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Catching fire: how opera and its choruses came to be

Think of a country which first gave us opera and which continues to be the spiritual home of opera.

Many might say, ‘Italy, of course’. Many do, if asked, I understand.

Others would counter, ‘Ancient Greece’.  To which many would say, ‘oh really?’

But history suggests both were indispensable in the evolution of the opera and distinctive role of the chorus within it.

In 1580 a group of Italian poets and musicians (the Camerata) wondered how to re-create what they thought was a musical and dramatic tradition from ancient Greece and began to experiment.

They found a fragment of a greek chorus from Orestes, a play by greek dramatist Euripides and, from Aristotle, Poetics written a century after that, which showed that music had indeed played an important role in the performance of tragedy, using:

‘language that has the embellishments of rhythm, melody and some parts metre alone.. in others melody’.

History lesson over.  Then things really started to take off.

Fast forward to1594, the first opera, Dafne by Jacopo Pen, followed by L’Euridice in 1600 with a new musical style of declamation, half speech, half song, accompanied by a bass instrument.

The was called ‘stile rappresentivo’ or as we know it today ‘recitative’.

The accompaniment was called the 'continuo'. Also it include ’intermedi’, musical interludes between acts of the play.

Monteverdi produced opera’s first masterpiece by common acclaim, Orfeo in 1607 and with a switch to real aristocratic characters from classical allegorical figures, L’incoronazione di Poppea.

The first opera house opened in 1637, the Teatro San Cassiano, in Venice.

And the rest, as they is history.

With all this in mind, we give you a taste of the final three of the opera choruses to be performed in our Feel The Spirit concerts in May.

Hebrew Slaves Chorus from Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi.

The king of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar (aka Nabucco) sets out to crush the city of Jerusalem and massacre the Hebrews, who are holding his daughter Fenena prisoner. The scene of this famous chorus is located on the banks of the Euphrates, when the Hebrews, defeated and prisoners in exile, remember with pain their dear lost homeland. Created at La Scala in Milan in 1842, while northern Italy was still under Austrian domination, the opera, and this piece in particular, resonated ardently in the hearts of the Milanese, identifying their fate with that of the captives. The young Giuseppe had achieved a masterstroke which has never been denied.

Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell

Virgil's Aeneid, with the episode of the love affair between Queen Dido and Prince Aeneas, inspired Henry Purcell to create this beautiful baroque work. At the end of the drama, feeling betrayed by his lover, himself torn between what he believes to be a divine mission and his love for Dido, she rejects him and lets him go. But the pain of separation is too strong, and she kills herself. The chorus then depicts for us, with sadness and emotion, a Cupid presenting himself with drooping wings, and scattering roses on the tomb of the deceased queen.

Libiamo from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi

A joyful drinking song invites the guests at the party given by Violetta – a promiscuous courtesan – to libations and love. Among them, Alfredo, a young provincial recently arrived in Paris, has eyes only for her. Both will fall in love and will have to face bourgeois morality and an intransigent father. The story ends badly, but do we think about the next day when drunkenness and love turn hearts?

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