This blog has been focusing on opera in recent posts, looking at aspects of musical storytelling which opera does particularly well. So far we've looked at mad scenes, death scenes and love scenes, three very different types of drama, but with one thing in common: they all involve individuals.
In this post we go from the single character, or the characters singing in ensembles, to the largest ensemble of people on the operatic stage, the chorus. Chorus scenes in opera are usually crowd scenes, and while the simplest chorus scenes involve a group of people acting similarly and feeling the same emotions, this is not always the case. Crowds in real life can sometimes be made up of people who aren't all feeling the same thing, such at a football match or a political rally. In this article we'll explore a few operatic crowd scenes to find that just as in the other forms we've explored, composers have used the chorus to provide opera with some its greatest moments.
In 18th century opera, the chorus was usually used sparingly, and when it appeared usually expressed a uniform and conventional point of view. The chorus was frequently used to represent a crowd paying homage to a leader, and Mozart's operas were no exception. His first operatic success in Vienna was the German-language Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), and the entrance of Pasha Selim is accompanied by a noisy and jubilant chorus of greeting in the latest, and most fashionable, Turkish style. [listen]
Mozart's last Italian opera, written in the months just before his death, was La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), composed for coronation celebrations in Prague. The story is set in ancient Rome and thus far more restrained and noble than the setting in a Turkish harem. Yet still, at the first appearance of the Emperor Titus, the chorus represents the crowd paying homage to their leader. [listen]
Such uses of the chorus were entirely conventional and expected in opera of the period, although Mozart was still capable of thinking outside the square. The end of the first act of Clemenza, for example, makes use of the chorus offstage, singing wordless cries of anguish as fire breaks out in the Capitol. [listen]
But crowds expressing a uniform point of view remained the norm for operatic choruses well into the 19th century. Beethoven's symphonic style of writing for the orchestra was matched by a monumental use of the chorus in his opera Fidelio. The prisoners' chorus in act one is justly famous, but the rejoicing at the end - the only time the women of the chorus are used in the whole opera - is stupendous. Here, not only are the townspeople celebrating the downfall of the tyrant Pizarro, but also the power of married love which enabled Leonore to save her husband Florestan. You can hear in the overwhelming power of this music Beethoven's strong identification with his characters and his own (sadly, unfulfilled) desire for marital bliss. [listen]
As operas became grander and used more resources in the 19th century, so librettists and composers felt able to make chorus scenes more complex. Verdi's writing for the chorus is always memorable; the fact that the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves from one of his earliest operas, Nabucco, was sung by the crowds when he died 60 years later bears testament to that.
In his later operas, the chorus is usually integral to the drama, and not just an expression of the general populace. Even in as apparently conventional a scene as the Grand March in Aïda, there are in fact two choruses involved: the Egyptian people and the priests, each singing very different music and words.
A similar feature is evident in the chilling scene representing the Spanish Inquisition in Verdi's Don Carlo. Originally conceived for the vast resources of the Paris Opéra, Don Carlo is on a Wagnerian scale when performed complete (something rarely done today). The auto-da-fé scene, though, is pivotal and like the Aïda scene I mentioned, has two lots of choruses singing: the general populace rejoicing at the spectacle of heretics being paraded before execution, and a separate chorus of monks who bring the condemned to the stake. It seems that whether the setting was ancient Egypt or 16th century Spain, Verdi's disdain for the religious establishment was never far from the surface. [listen]
Invoking a "Wagnerian scale" when discussing Verdi's Don Carlo leads me to Wagner himself. The earliest opera in the official Bayreuth canon is Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying - or more accurately, Fleeing - Dutchman), first performed in 1843. It makes use of the chorus in a way which is both conventional and radical. The women's "spinning chorus" is a typical set piece, but the chorus of sailors and ghosts in act three is unlike anything else written to that time.
Tannhäuser and Lohengrin likewise have crucial parts for the chorus, but their involvement is designed to support the drama of the principals, rather than contribute dramatically in their own right. The Ring has no chorus at all apart from a very small involvement in the final opera, Götterdämmerung. The same can be said for Tristan und Isolde; Parsifal has various chorus groups but again these are incidental to the main drama.
The exception in Wagner's mature works is Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg). Here the chorus has an utterly enormous role to play, with Wagner taking the idea of the chorus as a single entity and turning it completely on its head. The chorus in Meistersinger is often divided into various groups and sub-groups and never more so than at the end of the second act. Here, the dispute between Sachs and Beckmesser leads to David attacking Beckmesser for apparently serenading his girl. The neighbours awaken and sing from various windows and vantage points as they watch the fight, before the apprentices join in and turn the situation into a riot. All this is set to music which is totally controlled and organised on a massive scale, showing the chorus now as protagonists in the drama and not just a group commenting on it. [listen]
Another notoriously complex operatic crowd scene comes in the second act of Puccini's La bohème. The whole of La bohème is very short when measured next to the sprawling musical canvases of Wagner; in fact at about a hundred minutes, the whole of La bohème is shorter than the prologue and first act of Götterdämmerung. But the second act of La bohème - the Café Momus scene - requires a huge number of chorus divisions into crowds of passersby, cafe patrons and street sellers, with a separate children's chorus. And all of these people are milling around the stage and interacting with the principals; this is no "stand and deliver" set piece. For all its familiarity, the opening of the second act of La bohème remains a moment in which everybody holds their breath, at least figuratively, hoping nothing goes amiss. [listen]
The power of the chorus in opera to create feelings of grandeur and magnificence can't be overstated, and composers have long understood this. In the prologue of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov the chorus represents the Russian people acclaiming their new Tsar at his coronation. This is one of grand opera's grandest moments, made even more so by the Tsar himself poignantly expressing his fears in the midst of it all. [listen]
Another Russian opera from the later 19th century, Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin, gives the chorus some beautiful set scenes. There are two ball scenes and the opening scene involves a group of peasants who sing and dance. The first ball scene takes place at the start of the second act and the wall-known waltz - often heard as an orchestral piece without any singing - is in fact a chorus movement in the opera. They sing of how lovely the party is, all while dancing and promenading. It's a very busy scene. [listen]
There are innumerable chorus crowd scenes I could use to end this brief survey, and this series of posts focusing on opera, but I wanted to share something with you that really brings the house down, literally.
Originally conceived as an oratorio but later expanded into a stage work, Saint-Saëns' opera Samson and Delilah was ignored in France immediately after it was composed. It was Franz Liszt who arranged for the work to be premiered in Weimar in 1877 where it was a triumph. Even so it wasn't until 1892 that it was finally performed in Paris. It was an immediate hit, and by 1976 it had racked up more than 950 performances, making it the third most popular work in the Paris Opéra's repertoire (after Faust and Rigoletto).
In the final scene, the chorus represents the Philistines in the temple of the god Dagon. Samson has been shorn of his hair (and therefore his strength) and blinded, an object of ridicule to the crowd, Delilah and the High Priest.
The worship of Dagon degenerates into an orgy, and as penance for his failings and punishment for the Philistines, Samson prays that his strength be restored one last time. This he uses to dislodge the temple's pillars, bringing the entire edifice down on all of them as the curtain falls.
The final few seconds of Samson and Delilah are among the most thrilling to experience in the theatre, and a good production can even make the audience scream with terror. At the heart of the scene is Saint-Saëns' ravishing music, and we'll conclude with the final scene of this wonderful score. [listen]
This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2015.