Here’s a mystery: if there are 1,800 individual works worth an entry in the Grove Dictionary of Opera, how come everyone just wants to see Carmen, La bohème and La traviata all the time? Why are we fixated on watching the same few unlucky girls hurrying to their early graves, when there exist so many more imaginative ways to slaughter your heroines?
Galloping to the rescue, repeatedly, comes record label Opera Rara, whose 51 recordings to date of forgotten operas show that there are loads of exciting ways for your heroine to snuff it: we discover Gabriella di Vergy keeling over from shock when presented with the still-warm heart of her beloved; Rosmonda being poshly stabbed to death by Eleanor of Aquitaine; and Maria Padilla dying out of ‘a surfeit of joy’. The company has been ahead of the game in restoring Donizetti and Rossini’s overlooked works, so here are a few more suggestions for the next decades…
Where to start? How about here, with Rimsky-Korsakov, the most prolific opera composer to be almost completely ignored (outside Russia, at any rate). Prince Gvidon turns into a bumblebee in the score’s only well-known bit. The reason? Well, he needs to get a message to his father in the royal court and deliver a couple of well-aimed stings to his horrid aunts there too. There’s also a squirrel with golden nuts. It’s an enchanting fairy-tale opera, and the orchestra makes the most amazing sounds.
2. Iris – Pietro Mascagni, 1898
Mascagni spent his whole life trying to recreate the success of his first smash-hit opera, Cavalleria rusticana, written when he was 26. It never really worked out, but he was a talented and versatile composer. Two years before Puccini’s Madam Butterfly – and not so long after Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado – he discovered the joys of turning Japanese. Osaka fancies Iris so, obviously, he kidnaps her. But alas, she doesn’t fancy him, so he hands her over to his mate Kyoto to put in his brothel. Iris objects to this and drowns herself in a sewer.
3. The Dragon of Wantley – John Frederick Lampe, 1737
Without doubt the greatest opera ever written, and the smash hit of 1737 London. Henry Carey and Handel’s bassoonist John Frederick Lampe decided Italian opera had really gone too far when the Meister’s 1736 opera Giustino included the hero Justin beating up a preposterous ‘Sea-monster’. So they came up with a singing dragon in Yorkshire, a debauched hero (‘Moore of Moore Hall’) who imitates the castrato Farinelli and is squabbled over by the love-interests Margery and Mauxalinda. The dragon, vulnerable only in its ‘arse-gut’, is finally dispatched by Moore using a special pair of winklepickers. Handel thought it was great and went to see it every night.
Known as ‘The Terrible’, of course. The Tsar, that is, not the opera. And with such a subject how could you go wrong? As it happens, Bizet, one of the unluckiest composers of all time, found a way, by peevishly withdrawing it from one theatre and offering it to the way posher Paris Opéra, who summarily rejected it. The opera was finally premiered in 1946, over 70 years after his death. This grand opéra has the usual big-chorus turbulence of the genre, plus all the fun aspects of Russian barbarism: mass executions, rape, assassination, madness.
Bizet couldn’t write a dull note.
Bodged up by Rameau to celebrate the birth of Louis XVI’s short-lived (luckily for him!) elder brother. In a plot described as ‘the most puerile that Rameau set’, two lovers are separated by an evil genie who tries to variously kill and rape them, before they are rescued by a good fairy who luckily has amazing superpowers on this auspicious day. While separated, the pair get bracelets that work like walkie-talkies, allowing them to keep in touch emotionally. Rameau makes the orchestra sound wild and fantastic, and his dance and descriptive music is the top of the Baroques.
6. Undine – Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, 1815
Mermaid operas – and their subset, snowgirl-operas – are great because they yield amusing deaths like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegurochka melting into a dirty puddle. Following the standard pattern, fish-girl Undine forfeits her soggy life for love, which means on the plus side she gets a soul but with certain minuses, like misery and death. ETA Hoffmann is better known as a writer of uncanny German Romanticism but thought of himself as a composer, and this piece really founded a new tradition in German opera which led through Weber to Wagner.
It was Offenbach who immortalised Hoffmann operatically, and he also had a crack at some mermaids (or ‘nixies’ as they are never known in English). The opera features one case of ‘war-related head injury amnesia’ (according to German Wikipedia) and one long-term coma on the part of the heroine, which is mistaken by the other characters for death, with confusing consequences. Basically, the Rhine-spirits intervene in a good way to resolve some vexed love issues and put paid to a gang of mercenaries who are ravaging the country. The well-known Barcarolle (from The Tales of Hoffmann) made its first appearance here, and the piece is full of the dreamy German Romanticism that was what Offenbach really wanted to write.
8. Die Loreley – Max Bruch, 1863
Our last water-borne heroine. We are in medieval Germany so the dramatis personae enjoy names like Bertha and Hubert. The drama revolves around the dumped peasant Lenore who finds herself pouring wine at her ex-lover’s wedding, so she does a quick deal with the river spirits: her soul in exchange for instant nuclear-sex-appeal surgery. It all ends very badly. Bruch read the libretto in 1860 and was so enchanted he started work immediately. But he got himself sued by the writer Emanuel Geiber for breach of copyright. Geiber eventually relented and let Bruch get on with it. The result is very tuneful and atmospheric, almost a symphonic poem, with debts to Beethoven and Spohr.
9. Le roi d’Ys – Edouard Lalo, 1875
Edouard Lalo was another Frenchman who, like Bizet and Berlioz, suffered from his countrymen’s appalling taste, ignorance and snobbery. His first opera Fiesque was refused performance, and likewise this one, his second; it was finally put on at the Opéra-Comique in 1888. It concerns the need to think seriously about coastal defences if you live by the sea. Two daughters of the King of the Breton city of Ys are in love with the same guy. This causes one of them to break off her engagement with another guy who then basically knocks a hole in the dam which keeps the water out. The city is drowned. This has a claim to be the great forgotten French national opera.
10. The Wreckers – Ethel Smyth, 1906
Ethel Smyth – suffragette, lesbian, eccentric and all-round good egg – is one of England’s unsung musical glories, and naturally her flouting of all Victorian conventions meant her work was scorned here and better appreciated in Germany. This Wagnerian tour de force paved the way for Britten’s Peter Grimes, and not only in its seaside setting. A Cornish village makes its tawdry living by luring ships onto the rocks, but the local Methodist preacher’s wife and her lover try to warn the ships off. For their pains they are walled up in a sea cave and left to drown. There is great sea music and muscular characterisation of the village.
11. La gioventù di Enrico V – Saverio Mercadante, 1834
So Lord Harcourt, keen for his sister to become queen, has to stop her eloping with Arturo di Northumberland, who is disguised as a cab driver. At one point Miss Harcourt’s Garter (the order, not the garment) is chucked through the window of the Palace of Westminster to land at the Prince’s feet as he enters the Abbey for his Coronation. Yes, this Enrico V turns out to be our very own Prince Hal, not some Kafkaesque Italian, seen through the eyes of the 19th-century librettist Felice Romani. Mercadante is the missing link between Donizetti and Verdi – prime Opera Rara label territory.
12. Gli equivoci – Stephen Storace, 1786
Shakespeare’s mistaken-identity knockabout The Comedy of Errors apparently wasn’t complicated enough for the taste of librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, who introduced a wife for one of the Dromios to perk things up. Englishman Stephen Storace was Mozart’s friend and pupil, and it shows in his deft and delicate scoring for the windband and extended ensemble finales. This is a fabulous, varied score which is up there with the output of Italian opera composers like Cimarosa.
13. Salvator Rosa – Carlos Gomes, 1874
The expatriate Brazilian composer Gomes was one of 26 children and was briefly nurtured as a possible successor to Verdi. The story concerns the proto-Romantic eponymous artist’s apocryphal involvement with the 1647 uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. None of this actually happened, and the rest is the usual stuff of Italian opera: thwarted love, treacherous rulers, murder, suicide, heartbreak and despair.
14. La libertà contenta – Agostino Steffani, 1693
The future King George I had this opera made as a yellow card to his gadabout wife Sophie: that must be one of the plusses of being king. The message is that marital fidelity is fun, or at least more fun than getting your head chopped off. In the event it was Sophie’s fancy man who got arrested and ‘disappeared’ after the couple failed to heed the warning. Agostino Steffani was an astonishing man: priest, spy… and Handel’s musical mentor. His free-flowing idiom mixes jaunty 17th-century Venetian opera with the new opera seria in a rich musical stew of great beauty.
15. Maddalena – Sergei Prokofiev, 1911
Teatime turns sour when artist Genaro realises that his ugly friend and guest Stenio is also his wife’s lover. It’s all a bit uncomfortable since, weirdly, Stenio didn’t realise that the woman he’d been having it off with was his friend’s wife. They both decide that Maddalena deserves to die, but things go a bit wrong and they kill each other instead. Maddalena looks at their corpses and is puzzled about who she loved anyway. Prokofiev’s first mature opera is in the turbid style of Richard Strauss, with admixtures of Scriabin’s heavy chromaticism – a very bracing and effective one-acter.