Quebec contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux started her career in a spectacular way: In 2000, at the age of 24 she won the Queen Fabiola Prize (1st Prix) as well as the Special Lied Prize at the [...]
Lyric Art: The Triumph of an Italian “Invention”
Born in Italy at the dawn of the 17th century, opera (and sub-genres such as the cantata) was for nearly two centuries considered an essentially Italian art. While France under the SunKing would try to offer an authentically French alternative in Lully’s tragédies lyriques, elsewhere in Europe, because opera was an Italian “invention,” it went without saying that the language of lyric art was Italian.
The cosmopolitan facet of this cultural imperialism found its most perfect incarnation during the early 18th century in George Frederic Handel, a German composer who did his utmost to conquer England with Italian opera. But before moving to London in 1711, Handel spent five years (1705-1710) perfecting his art in the operatic motherland, and it is from this period that three of the four Handel arias on this recording date.
In trying to prove himself before Italian audiences, the young Handel demonstrated an originality unprecedented for the time, as attest these arias taken from two cantatas (CD.7 and CD.8) and the opera Agrippina (CD.5), which took Venice by storm in 1709. In the operatic aria, Handel outdoes himself in creating a dialogue between the voice and two pairs of instrumental soloists—violin and viola da gamba, and two oboes. Composed in 1735, the opera Alcina—from which the fourth Handel aria, “Di, cor mio” (CD.4), is taken—is among the last of the forty-odd Italian operas Handel would compose before turning his attention to the sacred oratorio in English.
The other representative of the German High Baroque on this disc, Johann Sebastian Bach, did not write a single Italian opera—not because he disliked them, but because his aims were more spiritual in nature. He would, however, import several stylistic elements from Italian lyricism into German sacred music.
The few secular cantatas he composed—such as the Coffee Cantata, from which the aria “Heute noch” (CD.6) is taken—also displayed these influences. Italian opera would dominate the European musical drama scene nearly unopposed until the end of the Classical period, when people in Germanic countries began to clamour for a German opera.
In fact, Mozart’s first commission upon his arrival in Vienna was for a German opera, Abduction from the Seraglio, staged at the National Theatre in 1781. His next opera, however, was in Italian, albeit an adaptation of Beaumarchais’s play Le Mariage de Figaro. But whatever the language, in breaking down the barriers between comedy and tragedy and in the musical refinement of his characters and their moods, Mozart touched off a revolution.
Never before had anyone so accurately depicted the first stirrings of love as in the arias of young Cherubino (“Voi che sapete” CD.1); and each time the Countess finds herself alone (“Dove Sono” CD.3), she reveals, if not the tragedy behind the comedy, at least a more serious theme: the constancy of one’s love in the face of another’s infidelity. Even more subtly, Mozart’s music erases class distinctions in the duettino “Sull’aria” (CD.2) when the Countess and her servant, Susanna, find common ground in the female condition and band together in countering the ingratitude of men toward them.
Mozart also left an important body of sacred music, including ten masses, his famous Requiem, and several one-off works such as Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165. In the transcendent virtuosity of its “Allegro” (CD.9) and “Molto Allegro” (CD.10), Mozart goes beyond the mere glorification of God to create a work that is also a “jubilant exultation” of the human voice, an instrument worthy of the most extravagant opera arias.
If, despite masterpieces such as Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute, Mozart was unable to win over audiences of his day to German-language opera, later generations of composers succeeded. Beethoven paved the way with his only opera, Fidelio (composed in 1805 and revised in 1814), and with songs such as those written in 1810 for a revival of Goethe’s play Egmont (CD.12 and CD.13).
However, up to the end of the Romantic period, Italian opera would remain domi-nant. At the turn of the 20th century, Puccini achieved the art form’s sublime culmination by combining the best of two worlds—seamlessly merging the new Wagnerian symphonic language with tradi-tional Italian lyricism. While he reached this harmonious equilibrium for the first time in 1893 in Manon Lescaut (CD.11), it was only a decade later, in 1904, that he attained the very summit with Madame Butterfly (CD.14 and CD.15).
In the years that followed, however, the emergence of neo-formalist and atonal schools began to question the validity of such extreme emotional expression, and Puccini would pass into history as the swan song of this incomparable Italian “invention” called opera. But modern aesthetic squabbles notwithstanding, it is thanks to the modern voices who keep singing it—and to modern music lovers who keep listening to it—that this art refuses to die.
© 2003, Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen