“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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Saint-Saëns’ Most Seductive Aria: An Excerpt from “Samson and Delilah”

My heart opens to your voice like the flowers open to the kisses of the dawn. With these alluring lines, Delilah attempts to seduce Samson with the goal of tricking him into revealing the secret of his strength. Danger and betrayal mix with sensuality in this famous mezzo-soprano aria, Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix, from the second act of Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1877 opera, Samson and Delilah. Delilah’s trap is a deceitful attempt to lure Samson …

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Wagner’s “Die Walküre”: Five Key Excerpts

Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”) is the second of four operas that make up Wagner’s Ring cycle. The story, based on Norse mythology, involves the Volsung twins Sieglinde and Siegmund, who are separated at childhood. When they meet and fall in love, the gods are angry and demand that Siegmund must die. Wotan’s daughter Brünnhilde faces the retribution of the gods after valiantly saving Sieglinde and the couple’s unborn child, Siegfried. Prelude to …

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The Marriage of Figaro’s Act IV Finale: Love’s Triumph Over Folly

In Mozart’s hands, the operatic finale becomes a dramatic and compositional tour de force. In a previous post, we explored the complex counterpoint and unstoppable forward motion of the Act II Finale of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which as the writer Charles Rosen points out, “moves from duet, through trio, quartet, and quintet to septet in a magnificently symmetrical tonal scheme.” Mozart’s music encapsulates the distinct personality and inner thoughts and emotions of …

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Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”: Prelude and Liebestod

Culturally and aesthetically, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was a game changer. From the moment the opera premiered at Munich’s National Theatre on June 10, 1865 (155 years ago this week), it elicited fervent and wildly conflicting reactions. Friedrich Nietzsche described “a lasting sense of ecstasy,” and proclaimed the work to be “the real opus metaphysicum of all art…[inspiring] insatiable and sweet craving for the secrets of night and death…it is overpowering in its …

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