World of Opera

Steffani's 'Niobe'

Friday, March 22, 2013
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Host Lisa Simeone presents that Boston production of Steffani's Niobe Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.

A scene from Stefani's 'Niobe'
(Courtesy of World of Opera)


Amanda Forsythe (soprano) ......................... Niobe

Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor) .............. Anfione

Matthew White (countertenor) .................... Creonte

Kevin D. Skelton (tenor) ............................... Clearte

Yulia Van Doren (soprano) ............................ Manto

Colin Balzer (tenor) ..................................... Tiberino

Charles Robert Stevens (baritone) ............ Poliferno

José Lemos (countertenor) ............................ Nerea


Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra

Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, directors


When the subject is Baroque opera, two great composers immediately come to mind -- representing two, very different times in an era of rapid change.

One is Claudio Monteverdi. His Orfeo is among the earliest of all operas, and it's certainly the first that's still a repertory piece today. It was premiered in 1607, which also puts it about as early as it gets in the Baroque era, which is generally described as lasting from 1600 to 1750.

The other composer whose name is readily tied to Baroque opera is George Frideric Handel, whose works made him an operatic superstar during the first few decades of the 18th century.

It's easy enough to argue that Monteverdi and Handel are the two most popular and most important composers of Baroque opera, and both wrote Italian operas. But they worked a century or so apart, and their music is very different. So surely, if their contrasting styles are both considered Baroque, there must be other composers whose operas bridge the gap.

And there are -- at least chronologically speaking. In France, Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote successful "middle-Baroque" operas in the late 1600s. So did Henry Purcell in England. But somehow, the French and English styles of Baroque opera haven't travelled all that well, and don't seem as closely tied to operas before and after.

Italy, though, was a different story. As you might expect, there was plenty of Italian opera between Monteverdi and Handel. But while much of it was extremely popular in its time, it hasn't fared so well between now and then, and we just don't hear much of it these days.

Agostino Steffani was one of that period's most successful opera composers. He was born near Venice, in 1643, and would have known Monteverdi's music early on. Later, Steffani's work was a clear influence on Handel.

Steffani left Italy in his youth, and spent nearly all his career in Germany -- which might explain why he never got much attention as an Italian opera composer. It probably didn't help that during his lifetime, Steffani may have been better known as an influential diplomat and cleric than as a composer. And later on, some opera lovers encountering Steffani's work could well have been distracted by sensational suggestions that he was also a castrato.

But, finally, Steffani's reputation as a composer may be growing. Not long ago, opera star Cecilia Bartoli released a striking album of his arias, accompanied by a glossy booklet outlining the various intrigues of his life as a diplomat. And in the theater, the prestigious Boston Early Music Festival mounted the show featured here, an acclaimed production of Steffani's 1688 opera Niobe, Queen of Thebes.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents that Boston production of Steffani's Niobe, a colorful jumble of devious politics, lively comedy and passionate romance, all tempered by the wrath of the gods. It's presented at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, in a production led by the Festival's co-directors, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs.

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Home from the High Seas: Bellini's 'Il Pirata'

Friday, March 15, 2013
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Host Lisa Simeone presents Il Pirata from the Gran Teatre del Liceu, in Barcelona Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.


A scene from Belini's 'II Pirata'
(Courtesy of World of Opera)


Mariella Devia (soprano) ................ Imogene

Gregory Kunde (tenor) ................... Gualtiero

Vladimir Stoyanov (baritone) ............ Ernesto

Vicenc Esteve (tenor) .......................... Itulbo

Ferndando Radó (bass) ................. Goffredo

Elena Copons (soprano) ..................... Adele

Liceu Orchestra and Chorus

Antonino Fogliani



Pirates have been around for as long as there have been ships and sailors, and while real life pirates may never have been regarded as notably upstanding characters, legendary pirates have always made for great storytelling.

Some of those stories can be heard in traditional music, in a sometimes bawdy sort of seafaring folk song called the pirate ballad. And that tradition has been carried forward, in recent years, at the movies.

The successful franchise of Pirates of the Carribean movies spawned a modern-day collection of pirate songs, including a 21st-century take on a tune with the familiar lyrics, "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest, Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!"

There have also been plenty of other popular pirate movies. One of the most famous of them all is the 1940 classic The Sea Hawk, starring Erroll Flynn, which also boasts a tremendous musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

So, considering the swashbuckling legends of pirates, and the music those tales have spawned, you might expect to see lots of pirates at the opera. But there really aren't all that many, and of the pirate operas you will find -- including Verdi's The Corsair -- there haven't been many true success stories.

There could be any number of reasons for that. For one thing, the royalty and aristocrats that were long the primary patrons of opera tended to frown on stories that idealized criminal behavior. There are also purely practical reasons. Adventures at sea may be easy enough to present using movie-era special effects, but putting realistic pirate ships on stage in the opera house is a difficult and expensive proposition.

Yet there is at least one pirate opera that proved a big hit, though its brooding story is hardly the tale of a carefree, seagoing adventurer. It's the opera featured here, Vicenzo Bellini's Il Pirata -- The Pirate.

It was premiered at La Scala, in Milan, in 1827, when the composer was in his mid-twenties. It was only Bellini's third opera, and just his second to receive a full-scale production. But it was such a big hit that it almost instantly made him an international star.

Il Pirata is also regarded as the first, truly Romantic Italian opera. Together with Weber's Der Freischuetz and Meyerbeer's Robert le diable, it helped usher in opera's Romantic era all across Europe.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Il Pirata from the Gran Teatre del Liceu, in Barcelona. American tenor Gregory Kunde stars in the title role, as the pirate Gualtiero. As his deadly rival Ernesto, it's Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov. And Italian soprano Mariella Devia, still going strong in her early sixties, does a true star turn as Imogene. The production is led by conductor Antonino Fogliani.


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Giuseppe Verdi's 'La Traviata'

Friday, March 1, 2013
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Host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's La Travieta in a production from the Teatro San Carlo Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.

A scene from Verdi's La Traviata
(Courtesy of World of Opera)


Carmen Giannattasio (soprano) ...... Violetta Valéry

Saimir Pirgu (tenor) ...................... Alfredo Germont

Vladimir Stoyanov (baritone) ........ Giorgio Germont

Giuseppina Bridelli (mezzo-soprano) .............. Flora

Michela Antenucci (soprano) ....................... Annina

Nicolò Ceriani (baritone) ................. Baron Douphol

Federico Lepre (tenor) .............................. Gastone

Alessandro Battiato (bass) ........................ d'Obigny


Teatro San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus

Michele Mariotti, conductor  


A while back, in The New York Times, an article by critic Zachary Woolfe ran with the headline, "How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera." The piece cited two films in particular as guilty of the crime, including one that highlights the opera featured here, Verdi's La Traviata.

The movies in question are the 1987 Oscar-winner Moonstruck and the 1990 hit Pretty Woman, neither of which is really about opera. In fact, each of the films embraces a well-known popular tune as a sort of theme song: In Moonstruck it's Dean Martin with "That's Amore," while Pretty Woman shares its title, and some screen time, with the iconic hit by Roy Orbison.

Yet both films also have key scenes that feature famous operas. In Moonstruck, Cher and Nicholas Cage spend an evening seeing Puccini's La Boheme, at the Metropolitan. And in Pretty Woman Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts to San Francisco for La Traviata.

But in both cases, the Times articles says, opera is presented in a way that does it a disservice, by portraying it as an art form that's "lush, static and stale"; as something to do for a "solemn date night"; and as a way of "leaving everyday life behind."

And those are fair points. In one sense, at least, Moonstruck and Pretty Woman do present a night at the opera as little more than a stuck-up, swanky way to see and be seen. Richard and Julia fly to the opera in a private jet!

Even so, maybe there's something more going on -- both in the movies, and at the opera. Cher's character, in Moonstruck, is torn about starting a potentially volatile relationship -- and whether its rewards could ever be worth its headaches. In La Boheme, she watches a young woman facing similar decisions -- and observing the consequences that unfold in the opera might well affect the movie character's own, "real life" choices, later on.

Something similar happens in Pretty Woman, with its obvious parallels between Vivian, the Julia Roberts character, and Violetta, in La Traviata. They both have the same occupation, for one thing. But, more importantly, they both face vexing decisions about how best to survive their own inclinations -- or better, how they can best live up to them. Vivian decides not to follow Violetta's tragic example.

Two characters. Two movies. And two operas -- each of which gives its audiences both a way to escape their lives for a while, and some insights into dealing with those lives when the stage curtain falls, and the curtain on reality goes right back up again.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's La Traviata in a production from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, a theater with a history dating back to the mid-1700s. The stars are soprano Carmen Giannattasio as Violetta, tenor Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo and Vladimir Stoyanov as Giorgio Germont, one of Verdi's greatest baritone roles.  

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Bellini's Rare Bird: 'The Capulets and the Montagues'

Friday, February 15, 2013
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Host Lisa Simeone presents Bellini's take on the Romeo and Juliet story from the Göteborg Opera Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.

A scene from Belini's 'The Capulets and Mantagues'
(Courtesy of World of Opera)

Kerstin Avemo (soprano) ………….......... Juliet 

Katerina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano) …. Romeo

Karl Rombo (tenor) …..…..................…Tebaldo

Mats Persson (baritone) ……….........…Lorenzo

Markus Schwarz (bass-baritone) …... Cappelio

Göteborg Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Giancarlo Andretta, conductor

it might seem surprising, Vincenzo Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues is a true rarity: a successful opera based on the celebrated tale of Romeo and Juliet.

At first glance, you would think the story would be a natural for the opera house. There's the pair of passionate young lovers, kept apart by the pointless bickering of their colorful families; the kindly friend who comes up with an ingenious scheme for the lovers to be together; a simple mistake that leads to tragedy, heartbreak and death.

Whether it's found in the classic tragedy by Shakespeare or in the ancient legend that inspired it, the story would seem to have everything it needs to perk a composer's interest. And, true to form, it has led to lots of great concert music, including the famous Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture by Tchaikovsky, a ballet score by Prokofiev that's a staple in the orchestral repertory and a blockbuster "Dramatic Symphony" by Berlioz.

When it comes to opera, things have turned out far differently -- though not through lack of effort. Dozens of composers have tried their hand at Romeo and Juliet operas, over a span of more than two hundred years, but almost none have made the grade. Ever heard of the 1776 opera by Georg Benda, or the 1862 version by Leopold Damrosch? How about the 1916 Romeo and Juliet by John Barkworth? Probably not -- and there are plenty of other R & J obscurities where those came from.

All told, there are really only two Romeo and Juliet operas that still hold the stage today. One is the 1867 score by Charles Gounod, and the other is the drama featured here, Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi -- The Capulets and the Montagues.

Bellini wrote his opera in 1830, and while it took him only six weeks to finish it, that's not quite as impressive as it might sound. Much of its music had already been composed for an earlier opera called Zaira. That one didn't fare too well -- it was actually hissed at its premiere. So Bellini promptly recycled the score to create The Capulets and the Montagues.When the new opera proved successful the composer took to calling it "Zaira's Revenge."

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Bellini's take on the Romeo and Juliet story from the Göteborg Opera in Sweden -- in the opera's first production in that country since 1837. The stars are soprano Kerstin Avemo as Juliet, and mezzo-soprano Katerina Karnéus as Romeo -- one of the last major "trouser" roles ever composed, and one of the best.  

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Bowing to Fate: Verdi's 'La Forza del Destino'

Friday, February 1, 2013
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Host Lisa Simeone presents La Forza del Destino in a production by the Paris National Opera Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.

A scene from Verdi's La Forza del Destino
(Courtesy of World of Opera)
Violeta Urmana (soprano) ......................... Leonora
Marcello Giordano (tenor) ............................. Alvaro
Ludovic Tézier (baritone) ................................ Carlo
Marianne Cornetti (mezzo-soprano) ........ Preziosilla
Abramo Rosalen (bass) ........................... Calatrava
Bruno de Simone (baritone) ................. Fra Melitone
Vincenc Esteve Madrid ............................. Trabuco
Vitali Kowaljow (bass) ..................... Father Superior
Cristina Faus (mezzo-soprano) ...................... Curra

Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Liceu
Renato Palumbo, conductor  
When puzzling events happen in life -- things that simply can't be explained, or at least can't be explained simply -- people often put them down to fate. It's as though ascribing our troubles to inescapable destiny somehow relieves us of the responsibility to understand and confront them.

But what is fate, really? At best it's a difficult concept to grasp, much less explain in words. That may be why so many evocations of fate can be heard in music, a medium in which words are strictly optional.

The most iconic musical tribute to fate may or may not have been intentional: It's uncertain whether Beethoven actually considered the opening notes of his Fifth Symphony to be "fate knocking at the door," as they've often been described. But other examples are more obvious, and they come in a wide range of music: from Fatum, a portentous tone poem by Tchaikovsky, to the heavy metal tune "Fates Warning" by Iron Maiden.

Naturally, there are also plenty of operas that dwell on fate, though few do it so dramatically as Verdi's La Forza del Destino -- The Force of Destiny.

Verdi composed the opera to end an extended hiatus from music -- a three year span in which he wrote no new operas and actually told friends that he was no longer a composer. The commission that brought him back to the opera house came from the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg. After considering a number of subjects for a new opera, Verdi chose a Spanish play called La fuerza del sino -- The Power of Fate. It was adapted by librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who also worked with Verdi on several other operas, including Macbeth and Rigoletto.

As for the story itself, it's surely appropriate for an operatic exploration of fate: Like so many real life events that are attributed to fate, the goings on in the opera are hard to explain in any other way. The result is a drama that sometimes leaves even diehard Verdi lovers shaking their head. The story can be as confounding as the music is compelling, with a plot in which a single, unfortunate happenstance drives characters to lifetimes of enigmatic behavior. There's one character who travels the world, braving war and desolation, in an obsessive quest to murder his own sister.

Still, like fate itself, the power of Verdi's score for the opera is undeniable. The music transforms a thorny story line into one of the most compelling of all his operas.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents La Forza del Destino in a production by the Paris National Opera. The stars are soprano Violeta Urmana as Leonora, tenor Marcello Giordani as her beloved Alvaro and baritone Ludovic Tézier as Carlo, who for a moment is Alvaro's ally, but soon becomes his most deadly enemy. The performance, from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, is led by conductor Renato Palumbo.  

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Reneé Fleming and Susan Graham Live at Carnegie

Thursday, January 24, 2013
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Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall (photo by Jeff Goldberg-Esto, courtesy of Carnegie Hall)

Join two stars of the opera stage for an informal evening of French songs, as Carnegie Hall is transformed into a Parisian salon.

Tune in at 8pm, with hosts Fred Child of APM's Performance Today and Jeff Spurgeon of WQXR.

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