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Opera might have emerged as a form of art to entertain the rich and powerful, but it soon became used as a way to express political and social discontent. You might think such liberties are only a product of the 20th century, but the fact is kings and governments throughout history have trembled and even fallen because of Opera.
La Muette di Portici (The Dumb Girl of Portici)
Auber’s opera is practically forsaken nowadays and seldom revisited even by more alternative opera houses, but at the time it was written, its power was immense. Ask the Belgians and those who have a keen interest in history will tell you that the birth of Belgium as a modern state happened during a performance of this opera, most precisely during a very patriotic duet Amour sacré de la patrie, which flamed a desire for independence among the audience, starting a riot. This duet became a signal for Belgian independence and even Richard Wagner wrote a note about it:
“Whose very representation had brought [revolutions] about, was recognised as an obvious precursor of the July Revolution, and seldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event.”
‘Viva Verdi!’ used to be painted on the walls of Italy and for most of us it seems like a straight forward bit of graffiti, used to praise the Italian Composer. Truth is his name was used with a second purpose. You see Verdi also stands for “Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia” (King of Italy) and it was used as a signal for the fight of the Italian independence against the Austrian oppression.
Well, luckily enough for Verdi (if living during a civil war can be considered as luck) he was able to catch the patriotic spirit of the nation and wrote an extremely simple, but remarkably beautiful and passionate, prayer which later assumed the form of an unofficial anthem for Italy. “Va Pensiero” is a prayer sung by the Hebrew slaves during their time in Babylonia. Touched by its lyrics, the people of Italy related themselves with its content. If the term Blockbuster existed at the time, it would undoubtedly be used to describe this opera. Massive choirs, a huge fanfare and voices at their extreme, all thrown together to impress the audience.
Though everybody loves Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana, they would probably change their minds if they knew he was a convict, fascist and supporter of Mussolini’s dictatorship. So much so that it’s possible he wrote this opera with the dictator in mind. A large debate around this issue is still taking place; however his links with the fascist regime are undeniable and after the Second World War his background caught up with him and he was forced to live out his remaining days in poverty.
Wagner’s first success, Rienzi tells the story of a nobleman that wants to purge his city from the domain of the richest families, who rule the city under a regime of plutocracy. Rienzi is a man of ideals and sets out to give voice to the people. Unfortunately, he soon falls victim to the same vices of power that he so detested and is brought down.
Despite its ravishing music and the fact that it was his most performed opera in his lifetime, Rienzi is a masterpiece that is no longer performed. This is because unluckily, it was Hitler’s favourite opera, or so some records say. Philip Stolzl’s production of the opera depicts an interesting and modern approach to it, which can be easily linked to Hitler and is a must see! Perhaps it’s about time to bring back this opera! And why not at Bayreuth? Apparently the festival dedicated to Wagner never perform this it because it’s too mundane/’unwagnerian’ for their taste. A disparaging joke among Wangerians says that this was Meyerbeer’s finest opera (Meyerbeer was the composer Wagner hated the most).
La Juive (The Jewish girl)
Parisians might unconsciously recognize the name of this Opera’s composer because a very important street in Paris was named after him. Unfortunately, Halevy is no longer known for much else.
La Juive was a gem of Grand-Opera and includes all you can imagine: massive ballet dances, endless plots and sub-plots, big choirs and fanfares and curiously enough, a very interesting depiction of Jewish traditions. This 5 hour-long opera might no longer please today’s audiences who suffer from a small attention span, but at the time it was regarded as nothing short of pure entertainment! Most interestingly however is its subject. At the time Jews were widely discriminated against. They might have been rich and highly educated, but those were just extra reasons to be hated. Therefore, the fact that Halevy used an opera to represent how poorly and unfairly the Jewish were being treated in Europe was a very political statement. Proof that Opera could also be used to educate and awaken social conscience.
Daniel Coelho Antão da Silva
Listen to some of the music mentioned in the blog here: