The nationalism that spread across Europe during the nineteenth century manifested itself in the opera house as well, as non-Italian and non-German operas began to achieve international prominence. Only in the twentieth century did American opera join the repertoire of major opera houses.
To explore these opera traditions is beyond the scope of this exhibition. However, this section includes selected examples of French, Russian, and American opera from the collections of the Music Division of the Library of Congress. French opera is represented by Georges Bizet (1838–1875) and Léo Delibes (1836–1891) and Russian opera by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881). American contributions to the international operatic repertoire are represented by George (1898–1937) and Ira Gershwin (1896–1983), Deems Taylor (1885–1966) and Samuel Barber (1910–1981).
Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov
Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881) took great pains to see his Boris Godunov reach the stage. An operatic retelling of events surrounding Tsar Boris (reigned ca. 1598–1605), it was based on a play written by Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) in 1825. Mussorgsky began to set the play in 1868 as a "dialogue opera," closely following Pushkin’s text. The first version of the opera (1869) was rejected by the Imperial Theatre, primarily because it lacked a substantial female role. The extensive revision (1872), which varied from Pushkin’s text at many points, premiered at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1874 and remained in their repertoire until 1882.
Boris Godunov after Mussorgsky’s Death
The first major revival of the opera was given at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1888, but compared to some other operatic masterpieces, Boris Godunov was relatively slow to enter the standard performing repertoire. The early twentieth century saw many hybrid performances of the opera, employing elements of both the original and revised versions. Both Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) created re-orchestrations intended to correct perceived weaknesses in Mussorgsky’s original work. Today Boris Godunov has become the most-often performed and recorded Russian opera. Among the greatest interpreters of the title role was the Russian bass Alexander Kipnis (1891–1978).
Georges Bizet (1838–1875) is known to opera audiences almost exclusively for his masterpiece, Carmen. Written in the opéra comique style (that is, with spoken dialogue), it was in many respects an atypical work for Bizet, most notably because of the overt sexuality of the title character, as well as her violent onstage death. These factors caused controversy even before the opera was completed. In rehearsals Bizet faced opposition from the chorus, which was asked to depart from its usual practice of acting and responding as a unit and, instead, to portray individual characters; moreover, the women in the cast objected to fighting and smoking onstage.
Performances of Carmen
The first performance of Carmen, in early 1875, was met by hostile critics and audiences. The following October, however, the opera was presented in Vienna in a more popular grand opera version with recitatives replacing the spoken dialogue, and the work began to take its place in the international repertoire. In the years since, Carmen has become a signature role for many celebrated singers, including Regina Resnik (1922–2013). The opera’s gritty drama is reflected in Oliver Smith’s stark set design for the final act in which Carmen’s death outside the arena stands in contrast with the joyous "Toreador Song" from the first act which celebrates the toreador’s triumphs inside the arena.
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Oliver Smith. Rendering for act II, scene 4 (A Square in Seville Outside the Arena) of Carmen, Opera Company of Boston (Sarah Caldwell), 1968. Ink on paper. Oliver Smith Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Works of Oliver Smith © Rosaria Sinisi. All rights reserved (045.00.00)
Georges Bizet. "Toreador Song" from Carmen. Chicago: Calumet Music Co., 1935. Sheet music. Music Division, Library of Congress (046.00.00)
Léo Delibes (1836–1891) wrote his most successful opera, Lakmé, at the suggestion of its librettist Edmond Gondinet (1828–1888). The opera is set in colorful and exotic British India, which provides the opportunity to incorporate Hindu religious ceremonies and unusual flora from the region (Lakmé poisons herself with a datura leaf at the end of the opera), largely unknown to French audiences of the day. The opera was premiered in 1883 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and remained in the repertory for nearly eighty years. The difficult coloratura-soprano title role was written as a showcase for the American soprano Marie van Zandt (1858–1919) and it has continued to be a vehicle for the greatest coloratura sopranos of the day, including Lily Pons (1898–1976). The manuscript page on display is from the complete score, housed at the Library of Congress.
Porgy and Bess
With a score by George Gershwin (1898–1937), a libretto by DuBose Heyward (1885–1940) and lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin (1896–1983), Porgy and Bess was one of the first American operas to receive international attention. The original production, presented by the Theatre Guild in 1935, is often erroneously described as a failure. Although it did not recoup its initial investment, it was largely an artistic success, running for 124 performances, a record unequaled by any other opera before or since. The original production is extraordinarily well documented; the heavily annotated stage manager’s score records not only stage action but scenic cues and musical cuts as well.
Porgy and Bess Programs
Following the closing of the initial New York run, Porgy and Bess made a short national tour, ending at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. In 1942 the score was refashioned as a musical (with spoken dialogue in place of most of the opera’s recitative) and it enjoyed a successful nine-month run in New York. International recognition, however, followed ten years later with a fully operatic production (with most of the recitative restored) in the 1950s when a production financed by the U. S. Department of State toured Europe. The Music Division’s collections include both the comparatively basic program from the 1936 tour and the more elaborate one from the 1942 Broadway production.
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Program for Porgy and Bess, National Theatre, Washington, D.C., 1936. George and Ira Gershwin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the National Theatre (051.00.00)
Program for Porgy and Bess, Majestic Theatre, New York, 1942. Program Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (052.00.00)
Samuel Barber (1910–1981) wrote his neo-Romantic opera Vanessa in 1956 to a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti (1911–2007). First performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958, Vanessa was hailed by critic Winthrop Sargeant as "the finest and most truly ‘operatic’ opera ever written by an American." Soprano Eleanor Steber (1914–1990), who created the title role, was not Barber’s first choice for the part. The role was initially offered to Maria Callas (1923–1977), who declined, feeling that the opera’s most compelling music belonged to Vanessa’s niece Erika (a mezzo-soprano). Callas’s instinct may have been correct because Erika’s aria "Must the Winter Come So Soon?" is, by far, the opera’s best-known selection. A recurring theme throughout the opera is the piece "Under the Willow Tree," which appears as a solo, trio, chorus, and finally in a quintet version in the last act.
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Samuel Barber. "Must the Winter Come So Soon?" from Vanessa. New York: G. Schirmer, 1958. Sheet music. Music Division, Library of Congress. Used by Permission of G. Schirmer, Inc. (053.00.00)
Samuel Barber. "Under the Willow Tree" from Vanessa, 1958. Holograph manuscript. Music Division, Library of Congress (054.00.00)
Deems Taylor’s Peter Ibbetson
Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Ibbetson, by American composer Deems Taylor (1885–1966), premiered in February 1931. It received thirty-six curtain calls on its opening night and ran for sixteen performances, making it the most successful American opera to be performed at the "Met" until Porgy and Bess was produced there in the 1980s, The story of two star-crossed lovers who find happiness together in dreams is based on the 1892 novel by George Du Maurier. Taylor’s impressionistic score is notable for its emotive dream sequences. The New York Times review of the premiere observed, "These songs, and the scenes that they enhanced, were only heard by a majority of the audience through a blur of tears." Of tenor Edward Johnson’s passionate portrayal of the title character, the same reviewer wrote, "Mr. Johnson created not only drama, but poetry."
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