Rossini’s William Tell Overture: Toscanini and the NBC Symphony

Guillaume Tell, which premiered in 1829, was the last of Gioachino Rossini’s 39 operas. Its four acts tell the story of the revolutionary folk hero William Tell who, with the expert use of his bow and arrow, launched the struggle for Swiss independence from Austria. Donizetti once proclaimed that the opera’s second act was so sublime that it had been composed not by Rossini but by God. The complete opera is rarely performed now. …

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Verdi’s “Otello”: Three Excerpts from Toscanini’s Legendary 1947 Recording

Today marks the anniversary of the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, which premiered at Milan’s La Scala on February 5, 1887. The four-act opera, based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, drew Verdi out of a lengthy retirement. For years, the composer had been reluctant to write anything new following the success of Aida in 1871. In so doing, he followed the model of Rossini, who at the age of 37 never wrote another opera after William Tell. The …

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Five Excerpts from Barber’s “Vanessa”

Samuel Barber’s Vanessa premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on this date in 1958. Originally set in four acts, the opera’s dark story and libretto were created by Gian Carlo Menotti. Its atmosphere may have been inspired by Seven Gothic Tales, a collection of short stories by the Danish author Karen Blixen (who wrote under the pen name, Isak Dinesen). Here is a summery of the synopsis: Vanessa, a grand middle-aged lady, has been living in isolation …

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Remembering Peter Schreier: Three Transcendent Recordings

The German opera singer and conductor Peter Schreier passed away in Dresden on Christmas Day. He was 84. Schreier will be remembered as one of the twentieth century’s greatest lyric tenors. In addition to appearances at the world’s leading opera houses, he specialized in German Lieder (songs) and other concert repertoire. He drew acclaim for his numerous performances of the Evangelist roles in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Passion. A common thread runs through …

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Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades”: Lise Davidsen at the Met

Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades is playing at the Metropolitan Opera through December 21. First performed at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1890, the three act opera tells a dark story of greed, obsession, and psychological breakdown. It is based on Alexander Pushkin’s novella of the same name. Yet the libretto by the composer’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky, alters the plot significantly, allowing the gambling addict Hermann to fall in love with Liza before descending into …

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The “Happy Ever After” Finale of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”

Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos is an opera within an opera. The 1916 work opens with a Prologue. At the home of the richest man in Vienna, preparations are underway for the premiere staging of the Composer’s new opera seria, Ariadne auf Naxos. Meanwhile, Zerbinetta and her burlesque comedy troupe are also on the evening’s program. Arguments break out over which performance should be presented first. Then, an unexpected announcement throws everything into chaos. The …

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Remembering Jessye Norman: Eight Extraordinary Recordings

Jessye Norman, the legendary American opera singer and recitalist, passed away on Monday. She was 74. Norman was born in the segregated south in Augusta, Georgia. She was surrounded by music at an early age, listening to radio broadcasts of operas and singing in church as a child. At the age of 16, she was offered a full scholarship to Howard University where she studied voice with Carolyn Grant. She went on …

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