Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

Home   /   Concerts   /   Program Notes   /   May 13, 2017 Program...
May 1, 2017

May 13, 2017 Program Notes

This evening’s concert is a second Night at the Opera, following last May’s festival of overtures, interludes, arias and choruses. Tonight we will hear 17 selections from 11 operas by 7 composers, with our spotlight mostly on Italy. “Act I” begins with Mozart, then leaps ahead to Italian verismo, 1890-1900. “Act II” is devoted to Donizetti and Verdi, spanning 1835 to 1871, while “Act III” features more Verdi, flanked by epic moments in Wagner and Boito.


Born Salzburg, Austria, 27 January 1756; died Vienna, 5 December 1791.
Don Giovanni: Overture and Act 2 aria “Non mi dir”
Don Giovanni premiered at Prague’s National Theatre of Bohemia on 29 October 1787, the composer conducting. The Overture calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings; same for “Non mi dir” minus oboes, trumpets and timpani but with soprano solo. Each selection is about 7 minutes in duration. The SSO played the Overture under the baton of Guy Victor Bordo, 6 April 2002.

Don Giovanni, an endlessly fascinating blend of comedy and drama, is based on the legend of Don Juan, the notorious seducer (of 1003 Spanish women alone, according to his servant). Having killed one would-be lover’s father, a military Commander, he blasphemously invites a memorial statue of the man to dinner: the statue accepts, and drags the Don down to hell. Mozart’s Overture, written the day before the premiere, opens with a dramatic—downright chilling—D minor chord, leading into the haunting music where the Commendatore’s statue demands that Don Giovanni repent or be damned. The main body of the Overture is fast-paced, almost stormy, suggesting the energy and perhaps “driven” temperament of the Don. 

Throughout the opera Donna Anna, the Commendatore’s daughter, urges her fiancé, the loyal Don Ottavio, to seek revenge against Don Giovanni. Just before the final scene, Don Ottavio begs her to marry him the next day. She regretfully declines, in the recitative “Crudel? Ah no, mio bene!” (”Cruel? Oh no, my darling!”) followed by the aria “Non mi dir” (“Don’t tell me that I am cruel to you”). The main part of the aria is gentle and plaintive, while the final section, on the words “Maybe someday heaven will again have pity on me,” is more intense, filled with dramatic coloratura for the soprano. Many commentators suspect Donna Anna of harboring some attraction to Don Giovanni and thus of being less than honest with Don Ottavio or perhaps herself.


Born Lucca, Italy, 22 December, 1858; died London, England, 5 June 1926.
Manon Lescaut: Act 3 Intermezzo
Manon Lescaut was composed 1890-93 and premiered at the Teatro Regio, Turin, 1 February 1893, Allesandro Pomè conducting. The Intermezzo calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, and strings, and lasts 5 minutes. The SSO performed it with Kevin McMahon 12 March 2011.

Puccini insisted upon writing an opera based on the Abbé Prevost’s 18th-century novel Manon Lescaut, despite the fact that Jules Massenet had had a huge success with his own Manon in 1884: “Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion!” Puccini proved to be right: it was his first great success, and still rivals Massenet’s opera in popularity.

At the end of Act 2, Manon, a country girl who has run off with the student Des Grieux but deserted him to become the mistress of a rich man, has decided to return to Des Grieux but is arrested for prostitution. The orchestral interlude, subtitled “The Prison – The Trip to Le Havre,” that introduces Act 3 portrays Des Grieux following the imprisoned Manon to the port of Le Havre, where she will be exiled to the New World. The opening bars, with their anguished cello and viola solos, feature Manon’s musical motif. A very Puccinian melody expresses Des Grieux’s grief over her fate, followed by music from their love duet in Act 2 that reaches an extreme of passion and torment before subsiding. (Puccini had learned much from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.) Finally the opera’s “hope motif” is heard in the woodwinds, though with ominous chords that suggest that all will not unfold as the lovers would hope. 

PUCCINI: Tosca: Act 2 aria, “Vissi d’arte”
Tosca was composed 1899 and premiered 14 January 1900 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, Leopoldo Mugnone conducting. “Vissi d’arte” calls for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, timpani, harp and strings, with soprano solo.  The SSO performed “Vissi d’arte” 15 June 2002, at Lakeland College, with soprano Samantha Lin Pool, led by Guy Victor Bordo. 4 minutes.

In this opera, set in 1800, Floria Tosca is a famous actress whose lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, has been arrested for plotting against the despotic occupiers of Rome. In Act 2, Scarpia, head of the Secret Police, offers (lyingly) to spare Mario’s life if Tosca will become his mistress. In despair she sings the aria “Vissi d’arte”: “I lived for art, I lived for love, I never harmed a living soul.” It is a heartbreaking moment of stillness amid the violent drama of the rest of the act.

Born Livorno, Italy, 7 December 1863; died Rome 2 August 1945.
Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo
The opera premiered 17 May 1890 at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome, Leopoldo Mugnone conducting. Scored for 3 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, organ, 2 harps and strings. The SSO performed the Intermezzo 25 June 1994, with Guy Victor Bordo. 3

Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry, a sarcastic title) was originally a short story and one-act play by Giovanni Verga. The young Pietro Mascagni wrote the opera—his first, and still his most popular—for a contest. It is a prime example of Italian verismo (realism), the movement finding serious drama in the lives of ordinary people rather than the royalty, military leaders and mythic heroes of earlier Italian opera.

As Cavalleria Rusticana opens, the Sicilian villager Turiddu has seduced and abandoned a local girl, Santuzza, and has taken up with a married woman, Lola. Santuzza, forbidden as a “fallen woman” to enter the town church for the Easter Sunday celebration, and dreading the violent outcome of her having told Lola’s husband of the affair, waits outside the church during the Intermezzo. This orchestral interlude begins with music suggesting the simple piety of a village church service, but reaches a climax that seems to express compassion for Santuzza and the other mortals bound up in the tragedy.


PUCCINI: La Bohème: Act 2, “Musetta’s Waltz”
The opera premiered 1 February 1896, at the Teatro Regio, Turin, Arturo Toscanini conducting. ”Musetta’s Waltz” calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, harp and strings, plus soprano solo. 2 minutes.

In Act 2 of Puccini’s touching portrayal of poverty and youth in 19-century Paris, the bohemians—i.e., struggling artists living outside “respectable” society—have scraped their coins together to have an evening out at the Café Momus in the Latin Quarter. There they encounter Musetta, former girlfriend of the painter Marcello but now with a rich older companion of whom she is already tired. To provoke Marcello and mock her current lover, she sings a very free-form waltz tune with teasing lyrics, beginning “Quando m’en vo”: “When I go walking down the street, people stop and stare at my beauty, looking me over from head to toe….”


Born 9 October 1813, Le Roncole, Italy; died 27 January 1901, Milan.
Nabucco: Overture and Act 3 chorus “Va, pensiero”
Composed 1841 and premiered 9 March 1842, La Scala, Milan, with Eugenio Cavallini conducting. The SSO performed the Overture (calling for flute, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, and strings) on 17 March 2001, and “Va, pensiero” (same forces with Chorus, minus percussion other than timpani) on 6 April 2002, both occasions with Guy Victor Bordo. The Overture lasts about 5 minutes, “Va, pensiero” about 4.

Nabucco was Verdi’s third opera and first to be not merely a success but a sensation throughout Italy. The drama is Biblical, with the title character, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, conquering the Hebrews in Act 1 but struck with insanity and finally converting to his enemy’s faith.

The Overture begins with chorale-like music suggesting the nobility and fortitude of the Hebrews. The rest of the piece is taken from music heard later in the opera, including a stormy outburst (the chorus’s curse upon a character who chooses love over patriotism) and the more lyrical chorus “Va pensiero” from Act 3. The final part of the Overture is furiously fast, preparing us for the turbulent drama to follow.

Nabucco’s most famous music by far is the “Va, pensiero” chorus. (“Go, thoughts, on golden wings…”) It more or less corresponds to the opening of Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept”: the captive Israelites remembering their homeland. Since in Verdi’s day most of the Italian states were occupied by foreign powers, a great many listeners found a hidden political message as well. The stately pace, the sad beauty and the sheer power of the massed voices make “Va, pensiero” a great favorite of today’s audiences as well.


Born 29 November 1797, Bergamo, Italy; died 8 April 1848, Bergamo
Lucia di Lammermoor: two choruses
The opera was written in 1835 and premiered 26 September of that year at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples. Tonight’s selections require 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, strings and chorus, for a combined duration of about 3 minutes. The SSO with Chorus and soloists performed Lucia di Lammermoor complete on 20 March 1999, Guy Victor Bordo conducting.

Based on the Walter Scott novel The Bride of Lammermoor, about a tragic feud between two Scottish families, Lucia di Lammermoor has remained one of the supremely popular operas of the bel canto era, famous especially for its Sextet and Mad Scene. Tonight, two rousing choruses will be performed. In the first, from Act 2, Scene 2, a crowd of nobles and servants is celebrating the betrothal of Lucia to Arturo: “Per te d’immenso giubilo” (“For you, with immense jubilation everyone feels newly alive!”) Of course, they don’t know that Lucia’s brother has forced her into this political alliance. In the second chorus, from Act 3, the wedding guests are again jubilant (“D’immenso giubilo”) and even more clueless, unaware that in a fit of madness Lucia has murdered her bridegroom.


VERDI: Aida: Act 2 Triumphal March with ballet music
Composed and premiered in Cairo at the Khevidial Opera House, 24 December 1871,   Giovanni Bottesini conducting. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, strings and chorus. About 11 minutes.  Guy Victor Bordo conducted the Triumphal March and Chorus, without the ballet music, on 6 April 2002.

Since its Cairo premiere, no Italian operatic spectacle has been more popular and iconic than the Triumphal Scene of Aida. Here the Egyptian army parades before the King and Princess with the spoils of its victory against Ethiopia. The pageantry includes not only fanfares and march tunes but a troupe of dancers in a ballet sequence, with the Chorus hailing the victors.


Born Leipzig, Saxony, 22 May 1813; died Venice, Italy, 13 February 1883.
Die Götterdämmerung: Act 1, “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” (arr. E. Humperdinck)
Die Götterdämmerung was first performed at Beyreuth’s Festspielhaus, 17 August 1876, Hans Richter conducting. Tonight’s arrangement of music from Act 1 features piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, glockenspiel, cymbals, harp and strings, lasting about 10 minutes. The SSO performed Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey 15 May 1993, Guy Victor Bordo conducting.

Die Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), the fourth and final music drama of Wagner’s monumental The Ring of the Nibelung, opens with the Three Norns weaving the strands of time and fate. As dawn breaks we see the fire-encircled mountaintop where in the previous opera Siegfried discovered and awakened Brünnhilde—once a Valkyrie but now mortal after her enchanted sleep. The heroic couple, though feeling united as one person, are about to separate: Siegfried to do noble deeds in the world of humans, down along the River Rhine, while Brünnhilde will remain behind, wearing the ring Siegfried won from the dragon Fafner. Neither knows of the curse upon the Ring.

Tonight’s concert arrangement combines the orchestral interludes before and after the lovers’ scene. Following the ominous Fate motif we hear music suggesting the first faint glimmerings of dawn. A fanfare-like motif for Siegfried is joined to a more lyrical one for Brünnhilde, first heard in the clarinets, then taken up by the strings. When Siegfried departs, a number of motifs suggesting his youthful energy and resolute boldness are heard, as well as an echo of Loge the fire god. The call of Siegfried’s hunting horn rings out, and as the music builds to another climax we hear the surging force of the River Rhine. Several other motifs are densely interwoven:, including the call of the Rhine Maidens for their stolen gold. As the music shifts in mood we hear murmurings of the dark powers of the Ring.

Engelbert Humperdinck, a disciple of Wagner, transcribed this music for a smaller orchestra; tonight’s performance reinstates the important color of the bass clarinet. In the opera the interlude takes us to the riverbank home of the treacherous Gibichung family, but Humperdinck’s arrangement adds a different 13 bars to provide a more jubilant close to Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.


VERDI: La Traviata: Act 1 Prelude; Act 2 Gypsy Chorus and Spanish Matadors’ Chorus; Act 3 Prelude.
The opera was composed 1852-53 and premiered 6 March 1853 at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, conducted by Gaetano Mares. Tonight’s excerpts require, in sum, flute, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, tambourine, bass drum, triangle, strings and chorus. The SSO with Chorus and soloists performed La Traviata complete on 3 March 1996, Guy Victor Bordo conducting.

La Traviata, whose title means literally “The Woman Who Strayed,” was based on Alexendre Dumas fils’ hit play The Lady of the Camilias, a sympathetic portrayal of a famous Parisian courtesan who died young of consumption. The Prelude to Act 1 opens with a foreshadowing of the tragic conclusion, leading to an outpouring of a melody to be sung by Violetta, the heroine, expressing her love for Alfredo. The melody is purest Verdi in its heartfelt intensity: it seems hardly more than a descending scale, yet it is unforgettable.

In Act 2 Violetta attends a party where the high-society guests dress up as gypsies and matadors. Verdi’s “Gypsy Chorus” is charming, though strikingly genteel compared to the lusty, rousing “Anvil Chorus” he wrote just the previous year for the “real” gypsies in Il Trovatore. The “Matadors’ Chorus” has just the right amount of swagger and flair for a party of Parisians pretending to be bullfighters.

The Prelude to Act 3, achingly tender with moments of hope overshadowed by despair, introduces the drama’s concluding scene.


Born Padua, 24 February 1842; died Milan, 10 June 1918.
Mefistofele: Final Chorus from the Prologue.
The opera was composed between 1862 and 1867, with Boito conducting the premiere at La Scala, Milan, 5 March, 1868; extensively revised and shortened, it was heard again in Bologna, 10 April 1875. The final portion of the Prologue features piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, tam-tam, cymbals, organ, 2 harps, strings and chorus, plus—offstage—2 additional trumpets, 1 horn, and thunder sheet. The Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed this selection most recently on 11 May 2013, Kevin  McMahon conducting. 4 minutes.

The fame of Arrigo Boito today rests upon the libretti he wrote for Verdi’s final masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff, and for his opera Mefistofele, inspired by the two parts of Goethe’s Faust. Boito’s Prologue opens with a heavenly chorus singing praises to God: “Ave, signor” (“Hail, Lord of the angels and the saints and of the flying golden cherubim!”) Mefistofele interrupts with a wager that he can catch Faust in his devilish net, but he is driven offstage, and the heavenly choirs return to their opening hymn of praise. The portion we hear tonight is the final passage of the Prologue, beginning quietly and sweetly but fervently, and building overwhelmingly toward a glorious climax.

Share this on: