Saturday Afternoon at the Opera

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Few, if any, operas can bear comparison with the gestation, preparation and final execution of Giuseppe Verdi’s "Un Ballo in Maschera." It is the work that definitively closes his middle period; preceded by "Traviata," "Rigoletto," and "Il Trovatore" and followed by his supreme masterworks "Don Carlo," "Aida," "Otello" and "Falstaff."

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At one time Franz Josef Haydn had the best and worst job in the world. From his earliest youth he had found his way into the employ of the Eszterhazy family. Once he settled in, and with the exception of the rare argument, this arrangement (1761-1802) continued into his final retirement from ill health. He started with Prince Paul Anton (Pal Antal 1711-1762) first as assistant Kapellemeister and then the top post. But after that patron’s death his real compositional life began.

Elias Gottlob Haussmann / Wikipedia Commons

Last week, we played Wagner's Parsifal, which is often referred to as an Opera-Oratorio. This week, for the beginning of the holiday season, it's Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion; in its turn, the work is often called a Concertante Opera. If ever there was an oratorio that called out to be dramatized, the St. Matthew Passion is it. While living in New York, I met many scenographers who dreamed of the day they'd have a shot at the cosmic drama. Also termed, "The most monumental musical drama before the Ring," Bach's passion has it all.

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Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, his final opera, was created in parallel with his greatest creations including The Ring and Tristan. Beginning in the 1850’s, its prose and poetry was returned to over and over again in first and second drafts, and was finally orchestrated and presented in 1882; it occupied over a quarter century in Wagner’s creative life. The work was scored with the acoustics of the newly built Bayreuth in mind and has one of the oddest operatic history’s imaginable.

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There are essentially two versions of Don Carlo for Giuseppe Verdi. I don't mean that one is in French and the other Italian. Historians and musicologist are manic about the fact that this is untrue; however, there is a work, Don Carlos (francophone's are insistent on this), originally written in French for the Paris Opera that was so vast (5 hrs and change, they say), and it's richness so prodigal, that it obscured the works greatness.