The Hitmaster

Rossini Overtures: William Tell and the Famous Five

Herbert von Karajan / Philharmonia Orchestra

Columbia 33CX 1739


Give me a laundry list, and I will set it to music.

Gioacchino Rossini

An early Columbia mono recording, this sampling of Rossini’s overtures has all the hits, and some obscurer ones, you could ever want in one album. Rossini was the one-man hit factory of early19th century opera. Rousing trumpet fanfares? Yep. Dances you’ll be humming for days? Got em. Huge rampaging finales? For sure. Historically, the overture was used to fluff the audience for the meat of the opera to come, hinting at various themes and melodies that would soon be sung.

Rossini’s operas revitalized the operatic form itself. In his works, beautiful melodies just seem to spill out effortlessly, building to huge climaxes, for which his name has become practically synonymous. Probably his only equal in the realm of the comedic opera is Mozart, and Rossini’s style might be even more distinctive. Outside of William Tell and The Barber of Seville, The Thieving Magpie might be his most characteristic work. It’s like some Ur-overture combining the various devices that make his works so unflinchingly Rossini-esque, and unlike anyone else’s.

Taking the form of a semiseria 2-act opera, The Thieving Magpie is based on an 1817 comedy about a young girl who’s about to be hung for stealing some silver. The girl is saved at the last minute, when it’s discovered that the real thief is a magpie with an appetite for heists. (Coincidentally, magpies are some of the smartest non-mammals in the animal kingdom, with the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, so maybe TTM isn’t as farfetched as we might believe.) The girl is saved and the trickster magpie takes her place.

Rossini finished the opera, so it’s said, a night before the premiere. He was locked in a room, and as he completed parts, he tossed sheet music out the window to a waiting copyist, who then transcribed the individual orchestral parts. The overture begins with a couple of drum-rolls before welling into a militaristic march that then changes pace, introducing a slew of enchanting melodies, including an incredibly popular tune in the woodwinds. That, of course, is followed by the obligatory crescendo announcing the start of the finale. Refrains from earlier are interspersed throughout the orchestra, until overture moves to its rousing climax, which could simply be called a “rossini” for its sheer propulsion.

The Worst of All Possible Worlds

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Leonard Bernstein: Candide

Columbia S2X 32923

Based on Voltaire’s 1759 scathing critique of Leibniz’s dictum that this is “the best of all possible” worlds, Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta was first staged in 1956 on Broadway. While the music was a hit on par with Gershwin, the actual show was a flop. In its revised version of 1974, which is presented here with the original cast, Candide stuck closer to the source material, and was majorly popular when it debuted at the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn.

Candide has a ridiculously impressive roster of behind-the-scenes talent: Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman were involved in the 1956 adaptation. The great poet Richard Wilbur and soon-to-be-famous Stephen Sondheim provided additional material to the updated work, and was directed by Harold Prince.

This 2xLP gatefold sleeve by Doug Johnson features the Quixote-like hero traipsing on a ball composed of all the depravity and cruelty he encounters on his perambulations. Voltaire would be proud.

Et Tu, Decca?

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Handel: Arias from Julius Caesar

Joan Sutherland / Soloists / Richard Bonynge, conductor / New Symphony Orchestra of London

Decca SXL 6116

The great soprano Joan Sutherland headlines these excerpts from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Nice sleeve art from the art department at Decca, bearing a facsimile of the edition from 1724.

Loosely based on the Roman Civil War (49-45 BCE), and especially on the love affair between JC and Cleopatra (the whole romantic/political power relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra, and later Marc Antony and the queen, with all the wives and illegitimate children in the mix sounds like a bad political soap opera, which usually makes for grand opera seria).

The earliest performances of Handel’s work featured a castrato in a couple roles, including that of Caesar himself. It’s remained one of the most staged operas from the Baroque period. Gottingen in the 1920s had a major revival of Handel, and in true Weimar Republic fashion, the opera opened with expressionist sets and silent film imagery.

The Devil Went Down to Germany

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Gounod: Faust (Highlights)

De Los Angeles / Gedda / Christoff

Orchestra and Chorus of the Theatre National de L’Opera / Andre Cluytens

RCA Victor

“Mozart should have composed for Faust”

-Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

In music, Goethe’s Faust is everywhere. Beethoven based on a song on it (even after the two men fell out when Beethoven remarked that the playwright was too chummy with aristocrats). Berlioz wrote an opera on the drama. Both Schumann and Mendelssohn musicalized the devil’s apprentice, and Franz Liszt composed not one but two Faust-centric works: a Faust Symphony and the Mephisto Waltz. Mussorgsky, Mahler and even the Soviet modernist Alfred Schnittke worked in material from the play (Faust Cantata in the the latter’s case. And that’s not even mentioning all the Fausts that show up in the songs of Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa and Tenacious D.

The Faust legend (reaching into anecdote with Robert Johnson’s crossroads encounter with the devil) is well suited to musicians and composers seeking mastery in exchange for their souls. Who wouldn’t? Thomas Mann was aware of that connection, updating Faust into pianist/composer in his Dr. Faustus (1947). Although Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus was the first mainstream version, some scholars believe that the origins lay with the medieval magician Simon Magus. But it wasn’t until Goethe’s 1789 Faust that the popular tone was set, and author was adamant that no one other than Mozart, who was already dead, should set it to music.

Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera is loosely based on that version. Taking place over 5 acts (sometimes shortened to 4), it dispenses with Goethe’s sprawling philosophical epic and instead focuses on the love angle between Faust and Marguerite. After the premiere, Gounod’s name fame was assured.

Castellon’s vivid depiction on this RCA Victor release from the 1950s has the devil looking like a Venetian nobleman, ogling the face-sucking couple in the background. He has untrimmed fingernails and a pervert’s leer, as the prince of evil should. Ideally attired in blood-red finery, he is portrayed at the moment when he’s about to do some soul-searching and romance-thwarting.

A Wagner for All Seasons

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A compilation of Wagner from various operas, performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of near-ubiquitous Eugene Ormandy. Thanks in part to the famous helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now, “Ride of the Valkyries” is one of the most recognizable pieces in the canon, in addition to being the most German thing ever. Less known are its cameos in two dozen or so other films, including 8 1/2, Rebel Without A Cause, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and even Blues Brothers. Along with Carmina Burana and Holst’s The Planets, Wagner’s sound is about as cinematic as it comes.

Blue Man Group Plays Weill

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Everybody from Frank Sinatra to The Doors has covered Kurt Weill (at last count, “September Song” alone has been crooned by 50 singers). But the original operas, with growly diva Lotte Lenya as the early leading lady, can’t be matched for their rawness and brutal tin-can classicism. This all orchestral recording, by Siegrfried Landau and the Westechester Symphony Orchestra, pairs suites from The Three Penny Opera with renditions of Kurka’s Weill-esque anti-war satire. The cover art depicts a quintet of Weimar-era jazzmen who, but one, are for some reason painted a shade of aquamarine.