Among all musical media, operas have the longest wait when cursed by obscurity. Whether failed or forgotten, doomed operas require special faith, not just from the intendants and impresarios who love them, but also from audiences who pay high ticket prices for something they’ve barely heard of.
Beautiful losers, let’s call them. Already, the operatic canon has been enriched immeasurably by those that have graduated from that status – Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Weber’s Euryanthe, Shostakovich’s The Nose, Nielsen’s Maskarade and Busoni’s Doktor Faust among them. Operatic Darwinism, however, is hardly a steady trajectory: Rossini’s La donna del lago has gone up and down like a submarine, championed in the 1980s by Riccardo Muti, and neglected until Joyce DiDonato made it her operatic vehicle of choice.
Reasons for obscurity are as numerous as the operas themselves. Sometimes the score goes missing for decades (Delius’s Koanga). Others are very culture-specific (Blitzstein’s Regina). Sometimes the composer died soon after and wasn’t around to promote the piece (Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner). Some operas were in the wrong place at seriously the wrong time, such as Weill’s Die Burgschaft in Nazi Germany. But even if Paris’s Opéra Comique hadn’t burnt down days after Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui was premiered, the opera’s often-rewritten but never-improved-upon libretto would still have been a problem, even in this age of Regietheater in which opera doesn’t have to make sense.
Yes, improvements can be the culprit. When an opera acquires a negative taint from a shaky first production, revision fever can set in, and not for the better. Walton’s Troilus and Cressida had to be rescued from its composer’s own emendations. Many more such works are waiting in the wings, and if I could vote for one, it would be Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra – in its tougher, more political original version rather than the romanticised revision.
Opera North; English Northern Philharmonia / Richard Hickox
In 1954, Walton was damned for looking back to Puccini rather than forwards to Britten, and for harking back to his First Symphony. But his slim output keeps us wanting more, so we now love Troilus for the reasons it was initially dismissed. Walton’s flinty, pungent harmonies and ultra-vigorous rhythms are thrillingly applied to this story of a Trojan widow falling from grace for her shifting loyalties. Great soliloquies, grand choruses and a third-act sextet that’s a peak of British opera. Read the Gramophone review
Studio ensemble / John Adams
The title refers to collapsing dwellings amid California earthquakes, in a ballad opera about a cross-section of LA’s underclass. Ridiculed at its 1995 premiere, the piece is Adams’s counterpart to Bernstein’s Mass – a heavily pop-inflected work with bold, even strident, characters. Some of June Jordan’s texts are dated, but others have gained relevance, in a rambunctious score drawing on influences from Stephen Sondheim to bebop jazz. Read the Gramophone review
Savonlinna Opera Festival Chorus, Joensuu City Orchestra / Pekka Haapasalo
Though its 1985 premiere was well reviewed, this opera is so seldom heard that, until I found a recording at a Helsinki flea market, I never knew it existed. This free-floating, collage-like portrayal of a visionary medieval bishop’s world has music that’s layered in nearly every direction, with the mesmerising effect of Rautavaara’s later, more contemplative works. It also looks forward to the neo-primitivism of 21st-century Baltic composers.
American Symphony Orchestra / Leon Botstein
Typically finding joy and strangeness in domestic Americana, Thornton Wilder actively collaborated in Hindemith’s last opera, premiered 1961, about a Christmas dinner lasting 90 years. Generations of family progress into modernity, dramatising the ravages of time and survival of the life force. A chortling orchestra frames confessional ariosos, madrigal-like ensembles and a sextet with most characters prattling about the weather while a son heading off to war sings a soulful counter-melody. Read the Gramophone review
New York City Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Samuel Krachmalnick
Based on Lillian Hellman’s southern gothic play The Little Foxes, Regina (1949) is a life-and-death chess game of family politics in which Blitzstein makes shrewd choices regarding which characters talk or sing. It’s a deft, near-equal mixture of music and dialogue that’s often attempted but rarely with success. It recalls the lost genre of Broadway opera, exemplified by Menotti but composed here by Blitzstein with greater sophistication.
Prague National Theatre Chorus and Orchestra / Jaroslav Krombholc
On the surface, this is a lickety-split comedy about a man arriving at a seaside resort where nobody has memory. They even buy other people’s scrapbooks from memory vendors. Subtitled The Key of Dreams, this 1938 opera paints scenes with dazzling cinematic swiftness, with music that’s chic, lyrical and breezily intricate before evolving into a covert portrayal of opium addiction as the hero chooses a cloistered life of dreams.
RAI Chorus and Symphony Orchestra, Milan / Arturo Basile
Although it enjoyed popularity following its 1913 premiere (and took Puccinian harmony a plush, significant step further), this opera fell out of fashion in mid-century along with many post-verismo operas. Yet great singing and acting opportunities are ample, and tawdry vulgarity is at a minimum in a piece about a faithless queen and a blind king amid all manner of emotional extremes. The opera’s only fault is its 100' brevity.
BBC Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Stanford Robinson
(The Digital Gramophone)
Romance and voodoo in colonial Florida prompt all manner of exhilarating ensembles and passionate condemnations, no doubt with Delius drawing on his own cross-racial romance while managing a plantation there. However, the opera’s primary strength is its impressionistic orchestral writing that captures that world’s lushness and languor. Although the work has some dramaturgical clumsiness, how often is such unashamed beauty heard from the opera stage?
Westminster Choir, Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra / Julius Rudel
Liberated from his domineering collaboration with Brecht, Weill carried on with pungent social critique in a tale of greed, blackmail and mob violence. And it’s his biggest, most astoundingly inventive theatre score, full of more musical moving parts than any young composer should be able to juggle, beating Hindemith at his own contrapuntal game with a bristling manner that is all but quoted in Strauss’s Die Liebe der Danae.
Choeurs et Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France / Charles Dutoit
Rarely has such virtuosic composing sounded so effortless. Chabrier’s most original piece, premiered in 1887, sparkles brighter than most Offenbach with a Wagner-influenced harmonic muscle that allows melodies to transform themselves without warning into greater bursts of joy or descents into ambivalence. The orchestration is more dramatically alert than that of any other opéra comique after Carmen, with such ever-present counterpoint that characters natter in the foreground while the chorus has a fugato in the background. Even by operatic standards, though, the story of a prince forced to accept the Polish crown is haphazard. But since there’s nothing like this piece anywhere (in Chabrier or elsewhere), does this flaw matter?
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Gramophone. To subscribe Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe