Oriental delights anticipating Mozart’s operas

“Zanaide” performed in Bad Lauchstädt. © Gert Mothes

Oriental exotics and intrigue, power struggles, impossible love, betrayal and reconciliation – those ingredients have tempted librettists and opera composers alike. How they dealt with it, had very much to do with the conventions of the time, the taste of the audience, and the availability of good singers. When Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, made his debut in London,  he was appalled by the lack of good singers, and though the King’s Theatre asked him in 1762 to write two operas, he initially refused. However, after the audition of several singers, he agreed, and in 1763, he presented an opera that had long been forgotten, and that I have discovered myself only very recently: Zanaida.

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Rusalka caught between fantasy and reality

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The nymphs. © Eléna Bauer/Opéra de Paris

April 2015: I am at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and the final curtain on Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka”, Op. 114 has just fallen. An exhilarating experience. I remember I left the opera in a kind of trance, perpetuated at least for some time by a glass of wine at the opera restaurant. The magnitude of the performance, directed by Robert Carsen and conducted by Jakub Hrusa, probably was the main reason why I never resolved myself to write a post about it even though I had one scheduled for autumn 2015. I was worried that the unique impression of music, the acting and the stage design would dwarf anything I would feel when listening to a mere recording and prevent me from rendering justice to Dvorak’s work (the casting is available here).

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A pocket-size opera inspired by Robinson Crusoe

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Can you spot those cruel pirates? © Charles Thibo

Haydn didn’t write operas, did he? He was the champion of chamber music and a prolific writer of symphonies, but operas? No, no, no. That’s what I thought and I was wrong. Half a year ago I enjoyed the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and Hélène Grimaud performing Bartok’s Piano Concert No. 3, but the warm-up of the orchestra alone had already justified buying that no-so-cheap ticket. The Dutch ensemble, shrunk to the size of a chamber orchestra, performed the overture in G minor of Haydn’s opera “L’Isola Disabitata” (The Lonely Island) – a lovely piece of music that made me curious. What would an opera written by Haydn sound like?

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La Cenerentola or walking in Mozart’s footsteps

Where did Cinderella lose her shoes? © Charles Thibo

Cinderella lost one of her shoes at the ball, right? And the young prince, supposed to marry her, found her through the matching shoe on Cinderella’s foot. That’s the story as it has been told to us. So why did the librettist Jacopo Ferretti of this opera drop the shoe and let the prince find and recognize Cinderella through her bracelet? Mystery. Perhaps because this opera was written in a matter of days. It took Ferretti 22 days to complete the libretto while the composer, Gioacino Rossini, composed the music in 24 days. It all happened in 1816.

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