Prodaná nevĕsta / The Bartered Bride (Bedřich Smetana)


Comic opera in 3 acts

By Bedřich Smetana

Libretto: Karel Sabina

First performed: Provisional Theatre, Prague, 30 May 1866

Dossier (characters and structure)


For a small country, the Czech Republic punches above its weight musically.  Dvořák’s Rusalka and Janáček’s operas are in the repertoire of many opera houses worldwide.

The founding father of Czech music is Bedřich Smetana, whose comedy The Bartered Bride was the first Czech opera to reach 100 performances within his lifetime, and became a fixture of the National Theatre in Prague.

The Bartered Bride is his second opera.  Smetana wanted to compose opera that would speak to the Czech people, as Glinka did for the Russians with A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila.

Most of Smetana’s nine operas draw on Czech history (popular uprisings, prophecies of the founding of Prague), legend, or rural life.

His first opera, Braniboři v Čechách (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia), was a success, a serious historical opera about the Holy Roman Empire’s occupation of Bohemia.  His contemporaries, though, considered him a dangerous modernist, part of the Liszt/Wagner circle.

Smetana composed The Bartered Bride “to spite those who accused me of being Wagnerian and incapable of doing anything in a lighter vein” – and, like Peter Cornelius (composer of Der Barbier von Bagdad), write a modern comic opera as a contrast to Wagner’s mythical epics.

The opera is set in a small Czech village, where peasants dance and drink beer, and the arrival of a circus – complete with bear and American Indian – is a major event.

Mařenka’s father, the peasant Krušina, signed a contract promising his daughter to the landowner Mícha’s son Vašek, a stammering booby – but she loves Jeník, much to the consternation of the Kecal, the marriage broker.  Why, though, does Jeník give up his claim on Mařenka for 300 gulden, on the proviso that she can only marry Mícha’s son, and why is he so pleased with the deal?

The opera is a delight, combining catchy tunes with distinctively Smetanian orchestration: brilliant writing for strings (particularly in the famous Overture), unusual use of percussion and folk instruments (drums, cymbals, triangles, tambourines).  In this, Smetana proves his early ambition to be “a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition”.

Rossini and Mozart hover in the background; the Kecal is a Rossinian buffo, while Mařenka is a Czech cousin of Rossini’s clever, independent young misses.  The comic duet where the Kecal tries to buy Jeník off, promising him a wealthy widow (with plenty of ducats!), is one of the opera’s highlights, and my favourite piece in it.

There’re melancholy and tenderness, too – Mařenka and Jeník’s duet at the start of the opera, where he tells her how he left his father’s home after his mother died…

…and Mařenka’s aria in Act III, when she learns that Jeník bartered her

Elsewhere, Smetana’s music is beautifully lyrical – in the one-sided love duet in Act II, where Mařenka (in disguise) tells Jeník to beware his new bride, who plans to kill him…

…and the sextet in Act III.

The score is full of toe-tapping dances: the chorus that opens and the polka that closes the first act, the furiant, and the Dance of the Comedians (which Victor Borge used for one of his sketches).

Dance rhythms, Smetana wrote, gave the score “a popular character, because the plot…is taken from village life and demands a national treatment”.

It’s surprising that the opera, with its wealth of melody and engaging story, struggled to achieve popularity both in Prague and in the rest of the world.  The first performance was a failure, partly because many people were out of town, and because the Austro-Prussian War had broken out; those who remained were in no mood for a comedy on a swelteringly hot evening when German troops might invade Bohemia at any moment.

Smetana revised the opera over the next few years.  For the final version, he turned the two-act work into a three-act opera, with sung recitative replacing the original dialogue.  Czech audiences enthusiastically welcomed the new version, but the rest of the world was less convinced.  The opera was performed in Russia in 1871, but critics preferred Offenbach.  It wasn’t until after Smetana’s death, in the 1890s, that the opera entered the repertoire of foreign opera houses, often in German translation.  Mahler championed the work; he introduced it to Hamburg, Vienna and New York, and quoted the overture in his First Symphony.

Smetana played down the opera’s success, calling it “a toy…  Composing it was mere child’s play, written straight off the reel.”  He sold himself short; The Bartered Bride is a little gem of an opera.

This Czech certainly won’t bounce (all the more reason not to defenestrate him!).

Smetana’s music is easy to fall in love with, and I look forward to hearing more of his operas.



1981 film, starring Gabriela Beňačková-Čápová (Mařenka), Peter Dvorský (Jeník), Miroslav Kopp (Vašek) and Richard Novák (Kecal), conducted by Zděnek Košler.  This is the version you want: it’s in Czech, it’s well sung and acted, and the production is charming.

Bartered Bride CD.jpg

This production is also available on CD.  If you’re after a recording in translation, there are versions in German (Rudolf Kempe for EMI) and English (Charles Mackerras for Chandos).

Béatrice et Bénédict (Hector Berlioz)

Béatrice vocal scoreBÉATRICE ET BÉNÉDICT

Opéra-comique in 2 acts

Music and libretto by Hector Berlioz, after Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

First performed: Theater Baden-Baden, Germany, 9 August 1862


Contemporary criticism


Shakespeare’s comedy about a merry war of wits mixes high comedy with pathos.  Hero and Claudio, about to marry, plot to bring the sparring Beatrice and Benedick together, while the bastard Don John mutters darkly in the background and convinces Claudio that Hero has betrayed him the night before the wedding.  Claudio accuses Hero at the altar, she collapses and seems to die, and Beatrice demands that Benedick kill Claudio.

Berlioz keeps only the Béatrice et Bénédict love story, dropping the Ado of Don John’s scheme against Hero.  His opera is a light work, but not “nothing”.  For melodic invention, beauty and warmth, this “caprice written with the point of a needle” is Mozartean.

There was a star danced, and under that was Béatrice born.

The idea for adapting Shakespeare’s comedy first came to Berlioz in the 1830s, thirty years before he was commissioned to write an opera for the opening of the Theater Baden-Baden.

Berlioz was old, sick and disappointed when he composed Béatrice; none of his operas had been successful, and the Paris Opéra refused to mount Les Troyens, his historical epic based on Virgil.  With Béatrice, he could lose himself in his beloved Shakespeare, “the supreme creator, after the Almighty”.

“I’m really enjoying myself and composing the score con furia,” he told the German composer Peter Cornelius.  “It’s gay, caustic, occasionally poetic; it brings a smile to the eye and to the lips.”

The opera may also be his artistic testament – and a rebuttal to the Wagnerian movement.

At a time when the musical avant-garde saw Wagner as the future, Berlioz’s last opera is almost deliberately old-fashioned in its emphasis on music over drama.

Critics of the time lumped Berlioz with Wagner as a musician of the future.  Berlioz rejected the idea.  “Wagner,” he thought, “is obviously mad.”  The music of the future, with its “endless melody” and independence from form, went against his aesthetic principles; it was “the school of mayhem” (l’école du charivari).

“The hardest task,” he wrote while composing the Troyens, “is to find the musical form, this form without which music does not exist, or is only the craven servant of speech.  That is Wagner’s crime; he would like to dethrone music and reduce it to ‘expressive accents’, exaggerating the system of Gluck, who, fortunately, did not succeed in carrying out his ungodly theory.

“I am in favour of the kind of music you call free.  Yes, free and proud and sovereign and triumphant, I want it to grasp and assimilate everything, and have no Alps nor Pyrenees to block its way; but to make conquests music must fight in person, and not merely by its lieutenants; I should like music if possible to have free verses ranged in battle order, but it must itself lead the attack like Napoleon, it must march in the front rank of the phalanx like Alexander.”

He set out his views in an article in the Journal des Débats:

If the Futurists tell us: “One must do the opposite of what the rules prescribe; we are tired of melody, tired of melodic patterns, tired of arias, duets, trios and movements whose themes are developed regularly; we are surfeited with consonant harmonies, with simple dissonances prepared and resolved, with natural modulations skillfully contrived; one must take account only of the idea and forget about sensation; one must scorn the ear, strumpet that it is, one must brutalize it in order to master it; it is not the purpose of music to be pleasing to it; music must be made accustomed to anything and everything, to strings of ascending and descending diminished sevenths which resemble a knot of hissing serpents writhing and tearing each other, to triple dissonances which are neither prepared nor resolved, to inner parts forcibly combined without agreeing harmonically or rhythmically and rasping painfully against one another, to ugly modulations entering in one part of the orchestra before the previous key has made its exit; one should show no regard to the art of singing and give no thought to its nature or its requirements; in opera one must confine oneself to setting down the declamation, even if it means writing intervals that are outlandish, nasty and unsingable…

The witches in Macbeth are right: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” If that is the new religion, I am very far from professing it; I have never been part of it, I am not now and I never shall be.  I raise my hand and swear Non credo.  On the contrary, I firmly believe that fair is not foul and foul is not fair.  Certainly, it is not music’s sole purpose to be pleasing to the ear.  But music’s purpose is a thousand times less to be unpleasing to it, to torture and destroy it.

Béatrice celebrates musical form, “free and proud and sovereign and triumphant”.  All the traditional numbers of a French opéra comique are there, but Berlioz shows what they can become in the hands of a genius.  There are multi-section arias (complete with coloratura runs), duets and trios, with regularly developed themes.  There are “improvised” drinking choruses accompanied by guitars and trumpets, choruses sung from the wings, and an almost eighteenth century Marche nuptiale.

Berlioz emphasises the the art of singing, particularly in the exquisite Nocturne, a duet for soprano and contralto that is one of Berlioz’s loveliest pieces.  The melody slowly unfurls, and the women’s voices wrap around each other in “harmonies infinies”.

Berlioz also pokes fun at bêtises in French music, through the character of the music master Somarone (“ass”), his own addition to Shakespeare’s play.   He takes to task trite rhyming (“gloire et victoire, guerriers et lauriers”) and academic fugues (also parodied in La damnation de Faust).

Little fear of Berlioz writing something trite or academic.  “I think it is one of the most spirited and original [works] I ever wrote,” he wrote.  It may not be as rich as Cellini, as colourful and kaleidoscopic as Faust, as epic as Les Troyens, but this little work can hold its own among those masterpieces.


Héro’s aria “Je vais le voir”, where she looks forward to seeing her Claudio again:

The men’s trio “Me marier?” – Bénédict refuses Claudio and Don Pédro’s suggestion that he find a wife.

Béatrice’s aria “Dieu! que viens-je d’entendre?”  She discovers that Bénédict loves her – and acknowledges her own feelings for him.

The women’s trio “Je vais d’un cœur aimant”:


Béatrice - Davis

Béatrice - Nelson

Tromb-al-ca-zar (Jacques Offenbach)


Bouffonnerie musicale in 1 act

By Jacques Offenbach

Libretto: Charles-Désiré Dupeuty & Ernest Bourget

First performed : Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, 3 April 1856



RTBF recording, conducted by Alfred Walter.  Starring Albert Voli (Beaujolais), Claudine Granger (Gigolette), Jacques Legrand (Ignace), and Yerry Mertz (Vert-Panné).

Libretto (in French).




The prolific Offenbach wrote nearly 60 operas for the Bouffes-Parisiens, the small theatre he founded in 1855 to perform opéra bouffe and pantomime.  Many of the early pieces were limited by law to one-act works, with only four characters.  Some are brilliant, like the chinoiserie musicale Ba-ta-clan.  Others are too topical or suffer from slight plots.

Tromb-al-ca-zar is a case in point.  An innkeeper in the Basses-Pyrénées thinks that a theatrical troupe are really bandits and brigands.  That’s the plot.  The little opera is high-spirited; the music is witty music and the tunes catchy, as always with Offenbach, including a syllabic trio in honour of Bayonnais ham, with a flourish of (pig?) Latin…

… but a modern audience won’t get most of the jokes.

Quick!  Who were Buridan, Gastilbelza, Gaspardo, and Marco Spada?  Can you recognise a quote from Auber’s Sirène, Adam’s Chalet, and David’s “Hirondelles?  More – Anglophones: can you get jokes about the difference between rural dialect and theatrical fustian, malapropisms, and French puns about “pau”?

The opera parodies a sub-genre that’s no longer performed: French brigand operas and plays, with dashing heroes who murder their father, poison their mother, and strangle their brother-in-law.  They were performed throughout Europe, but today’s operagoer is only likely to encounter the Italian variety – Verdi’s Ernani (based on Hugo’s play that shocked the conservative Parisians and wowed the Romantic young Turks) and, more rarely, I masnadieri.

Offenbach would write a funnier opera about bandits 13 years later.  Les brigands contrasts honest criminals with corruption in the Second Empire  – but we don’t need to know the satirical target for this to be funny,.  Tromb-al-ca-zar is too specific a spoof.  That’s the problem with parody; it requires some knowledge of what is being parodied.

La forza del destino (Giuseppe Verdi)


Opera in 4 acts

By Giuseppe Verdi

Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave, after Ángel de Saavedra’s
Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (1835)

First performed: Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, 10 November 1862.

Revised version: La Scala, Milan, 27 February 1869.

Reception: The premiere in St Petersburg was only a muted success, and Verdi, unhappy with the work, revised it for Italy.  It did well enough for much of the later nineteenth century, but hit low ebb in the early twentieth century, when Wagnerian aesthetics dominated.  Since then, it’s become regularly performed.  It’s supposed to be cursed, though.  Pavarotti refused to perform in it, and clutched his testicles whenever it was mentioned, in case the scenery collapsed on him or (as happened to one baritone) he dropped dead onstage.



Alexandre_Charles_Lecocq_-_Giuseppe_Verdi_-_La_forza_del_destino.jpgLa forza del destino is a vast, even unwieldy, opera – and one of Verdi’s most difficult works.  He mixes scenes, moods and operatic styles in an opera that takes place over nearly a decade, and, its critics say, violates every notion of dramatic unity and common sense.

Don Alvaro (tenor) – an Incan prince in disguise – accidentally kills his girlfriend Leonora’s (soprano) father, the Marquis of Calatrava.  He throws down his gun, which promptly goes off and shoots the old man, who hangs onto life just long enough to curse his daughter.  Don Carlo di Vargas, her brother (baritone), vows to find both her and her lover, and kill her.  Leonora puts on a monk’s robe and becomes a hermit living in a cave.  We don’t see her again until the end.

Don Carlo enlists in the Spanish army, and swears an oath of friendship with another officer – who turns out to be Don Alvaro!  The two fight a duel.  Don Alvaro becomes a monk, but Don Carlo pursues him to the monastery, and goads him into another duel by calling him racist names.  Don Alvaro fatally wounds him – outside a hermit’s cell.  The hermit appears – it’s Leonora!  Don Carlo kills her, and then dies.  (In the opera’s original version, composed for St Petersburg, Don Alvaro then hurled himself off a cliff.)

Act IV.png

And the opera is full of gypsy girls, beggars, pedlars, and monks.  And the soprano doesn’t appear for half the opera!

“It is hard to decide,” Michael Forman (The Good Opera Guide, 1994) writes, “whether Verdi was just out of practice, wasn’t really trying, or had temporarily lost his marbles.”

If one views the play from a Classical perspective, as many critics seem to do, the work necessarily seems a mess.  But it’s not Classical; it’s a Romantic opera, written under the influence of Victor Hugo.

Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino, the play on which Verdi based his opera, was written by the Duke of Rivas, a liberal man of letters and devotee of Hugo.  The opera, as one early review recognized, puts the principles of Hugo’s Preface to Cromwell, effectively the Romantic manifesto, into practice: mixing high-born and low-born characters, comedy and tragedy, the ugly and the beautiful, to show the world in all its complexity.

The opera doesn’t violate the Aristotelian unities of time and place so much as ignore them; it’s not interested in them.  Instead, the opera’s aesthetics are based on kaleidoscopic variety.

Scene follows scene in dizzying array: aristocratic mansions; taverns in Spanish villages; monasteries; battlefields and military encampments during the War of Austrian Succession.  Smaller roles proliferate: Preziosilla the gypsy girl (a cousin to Carmen) singing French opéra comique-style arias; and the grumpy monk Fra Melitone, a Rossinian buffo bass.

Other sections of the score nod to opera and symphonic music.  The overture has often been called Beethovenian, the monks’ curse and prayer is French grand opéra (modelled on Meyerbeer’s Blessing of the Swords), and Leonora’s arias are Bellinian in their long lines.

Verdi uses the chorus as a protagonist in its own right, as Meyerbeer did in his grand operas (notably in Les Huguenots and Le prophète) and Mussorgsky did in Boris Godunov (clearly influenced by both Meyerbeer and Forza).  In Verdi’s earlier operas, the chorus was often a faceless group; block-like assemblies of types (bandits, soldiers, sailors), who sing en masse, and mainly exist to provide musical backing to the lead singers.  Here the chorus are crowds of individuals: guests at a Spanish tavern, watching dances, and praying as pilgrims pass by; soldiers in a military encampment, gambling and drinking; war victims asking for food from a monastery.  They are humanity celebrating and suffering.

All of this was necessary for Verdi to write what he called “an opera of ideas”.  Like Meyerbeer and Wagner, he used the broader dimensions of grand opera for a philosophical work.

Forza is an opera about the role chance (or fate) plays in our lives, despite our good intentions – and how we deal with this.

We can never fully control our lives, Verdi suggests, because they are changed by outside forces.  The chance firing of a pistol, thrown down by a man trying to avert bloodshed, ruins the lives of the Calatrava clan, sending them into a years-long spiral of pursuit, hatred, revenge and fratricide.  On a larger scale, we are caught up in the events of history.  Larger events and social forces – politics, war, poverty, starvation – affect the masses.  We may not be able to control our lives, but, as the Padre Guardiano tells the monk Melitone, we can have compassion for those who suffer.

The St Petersburg version is nihilistic.  It ends with a stage littered with corpses, and Don Alvaro’s howl of despair against the universe as he leaps to his death: “I am a messenger from hell!  Let the earth open!  May hell swallow me!  May the heavens fall!  And may mankind perish!”

Verdi was unhappy with the original ending, and changed it after meeting the writer Alessandro Manzoni, whom he considered a saint.

The second version ends on a note of Christian resignation, with Alvaro and the Padre Guardiano (Father Superior) kneeling by Leonora’s corpse.  Leonora may have died, but, she promises Alvaro, they will meet again in heaven.  Mankind, the opera suggests, cannot understand the ineffable; God (or, for the agnostic Verdi, the universe) moves in ways we cannot fathom, but there is a purpose to every action, even if we cannot grasp it.


The opera is theatrically effective, but listening to it on CD can be dispiriting, because it’s less tuneful than Verdi’s other mature operas.  Much of the opera is in functional arioso (heightened recitative), but there are a couple of great arias and some impressive set-pieces.

“Madre, pietosa Vergine!” – Leonora flees to the monastery for refuge from her brother, who plans to kill her.


“Il santo nome di Dio …  La vergine degli angeli” – The Padre Guardiano tells Leonora that she can become a hermit – but anyone who approaches her will be cursed.

The finale that ends the opera:


Forza DVD.jpgWatch: The 1984 Met performance, starring Leontyne Price (Leonora), Leo Nucci (Don Carlo) and Giuseppe Giacomini (Don Alvaro), conducted by James Levine.

Listen to: The 1955 Decca recording, starring Renata Tebaldi (Leonora), Mario Del Monaco (Don Alvaro), and Ettore Bastianini (Don Carlo), conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.

Friedenstag (Richard Strauss)


Oper in 1 act

Op. 81, TrV 271

By Richard Strauss

Librettist: Joseph Gregor, after Stefan Zweig

First performed: Nationaltheater, Munich, 24 July 1838



The rarely performed, often maligned Friedenstag is one of Strauss’s most underrated works: a powerful testament to the horrors of war and a plea for peace, first performed in Nazi Germany.

The opera takes place on 22 October 1684, the last day of the Thirty Years’ War, the deadliest European religious war in history, pitting Catholics against Protestants.  A Catholic town is besieged by the Protestant Holsteiner army.  The Kommandant of the citadel has sworn never to surrender the town, and intends to blow up the citadel rather than let it fall into enemy hands.  The Holstein army advances – but it turns out that they are not attacking.  The armistice has been signed, and the decades-long war is over.

The powerful one-act work has some of Strauss’s most impressive choral and orchestral writing: the starving townsfolk demanding bread; the bells sounding for the first time in years, announcing peace; and the radiant C-major finale, Fidelio for a post-Mahlerian age.

Why, then, is Friedenstag so little known?  One problem may be that it doesn’t what do Strauss’s operas are supposed to do.  Most of his operas are either elegant, witty and wry, or hothouse shockers, as decadent and luxuriant as a Rafflesia.  This serious, rather earnest, treatment of war is a far cry from the Rococo Vienna of Der Rosenkavalier and the metafictional Ariadne auf Naxos, or the nightmarish Salome and Elektra.

Some critics have also accused Strauss of trying to curry favour with the Nazis with this opera.  It was the first major opera composed under National Socialism, and they point to the fact that the appeal to peace as a call to arms, the notion of a unified Germany, and the mythologizing of the Thirty Years’ War were all part of Hitlerian propaganda.  This interpretation is unlikely.

Strauss (who detested the Nazis [see below]) and his librettists – the writer Stefan Zweig, a Jewish pacifist and internationalist, and, after Zweig fled to London, his replacement Joseph Gregor – considered the opera “a hymn to the reconciliation of nations” and “a work extolling the union of peoples” – a stance at odds with the Nazis, who banned the work from stage performance after 1939.

It shows the miseries of war, which, to the ordinary people, is “murder and hatred”.  Their children die, and their grandchildren whine for bread.  The townsfolk starve, and are forced to eat rats to survive.  Churches are blown up, and houses burnt.  War breeds suspicion and fear – but the enemy are suffering fellow human beings.  “I have seen the foe,” says the town mayor; “they are men like us.  They suffer distress in their trenches, just like us.  When they are kicked, they groan like us – and when they pray, they pray to the same God!”

War is dehumanizing.  “Was ist das: Friede?” asks a musketeer.  The soldiers don’t know; they’ve been fighting since they were children.  They have lost any compassion for the people they are meant to protect.  Even when they see a farm set on fire, they only wonder what it means about the enemy’s movements – “nothing”.  They don’t care about the peasant whose home and crops have been destroyed.

The Kommandant is a man of war.  “I know nothing of peace!  …  The Emperor’s will ordered me to persevere, and achieve victory!”  He would rather blow himself and his soldiers up than surrender – but he obeys orders.  He is almost deaf to the appeal of love or compassion.  “War, glorious idea, war, wherever your mighty head rises, then all low impulses/emotions bow down before obedience, and life itself becomes the prize of men’s honour.”

The heart of the opera is the Kommandant’s wife Maria.  She obviously appealed to Strauss’s sympathy, and he wrote one of his typically lyrical soprano arias for her.

She is the only named character in the opera – but, like the Madonna, whose name she bears, she is a spiritual intercessor.  She is the comforter of war’s sufferers and the poor people; and she intervenes when the commanders of the two armies are about to come to blows, launching the opera’s finale.

That choral finale is glorious.

All the people – Maria, the two commanders, their armies, the townspeople, the church – come together in one surging sea of humanity and sing an exultant hymn to peace, as the citadel tower sinks into the stage and sunlight floods the theatre.


No, Strauss wasn’t a Nazi, or a Nazi sympathizer.  This old accusation still gets trotted out.

Yes, Strauss accepted the post of president of the Reichsmusikkammer, partly because he thought he could secure better copyright arrangements for composers, and he wanted to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren.  He soon fell out of favor, and was ordered to resign when the Nazis intercepted a letter to Zweig criticizing the regime.

Zweig wrote the libretto for Strauss’s comic opera Die schweigsame Frau.  The Nazis pulled the opera after three performances, when Strauss, to his credit, refused to remove the Jewish Zweig’s name from the programme.

Strauss later wrote, in a secret memorandum:

“I consider the Streicher-Goebbels Jew-baiting as a disgrace to German honour, as evidence of incompetence, the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.”


Friedenstag Sawallisch.jpgListen to: Wolfgang Sawallisch, 1988, with Bernd Weikl, Sabine Hass, Jaako Ryhänen, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering.  EMI.  A fine cast, clear orchestration, and apparently more complete than Giuseppe Sinopoli’s 1999 Deutsche Grammophon recording.

Fans of archival recordings may want to check out the 1939 Vienna recording, starring the original Kommandant (Hans Hotter) and Maria ( Viorica Ursuleac).


Tosca – Giacomo Puccini

TOSCATosca poster

Melodrama in 3 acts

By Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, after Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca (1887)

First performed : Teatro Costanzi, Rome, 14 January 1900



Tosca is one of a half-dozen operas that everyone knows: the one where an opera singer (performed by an opera singer) performs “Vissi d’arte”, and knifes an over-enthusiastic admirer.

It’s a masterpiece of verismo opera, the Italian style of the period after Verdi’s last operas, which focuses on realistic (often working class) characters and situations, violently intense emotions, and just plain violence.

Tosca has all of those: torture, attempted rape, murder, death by firing squad, and suicide.  But it’s a sophisticated work, and one with plenty of heart and great melodies.

The opera opens with a series of ominous, fortississimo chords associated with Baron Scarpia, Rome’s corrupt chief of police.  Scarpia lusts after the opera singer Floria Tosca, whose boyfriend Mario Cavaradossi is a revolutionary.  When Cavaradossi helps a political fugitive to flee, Scarpia arrests him and offers Tosca a bargain: save Cavaradossi’s life at the cost of her virtue.  Cavaradossi, though, must appear to die; he will face a firing squad, but the guns will be loaded with blanks.  Scarpia, though, has no intention of keeping his word; Cavaradossi is a rival, and must die.  Tosca accepts the odious bargain – and then stabs Scarpia to death.

The heroine is one of the great roles in all opera: a passionate, sensitive soul who lives only for art and for love, but who becomes a murderess.

Who is Floria?  What is she?  A spitfire?  A sophisticated woman of the world?  An innocent in a political world?  Headstrong, or vulnerable and uncertain?  Like all great roles, a talented actress can find new dimensions.  I say “actress”; the part calls for a soprano who can both sing and act, rather than planting herself at the front of the stage and delivering to the footlights.

Maria Callas was, many believe, the definitive Tosca.

In this 1964 Covent Garden production, her performance is mercurial, always in motion, balanced by Tito Gobbi’s portrayal of Scarpia as an ironic, laughing sadist – a man so in command he can remain suave and gentlemanly even while torturing and blackmailing his victims.  We see the moment when Tosca contemplates killing Scarpia; she lowers the wineglass to the table with almost glacial slowness.  She is ferocious in the murder, as implacable as Clytemnestra stabbing Agamemnon.  Even her forgiveness of the dead Scarpia sounds as inexorable as a hanging judge’s pronouncement.  The Greek soprano is a Eumenide.  Then she is desperate to flee from the scene of the crime – but she cannot.  She acts under compulsion, sobbing as she places the candles by the corpse, and kisses the crucifix that she lays on Scarpia’s breast.  She veers about the stage, looking for an escape, for a clue to her guilt, for anything left behind – and then the music calls her to her senses.  The drums sound, and she rushes from the stage, leaving the door open in her haste.

Shirley Verrett, in the Met’s 1978 production (online here), plays a more vulnerable Tosca.  She steels herself when Scarpia approaches her, and looks nauseated by his touch.  She spots the knife; the thought of murder enters her head; she recoils from both the knife and the idea, drinks wine to give herself courage…  The deed done, she is terrified by her act.  She almost flings the crucifix onto Scarpia, and stumbles blindly out.

The part of Tosca may call for a singing actress, but Puccini also uses the metatheatricality of the role for dramatic effect.  Tosca is an opera singer, a star of the stage – and reality and theatre blend around her.  Scarpia mockingly applauds her performance while she begs him not to torture Cavaradossi: “Tosca on the stage was never more tragic!”  She retells the murder as an encore performance for Cavaradossi.  We see how she would play it as an actress, but this also sanitises the crime; she distances herself from the deed while she turns the messy details of the murder into drama.  She gives directions to Cavaradossi how to play the death scene, and applauds his “acting” when he’s shot.  And here Puccini does something very clever.

Tosca thinks, until the very end, that she will get a happy ending.  Remember: the opera is set in 1800; this was the time of the rescue opera, in which villains may capture a husband or wife, but which invariably ended with tyrants defeated and lovers reunited.  (The most famous today is Beethoven’s Fidelio.)  She knows how this should go, based on her stage experience.  She hasn’t realised she’s in an Italian verismo opera circa 1900.

In the long, agonisingly long, execution scene, Puccini uses the difference between what she expects to happen and what is happening, to ratchet up the tension until strained nerves start to scream.

“How long is this waiting!” Tosca says.  “Why are they still delaying?  The sun already rises.  Why are they still delaying?  It’s only a comedy, I know, but this anguish seems to last for ever!”

She praises Cavaradossi’s performance – “There!  Die!  Ah, what an actor!” – and is radiantly happy until she turns over Cavaradossi, and realises that she’s been rejoicing at her lover’s death.

The action may be tragic, but, as William Berger (Puccini Without Tears, 2005) [1] suggests, works on several levels.  It’s simultaneously a gripping melodrama and an allegory about the triumph of love and liberty over cruelty and tyranny.

[1] Berger sees the opera as a conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, building on Nietzsche, possibly via Peter Conrad.  It’s a brilliantly illuminating essay.

The opera pits revolutionaries (Cavaradossi and his friend Angelotti) against the despotism of Scarpia and the Bourbons, who ruled Rome at the time.  Napoleon, advancing on Rome, is seen as a redeemer, a bringer of liberty.  [2] When he hears of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo, Cavaradossi, who has just been tortured by Scarpia’s men, rises threateningly towards Scarpia and sings: “The avenging dawn now rises to make the wicked tremble!  And liberty returns, scourge of tyrants!”  When he learns she killed Scarpia, he calls Tosca an avenging angel, justice inspired by love.  Their final duet (as in Verdi’s Aida) is a sort of anthem, imagining the triumph, the apotheosis of love.  They may not enjoy that happiness here on Earth, but their souls will enjoy it in heaven.

  [2] This is partly the French source (Sardou’s play).  Illica also wrote the libretto for Franchetti’s Germania, where Napoleon is a despot.


Scarpia, in Act I, compares himself to Iago:

Per ridurre un geloso allo sbaraglio
Jago ebbe un fazzoletto, ed io un ventaglio!
Iago had a handkerchief, and I a fan
to drive a jealous lover to distraction!

Italian operagoers would have taken the reference to mean the character in Verdi’s Otello, not to Shakespeare’s villain.  Scarpia is, like Jago, a manipulator who lies to trap a couple and who turns another’s jealousy to his own ends.

On another level, it’s a statement of artistic purpose.  Puccini is declaring himself Verdi’s heir.  Verdi himself had heard Illica read his libretto to Sardou; more, he had, according to legend, “seized the manuscript from the librettist’s hand and read the passage [Cavaradossi’s farewell to life] in a voice trembling with emotion” (Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Puccini, 1983).

Just as La Bohème is descended from La traviata (Parisian setting, heroine who leaves boyfriend for what she thinks is his own good and who dies of consumption), here Puccini is using the complex, villainous Verdi baritone who’s the enemy of the couple in love.  He’s implicitly saying that he is the modern composer carrying on the Italian tradition, using Verdi’s tropes, set to modern, through-composed, post-Wagnerian music.


“Tre sbirri, una carrozza”: The Act I finale.  Scarpia sends his men to follow Tosca; he will use her jealousy to capture both her and her lover Cavaradossi.  For him, the rope; for her, his arms.


“Vissi d’arte”.  Tosca’s great aria.  Scarpia has delivered his ultimatum: yield to him, or Cavaradossi gets it.  What, she asks God, has she done to deserve this?


“E lucevan le stelle”.  Cavaradossi’s farewell to life, and a tenor warhorse.


Watch: The 1976 film starring Raina Kabaivanska (Tosca), Plácido Domingo (Cavaradossi) and Sherill Milnes (Scarpia), with the Ambrosian Singers and New Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Bartoletti.  The film, directed by Gianfranco de Bosio, was shot on site in Rome.

The 1978 Met Opera production starring Shirley Verrett (Tosca), Luciano Pavarotti (Cavaradossi) and Cornell MacNeil (Scarpia), conducted by James Conlon.  Directed by Tito Gobbi.


Callas Tosca.jpgListen to: The 1953 EMI recording starring Maria Callas (Tosca), Giuseppe Di Stefano (Cavaradossi) and Tito Gobbi (Scarpia), conducted by Victor de Sabata.






At the Boar’s Head / The Wandering Scholar – Gustav Holst


A musical interlude in one act

The libretto taken from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV

The music, founded on old English melodies, by Gustav Holst (Op. 42)

First performed: Palace Theatre, Manchester, 3 April 1925


The idea for At the Boar’s Head came to Holst while he was recuperating from an illness.  He realized that a morris dance tune fitted a line in Henry IV, and decided to set the Falstaff scenes to folk music, with an old drinking song, a couple of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and a ballad to stretch out the piece.

It’s easy to dismiss the opera as an intellectual exercise in skill.  Critics took it that way; they were nonplussed when the opera premièred, in a double bill with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, and panned it.  Even his daughter Imogen called the work “a brilliant failure”, a surfeit of rich Shakespearean text and contrapuntal ingenuity.

Does it work as an opera, though?  Ay, there’s the rub.  The work is a “musical interlude” – an anecdote, rather than a fully-fledged drama with a beginning, middle, and end.  Holst takes several scenes and runs them together to form a 50-minute block.  The result is slower than their Shakespearean equivalents, and so lack some of the fire and brilliance of Falstaffian wit.  The larger context of Shakespeare’s play is missing; the Boar’s Head scenes are meant to contrast with the serious drama, and be comic relief to the high politics and battles of Henry IV’s troubled reign.  Holst also expects his audience to have a working knowledge of the Henriad.  Would it appeal to someone who isn’t a Bardolater?

And yet (to this Shakespeare enthusiast, at least) the piece is engaging.  Holst can use Shakespeare’s language, which Nicolai and Verdi, in their German and Italian operas, couldn’t.  Our sympathies are very much with Falstaff, who is the authentic Falstaff, rather than the caricature of The Merry Wives of Windsor and its operatic versions.  This isn’t a fat old man who’s easily duped by a couple of village gossips, a figure of knockabout fun, but Falstaff the master of language, prodigiously witty and a source of wit in others, yet also a touching old man devoted to the prince he loves as a son and who will abandon him.

Holsts treats the songs skillfully, although he occasionally stretches or distorts the meter of the text.  The counterpoint is clever, particularly when Prince Hal, pretending to be a drawer (a tavern servant), sings Sonnet 19 (“Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws”), and Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, irked by the sonnet’s theme of ruinous age, launch into a boisterous rendition of “When Arthur first in court”.  There’s an impressive soldiers’ chorus (“Lord Willoughby”) leading into a five part ensemble (“Then courage, noble Englishmen, and never be dismayed”) and a rousing tenor line for the Prince (“God and St George for England!  Be ours the victory…”).

A listener should enjoy this, so long as he doesn’t expect the orchestral fireworks of the Planets.


Op. 50

A chamber opera in one act

Music by Gustav Holst

Libretto by Clifford Bax

Founded on an incident in Helen Waddell’s “The Wandering Scholars”

First performed: David Lewis Theatre, Liverpool, 31 January 1934


I’m less keen, though, on The Wandering Scholar, Holst’s last opera.  This tiny chamber opera (24 minutes long) was performed a few months before Holst’s death, but he was too ill to revise the score, which was not published until 1971, in an edition by Britten.  It’s based on a mediaeval story about a poor scholar who surprises a farmwife and her priest at non-clerical activities, is turned away from the door hungry, and gets his revenge.  It’s musically thin, bar Alison’s “When rainbows follow flying showers”.  The story is rather disagreeable to a modern audience; we no longer find domestic violence amusing.


Holst double CD.jpg

Both operas are available on a CD from EMI:

  • At the Boar’s Head, with Philip Langridge as Prince Hal, JOhn Tomlinson as Falstaff, Elise Ross as Mistress Quickly, and Felicity Palmer as Doll Tearsheet, with the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by David Atherton.
  • The Wandering Scholar, with Michael Rippon as Louis, Norma Burrowes as Alison, Michael Langdon as Father Philippe, and Robert Tear as Pierre, with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford.