Czech composers have written some truly wonderful operas. Dvořák’s Rusalka, Smetana’s Bartered Bride, and Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen and Jenůfa are all part of the international repertoire, Martinů’s 20th-century operas are beginning to attract wider attention, and operas by the Classical-era composer Mysliveček are enjoying a period of revival. Surprisingly, the operas most widely associated with Prague have music by a German and texts in Italian. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro became wildly popular here, making the composer’s reputation in the Bohemian capital. He then wrote Don Giovanni, which was premiered right here in Prague, across the river at the Estates Theatre, still used as a venue for operas and plays.
The Marriage of Figaro, one of Mozart’s most perfect creations, is perhaps the greatest comic opera ever written. Delicately balancing the usual opera buffa gags like mistaken identity and intrigue with themes of great seriousness like marital infidelity, paternal and maternal love, and forgiveness, it is beloved for the humaneness of its portrayal of ridiculous yet utterly believable characters as well as for its sublime music. The overture, with its madly scurrying string figures, characterful woodwind melodies, blazing trumpets and timpani, and a coda crescendo in the manner of Rossini, is a completely self-contained piece of music that is just as comfortable on the concert stage as in the opera house.
We now move on to Act I of the opera Don Giovanni, a much darker tale. The title character breaks into the home of Donna Anna at night. Donna Anna does not recognize him and raises the alarm. When Don Giovanni tries to escape, Donna Anna clings to him until her father, the Commendatore, arrives on the scene and bars Don Giovanni’s exit. The men fight, and Don Giovanni slays the Commendatore and flees. Later at a different location, Donna Anna hears Don Giovanni’s voice and recognizes it as belonging to her assailant. She makes her fiancé, Don Ottavio, swear vengeance against the man who tried to take her honour. After the 1787 Prague production, Mozart added some new music for Vienna performances in the spring of 1788. One newly composed number was Ottavio’s aria “Dalla sua pace”, which he sings alone on stage after Donna Anna has identified the villain. The words could not be simpler: “My peace of mind depends upon hers. Whatever pleases her gives me life, what displeases her brings me death. If she sighs, I sigh also. Her anger is mine, her mourning is mine, and I cannot be well if she is not.” The sublimely beautiful aria is almost always included in today’s productions of the opera. It begins with the tenor’s lyrical melody floating above a simple, radiant accompaniment. After a more agitated middle section, the lyrical music returns with wider leaps in the vocal line. The aria is not obviously virtuosic, but it demands perfection of technique and purity of tone.
La clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s last opera, was also premiered at Prague’s Estates Theatre just months before the composer’s death to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. The work was very popular in its day, but the whole opera seria genre had been dismissed as old fashioned by the mid-19th century. Today, La clemenza di Tito is admired for the beauty of its music and is enjoying something of a resurgence, but it still appears on stage far less often the Mozart’s great Italian comic operas and German Singspiels. The plot is complicated, but the premise is simple. Titus Caesar Vespasianus is to choose an empress, but jealousy and intrigues lead to an attempted assassination. He survives, and rather than executing the conspirators (including the woman he had chosen as his empress), he decides to give them clemency.
Tito’s aria “Se allʼimpero amici dei” consists of technically brilliant outer sections (Allegro, 4/4) surrounding a lyrical interlude (Andantino, 3/4). The tenor singing the role of Tito is given every opportunity to exhibit not only his virtuosity, but also a wide range of emotions. Faced with executing a friend who has conspired against him, he sings: “If I must be hard of heart to rule, friendly gods, either take away my empire or change my heart. If love does not assure the loyalty of my realm, I am not interested in fidelity born of fear.” Machiavelli might have advised Tito to do otherwise, but this opera was written for the kind of occasion when the emperor wished to promote feelings of good will.
Now we move ahead in time to a period when feelings of good will were no longer a priority for the rulers of central Europe. The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók wrote his Romanian Folk Dances for piano solo in 1915. Then, much of what is now Romania (including Bartók’ birthplace) belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bartók had been travelling around rural areas of the empire’s Slovak, Hungarian, and Romanian provinces to collect folk music. The First World War brought an end to his expeditions, so he turned his energy to creating new works that reflect the influence of his folk music discoveries.
Bartók made several arrangements of the Romanian Folk Dances. The orchestral version on today’s programme is popular with youth orchestras and amateur groups. Although technically simple, the Romanian Folk Dances are brimming with excitement and passion and are every bit as characteristic of their composer as are the modernist works he was writing at about the same time. There are six movements, each lasting under a minute.
The Italian-American tenor Mario Lanza was born in Philadelphia in 1921. He died tragically young in 1959, but he still won enormous fame and recognition as a popular and classical artist. He performed in operas on stage early in his career, but it was Hollywood that made his name a household word. He sang the popular song Be My Love with lyrics by Sammy Cahn and music by Nicholas Brodszky in the 1950 cinematic musical The Toast of New Orleans. The song was nominated for an Academy Award, and when RCA Records released an audio recording sung by Lanza, it sold over two million copies. Be My Love became the theme song of the radio programme The Mario Lanza Show.
The American composer and conductor Alan Silvestri (*1950) wrote the score for Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 film Contact, a science-fiction story based on a novel by the American scientist and television celebrity Carl Sagan. The music was nominated for several prizes and won the ASCAP Film and Television Music Award. Silvestri’s music reflects the sense of wonder and mystery at the heart of Sagan’s story, which centres around the relationship between a father and a daughter. Silvestri employed various electronic instruments in addition to an orchestra. According to the composer: “The electronics really were used as another section of the orchestra, to create certain unusual sounds, textures, and moods, but they never carried any scenes in the film. For a film like this, the traditional orchestra is irreplaceable in achieving the emotional impact of the music.” Keith Lockhart asked Silvestri to create a Contact concert suite especially for this Czech Philharmonic concert, where it will be heard in its world premiere alongside a new work by composer Kevin Putz that also was inspired by the Zemeckis film.
Kevin Puts (*1972), also from the USA, wrote his triple concerto Contact for the string trio Time for Three (TF3), which they premiered in 2022 with the Florida Orchestra and the conductor Daniel Black. “We were trying to tell a kind of story, and the idea of contact became something that we thought was part of this piece,” says the composer. “It could be like trying to make contact with alien civilizations that are millions of light years away from Earth, or it could be about reaching across cultural divides, or it could be about the nature of contact that has been so disrupted by the pandemic. I don’t think a story is necessary for people listening to music, but we didn’t want to call it Triple Concerto, which was, in fact, my original title.”