The Best of Italian Opera
Opera is dramatic, and exciting, and intimidating. I have been involved in classical music in some way for my entire life, but can count on one hand the number of operas I’ve seen – actually, I can count that on one finger. My favourite thing about being a musician is that music has no language and it has allowed me to connect with people all over the world, but opera does have a language, and it’s not usually one that most Canadians can speak. On Saturday October 21, the HPO is bringing Italian opera to the FirstOntario Concert Hall. The best of it, in fact. The program is full of arias from some of the most iconic Italian operas, performed by world-class soloists. Apprehensive about an opera concert? Same. It helps to know what you’re getting into beforehand, and that’s what we’re here for. Here’s some information about just a few of the pieces you’ll hear Saturday night.
Overture to La Forza del Destino – Giuseppe Verdi
All operatic tragedies are bloody, but La Forza del Destino (The Power of Fate) was so murderous that it was actually revised several years after its premiere in St. Petersburg to be a little more viewer-friendly. The overture is a synopsis of the music of the entire opera, from the ominous sounds of destiny to its tragic end. With the flute and oboe solos, the mournful story of heartbreak and betrayal are told as Leonora falls in love with the one man her father doesn’t approve of. After her father is killed in an accidental shooting, Leonora and her lover, Don Alvaro are forced to separate and live in hiding. Leonora hides in a hermitage near a monastery, while Don Alvaro joins the Spanish Army under an assumed identity and becomes fast friends with Leonora’s brother, Don Carlo, who is also using a false name and is in fact searching for his sister and her lover. Going through Don Alvaro’s letters one day, Leonora’s brother learns his true identity and sets out to avenge his father’s death. Don Alvaro and Don Carlo duel, unbeknownst to them just a short distance from Leonora’s hermitage. The lovers reunite when Carlo is mortally wounded, but as Leonora attempts to nurse her brother he stabs her in the heart, and they both die. The original, bloodier version of the opera concluded with Alvaro, wracked with guilt over causing the death of an entire family, jumping to his death and cursing humankind.
Listen For: the fate motif, three repeated notes played in unison (usually by the brass section)
O Soave Fanciulla from La Bohème – Giacomo Puccini
This duet is from an opera based on a book, a collection of stories about bohemians in Paris in the 1840s. Mimi knocks on Rodolfo’s door and asks for a match to light her candle, and in a sultry musical number Rodolfo realizes that Mimi is sick and that he loves her. Sound familiar? Have you seen Rent? The 1996 rock-opera is based on La Bohème, and the similarities between the meeting of Mimi and Rodolfo in O Soave Fanciulla and Rent’s Roger and Mimi in Light My Candle are striking. Both Rent and La Bohème focus on struggling artists in cities known as artists’ havens, lifting the romantic veil to show viewers the true tragedies of the bohemian lifestyle.
Watch: O Soave Fanciulla (La Bohème) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zjDh0Hkb3E
Light My Candle (Rent) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urfB-_iX-gE
O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi – Giacomo Puccini
Perhaps one of the most well-known arias, and a shining example of the melodrama that comes with opera and makes it a truly wonderful art form, this aria finds Lauretta begging to marry Rinuccio, the love of her life. She says in no uncertain terms that if her father does not give into her wishes, she will throw herself into the river to die. Believe it or not, Gianni Schicchi is Puccini’s only comedy. O mio babbino caro is a simple, heartfelt aria in a chaotic opera full of hypocrisy, jealousy, backstabbing, and feuds. Its simplicity and range makes this one of the most widely performed arias. You might recognize it because of Jackie Evancho’s beautiful rendition of it on America’s Got Talent in 2011.
Recitar!… Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci – Ruggero Leoncavallo
Canio’s wife cheated on him, and he is heartbroken but still, the show must go on, and he is in the process of getting ready for work. As a clown. This aria is the musical version of that classic image of the sad clown – laughing outside, but broken on the inside – and may in fact be the origin of that trope. Canio sings to himself as a way to cope with his heartbreak by reminding himself that his wife’s infidelity has emasculated him, and he is no longer a man, but a joke. This aria so honestly demonstrates heartbreak and the crushing betrayal that Canio feels that its themes have been used over again in popular culture. Queen’s 1984 single “It’s a Hard Life” uses the melody and paraphrases the lyrics, and it is performed in full on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Simpsons.
Listen: Vesti la giubba (Pagliacci) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0PMq4XGtZ4
It’s a Hard Life (Queen) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHP-qgzUVLM
Vissi d’arte from Tosca – Giacomo Puccini
Floria Tosca’s life is falling apart; everything is falling apart. She cannot figure out how things have gone so wrong. Floria has just betrayed Mario’s friend in order to save Mario’s life from the Baron Scarpia’s, and can hear Mario being tortured as Scarpia attempts to blackmail her into sleeping with him. In a truly hopeless time, Floria sings, “I lived for art/I lived for love/I never harmed a living soul,” reflects on all the good she has done in her life, and asks God, “Why?”
Listen: Vissi d’arte (Tosca) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLR3lSrqlww
We look forward to seeing you at our Best of Italian Opera mainstage concert on October 21, featuring guest conductor Fabio Mastrangelo, soprano Shelley Jackson, and tenor John Mac Master! Tickets: http://hpo.org/concert/best-of-italian-opera/