by Gregory Hettmansberger
The following is based on the notes found in the compilation "Opera Choruses,” edited by John Rutter. The material has been adapted, with additional material by Gregory Hettmansberger.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Tannhäuser: "Entrance of the Guests." After abandoning traditional operatic structures in mid-career, Wagner composed no more great choruses of the type that can stand as a separate entity. Fortunately he had already left a handful of immortal examples in his early operas, and three of these are featured in tonight's program.
First performed on October 19, 1845, in Dresden (a revised version for the Paris Opera premiered in 1861), Tannhäuser is a story of the conflict between spiritual and erotic love. The guests are making their entrance into a great hall in 13th century Eisenach, in anticipation of a song contest between two rivals for Elisabeth's love. Wagner's music compellingly illustrates the magisterial mood and splendor of the occasion.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756- 1791). Idomeneo: "Voyagers' Chorus;" "Placido e il mar." Just as Don Giovanni would later straddle the Classical and Romantic styles, so Idomeneo has its stylistic roots still in the Baroque period. When the opera premiered on January 29, 1781, in Munich, Mozart was poised to leave both a musical epoch and his hometown behind him: the following year he would break free of the Archbishop of Salzburg's employ, and settle in Vienna for the last decade of his tragically short life.
The story concerns the plight of Idomeneo (King of Crete) when storms delay his return home following the Trojan War. He vows that if Neptune grants his safe return, he will sacrifice the first person he meets. Unfortunately that turns out to be his son, Idamante. The king tries to cheat Neptune by sending Idamante away, and "Placido e il mar" is sung as Idamante is about to depart with the Greek princess Electra. Another storm forces the issue, and Neptune grants Idomeneo a conditional reprieve; he must abdicate his throne in favor of Idamante and his true love, Ilia.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Alcina: "Chorus of the Enchanted Islanders." First performed at London's Covent Garden on April 16, 1735, Alcina is but one of three operas Handel composed based on Ariosto's Orlando furioso. The title character is an enchantress who entices heroes to her domain to become her lovers, then transforms them into rocks, trees, streams or wild beasts. This chorus comes at the beginning of the opera and is sung by her captives after Alcina's palace has dramatically appeared from the middle of a mountain.
Handel wrote two completely different settings of this chorus, and the version heard tonight might not have been performed at the time of the opera's premiere. This may be due to the gavotte rhythm being too similar to the work's final chorus; in any case the theme is more familiar in the purely instrumental guise of Handel's F major Organ Concerto, Opus 4 No. 4, which appeared the same year.
Richard Wagner, Lohengrin: "Bridal Chorus." Those who associate this music with religious wedding ceremonies will undoubtedly be surprised that it is sung in the opera as Lohengrin and Elsa are escorted into their bridal chamber - no amount of poetic license in the translation will render the text appropriate for a church wedding!
First performed at Weimar with Liszt conducting (August 28, 1850), Lohengrin marks the zenith of German Romanticism in opera. Set in Antwerp in the 10th century, the story concerns Elsa's betrothal to a mysterious knight who championed her. His condition however, that she never ask his true name or origin, disturbs her and the joy of their wedding night is shattered by her desire to know his secret. At last her husband is revealed to be Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, and he must return to the temple of the Holy Grail. A boat appears, drawn by a swan which is miraculously transformed into Elsa's murdered brother Gottfried, as the holy knight departs.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Madama Butterfly: "Humming Chorus." Based on an allegedly true incident turned into a play by the American dramatist David Belasco, Madama Butterfly had its premiere at La Scala on February 17, 1904. Set in Nagasaki, the opera opens with the arranged marriage of Pinkerton, a U.S. Naval officer, to Cio-Cio San, a former geisha girl known as Butterfly. The cynical American has no idea that his teenaged wife takes the vows seriously, and he plans to have a "real" i.e. American, wife someday. Though he is absent for three years, Butterfly refuses to believe Pinkerton will not someday return for her - and the son he has never met. Puccini creates a moment of breathtaking serenity in the Humming Chorus before the final tragedy unfolds, as Butterfly keeps vigil the night before her husband is to return.
Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901) Nabucco: "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves." For a composer who may have written more great opera choruses than anyone, one of his first proved to be one of the most popular. In 1879 Verdi recalled that when he was given the libretto to Nabucco nearly 40 years before, the text fell open to "Va, pensiero." It was recounted that during the premiere run at La Scala, which opened March 9, 1842, the stagehands gathered in the wings each night to hear the great chorus. Widely interpreted by the emerging nation as a political gesture, the chorus became an anthem of Italian patriotism and its popularity has never waned; at Verdi's funeral the crowd broke into it spontaneously. Derived from a French play of 1836, the narrative is set around the biblical account of the Jews exile under Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) Der Freischutz: "Huntsmen's Chorus." Although he died at 40, Weber lived long enough to create a crucial link between Mozart's German operas and Wagner. First performed June 18, 1821, in Berlin, Der Freischutz embodies the German romantic love of the forest and the mysterious (sometimes sinister) power of nature. The events concern a shooting contest involving magic bullets, one of which goes astray. Hunting music pervades the opera; the Huntsmen's Chorus comes in Act 3, shortly before the final denouement.
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) Cavalleria Rusticana: "Easter Hymn." Mascagni is the classical world's equivalent of a "one hit wonder" - and for that matter so is Leoncavallo, whose Pagliacci is nearly always paired with Mascagni's sole enduring work. Written for a publisher's contest, the premiere of Cavalleria Rusticana on May 17, 1890, marked the composer's only major success.
The opera is based on a shore novel by Giovanni Verga, the author frequently associated with the term verismo. This time the realism takes the form of a contemporary Sicilian village in which a story of love, betrayal and death quickly and inexorably unfolds. This "Easter Hymn" provides both local color and reveals religious devotion as another aspect of the villagers' character.
Giuseppi Verdi, II Trovatore: “Anvil Chorus." Verdi reached his first maturity and solidified his reputation as Rossini's successor with Rigoletto, La Traviata and Il Trovatore. Nevertheless, the latter is widely considered the worst libretto to have remained in the standard repertory thanks to the composer's immortal music. Fortunately little need be understood about the story to enjoy this celebrated chorus beyond knowing that it occurs at the beginning of Act 2; gypsies who can earn their living as tinkers are striking anvils and singing in praise of the approaching dawn and the pleasures of work, wine and women. Set in Spain in the early 15th century, the opera is based on a play by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez that had been an immediate success in 1836.
Richard Wagner, Tannhäuser: "Pilgrims' Chorus." Following the song contest, during which Tannhäuser scandalizes the assemblage with praise of the pleasures of Venus, the dishonored suitor is urged to travel to Rome and seek forgiveness from the Pope. Act 3 opens with a group of aged Pilgrims returning from there. Its theme already well known from the overture, this concert version incorporates some minor vocal parts normally sung onstage. Similarly the fade-out effect as the chorus recedes into the distance offstage is replaced by a simple final cadence in E-flat major.
Georges Bizet (1838-1875). Carmen: "Chorus of the Cigarette Girls;" "Habanera." Carmen premiered on March 3, 1875; a month later Bizet was dead at the premature age of 37. If the composer passed away just as he had achieved artistic maturity, at least he left a work that not only may be the world's most popular opera, but overflows with one great moment after another.
Based on a novel by Prosper Merimee, the opera opens in Seville, c. 1820, where soldiers are garrisoned near a cigarette factory. The girls come out on their break in a typically flirtatious mood, and Bizet provides music so seductively light and airy one is almost tempted to light up. The men's insistence on seeing Carmen leads to one of the most memorable entrances in operatic history. Bizet adapted the melody from an existing source, but it is noteworthy that the aria - which had no correlating text in the novel or original libretto - was instigated by the composer himself, and it perfectly captures the fiercely stubborn independence of the gypsy heroine.
Charles Gounod (1818-1893) Faust: "Soldiers' Chorus." Gounod's masterpiece premiered March 19, 1859, in Paris, and underwent a series of revisions. This chorus was originally composed for an opera on Ivan the Terrible which was never completed.
Gounod's operatic setting of the legend is based on a portion of Goethe's great drama. A vision of Marguerite is Satan's tool in tempting the aged philosopher Faust to sell his soul for youth and passion. Her brother is a soldier, and this chorus is sung as his regiment returns to the village victorious.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) Samson et Dalila: "Mon coeur s' ouvre a ta voix." Saint-Saëns' most enduring opera was adapted from the famous biblical tale by Ferdinand Lemaire, and it may be surprising to learn that its premiere took place not in France, but at Weimar on December 2, 1877.
Samson of course is well on his way to delivering the Hebrews out of the Philistines harsh rule when Dalila begins to work her seductive brand of warfare. At the center of the opera, "My heart awakes at your voice" is the score's best loved arias, as the temptress unleashes all of her beguiling powers on the hero.
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) Guillaume Tell: "Villagers' Chorus." After a stunning career and a formidable reputation built largely on opera buffa, Rossini retired following the August 3, 1829, premiere of his most ambitious work. The famous overture is immediately followed by this chorus of Swiss peasants while going about their daily tasks and preparing for a wedding celebration. Based on a famous play by Schiller, the story relates how Tell's legendary archery skills enable the 13th century Swiss to overthrow the Austrian governor Gesler.
Giuseppi Verdi, Aida: "Triumphal Scene." There is a good reason that one of Verdi's greatest operas was set in Egypt: the work was commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal and Cairo Opera House in 1869. The fact that Verdi missed the deadline by two years apparently didn't ruffle any feathers - and certainly had no effect on its immediate and lasting popularity.
The action is set during the time of the Pharaohs, and despite the local color, uses situations familiar from countless opera plots. It includes a magnificent march and series of dances in honor of the king, providing a massive scene of state pomp before the private tragedy takes up the rest of the opera.