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Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Language(s) of Opera

Looking at opera strictly from a linguistic perspective, the world’s classics generally fall into three major categories: Italian, French and German. Some works in the standard repertoire have been composed to English libretti—predominantly 20th-century pieces by Britten, Barber, Menotti, et.al.—plus a smattering in other languages, such as Czech (Dvořak) and Russian (Tchaikovsky, Borodin).

Other European composers have written operas in their native languages. Through a random sampling from Stanford University’s Opera Web site, I discovered the following:

Leevi Madetoja (1887–1947), two operas in Finnish
Henryk Melcer (1858–1925), two operas in Polish
Stellan Sagvik (b. 1952), nine operas in Swedish
Gyuda Majer (1858–1947), two operas in Hungarian
Mikis Theodorakis (b. 1925), five operas in Greek

I’m sure more research would uncover operas written in Norwegian, Portuguese and Danish, and perhaps even Albanian and Georgian. There exists an entire genre of Chinese opera, although it’s truly a world apart from the sort of material to which we in the West are accustomed. Operas in Spanish, generally known by the term zarzuela, have a unique format and an audience all their own.

Before the advent of SuperTitles™, it was quite common to see libretti translated into the language of the audience. The summer festival held annually in Central City, Colorado, only changed over from all-English productions a few years ago. The opera company in St. Louis does all of its operas in English, as does the London-based English National Opera. As I’ve mentioned before, I saw a production of Mozart’s “Seraglio” in Bucharest that was sung in Romanian.

One of the problems of performing operas “in translation” involves inadvertently changing the meaning of what the singers are saying, or else disrupting the meter of the line (through added or subtracted notes) to accommodate the different number of syllables necessary to impart the meaning of the sung bits.

Strictly from an aural perspective, Romance languages sound better when sung because of their emphasis on vowel sounds. Individual abilities aside—it’s certainly possible to hear some atrociously presented French and Italian, even by some of the world’s best opera singers—the melodious flow of lyrics penned by Eugene Scribe or Felice Romani are generally more pleasing to the ear, trumping anything written by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, for example.

I’m using this brief posting as an introduction to a longer essay—which I’m hopeful will be online in a day or two—that introduces my readers to three composers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were pioneers in the true sense of the word, creating operas in languages that one may never have associated with that genre—before reading it here, that is.

Stay tuned…

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Donizetti’s Lesser Known Operas—An Overview

Depending upon which source you care to believe, Gaetano Donizetti composed between 65 and 70 operas. One reason for this confusion involves the revision of existing operas versus the creation of new ones. For example, the “Don Gregorio” that he wrote for Teatro Nuovo (Naples) in June 1826, is generally considered to be a revision of “L’Ajo Nell’imbarazzo,” which premiered at Teatro Valle (Rome) in February 1824. Yet “Gregorio” includes an entirely different cast of characters, a slightly altered story line, and several newly composed arias. Should these be counted as two distinct works, or one? What about “Poliuto”? This opera was dismembered by the Neopolitan censors over its portrayal of Christianity in the original libretto. It was not until the piece was reincarnated in Paris as “Les Martyrs” that audiences were presented with the original story line. Again, are these the same operas, or two separate ones?

Arguments such as these aside, Donizetti was an incredibly prolific composer. Stories abound as to his ability to “dash off” a composition in short order, and he oftentimes found himself at odds with his librettists—notably the sluggish Felice Romani—because their ability to supply him with lyrics lagged behind his ability to set their words to music.

When comparing Donizetti’s output to that of his successors—especially the top composers from the romantic and verismo periods—his sheer volume fairly staggers the imagination. From 1839 (“Oberto”) to 1871 (“Aida”), a span of 32 years, Giuseppe Verdi wrote 24 operas. Giacomo Puccini composed 12 operas in 40 years, three of which were short pieces known collectively as “Il Trittico.” Mascagni managed 15 operas (plus one operetta, “Sì”) in 50 years. Gounod created a dozen operas over 37 years (1851–1888), while Giordano wrote 11 operas during the same amount of time (1892–1929).

The first opera Donizetti is acknowledged to have written is “Il Pigmalione” in 1816. This was a student piece that did not receive its premiere until 1960 (!), when it was performed at Teatro Donizetti in the composer’s home town of Bergamo, Italy. His first opera for public consumption, “Enrico di Borgogna,” was first seen at Teatro San Luca (Venice) in November 1818. The last opera he wrote that premiered during his lifetime was “Caterina Cornaro,” first performed at Teatro San Carlo (Naples) in January 1844. Even taking the lower of the two numbers, Donizetti averaged one opera every 21 weeks over the course of his 26 years of active composition.

During the Baroque era, it was not uncommon for composers to write large numbers of operas. Many of these men were “house” composers, living off stipends from monarchs or other rich patrons, and therefore able to devote most of their waking hours to writing music. Also, many of these compositions were little more than singing plays, comprised of stand-alone songs linked by spoken dialogue. Few of these operas ran more than a couple of acts each, and quite often tunes were reused from one work to another.

Antonio Salieri is credited with 46 operas, ranging in subject matter from a lowly laundress (“La Locanderia,” 1773) to a Persian monarch (“Palmira, Regina di Persia,” 1795). One of the most prominent opera composers in 18th century London and Paris, Antonio Sacchini, wrote 47 operas. His most famous, titled “Oedipe à Colone” (1786), received its debut at Versailles Palace and was reportedly performed nearly 600 times in its first 50 years. Interestingly enough, “Oedipe” received its American debut only last year—staged by Opera Lafayette at the University of Maryland—and was recorded by Naxos. Domenico Cimarosa is credited with 94 operas.

Many people are familiar with the story of Verdi working on “La Traviata” while “Il Trovatore” was in rehearsal. In contrast, during the period of January 1826 through December 1827, Donizetti opened seven new operas and revised two earlier pieces for additional performance. Now that’s cranking ’em out!

Whether using the yardstick of number of performances over the years, how often they were recorded, or simply their popularity among the opera-going public, the general consensus remains that Donizetti composed eight major operas. These would include (in order of vocal appearance) “Anna Bolena,” L'Elisir d’Amore,” “Lucrezia Borgia,” “Maria Stuarda,” Lucia di Lammermoor,” “”Le Fille du Régiment,” “La Favorite,” and “Don Pasquale.” A quick search of OperaBase shows 116 separate productions of Donizetti operas from August 2005 through the end of 2006. Fully 106 of those productions involve one of the aforementioned eight operas. Only six of his operas not included above have or will be performed during these 18 months—“Don Gregorio” (1826), “Le Convenienze ed Inconvenienze Teatrali” (1831), “Roberto Devereux” (1837), “Rita” (1841), “Maria di Rohan,” (1843) and “Dom Sebastien” (1843)—and nearl all of these are a single production each.

Over the next few postings I look forward to exploring some of Donizetti’s lesser-known operas, in particular those that have come out on CD over the past several dozen years.

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