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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Biblical Operas

Operatic subjects fall into a few broad categories. These would include the following:

  1. Greek or Roman mythology—literally hundreds of different gods and goddesses from which to choose
  2. Historical royalty—kings and queens of England, Egypt, Persia, Spain, Scotland and Portugal, plus elsewhere throughout the world from ancient times to modern
  3. Other historical men and women—whether in real or imagined circumstances, to include poets, statesmen or other political figures from Napoleon to Lucretia Borgia
  4. Historical events—battles, sieges, invasions, and many other types of conflicts
  5. Characters from popular novels or biographical studies—anything from Victor Hugo to Theodore Dreiser, from Henry James to Thomas Mann, or from Voltaire to Sister Prejean
  6. Shakespeare—a virtual industry unto himself, with dozens of his plays turned into operas
  7. Bible stories

Insofar as the standard repertoire is concerned, I know of only two operas that revolve chiefly around Old Testament material. These are “Nabucco” (1842) by Giuseppe Verdi and “Samson et Dalila” (1877) by Camille Saint-Saens. Nonetheless there are numerous other operas that fit this description. Regrettably, most of these have never been recorded in their entirely or even performed much beyond their original debuts, so ties to the Bible are apparent only by noting their titles, given the fact that access to a musical score, libretto or story synopsis is lacking.

In no particular order, one would include the following characters or stories:

The New Testament is considerably less well represented, perhaps because government censors were much more sensitive to the manner in which Christianity was portrayed on stage. A question of heresy was never far from the concerns of 19th century church officials, many of whom enjoyed considerable political influence in such operatic hotbeds as Naples, Rome and Milan. Another reason may involve the fact that most of these stories lack the sort of drama and/or love interest (whether real or manufactured) that would command sufficient audience attention.

The story of John the Baptist and his colleagues has received two high-profile treatments. Interestingly enough, each composer chose to focus on a separate female character in the story rather than the male religious figure at its center.

Massenet set “Hérodiade” to a libretto by Milliet and Grémont, fashioned from a novel by Flaubert. The opera includes the famous aria, “Vision fugitive,” which shows up on many baritone CDs including those recorded by Robert Merrill and Thomas Hampson. The “Hérodiade” I own on CD is a live San Francisco Opera production with Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming, Juan Pons and Dolora Zajick, a terrific cast.

Richard Strauss composed “Salome” to a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s adaptation. This version, debuting nearly a quarter-century after Massenet’s grand-opera production (1905 versus 1881) is far more bloody and unconventional, featuring as it does the Dance of the Seven Veils among other extravagances.

The parable of the prodigal son shows up as the subject of operas by two well-known composers, although neither piece is performed with any frequency. “L’enfant Prodigue” by D-F-E Auber was composed late in his life, debuting in 1850. “The Prodigal Son” by Benjamin Britten premiered in 1968. It should be noted that the piece by Claude Debussy is more accurately considered a cantata rather than an opera, and thus is not included here.

In addition to his opera “David and Bathsheba” mentioned above, British composer David Barlow also wrote “Judas Iscariot.” Stanford University’s comprehensive OperaGlass Web site declares this to be an opera, although the marvelous biographical sketch of the late composer penned by Dr. David Wright, found here on the Web, calls it an oratorio. Either way, it’s an interesting and unique musical subject.

So far as I have been able to determine, only one opera employs Jesus as its main character. The prospect of this occurring during opera’s Golden Age is unthinkable, given the questions of sacrilege or heresy. Jerome Hines, one of the top singers at the end of the 20th century and, for many years, the chief resident bass at New York’s Metropolitan Opera (he died in 2003) composed “I Am the Way,” which debuted on his home turf in 1968. Naturally the role of Jesus is sung by a bass—small surprise there.

My readers are encouraged to offer suggestions as to what other Biblical stories might be worthy of operatic treatment. A subsequent essay will present these for consideration, as well as some suggestions of my own. A good way to refresh your memory of tales from the Bible (the Old Testament, anyway) would be to read the online excerpts of “Blogging the Bible” by David Plotz as featured on MSN’s “Slate Magazine.” Follow this link to find it.

when I started my program, I actually "themed" a 2 year playlist exactly this way - categorized by type.

Feedback from listeners caused me to abandon it fairly early on, but I have thought time and again I should go back to it...


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