By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Aida (1871): Overture
While preparations were in progress for the Egyptian premier of Aida in 1871 Giulio Ricordi seems to have persuaded Verdi to compose an Overture for the Italian production of the Opera. Should its composition not prove successful the original Prelude would serve. Here Verdi for once failed to achieve his goal. Two quotations summarize his views respecting this Overture. To Ricordi he wrote: ''You will see that at the end of the Overture, when the trombone and double basses shout out the melody of the priests and the violins and woodwinds scream Amneris's jealousy, Aida's melody is played fortissimo by the trumpets. That moment is either a mess, or an effect. But it cannot be an effect if the trumpets don't have attack, sonority, and brilliance:' And to Emilio Usiglio the Conductor: "The orchestra was good, alert and responsive, and the piece could have reached port safely, if it had been more solidly constructed; but the orchestra's excellence only revealed more clearly the pretentious tastelessness of this so-called overture.” Verdi repudiated the work. Toscanini during the centenary anniversary of Verdi's birth studied the work in 1913, but it was not until 1940 that he performed it with the N.B.C. Symphony, deeming it at least worthy of historical interest. In his performance Toscanini played it in E Flat Major a tone higher than the original instrumentation.
Early in the Opera Radames upon hearing of the threat of the Ethiopians to Thebes consults the High Priest Ramfis as to the content of the Oracle of Isis. A "young and brave" commander would head the Egyptian army. Battle music and thoughts of victory in Radames mind melt into the thought of his life's other passion Aida, and he sings the Romanza, Celeste Aida. It is the last such type aria Verdi will compose. It is of French origin in design, not Italian, here reduced by Verdi to exquisite and finely chiseled simplicity.
The choral fanfares and proclamations forming part of the whole Triumphal Scene of Act II, Scene II constitute the centerpiece which characterizes Aida as grand opera par excellence. The victorious army will enter upon a brilliantly staged ancient Egyptian scene while priest, people, courtiers and pharaoh salute the glory of Egypt. Verdi uses various combinations of voices and choruses to enhance the majesty of the scene which culminates when two columns of soldiers proceeded as Verdi prescribed by trumpets enters. His research had convinced him that on such occasions the Ancient Egyptians had used long silver trumpets. The harmony of the march and choral themes lent an archaic feeling to the whole episode.
Madama Butterfly (1904): Humming Chorus
Madama Butterfly proved to be Puccini's favorite musical child. It was the opera, he observed, he never tired of rehearing. Lieutenant Pinkerton having resolved to "marry" the geisha Butterfly, while cynically toasting his future American bride, sends Goro off to make the Japanese marriage arrangements. When the marriage broker returns, he points out Butterfly and her girlfriends approaching up the hill. They sing of the beauty of the sky, sea, and flowers, a fitting setting for Butterfly's approaching wedding. This exquisite scene as the women wind their way up the hill has been recognized as one of Puccini's most effective. Through it he created immediate sympathy for his heroine.
Samson et Dalila (1877): Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix
In the Second Act of Saint Saens’ masterly opera of 1877, the High Priest of the Philistine deity Dagon through insinuation and craft persuades Dalila to ferret out the secret of Samson's strength. Using all the wiles of her feminine charm and beauty she finally elicits from Samson his declaration of ill-fated love. In exaltation and in sensuous phrases she sings this famed aria not only of the joy Samson's voice floods her with, but at the same time in veiled manner of her victory over him.
II Trovatore (1853): Anvil Chorus
Verdi's exceedingly dramatic and popular opera belongs to his highly productive second period, the companion piece to Rigoletto and La Traviata. It contains more widely known melodies than perhaps any other opera. Certainly among these gems is the Anvil Chorus, opening the Second of the Opera's four acts. As dawn breaks in the Biscayan mountain camp of the gypsies, the men begin their work at their forges swinging their hammers in rhythm as they sing the stirring chorus. After the women bring them wine, they resume the chorus in lusty praise of gypsy life, of wine and women. The chorus serves as a prelude to Azucena's tragic narration before Manrico of her mother's execution.
Faust (1859): Salut demeure chaste et pure
Having made his fateful pact with Mephistopheles, Faust is led to Marguerite's garden where he is to meet her, now not in vision but in reality. After his rival, Siebel, leaves his bouquet of flowers at her doorstep, Mephistopheles withdraws to permit Faust an opportunity to explore the emotions of his heart in this aria. Riches beyond measure dwell in the one of divine innocence and beauty within the cottage. Faust will shortly see her adorned with the jewels Mephistopheles leaves behind for her.
Kermesse Scene: Opening Chorus
Earlier in Act I with the vision of Marguerite before him, Faust had impetuously signed the transforming pact with the devil. He now finds himself in a German village square, a youth among youths. Here a fair or kermis is in progress. The boisterous students launch into a rollicking drinking song (Vin ou biere). Eventually all present join them. The scene serves to launch Faust on his pursuit of worldly happiness and of Marguerite.
Je ris de me voir (The Jewel Song)
Rousing herself from her thoughts about her brother's absence in the army, Marguerite spies the jewel box left by Mephistopheles. As she tries on earrings, bracelets, and other bejeweled baubles, she sings of her happiness in this lovely aria. As it reaches its joyous climax Martha enters to express her surprise at Marguerite's glittering adornment, shortly after which Faust enters.
Ainsi que las brise Iegere
After signing his pact, Faust waxing impatient that Mephistopheles had not yet shown him Marguerite in reality, is tantalized by the flirting village girls during the dance. Villagers have entered the square singing the well-known chorus Ainsi...Eventually Faust espies his love but his shyness brings defeat to his first approach to her. As the waltz music closes the Act, Mephistopheles observes Faust's need for lessons in amorous pursuits.
Carmen (1875): Habanera
While soldiers lounge about the square in Seville and as Don Jose appears with the changing of the guard, Carmen makes her entrance in dramatic fashion. The cigarette girls had preceded her into the square. Importuned by soldiers as to which of them Carmen will favor, she sings in this aria of the power and fickleness of love - love an untamed bird or like gypsy life lawless and untrammeled. In dialogue with the chorus Carmen repeats and emphasizes her defiant sentiments. She ends with the men still continuing their pleas.
A deux Cuartos! • Les Voici! Les Voici! Voici la quadrille!
The festive day of the bullfight in Seville is heralded with brilliant Spanish music. An excited throng awaits the grand procession of toreadors, picadors, and retinues about to enter the bull ring. This scene of gaiety highlights with melodramatic effect the passionate overtures of Don Jose pleading for Carmen's love, her rejection of him, and her murder at his hands.
Louise (1900): Depuis le jour
Louise is the story of young lovers frustrated by the heroine's heartless and unfeeling parents. The denouement occurs when Louise frees herself tragically from the coils of her parents' possessive obsession. Act Three opens with Louise beginning her life with Julien her lover in his cottage on Montmarte. While standing in the garden gazing at Julien she sings her aria of happiness and love.
Tannhäuser (1845): Pilgrims' Chorus
Tannhäuser has finally succeeded in breaking Venus's spell of love over him. He is determined to leave the Venusburg. He counters her scornful reproaches with a declaration of his confidence in the help of the Virgin Mary. At this declaration Venus shrinks away. Tannhäuser finds himself in a peaceful valley adjacent to a shrine of the Virgin Mary. Penitent pilgrims on their way to Rome for reconciliation approach singing their majestically fervent chorus, pass by the spellbound Tannhäuser, leaving him to ponder his condition on his knees.
Lohengrin (1850): Wedding Chorus
At the conclusion of Act Two of Wagner's last "opera'' Elsa and Lohengrin, escorted by King Henry and his retinue enter the Cathedral of Antwerp in Brabant to be married against a backdrop of the ominous shadow of venomous Ortrud and vengeful Telramund. Act Three opens with its immortal prelude bringing curtain up on a festive bridal chamber. The bridal procession enters led by taper-bearing pages. The whole company sings the famed Wedding Chorus while Elsa and Lohengrin, their robes of state removed by pages, receive the King's blessing. He and his entourage then depart to the strains again of the Chorus.
Die Meistersinger (1868): Wach 'auf! Es nahet gen den Tag
Walther von Stolzing under the tutelage of Hans Sachs has completed his prize song preparatory to the great contest of the Meistersingers. The fateful festival day has arrived. After the procession of the guilds and the Meistersingers to the scene of judgement, Hans Sachs, Master of Masters, is acclaimed by all present in this majestic hymn.
Finale: Heil Sachs, Hans Sachs
Walther triumphs with his Prize Song set to Sachs’ words. Eva crowns him with the wreath of victory. When he would spurn the gold Master's chain, Sachs intervenes to persuade Walther to accept it from Pogner. Through it Walther will serve the cause of preserving and furthering the sacred standards of German art. Eva now removes the wreath from Walther's head and crowns Sachs with it as the whole assemblage pays homage to their beloved shoemaker of Nurnburg in the dazzling choral finale.