Opera in the 20th Century

October 13, 2004

October 15: The End of Opera?

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 8:58 PM | Link to this post

The two operas we will examine this week were premiered within a few months of one another in 1925 to 1926, both conducted by legendary conductors. One represents the end of traditional Italian opera, and the other is sometimes regarded as the perfect modernist opera, combining atonal techniques with a disturbing psychological analysis of its characters. Was this the one-two punch that was the beginning of the decline of opera?

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Giacomo Puccini, Turandot, Joan Sutherland, London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), Turandot
Premiered on April 25, 1926, at La Scala in Milan, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

Libretto (in Italian only): Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, after a play by Carlo Gozzi, Re Turandot (1762) or actually after Friedrich Schiller's German adaptation of Gozzi, Turandot, Prinzessin von China, from 1802). Suites of incidental music for performances of the play were composed by Carl Maria von Weber and Ferrucio Busoni. Operas on the same story were also composed by Antonio Bazzini in 1867, and by Busoni in 1917

As for the "Chinese" sound of the opera, the closest Puccini got to China was listening to the Chinese musicbox owned by his friend Baron Fassini, who had been to China. Puccini supposedly derived some of the opera's main themes from this musicbox. His reading on Chinese culture and ritual was extensive, including a book by J. A. van Aalst, Chinese Music (Shanghai, 1884).

The opera was left incomplete (ending in the middle of the third act, after the death of Liù) at the composer's death in 1924; finished by Franco Alfano, in consultation with Toscanini.

Turandot will be broadcast live on radio from the Met, on January 29, 2005.

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Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Hildegard Behrens, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado (recorded live at the Vienna Staatsoper, 1987)
Alban Berg (1885–1935), Wozzeck
Premiered at the Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin, December 14, 1925, conducted by Erich Kleiber.

Libretto (in German only): by the composer, based on a play by Georg Büchner (1813–1837), Woyzeck (completed in 1837, published in 1879, first performed in 1913 in Munich). The play is derived from real events in Leipzig, in 1821, when Johann Christian Woyzeck, a barber and former soldier, had murdered his mistress, Frau Woost. His lawyer's defense of insanity was rejected by the court, and Woyzeck was hanged publicly in Leipzig's market square in 1824. The case was written up in a medical journal, to which Büchner's father, a doctor, subscribed.

Berg saw the first performance of the play in Vienna in 1914 and immediately began sketching out plans for the opera. World War I delayed his plans. The full score was completed in 1922, the cost of which was underwritten by Alma Mahler, to whom the work was dedicated.

Messiaen remarked that he hesitated to compose an opera, because he thought that nothing was possible after Wozzeck, which was typical of many at the time.

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