Monday 18 December 2017

Classic talk: Fantastical opera weaves a magic spell

Huge hit: a 2015 performance of Il Trovatore in France
Huge hit: a 2015 performance of Il Trovatore in France

George Hamilton

The Friday teatime flight down to Rome and the taxi ride that followed delivered me to the Via del Viminale as the Piazza Beniamino Gigli was filling with the good folk who'd just enjoyed a night at the opera.

I caught sight of the apartment window across the street where a young soprano from Mayo was practising her scales.

What she hadn't known was that a producer was listening down in the square. That was Margaret Burke Sheridan's big break. The rest is history.

On Friday of last week, it was Verdi on the bill. Il Trovatore was a huge hit for the composer, and though it may not hold the title of most-performed opera these days, it's still one that holds immense appeal.

Set in 15th-century Spain, there's plenty of scope for the arching melodies and exotic rhythms that thrill in Bizet's Carmen.

It's a convoluted tale, a ghost story really, that hinges on something that happens long before the curtain goes up - the burning at the stake of a gypsy woman, accused of putting a curse on the infant son of a Spanish count.

The woman's daughter plans revenge, and there you have the basis of what is a most convoluted plot. Of course, there's a love triangle as well - boy fancies girl who fancies another boy.

The old count's two sons (one of them was snatched as a child as part of the gypsy daughter's revenge mission, so they aren't aware that they are brothers) are central to this.

Whatever about the intricacies of a pretty absurd plot, the audience still delights in Il Trovatore with its treasure trove of spellbinding songs.

From 'Di Quella Pira' to the 'Anvil Chorus', there's a host of familiar numbers. Verdi certainly knew how to come up a tune that would stand the test of time.

Another composer who could plot a gloriously melodic course was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was born on this day in 1844 in imperial Russia, some 30 years after Verdi and a world away from the Italy that was inspiring epics like Nabucco.

It was opera that put Rimsky-Korsakov on the path to a career in music. He'd been taken to see one as a youngster and was completely overwhelmed by the way the music and the drama were so completely interwoven to wonderful theatrical effect.

Even though he followed his father into the Russian navy, his music books were always with him.

He completed a symphony during a three-year tour at sea and left active service soon after to become an inspector of naval bands.

His mightn't be the first name you'd associate with opera, but it formed a major area of his output. There were 15 in all (Verdi wrote more than 25).

Native Russian music was his inspiration, music that he wove around tales of fantasy and folklore.

Scheherazade, his version of the tale of the Arabian Nights, features some effortlessly gorgeous music.

'The Tale of Tsar Saltan', about a fairytale princess and her prince, features the madcap 'Flight of the Bumble Bee', music to accompany the return of the tsar's son, who has been magically transformed into an insect for the journey.

All part of the fantastical world of opera where the music helps make the implausible absolutely acceptable, if only for a night.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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