How to Appreciate Opera ~ Where to Start? ~ Part III
Opera is grand theater. An opera is a story that is set to classical music. The opera plays out in musical form some challenge to the life of one or several characters. We watch as the characters try to work out the complexity that is all human relationships. The setting may be in a mythical land, palace, courtyard or kitchen. This is storytelling in the most elaborate form. At its core, a well-staged, costumed, sung and composed opera is a reflection of our hopes, dreams and desires on the theatrical stage. The fascination with opera can be the lure of the social experience that pleases so many senses in a beautiful way.
This article is written for the person how takes an interest and is confounded on how to begin to appreciate this art. Given the complexity of languages, availability and numerous compositions, where does one start? How do you pick the first opera to watch? Earlier articles focused on some basic lingo and explanation of what was happening. The dramatic tenor vocal style of Piero Barone was illustrated along with a video clip of a performance of “No Puede Ser” to demonstrate what that looks and sounds like. A libretto and aria were explained accompanied with video clips from “Lucio Silla” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The combination of short text, libretto and video hopefully, informed the reader about the aria. Opera is complex and there is a great deal of lingo to digest.
But, the reader may not want to fuss about at this time with short discussions and illustrations of aspects of opera. It may be time to try one out and just wing the lingo. Does it really matter at this time, who is the vocal artist? Everyone finds their own way into opera but selection of one particular artist to explore, may be a way in. If the voice of Placido Domingo, Leontyne Price or Maria Callas, is enjoyable to you, it will be an encouragement to listen. If the reader has access to this blog, than they also have access to You Tube. I highly recommend watching and listening to sections of operas at first to get used to this art form.
Also, the reader needs to realize that opera is performed live. Considering the length of some operas and complexity of story, it is to be appreciated how good the artists are. An opera singer must have excellent vocal skills and breath control, be able to project without a microphone, remember the different numbers in each opera, act out the role and be part of the ensemble. There is a lot happening at once on the stage. The person who can perform at this level is indeed to be admired and applauded.
My recommendation for a first opera would be: La Cenerentola or Cinderella. The music was composed by Gioachino Rossini. The libretto was written by Jacopo Ferretti. The opera is based on the French fairytale of Cendrillion by Charles Perrault. The premier performance was in Rome at Teatro Valle on January 25, 1817. This opera is generally quite popular and there are several excellent recordings available.
The opera of La Cenerentola follows the familiar story of Cinderella. In Italian, Cenerentola translates as nobody or a stray dog. Instead of a glass slipper, we have a matched pair of bracelets. The fairy godmother is now a wise mysterious tutor to the Prince named Alidoro. The stepmother becomes the buffoon Don Magnifico. The story is set at the home of Don Magnifico, in the household are his two daughters and step daughter, Angelina. Angelina is the put upon waif longing for love. Prince Ramiro arrives in the disguise of a groom. The valet Dandini takes on the role of the Prince and moves about freely getting to know the Don Magnifico household. The Prince wants to be able to get to know the ladies as an ordinary person so as to better discern sincerity from opportunity. He must marry to keep his place in society but wants to marry happily and not only out of duty. The story unfolds with the daughters competing for the Prince’s attention. Don Magnifico shamelessly pushes the daughters at the Prince. Angelina is noticed by both the Prince and Dandini. The Prince and Angelina fall in love at sight. The opera works on the challenge, how to get these two together. In the end, they are united and as the fairy tale says, lived happily ever after.
Dandini and Don Magnifico
One of the most delightful characters is Dandini. He is a classic opera character. He is a servant in an elevated position within a wealthy household. He is dependent upon his wits and ways to maintain discretion in his position as valet to the Prince. He is privy to much and while not a “friend” in affection, he is a friend to the Prince in his freedom to mix and move in society where the Prince cannot. He is a trusted servant. The character of Dandini appears often in the genre of dramma giocoso or a playful drama. Or more often in opera buffa or opera for the common person.
Prince Ramiro and Dandini switch roles, another common occurrence in operas. Often players are masked or in disguise in order to better assess a situation without the encumbrance of rank. People behave differently dependent upon who they think you are. This is basic human nature. Here is a link to this moment with the entire cast. The Prince and Dandini appear as their true selves and let everyone know about the ruse. Here is a fine example of Rossini interweaving all the cast together.
Perhaps because I knew the story of the Prince and Cinderella, I took less interest in their experience than that of Dandini and Don Magnifico. Or, it could be that the characters appealed to me as something new and were a bit of a mystery. The performances were captivating and well-acted. IMHO, I thought they stole the show. The role of Cinderella as written and sung was a bit too innocent to be believed at times. Angelina goes about her sad day singing about being saved by a King. She is all innocence and goodness. She escapes into this fantasy world to tolerate the drudgery of her existence. It’s a sad life.
There is nothing innocent about Dandini or Don Magnifico. Each survives on their wits and morals or lack thereof. They are experienced men of the world able to understand the roles they play in society yet are always willing to push the boundaries. They have confidence in a positive outcome and will work with what is given to achieve their goals. In other words, I found them highly likeable and their characters more appealing than Cinderella. The interactions of the two during the opera were funny. I had the impression they could both walk away from their current situation without a look back. They know how to blend into circumstances and make the best of it.
Music ~ Aria, Duet, Ensemble
This opera is very well composed. The music is fine, but it is more the presentation of the arias, duets, etc… That made it a satisfying experience. Rossini put to music the libretto (story) and composed all the vocals for the performers. He cleverly weaves arias (solo) into duets (two singers), into ensembles (many singers). He goes back and forth in this manner so that the effect is one long gorgeous song no matter how many people are on stage or who is singing. There is no “star” of the show, it’s an ensemble performance. The opera moves forward, unrushed in a most natural manner. Some composers can lose something in the transitions from aria back to recitative, to duet, etc… But Rossini does not. Once in a while, when the composer wants us to be aware of a transition of time in the story or place, as in the hours of night tick into dawn, or moving to the palace, he does pause with the set empty and only the music moving the story forward. This is skillful and at moments is brilliant to watch.
Readers can watch the YouTube posting of the entire opera by clicking on this link. Or, readers may purchase one of the following recommended DVDs. Or, readers may utilize their local library and ask the librarian to search the catalog and find for loan.
La Cenerentola: Rossini
Decca 1996 Houston Symphony
Bartoli, Dara, Gimenez, Corbelli, Pertusi
Director: Christoph Eschenbach
La Cenerentola: Rossini
Deutsche Grammophon 2006
Von Stade, Araiza, Desderi
Conductor Claudio Abbado
Director: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle