Parlando: The COC Blog

1/6/2014

A Masked Ball Listening Guide

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

A Masked Ball Listening Guide

Introduction
Of Verdi’s middle-period operas, A Masked Ball (1859) is one of the few not to undergo extensive revisions following its initial run of performances. In contrast, Simon Boccanegra (1857/1881), La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny, 1862/1869) and Don Carlos (1867/1884) were significantly reworked after they premiered, and today are most often presented in their later versions, which means that different stages of Verdi’s artistic development co-exist side by side in those works, sometimes juxtaposed all too obviously.

A Masked Ball, on the other hand, was composed relatively quickly. And for all of its variety of musical styles, it is an opera that moves forward in a user-friendly, easy-to-follow single span (compare that with the confusing, sudden chronological leaps one finds in Simon Boccanegra).

A Masked Ball is unique within Verdi’s operas for the degree to which it relies on humour and lightness – both in situation and in its musical forms. We hear these elements mainly in the songs Verdi wrote for Riccardo and Oscar – and we can literally call them songs rather than the traditional Italian operatic term arias. When the King dresses up as a fisherman to visit the fortune-teller Ulrica, he sings a canzone (song) with a decidedly popular, waltz-like rhythm. Likewise, Oscar’s two “arias” are labeled ballata (ballad) and canzone and share the two-verse structure we associate with the song form rather than the more developed, complex structure Verdi would use in a full-blown aria.

The almost wholesale adaptation of A Masked Ball's Italian libretto from the existing French libretto for Daniel Auber’s 1833 opera Gustave III, ou Le Bal Masqué at least partially explains Verdi’s use of these lighter musical forms. In the 19th-century French opera tradition, it was common to find more popular two-verse couplets (i.e. song in which all verses are sung to the same music) very similar to the canzone favoured for Oscar. Given that the operas’ two librettos run almost parallel – number by number and line by line – and that the later piece is most often a direct translation into Italian from the French, it’s not surprising Verdi opted to try out musical forms more associated with French opera. Verdi peppers humour and lightness throughout the score: Oscar’s quicksilver contributions; Riccardo’s carefree, tripping, dance-inspired rhythms; the conspirators Sam and Tom literally “ha-ha-ing” their way into the distance at the end of Act II – these elements are brilliantly melded with traditional narrative and thematic materials (love story and heavy melodrama) to make A Masked Ball the most surprising of Verdi’s mature operas.

Musical Excerpt #1

Act I, introduzione, ensemble: “Signori: oggi d’Ulrica all magion v’invito” (“Gentlemen, today I invite you to the dwelling of Ulrica”)

Connection to the Story
Riccardo has been asked to sign a banishment order for the fortune-teller, Ulrica. Oscar defends the supposed prophetess, and Riccardo, as a lark, suggests that the whole retinue visit her in disguise.

Musical Significance
This ensemble is part of a larger integrated musical section Verdi designated as the opera’s introduzione (introduction), comprised of a chorus, three arias (Riccardo’s sortita or entrance aria; Renato’s cantabile or song-like aria and, Oscar’s ballata or ballad). The main melody at 00:48 starting at “Ogni cura” (“every care”) has a very “Offenbachian” quality as characterized by its skipping rhythms which require the singer to be nimble in his text delivery, and to keep the mood light and fun. French composer Jacques Offenbach was the premier composer of operetta (light, frothy, comic musical theatre pieces) during the 19th century, and his confections were performed all over Europe. It’s not surprising to detect Offenbach’s influence on A Masked Ball given that its libretto was directly based on Auber’s French precedent (see Introduction above). Listen to the main theme’s reprise at 2:18, when the tempo accelerates, and the dance rhythms seem to owe much to the famous can-can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld!

Musical Excerpt #2
Act II, duet: “Non sai tu che se l’anima mia il rimorso dilacera e rode…” (“Do you not see that if remorse corrodes and cuts my soul…”)

Connection to the Story
Riccardo joins Amelia for a clandestine meeting on the outskirts of the city. After declaring his love, he forces her to admit that she too loves him.

Musical Significance
This grand love duet, one of the most technically challenging and musically complex in all of Verdi’s operas, features a different type of vocal writing and characterization from what we find in Musical Excerpt #1. The bright, almost comical mood created there by the quick rhythms and catchy tunes is replaced here by long-lined, sweeping melodies which serve to express Riccardo and Amelia’s tormented passion for each other. The role of Riccardo is often compared to the Duke of Mantua, a tenor part from Verdi’s great opera Rigoletto (you’ve surely heard the Duke’s famous aria, “Le donna è mobile,” sung here by Spaniard Plácido Domingo). Riccardo and the Duke both share light-hearted elements musically speaking, yet the vocal line Riccardo sings in this duet sets him apart from the Duke’s libertinism and marks him as a noble character. He genuinely cares for Amelia and knows that, because she is married, it is wrong for him to be in love with her. The sheer variety of his music makes Riccardo one of Verdi’s most complex tenor roles.

The climax of the duet is its slow middle section in which Riccardo beseeches his beloved: “M’ami Amelia” (“Love me Amelia” – listen at 2:44) and then she, knowing she risks losing both her life and family if she reciprocates, replies, “Me difendi dal mio cor!” (“Defend me from my heart” – 3:11). After this slow section, the cabaletta (generally the quicker, more rhythmic musical response to a slower movement, beginning here at 4:19) is broken into three verses, one for Amelia, then Riccardo and then both together (at 6:44).

Musical Excerpt #3
Act II, aria: “Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima” (“It was you who besmirched that soul”)

Connection to the Story
Believing that his wife Amelia has been unfaithful to him with Riccardo, Renato decides to kill his former friend. His emotional reaction is multi-faceted, however, as he also laments the breakdown of his marriage and the loss of an important friend.

Musical Significance
This is the most complex and elaborate aria Verdi ever wrote for the baritone voice and remains the most famous musical number from the opera. Verdi was almost single-handedly responsible for creating a new type of baritone – now unsurprisingly labeled the “Verdi baritone” – who could manage the high-lying tessitura (where the music lies in a singer’s range) of an aria like this one, and emit the kind of rich, warm timbre required to fill out its long-breathed phrases. To this day, the Verdi baritone is one of the rarest voice types; it’s extremely difficult to find singers who can meet the demands of this type of vocal writing.

“Eri tu” has a two-part structure: in the opening section, Renato addresses a portrait of Riccardo, not only angry because of the affair he suspects Riccardo had with his wife Amelia, but because he laments the loss of a trusted friend whom he admires. The second, less overtly dramatic section, called the cantabile (song-like piece), begins with the passage “O dolcezze perdute, o memorie” (“O lost sweets; O memories” – listen at 1:06). Here, the spinning melody which movingly conveys Renato’s grief and disillusionment is supported by an appropriately light, arpeggiated (broken chord) harp accompaniment.

Musical Excerpt #4
Act III, aria: “Saper vorreste di che si veste” (“You would like to know what he’s wearing”)

Connection to the Story
At the ball, the conspirators are worried that Riccardo could have discovered their plot and stayed away. Unwittingly, Oscar acts as their accomplice: he thinks Renato wishes to play a joke on his friend, and after some hesitation, he reveals Riccardo’s disguise.

Musical Significance
The role of Oscar comes out of the well-established tradition of pants roles (male characters sung by sopranos and mezzo-sopranos) stretching back to Cherubino in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and going forward to Richard Strauss’s Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier (1911). The high tessitura of Oscar’s vocal line signifies his youthfulness, joy, and uninhibited emotion. Oscar’s high spirits in this little aria add sparkle and form a contrast to the grim conspiracy that underlies the glamour of the masked ball. Listen as the cheeky page taunts the men who are plotting Riccardo’s assassination with his “tra la las” at 00:25.

Oscar’s music is based on French musical models (see also Excerpt #1). “Saper vorreste” is a straight-forward French couplet (two-versed song), a relatively simple musical form appropriate for a servant character. Contrast this with Verdi’s music for the more socially exalted Riccardo and Amelia who express their emotions in a formal style, with full-blown arias, cabalettas and grand duets.

The tracks listed above are excerpted from from Un ballo in maschera, Deutsche Grammophon 453 149-2. Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Claudio Abbado, conductor. Plácido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli, Renato Bruson, Edita Gruberova

Photo: (banner) Catherine Naglestad as Amelia and Piotr Beczala as Riccardo in the Berlin Staatsoper production of Un ballo in maschera, 2008. Photo: Ruth Walz

Posted by Danielle D'Ornellas / in A Masked Ball / comments (0) / permalink

1/6/2014

Free Concert Series Highlights for January

Artists of the COC Orchestra in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre

In 2014, we resolve to offer you some of the best musical experiences in the city! We're making good on that New Year's resolution this month with iconic jazz artists and promising rising stars, a plethora of classical recitals, and an intense dance performance you won't want to miss!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014 - 5:30 p.m. - Joe Sealy Trio - Winter Reflections
Canadian jazz piano icon Joe Sealy and his acclaimed sidemen (Paul Novotny, bass; Daniel Barnes, drums) ease us into the New Year with a mellow, intimate hour of standards and original compositions reflecting on life's seasons. Watch Joe and Paul perform "True Blue" in the video below.


 

Thursday, January 16, 2014 - 12 p.m. - Christopher Goodpasture - Etudes and Fantasies
Put a little fantasy in your January, as award-winning 23-year-old American pianist Christopher Goodpasture amazes with dreamy works by Schumann (Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17), Chopin (Etude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12), Debussy (a selection of Etudes from Book II) and Jacques Hétu (Fantasie, Op. 59). Check out a sneak preview in the video below.


 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014 - 12 p.m. - Infusion Dance - The Colours of Kathak
Infusion Dance artistic director Parul Gupta illuminates the ancient art of Kathak in a performance demonstrating the beauty and elegance of this classical dance from the temples and courts of North India. Watch Parul demonstrate this beautiful art form in the video below. 


 

Artists of the 2013/2014 Ensemble Studio.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 - 12 p.m. - Artists of the COC Ensemble Studio - The School for Lovers: Highlights from Così fan tutte
Artists of the COC Ensemble Studio present highlights from Mozart’s wry comedy Così fan tutte, coming soon to the COC's mainstage, one of the greatest and most enduring pieces about relationships ever written. Join us for this preview concert and then make sure to catch their special Ensemble Studio performance of Così fan tutte on February 7. You can learn more about it here.
 

Thursday, January 30, 2014 - 12 p.m. - Trio Arkel with Les Allt and Erica Goodman - Tour de France
Join Trio Arkel (Marie Bérard, violin; Teng Li, viola; Winona Zelenka, cello) and friends (Les Allt, flute and Erica Goodman, harp) on a midday escape to France. Their program features the work of three rarely heard French composers hailing from Paris, Brest and Bordeaux: Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, Jean Cras and Jean-Michel Damase. See Trio Arkel perform in the video below:

Let us know which January concert you're most looking forward to in the comments!

 

Photo: (top) Artists of the COC Orchestra in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Photo by Chris Hutcheson; (bottom) Artists of the 2013/2014 COC Ensemble Studio. Photo by Karen Reeves.

Posted by Kristin McKinnon / in Free Concert Series / comments (0) / permalink

12/17/2013

Così fan tutte Listening Guide

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

Introduction
Like Don Giovanni which came before it, Mozart’s Così fan tutte is identified in its libretto as a dramma giocoso, an Italian term for operas that contain both comic and tragic elements. Conventionally thought of as light, frothy and joyful, Così is also shot through with a decidedly poignant, sad and cynical edge. Our responses are always being played with: the two sisters are clearly devastated when their fiancés must go off to war and the men join in on their sorrow… and yet, we know the latter two are just play-acting. This constant state of ambivalence might partly explain the opera’s difficult critical history. 

Unlike Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro – Mozart’s two previous successes with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte – Così fan tutte does not follow the normal pattern we expect in a play or an opera: there is no hero nor any one character who grabs the audience’s immediate attention the way, say, the scandalous Don Giovanni does. The other stumbling block which plagued this opera for the first 100 years of its existence is the manner in which audiences reacted to what they perceived to be its controversial subject matter (two sisters falling in love with each other’s fiancés). Even once Così had finally re-entered the standard repertoire in the 1930s it was treated with little respect, suffering brutal cuts, including Dorabella’s short Act I aria “Smanie implacabili,” (“implacable restlessness”) one of only two arias she gets to sing in the entire opera!

Mozart uses an astonishing variety of instrumentation in Così resulting in a sound-world particular to its Italian setting in a villa just outside the coastal city of Naples. For example, the extensive use of the clarinet creates a languid, voluptuous atmosphere meant to evoke the sunny southern landscape with its bracing sea air, precipitous sea vistas and lazy afternoons on the beach.

Musical Excerpt #1

Act I, terzettino: “Soave sia il vento” (“May the wind blow softly”)

Connection to the Story
Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Don Alfonso wish Ferrando and Guglielmo a safe voyage.

Musical Significance
Mozart achieves a startlingly realistic effect at the start of this trio by using the upper string section of the orchestra to imitate the sound of the rippling sea – very appropriate as Fiordiligi and Dorabella send their fiancés off to war on a boat! The harmonious union of the voices at 00:07 produces a sweet effect which telegraphs their sincere, heartfelt wishes that Ferrando and Guglielmo be blessed with good weather on their journey. However at 1:24, Mozart introduces a dissonance within all this tonal gorgeousness, specifically on the word “desir” (“desires”), as if to say “be careful what you wish for.” The girls want their fiancés to return but the mild discord in the harmony indicates perhaps the men will come back changed or that the women will be terribly deceived in their wishes. The beauty of this trio is further soured by its underlying sense of irony: its scintillating strings and heart-tugging harmonies are powerful enough to make us believe that even the cynical Don Alfonso (the mastermind of the plot to test the two girls’ constancy) is emotionally affected by this “heartfelt” farewell. However, listen at 1:51 as his vocal line snakes up and down, hinting at a repressed deviousness, even though he expresses the same “calm sea and prosperous voyage” sentiment as the women.

Musical Excerpt #2
Act I, aria: “In uomini, in soldati” (“In men, in soldiers”)

Connection to the Story
Despina pours scorn on the notion that men can remain faithful.

Musical Significance
Generally, it’s possible to divide the type of music Mozart wrote for Così into two categories: there is the sublime, grand music of the ensembles (excerpt #1) and virtuoso arias (excerpt #3). But between these two general types we can find buffa (comic) elements, embodied in the character of the servant, Despina. Her role fits into a category of soprano characters collectively known as the “soubrette,” usually sung by lighter, lyric voices. Other soubrette characters written by Mozart include Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro and Zerlina in Don Giovanni. The orchestration for Despina’s music tends to be a little thinner than in other parts of the opera: in this aria we hear Mozart using just one flute, one oboe and one bassoon (rather than the expected two). The aria starts out with a frank reflection: “You look for fidelity in men, in soldiers? Don’t tell me that, for pity’s sake!” and continues on in this expository manner until 1:34. At this point, Despina’s playful nature comes to the fore with a more jaunty melody, and then some appropriately coy interplay with the orchestra as she sings “let’s love them to suit our convenience and our vanity!” (2:02 – 2:08).

Musical Excerpt #3
Act I, aria: “Come scoglio immoto resta” (“Steady as a rock”)

Connection to the Story
After being introduced by Don Alfonso to his two “Albanian” friends (really Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise), Fiordiligi dismisses their advances, declaring that her constancy is as firm as a rock.

Musical Significance
This is decidedly the biggest solo aria in the opera and probably one of the most challenging in the history of the genre, barring some arias in later bel canto works and the stamina-testing, heavily orchestrated music of German composer Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883).

From a technical point of view, this aria makes huge demands: the singer must be able to encompass the extreme highs and lows of her range, often with very little time in between (0:19 – 0:40); there are several passages that are difficult to negotiate, full of scales, trills and leaps (1:46 – 2:06) and, the piece also demands plenty of spitfire temperament!

It’s generally agreed that in “Come scoglio,” Mozart was taking on the tradition of the grand showpiece aria, which would have been treated with dead seriousness in the earlier period of opera seria. Here though, it’s almost as if Fiordiligi is being mocked: just as she is saying “I’m like a rock that remains unmoved,” musically, the rock has already fallen and we, the audience, know she is doomed. Listen from 3:03 where the vocal line becomes extremely unstable with the singer having to sing scale after scale, never really settling into any kind of melody – all the while protesting her absolute steadfast commitment to Ferrando!

Musical Excerpt #4
Act II, duetto (“duet”): “Il core vi dono” (“I give my heart to you”)

Connection to the Story
Guglielmo pursues Dorabella, giving her a heart-shaped locket. He asks for hers in return.

Musical Significance
This is the only true love duet in the opera (which perhaps speaks to a cynical strain running through this opera, given that it’s supposed to be entirely about amorous relationships.)

Even though they have yet to discover their love, the piece begins with such a lovely melody for Guglielmo that there is little doubt where their relationship is headed. Again, as in the excerpt #1 trio, Mozart laces this duet with a bit of irony: it is traditional to view Dorabella as the light-hearted sister, and Guglielmo as the frivolous ladies’ man, but here, they sound very serious in their expressions of love. As we heard in Despina’s aria (excerpt #2), the vocal lines are given the simplest orchestral support until we come to the long coda (that is, the end piece, starting at 3:10) when we hear delicious frissons from the violins and some tremulous flutterings from the woodwinds which are entirely appropriate to the couple’s burgeoning feelings. There are also onomatopoeic elements in the orchestration: listen at 1:24 for the detached figures in the strings which mimic heartbeats just at the point they sing the words, “ei batte così” (“and that’s what’s beating so”).

The tracks listed above are excerpted from Così fan tutte, Decca 478 3050. Chamber Orchestra of Europe; London Voices, Sir Georg Solti, conductor. Renée Fleming, Anne Sofie von Otter, Olar Bär, Frank Lopardo, Adelina Scarabelli, Michele Pertusi.

Photo: (banner) Preliminary costume sketch by set and costume designer Debra Hanson, for the COC's new production of Cosi fan tutte, 2013.

Posted by Danielle D'Ornellas / in Cosi fan tutte / comments (0) / permalink

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001