Monday, April 30, 2012

Mary Stuart

Mary Stuart has a somewhat complex performance history. The opera is based on the play Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller, depicting an imagined confrontation between the two rival queens: Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Donizetti first read Andrea Maffei’s translation of the Schiller play when it was published in Italy in 1830 and approached the original translator to be the librettist. Most librettists, however, had the wisdom to stay away from a potential opera that would depict a Catholic queen being beheaded—Italy is, after all, a Catholic nation! Donizetti was forced, instead, to turn to Giuseppe Bardari, a 17-year old law student, who managed a rather effective libretto.

Mary Stuart (Joyce DiDonato) and Elizabeth I (Katie Van Kooten) in HGO's production of Mary Stuart. Photo by Felix Sanchez.
The work was originally intended by Donizetti as a vehicle for his favorite soprano, Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, but when it was in rehearsal in Naples, the king personally forbade its performance: his queen, Maria Christina, was a direct descendant of Mary Stuart. The censors were not only troubled by the beheading of a Catholic royal but also by the bitter confrontation between the two queens at Fotheringhay Castle. Historically, there is no evidence that the two queens ever met, and there is certainly no evidence that Mary Queen of Scots ever called Elizabeth I a vile bastard (the chief invective of both the opera and the play). I believe that Schiller purposefully fabricated this confrontation to drive home a dramatic point: who has what power from where?

Elizabeth I (Katie Van Kooten) in HGO's production of Mary Stuart. Photo by Felix Sanchez.

Mary Stuart (Joyce DiDonato) and HGO Chorus in HGO's production of Mary Stuart. Photo by Felix Sanchez.

In order to appreciate Donizetti’s treatment of Schiller’s play, one must understand the power dynamics of Queen Elizabeth’s court. Elizabeth and her supporters believed that as long as Mary lived, the throne would be threatened. Mary was Catholic, supported by foreign powers like Spain and the Vatican, and as a Stuart with Tudor blood, being the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor (Henry VIII’s sister) and James IV of Scotland, she had a legitimate claim on the throne. Elizabeth I, however, was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Catholics considered her to be an illegitimate child because she was born into a marriage not sanctioned by the Vatican (remember it was Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn that caused England to break with the Catholic church, since Pope Clement VII would not annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon). So there you have it— half the country, Protestants, believed Elizabeth I to be the rightful Queen; the other half, Catholics, believed Mary Stuart to be the rightful Queen. This resulted in many uprisings, assassination plots, and bloodshed. Elizabeth’s court was a cloak and dagger affair, filled with intrigue and subterfuge.

Elizabeth I (Katie Van Kooten) and Cecil (Oren Gradus) in HGO's production of Mary Stuart. Photo by Felix Sanchez.
It comes as no surprise that such an opera, dealing openly with the conflict of religions and royal bloodshed, would fall under the harsh watchful gaze of nineteenth-century Italian censors. Though the king of Naples banned the opera, Donizetti still managed to salvage the music, revising and removing large segments of the score and quickly employing a new librettist, Pietro Salatino, in order to create a different work, Buondelmonte, in which the rival queens are two women from rival families in love with the same man. Under that name, the opera premiered on October 18, 1834. Not only was it unsuccessful but the two sopranos playing the two rival women actually got in a fight on stage—a physical confrontation. Apparently sopranos’ egos in the nineteenth century rivaled those of the queens of the sixteenth century.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


The two operas of our spring repertoire period, Verdi’s Don Carlos and Donizetti’s Mary Stuart (Maria Stuarda), share one major origin point: they are both based on plays by the German playwright, poet, and thinker Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805).

Schiller was writing at a time of cultural and political crisis. His work stands at a crossroads, summing up the legacy of the eighteenth century and pointing towards the nineteenth. The later dramas— Don Carlos, Mary Stuart, the Wallenstein trilogy, The Maid of Orleans, and William Tell—present the rootlessness of a generation that has inherited the Enlightenment’s intellectual liberation from the constraints of religion and tradition but cannot realize its vision of a better world. These works, written either in anticipation of or in the aftermath of the French Revolution, explore the nature of political legitimacy, the responsible exercise of power and the origin of that power, and the clash of moral judgment and political pressure.
Friedrich Schiller
During Schiller’s life, the thrill of freedom, equality, and brotherhood of the French Revolution soon turned sour. The Revolution led to the Terror and finally gave the world Napoleon, a man who wielded far more absolute power over Europe than anyone ever before him. Donizetti, born in 1797, lived through conquests of Napoleon. He, like Verdi, tackled the problems of his age through musical adaptation of historical drama. The three “queen operas,” so named for the leading female roles in Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, all deal with the Tudor period of English history. Not only did these pieces function as vehicles for some of opera’s most memorable prima donnas, but also they sought to shed light on Donizetti’s contemporary world through the musicalization of larger-than-life historical figures.

Verdi, likewise, was attracted to complex historical drama. John Caird, the director of Don Carlos, told me he believes that this opera is Verdi’s most ambitious political statement. Though the story of Don Carlos set in sixteenth-century Spain during the Inquisition, the opera is really about Verdi’s commitment to Italian unification, the collision of Church and State, and the drama of personal romance and passion set within the wider context of political ambition and power.

Mena M. Hanna

HGO Chorus in Houston Grand Opera's production of Verdi's Don Carlos.
Photo by Felix Sanchez.

Brandon Jovanovich as Don Carlos in Houston Grand Opera's production of Verdi's Don Carlos. Photo by Felix Sanchez.

Andrea Silvestrelli as Philippe II, Tamara Wilson as Elisabeth de Valois, and Christine Goerke as Princess Eboli in Houston Grand Opera's production of Verdi's Don Carlos. Photo by Felix Sanchez.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Rape of Lucretia #2

In the 6th century BC, Rome was ruled by a dynasty of tyrannical kings from the nearby city-state of Etrusca. The last of these kings Tarquinius Superbus, was remarkably despotic. He rose to power by assassinating his father-in-law, Servius Tullius, who was king at the time (patricide, the murder of one’s father, was quite a common tool of political advancement in Ancient Rome — and people say our political system is broken!). Tarquinius Superbus was constantly fighting wars with neighboring city-states and the Greeks, who at the time maintained a considerable presence on the Italian peninsula. The Romans, sick of losing their sons in battle and having their considerable wealth drained, were, understandably, tired of this oppressive foreign-born king.

Tarquinius Superbus’s son, Tarquinius the Prince of Rome, was similarly drunk with power. His rape of Lucretia, the chaste and just wife of Collatinus, a prominent Roman nobleman, was the immediate cause of the revolution that overthrew the Etruscan monarchy and established the Roman Republic. Though many of the specific events surrounding the Roman Republic’s foundation are debatable and mythologized, there is considerable historical evidence that Lucretia existed, that she was indeed the wife of a nobleman named Collatinus, and that she played a critical part in the downfall of the Etruscan dynasty. 

The rape of Lucretia was not only a historical incident that kindled the flames of dissatisfaction over the tyrannical methods of foreign rulers. It was, perhaps even more importantly, a representation of purity defiled by power and lust — an image that has captured the imagination of artists, writers, and musicians throughout Western history. Botticelli, Titian, and Rembrandt all sought to portray Lucretia’s inner torment through visual art; St. Augustine, Chaucer, Dante, and Shakespeare extolled the virtues of pure Lucretia, as did the West Coast heavy metal band Megadeth in their 1990 album, “Rust in Peace.” Eventually, Benjamin Britten took on the subject through a dramaturgically fraught libretto (at least in my opinion) by Ronald Duncan, based on French playwright André Obey's 1931  adaptation of the incident. 

The Rape of Lucretia, premiered a year after the close of WWII, is one of Benjamin Britten’s artistic statements on war, along with, of course the hugely impressive War Requiem. Being a conscientious objector, Britten refused to partake in military action during WWII and undoubtedly hated the patriotic idealism of his country during and after the War. Through The Rape of Lucretia, the composer endeavored to encapsulate the distress of Europe during WWII, by choosing a narrative in which a virtuous sensitive individual is traumatically violated and driven to self-destruction. However, in my opinion, this opera transcends contemporary political events. It isn’t just a metaphor for the devastation of England, Germany, and Europe; The Rape of Lucretia is about human tragedy — the violence that men can inflict on one another through jealousy, greed, and lust; and the innocence that such violence can destroy.  

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Rape of Lucretia

On Friday, February 3, Houston Grand Opera opens its new production of Benjamin Britten's searing, intimate operatic exploration of human cruelty and hubris, The Rape of Lucretia.

The final installment in HGO's multi-year exploration of Britten's operas, the subject of The Rape of Lucretia is based on Livy's tale of Rome in the 6th century, in which the virtuous wife of a Roman general is raped as a "test" of her loyalty and fidelity. She commits suicide.

Britten treats this story as an allegrory of Britain during and after the second world war; it has deep resonance for the contemporary world as well, especially in the wake of decades-long conflicts in south and central America, Africa, the Balkans and the middle east.

Our new production is directed by Arin Arbus, noted for her work with Broadway's Theatre for a New Audience, and conducted by Rory Macdonald. It stars Michelle DeYoung, Jacques Imbrailo, Leah Crocetto, Judith Forst, Ryan McKinny, Joshua Hopkins, Anthny Dean Griffey and Lauren Snouffer.

Visit the Britten-Pears Foundation page on Britten's operas

Listen to
HGO Dramaturg Mena Mark Hanna's podcast about Lucretia.

Read Opera CUES interview with Arin Arbus.

Read Opera News article about the opera and Arin Arbus's approach to the new production.

Connect to Classical Archives to learn more about Britten's The Rape of Lucretia; various recordings available for purchase and download.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

La traviata

In April of 1852, while still in the midst of writing Il trovatore, Giuseppe Verdi agreed to write a new opera to be premiered in March of 1853 at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy. With his librettist Francesco Maria Piave in tow, Verdi decided to base this new opera, which would eventually be titled La traviata (meaning literally “the fallen woman” in Italian), on the spectacularly successful novel-cum-play, La dame aux camélias, by Alexandre Dumas fils. M. Dumas’s story was autobiographical: at the tender age of 20, he fell in love with Marie Duplessis, the basis of La traviata’s Violetta, an upper class prostitute and the toast of Paris known for her wildly extravagant parties. However, poor Violetta, was doomed to a tragic tubercular ending – like many 19th century opera heroines.

Gran Teatro La Fenice
Marie Duplessis
Alexandre Dumas fils
La traviata was a cutting edge and risqué story, one centering on the themes of taboo love, heartbreak, and tragedy; directly confronting prostitution in mid-19th century Paris. Verdi was writing this opera at a heady time: Italy and Germany were struggling through a bloody national unification process; civil unrest and revolution touched nearly every major European city in 1848. Verdi was living through social and intellectual transformations that had major repercussions on his own vision of his art. By the mid-19th century, artists no longer aimed to simply please or emotionally move. As the Verdi scholar Gilles de Van writes, “The artist became an intellectual, art a way of understanding; art could now both represent reality and comment on it.”

With this in mind, Verdi’s La traviata is an utterly modern work of art: Verdi and Maria Piave sought to reflect contemporary society and comment on it. As an opera commissioned in 1852 and premiered in 1853, one feels Verdi coming into his own, tackling a bold and contemporary subject, that of Violetta, a courtesan and the heroine of La traviata, a character who, much like Verdi, had to serve the pleasures of the mid-19th century public.

Mena Mark Hanna
Houston Grand Opera 

Giuseppe Verdi
Franceso Maria Piave

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fideliosity - Week 4

Fraught with dramaturgical difficulties, the composition of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, was characterized by fits and starts. There are three versions of the opera, each featuring musical and libretto changes. Joseph von Sonnleithner’s libretto for the first version of the opera, premiered in 1805 at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, was adapted from Jean Nicolas Bouilly’s libretto used for the 1798 French opera Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal, by Pierre Gaveaux. Beethoven, unsatisfied with the opera’s reception, revised and shortened the opera with the help of librettist Stephan von Breuning. This form of the opera, premiered in 1806, enjoyed greater success than the 1805 version, but its life was cut short when Beethoven and the management of the Theater an der Wien fell into a protracted dispute. Finally, in 1814, Beethoven revised the opera, overhauling the music and reinvigorating the plot with a libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke. This version, premiered at Vienna’s Kärntertortheater, was Beethoven’s great operatic success; it is the most commonly performed version and will open at Houston Grand Opera on October 28, 2011. 

Theater an der Wien

Bouilly’s story, set in 18th century Seville, struck quite an impression on Parisian audiences in 1798, having recently cast off the yolk of an oppressive French aristocracy. Not only that, but the story proves to be unorthodox in its gender reversal; the hero, Leonore, is a woman disguised as a young man; she calls herself Fidelio. She attempts to save her husband, Florestan, who is wasting away as a political prisoner of the extremely cruel Don Pizarro, a governor who neglects to abide by the changes being instituted by the progressive Minister of State Don Fernando, friend of jailed Florestan. Leonore, disguised as Fidelio, works for Rocco, the jail keeper of the prison in which Florestan is held. Also working for Rocco is Jaquino, who is in love with Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter. Thus Fidelio, an opera of two acts each with two scenes, becomes a dramatic work of two interlocking plots. Leonore, in her real and disguised roles, and Rocco, a father and jail keeper, participate in both. The domestic plot involves them in the emotional world of Jaquino and Marzelline; the heroic plot involves them in the deadly confrontation of Pizarro and Florestan.

Some of the dramaturgical difficulties with composing this opera might be due to the plot’s binary nature. It is evident at the beginning of Act II, that the domestic plot of Jaquino and Marzelline becomes an ancillary dramatic device; the crux of Fidelio is Leonore’s rescue of Florestan and Beethoven makes it quite clear, through musical convention, that the opera is about humanity’s struggle against tyranny and oppression and not about Jaquino’s unrequited love for Marzelline. The more notable musical excerpts from the opera include the Prisoner’s chorus near the end of Act I and Florestan’s recitative and aria in the opening of Act II. The confrontation between Pizarro and Florestan near the end of Scene 1, Act II, in which Leonore finally reveals her true identity, is musically thrilling and dramatically riveting; not much can be said of the “comedic” love duet of Marzelline and Jaquino at the opening of the opera.
letter from Beethoven to Treitschke

Moreover, with Fidelio being a Singspiel, a drama of humble origins featuring spoken dialogue interspersing musical compositions, there is evidence that Beethoven had difficultly reconciling his lofty, heroic themes with Singspiel’s rather parochial tendencies. Beethoven wrote a contemporary opera of great political significance, one that mirrored movements against oppression in early 19th century Europe. There is no doubt that the motto of the French revolution, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity) had colored Beethoven’s operatic treatment of resigned political prisoner, Florestan. As such, singspiel could be considered as an outmoded vehicle of dramatic expression, especially when considering the musical development of Act II: the growing weight and presence of the chorus combined with the increasing emotional complexity of the principal characters’ arias. The opera becomes a musically complex, dramatically multi-tiered, and emotionally concentrated work of art centering on the themes of humanity and justice, moving away from singspiel convention.

Timeless Fidelio may be, it was not without significant personal sacrifice from Beethoven; it took the master composer over ten years to produce a satisfying final version. Beethoven says it best himself, in a letter to Treitschke: “I assure you… that this opera will win me a martyr’s crown.”

Mena Mark Hanna

Houston Grand Opera

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fideliosity - The Chorus in Fidelio

This is the fourth post in a series which we hope will help you to get to know Beethoven’s rarely-performed Fidelio before you come to see it at HGO. Please let us know what you think by commenting on our Facebook page or leaving a comment this post.

Richard Bado, Chorus Master
The Fidelio chorus is on nearly every chorus master’s bucket list. Why?

There are, of course, endless operas with thrilling choral music, but as Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio is a unique part of the operatic repertoire. Both of the major choral moments in this piece are incredibly moving, but are so different in scope, they could easily be from two different works.

The chorus appears in the finales of each act of the opera (in addition to a brief appearance of 20 men as soldiers in Pizarro’s aria earlier in Act I). The choral writing for each act is hugely different, but extremely effective. The Act I finale begins with the famous prisoner’s chorus – this men-only ensemble in four-part harmony is a beautiful, expansive, and wistful musical exclamation of the prisoners’ first glimpse of the sun after years of being held captive within the dark prison. The awe and wonder they express, along with the hesitation to embrace any sense of hope, is ever present in their singing. The act ends with the prisoners being led back into their cells singing “Leb’ wohl, du warmes Sonnenlicht” (“Farewell, warm sunlight”).

The Act II finale is the only time we will see and hear the entire 82-member HGO Chorus. This writing, much like the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, praises this very day and moment of the release of the prisoners and their reuniting with loved ones. We hear loud, celebratory, and exuberant singing that is unlike anything else heard in the opera. There is little subtlety in this writing, but rather unbridled joy as the opera draws to a close.

We embrace the timelessness and universal quality of Fidelio. It is a story of our living, changing world that never loses its ability to unite and work together with a sense of community – much like the members of the HGO Chorus.

See you at the opera!

Richard Bado, Chorus Master
Craig Kier, Assistant Chorus Master