Technically, Giacomo Puccini's first venture into the opera house was a loser -- yet it also played a pivotal role in launching one of opera's truly great careers.
Puccini's first opera, 'Le Villi,' began life as a one act drama in the early 1880's. He wrote it for a competition, sponsored by the successful Italian publisher Sonzogno. They might have been even more successful had they hired a more discerning panel of judges for the contest. Those judges heard Le Villi at its first performance, in the spring of 1884 in Milan -- and didn't even give it an honorable mention.
But apparently, that didn't faze Puccini. Rather than give up on the piece, he revised it, in a two-act version with a couple of intermezzi breaking up the action. The revision was performed in Turin the following winter, in a production observed by the still powerful publisher Casa Ricordi, one of Sozogno's chief competitors. Ricordi saw promise in the young Puccini, and promptly offered him a contract.
For a time, at least, the folks at Ricordi may have questioned their own judgment. Puccini's next opera was Edgar, which never really caught on. But within a decade, Puccini had followed up with not only Manon Lescaut, but also a trio of the most popular operas ever composed: Tosca, Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. Ricordi, in other words, made a killing -- and they're still making a healthy profit from Puccini's operas today.
Both La Boheme and the revised, two-act version of Le Villi premiered at the same theater -- the Teatro Regio, or Royal Theater, in Turin. And World of Opera will be visiting that theater for the second half of an unusual, Puccini double bill.
To begin this week's program host Lisa Simeone takes us to Charleston, SC, and the 2013 Spoleto Festival USA, for Le Villi. The production features soprano Jennifer Rowley as Anna and tenor Dinyar Vinya as Roberto.
After that, it's off to Turin's Teatro Regio for La Boheme. Soprano Erika Grimaldi stars as Mimi, alongside tenor Giorgio Berrugi as Rodolfo, in a production led by conductor Renato Palumbo.
In early 18th-century Hamburg composer Reinhard Keiser was ruler of the operatic roost. But he did get one brief challenge, from a young visitor who went on to overshadow just about every other opera composer of the era.
Keiser lived from 1684 to 1739, a life span roughly parallel to J.S. Bach's. But while Bach wrote no operas whatsoever, Keiser wrote more than five dozen of them. Along the way he became the dominant composer of German Baroque opera, working almost exclusively in Hamburg.
But Keiser, it seemed, had a debt problem, which in the words of one observer, "forced him to abscond" for a time, beginning in 1704. And at about that same time a musician named George Frideric Handel came to town.
Handel, of course, wasn't yet the beloved composer of "Water Music," the "Hallelujah Chorus," and a whole catalogue of great operas. In fact, he was just 19 years old. But his time in Hamburg did present him with an unexpected opportunity. Due either to Keiser's indulgence, or to his absence, Handel was offered the chance to set one of Keiser's old librettos -- and he took full advantage. The result was Handel's very first opera. It's a sprawling yet exhilarating work called Almira.
Hamburg, during Handel's brief stay there, was a cosmopolitan musical environment. So it's not surprising that the music on display in Almira reflects a number of different traditions. And that variety -- including the use of French-style overtures, orchestral color in the German tradition, and Italianate vocal writing -- remained a hallmark of Handel's operatic style throughout his career.
It's also notable -- and unusual -- that in the Hamburg of the early 1700s it wasn't even necessary for an opera's libretto to be in a single language. The Almira libretto, for example, was written in German, but based on an older libretto from Italy. So the opera itself is in two languages, with all the recitatives and some of the 50-plus arias in German, and the remaining arias in Italian.
To be sure, Almira isn't the sort of mature, highly-polished, yet seemingly effortless score that Handel turned out by the dozen later in his career. Yet it contains a string of distinct and engaging musical numbers -- many using themes and melodies good enough for Handel himself to recycle them later on.
On World of Opera host Lisa Simeone presents a sparkling production of Handel's Almira from the Boston Early Music Festival. The opera features a pair of striking soprano roles. In the Boston production they're heard in top-notch performances by sopranos Ulrike Hofbauer as Almira and Amanda Forsythe as Edilia, with the festival's orchestra directed by Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs.
Over the years, many authors have set out to write the Great American Novel. How many have succeeded is a matter for debate. But one novelist who certainly had the credentials was Herman Melville, author of what some might consider THE Great American Novel, Moby-Dick.
Melville's work suffered from decreasing popularity while he was alive, and after his death in 1891 his work was largely forgotten for more than 30 years. But in the 1920's there was a Melville revival. It was spurred on, at least in part, by the appearance of a short novel left unpublished when Melville died, a work called Billy Budd, Sailor.
By now, of course, Melville is considered a literary titan. His works have been analyzed for their contribution to all manner of literary trends -- including existentialism and absurdism -- and for their forward-looking examination of still-touchy social issues, including race-relations, gender identification and sexuality. Yet, despite the complexity of Melville's works -- in both their content and their style -- he was also a great story teller. To see that, and to hear it, we need look no further than this week's opera.
In 1951, Benjamin Britten took Melville's novella and turned it into a remarkable drama that exploits all the different and contrasting aspects of theoriginal. It's a seagoing struggle between good and evil; a moody swashbuckler with a rousing story, and thrilling action scenes; and a complex psychodrama exploring nearly every aspect of human relationships -- in ways that are both richly rewarding and deeply troubling.
The opera was premiered in London, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1951. Together with Britten's earlier hit, Peter Grimes, the score is among the finest and most popular operas ever composed based on maritime stories and themes -- while also exploiting complex societal issues that remain starkly relevant even today.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Britten's Billy Budd in a new production from the Göteborg Opera in Sweden, launched in celebration of Britten's 100th birthday. The composer was born in the seaside town of Lowestoft, England, in November of 1913. The stars are baritone Joa Helgesson as Billy, tenor Mathias Zachariasson as Captain Vere, and bass Clive Bayley as John Claggart.
World of Opera listeners are presented with a different opera every week, and it's not unusual to hear from remarkably prolific composers. Rossini, for example, wrote about 40 operas in a career that lasted only 20 years. His contemporary Donizetti composed nearly 70 operas altogether. And this week's featured drama is by a man who is also among history's most productive opera composers, though we don't often think of him that way.
It's not that Joseph Haydn wasn't prolific. He wrote more than 100 symphonies and 80 or so string quartets, along with hundreds of other chamber works, piano compositions, and choral pieces. And, while we don't often hear them, he also wrote about 30 operas.
Still, when it came to opera, Haydn had a problem. As he put it, "my misfortune is that I live in the country." In Haydn's case, the "country" meant Esterhaza -- the summer palace of his employers, the Esterhazy family, about 40 miles from Vienna. Prince Nicholas Esterhazy was an opera buff, and the family's private theater was as busy as the opera houses in many major cities. Yet Esterhaza was off the beaten path, so Haydn's operas never got much attention.
But maybe that's starting to change. Or at least it is this week, with a production of Haydn's True Fidelity -- La Vera Costanza -- an elegant comedy with a sometimes disturbing undercurrent.
Some have suggested that La Vera Costanza was actually written on a commission from the Imperial Court Opera in Vienna. But more likely, it was composed for the Esterhazys, like so many of Haydn's other operas. However it originated, it was at Esterhaza where the opera's premiere took place, in April of 1779.
Not long after that, the Esterhaza opera house burned down, taking the score and parts to <em>La Vera Costanza</em> along with it. Haydn then reconstructed the opera -- largely from memory, it seems -- and it was revived in 1785. That performance also took place at Esterhaza -- where, as luck would have it, the family maintained two opera houses.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents La Vera Costanza in a production from the 2013 Haydn Festival in Brühl, Germany, presented at the historic Augustusburg Castle. The stars are soprano Raffaella Milanesi and tenor Krystian Adam as the troubled couple Rosina and Errico, in a performance led by conductor Andreas Spering.