Classics 4: Overtures and Arias with Thomas Hampson
Thomas Hampson b. 1955
Thomas Hampson
b. 1955
Thomas Hampson
Classics 4: Overtures and Arias with Thomas Hampson

Cosė fan tutte, K.588
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791

“Rivolgete a lui lo Sguardo,” K. 584

Throughout his short career, Mozart wrote nearly twenty operas, many of which – especially the three with libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte – Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosė fan tutte – changed the face of opera forever and raised the bar for future composers. By the time Mozart died, the old form of the opera seria, with its formulaic libretti, strict dramatic and musical constraints, the casting of castrati as the hero/lovers and the proliferation of da capo (ABA) arias, was dead as well. Mozart’s groundbreaking operas demanded new ears and open minds; their plots often challenged the accepted social and political order; and the music blossomed into a wealth of new aria forms and stunning ensembles.

Composed in 1789, Cosė fan tutte (Women are all the same) was the last of Mozart’s three Da Ponte operas. It is the story of a test of the fidelity (or lack of it) of two young ladies by their beaux. On a bet with the old cynical philosopher, Don Alfonso, who claims that all women are fickle, the lovers pretend to go off to a war, disguise themselves as Turks and successfully woo each other’s fiancées.

After the short introduction with a lovely oboe solo, Example 1 the overture introduces the motto that gives the opera its title and its denigrating take on women: a slow, marcato six-chord progression that underlies the resigned suitors’ words “Co-sė fan tut-te.” Example 2 A sprightly Allegro follows with music unrelated to anything in the body of the opera.

Da Ponte left Vienna in 1790 after the death of his patron, Emperor Joseph II. After bumping around Europe for a number of years, he ended up in New Jersey, first as a greengrocer and finally as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia University.

The aria Rivolgete a lui lo Sguardo (Return his Glance) was originally intended for Cosi fan tutte but was withdrawn in the last minute in favor of a shorter aria. In the aria, Gugliermo, one of the lovers, unlashes classical and geographical references to boost his image and challenge Dorabella’s fidelity.

The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791

“Hai gia vinta la causa”

The Marriage of Figaro is one of the oldest operas in the standard repertoire and one of the most youthful in spirit. When Pierre de Beaumarchais’s play, on which the opera is based, was published in 1782, it’s unflattering portrait of the aristocracy understandably caused an uproar and horrified Louis XVI. Like any scandal, it proved irresistible and must have spread rapidly, because Mozart’s opera to Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto was premiered only four years later on the cusp of the French Revolution. Nor did sit well with Hapsburg Emperor, Joseph II, brother of Marie Antoinette.

As is customary for most opera overtures of the eighteenth century, this one contains no music from the opera itself. Nevertheless, the overture captures the spirit of the opera in its opening bars, a sequence of rapid notes on the strings scurrying like whispering conspirators. Example 3 It is answered by the whole orchestra with festive trumpets, and these alternating moods continue throughout the ebullient overture. Example 4

In Hai gia vinta la causa, (You have already won the case) the scheming Count Almaviva believes Susanna will be meeting him in his gardens on the night of her marriage to Figaro, through “the right of first night.” He overhears the two lovers talking confidently about defeating his legal challenge and becomes furious.

Richard Wagner, 1813-1883

Entry of the Guests
O, du mein holder Abendstern

By the early 1840s, with the success of the early and more conventional operas Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman, Richard Wagner had become a force in German music. His next – and more doctrinaire – opera, Tannhäuser, is based on medieval legends about an actual Minnesinger, or poet-musician, who died c. 1265. The opera premiered in Dresden in 1845 and quickly became enormously popular throughout Germany. Its protagonist, who has been living it up for a year with Venus and is, incidentally, also a singer-composer, wins a contest with a song extolling profane love. Condemned to clean up his act before he can claim the hand of his pure betrothed, Elisabeth, he makes a pilgrimage to Rome where the pope refuses to grant him absolution. Tannhäuser returns to Germany carrying his withered staff, symbol of his continued state of sin, in time to witness Elisabeth’s funeral. He collapses and dies in remorse as his staff blooms, symbolizing his redemption through love.

The Grand March is from Act II, as the noblemen in their fine attire enter the hall to witness or participate in the singing contest. Example 5

O, du mein holder Abendstern (Oh my gracious evening star) is sung by Wolfram, Tannhäuser’s honorable opponent, as he has a premonition of Elizabeth’s death. Example 6

Il Trovatore
Giuseppe Verdi, 18013-1901

Anvil Chorus

Il trovatore has one of opera’s most ridiculous and convoluted plots, based on El trobador, a Spanish melodrama by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez (1813-1844). The Count di Luna’s brother is believed to have perished at the hands of a Gypsy, whose daughter Azucena saved him and brought him up as her own son, Manrico. Now an adult, Manrico has distinguished himself as a warrior and troubadour and finds himself di Luna’s rival for the love of Leonora, who loves Manrico. By the time it’s all over, Leonora has swallowed poison rather than submit to di Luna, who has executed Manrico, only to find out from Azucena that he has killed his own brother.

“Vedi! Le fosche notturne spoglie” (See! The somber hues of night), the so-called Anvil Chorus, is sung by a band of Gypsies as Count di Luna prepares to besiege the castle where Manrico is harboring Leonora. Its name derives from the accompaniment of actual anvils in the percussion section of the orchestra. Example 7 The best-known passage from the scene is the choral refrain, to anvil accompaniment. Example 8

Giacomo Puccini, 1858-1924

“Va, Tosca” (Te Deum)

Puccini embraced verismo (realism), the late nineteenth century Italian literary movement, depicting situations true to life and never shying away from the earthy and ugly in human nature. His villains, both vicious and petty, brought howls of protests from the critics: “There may be some who will find entertainment in this sensation, but all true lovers of the gentle art must deplore with myself its being so prostituted. What has music to do with a lustful man chasing a defenseless woman, or the dying kicks of a murdered scoundrel?” fumed one London paper after a performance of Tosca. The villain, Scarpia, was the 1800 version of the secret police chief, sent to Rome by the King of Naples to keep watch over those whose sympathies lay with the French. He is cruel, depraved and sadistic, a tin-pot dictator who glories in his villainy. Critics vilified this “shabby little shocker” for its cheap brutality and theatrical tricks. But the history of the last century has revealed that Scarpias are regrettably a dime a dozen.
Tosca, composed between 1896 and 1899, is based on a play by Victorien Sardou. The action takes place in Rome in 1800. The city is part of the Kingdom of Naples, under the despotic control of Scarpia. But a subversive political movement exists to recreate a Roman republic. These partisans are hoping that the upstart Napoleon Bonaparte will release Europe from monarchical tyranny. Tosca’s lover, Mario Caveradossi, is a member of the conspiracy.

As the church bells ring and the populace crowds into the church, Scarpia soliloquizes on his desire for Tosca. Example 9 As his fantasy becomes increasingly ardent, a cardinal and his retinue move in procession towards the altar while the chorus intones the Te Deum in gratitude to God for Napoleon’s defeat. With Scarpia now in complete control of the action, the act closes as the “Scarpia chords” are finally resolved. Example 10

Leonard Bernstein, 1918-1990


During the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, Leonard Bernstein and playwright Lillian Hellman decided to use Voltaire’s satirical novel Candideas a vehicle to make a political statement. According to Hellman, the novel attacks “all rigid thinking...all isms.” Bernstein thought that the charges made by Voltaire against his own society’s puritanical snobbery, phony morality and inquisitorial attacks on the individual were the same as those that beset American society – especially creative artists in all media.

After two years of intermittent cooperative work, the play opened in the fall of 1956. It failed – all but the overture. This became a staple of orchestral repertoire and one of Bernstein’s most endearing, most frequently performed works. It reflects the breakneck pacing of Voltaire’s satire with its worldwide adventures and buffoonery, interspersed in places by mock-tender moments.

In 1974, equipped with a new libretto which concentrated on its madcap humor rather than its political and social message, Candide, now billed as a musical, was successfully revived. It achieved 741 packed performances in the Broadway Theater, but the composer was still not satisfied. Two operatic versions followed in 1982 and 1989, and CD of the latter’s, one of Bernstein’s last recordings, became a bestseller.

Bernstein did not change the whirldwind overture that that almost trips over itself with its cross rhythms and themes crowding in on each other. But there's method in the madness; the overture is in perfect sonata form. Its first theme, the crashing opener, Example 11 the second contrasting lyric theme taken from the duet between Candide and Cunegonde. Example 12 And with a nod to the master overture writer of Western music, Bernstein ties it all up with a big Rossini-type stretta. Example 13

Selections from Old American Songs
Aaron Copland, 1900-1990

Like his idol Charles Ives before him, Aaron Copland was enchanted by American ballads, hymns and minstrel tunes. In contrast to Ives, however, he only occasionally used folk melodies as themes in his compositions, preferring original themes and giving them a folk-like flavor with what has come to be recognized as his “American sound.”

The two sets of Old American Songs are an exception; here, Copland used authentic folk melodies, giving them an unmistakable "Copland flavor." The five of Set I were composed in 1950 at the request of Benjamin Britten, and were premiered by Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears; the five of Set II came two years later. Originally composed for voice and piano, Copland orchestrated them soon after and also reset some of them for chorus.

1. The Dodger is an 1884 political satire on the presidential race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Example 14

2. Simple Gifts was composed by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. in 1848 where it became popular in the ascetic Shaker communities of New England for dancing during worship. Copland had earlier made it famous as the centerpiece of his 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring. Example 15

3. The Boatmen's Dance is a banjo melody, composed in 1843 by Dan Emmet, of Dixie fame, for a tour of the British Isles by his [blackface] Virginia Minstrels. Example 16

On the Town
Leonard Bernstein

Three Dance Episodes

In 1943, Jerome Robbins, then a dancer with the Ballet Theater, wanted to make his name as a choreographer. He had a scenario for a ballet about three sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York, looking for girls, excitement and any kind of fun they could stir up. They find it all. It was the perfect subject for the war years, with the city full of sailors on leave. Hunting for a composer, he was turned down by Vincent Persichetti who suggested that Robbins approach Leonard Bernstein instead. The ballet, Fancy Free, when it opened in April 1944 in the old Metropolitan Opera House, was a spectacular success both in choreography and music.

Realizing that the subject had further potential, Bernstein and Robbins teamed up with Betty Comden and Adolph Green for the book and lyrics and by December 1944 had created On the Town with entirely new music. The show was the toast of the town, quickly becoming a classic. One of its numbers, “New York, New York,” is possibly one of the best known songs from any musical ever. It was the first American musical to feature black and white dancers side by side. On the Town was made into a film in 1949 and has enjoyed numerous revivals, including one featuring opera singers Frederica von Stade, Evelyn Lear, Thomas Hampson and Samuel Ramey.

The first dance is part of a dream sequence as Gabey's (one of the three sailors) fantasizes about her girl, Ivy during a subway ride to Coney Island. The music begins almost raucously but then becomes romantic and slightly melancholy. Example 17 & Example 18 The second dance is based on Gabey's song, "Lonely Town." Example 19 & Example 20 The third dance occurs as the finale to Act 1 of the musical and is a fantasy on "New York, New York." Example 21

“Begin the Beguine”
Cole Porter, 1891-1964

American composer and songwriter Cole Porter was one of the major forces for Broadway’s musical stage from 1916 until 1958. His most successful musical was Kiss Me Kate in 1948.

Porter composed Begin the Beguine in 1935 while on a Pacific cruise. In the French Caribbean, a Beguine referred to a slow, close couples dance.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017