Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Opera’s Greatest Witches

Witches—be they sopranos, mezzos, contraltos, or (coming up in this fall’s Hansel & Gretel at Seattle Opera) tenors—bring intense drama and spectacular music to any number of great operas. Enjoy these memories of great witchy performances at Seattle Opera! If you’d like to listen to them all in one go, open our Witch Album over at SoundCloud and simply press play.

MACBETH: A Stage Full of Witches
Something wicked this way comes! When he set about transforming Shakespeare’s Macbeth into an Italian opera, Giuseppe Verdi multiplied Shakespeare’s three witches into a whole bevy of them, and then wrote them some spectacularly creepy music. The scene in the witches’ cavern becomes a huge production number as the witches brew their hell-broth and await the evil king. Seattle Opera’s 2006 production of Macbeth was conducted by Nicola Luisotti.

LOHENGRIN: Ortrud Invokes the Ancient Gods
In Wagner’s Lohengrin, wicked witch Ortrud transforms the young Christian prince Gottfried von Brabant into a swan with all the powers of hell. In her famous Act Two invocation she calls on the pagan gods Wodan and Freia (deities who would later appear in person in Wagner’s Das Rheingold) and implores them to bless her treachery and deceit, that she may avenge them on the Christians who turned away from the old faith. Jane Eaglen sang this thrilling music under the baton of Asher Fisch in Seattle Opera’s 2004 Lohengrin.

IL TROVATORE: Azucena’s Idée Fixe
Azucena, the demented old gypsy hag at the center of Verdi’s Il trovatore, isn’t really a witch; but her mother was burnt at the stake by people who claimed she was a witch, and ever since Azucena has been unable to get the image out of her mind...or the sinister waltz tune that was playing that night out of her head. Polish mezzo soprano Malgorzata Walewska sang this tragic character at Seattle Opera in 2010, conducted by Yves Abel.

RUSALKA: Jezibaba’s “Čury mury fuk!”
Disney’s little mermaid gave her voice to a wicked witch in exchange for a pair of legs. In Dvořák’s magnificent opera Rusalka, based on the same story, the lovely nymph follows the ill-tempered forest witch Ježibaba down into her witch’s cave, where she performs her magic (assisted, in Seattle Opera’s production, by her familiar, an owl of unusual size). “Hocus pocus,” in Czech, is pronounced “Čury mury fuk!” Bruce Ferden conducted Seattle Opera’s 1990 production of Rusalka, starring American contralto Sheila Nadler as Ježibaba.

NORMA: Worshipping the Moon Goddess
Norma, priestess of the ancient Druids, may not look much like your typical Halloween witch; but she certainly casts a spell over everyone onstage and in the audience when she sings her prayer to the chaste goddess of the moon, “Casta diva.” The one and only Jane Eaglen made her Seattle Opera debut and won her first Seattle Opera Artist of the Year Award singing this challenging music in our 1994 production of Bellini’s Norma, under the baton of Edoardo Mueller.

HANSEL & GRETEL: Witch’s Ride
Written by a young protégé of Wagner, Hansel & Gretel spoofs the latter’s famous “Ride of the Valkyries” in its lively Witch’s Ride, played by the orchestra as the title characters get lost deeper and deeper in the forest. Working out to this vigorous music, our witch surely builds up an appetite, later to be satiated by some delicious children! Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the orchestra of Seattle Opera in our 2016 Hansel & Gretel.

THE MAGIC FLUTE: The Queen Deceives Tamino
She may look more like Glinda the Good Witch; but the Queen of the Night is probably the nastiest female character in Mozart, with who knows what unholy powers. In her dazzling entrance aria she charms and seduces the naïve young Prince Tamino, who sets off on a quest to do her bidding and defeat her enemies. Cyndia Sieden sang the Queen of the Night at Seattle Opera in our 1999 production, conducted by Daniel Beckwith.

CARMEN Reads Death in the Cards
The gloomiest music in Bizet’s Carmen comes in the “Card Trio” in Act 3, when the title character, foretelling her future with her gypsy friends, sees inevitable death coming, first for her, then for her lover Don José. Stephanie Blythe sang Carmen at Seattle Opera in 2004, under the baton of George Manahan.

TRISTAN UND ISOLDE: Worshipping the Love Goddess
In Act Two of this amazing opera, Isolde, eagerly awaiting her lover Tristan’s nocturnal visit, explains to her attendant Brangäne that their choices no longer matter, now that Frau Minne (Lady Love) has taken control of their fates: “Don’t you recognize the hand of Lady Love, the power of her magic? She is queen of all who dare, ruler of the cosmos! Life and death are under her sway; from pleasure and pain she weaves them, turning hatred into love...however she spins it, however she ends it, whatever she has chosen for me, wherever she leads me, I am completely hers and I show her obedience!” Despite the nervous Brangäne’s objections, Isolde extinguishes the lamp warning Tristan that it’s not yet safe to approach: “Quench that light so Lady Love can shine.” Jane Eaglen sang Isolde, Michelle DeYoung sang Brangäne, and Armin Jordan conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera in this performance from 1998.

UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Ulrica Summons the Devil
Ulrica, the fortune-telling humbug in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, wants everyone to believe she’s a powerful witch. To that end she sings a mighty aria, “Re dell’abisso,” summoning her demon-lover and impressing her clientele with smoke and mirrors and dramatic mezzo singing. Listen for the quick interlude (beginning here at 1:41) when King Gustavus III, disguised as a fisherman, opens the door to Ulrica’s den, letting in the light of the Stockholm afternoon and irritating the spectators by breaking Ulrica’s spell. Kathryn Day sang Ulrica at Seattle Opera in 2002; Antonello Allemandi conducted Vinson Cole as Gustavo and the chorus and orchestra of Seattle Opera.

PARSIFAL: Kundry Rising
Early in Act Two of Wagner’s Parsifal, the evil sorceror Klingsor casts a spell transforming Kundry, hitherto a disagreeable, loathly, ancient servant of the Grail Knights, into a seductive young beauty. Slave to Klingsor’s magic, Kundry must tempt and ruin the young fool Parsifal. Klingsor’s words indicate that Kundry has been doing this job a long, long time: “Arise, come to me! Your master calls you, nameless one…ancient she-devil, rose of hell! You were Herodias, and what else? Gundryggia there, Kundry here. Kundry, your master calls!” In 2003 Asher Fisch conducted Richard Paul Fink as Klingsor, Linda Watson as the wailing Kundry, and the orchestra of Seattle Opera.

MEFISTOFELE: “L’altra notte”
Verdi’s brilliant young librettist Arrigo Boito composed both words and music for this wonderful opera, inspired by Goethe’s extraordinary Faust. Accused of killing both her mother and her baby by Faust, lovely young Margherita languishes in prison the night before her execution, where she sings the dramatic aria “L’altra notte”. “The air is cold, my dungeon dark, and my sorrowing soul, like a sparrow in the woods, flies, flies, flies away...have pity on me.” At the Speight Celebration at Seattle Opera in 2014, Nuccia Focile sang this aria, with the orchestra of Seattle Opera conducted by Carlo Montanaro.

ARIADNE AUF NAXOS: Bacchus Taunts Circe
A case of failed witchcraft! Before the young god Bacchus sets foot on Ariadne’s Greek island of Naxos, he’s heard offstage noisily taunting the witch goddess of the next island over, Circe, who had better luck transforming Odysseus’ men into pigs than she did working her wicked magic on Bacchus. Jeffrey Hartman sang Bacchus at Seattle Opera in 2015, under the baton of Lawrence Renes.

Is it witchery when the evil magic is worked by the queen of the gods? Juno, in Handel’s Semele, resorts to all kinds of skullduggery—including deceit, disguise, extortion, sex trafficking with an illusory nymph, and temptation with a narcissism-enhancing magic mirror—to defeat her rival, the lovely mortal Semele. One of our all-time favorite singers, Stephanie Blythe, gave an unforgettable performance as Juno when Seattle Opera presented Semele in 2015. Gary Thor Wedow conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera.