December 21, 2017


Verdi: Overtures (Sinfonias) and Preludes to “La forza del destino,” “Aida,” “Un ballo in maschera,” “I vespri siciliani,” “La traviata,” “Stiffelio,” “Luisa Miller,” “La battaglia di Legnano,” “Il corsaro,” “I masnadieri,” “Macbeth,” “Giovanna d’Arco,” “Ernani,” “Jérusalem,” “Nabucco,” “Un giorno di regno” and “Oberto”; Ballet Music from “Don Carlos.” Philharmonia Zürich conducted by Fabio Luisi. Philharmonia Records. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Wagner: Overtures to “Die Feen,” “Das Liebesverbot,” “Christopher Columbus,” and “König Enzio”; Concert Overtures Nos. 1 and 2; Siegfried Idyll. MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $12.99.

     Opera composers have to know how to start things. For a long time, pre-action music was simply designed to get the audience’s attention, let listeners know that the stage play was about to begin, and have everyone settle down and get ready to see and hear it. This accounts for the interchangeable nature of many early opera overtures (or sinfonias, as they were also frequently called). Then composers started to include material from the opera itself in the overture, preparing the audience for what was to come musically rather than simply in terms of mood. This did not always work – it explains why Beethoven gave up after three Leonore overtures that became miniature tone poems and reverted to the old mood-setting style for the Fidelio overture – but when it did, it prepared the audience quite elegantly for the drama or comedy of the upcoming performance. Composers struggled for years with the “right” way to start an opera, and Verdi in particular seemed to keep changing his mind. He eventually decided, in his late operas Otello and Falstaff, that a few bars of introduction were enough, but his earlier works sometimes use the mood-setting approach, sometimes provide brief character portraits, and sometimes are full-fledged dramatic overtures that stand quite well on their own as concert pieces and are often performed that way. Fabio Luisi and the Philharmonia Zürich offer a generous helping of Verdi introductory material, covering more than half his operas, in a new two-CD set on the orchestra’s own label. Verdi was a dramatist above all – even his Messa da Requiem is the most dramatic setting of the mass for the dead ever written – and all the material here shows his flair for clear establishment of a mood, or anticipation of many of them. It is a shame that the material is not arranged chronologically – that would have shown Verdi’s somewhat meandering development in this field clearly – but it is nevertheless fascinating to hear the clearly derivative elements of Oberto and Un giorno di regno, his first two operas, and be able to contrast them with the dramatic splendor of Nabucco and Giovanna d’Arco and the deliberately modest and circumscribed mood-setting of the start of La traviata. An additional highlight here is a real rarity: the upbeat ballet music from the distinctly downbeat Don Carlos. Ballet music was required by the Paris Opera for works performed there, so Verdi had to include a ballet within his bleak drama of the Inquisition, and duly inserted it as an entertainment for the king. Unlike a similarly required ballet that has become far better known than the opera in which it appears – “Dance of the Hours” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda – Verdi’s Don Carlos ballet has fallen into obscurity and is rarely heard. Luisi’s decision to include it here is a particularly happy one: the music is tuneful, very well-made, and thoroughly balletic, although it fits not at all with the mood and theme of the opera in which it appears. All these works, even the earliest, show Verdi’s skill in orchestration, and while it helps when hearing them if one knows what happens in the operas to which they are attached, such knowledge is not really necessary to enjoy the skillful way in which Verdi fastens onto listeners’ emotions in order to pull his audiences into the worlds he created on the opera stage.

     Wagner’s handling of opera overtures was quite different, focusing from the start (Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot) on extended tone-poem-like essays in scene-setting that led in his fourth opera, Der fliegende Holländer, to an overture that encapsulates the whole work in the same way the Leonore Overture No. 3 summarizes Fidelio. Wagner disavowed his earlier operas, not only the first two but also the third, Rienzi (whose overture is broad and in its own way magnificent). But early Wagner has been largely rediscovered in recent years, and a new Naxos CD featuring the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jun Märkl offers an interesting sampling of this material. In addition to the lead-ins to the first two operas – both of which are highly effective despite the clear echoes of Marschner in the first and Rossini in the second – the CD includes the overtures to two stage plays, Christopher Columbus and König Enzio, and both of them prove to be strong curtain-raisers, if not particularly individualized in style. Even rarer than these are the two Concert Overtures, in D minor and C major respectively, both written, as was König Enzio, when Wagner was not yet 19. Both overtures show strong influence from Beethoven, and the second is actually for a “rescue” work that mirrors in some ways the plot of Fidelio, the overture being suitably melancholic and dramatic. Neither work yet shows the style that would come to be known as Wagnerian, but both provide evidence of Wagner’s early command of orchestration, his fine sense of contrast between the lyrical and dramatic, and his willingness to match music carefully to dramatic needs – as in the quiet, disturbed ending of Concert Overture No. 2 despite repeated attempts by lighter material to assert itself. It is interesting that a previous Naxos release, from 2004, also focused on Wagner’s early works, including König Enzio, Christopher Columbus and the overtures to Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot. But that recording, featuring the Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alexander Rahbari, also included the Rienzi overture and the Faust overture as revised by the composer in 1855. Thus, the focus was entirely on earlier Wagner. This new CD, on the other hand, adds to the early material the Siegfried Idyll of 1870, a distinctive and distinctly late work that in this context primarily shows how far Wagner had developed in his use of instrumentation and expressive content by the time he created this birthday gift for his wife, Cosima. The careful and sensitive playing of the Siegfried Idyll is a particular pleasure of the Märkl CD, even though the work itself does not quite fit with the other material here (oddly, it is preceded on the disc by Concert Overture No. 1, the very earliest of all these pieces). On the whole, this well-played and well-paced disc, if not exactly revelatory of anything about Wagner, does a fine job of confirming the composer’s skill with the orchestra from his earliest days, and through the Siegfried Idyll shows the additional fine-tuning of that skill over the decades of his maturation.

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