The great Gioachino Rossini, after writing 37 operas in the first 39 years of his life, felt he had done ‘his bit’ for music and retired to become the doyen of the social scene in Paris. Guillaume Tell was that last opera. Most people only know the finale of the overture, as heard on the television’s Lone Ranger, but the piece is filled with extraordinary music. This valedictory opera of Rossini could not be more different from his Barber of Seville, Guillaume Tell is grand, moving, stirring. This finale, the culmination of a four-hour opera, brings together all the Cantons of Switzerland to celebrate a new future for the country, a new world free from the Austrian occupation. It is an extraordinary hymn to the strength of humanity and filled with hope.
I first heard Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová in 1980 when I was a stage manager at The Australian Opera. It has remained in my Top Ten ever since. In this quartet we hear Janáček contrasting two completely different relationships: the offstage lovemaking of the doomed Katya and Boris, and the onstage couple singing simple folksongs. Unbearably moving.
In 1992 I assisted on a new production of Rossini’s il viaggio a Reims at the Royal Opera House. This virtuosic piece, the Gran Pezzo which requires 19 major principals and Chorus. This next excerpt shows Rossini at his virtuosic best; 19 solo voices in a brilliant example of the composer’s command of the crescendo.
How can we have an opera playlist without Puccini? And I’ve included two, and both from La bohème. I get to hear many, many auditions and I’m always delighted with the soprano presents “Quando me’n vo’ from Bohème. It is short, beautiful and shows everything that you possibly want to hear from a voice. Here is the aria in context, building to the joyous end of Act 2 of Puccini’s masterpiece.
I’ve directed Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann three times, and it remains my favourite flawed opera; ‘Offenbach’s most serious piece of fun’ as London’s Evening Standard described it. This finale was originally performed in a soirée at Offenbach’s home in Paris, a sort-of ‘backers audition’ and after Offenbach’s untimely death, was ‘lost’ for decades. The music eventually surfaced in the 1990’s and is now included in post productions of Offenbach’s unfinished piece. The poet Hoffmann is enthused by his Muse to take up his pen again after a lifetime of lost loves. She says: ‘On est grand par l’amour, et plus grand par les pleurs’: ‘One is made great by love but greater by tears. Ain’t it the truth?!
Of the many operas based on Shakespeare, Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most successful. This is the finale of the opera where Tytania and Oberon are finally reunited, to the soundtrack of a chorus of fairies. Puck is on hand to sum up the evening.
In my first year of opera going, 1976, The Australian Opera was performing a series of Saturday matinees of Verdi’s Rigoletto, starring the great June Bronhill. I went one week, loved it so much that I went back the second week as well. Rigoletto was also the first opera I bought on cassette. Here is one of the great Ensembles from Act 3, a trio which perfectly illustrates the tempest going on outside contrasted to the inner turmoil of the three characters.
Ah! piu non ragiono, Rigoletto, Verdi
‘Delight must be the basis and aim of this art: simple melody – clear rhythm.’ wrote Giachino Rossini. He’d given more simple melody, clear rhythm and delight in those 39 years than most other composers had in a lifetime.
Rossini was not an opera composer writing to change the world. Of the tremendous reception given to ‘Italian Girl in Algiers’, an opera he dubbed his ‘pastime’, he said ‘Now I am happy, the audience are madder than I am!’. Here is the Act 1 finale of that opera, Rossini at his most mad.
Here’s the second helping of Puccini’s La bohème, the quartet which ends Act 3, one of the most perfect acts in all opera. Two couples: The doomed Mimi and Rodolfo, passionately in love and Musetta and Marcello in a vitriolic lover spat.
‘Were I a dictator’ wrote Sir Thomas Beecham ‘I would make it compulsory for every member of the population to listen to at least a quarter hour of Mozart every day’. Here is a third of your daily allowance:
The Act 4 Finale of Mozart’s Day of Madness that is The Marriage of Figaro.
The Cunning Little Vixen was Leos Janáček’s personal valentine to the human condition in all its inexplicable, maddening, fierce and beautiful inconsistancy. The unexpected majesty, grandeur and emotion of the final sixty seconds of Vixen says it all. The essence of life is a mystery: we can’t fathom it, we can’t harness it, we can’t quantify what it is…but we all instinctively feel the unifying power of the indefinable force, much like music. Musicologists across the centuries have been able to explain the elements of music and how they might be organised, but they are unable to find an explanation for the soul-deep effect of this mysterious, mighty and magical force. All the analysis in the world can’t tell us why, but with a fist pounding the heart we can all say: ‘It gets you right here’.