“Possente Spirto” from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo,” Scherzi Musicali

Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was created in 1607 at the dawn of opera. It remains the earliest work in that rich genre to be performed regularly. Set in five acts, it is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, who descends into Hades in an unsuccessful attempt to bring his dead bride, Eurydice, back to the living world. The aria, Possente spirto, e formidabil nume (“Mighty spirit and formidable god”), comes from the opera’s third act. Orfeo …

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“Là Ci Darem La Mano” from “Don Giovanni”: Mozart’s Most Seductive Duet

Don Giovanni (or Don Juan) is one of literature’s most infamous seducers. In Mozart’s two act 1787 opera—a sublime blend of comedy, melodrama, and supernatural elements— the character takes on a new and intriguing complexity. As the cultural historian, James H. Johnson writes in his essay, Sincerity and Seduction in Don Giovanni, Mozart and the librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, “deliberately employ a tone of sincerity that keeps to the surface in conveying Giovanni’s …

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Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”: The First Television Opera

On Christmas Eve, 1951, opera moved into the television era. On this evening, the premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors was broadcast live from NBC’s studio 8H in Rockefeller Center. The NBC Opera Theatre performance was seen by an estimated five million viewers across the country. Set in one act, it was the first opera to be composed specifically for television. Menotti was inspired by The Adoration of the Magi, a …

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“The Promise Of Living”: Copland’s Hymn of Thanksgiving

The Promise of Living forms the first act finale of Aaron Copland’s opera, The Tender Land. Conceived for the NBC Television Opera Workshop but ultimately rejected by the network’s producers, The Tender Land was premiered by New York City Opera on April 1, 1954. Dramatically, it occupies the same hazy, surreal space we encounter in Copland’s ballet, Appalachian Spring. Set in the rural American heartland during the Great Depression, the plot centers around the coming of age of Laurie …

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“Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”: Excerpts from Shostakovich’s Censored Opera

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1932 opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, inhabits a grim world of “lust, loneliness, and murder.” Described by the composer as a “Tragedy-Satire,” it hovers somewhere between chilling terror and “grotesque vaudeville.” The dark plot, based on a novel of the same name by Nikolai Leskov, is centered around Katerina Ismailova, a bored and oppressed merchant’s wife who lives in a provincial town. As John Henken writes in his summary, …

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Ghostly Mozart: The “Commendatore Scene” from “Don Giovanni”

The dramatic climax of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, delivers the ultimate ghost story. Don Giovanni’s horrific fate is sealed earlier in the opera’s second act. In Scene 3, the brash, promiscuous nobleman (also known as Don Juan), wanders into a graveyard where he is reunited with his servant, Leporello. Don Giovanni brags that he took advantage of his disguise to try to seduce one of Leporello’s girlfriends. A voice comes from one of …

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Berlioz’ “Benvenuto Cellini” Overture: The Romantic Artist as Hero

The opening bars of Hector Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini Overture spring to life with all of the high-flying passion, exuberance, and boundless heroism of the idealized Romantic artist. Filled with wild euphoria and mercurial twists and turns, this initial theme encapsulates the spirit of the protagonist of the opera which follows. Berlioz’ ill-fated 1838 opera, Benvenuto Cellini, was based on a highly fictionalized depiction of the Florentine sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). Although it appealed to notions of the …

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