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Thread: Is opera more a dramatic experience than musical?

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DavidA View Post
    The opera might be 'splendid' but 'beautiful' it ain't. I don't think even Strauss would have considered it so as it is a study of pathological hatred and self-perpetuating violence, as Gotz Friedreich's production brings out.

    So who expects beauty from this? For beauty go to Figaro or Carmen not Electra.
    That's exactly what I read in my booklet notes of the Netherlands PO/Albrecht SACD. It says the story is based totally on pathological hatred.

    I'm glad to see replies which seem to recognize and address my complaints, rather than write me off as ignorant, especially Woodduck's illuminating response. Perhaps the answer for me, for now, is to keep listening.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Oct-01-2019 at 13:44.

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zhdanov View Post
    but what is conventional in music? isn't that 'rich in sound & meaningful' in the first place?
    By a 'conventional' definition of music, I mean music in which pitch and rhythm are the main concerns, as opposed to John Cage or Ligeti, and music concrete, in which pitch is not the main concern. You know, the "elements" of music: pitch, rhythm, timbre...

    ...symphonies can be like speech. Beethoven 9th and its part 4 for instance - - the cellos & double basses do really speak in there.
    Yes, music can be about dramatic "gesture." See my blog. But when "gesture" overwhelms pitch, as some opera seems to do, I have problems listening to it as "music," and it becomes more like a drama, with speech laid-over the music.

    https://www.talkclassical.com/blogs/...c-gesture.html

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    Senior Member starthrower's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    Perhaps the answer for me, for now, is to keep listening.
    That helps! You might want to try Lohengrin by Wagner. I find that one to be highly satisfying. And several other Wagner operas. Oedipe by Enescu is another beautiful opera I discovered several years ago. The recording on EMI with Van Dam, and Hendricks.
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    Senior Member Dr. Shatterhand's Avatar
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    Is opera more a dramatic experience than a musical one? No - but it depends on the period!

    Elektra is early 20th-century - post-Wagnerian, in other words. A lot of operas from this period make little distinction between recitative and aria. Closed forms / 'numbers' (arias, duets, ensembles, choruses) are rare. It's a throwback in some ways to the 17th century operas of Monteverdi, Cavalli, and Lully. I'm not a fan; my ear wants something more melodic.

    If you want melody, you should really look between the early 18th century Baroque to the mid-19th century.

    Composers were admired for their compositions; contemporary critics discussed the form of the piece, as well as their instrumentation, harmonies, and counterpoint. (I could dig out examples, but it's late! Opera Rara's booklets are full of examples; so are 19th century musicologists like Clément and Fétis.) But the best works, as with any stage work, are dramatically compelling (or at least entertaining).

    In Italian bel canto opera, the ensembles and finales were often the highlights. Have you heard much Rossini? Not the Barber, but his opera seria, particularly from the Naples period? (Maometto II, Donna del lago, Ermione, Mosè, Ricciardo e Zoraide, Zelmira?) Colossal mastery of closed forms (including a massive Terzettone, and, in one of the French operas, a gran pezzo concertato with 14 voices); instrumentation that starts near Haydn then moves towards Beethoven; geared towards psychological and dramatic ends. (I also recommend Meyerbeer's early Italian operas, especially Margherita d'Anjou and Il crociato in Egitto; Mercadante, especially Orazi e Curiazi, full of robust instrumentation, enormous fresco-like ensembles and finales, and a shocking ending; and Donizetti wrote a score or so of great scores.)

    To go back to the Baroque... Handel's the best-known, but I prefer the Neapolitan composers like Vinci (especially Artaserse, his masterpiece, with "Vo' solcando un mar crudele", but Catone in Utica has some impressive bravura arias; the beautiful, slowly unfolding "Quell'amor che poco accende"; and an excellent quartet) and Porpora.

    French tragédie lyrique is an acquired taste; even contemporary audiences from other countries found it too dry, too tuneless; it becomes more melodic a couple of decades or two after Lully, but it's not really until Gluck that one can enjoy it without making mental adjustments. Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie is superb - musically imaginative, instrumental colour, arresting harmony - and has an extraordinary, enharmonic trio. From the 1760s, French opéra-comique appears; the early ones are pretty flimsy, but Monsigny's Roi et fermier is tuneful.

    Gluck is great - both as a musician and as a musical dramatist. Paride ed Elena is beautiful; Iphigénie en Tauride his masterpiece. (This is the one where he disconcerted the musicians: "He's lying; he killed his mother!") Mozart, of course; particularly Figaro and Don Giovanni; Mozart's best music is beautiful, full of sympathy and understanding for his characters, with great tunes and some ingenious ensembles - a multi-section finale in Figaro that ends as a septet; several bands playing simultaneously in Don Giovanni; a superb quartet and a sextet in the same opera...
    (And there are Sacchini; Gluck's heir Salieri - by no means mediocre!; Grétry: Andromaque , after Racine, and Richard Coeur-de-lion are the standouts I've heard, but L'amant jaloux has a beautiful serenade. Works from this period - such as Andromaque - consist of musically dense scenes (rather than numbers), with arias, choruses, declamation forming a whole.

    From the revolutionary period: Beethoven's Fidelio is the surviving work from this time; full of nobly beautiful choruses, with an ingenious Mozartean quartet and a glorious choral ending. (I haven't warmed to Spontini, who can be rather bombastic; probably his best is Olympie, which sometimes sounds like an artillery barrage; I have yet to investigate Méhul and Cherubini.)

    I've mentioned Rossini and bel canto.

    In the lighter side of opera: In France: Boieldieu's Dame blanche, full of earworms, with a masterly auction ensemble; Auber's light but exhilaratingly rhythmic works, such as Fra Diavolo, Le cheval de bronze, and the grand operas La muette de Portici and Gustave III; and the ever inventive, witty Offenbach, with some of the cleverest ensembles in opera (including ones in gibberish Chinese and Italian, an indigestion quartet, and canonic choruses). The Polish national opera, Moniuszko's Straszny dwór, is one of the most melodic operas I know - with several fine ensembles, a terrific bass aria, a tenor aria (with clock chimes), and a mazurka. Over in Germany, there are Weber (his Gothic Singspiel Freischutz, full of dark forests and devilry), and Lortzing (Zar und Zimmermann, which I remember has a fine sextet).

    There are the powerful, richly imaginative grand opéras of Meyerbeer (especially Les Huguenots, Le prophète, Dinorah, and Vasco de Gama) and Halévy (La juive's his most famous). Meyerbeer, enormously popular in the 19th century, combined Italian bel canto with French declamation and German instrumentation and harmonies in historical operas about politics, religion, colonisation, and intolerance; the sober Halévy continues the French tragédie lyrique tradition with a keen sense of character and electrifying drama.

    The great Hector Berlioz wrote three (possibly four) operas. The life-enhancing, joyous Benvenuto Cellini mixes the sublime and the grotesque in true Hugo Romantic spirit; it was a failure, but it's one of my half-dozen favourite operas. Les Troyens is his massive resurrection of late 18th century tragédie lyrique; here, very much the emphasis is on music rather than drama; the first two acts, showing the fall of Troy, are gripping; the last three, at Dido's court, are full of inspired pieces, but rather slow. Béatrice et Bénédict, his caprice written with a needle, is a witty take on Much Ado About Nothing (omitting most of Shakespeare's plot); it has a rapturously beautiful duet for soprano and contralto. I said maybe four; it depends whether you count La damnation de Faust, his légende dramatique - which has been staged both as an opera and as a concert work. Berlioz was considered an iconoclast, a radical ... but his idols were Gluck and Beethoven, and he believed very much in FORM - "this form without which music does not exist, or is only the craven servant of speech".

    If the Futurists tell us: “One must do the opposite of what the rules prescribe; we are tired of melody, tired of melodic patterns, tired of arias, duets, trios and movements whose themes are developed regularly; we are surfeited with consonant harmonies, with simple dissonances prepared and resolved, with natural modulations skillfully contrived; one must take account only of the idea and forget about sensation; one must scorn the ear, strumpet that it is, one must brutalize it in order to master it; it is not the purpose of music to be pleasing to it; music must be made accustomed to anything and everything, to strings of ascending and descending diminished sevenths which resemble a knot of hissing serpents writhing and tearing each other, to triple dissonances which are neither prepared nor resolved, to inner parts forcibly combined without agreeing harmonically or rhythmically and rasping painfully against one another, to ugly modulations entering in one part of the orchestra before the previous key has made its exit; one should show no regard to the art of singing and give no thought to its nature or its requirements; in opera one must confine oneself to setting down the declamation, even if it means writing intervals that are outlandish, nasty and unsingable…

    The witches in Macbeth are right: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” If that is the new religion, I am very far from professing it; I have never been part of it, I am not now and I never shall be. I raise my hand and swear Non credo. On the contrary, I firmly believe that fair is not foul and foul is not fair. Certainly, it is not music’s sole purpose to be pleasing to the ear. But music’s purpose is a thousand times less to be unpleasing to it, to torture and destroy it.
    Also Gounod (lots of good melodies in Faust); Bizet (The Pearl Fishers, Carmen).

    There's the ever-green Verdi, who combined Italian bel canto with, later in his career, French grand opera influences; Trovatore (the last bel canto), Rigoletto (with its famous 'thinks' quartet), and Traviata are his most famous works, but I prefer Don Carlos (his French masterpiece), Aida (grand opera Egyptian style), and Otello (almost through-composed, but with arias &c arising naturally from the action)

    Lohengrin is Wagner's most Italianate work, and his most engaging dramatically; Flying Dutchman his most hummable; Tannhauser his most melodic, but it's rather static. There's a lot of Sprechgesang in the later music dramas, but when he does write duets, choruses, and ensembles, they're usually wonderful.

    There's a rich seam of opera in Russia, often historical or legendary: Glinka's Life for the Tsar (terrific trio and quartet) and Ruslan & Lyudmila (brilliant whizzing overture); Mussorgsky's impressive Boris Godunov, with almost Shakespearean dramatic monologues and magnificent crowd and mob scenes; Borodin's Prince Igor, which has a fine chorus and an eclipse at the start, a good bass-baritone aria, and the Polovtsian dances; and Rimsky-Korsakov; these are mainly on Wagnerian lines, with a lot of quasi-recit, but the instrumentation is, as you'd expect, wonderful, and there are some beautiful arias and choruses, particularly in The Snow Maiden and The Tsar's Bride.

    We're nearing the turn of the century, which is where we came in with Elektra!

    Jules Massenet's my favourite late 19th / early 20th century composer; he's astonishingly versatile, reinvents himself with every opera, and was one of opera's great melodists. He unites the free-flowing Wagnerian music-drama with the French opéra-comique, grand opéra and opéra lyrique styles. Massenet could move seamlessly between recit, song and orchestra, without the symphonic element overwhelming the singers. (I wrote about him here.)

    A lot of verismo is quasi-recit; this includes Puccini, whose most musically interesting work is Turandot, a kind of last hurrah for grand opera with 20th century, post-Schoenberg effects. Probably the most tuneful verismo opera I know is Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana; it has a splendid Easter Hymn and a vigorous baritone aria. Not mad on Cilea.

    Strauss is often guilty of note-spinning: conversation with little melodic content. Even Der Rosenkavalier, his most popular work, has a lot of talk - but the Presentation of the Rose and the final trio are exquisite. There are beautiful passages in all his operas; probably Salome is his most consistently musically inspired (although some would say Die Frau ohne Schatten, his Wagnerian reworking of The Magic Flute). I'd also recommend Ariadne auf Naxos, a kind of Straussian chamber music (from the guy who said 'Louder, I can still hear the singers!') opera seria. His bel canto pastiche Die schweigsame Frau has some really lovely music, including (from memory) a trio? at the end of one act, and a bass aria at the end.

    And that bass aria is - aptly enough - "Wie schön ist doch die Musik":



    It's midnight, and I feel tired.
    Last edited by Dr. Shatterhand; Oct-01-2019 at 15:08.

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  8. #20
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    Opera is music first, because if it were not, it would be a production with actors on Broadway instead.
    However, with the excellent interpretations by those singers who happen to be graced with acting talent, it certainly brings the opera to life even more. After all, opera is a visual presentation.
    Last edited by nina foresti; Oct-02-2019 at 00:46.

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    Senior Member Zhdanov's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    pitch and rhythm are the main concerns
    the main concern is rhythm, a second one is pitch.

    because what use of pitch without rhythm? how you build a melody then?

    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    when "gesture" overwhelms pitch, as some opera seems to do, I have problems listening to it as "music,"
    that is not such a issue if you listen to these operas many times long enough and grow accustomed.

    melodies will begin to transpire sooner or later even if the composer made it hard to listen.

    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    https://www.talkclassical.com/blogs/...c-gesture.html Music gradually divorced itself from drama over several centuries.
    i hear different. Mahler, Strauss, Prokofiev, Stravinsky etc. - they do have drama in their works.

    maybe even more so than a century before.

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    I enjoy listening to classical non vocal music in the car but find symphony concerts boring. I like the more human involvement of opera in a live performance. Elektra is incredibly gorgeous music to me that is wild, dramatic and over the top like a Star Wars movie. It is one of my top 5 favorite operas. I enjoy musicals but am not passionate about them like my friends are.

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    Senior Member Eva Yojimbo's Avatar
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    I think the question is too broad for a simple yes or no, so I'll go with "it depends." It's probably more dramatic than musical compared to plain music as the moment any music includes the voice with words there's dramatic considerations. Even outside of opera you can hear choral composers take advantage of the dramatic possibilities within texts (this doesn't necessarily mean a lack of melody or more declamation, merely that the shape and form the music takes is directed by the text; think of something like word painting in Handel or Purcell). Opera is, of course, a hybrid of drama and music, but in being a hybrid it's a bit strange to ask whether one or the other is dominant; the idea is that one enhances the other, not that it overpowers it. It would be like asking if film is a more pictorial or literary genre; it's both, and the visual aspect is there to render/affect how we perceive the literary aspect.

    Those caveats aside, different eras and different composers emphasized different aspects of this relationship. Many others in this thread have written quite eloquently and at length about this, so I won't repeat what they've said; but I would say that it's impossible to generalize about opera from one work. Personally, I don't find Elektra tuneless, but it's definitely among the more drama-centric operas out there. If you want to hear tuneful R. Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier or Ariadne auf Naxos is what you're after, but for even more melody I'd turn to Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Well, I'm glad that the opera buffs here have finally admitted to the facts! Opera is a specialized form of drama and music!
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    Senior Member Zhdanov's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    Opera is a specialized form of drama and music!
    that isn't main point about it since music itsef came from literature and theater.

    music is a narrative the images of which are put in sound to a much bigger effect.

    opera, symphony, concerto - the drama is in the music, be it present onstage or not.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Zhdanov View Post
    no.

    music first.

    the operas that are still around owe it to the music, not libretti.
    Many operas are said to not be as popular as they could because of the weakness of the libretto. If that's true or not I don't now.

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    Quote Originally Posted by FleshRobot View Post
    Many operas are said to not be as popular as they could because of the weakness of the libretto. If that's true or not I don't now.
    Many operas have failed solely because of the weakness of the libretto. It *does* make a difference.
    Alan

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    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    In the theater, the musical power of opera may be compromised by inappropriate staging that detracts from the expressive meaning of the music. This is an all-too-common experience in our era of postmodern "anything-goes" and directorial dictatorship. But don't get me started on THAT subject!
    Interesting that I was reading in a recently published book that the era of regietheatre has been brought about by the relative lack of good new operatic material to perform hence opera houses employing directors to give a new spin on old classics. ie the emergence of the director is a result of the paucity of new operatic material.
    Last edited by DavidA; Oct-08-2019 at 19:40.

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    Senior Member Zhdanov's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by amfortas View Post
    Many operas have failed solely because of the weakness of the libretto.
    an opera can fail only due to its music.

    bad libretti do not kill operas, not even the likes of Simon Boccanegra.

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    Bad libretti can cripple operas, but mainly because they fail to provide the composer with opportunities to write his most effective music, or they interfere with his ability to achieve effective dramatic pacing. That happened with Weber's Euryanthe and Oberon; there's great music in them, but they don't "gel" in theatrical terms. A poor libretto is one that undercuts the composer in his effort to create well-shaped musical drama.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Oct-08-2019 at 21:16.

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