronovo and baritone Jean-Francois Lapointe star as Nadir and Zurga, the troubled friends who join in the famous duet, with soprano Annick Massis as Leila, the woman who comes between them.
At first glance, it seems that Giuseppe Verdi's Shakespeare-based operas would have plenty of company in the world's theaters. After all, the influence of Shakespeare is widespread in just about every kind of entertainment imaginable.
There are Shakespeare-inspired rock tunes such as "Romeo and Juliet," by Dire Straits, and Elvis Costello's "Mystery Dance." Symphonic works based on Shakespeare have been composed by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Dvorak, among others. His dramas have turned up in a wide range of movies, and there are even comic book editions of Shakespeare's plays.
Astoundingly, though, Verdi's Shakespeare operas are musical oddities. While hundreds of operas have been based on Shakespeare's works, only a few might be called opera house staples. Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet is one, along with Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The other obvious candidates are all by Verdi: Macbeth, Falstaff and Otello.
Verdi's career was not only amazingly successful, but also remarkably long. He lived from 1813 until 1901, and his operas spanned a period of nearly six decades. Still, there were bumps in the road. When Verdi was in his 60's, he seemed to lose enthusiasm. He wasn't thrilled with the music of his younger colleagues, and for more than 10 years he didn't write a single, new opera.
Then two old friends approached him -- publisher Giulio Ricordi and librettist Arrigo Boito. It had been almost forty years since Verdi composed Macbeth. The two suggested he might turn to Shakespeare again, with a setting of Othello.
Verdi took them up on it. Though he wrote only two more operas -- the profound tragedy Otello and the wistful comedy Falstaff -- both are rooted in Shakespeare, and they may just be the two finest Shakespeare-based operas ever composed.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Otello from one of the world's premiere destinations for opera tourists -- or any other tourists, for that matter! It comes to us from historic La Fenice in Venice, in a production featuring two American singers, tenor Gregory Kunde and soprano Leah Crocetto, as Otello and Desdemona, with baritone Lucio Gallo as the villain Iago.
Love potions -- or at least hopeful notions of love potions -- have been around for a long time. And why not? The pleasures of romance can be painfully hard to come by, and the idea of a magic formula that turns endless frustration into instant passion can be pretty appealing.
Not surprisingly, love potions have turned up everywhere, from ancient fables to 1950's pop songs. Remember "Love Potion No. 9," by the Clovers? And while love potions also play a role in any number of operas, there are two that stand out above the rest -- and they couldn't be more different.
Based on a medieval legend, Wagner's emotionally driven Tristan and Isolde features an elixir that actually works, but with dire consequences. The romance that ensues leaves one lover deceased and the other demented.
Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, isn't nearly so intense. It's a lighthearted romp, featuring a phony love potion that's nothing but a bottle of cheap, red wine. Still, along with all the laughs, Donizetti's unassuming comedy does serve up a couple of solid insights. It demonstrates that, when it comes to love, the genuine article beats any potion-induced passion. And it suggests that, when searching for a magic formula to stimulate the libido, human foibles can make placebos safer and more effective than any mysterious elixir.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Elixir of Love from one of the world's great operatic venues, London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden -- in a production featuring one of today's great tenors, Roberto Alagna. He stars as the lovesick Nemorino, alongside soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Adina and baritone Ambrogio Maestri as Dr. Dulamara, the shady salesman whose dubious tonic gets the story rolling.
Creative artists react in different ways to fame and fortune. Some take the riches they've earned, lie back contentedly, then disappear from the spotlight. Others keep right on plugging -- perhaps because their creative instincts are too strong to ignore, or maybe fearing their muse will soon depart and they'd better take advantage while they still can.
Consider three of history's most wildly successful opera composers: Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi. All three had so many hits, so quickly, that they might well have decided on early retirement and two of them took that option.
Faced with changing musical tastes, nearly universal admiration and a fat bank account, Verdi first slowed his pace a bit, and then took about a decade off before a brief comeback in his 70s that resulted in Otello and Falstaff, two of his greatest works. Verdi wound up with a catalog of about 28 operas, give or take a revision or two.
Rossini finished William Tell>, his 39th opera, in 1829. Then he settled into a comfortable retirement and lived nearly 40 more years without ever writing another one.
Donizetti was another story. He was also a spectacular success; there was a time during his career when one of every four operas performed in Italy was his, and his fortune was clearly made. But unlike Verdi and Rossini, Donizetti kept right on going. He composed until the bitter end, when his health finally failed him, reaching a total of more than 60 operas, ranging from stark tragedy to brilliant comedy.
By most counts, Don Pasquale was Donizetti's 64th opera. He wrote it in barely more than two weeks. It was an instant hit at its world premiere in Paris, in 1843, and within a few months the opera also had been heard in Milan, Vienna and London. By 1846 it had traveled all the way to New York City, where it was performed in English.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Don Pasquale, a true masterpiece from Donizetti's lighter side, in a production from a legendary theater in the same city that hosted the opera's world premiere, the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris.. Soprano Desirée Rancatore stars as the sly young woman Norina, with baritone Alessandro Corbelli as the opera's overbearing, yet somehow loveable title character.
In 1977, when the Bee Gees wrote their hit song "Stayin' Alive," that's very much what the band itself was doing -- and it gave the group something in common with a composer who was faced with flagging popularity more than 200 years earlier: George Frideric Handel.
The Bee Gees were one of most successful bands of the late 1960s and early '70s, with hits including "I've Gotta Get a Message to You," "Words" and 1971's "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," their first number one song in the U.S.
Then, in the mid '70s, the popularity of soft rock began yielding to the soaring disco craze, and the Bee Gees seemed dead in the water. But after a couple of down years, the band emerged with a new, disco-ready image. With their music for the 1977 movie hit Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees were back on top; the film launched three number one songs, including "Stayin' Alive."
Back in the 1720s and early '30s, Handel had become a musical star by exploiting the runaway popularity of Italian opera in the theaters of London. He composed a long list of hit operas, all using much the same formula: strings of brilliant arias for the world's most acrobatic singers.
But, like soft rock in the 1970s, the appeal of Italian opera in London didn't last forever. In its place, a taste for English oratorios emerged. Unlike Italian operas, the oratorios were written in their audience's own language and often had inspiring, spiritual themes, in contrast to opera's overt passion and violent intrigue. Handel took full advantage of the trend. The apex of this new phase in his career came in 1742 with Messiah, arguably the most popular oratorio of all time. Still, opera had hardly died out, and in 1744 Handel came up with Semele, a fascinating drama seemingly aimed at both markets.
Whether Semele is an opera or an oratorio is a question that's pretty much up for grabs. Handel said it should be performed "in the manner of an oratorio," which might suggest that he didn't think it really was an oratorio. And the score features some decidedly operatic elements -- a host of spectacular arias and a sassy story that's hardly spiritual. Yet it's written in English, and also leans heavily on big choral numbers, a staple of the oratorio style.
As it turned out Handel may have been overly ambitious; it seems his audiences didn't know quite what to make of the piece. The oratorio crowd was expecting something uplifting, like Messiah, and the lustful characters of Semele hardly fit that bill. Opera lovers seemed to think it was somehow impure -- for one thing, opera was supposed to be in Italian, not English, even in London. And what about all those choruses? Crowd scenes were a rarity in opera houses of the era.
Today, those problems have faded. Audiences have long since grown accustomed to everything from bold sensuality to subtle spiritualism, and from intimate arias to outlandish, musical excess. So by now, Handel's hybrid drama works perfectly well both in the theater and in the concert hall.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Semele from the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts in Toronto, home to the Canadian Opera Company. The production, sung in the original English, stars soprano Jane Archibald in a smashing performance as Semele, with tenor William Burden as the lecherous god Jupiter and mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy as Jupiter's jealous wife, Juno.
In 2013, the world will celebrate a great operatic anniversary: the 200th birthday of Giuseppe Verdi. But as it happens, there's another opera composer who reached a similar milestone just a bit earlier. The year 2012 marks the 150th birthday of Frederick Delius -- who wrote the opera featured here this week.
Delius has been called the quintessential English composer. Yet both he and his music were actually quite cosmopolitan. Delius's parents both came from Germany, but they had taken British citizenship by the time the composer was born, in the town of Bradford, in 1862.
His father was a successful wool merchant, and hoped his son would eventually take over the business. But the young Frederick soon displayed a decided wanderlust. He travelled in Sweden and France, spending time on the riviera. In Norway Delius met Edvard Grieg, who remained a close friend, and that country's mountains and fjords became a sort of spiritual home for the composer.
In his early twenties, he found an actual home in another, very different locale, even farther from the moors of his native Yorkshire. For a time, during the 1880s, Delius ran an orange plantation in Solana Grove, Florida -- an experience that inspired the Florida Suite, one of his many, evocative orchestral scores.
Delius also wrote six operas. And, given his travels, it's not surprising that they display a wide range of subject matter. One, called Koanga, was inspired by an African-American slave song. Another, The Magic Fountain, represents the Native American culture of Florida.
A Village Romeo and Juliet, his best-known opera, is based on a German short story. Its world premiere, which was sung in German, took place in Berlin, in 1907. The original English version, featured in this production from Wexford, was performed at the opera's London premiere, at Covent Garden, in 1910.
Many of Delius's works explore a theme that fascinated the composer throughout his career: the transience of human experience and the brevity of life itself. It's heard in his famous song cycle "Songs of Sunset," which he originally called "Songs of Twilight and Sadness."
Yet the composer's exploration of those ideas never found more vivid, or poignant expression than in his unique, operatic take on the traditional story of Romeo and Juliet -- in which two troubled young lovers decide that a single day of happiness is enough to last an entire, all too brief lifetime.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents A Village Romeo and Juliet from the Wexford Opera Festival, on the southeast coast of Ireland -- an event known for its exceptional productions of unusual and neglected operas. The stars are tenor John Belleford and soprano Jessica Muirhead as the lovers Sali and Vreli, with conductor Rory MacDonald.
In the 1960s, the remains of the Russian czar Ivan the Terrible were exhumed for analysis and toxic levels of mercury were discovered. Some concluded that the czar was poisoned -- and the prime suspect was the tormented title character in Modeste Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov.
Still, while the assassination of Ivan the Terrible would make for a great opera, Mussorgsky's drama tells a different, and even more sensational story -- about Boris Godunov's supposed murder of a 10-year-old boy.
Boris became czar in 1598, after the death of Ivan's son, Fyodor. But Ivan had another son, Dmitri, who some considered the true heir to the throne. Not surprisingly, when Dmitri died of a purportedly accidental throat-cutting at age 10, it was rumored that Boris had ordered the killing. Modern historians tend to doubt the theory, but the stigma has stuck with Boris Godunov ever since.
Mussorgsky's opera is one of several 19th-century Russian operas that tackle complex, historical themes. Mussorgky's own Khovanschina is another, along with Borodin's Prince Igor and Glinka's A Life for the Czar. But Boris Godunov is the only one that still has a consistent place in the repertory -- perhaps because it's far more than a straightforward, historical drama.
In many ways, the opera is a sort of musical psychoanalysis -- with more than one subject. One subject is Boris himself, and few operas pry more deeply into any single character's private emotions. But the opera also presents a psychological portrait of the Russian people, which comes through in Mussorgsky's extensive and powerful use of choruses.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Boris Godunov from the historic Teatro Real in Madrid, in a production featuring one of opera's rising stars, the Austrian bass Günther Groissböck, in the title role.
- Lisa Simeone
- World of Opera
- Modest Mussorgsky
- Stefan Margita
- Boris Godunov
- Madrid Symphony Orchestra
- Intermezzo Chorus
- Hartmut Haenchen
- GÃ¼nther GroissbÃ¶ck
- Michael KÃ¶nig
- Julia Gerstseva
- Dmitri Ulyanov
- Evgeny Nikitin
- Alexandra Kadurina
- Alina Yarovaya
- Yuri Nechaev
- Anatoli Kotcherga
- John Easterlin
- Andrei Popov
- Teatro Real
Over time, the word "Bohemian" has come to mean many different things -- some simple, and some a bit more complicated.
In music, the simple side of that spectrum is illustrated in works such as Bedrich Smetana's popular orchestral score "From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests." Smetana was born not far from Prague, the capital of historic Bohemian. So the composer and his music are, literally, "Bohemian" -- with a capital "B."
On the musical flip side, there are works such as Bizet's opera Carmen. Bizet himself was French, and his opera is set in Spain. But in the libretto, the title character is described as a "bohémienne" -- not because of her nationality, but because of her lifestyle.
A more contemporary take on things "bohemian" can be found in the hit number "La vie boheme" ("The Bohemian Life"), from Jonathan Larson's Rent -- one of the longest running Broadway musicals of all time, and a show that grossed nearly 300 million dollars.
The characters in that show live in New York -- not Bohemia. But they're the sort of people who are often called bohemian: They live an unconventional lifestyle, with few commitments, while gathering together in loosely formed communities, often in pursuit of lofty, artistic ideals. And that leads us to the inspiration for Larson's musical -- a show that's had people lining up at the box office for a lot longer than Rent.
Giacomo Puccini based his fourth opera on a French book called Scenes from Bohemian Life. The opera is sung in Italian, and set in Paris. But as Bizet showed us with Carmen, and Puccini poignantly confirmed in La Boheme, bohemians can be found wherever a group of eager young idealists live lives that both defy, and embrace, the struggles and passions that surround them.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents La Boheme from one of opera's most unusual venues. It's the appropriately named Théâtre Antique -- a two-thousand-year-old theater at the Chorégies d'Orange Festival, in Orange, France. The stars are soprano Inva Mula as Mimi and tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo, with soprano Nicola Beller Carbone as Musetta, in a production led by conductor Myung-Whun Chung.