Saint-Saëns was born in Paris, France, on 9 October 1835. His father, a government clerk, died three months after his birth. He was raised by his mother, Clémence, and her aunt, Charlotte Masson, who moved in. His aunt introduced Saint-Saëns to the piano, and began giving him lessons on the instrument. His first composition, a little piece for the piano dated 22 March 1839, is now kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Saint-Saëns's precocity was not limited to music. He learned to read and write by the age of three, and had some mastery of Latin by the age of seven. To say that he was gifted would be a redundancy.
In the late 1840s, Saint-Saëns entered the Conservatoire de Paris, where he studied organ and composition.
Even though Camille Saint- Saëns composed a dozen operas, his only work of this genre to have survived is Samson et Dalila. Samson et Delila is a grand opera in three acts and four scenes by Saint- Saëns to a French libretto by Fedinand Lemaire was first performed on 2 December 1877.
The opera is based on the Biblical tale of Samson et Delila found in Chapter 16 of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. It is the only opera by Saint-Saëns that is regularly performed. The second act love scene in Delilah's tent is one of the set pieces that define French opera. Two of Delilah's arias are particularly well known: "Printemps qui commence" and "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix" ("My heart opens itself to your voice", also known as "Softly awakes my heart"), the latter of which is one of the most popular recital pieces in the mezzo-soprano/contralto repertoire.
Saint-Saëns first gained interest in the account of Samson and Delilah when he heard Rameau’s opera, based on Voltaire’s libretto on the topic, had failed. Viewed as a sacrilegious transformation of biblical scripture, theater managers avoided it as box-office poison. Upon hearing mention of the project, Franz Liszt saw the value of the work and backed and encouraged its completion. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war thwarted the timely completion of the project, requiring a total of eight years to finish.
Even though Saint-Saëns was considerably influenced by masters of the operas such as Wagner, Offenbach, Gounod, none of his other operas came close to achieving the level of fame and prestige experienced by Samson et Dalila.
Attracted to the purity of music, Saint-Saëns refused to recognize the emotional and sensual possibilities of his work. One of the brightest jewels of French opera which demonstrates Saint-Saëns’ compositional capabilities can be heard in the attached clip.
Washington National Opera production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde may just be the opera where the morbid absurd meets with some of the most beautiful music.
Tristan and Isolde is set at a time when Ireland and Cornwall are warring against each other. Against this backdrop, Tristan, a knight in the service of King Marke of Cornwall, attempts to mediate a truce between Ireland and Cornwall by convincing Isolde, an Irish princess, to marry King Marke. On the ship to Cornwall, Isolde, who loves Tristan and is angered by his treatment of her, asks her servant Brangäne to prepare a death potion as a drink of atonement for Tristan. Brangäne returns with the drink of atonement, but has secretly put a love potion in it instead. Tristan and Isolde both drink from the cup, and thinking that they are close to death confess their true, heartfelt feelings for one another. In Cornwall, the lovers must keep their illicit and torrid romance a secret, obtaining help from Brangäne and two of Tristan's comrades-in-arms, Kurwenal and Melot. Tragically, their secret affair meets the unfeeling light of day and many lives are lost in the ensuing chaos.
The three act opera, with intermissions, runs for about four and a half hours, an endurance test for all involved, including the audience. However, the lengthy opera is wholly captivating and alluring because of the music. The pacing of the opera is superb, and the abundant and gorgeous display of emotions emanating from the stage and orchestra pit serves to enrapture and intrigue the audience for the entire performance.
Alwyn Mellor is wonderful in her alluring portrayal of Isolde considering that she had to step in for Deborah Voigt at the last minute. As she explores and exposes her love for Tristan, her voice is so captivating that the mere presence of her commanding instrument reaches deep into our souls to speak to our conscious and subconscious.
Tenors and the entire male chorus all do good jobs rounding out the aural landscape of Richard Wagner’s daunting and intriguing score. They bring entrancing and magnetic life to the role they play and support the leading international cast well.
Not having a video of the actual performance I have included one with Ms.Voigt and Placido Domingo. Close your eyes and let the power of the music transport you to this mythical time. Make sure you listen until the end for the crescendo is what brings chills through your soul.
Carmen Roman writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.
Operettas are a rare treat; they are a chance to go outside of the confines of traditional opera, really let loose upon a play and have a merry time with music. But they are also blisteringly difficult to do well, precisely because they straddle the line between opera and straight play. The best of the genre embrace both sides of their legacy with open arms, even at times mocking the intersection between the two genres. But it is that careful navigation that makes or breaks an operetta.
“Die Fledermaus,” the operetta by Johann Strauss II, began its long life as a satirical celebration of the flirtatious, wine-soaked, waltz-timed frivolity of late 19th-century Habsburg Vienna. That world and its manners and mores are so long-gone that what was satire now comes across as situation comedy.
Recently the city of Gaithersburg hosted a free outdoor performance of “Die Fledermaus” with the glorious music written in the 1870’s by none other than the Viennese “Waltz King” Johann Strauss II.
The performance featured English dialogue and German singing performed by the members of the Bel Cantanti Opera Company based in Silver Spring.
The setting is the late 19th century Vienna, the home of Gabriel Von Eisenstein, a wealthy man about town, who loves a good practical joke. At the center of the opera is the fledermaus, a German word for “winged bat”. Which also refers to the drunken man dressed as a bat named Falke. But what happens when that friend hatches an elaborate scheme to teach the womanizing Von Eisenstein a lesson he won’t soon forget? Bent on revenge Falke deliberately asks Rosalinde (the wife of Eisenstein) to come in disguise to the grandest masked ball of the season, where the champagne flows freely and identity is obscured until the next day when everyone arrives at the jail for the finale.
I have two clips for you one of the overture (which gives a snip of all of the music of the operetta and the waltz). This operetta is the best way to introduce people to opera with its beautiful music and comic plot, but don’t take my word judge for yourself.
Having returned from a much needed rest in the bucolic setting of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia I began to look at the pictures of the fields of lupines’, buttercups and other wild flowers while I listened to my favorite composer Frédéric Francois Chopin and realized that his music besides romantic actually painted pictures of beautiful tranquil scenes like the ones that I had just experienced during my vacation.
Chopin was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist, considered by some as one of the greats of the Romantic period. The bulk of his reputation rests on small-scale works of waltzes, nocturnes, preludes, mazurkas and polonaises the last two named groups reflect his fervent Polish nationalism. These works link poetically expressive melody and restless harmony to high technical demands. Even his etudes survive as highly appealing concert pieces by emphasizing musical as well as technical values.
His father was French, his mother Polish; he was raised in Warsaw where he completed his music education. Since his family mingled with intellectuals and members of the middle and upper classes, as a teenager Chopin spent two summers in the country, where he was exposed to polish folk music. By the age of eight he was recognized as a child prodigy, performing in elegant salons and beginning to write his own pieces. Early on he studied composition with Josef Elsner, and then took classes in various other music subjects as well as art and literature at the Warsaw Lyceum. In 1830 at the age of 20, shortly before the November 1830 Russian suppression of the Polish Uprising he left Warsaw’s cultural provincialism and settled in Paris in 1832, establishing himself as an exorbitantly paid piano teacher.
After some romantic dalliances with Polish women, including an abortive engagement, in 1838 he began an affair with French novelist Amandine Dupin, aka George Sand. The couple, along with Sand's children, spent a harsh winter in Majorca, where Chopin's health plummeted and he was diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis). Chopin settled in with Sand in France, composing steadily although his increasing perfectionism slowed his output. By the mid-1840s, though, his health and romantic situation both had deteriorated. The affair ended in 1847 after, among other things, Sand had portrayed their relationship unflatteringly in her 1846 novel Lucrezia Floriani. Chopin then made an extended visit to the British Isles, but returned to Paris to die in 1849 at the age of 39.
I have included a few clips of some of my favorite selections. Now relax, forget about the daily barrage of government scandals, light a few candles pour yourself a glass of wine find a comfortable chair and let the music transport you to a more quiet reflective time and see if you don’t feel refreshed.
Jacques Offenbach's first and last grand opera contains everything any opera crowd craves: romance, tragedy, fantasy, colorful spectacle and abundant opportunities for glorious singing and orchestral playing. During his lifetime, Offenbach became world famous as the composer of operettas (light comedies, with catchy tunes that often outlived the works they were written for). Despite his fame, Offenbach wanted to be known for more than his operettas, and hoped The Tales of Hoffmann would establish him as a serious opera master. It did, but unfortunately the composer never lived to see it.
Les contes d'Hoffmann is an opera fantasy written by Jules Barbier, based on three short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann.
The story begins during the intermission of Don Giovanni at a tavern where the sensitive poet Hoffmann is waiting for Stella, a diva singing in the show. The Poetry Muse joins the group disguised as Hoffmann's friend Nicklausse.
In the first story, Hoffmann falls in love with Olympia, who he thinks is the daughter of his teacher Spalanzani. Actually, Olympia is a singing doll created by Coppélius the mad scientist who sells Hoffmann a pair of rose-colored glasses that make him see Olympia as human. Spalanzani and Coppélius quarrel and Olympia is destroyed by Coppélius. A horrified Hoffmann discovers that the girl he loved was never real.
In the second story, Hoffmann courts Antonia, a fragile girl sheltered from the world by her father Crespel. Gifted with a beautiful voice, Antonia has been warned to avoid singing, as it could damage her already frail health, and Hoffmann implores her to run away with him. When Hoffmann leaves, the portrait of Antonia's dead mother comes to life and implores the girl to sing. Antonia sings until she collapses and dies. When Hoffmann enters, Crespel blames the poet for her death.
After Antonia's death, Hoffmann meets Giulietta, a courtesan in Venice. The sorcerer Dapertutto, who controls Giulietta, commands her to get Hoffmann’s reflection just as she had taken her lover Schlemil's shadow. Giulietta tells Hoffmann that she will give him her heart in exchange for his reflection. Hoffmann agrees but then regrets his decision. In order to regain his reflection, Hoffmann fights a duel with Schlemil and kills him. Giulietta sails off with Dapertutto.
Back at the tavern, when Stella arrives she finds Hoffmann drunk, and decides to leave with his rival thus again love being beyond Hoffmann’s reach in this melodic masterpiece. One of my favorite pieces is the Barcarolle which I provided here with my favorite Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca. I Hope you enjoy it.
Carmen Ileana Román writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of going to see the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, a production that moved the work from sixteenth century Italy to Las Vegas of the 1960’s.
Rigoletto is a tragic opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi. Its story revolves around the decadent Duke of Mantua, his hunch-backed jester Rigoletto, and Rigoletto’s beautiful daughter Gilda. The opera’s original title, La maledizione (The Curse), refers to the curse placed on both the Duke and Rigoletto by a courtier whose daughter had been seduced by the Duke with Rigoletto’s encouragement. The curse comes to fruition when Gilda falls in love with the Duke and eventually sacrifices herself to save him from assassins hired by her father.
If there is such a thing as a singer’s opera, “Rigoletto” qualifies. With its inexhaustible stream of familiar arias, duets and larger ensemble numbers, culminating in the famous quartet. In musical terms, this production of Rigoletto is most successful.
When the handsome Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo bounds on stage in a white dinner jacket in his opening aria “Questa o quella” the audience is completely mesmerized by the pin point precision of his pure vocalism. “Questa o quella was elegantly executed with the air of a man that cultivates seduction. Mr. Grigolo uses artistic sensibilities to create a complex character that perfectly portrays the licentious Duke of Mantua. In “parmi veder le lagrime” Mr. Grigolo’s Duke reveals himself as a sensitive brute.
Lisette Oropesa as Gilda emerged as a budding star. Her sweet sound nicely conveyed her virginal character’s fragility and innocence in the lovely aria “Caro Nome.” George Gagnidze dark portrayal of Rigoletto, her vengeful father was interesting.
Although not my favorite, the opera is worth seeing if only to see Mr. Grigolo’s performance.
Carmen Ileana Román writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.
Norma is a tragic Italian bel cantoopera in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini with libretto by Felice Romani. Intensely romantic and dramatically compelling it was first produced in 1831 and gave us one of the greatest bel canto arias of the nineteenth century “Casta diva.”
The story is set in occupied Ancient Gaul. Norma (American soprano Angela Meade) is the daughter of a Druid high priest who has fallen in love with the Roman proconsul in Gaul, Pollione (Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Davila). Although forbidden she gives up her vow of chastity and bores him two children. Pollione, for his part, has taken up with another druid Adalgisa (American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick).
Enraged Norma threatens to kill the children; however she can’t bring herself to do it. She goes to the Druids and calls them to proclaim war against the Romans.
Pollione is captured trying to enter the temple to claim Adalgisa. The penalty of course is death. In deep sadness, she reveals she has had children by Pollione. She gives them to her father for care and decides to take Pollione’s place in the sacrifice. Seeing this act of selflessness, Pollione decides to join Norma, proclaiming his re-kindled love for her. Norma and Pollione are joined to each other in death.
As to the production I found Meade’s voice to have an amazing purity and control in “Casta Diva.” The quality lulls the listener into a peaceful frame of mind which I believe was Bellini’s original purpose. The character of Norma is against war partly because of her love for the Roman Pollione. “Casta Diva” is a passionate call for peace, a romantic aria addressed to a chaste goddess.
Although Norma is an opera where the women characters are portrayed as strong, Davila’s eloquent portrayal of the fickle general was equally splendid and complex. His voice was full of seductive sweetness, power and intensity; possessing a heroic lyrical quality. I have included a clip of Davila from Tosca. This is one tenor that is going places.
My only disappointment was in the scenery which to me seemed a bit modernistic but don’t take my word judge for yourself.
Carmen Ileana Román writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.