Our music for this week is the famous “Habanera” melody from Bizet’s opera Carmen.
Carmen is one of the world’s most beloved operas. Its melodies are unforgettable, and its storyline is a classic tragedy that has captivated the hearts of millions around the world. Carmen tells the story of a soldier named Don Jose, who is seduced by a gypsy named Carmen. She convinces Don Jose to abandon his childhood sweetheart and desert his job in the army. However, the torero Escamillo then catches her eye and she leaves Don Jose behind, causing him to be so overwhelmed with jealousy that he kills her.
On a personal note, Carmen has a special place in my heart. When I was fifteen years old, I had the privilege of performing as a soloist with the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra. The piece I performed was Carmen Fantasy, written by the 19th-century Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Since Carmen Fantasy is a violin showpiece based on the melodic themes of the opera Carmen, I spent hours listening to the opera in preparation for the performance. Hearing Carmen’s melodies still brings back memories of the adrenaline rush of walking out on stage that night.
Today marks the start of a new series! We will be working through some of the most famous duets in the history of music, starting with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca singing the Duo des Fleurs (Flower Duet) by Leo Delibes.
Delibes is best known for this duet, which is part of his 1883 opera Lakme. It is written for soprano and mezzo-soprano and is from the part of the opera in which the main character Lakme and her servant Mallika are picking flowers together by a river. (There is another famous opera in which two female characters sing a duet while picking flowers together – Puccini’s Madame Butterfly – but Delibes never confirmed the possibility of a connection).
It is worth noting the caliber of the singers in the video, both of whom are world-class. In particular, Anna Netrebko is regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of all time. She performs regularly at the Met, Vienna Opera House, Mariinsky Theatre, and Royal Opera House.
are as follows:
“Under the thick dome where the white jasmine With the roses entwined together On the river bank covered with flowers laughing in the morning Let us descend together!
floating on its charming risings,
On the river’s current
On the shining waves,
One hand reaches,
Reaches for the bank,
Where the spring sleeps,
And the bird, the bird sings.
Under the thick dome where the white jasmine Ah! calling us Together!”
Our music for today comes from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This song is a soprano solo titled Katerina’s Aria, and it is sung by Galina Vishnevskaya.
This opera was based on a Russian folk story about a young woman who falls in love but is shunned by the object of her affections. This rejection later drives her to madness and, eventually, murder. However, Shostakovich was not interested in the story itself; rather, he was interested in exploring all of the possibilities of the soprano voice. The opera is almost entirely focused on glittering soprano solo lines, and even the oft-powerful tenor line is noticeably absent. Shostakovich even changed the folk story so that he could give the soprano more of a solo presence. The aria that you hear this recording is one in which the main character, Katerina, sings of the guilt and remorse that have resulted from her murderous actions.
Shostakovich which was not only interested in displaying the soprano voice through a dark and tragic story. He also wanted to paint a new and different conception of what love could be. As he wrote about the opera, “I dedicated Lady Macbeth to my bride, my future wife, so naturally the opera is about love, too, but not only love. It’s also about how love could have been if the world weren’t full of vile things.”
The opera enjoyed spectacular success until early 1936, when it was the object of a sudden and shockingly harsh reprimand by the ruling Communist Party. This denunciation was, for the time being, a death knell for this opera. Sadly, it became well known later on largely because of its history of censorship.
The singer you will hear is Galina Vishnevskaya, who was honored as a People’s Artist of Russia in 1966. As a child prodigy growing up under the guidance of the renowned Moscow Conservatory, she rose to fame at a young age and performed most of the world’s most popular Sopranos lines before the age of 30. She was married to the world famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and the two of them where best friends with Shostakovich himself. It is therefore quite likely that Shostakovich wrote this soprano line with Galina’s voice in mind.