Showing posts with label Wagner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wagner. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

WAGNER's Goetterdaemmerung in Melbourne

English: Richard Wagner, Munich Slovenščina: N...
Richard Wagner, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Goetterdaemmerung as it happened

Wagner's Goetterdaemmerung completes the operatic tetralogy 'The Ring of the Nibelung', an allegory of greed and power set to addictive music of considerable complexity. In a nutshell: Siegfried, after rejecting his betrothed Bruennhilde, succumbs through Hagen's treachery to the curse Alberich has put on the ring, whereupon Bruennhilde returns the ring to the Rhine and causes the destruction of Valhalla, the new home of the corrupted gods.

The Goetterdaemmerung broadcast from Melbourne (13.12.13, the final night of the third Melbourne cycle) is very disappointing so far, not matching up to the hype at all. Pietari Inkinen's orchestral opening had no mystery. Tired, unruly, small voices were not able to convince in the Prologue. The orchestra was much too prominent. Siegfried's horn call lacked boisterous enthusiasm and the performance of his Rhine journey by the orchestra was pedestrian. Hagen and Gunther have redeemed things vocally somewhat in Act I and the blood-brotherhood duet between Siegfried and Gunther was powerfully delivered. Bruennhilde's sister Waltraute (Deborah Humble) at last injected some drama into the proceedings.

I am hoping for mystery at the beginning of Act II. In the event, at least on the radio, Warwick Fyfe as Alberich has a live presence, no figment of the sleepy Hagen's imagination. He makes Alberich's complex music portray sharply the dwarf's dangerous and elemental nature.

Hagen's famous call to the vassals was tremulous, but introduced real excitement into the wedding and revenge scenes. Susan Bullock as Bruennhilde sounded genuinely shocked and distressed. Barry Ryan's regal anger as Gunther was also evident. The revenge trio was a vocal and dramatic climax to the Act.

Superb singing from the Rhine maidens at the beginning of Act III. Apparently, they are dressed like Follies; I think I am glad I can't see the production (I'm watching The Ashes cricket concurrently, with the TV's sound off).

Siegfried's Erzaehlung is going very well (I'm taking a leaf out of a cricket commentator's book); Stefan Vinke has now warmed up vocally, and the orchestral accompaniment has receded into the background: perhaps he's right at the front of the stage.

Hagen's 'Meineid raechte ich' descended totally into melodrama, but Vinke has restored the intensity with the conclusion of his monologue. The orchestra have at last excelled themselves in Siegfried's funeral music and Susan Bullock has found opportunities for a chamber-music restraint, rich with sorrow. Her Immolation is shaping up to be the emotional and vocal high point of the performance. The orchestral playing at the conclusion, offering hope for the future of mankind, is powerful and convincing.

What a trajectory. Rather like Australia's first innings in Perth.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

How To Get Into OPERA - From Wagner to Singing Waiters

English: Spanish opera singer Jose Mardones (1...
Spanish opera singer Jose Mardones (1869-1932) as Ramfis in "Aida" by Verdi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Opera has been performed in the UK since the 1700's but for many, it is stuck in the 18th century and is the pastime of the rich and snobby elite. Art forms like opera are shrouded in mystery and mystique.

However opera is still very popular and just like the past for numerous reasons - Escapism and a combination of things for people to enjoy - music, singing, acting, costumes - plus it can be a social event. Interest in opera is growing, especially among younger audiences.

Opera is one of the most all-encompassing art forms - there is more than enough to appeal to everyone. Anything that introduces a new audience to this wonderful art form they haven't encountered before is a fantastic opportunity.


In opera, you can find the same emotions that we experience in our daily life (jealousy, impossible love, betrayal, friendship, love-duty conflict...) By identifying ourselves with the characters and the situations they go through, we can recognize in them part of our own being. In that sense, opera can be a means to better get to know ourselves.

The big emotional impact that it can trigger is what makes opera a source of such a powerful intense enjoyment that leads so many people in the world to fall in love with this great performing art.


As there are over 2,500 operas that have been composed, our advice would be to start at the "shallow end" with going to see a popular opera that has a grand story and big tunes - Carmen by Bizet, Madam Butterfly by Puccini, The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart.

Before you go to a performance find out the story-line, listen to some of the famous arias in advance on a recording and you will appreciate the live performance so much more.

There are plenty of places to see opera from the more traditional - Opera houses to the more cutting-edge cinemas and even pubs (Cock Tavern/King's Head) if you are on a lower budget.
You'd be amazed how much opera you probably know already:

  • "Nessun Dorma" from Tosca by Puccini- made famous by the Luciano Pavarotti for the 1990 FIFA world cup - Hear Puccini's Nessun Dorma in the movies Chasing Liberty, Man on Fire, and Bend it like Beckham.
  • "Flower Duet" from Lakme by Delibes - made famous in fairly recent British Airways adverts - Hear Delibes's Flower Duet in the movies The American President, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, and Meet the Parents.
  • "Lascia Ch'io Pianga" - Rinaldo - Handel - the famous Harrods advertisement theme tune.
  • Renee Fleming singing Un Bel Di from Madam Butterfly in Fatal Attraction
  • Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walkure, Wagner - Featured in cartoons and movies, and everything in between, children and adults alike are very familiar with this piece. To many, Ride of the Valkyries represents the stereotypical large opera female festooned with braids, horned helmet, and metal breastplate with a spear in hand. Hear Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries in the movies Apocalypse Now, The Blues Brothers, and Full Metal Jacket.

If you want to hear and see a selection of the "very best opera arias" go to a popular opera gala. There is normally a sit-down meal and wine and it's a fantastic way to hear some of the best operatic repertoires whilst enjoying a delicious meal and it's an opportunity to hear and see professional opera singers live, up close.

English: Postcard - russian opera singers Vasi...
Postcard - Russian opera singers Vasily Vasiliev (Vasiliev the 2nd; 1837-1891), Melnikov, Yalmar Frei (born 1856) in opera "Pique Dame" by Tchaikovsky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another way to hear and see opera singers up close is to hire Singing Waiters and Waitresses to entertain and surprise your guests. They are very popular surprise entertainment at wedding receptions, corporate events and private parties.


The picture in your head an image of an opera singer. Like many people, you may see the stereotype of a fat lady in an extravagant gown belting it out like there was no tomorrow. Why are opera singers fat? Or, to be more accurate, why is there such a stereotype about opera singers?

There are several theories attempting to explain why opera singers were often pleasingly plump. One holds that a large amount of fatty tissue surrounding the voice box (larynx) increases its resonance capability and thus produces a more pleasing sound. The amount of this fatty tissue varies from singer to singer. It is almost impossible to have a great deal of fatty tissue around the voice box without carrying a great deal of fatty tissue elsewhere on the body.

A second theory holds that opera singers need a far more powerful diaphragm than normal to be able to project their voice above the sound of a large orchestra in a large opera house. A large chest cavity and good control of the lungs will provide a suitable mass to help drive the diaphragm to some extent. A large body mass and a large body frame to support it help even more, so there is a huge advantage in being huge.

There are countless slim, attractive opera and classical singers, male and female. The "fat lady singing opera" is a stereotype. Just look up Anna Netrebko, Elina Garanca, Kate Royal to name just a few.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Richard WAGNER - Titan of Opera

Richard Wagner - Photo Wikipedia (CC)
Because of the lack of discrimination in ascertaining how the composers used t motives, we can understand Massenet's et Cie. ambivalence about Wagner's influence. The Wagner system was not only about motives but also in how they were employed and what kinds of things they were meant to symbolize, that was all part of the "system." Other composers broke with that system by using motives entirely differently, Verdi, for example, used them extremely sparingly and kept them intact, to him they were used as recontextualized reminiscence.

Massenet followed that path as well, his theme usage in Manon and Werther are sparse. They highlight just a few issues and moments within the work. Though their job was to see these discrete techniques and artistic conceptions, critics at the time became partisans and polemicists and Wagner's breakthroughs led to a decade of deep creative frustration and ambivalence.

A look at Manon and Carmen shows how "Mademoiselle Wagner" was as much an inheritor of Bizet and of traditional opera as he was an acolyte of Wagner. Though published at a time when operas had firmly become "Music Drama" Manon is comfortably within the same family as its famous predecessor.

Some of the scenes in both operas are startlingly parallel. They open with huge tableaux showing us all these slices of life scenes, the changing of the guard and the cigarette girls in Carmen and the Inn at Amiens were the townspeople chatter and gossip waiting for Guillot and De Bretigny to arrive. The music here is boisterous festive and self-referential. Both composers here are concerned with evincing extended local colors and flavors, hardly a Wagnerian concern.

In the first act, we already see Bizet employing the limited use of motive that in 1874 already got tarred as Wagnerism. The use of Carmen's fate theme, which is one of the devices that allows Bizet to connect his opera between the individual "numbers" is much in the same vein that Massenet uses his themes. It's true that in Bizet these themes are not employed as subtly as in Manon but a decade separates these works and innovation and aesthetic temperament grow and change.

Both these operas concern themselves with a heroine too morally ambivalent to serve as a Wagnerian philosophical prop. The story of their journeys from the desire to defiance to death is firmly in the traditional school of operatic stories and despite hysterical criticism that the orchestras in each of these operas dominated the singers (!) these works show no great leap from that last international opera composed for Paris, Verdi's Don Carlos in 1867.

That Wagner's influence is tremendous is obvious. I have not even gone through the changes he made in the theater such as the hidden pit and the completely unlit performance hall. It is hard to believe that before him orchestra pits were public affairs and those operatic spectacles were viewed with the house lights on. This does not mention his advocacy for chromatic horns, the invention of the Wagner horns, and the standardization of the orchestra as we know it nor his role in the primacy of the conductor. His idiom is still the idiom of popular classical music to this day, in television, films and video games, the scores are composed with Wagner in mind. To have to deal with that influence, particularly at its first great plateau must have been an enormous preoccupation. The terror that Brahms and Schubert had of Beethoven even pales in comparison. For classical music, particularly opera, this age was the birth of the anxiety of influence, and the French composers of that time must have realized that they would not live long enough to see themselves understood or appreciated for their personal contributions.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Composer Illustrated: RICHARD WAGNER

Porträt of Richard Wagner - Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1882 - Wikipedia

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

WAGNER's Influence

To discuss the influence of Wagner on operatic traditions in the latter part of the 19th century is a challenging task. It is challenging because it requires us to make some distinctions about what Wagner's unique influence was and what it was understood at the time to be which was not always the same thing. This distinction is important because in critical circles, charges of "Wagnerism" flew frequently and often acidly and it is important to know how much of this is just and how much was part of a growing frenzy that his music (and more so his personality) had caused.

English: Richard Wagner, Munich Slovenščina: N...
Richard Wagner, Munich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The general trajectory of Wagner's influence begins with him as polemicist. He wrote ceaselessly on many topics, but his manifesto Oper und Drama, was particularly important. Written in 1852, nearly a decade before the Paris Tannhauser, this tract was the principal vehicle by which most people even new what Wagner was about. It served as a primer by creating an artistic framework with which Wagner felt his works should be judged. Political hostility, linguistic and practical performance requirements as well as current musical tastes kept productions of his operas limited. Wagner was still mostly theoretically understood, in fact most of his own earlier operas and familiar operas, including Tannhauser, were written before Oper und Drama. Because of the very gradual way Wagner pervaded musical life, there was an enormous lag time between his polemics and his premieres. By the time of the controversial Paris Tannhauser, in 1861, he had already finished the first two operas of the Ring Cycle and the landmark Tristan und Isolde yet the international public was still acclimating itself to this sixteen year old work. But, once Wagner conquered, he was indomitable and his ideas, or more often how people understood his ideas were the standards by which all operatic works were judged.

The first signs of the coming sea-change were in Italy, a decade before your question. Lohengrin was the first Wagner opera to be performed there (in Bologna), on November 1st 1871. At the Italian premiere of Aida three months later, some critics, perhaps with Lohengrin still in their minds, thought they had detected hints of Wagner circa 1850 in Verdi's new opera, a sign that even a celebrated and mature a composer as Verdi would not be given the benefit of the doubt in the new music circles.

The 1880's was the first climax of Wagnerism particularly in France. It was the decade that Wagner died, the decade of Bayreuth, Parsifal and the complete Ring and the introduction of one more Wagner work, Lohengrin, into France: Nice 1881. The internationalist and assimilative French style (Verdi referred to the Paris Opera House as "La grande Boutique") was swamped with reactions to the tide of Wagner. This tide manifested itself in a number of different ways.

Because Wagner broke so much new ground, French composers took what they thought was most striking. Among these were the subjects for the operas themselves. Wagner's operas were inspired by Celtic legends and mystical stories a world away from the quasi or faux-historical plots from an earlier generation. France (as well as Italy) abounded with mythological or epic stories almost all forgotten of which D'Indy's Le Roi D'Ys and Chabrier's Gwendoline remain (barely).

English: Cartoon of Richard Wagner with exagge...
Cartoon of Richard Wagner
with exaggerated 'Jewish' features
(Photo credit: 
Wagner's musical vocabulary and orchestration also tantalized the French. It was de rigeur for French artists and intellectuals to make their pilgrimage to Bayreuth and there they could listen, be overwhelmed and scrutinize all of the Wagner canon. Those that went had a life changing experience in one way or another but when they came back the French musical language particularly in opera was imbued with deeper chromaticism and a wider vocabulary of modulation. These traits are seen famously in Massenet who rivals and critics termed "Mademoiselle Wagner." While Manon and Werther hardly seem ripped from the pages of Seigfried, critics could detect a greater subtlety of musical shading and range of expression that they believed had come from studying Wagner. The ecstatic singing of Manon and Des Grieux in the finale of Manon, particularly at "Ah, Je sens une pure flamme" may have struck them as having a Wagnerian tinge complete with trademark turn. In Werther, The entre-acts especially the one leading to the letter scene have a boldness of chromatic harmony, a richness of orchestral timbres and a contour that seems not out of place with such preludes as the act III one in Parsifal.

Perhaps the most famous innovation that Wagner is associated with is the leitmotiv technique. The idea of unifying a work through flexible interwoven motives provided a way out of the "number opera" approach that was inherited from the Classical Period. If there was one outstanding reason that made Wagner the most compelling influence of his time it was his acute awareness of the problem confronting Romantic Opera in the latter half of the 19th Century: How to free opera from its dependence on easily recognizable and limiting structural forms, arias, duets, ensembles and recitative, and replace it with a more flexible yet recognizable system based on the drama of the story as opposed to the structure of the music. The problem preoccupied most composers of the time, but Wagner was public and prolific about it and his solutions were the ones that were disseminated.

It is easy to see then, what was attractive about his influence. Wagner saw the same problems they all did and he arrived at a solution that was practical and innovative. This solution of course, was not entirely unique and not strictly speaking always Wagnerian. In his career we can see Verdi, Wagner's contemporary, talk and write privately about the limitations of opera as he saw it. We can view his works, from Nabucco to Rigoletto then to Aida, operas written before the taint of Wagnerism can be imputed, as another solution to this dilemma. Conceiving of his operas in larger and larger uninterrupted sections, Verdi was arriving at his own unique solution. But Wagner put himself at the forefront of this debate and having famously championed it he became indelibly associated with the Lietmotif system (a name he didn't even create) regardless of how it was employed. This point is important because in the 1880's when the use of motives was now to differing degrees prevalent in all important operas of the time Otello, Manon, Andrea Chenier, critics and listeners simply judged its "Wagner Quotient" by whether it employed leitmotifs at all, an exceedingly elastic criteria.