A Night at the Opera

Program Notes by Laney Boyd

Overture from Candide
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

American composer, conductor, and pianist Leonard Bernstein was particularly active in theatrical composition during the 1940s and ‘50s. It was during these decades that he wrote the pieces that would become his most successful and beloved stage works, including the musicals On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), and West Side Story (1957), as well as the operetta Candide. Candide is based on Voltaire’s satirical novella of the same name from 1759 and relates the many misadventures of Candide, a charmingly naïve and eternally optimistic young man. The operetta was not immediately successful when it opened on Broadway in December 1956. The music, however, was very well received and the overture had its first concert performance by the New York Philharmonic barely a month after the operetta’s opening. It has since held a permanent spot in the standard orchestral repertoire and has become a popular curtain-raiser, as evidenced by its position on tonight’s program.

Candide’s overture includes tunes drawn from the operetta, including an excerpt from the famous “Glitter and Be Gay,” as well as material composed specifically for the overture. At just over four minutes long, the work is brief but packs quite a punch: the brilliant scoring, complex rhythms, and almost overwhelming energy are enough to start off any concert with a resounding musical exclamation point.

 “The Trees on the Mountain” from Susannah
Carlisle Floyd (1926- )

Susannah is the third and most successful of American composer Carlisle Floyd’s twelve operas. It premiered in 1955 at Florida State University, where Floyd taught piano and composition, and is loosely based on the apocryphal story “Susannah and the Elders.” The two-act opera centers on 18-year-old Susannah Polk, an attractive and innocent young woman who is condemned as a sinner by the people of her rural Tennessee mountain town. The opera was Floyd’s response to the anti-communist mania known as McCarthyism at the time; the idea that accusation is all that is needed to constitute proof of guilt is a prevalent theme throughout the opera.

Much of Susannah’s music is based on Appalachian folk tunes, and this stylistic similarity is very apparent in Susannah’s second act aria “The Trees on the Mountain.” Desolate and alone, Susannah sings this piece after fleeing her church where the townspeople have leveled baseless accusations of sin against her. The aria’s soaring lyricism and haunting melody augment the text’s barren imagery: the starless darkness and cold, bare trees of which Susannah sings provide a striking metaphor for her misery and isolation at this point in the opera.

“Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson et Dalila
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Camille Saint-Saëns is best known for his dazzling piano pieces and colorful orchestral scores, but he also composed a large body of choral and solo vocal works, many of which remain popular concert pieces today. The only genre Saint-Saëns seemed to struggle with was that of grand opera, with one notable exception: Samson et Dalila. It is the only one of the composer’s 13 operas that is still regularly performed. While Saint-Saëns began work on Samson et Dalila in 1867, it was not until Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, who admired Saint-Saëns’s work, offered to produce the opera that Saint-Saëns was able to seriously devote himself to its composition. He completed it in 1876 and it finally premiered in Weimar in 1877, where it proved an immediate success.

Samson et Dalila relates the Biblical story of Samson, a Hebrew leader whose love for the deceitful seductress Delilah brings about his own destruction. Delilah sings her famous second-act aria “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” (My Heart Opens to Your Voice) as a response to Samson’s declaration of love for her. She sings that her heart opens to Samson while attempting to seduce him into revealing the secret of his great strength. The aria’s sensuous melody and lush orchestration combine to form a work of supreme musical beauty. It remains a landmark of French grand opera as well as one of the most popular and oft-performed mezzo-soprano recital pieces.

Meditation from Thaïs
Jules Massenet (1842-1912)

Though one of the lesser-known artists on tonight’s program, the French Romantic composer Jules Massenet enjoyed a long and prolific career in which he wrote more than 30 operas. Massenet composed Thaïs in 1894 and premiered it in Paris the same year, though he revised it extensively a few years later. The three-act opera takes place in Egypt and tells the story of a Christian monk named Athanaël who attempts to convert Thaïs, a beautiful Alexandrian courtesan and follower of the goddess Venus, to Christianity. While Athanaël is successful, he is ultimately driven into obsession and lust while Thaïs attains purity. The opera ends with Thaïs’ death upon which angels welcome her into heaven while Athanaël is left behind in despair.

 The famous “Méditation” is an instrumental entr’acte, a piece of music performed between the acts (or scenes) of a theatrical production. Scored for violin and orchestra, the work takes place between the two scenes of Act II. In the first scene, Thaïs reflects on the emptiness of her life despite its many pleasures. Athanaël then enters and tries to persuade Thaïs to repent and find salvation through God. She initially rejects this proposal and drives Athanaël away, but she then begins to reflect, and it is during this time of self-examination that the five-minute “Méditation” plays. In the beginning of the second scene of Act II, Thaïs tells Athanaël she has changed her mind.

“Meditation” is perhaps best described as an aria without words. In turns florid, tender, sorrowful, dramatic, and ultimately divine, the work is a musical portrayal of Thaïs’ spiritual awakening. Musically, it has become something of a rite of passage for violinists. The work has received arrangements for a wide variety of instruments and is an oft-performed concert piece.

“Sous le dôme épais” (“Flower Duet”) from Lakmé
Léo Delibes (1836-1891)

Lakmé premiered in 1883 and is the last and most famous of the French Romantic composer Léo Delibes’ operas. Set in British India during the mid-19th century, the opera tells the ill-fated love story of Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahmin high priest, and Gérald, a British army officer. Stories such as this one involving exotic locales and mysterious religious practices, particularly those of the Orient, were very much in vogue in French art during the time of the opera’s composition.

“Sous le dôme épais” is drawn from the first of Lakmé’s three acts and is arguably Delibes’ most famous work due to the duet’s wide use in modern films and advertisements. Though its title roughly translates to “Under the thick dome (of jasmine)” the duet has become known simply as The Flower Duet. Lasting about six minutes, the duet takes place between Lakmé and her servant Mallika as they gather flowers by a river. The sheer beauty of the duet’s floating lyricism and sparkling harmonies makes for an extremely popular concert piece with both performers and audiences alike.

Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

We turn again to Camille Saint-Saëns’ biblical opera Samson et Dalila (1877), this time for a wild and fast-paced instrumental work far removed from the lyrical beauty of “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix.” “Bacchanale” is drawn from the opera’s third and final act after Samson is betrayed by the seductive Philistine priestess Delilah. The hero’s hair is shorn, destroying his great strength, and he is shackled to the pillars of the temple of the Philistine deity Dagon while the Philistines celebrate their victory over the Hebrews by performing a dance of untamed, savage revelry. The work flies by at a breakneck pace and features heavy percussive elements, serpentine melodies, and unrelenting rhythms that increase to a fever-pitch before coming to an abrupt, almost violent close. Within the opera, this provocative showpiece leads directly to the climactic scene in which Samson calls on God to return his strength and in a final act of vengeance pulls down the pillars and the temple, crushing his enemies and destroying himself in the process.

Overture from Il barbiere di Siviglia
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

Thanks to some distinctly un-operatic sources including Bugs Bunny, the Beatles, and Seinfeld, the overture to Rossini’s opera Il barbiere di Siviglia (“The Barber of Seville”) is perhaps the most recognizable tune on tonight’s program. (If it is unfamiliar at first, hold on until about the two-minute mark). Il barbiere premiered in 1816 and remains an incredibly popular work 200 years later; it is perhaps the best known of Rossini’s nearly 40 operas and a shining example of the Italian genre of opera buffa, or comic opera. Il barbiere tells the story of the crafty barber Figaro who is enlisted by the handsome Count Almaviva to help him win the hand of the lovely Rosina despite the fact that Rosina’s guardian, Dr. Bartolo, is determined to marry her and obtain her substantial dowry. Through a series of hilarious trickery and mad-capped action orchestrated by Figaro, the young lovers are ultimately united.

Unlike the modern conception of overtures, Il barbiere’s overture contains no actual musical material from the opera itself, instead recycling material from two earlier operas of Rossini’s. However, the overture quite successfully relates the action and hilarity to follow and today remains firmly linked with Figaro. The music’s vivacious rhythms, headlong runs, and delightfully anticipatory character make for seven and a half minutes of pure musical mischief.

“Cruda sorte! Amor tiranno!” from L’italiana in Algeri
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

Gioacchino Rossini’s ninth opera, L’italiana in Algeri (“The Italian Girl in Algiers”), was the composer’s first great success in the genre of comic opera. It was written when Rossini was just 21 years of age and premiered in Venice in May 1813. The story of L’italiana is notable for taking the dramatic form known as the “rescue opera” that was popular during the 19th century and flipping it on its head: instead of a captive beautiful young woman being rescued by a valiant hero, Rossini’s opera features a resourceful young woman, Isabella, who frees her captive lover Lindoro through the use of her tenacity and wit.

“Cruda sorte! Amor tiranno!” (Cruel fate! Tyrannical love!) introduces Isabella’s formidable character in the opera’s opening act. Shipwrecked in Algiers while searching for Lindoro, she is immediately taken prisoner by Mustafà, the same man who captured Lindoro. Despite her precarious situation, Isabella isn’t worried. Though the aria begins with her lamenting the dangers that accompany her love for Lindoro, the long, sorrowful lines soon give way to spirited vivacity as she sings of her confidence in her own cleverness – and her power to deal with men.

Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)

The one-act opera Cavalleria rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”) is the best known of Pietro Mascagni’s fifteen operas. Adapted from a short story of the same name written in 1880, the opera premiered in May 1890 and was an instant sensation. Cavalleria is generally considered the first verismo opera, Italian for “realism.” Rather than focusing on the gods, mythological figures, or royalty (all popular subjects during the Romantic era), verismo operas focused on the average everyday man and woman of the time, especially in matters of romance and violence, both of which feature heavily in Cavalleria.

The opera is set in a Sicilian village square on Easter morning. Turridu, a young villager recently returned from the army to find that his sweetheart, Lola, has married another man during his absence, comforts himself with the charms of Santuzza, a peasant girl. Santuzza falls in love with him, but Turridu abandons her to engage in an affair with Lola. In her hurt and anguish, Santuzza reveals the affair to Lola’s husband, Alfio, who swears vengeance and challenges Turridu to a duel, which takes place offstage. The opera ends with the villagers who witnessed the fight rushing back into the square to announce that Alfio has killed Turridu.

The Intermezzo occurs at the height of the drama, just as Santuzza informs Alfio of Lola’s infidelity and he decides to challenge Turridu. All the characters leave the stage and it remains empty as the Easter Mass ostensibly takes place. Operatic intermezzos typically add some levity or respite to a serious production, and this is no exception: Intermezzo offers a dramatic foil to Cavalleria’s storyline as the music’s calm, untroubled nature simulates the worship taking place inside the church, while also providing a stark atmospheric contrast to the intensity of the surrounding scenes.

“Mi Chiamano Mimi” from La bohème
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Giacomo Puccini holds a solid place among the greatest Italian opera composers. He wrote a dozen operas, many of which rank among the most important standards today. A handful of titles are particularly recognizable – Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and Turandot, to name a few – but perhaps no Puccini opera is more well-known or oft-performed worldwide than La bohème. The opera quickly gained popularity throughout Italy following its premiere in February 1896 and was soon playing in numerous international theaters.

La bohéme focuses on a group of young bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. In the first of the operas four acts, the poet Rodolfo is writing alone in his attic apartment when he hears a knock at the door and opens it to discover a girl who lives in another room in the building. She introduces herself as a seamstress named Mimi and asks if he has any matches to spare with which to light her candle. A pair of arias follow that can only be described as “getting to know you” songs: the smitten Rodolfo sings of his life as a poet and admits his attraction for Mimi before prompting her to tell him about herself; she responds with “Mi Chiamano Mimi” (They call me Mimi) – if this scene sounds familiar, you may be thinking of the characters Roger and Mimi from the hit Broadway musical Rent, which is based on La bohéme. Mimi’s aria begins sweetly and a bit tentatively, but gradually becomes more powerful as she sings of the warmth and beauty of spring.

Overture from La forza del destino
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Giuseppe Verdi enjoyed a long, prolific, and extremely successful career. While his catalogue of works contains a variety of songs, sacred works, and instrumental pieces, the vast majority of his life was dedicated to opera composition; he wrote nearly 30 operas over the course of 54 years. Composed from 1861-62, La forza del destino (“The Power of Fate” or “The Force of Destiny”) follows the tragic of Don Alvaro and Donna Leonora. The star-crossed lovers’ attempt to elope at the beginning of the opera results in Alvaro inadvertently killing Leonora’s father, an action which sets off a relentless string of misfortunes that hound the lovers until their ultimate fateful defeat.

When La forza del destino premiered in 1862, it began not with a full-scale overture but rather with a concise and unassuming prelude, as did many of Verdi’s previous operas. However, the composer made extensive revisions to the opera in 1869 and replaced the prelude with the overture you will hear tonight. The work contains several themes from the opera, most notably the “fate” motive, which is made up of three driving unison notes. This motive represents the irrevocable nature of destiny and plays throughout the opera each time fate deals the lovers yet another blow. With a performance time of about eight minutes, the overture is a powerful expression of the opera’s darkly dramatic atmosphere.

“Mira, o Norma” from Norma
Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

As a true master of melodic writing, Italian opera writer Vincenzo Bellini was the quintessential composer of bel canto opera, a term that literally translates to “beautiful singing.” The genre is characterized by smooth phrasing and sweeping melodies with long, elegant, and seemingly endless lines. The final piece on tonight’s program, “Mira, o Norma” (See, oh Norma), is drawn from the second act of Norma (1831) and provides a particularly fine example of Bellini’s bel canto sensibilities.

Norma takes place around 100 BC in Roman-occupied Gaul and details the love triangle between two druidic priestesses and a Roman official. The high priestess Norma has broken her vows to engage in a secret love affair with the Roman Pollione and has given him two children. However, Pollione reveals he has fallen in love with a young novice priestess named Adalgisa who returns his affection and agrees to renounce her vows and flee with him to Rome. When a heartbroken Norma implores Adalgisa to marry Pollione and take the children to Rome, Adalgisa refuses, reaffirming her friendship with Norma in a masterpiece of bel canto writing.

 “Mira, o Norma” begins with a slow section full of long, rich melodies brimming with expressive warmth that gives way to a dazzling fast section featuring soaring harmonies and dynamic rhythms. The duet calls for extreme control of range and flexibility, great emotional expression, and seamless vocal synergy that, combined, make for a truly magnificent finale to tonight’s program.