Without Italy, life would be a mistake: not quite what Friedrich Nietzsche said, but he loved the sun of the south and the music inspired by it. The country that gave birth to the art form of opera, where the world’s most famous love story is set and which, as a dream destination, has always inspired composers from more northerly climes, is the theme of today’s programme. The Berliner Philharmoniker are celebrating the turn of the year with music from and about Italy, written by five Italian and two Russian composers whose hearts beat for the land where the lemons grow.
Verdi “La forza del destino”
We start with the grand master of Italian opera in the middle and late 19th century. Born in the same year as Richard Wagner and set against his German counterpart often enough, Giuseppe Verdi shared with his contemporary a sense of political upheaval. Verdi was aware that urgent problems were waiting to be solved, above all the liberation of Italy from Austrian and French foreign rule and the unification of the fragmented small states. After the premiere of Un ballo in maschera in 1858, Verdi declared his operatic career over and became a member of parliament instead. However, when the tenor Enrico Tamberlik offered him a commission to compose for the imperial opera house in St Petersburg, he could not resist. And so the opera La forza del destino was born, in which the love between Donna Leonora, the daughter of a Spanish Marchese, and Don Alvaro, vilified as a “mestizo”, takes many unlikely turns, with the ever present theme of being blinded by racial prejudice.
The overture, entitled “Sinfonia”, introduces the opera’s most memorable themes: the three-note “fate motif” as well as a driving string figure that shapes crucial scenes in the opera. At the beginning of the third act, the plot has taken Alvaro to Italy as a captain in the service of Spain, where he is haunted by thoughts of Leonora, the lost love of his life. He also looks back on the fate of his parents: a Spanish nobleman and a daughter of the last Inca king. Through their dynastic connection, they wanted not least to end the murder of the colonial rulers in South America – but in vain. In the military camp in the Alban Hills, Alvaro asks Leonora, whom he believes to be dead and imagines to be an angel, to release him soon from the suffering of his existence.
“Romeo and Juliet” by Zandonai and Prokofiev
To mark the turn of the year, two works pay homage to Romeo and Juliet – the most popular lovers in world literature, immortalised by William Shakespeare. The Berliner Philharmoniker will perform a movement from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet suite of the same name, while Jonas Kaufmann will sing an aria from Riccardo Zandonai’s opera Giulietta e Romeo – a rarity of the specifically Italian operatic genre of verismo, which sought to portray life more sharply, harshly, mercilessly and emotionally than previous generations of composers had dared.
Zandonai was well on his way to becoming the rightful successor to Giacomo Puccini. After studying in Pesaro under Pietro Mascagni, whose works are also performed this evening, his first opera Il grillo del focolare premiered in 1908, became a great success.
He was also a busy conductor and served as director of the conservatory in Pesaro for several years. Of his ten or so operas, Francesca da Rimini, to a libretto by Gabriele d’Annunzio, is one of the late blossoms of verismo’s best kept secrets. Giulietta e Romeo reflects the archaic flair of the plot in a musically imaginative way and is specifically tailored to Verona through the use of the local dialect. Premiered a hundred years ago, Jonas Kaufmann has a particular soft spot for the opera. In the aria “Giulietta! Son io” from the third act, Romeo finds the sleeping Juliet in the family chapel, and since she does not respond to his calls, he finally believes her to be dead and takes poison. When she finally awakens, it is too late, for without her lover she too has no will to live – they both die in a final embrace.
Sergei Prokofiev actually wanted to avoid this double death in his Romeo and Juliet ballet. In 1934, he began work on a sequence of scenes with a happy ending: “The reasons,” said Prokofiev, “were purely choreographic – the living can dance, but not the dead.” In the end, however, he abandoned this interpretation. Prokofiev was less concerned with depicting the family power struggles than with the conflicts in which the lovers are entangled because of the outdated notions of honour of the family clans. Even before the premiere in Brno – now in the Czech Republic – in 1938, Prokofiev’s music had begun to conquer the concert halls via two orchestral suites. From the first suite comes the famous number Death of Tybalt, which describes how Romeo stabs a cousin of Juliet’s in a duel.
Versimo arias by Giordano and Mascagni
The two other arias that Jonas Kaufmann has chosen for this programme also belong to the verismo genre. In Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier – premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1896 – the title character is a poet. At the time of the French Revolution, between social commitment to the people and ardent love for an aristocrat, he gets caught in the wheels of Robespierre’s reign of terror.
This is already clear in the first scene of the opera: at a party in the castle of Countess Coigny, Chénier is urged by the beautiful daughter of the house to give a sample of his lyric skills. The impromptu poem on the proposed theme of “love” turns into a fiery appeal for social justice. The party already fears that this “faux pas” will have bloody consequences. And indeed: Maddalena de Coigny and her revolutionary poet end up on the scaffold.
Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was the blueprint for verismo. It depicts events in real time, so to speak, taking nearly as much time on stage as they would in reality.
The orchestral intermezzo, which represents the supposed Easter peace in a Sicilian farming village, is followed by Turiddu’s heartbreaking farewell to his mother, the “Addio alla madre’: the young man, who has betrayed his fiancée Santuzza with someone else's wife, suspects that the inevitable duel will end fatally for him and asks his “mamma” to take care of Santuzza if he does not return.
Nino Rota’s “La strada”
The concert concludes with two orchestral works. The first is by Nino Rota – perhaps the only composer besides Erich Wolfgang Korngold to have created undisputed masterpieces in both film and concert music. Trained in classical music by luminaries such as Ildebrando Pizzetti and Alfredo Casella, he was himself a composition professor and conservatory director for many years, writing solo concertos as well as symphonies. But he became famous through his film work, including Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Luchino Visconti’s TheLeopard, and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. He had a particularly fruitful collaboration with Federico Fellini, who portrayed an unadorned and more truthful Italy in his films. Their third joint work was Fellini’s early masterpiece La strada (1954): the heartbreaking story of a hulking showman – the proverbial “great Zampanò” – and the small, headstrong Gelsomina. Ten years later, Rota was commissioned by La Scala in Milan to write a ballet suite on the same subject. The composer used the music from the film La strada, of course, but also drew on other of his soundtracks and wrote additional new music. These include the two movements that are presented today.
Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio italien”
For Tchaikovsky, Italy was love at second sight. Whether Venice, Florence, Naples or Rome: on his first visits, he found all these cities awful. Things were different when he then spent the winter of 1879/80 in Rome: he admired the art of Michelangelo and Raphael, and found the Italian mentality delightful. In a letter to his patron Nadeschda von Meck, he wrote: “We are now in the middle of Carnival [...]. If one observes the bustling crowd on the Corso more attentively, one notices [...] the genuineness and naturalness of this gaiety. I think people breathe it in with the gentle warmth of this air [...]. I am still irritable and on edge [...]. Nevertheless, I have worked successfully in the last few days and have finished the draft of an Italian fantasy on folk themes, for which I dare to predict a successful future. It will be effective, for the arranged melodies, which I have taken from collective works and heard in the street, are charming.”
The Italian Fantasy, titled Capriccio (in English: whim, caprice), was intended to entertain the audience musically, but Tchaikovsky nevertheless took great care to create an impressive arc of tension with increases in tempo, volume and sonority. The work begins with a military call; over vibrating accompanying chords, a song full of longing and pathos then unfolds, leading back to the opening fanfare. This dramatic introduction is followed by a popular canzone “alla napolitana”, played by two oboes, and which moves through the entire orchestra. Things get more and more lively, with a brisk folk dance and a tumultuous tarantella. Other musicians join in, including the spirited percussion with drums, cymbals and tambourine. As soon as they are all together, the Neapolitan canzone is belted out at full throttle and then the final spurt begins. Tchaikovsky, who was actually deeply attached to his homeland, happily takes up themes from the folk music of another country – and in doing so demonstrates the openness of his mind and heart.