New Release: Handel’s Rarely-Heard “Ottone”

Ottone, Handel’s 1723 tragic opera, tells the story of a bloody Roman coup and the marriage of the German emperor Otto II with the Byzantine princess Theophanu around the year 1000 AD. It was one of the composer’s most successful hits, coming at a time when Italian opera was wildly popular in London. Handel assembled a superstar cast for the first performances at London’s Haymarket Theatre, where the value of scalped tickets soared. Ottone also …

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“Francesca da Rimini”: Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Opera

On Wednesday, we heard Tchaikovsky’s thrilling 1876 orchestral tone poem, Francesca da Rimini. The composer was fascinated with the story from Dante’s Inferno, and first considered turning it into an opera. When that project failed to materialize, Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, persuaded him that the subject was ripe for a dramatic tone poem. Sergei Rachmaninov’s opera, Francesca da Rimini, set to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky, premiered thirty years later in January, 1906. It’s a short work …

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The Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov: Opera’s Biggest Spectacle?

From its origins in medieval and Renaissance courtly entertainment, opera has always been partly rooted in spectacle. Nineteenth century French grand opera used large casts, expanded orchestras, grandiose scenery, consumes and special effects, and ballet to bring to life epic heroic tales based on historical subjects. (Meyerbeer’s five-act Les Huguenots from 1836 is an example.) A sense of theatricality and spectacle is at the heart of the Triumphant March from Verdi’s Aida, set in ancient Egypt. History (this time recent) became …

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An Electrifying Oberon in Berlin

In the clip below, conductor Mariss Jansons leads the Berlin Philharmonic in a spectacular and rousing performance of the overture to the opera Oberon by Carl Maria von Weber. Weber’s music contains some of the earliest seeds of Romanticism. His orchestration was new and innovative. It mixed tonal colors in exciting ways and expanded the size and power of the orchestra. (Notice the trombones, which were a relatively new addition at the …

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The Promise of Living: Copland for Labor Day

The Promise of Living, the soaring finale of Aaron Copland’s 1954 opera, The Tender Land, seems vaguely appropriate for Labor Day. Its libretto by Horace Everett (a pseudonym for Erik Johns) evokes the dignity and meaningfulness of labor. Honest work, in this case cultivating the soil of the American heartland and reaping the blessings of a rich harvest, is part of a balanced and fulfilled life: The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is …

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Remembering Tenor Jon Vickers

  The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who brought “a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity” to some of opera’s most powerful roles, passed away on Friday following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88. After studying at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Vickers rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 60s with appearances at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. His recordings suggest that he had …

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Old American Songs

Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs are full of ghosts. The collection of folk melodies Copland arranged in the early 1950s, at the request of Benjamin Britten, evokes memories of, and nostalgia for, the distant past. It’s easy to get a similar feeling taking in the small slices of rural American landscape visible in brief glimpses from a moving car…an old dilapidated barn, a picturesque village church, the leafy solitude of an obscure roadside cemetery… The …

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