Opera in the Romantic Era

Rossini: The Barber of Seville

London Symphony Orchestra | James Levine | Warner Music Group 2016

This is an ‘opera buffa’ (comic opera), which premiered in 1816 to an unfortunately disastrous reception – interesting then that it should be such a popular opera in the twenty first century!  It’s a relatively short opera, in two acts.  The Count’s first solo in Act 1 is accompanied by a Spanish guitar, setting the scene of a poor student in Seville.  Much of the music sounds Classical in style – elegant and tuneful melodies with short, detached accompaniment on the strings.  Harmonically it seems straightforward, each part firmly rooted in a particular key signature.  It has a very light hearted feel that’s well suited for a comic opera, often cheeky or playful sounding with the orchestra echoing the opera singer’s phrases.

Verdi: Aida

Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Florentino | Zubin Mehter | Decca Music 2016

Verdi’s opera was premiered in 1871, and the quite strongly chromatic melodies in the short prelude indicate that this is a much later Romantic work than Rossini’s.  The greater number of minor keys also give away its more serious setting, telling the story of a Nubian Princess captured by the Egyptians.  The arias are lyrical and emotional with dramatic accompaniment from the orchestra, sometimes featuring orchestral solos.  The opera uses a large chorus which adds power and intensity to the drama.

Bizet: Carmen

Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris | Georges Prêtre | Warner Classics 2014

Bizet’s ‘opéra comique’ was premiered in Paris a few years after Aida, in 1875.  Like The Barber of Seville, this opera is also set in Seville and is packed full of well known, memorable melodies.  It is however definitely not a comedy – the name ‘opéra comique’ is rather misleading and simply refers to a genre of opera which involves spoken dialogue as well as arias.  It is much more dramatic and passionate than Rossini’s opera; Act I opens with tremolo strings and a suspenseful melody based on the East European major scale.  The Habanera from Act I and Toreador Song from Act II are two of the most famous arias in operatic history, both with very distinctive rhythms.

Wagner: Parsifal

Berliner Philharmoniker | Herbert von Karajan | Deutsche Grammophon 1984

Parsifal was premiered in 1882 (although Wagner started work on it much earlier), and is based on the story of a 12th century knight’s quest for the Holy Grail.  The beginning of the Prelude to Act 1 reminded me of the Prelude to Das Rheingold, as they both dwell on particular chords for a prolonged time.  Despite this rather static introduction, harmonically it is fluid and adventurous, sometimes not resting in a particular key for very long.  In keeping with this, each act was composed as a continuous flow of music rather than a series of separate arias.  In contrast to the previous operas I listened to for this exercise, none of the extracts I listened to were already familiar to me.  I think this is a consequence of the more complex harmonies and less ‘singable’ melodies.  It requires more concentration to listen to; at some points its rather meandering nature reminded me of Mahler’s 8th symphony, and at others (such as the Prelude to Act 3) I was quite captivated by the drama of the music.

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