Opera Revisited

Recently I’ve been re-evaluating my opinion of opera (the musical theatre art form, not the web browser).

For more-or-less my whole life I have enjoyed classical music (amongst many other genres) but, despite having been to live opera performances four times and enjoying each of them, I have never really got into opera… until now.

The first two operas I saw live were on a school trip to Russia in 1991.  As you might expect, these were both Russian operas.  The first, which I saw in the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad (NB both theatre and city reverted to their pre-revolutionary names – the Mariinsky Theatre and St. Petersburg, respectively – shortly after I was there), was Prokofiev’s  Любовь к трём апельсинам (The Love for Three Oranges).  The other, which I saw in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow (both of which have retained their names), was Tchaikovsky’s Пиковая дама (The Queen of Spades).  My main memory of the Prokofiev piece is some fairly impressive (at least to me as a callow youth) pyrotechnics, while I remember not really having much idea what was going on in either story as I didn’t speak more than a few words of Russian at the time and I don’t recall their being any programmes, let alone surtitles, in English (fair enough, as we were in Russia and they were Russian operas being performed essentially for a home audience).  I think I quite enjoyed the music and the general experience nonetheless.

My next foray to the opera house was a few years later, c. 1994, when a few members of my school sixth form accompanied our art teacher (not that I was studying art at the time!) to see a performance of Janáček’s Jenůfa at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.  This time, although the opera itself was in Czech (its original language), we at least had a programme in English (and possibly surtitles too – I can’t remember), so I was able to get a much better idea of what was going on.

After this, there was a gap of nearly 10 years before my next, and so far final, night at the opera.  This took place on a research visit to Bielefeld in Germany (when I was a PhD student of mathematics) and was a trip to the town’s opera house to see a performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lamermoor (in Italian).  I think there were surtitles this time but they were, naturally enough, in German.  I can’t remember whether the programme contained a plot synopsis in English or if a combination of my own imperfect but not entirely non-existent knowledge of German and translations supplied by the people I’d gone with enabled me to get a reasonable idea of the plot.

[NB for the rest of this post, you can do your own Wikipedia searches if you so desire.]

Although I very much enjoyed these trips, especially the last couple, to see operas I never felt much desire to listen to the music or even to watch recordings of operas.  I always felt (as I still do) that opera is best experienced in it’s native habitat, i.e. live in an opera house.  However, I’ve re-examined and rejected my earlier conclusion that there’s no point in exploring or trying to enjoy opera in other forms.  There have been one or two exceptions – for example I’ve long had a soft spot for Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (though, dare I say it, more in the Sadler’s Wells English version that I was originally acquainted with through a tape I bought quite possibly before I went to Russia than in the original French as Orphée aux Enfers; this despite my usual preference for tackling works of art in their original language as far as possible) and I’ve quite liked listening to the occasional Mozart aria.

I think the first thing that began to change my mindset was going to see a friend perform in a Gilbert and Sullivan show a few years back, which was swiftly followed by getting roped into appearing myself (as part of the chorus) in another G&S show the following year, an experience which, on the whole, I enjoyed immensely (and it is to my great regret that circumstances have thus far prevented me from taking part in any others).  As part of my research and preparation for the role, I procured a boxed-set of G&S operettas on DVD as well as an audio recording of Iolanthe (the show I was in) and highlights from some of their other works.  Gaining as much enjoyment as I did from these, I think, probably helped to at least subconsciously convince me that it may also be possible to enjoy “serious” opera on DVD or CD.

The next big step came last year when I was re-evaluating my thoughts on Mozart.  As I mentioned earlier, I quite liked listening to selected bits of some of his operas, as well as his music in general but I did tend to think of him as being somewhat overrated, at least compared to the true genius of greats such as Bach and Beethoven.  I’m not sure why, but I decided about a year ago to dig a bit deeper into Mozart’s work (initially, mostly his instrumental music) and I realised that, at his best, he was truly worthy to stand in company with the mighty Johann Sebastian and the immortal Ludwig van (to be fair, I must concede that Beethoven, at least, was also capable of churning out some pretty awful stuff, such as his Wellington’s Victory; I’m sure Bach too had his off-days).  As part of my exploration, I got hold of a handbook of Mozart’s music, and this indicated that he saw himself largely as an opera composer and that some of his best work was to be found in this genre.  A while later, I managed to pick up a budget priced CD compilation of his big 4 operas: Cosi Fan Tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte.  I enjoyed all these a great deal, both to listen to in large chunks (up to and including a whole opera at a time) and in smaller doses.

The next two or three logical steps, as I could see them, were to check out DVD versions of a few of Mozart’s operas, to check out a wider range of opera (on DVD, CD and YouTube video – in the absence of living within easy reach of an actual opera house) and to do some more reading on the subject.

I’ve been doing all of these things now for a couple of months and having great fun doing so.  As well as DVD versions of 3 of the 4 Mozart operas I mentioned (I don’t yet have a Zauberflöte), I’ve also been exploring Rossini’s Il barbiere di Seviglia (which is actually a sequel to Le Nozze di Figaro – at least in terms of the librettos being based on Beaumarchais’ sequence of Figaro plays – although the music was written 30 or so years later) and Verdi’s La Traviata, and I have several more lined up that I want to look into over the next few months.

I could carry on writing for quite a bit longer, but I have to go and check out another DVD version of La Traviata before it gets too late tonight.


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