10 Best: 5 Best: 20th-Century Operas

20th Century Opera in a nutshell

20th Century Opera in a nutshell

Opera in the 20th century became totally cool from a plot standpoint.  Gone were the days of a plot that really solves itself in 3 minutes but takes 2 and a half hours to get through (she loves WHO?!!), and in its place were plots about all kinds of fucked up shit, with music to match.

Because it was requested some moons ago by someone on something, I have decided to make another list, this time consisting of the 5 best operas of the 20th century.  “Why 5?”, you’re not asking yourself right now.  Frankly, it’s simple: I don’t feel like I know enough 20-century operas to pare down to 10, but I feel like I know enough to pare down to 5 while maintaining something resembling integrity.  With that in mind:

5) Porgy and Bess–George (and Ira…and Ira) Gershwin

If aliens come to Earth intent on destroying us, it is distinctly possible that we could shield ourselves from their hellish death rays and mind control by simply joining in a world wide chorus of “Summertime,” quite possibly the most versatile and oft-interpreted piece of music ever (Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Sublime, AND The Zombies?).  But wait, there’s more.  “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” and on and on.  Sportin’ Life is one of the all-time great opera characters (conceived for Cab Calloway as if it weren’t already cool as hell).  And it’s historically relevant, casting an eye on the unseen side of life in the slums in the ’20’s.

Recommended Recording:  Even though it’s cheating the system a little bit, it has to the Miles Davis/Gil Evans disc. My Lord is it good.

4) The Nose–Dmitri Shostakovich

Before Shostakovich had cemented himself as one of the premier composers of the 20th or any other century, he operated in quite a different sound world.  The Nose comes from the pre-5th Symphony days (which seems to mark the cut-off point for a lot of things in Shostakovich) and more importantly squeaks in before Stalin came to power, which needs no further explanation; in fact, it lies between the 2nd and 3rd symphonies (as a reference point) and immediately precedes the infamous Nicolai Malko “bet you can’t re-orchestrate this from memory in an hour” Tahiti Trot challenge in Shostakovich’s opus numbers.

The music is a chaotic hodgepodge of styles, held together by strict musical forms (a concept we’ll see on this list again here shortly).  The libretto is based on a short story by Gogol, possibly the best writer in the history of Russia and assuredly the best writer in Russian history if you’re asking me.  It tells the story of a St. Petersburg official who manages to lose his nose and watches it achieve a greater social status than he himself before it magically re-attaches itself.  Gogol’s ability to write satire is matched by Shostakovich’s ability to create it in sound, an ability Shostakovich would use in his “mature” years to great effect.

Recommended RecordingRozhdestvensky/Moscow Chamber Theater/Leningrad Philharmonic in a recording of the folks who revived the opera after it was censored, overseen personally by Shostakovich himself.

3) Wozzeck–Alban Berg

The subject matter of this, Berg’s first opera, is quite literally enough to depress a person just by reading it: exploiting the poor (for the benefit of science!), jealousy, insanity, adultery, and the inevitable struggles of literally just existing.  The music itself is an amazing exploration of form, with each act being broken up into 5 scenes, and each scene being a unique form.  Because it’s such a rad plot and structured so awesome-rad, I’m going to just quote the WikiPedia synopsis, which explains the opera rather well.

Act I

Scene 1 (Suite): Wozzeck is shaving the Captain who lectures him for living an immoral life. Wozzeck protests that it is difficult to be virtuous when he is poor, but entreats the Captain to remember the lesson from the gospel, “”Laßet die Kleinen zu mir kommen!”” (“Suffer the little children to come unto me,” Mark 10:14). The Captain greets this admonition with pointed dismay.

Scene 2 (Rhapsody and Hunting Song): Wozzeck and Andres are cutting sticks as the sun is setting. Wozzeck has frightening visions and Andres tries unsuccessfully to calm him.

Scene 3 (March and Lullaby): A military parade passes by outside Marie’s room. Margret taunts Marie for flirting with the soldiers. Then Wozzeck comes by and tells Marie of the terrible visions he has had.

Scene 4 (Passacaglia): The Doctor scolds Wozzeck for not following his instructions regarding diet and behavior. However, when the Doctor hears of Wozzeck’s mental aberrations, he is delighted and congratulates himself on the success of his experiment.

Scene 5 (Rondo): Marie admires the Drum-major outside her room. He makes an advance on her, to which she first rejects but then gives in.

Act II

Scene 1 (Sonata-Allegro): Marie is telling her child to go to sleep while admiring earrings which the Drum-major gave her. She is startled when Wozzeck arrives and when he asks where she got the earrings, she says she found them. Though not convinced, Wozzeck gives her some money and leaves. Marie chastises herself for her behavior.

Scene 2 (Fantasia and Fugue on 3 Themes): The Doctor rushes by the Captain in the street, who urges him to slow down. The Doctor then proceeds to scare the Captain by speculating what afflictions may strike him. When Wozzeck comes by, they insinuate that Marie is being unfaithful to him.

Scene 3 (Largo): Wozzeck confronts Marie, who does not deny his suspicions. Enraged, Wozzeck is about to hit her, when she stops him, saying even her father never dared lay a hand on her. Her statement “better a knife in my belly than your hands on me” plants in Wozzeck’s mind the idea for his subsequent revenge.

Scene 4 (Scherzo): Among a crowd, Wozzeck sees Marie dancing with the Drum-major. After a brief hunter’s chorus, Andres asks Wozzeck why he is sitting by himself. An Apprentice delivers a drunken sermon, then an Idiot approaches Wozzeck and cries out that the scene is “”Lustig, lustig…aber es riecht …Ich riech, ich riech Blut!”” (“joyful, joyful, but it reeks…I smell, I smell blood”).

Scene 5 (Rondo): In the barracks at night, Wozzeck, unable to sleep, is keeping Andres awake. The Drum-major comes in, intoxicated, and rouses Wozzeck out of bed to fight with him.

Act III

Scene 1 (Invention on a Theme): In her room at night, Marie reads to herself from the Bible. She cries out that she wants forgiveness.

Scene 2 (Invention on a Single Note (B)): Wozzeck and Marie are walking in the woods by a pond. Marie is anxious to leave, but Wozzeck restrains her. As a blood-red moon rises, Wozzeck becomes determined that if he can’t have Marie, no one else can, and he stabs her.

Scene 3 (Invention on a Rhythm): People are dancing in a tavern. Wozzeck enters, and upon seeing Margret, dances with her and pulls her onto his lap. He insults her, and then asks her to sing him a song. She sings, but then notices blood on his hand and elbow; everyone begins shouting at him, and Wozzeck, now agitated and obsessed with his blood, rushes out of the tavern.

Scene 4 (Invention on a 6-Note Chord): Having returned to the murder scene, Wozzeck becomes obsessed with the thought that the knife he killed Marie with will incriminate him, and throws it into the pond. When the blood-red moon appears again, he wades into the pond and drowns. The Captain and the Doctor, passing by, hear Wozzeck moaning and rush off in fright. The orchestra rise during the drowning is quoted in Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” (1968–69).

Intermezzo (Invention on a Key (D minor)): This interlude leads to the finale.

Scene 5 (Invention on an Eighth-Note moto perpetuo, quasi toccata): Next morning, children are playing in the sunshine. The news spreads that Marie’s body has been found, and they all run off to see, except for Marie’s little boy, who after an oblivious moment, follows after the others.

Hop hop.

Recommended Recording: Claudio Abbado/Vienna State Opera

2) Salome–Richard Strauss

Sometimes when you baptize Jesus, you totally become famous.  So much so that chicks start demanding your decapitation as a test for the creepy desires of their stepdad.  Salome is based on the Bible by way of Oscar Wilde (that’s weird to type), and has everything you’d ever want in an opera, including nudity (which is great unless Birgit Nilsson happens to be in town), shield-crushing, veils, and King Herod.  Strauss’ music is Strauss’ music, which is to say lush, evocative, and entertaining.  The “Dance of the Seven Veils” is one of the great pieces of music, evidenced by the fact that it’s excerpted all the time, and the final scene is the craziest soprano lunacy this side of Brunnhilde taking a perfectly good horse with her into a huge fire.  There’s something about the shock value that occurs when the story unravels…no matter how many times you see it, and you know what’s coming, you still feel completely repulsed, terrified, and enthralled all at once.  Think of it as the Maury Povich “Who’s the father?” episode of opera.  Shit, I should make an opera out of the transcript of one those…a new project born right before your very eyes.  Your very eyes!

Recommended Recording: Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic and the only Jokaanan worth really sinking your teeth into…or cutting the head off of…Jose van Dam.

1) Bluebeard’s Castle–Bela Bartok

The beauty lies in the simplicity (that’s fucking ingenious if I understand it correctly, Walter…it’s a Swiss fucking watch).  2 onstage characters, 1 large set, 1 act, 1 hour.  Bluebeard elopes with his new wife, Judith, and takes her back to his sweet pad (the importance of the castle is duly noted by Bartok, who actually lists it on the dramatis personae list…which is cool and creepy at the same time).  Once there, Judith wants some natural light and begs Bluebeard to open some doors, but he refuses.  She keeps nagging him until he gives in, making their relationship just like every other relationship ever, and we start seeing shit behind doors.

The doors and rooms all have colors associated with them, as follows:

  1. (The torture chamber) Blood-red
  2. (The armory) Yellowish-red
  3. (The treasury) Golden
  4. (The garden) Bluish-green
  5. (The kingdom) White
  6. (The pool of tears) Darkness; the main hall is darkened, as if a shadow had passed over
  7. (The wives) Silvery

Blood stains everything she sees, and her mind begins to piece everything together.  By the time she sees the pool of tears, she knows what’s up, but demands to see the 7th door opened.  If there was anything that would be cooler than Bluebeard having killed all his wives…it would be making them wear heavy-ass jewelry and crowns and shit, worshipping them, forcing Judith to join them, and then locking them up (I hope my girlfriend isn’t reading this…I don’t have a castle anyway).

The minor second plays a huge role musically…they call it the blood motif, as you hear it anytime Judith notices blood on Bluebeard’s stuff.  There is a broad arching key structure of F# moving to C and back to F# which some people apparently think represents darkness and light, and which, now that I think about it, makes perfect sense.  That type of synergy is what makes this the best opera of the 20th century…it has so many awesome puzzles in it, it’s as ominous a story as you can imagine, and it has the benefit of Bartok at his “A” game.

Recommended Recording: Istvan Kertesz/London Symphony with Christa Ludwig as Judith and Walter Berry as Bluebeard, and also Walter Berry looking VERY suspiciously like a modern day Bluebeard taking women back to his apartment and acting inappropriately on the Decca Legends cover photo.

There it is.  I issue apologies to every Britten opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Elektra, The Rake’s Progress, Lulu, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Rusalka, Tosca, Jenufa, The Golden Cockerel (the suite is one of my all-time favorite pieces, though), The Love for Three Oranges, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany, Moses und Aron, Antony and Cleopatra, Turandot, Die tote Stadt, and The Cunning Little Vixen.  I literally immediately regret my list not having Britten or Janacek on it.  But it’s too late…I’m already wearing the heavy-ass jewelry.

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6 thoughts on “10 Best: 5 Best: 20th-Century Operas

  1. Trade out Salome for Rosenkavalier, then scrap the Gershwin for some Stravinsky or Puccini, and we’ve got a deal. Nice list.

  2. Interesting list. Are you familiar with what must be the sickest and creepiest opera ever, Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel”. It’s weirder and creepier than anything in a Stephen King book or movie.
    It’s the tale of Renata,a crazed religious mystic in 16th century Germany and the wandering knight Rprecht, who loves her in vain,and their horrifying involvement in the blackest of black magic,demonology and demonic possession, ending in an exorcism which will make you wet your pants in terror!
    The recordings with Gergiev on Philips and Jarvi on DG are hard to find,as well as the DVD, but worth looking for- if you dare !!!

  3. I’ll admit to being fascinated…generally, the more screwed up an opera plot is, the better. Maybe we should get Takashi Miike to write a libretto?

  4. Pingback: 2010 in review « Everything But The Music

  5. About puccini, one of my big favorites, I think you left him out well, as will probably fit better in the previous century. I do put first elektra (Borhk, Bohm, Dresden), take out porgy. I am running to get the nose (never heard it!).

  6. Only if you think the 20th Century ended in the 1930s. No Benjamin Britten opera makes the list. And what about Nixon In China?

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