This post is the third in a series of four in which I'm looking at opera from a slightly different perspective, focusing on the sorts of things opera does particularly well. In the last instalment it was death scenes, and before that mad scenes. Now we come to the thing that it seems all opera centres on, along with most drama, poetry, television, literature and cinema: love.
Back when opera was new, at the start of the 17th century, love was treated very nobly and somewhat formally. Even well into the opera seria craze in the early 18th century, a character was said to be "in love with" someone pretty much as a synonym for liking them and being on their side. Operas of the period often came to a happy conclusion after three acts of tortured dramatic entanglement on many occasions by someone simply deciding that they'd love someone else, instantly ironing out all difficulties and cueing the final ensemble.
Love is treated in different ways in the operas of Mozart in the late 18th century, often along linguistic lines. The Italian operas based on old-fashioned opera seria librettos, like Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito, reflect the more formal theatrical version of love from earlier times. The more revolutionary Italian works - The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte - show a far more human and realistic version of love. In Figaro, for example, we can really believe Susanna and Figaro love each other, and we can really sense that the Countess's broken heart, caused by her faithless husband, is very real.
Mozart's German-language operas, though, such as Seraglio and The Magic Flute, treat love in a more down-to-earth way. The love of Constanze and Belmonte, or Pamina and Tamino, or even Papageno and Papagena, is very simply stated and openly expressed. It's warm and touching in a way which is different to love as we experience it in the Italian operas. Beethoven's German-language Fidelio follows this lead.
But it was in the 19th century that operatic love became what we would call passionate. If you're going to sing about love then you may as well do it boots and all, and in the hands of a master composer, the passion experienced by the characters is reflected in the music to such an extent that the audience is caught up in it as well. When writing his operatic treatment of Romeo and Juliet in the 1860s, Charles Gounod was drawing on a great deal of experience in opera as well as in oratorio, and he brought this to bear on the most famous love story of them all.
Gounod's Roméo et Juliette contains a number of pivotal moments for the title characters to sing a love duet: when they first meet, when Juliet appears on the balcony, and this passage, shortly after the balcony scene at the end of the second act as they bid farewell to each other. The lovers in this recording are Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. [listen]
Love, in many guises, is front and centre in the operas of Giacomo Puccini, written at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries. Puccini was attracted to powerful situations and the music he wrote for them was equally powerful, and among some of the most famous music in the operatic canon.
The love duet at the end of act one of Madama Butterfly is the longest such duet Puccini wrote; it lasts almost a quarter of an hour. Yet it's a duet tinged with bitter irony. Butterfly is in love with Pinkerton and has no idea he regards their marriage as a temporary arrangement. Her beauty arouses passion in him and he encourages her to say that she loves him, but he never responds in kind. He plays with her, but he doesn't love her. And for this bitter-sweet, tender but incredibly tragic scenario, Puccini provides some of the most overwhelming music he ever created. Here it's sung by Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti. [listen]
Long duets in Puccini, though, are brief when compared with the timescale of Richard Wagner. Wagner's conception of love, if his music is anything to go by, is rather different too. Love in Wagner is usually so powerful it dictates not only the fate of individuals but, in the case The Ring of the Nibelung, the entire universe. In the Ring, it's the love Siegfried and Brünnhilde which is at the core of the drama, but those characters only meet in the final act of the cycle's third opera, Siegfried. The love of Siegfried's parents, the incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, is at the core of the preceding part, Die Walküre, and for the dawning realisation of not only their love but also their shared past and intertwined future, Wagner wrote some of the most overwhelming music of his career. Unlike most love scenes, though, the singers don't sing simultaneously, in a true duet. Music as drama, setting a play designed for music (written by the composer), keeps the conversational element at all times. The end of act one of Die Walküre is sung here by Alessandra Marc and Poul Elming. [listen]
Wagner interrupted the composition of the Ring - in the middle of Siegfried - to write two of his most massive scores, Tristan und Isolde and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Tristan is a story of both love and death, and both the title roles are among the most taxing ever written for the human voice. (The original Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr, died after singing the role only four times, and his wife Malvina, the original Isolde, blamed the demands of the opera for his death. Despite living for another 38 years, she never sang again.) The ecstatic love duet in the second act is one of the most famous, and treacherously difficult, passages in all Wagner, and it's sung here (in this 1995 video from Bayreuth) by Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier. [listen]
It goes for forty minutes. I mean, they really like each other.
Even in a love scene of that scale, Wagner almost never has the voices sing at the same time. This raises the point that love scenes are often love duets, for obvious reasons, but this is not always the case. Love can be expressed by a character alone, musing on the absent beloved (such as Florestan in his prison cell in Beethoven's Fidelio, or Cavaradossi as he faces execution in Puccini's Tosca) or the hoped-for beloved (such as Tatyana's letter scene in Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin).
One of the most extraordinary love duets comes from an Australian opera, a duet in which the characters are hundreds of miles apart yet thinking and dreaming of each other over vast distances. Based on Patrick White's novel of the same name, Richard Meale's Voss was premiered in Adelaide in 1986. The duet between Laura, who is at home in Sydney, and Voss, who is in the remote outback, is one of the most beautiful moments in a gripping and beautiful score. In this recording we hear the singers for whom these roles were written: Marilyn Richardson and Geoffrey Chard. [listen from 1h11'07]
Love triangles are often the framework of many an intriguing story, occasioning jealousy, outrage, despair and - one hopes - a happy ending for at least two of the three parties, but it's not always so. The love triangle in Verdi's Aïda ends disastrously for all three characters, for example. But the fascinating situation in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier goes one step further. The older woman, the Marschallin, willingly gives up her younger lover Octavian so he can be with the woman he loves, Sophie. That Octavian is written for a woman to sing, playing a young man, enables Strauss to do all sorts of things musically that writing for, say, a tenor, wouldn't allow.
The love scene at the end is in fact a trio. The Marschallin sings of her emotions at giving up Octavian, for whom she has very real feelings, but ultimately she wants him to be happy, even if that happiness doesn't include her. The two young lovers sing of simpler things: their bliss at being together. The Marschallin leaves the lovers alone, and they conclude the opera with their own duet. Strauss colours this scene with music that weeps tears of exquisite beauty, and it is justly one of the most famous passages he ever wrote. We'll end this survey of love scenes with a beautiful video of this famous moment, sung by Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, Elīna Garanča as Octavian and Erin Morley as Sophie in New York in 2017. [listen]
In the next post: operatic crowd scenes. Bring on the chorus...
This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2015.