Wiki With Me

Wiki With Me: The The Cumnor Affair (Phillip Cashian, 2008)

Did you know about the infamous “Cashian Affair?” Essentially, it was the illicit love between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, made more complicated by his wife Amy Cumnor (or Amy Robsart. You can now read about it at the new Wikipedia entry, solely written by me!

In the words of its creator Phillip Cushia,

“I wanted to write an opera where the audience is constantly on the edge of their seats wanting to know what’s going to happen next. The Cumnor Affair is my first opera although I had the idea for the story about 10 years ago. After reading Iain Pears An Instance of the Fingerpost I thought he’d be the perfect librettist for an Elizabethan murder mystery and was thrilled when he agreed to write the words.”

Tête à Tête

Enjoy reading ~ John V.

Wiki With Me

Wiki With Me: Felix Mendelssohn’s “Oedipus at Colonus” (1894)

A new work to me, the ten-scene opera entitled “Oedipus at Colonus” (Op.93) follows the Greek tragedy written by Sophocles during the 1st century, included in his “Three Thebian Plays.” Recently, in 2010 the work had its contemporary revival and its now recorded for future generations.

For some context, the work was a commission by Frederick William IV of Prussia in order to encourage Berlin audiences to pay more attention to the classical works of Greek theatre, particularly tragedy. Featuring two soloists, a double male chorus, and an orchestra of 15 instruments, the opera is a captivating and highly sophisticated look at the horrors that befell Oedipus at the end of his life. To summarize, Oedipus (Rex) is a figure doomed to fate and try as he might, he ends up killing his father and marrying his mother unknowingly. At the knowledge of this, he claws his own eyes out while his mother hangs herself in despair and shame.

The opera received its first (private) performance at the Neues Palais in Potsdam, Germany on November 1st, 1845. Nine days later, the work received its first public performance in Stuttgart. According to knowledge of the work, it was relatively popular during Mendelssohn’s time and even received performance within and outside Germany. However, for audiences outside Germany the work may not be familiar if known at all.

If you’d like to learn more, I have linked some academic sources for you to read:

  1. Jason Duane Geary (2004): “Ancient voices: Mendelssohn’s incidental music to Sophocles’s “Antigone” and “Oedipus at Colonus.”
  2. Maria Teresa Arfini (2015): “Around Antigone: The Iconography and Music in the German Revival of the Classical Tragedy.”
Opera Wire

Opera Wire [Unused On This Day: Feb. 5th]

On February 5th of 1887, Guiseppe Verdi’s penultimate four-act opera Otello received its premiere at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy. Beginning at 8 pm in the evening, the audience (unlike the typical practice at the theater) were already in their seats by the time the opera began, with more than 5,000 audience members waiting outside wishing to score a seat in the theater for themselves.

After a harrowing and extremely stressful drafting period, the opera was finally completed on the first of November of 1886. Although on the verge of retirement (only one opera away), Verdi’s capabilities in creating a socially-aware and extremely exciting opera had audiences and performers alike dying to see it and perform its roles, although Verdi was very particular with who got to perform his operatic characters. Verdi was extremely fond of Shakespeare, and spent a considerable amount of his life setting his stories to music (three finished operas with many others planned but never completed). The opera’s libretto, written by Arrigo Boito, proved to be a massive task, as personalities like Iago and Otello are complex. Thus, the musical and textual life had to coalesce together in order for the story to be sold in a faithful manner. So meticulous was Verdi that he had personally coached the singers, helping Francesco Tamango (Otello) gain a far more palpable and realistic quality to his musical and dramatic performance (especially the ending). 

The premiere at La Scala was not a streamline affair but rather one of secrecy. On the official posters for the opera, dates were not given as a way to allow Verdi to cancel the premiere at any time. Further, Giovanni Ricordi (founder of Casa Ricordi, the sole owner of the rights of Verdi’s works) and his firm was actively engaged in the premiere, helping with costume, set design, and appointment management in order to help the premiere shine. It was a help, in retrospect, that Verdi’s opera was being completed in sections, because as soon as the opera was completed the Ricordi firm wanted to publish a vocal score as soon as possible, ostensibly to capitalize on the attention that the opera was generating. During the rehearsals at La Scala, Verdi had routinely threatened to cancel the premiere if things were fixed, demonstrating just how serious each premiere was to the (by that time) national hero and symbol of Italy’s greatness. 

One key point to understanding the premiere, however, is Verdi’s relationship with La Scala which, by all accounts, was a hearty and life-long one. His first opera (Oberto) and last opera (Falstaff) were performed there, and due to the closeness of director Bartolomeo Merelli with Verdi, and his operas would find refuge at the theater for most of Verdi’s life. For a time, he forbade his operas to be performed there due to his disagreements with the quality of the orchestra, although by the late-1860s (1869, the premiere of La Forza del Destino) to early 1870s (1874, the premiere of his Requiem which he conducted), things had seemingly tempered out. Despite Verdi’s reservations the premiere turned out to be wildly successful thanks to the aid of Ricordi and its influence. So popular in fact, that it’s recorded that the opera garnished 20 curtain calls.

Wiki With Me

Wiki With Me: Antonio Bononcini’s “Sesostri re di Egitto” (1716)

[Picture: First page of the libretto of Sesostri re di Egitto]

Within the world of Baroque opera, there are far too many operas to be cognisant of them all, let alone a handful of them. Nevertheless, because I’m fascinated by unknown and lesser-known operatic works, Wikipedia is a wonderful venue for low-commitment research. Therefore, venture with me as we discover the opera “Sesostri re di Egitto” by Baroque composer Antonio Maria Bononcini (1677-1726).

Who Was Bononcini?

Born in Moderna, Italy, Antonio is the little-known brother of much more known Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747), composer and cellist (among other things). He’s most widely known for his impressive catalogue of operatic compositions but particularly his opera “Xerxes” (1694). This was modeled of earlier Italian versions (Francesco Cavalli’s Il Xerses, 1655), and included the aria “Ombra Mai Fu,” although the opera would be later adapted and the aria transformed by G.F. Handel. But back to his brother!

Having been born to a musical family, his father Giovanni Maria Bononcini a violinist and composer by trade. In his youth, Antonio studied with Giovanni Paolo Colonna (1637-1695), Italian composer and organist, praised for his sacred music and stellar ability to navigate between classical sophistication and the baroque stylized sensibility. He started his musical career in the orchestra of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, although he’d begin to compose his first works in the late 17th century (around the 1690s). Interesting is that he would go onto write 12 cello sonatas, a historical event given the fact that only one other composer had written solo material for the instrument, the famed cellist Domenico Gabrielli having written quite a few works.

In 1700, he moved to Vienna with his brother and played at several venues before settling into service with Emperor Joseph I. He was even acquaintanced with George Telemann, a contemporary of J.S. Bach and criminally undervalued. In 1705, he became Kapellmeister (Chapel Choir Master) for Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, although returning to Italy in the early 1710s with his brother to become the maestro di cappella (Italian version) of Moderna. He lived a small bit in Rome but moved back in 1716 where he set up shop as a cellist and composer with the Molza Theater. It was during this time when he would write a good amount of his operatic works.

He’d go onto get married and have five children (four sons and one daughter), although none would continue the bloodline of musicians.

Now The Opera!

Premiered on February 2, 1716 at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan, Bononcini’s opera tells the story of the fictious king of Egypt named Sesostris who is alleged to have explored Europe. Modern research notes that this mythical king is most likely Senusret III, a very real individual and the fifth Pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty of Egypt. The libretto, in the old Italian language, was written by two individuals,  Apostolo Zeno, a journalist turned poet, and Pietro Pariati, a well-known poet and librettist who created other works such as Orfeo ed Euridice (set by J. J. Fux in 1715)

The opera is in three acts and is modeled after the melodramma, in the 17th-century this term was synonymous with opera (it’s not the English over-the-top thing until the 19th-century). Featuring seven parts and a seven-instrument orchestra, the work could be considered a chamber work by today’s standards, although not a wise choice. Interesting still is its dedicated person, Prince Eugene of Savoy and Piedmont (a highly successful military commander of the Hapsburg Dynasty). He was known for his patronage of the musical and intellectual arts, aiding persons such as J. J. Rousseau and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

I hope you found this post interesting. Until next time!


[Unused Opera Wire Post] On This Day in Operatic History – October. 19th, 1701

On October 19th, 1701, the Spanish composer and organist Tomas de Torrejón y Velasco (1644-1728) premiered his only surviving opera, La púrpura de la rosa(The Blood of the Rose), at the Palace of the Viceroy in Lima, Peru to celebrate the 18th birthday of King Phillip V of Spain and his ascension to the Spanish throne. With a libretto by the Spanish Golden Age playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681), the opera is regarded as the first in the history of Spain. The original music was lost and thus, Torrejón had to entirely rewrite the music. Initially, the libretto was used by Spanish composer Juan Hidalgo de Polanco (1614-1685) in 1660 to mark the marriage between King Louis XIV (The Sun King) and Maria Teresa of Spain, who’d been serving as Master of Music at the Court of Madrid. Based on an embellished retelling of the Ovidian love story of Venus and Adonis, Torrejón’s opera had a short lifespan. It’s known that it was performed a few times in the early 18th century before falling off the operatic radar until the late 20th century when it was rediscovered in 1999 by the Bloomington Early Music Festival. The opera is the first known opera to be performed in the Western hemisphere and thus is highly important for operatic history, despite its absence from canon, opera history. 

The opera comprises four scenes, prefaced by a loa (a song of praise or celebration heralding from the Grecian loa which was dedicated to the God of Music and Dance Apollo, although it’s mostly connected to the Bacchanalia). In the 17th century Spanish theatrical tradition, the loa usually accompanied a zarzuela (a Spanish lyric-drama ) at the middle or the end of the work. However, Torrejón’s loa coincides with its usage as an operatic prologue which was used to show praise for the dedicated person(s) or patron. The opera’s loa is dedicated to King Phillip and mythologizes his eminence through a festive song of praise sung by various Muses in Apollo’s Temple on the mythical Mount Parnassus. The four scenes recount the tenuous love between Venus (the Goddess of Love and Fertility) and Adonis (her mortal lover who was killed by a wild boar before being turned into a rose by Jupiter, or Zeus), and the vengeful deeds committed by Mars (the God of War) because of his own desire for Venus’ hand. The opera contains 19 main characters (who all play either Gods, Goddesses, muses, mortals, and six vices), with several more in the chorus. The title of the opera alludes to Adonis’ spilled blood and his incarnation as a rose by Jupiter. At the end of the opera, Mars shows Venus’ the bloody body of Adonis to her laying among the roses. The opera ends with Jupiter (Zeus) reincarnating both Adonis and Venus.

Fun Facts

  • Did you know? The only full manuscript of Torrejón’s opera resides at the National Library of Peru in Lima.
  • Did you know? Torrejón may have been a student of Hidalgo, as their music shares many musical similarities!

Take a Listen

  1. The Blood of the Rose (Performance by The Syntagma Musicum Usach, 1999)