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Friday, August 26, 2011

The Top Five Storm Scenes in Opera

Something to read during Hurricane Irene!

Storm effects have always been an integral part of opera composition. Whether adding the effect of wind by a hand-turned drum or thunder with strategically placed metal sheets, the storm is a standard element of many dramatic works, and even comedies.

5) Britten: Second Sea Interlude from Peter Grimes
Benjamin Britten's opera about a misanthropic fisherman living in perpetual exile from a small English fishing village swims with powerful imagery of the vast oceans. The storm's fury is unleashed in the Second Interlude, which depicts the hero's struggle to reach his fishing hut during a ferocious storm.

4) Rossini: Temporale from Act II of Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Rossini worked storms into a number of his operas, including a memorable one in the overture to William TellBarbiere has one of his best comic tempests, starting with little stabs and drips in the strings before unleashing the full fury of the heavens (and the orchestra.) Although it can be played by a small orchestra, Rossini's brilliant writing packs a mean meteorological wallop. And like most summer rainstorms, it is over before it begins. 

3) Gluck: Introduction and Chorus from Act I of Iphigénie en Tauride
The great operatic reformer Christophe Willibald Gluck created the model for an orchestral tempest with the powerful overture of his second opera based on the tragic story of Iphigenia. The opera has no overture (another innovation) drawing the listener in with a few string chords that swell like clouds about to burst. When the storm breaks, the leading lady and her priestesses sing an evocation against soaring, chugging strings and rolls on the timpani, an effect later borrowed by Verdi for the opening scene of his Otello.
2) Wagner: Prelude to Act I of Die Walküre
The Ring has its share of stormy moments. But nothing is more impressive than this scene which depicts Wotan's conjured tempest chasing poor hapless Siegmund into the hut of his enemy. The heavy, descending figure carries the weight of the raindrops, and the Wagner tubas ring out with Donner's "He-da! He-da! He-do!" theme, which last appeared when the thunder god let out a bolt of lightning at the end of Das Rheingold. An perfect operatic storm.

1) Verdi: "Bella figlia dell'amore" (Quartet and Storm) from Act III of Rigoletto.
The third act of Rigoletto is the full flowering of the mature Verdi's genius. He creates a mighty storm with the simplest effect: a group of choristers in the orchestra pit, humming a wordless melody to create the effect of oncoming thunder and rising, gale-force winds. The storm serves as background to the great quartet (sung by the Duke, Maddalena, Sparafucile and Gilda) which ends in the leading lady's death at the hands of the assassin.

Daniel Barenboim conducts the Prelude to Act I of Die Walküre.
© 2010 La Scala.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats