Famous Opera Choruses
The Choir of the Royal Danish Opera has several times been called the world's best opera choir. The title has not had a huge effect on the fame of the choir, either in terms of concerts or CD releases. So far it has, by and large, only been possible to experience the opera choir if one bought a ticket to a production on the Old Stage of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen or the new opera house on Holmen. However, the Royal Opera Choir Society decided to change this after a highly successful collaboration with the Copenhagen Philharmonic. At a joint concert they performed Brahms' Requiem and agreed to meet again soon for a programme of famous opera choruses.
Famous Opera Choruses (Berømte operakor)
By Claus Johansen
The Mastersingers of Nuremburg: Prelude and Chorale
From his younger days as a choirmaster Wagner had gained experience that was to be useful to him when he composed his great music dramas. Choir singers all over the world can thank him for some of the most satisfying challenges in the repertoire. In the early operas we meet choir singers as soldiers, merry seamen, pretty bridesmaids and spinning women - the choir as local colour. But in Die Meistersinger from 1868 the chorus has been given one of the principal roles, for the story is about the individual, the genius who comes to stand almost alone in the face of the crowd's lack of understanding.
In the very first scene of the opera, which arises directly out of the formidable prelude, we are in the Katharinenkirche one afternoon in midsummer in sixteenth-century Nuremberg. The young Walther is waiting for the afternoon service to end so he can get to talk to Eva Pogner, who is sitting with her nurse in one of the pews. And as he waits the choir sings the chorale.
Tannhäuser: Entry of the Guests
A magnificent choral scene in the tradition of the grand opera in Paris - but in fact it is not that realistic that the guests would be able to sing at all. Anyone who has tried to ascend the steep dirt roads and innumerable steps that lead to Wartburg knows that the climb can take anyone's breath away. Wagner himself tried it on -several occasions and was directly inspired by the ruined castle, the swaying forests and not least the heights he immortalized as the Venusberg. He based his opera on -medieval legends and poems, and it is probably the first opera where he quite freely unfolded and cultivated his distinctiveness. The premiere was held in Dresden in 1845. Tannhäuser, the singer of love, has been hidden in the erotic realm of Venus but returns to reality and the high castle in Wartburg. He longs for his great earthly love Elisabeth, who has withdrawn into isolation since he vanished. Now he is to meet her as a participant in a singing contest with the theme The Nature of Love\. The festively-minded guests meet in the great hall of the Margrave.
Lohengrin: Prelude to act three and Bridal Chorus
In 9 Wagner had to flee because of his sympathies with certain revolutionary circles. On the ‘Wanted' poster one can read among other things: \\Identifying features: He is quick in motion and speech. He wears a coat of green cloth, black trousers, a plain felt hat and boots.\\ The description was not good enough, so he escaped and therefore missed the premiere in Weimar in 1850, which Franz Liszt conducted (incidentally with a not very enthusiastic Hans Christian Andersen in the audience). Wagner himself did not hear his opera until eleven years later. He had composed the libretto on the basis of material from the heroic German poetry of the Middle Ages, the tales of the Nibelung cycle about the noble Swan Knight who had to conceal his identity from everyone, including his beloved.
Lohengrin contained the first music by Wagner that was heard in Copenhagen. Between 1858 and 1866 extracts from the opera, including the wedding music, were performed several times in the music society Musikforeningen, where the modern music struck dismay into the hearts of the Danish audience. But since 1870 the opera has been part of the repertoire of the Royal Opera in Copenhagen.
The orchestra's introduction to act three describes the splendid wedding feast: Elsa of Brabant has been married to the mysterious Grail Knight Lohengrin. The curtain rises, Elsa is accompanied into the bridal chamber by the women, and Lohengrin enters followed by the men. Together they sing their tribute to love and faith in the immortal wedding chorus.
Carmen: Prelude to act four and Cigarette Chorus
Simply calling something a \\cigarette chorus\\ was a provocation in itself, but there was plenty more to complain about in the opera. \\There are no melodies!\\ wrote a Parisian newspaper discerningly after the premiere of -Carmen in Paris in 1875. The first performance ended as a fiasco, and this was surely one of the reasons the composer Bizet died three months later. Shortly afterwards -Carmen had its breakthrough in Vienna, and since then it has been perhaps the world's most popular opera, and at any rate one of the best known. A hypermusical mix of fateful drama, wild passion, steamy eroticism and steely realism spiced with Spanish local colour including dance, festivity and bullfighting. The opera has nothing but starring roles: an innocent girl from the countryside, bold officers of the garrison, wild Gypsies, sinister smugglers, factory girls, men of the world, a handsome toreador and a poor young officer madly in love. And at the centre of it all is the freedom-loving Carmen - factory worker, paramour, smuggler, dancer and first and foremost Gypsy. It sounds like a dream of a job for any director. But back then, in 5, it was almost too much of a good thing. Many years later the librettist Halévy recalled the chaotic rehearsals before the premiere: \\Most of the singers were confused and threatened to strike. After two months of rehearsals they insisted that the chorus scenes in act one with the entry of the cigarette girls and the arrest of Carmen were impossible to perform on stage. Not only did they have to sing, at the same time they had to come and go, move around - in short, act like normal citizens of a town. No one had done that before at the Opéra-Comique. The members of the choir were used to singing standing motionless in rows with their arms by their sides, eyes fixed on the conductor - and their thoughts elsewhere!\\
Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances
Borodin did not have much time to spare. He was not only a composer, but also a professor of medicine, an imperial minister and more. He worked for almost twenty years on a giant opera about the Russian Prince Igor's battles with the Mongolian nomads. It is a strange opera which more or less fades out without a real ending, but what has been preserved includes original and captivating music. Some of the parts that Borodin never managed to finish were added by his colleagues Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, and thanks to them the opera was premiered in St. Petersburg in 1890 three years after the death of the composer. Borodin belonged to the new Russian school that wanted to break free from the influence of the west in order to draw more on the genuine ancient Russian culture, from which he took folk music and oriental tones. He found tales and legends in old chronicles. The story of Prince Igor comes from a folk poem of the ninth century. The Russian Prince Igor and his son Vladimir have gone to war against the heathen Polovtsians, who win the battle. The Prince and his son have been captured, but are treated well. Vladimir has fallen in love with the daughter of the Great Khan. And the Khan entertains Igor and Vladimir with a banquet in the camp, where the Asian hordes perform wild dances and gentle choruses to entertain the two noble prisoners.
The Polovtsian Dances are a gala number for chorus, orchestra and dancers.
Nabucco: The Prisoners' Chorus
Nabucco is an opera with a Biblical subject. The Hebrews are conquered by the Babylonian army with Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) at its head. In addition there is a complicated love story. Act three takes place by the banks of the Euphrates, where the Hebrews are grieving for their lost homeland. And with the Prisoners' Chorus Verdi lets them grieve with one of the first real hits of operatic history. It was a huge success from the very first evening, and with good reason, for it is a divine melody with a brilliant accompaniment; but the immediate success was also related to the fact that it could be interpreted as a protest against the Austrian occupation that had northern Italy in its grip.
The stories about the Prisoners' Chorus are many and not all equally true. Verdi himself supplied several versions of the story. He had lost his wife and two children and was of course in crisis in 1840. When he was sent the libretto, he threw it angrily on the table where it fell open by itself at \\Va pensiero ...\\ - and from then on there was no going back. It was the Prisoners' Chorus, and it was the starting-shot for his success. He proudly told the story of how construction workers and stage hands laid down their tools reverently when the chorus was rehearsed for the first time at La Scala. Nabucco made Verdi world famous, and the chorus became (and is still) Italy's unofficial national anthem. At the composer's funeral in 1901 it was performed by 900 singers conducted by Toscanini.
Turandot: Gira la cote
He had written both La bohème and Tosca, so he had no need to prove anything. Nevertheless Puccini struggled throughout his final years to find his own path into the new music. Turandot is a Chinese story of the ice-cold princess who kills those who love her. If her wooers can guess three riddles, they will win her and the empire. If not, they must die. But of course the right man comes along, and after several acts of cruelty where among others a young innocent woman must die, he arouses the feelings of the ice princess. The climax of the opera was to be a concluding love duet, but Puccini died without having written it. Turandot was his response to the boundary-transcending modern music that was being created in Europe around 1920. In the score one can easily find nods to Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel. But Puccini is an Italian, so amidst all the exotic and alien harmonies he retains his sensual joy in the good melody and the dancing rhythm. \\Gira la cote\\ means \\Sharpen the sword!\\. It is the sadistic call of the mob to the executioner and his assistant before they execute one of the less fortunate suitors of the princess.
The Troubadour: The Gypsy Chorus
Il Trovatore was the first Verdi opera to be performed at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen; this was in 1865, and it has been played there at regular intervals ever since. Twelve years before that, it had been premiered in Rome, and soon it was performed throughout most of the world. Il Trovatore is a musical masterpiece and a literary mess. The plot is nonsensical, but the music contains some of the elements that made Verdi beloved by so-called ordinary people as well as singers and refined opera-lovers. It has unparalleled musical energy, melodic inventiveness that no one (including pop composers) has outdone, and a sense of drama that makes one swallow even this story as long as the music plays. It takes place in fifteenth-century Spain. In the Gypsy Chorus from the beginning of act two no holds are barred, with glowing forges, flaming bonfires and strong arms hammering on anvils. The chorus was a success immediately and became a sure hit, first for singing societies, later for workers' choirs all over Europe.
Aida: The Triumphal March
Verdi wrote Aida for the opera house in Cairo in 1871. It was a magnificent production with crowd scenes set up as a contrast to the simple love of two people, made impossible by international politics and ethnic prejudice. The scene where the victorious Egyptian army triumphs over the conquered Ethiopians has with good reason been regarded as one of the biggest hits of opera history. Verdi made no attempt to write Egyptian music, but he made a close study of the cultural context of ancient Egypt, and among other things managed to construct something that was meant to recall the ancient trumpets for this particular scene. They were not historically authentic, but there was so much impact in the music that these instruments have been known ever since as either Verdi trumpets or Aida trumpets. In this opera too the great chorus plays a quite crucial role in line with that of the principal characters.
It is a true choral finale that has been allowed to finish off this cavalcade. Soon the sun will rise. The masks have fallen, but they have had their effect. Through disguises and pretences we have at last become ourselves, and Eros has gained the victory, even in this country where everything is raw and sour and cold. \\We must be allowed to be happy!\\ says the servant Henrik as early as in act one. He has been happy this evening, when servant and master have been equals, and no one has recognized anyone else. Things almost went all wrong, but the complications have been resolved thanks to the masquerade. Now we are back in the ordinary world. True love has won the day for the young people, while the old have had to admit grudgingly that for an adult the masquerade is more exposure than liberation. But never mind all that, for now it is time to dance - what else can we do?
The immensely erudite professor of literature Vilhelm Andersen was persuaded to adapt and rework Holberg's ultimate Copenhagen comedy of the eighteenth century. He did so with many ingenious rhymes and puns in a sophomoric but highly energetic style. And Carl Nielsen wrote one of his most effervescent scores, where even a carnival overwhelmingly inspired by more southern climes sounds as Danish as morning assembly singing in a South Funen folk high school!