Conductor Garry Walker is Opera North’s Music Director Designate. In the winter season, he will be conducting a new production of Carmen. Here he shares his operatic highlights to enliven a time of enforced isolation.
“When I was asked to create a list, I wanted to provide something with a few surprises. My ‘Favourites List’ might not look so different from any other person’s, so I’ve wandered slightly off-piste at times and concentrated on arias and ensembles which have left a striking or indelible impression on me when I’ve seen the operas live.”
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1. Britten, Billy Budd: ‘O beauty, O handsomeness, goodness’
I’ll start with Claggart’s aria ‘O beauty, O handsomeness, goodness’, from Billy Budd, ideally starting just before with the offstage Chorus, ‘Over the water’, which has an extraordinarily haunting quality.
Claggart’s character has always fascinated me. Melville’s novella is full of acute observations of human behaviour. He notes that jealousy has nothing to do with intellect; indeed, it bypasses the intellect and affects the Fool as much as the Scholar. It is also something which people are remarkably reluctant to admit to. The darkness of the orchestration that Britten uses (trombone, basses, bass drum) captures the impenetrability and irrationality of the jealous heart.
2. Verdi, Don Carlos: Grand Inquisitor Scene
I freely admit that when I first saw Don Carlos, I was far too young to appreciate it All I remember is someone arriving on a horse, which then had a Blue Peter moment (remember the infamous 1969 episode of the children’s television programme featuring Lulu the elephant?) and … the Grand Inquisitor’s aria.
The reason I am reminded of it now is that it was clearly an influence on the Claggart aria mentioned above, although when E. M. Forster pointed this out to Britten, Britten was quite offended! The Grand Inquisitor’s scene has some of the most malevolent music I can think of, and shows Verdi’s genius for musical characterisation.
3. Boito, Mefistofele: ‘Son lo spirito che nega’
I have acquired over the years an interest in composers who either do not fit into conventional genres or categories, or defy the spirit of their times – the German Grenzgänger. Sometimes these people were not so successful in their own right, but highly influential on those around them.
The Scapigliati movement in Italy played a huge role in the development of Verismo (indeed, on the sensibilities of 20th Century opera). The polymath Arrigo Boito, who was to be Verdi’s librettist for Otello and Falstaff, was a key figure in this group. He was also a composer, and his extraordinary opera Mefistofele, which is completely mad at times, includes this memorable aria, ‘Son lo spirito che nega’. It might surprise you …
4. Ponchielli, La Gioconda: ‘Voce di donna’
I appreciate that I’ve chosen three arias so far – one sung by a jealous sociopath, another by an Inquisitor and the third by a Demon – so now for a change of direction! Ponchielli (1834-86) is a composer who is perhaps overlooked. A somewhat Janus-like figure, in his use of florid song he maintained a tradition of vocal writing which Verdi had already left behind, but at the same time he created a new, slow developing, ecstatic melodic style (often used towards the end of an aria), something that would become part of the Verismo sound-world and which was to be taken further by his student, Puccini. Here is an example of this style from Act One of La Gioconda.
5. Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen: ‘Nerikal jsem to?’
I’ve always loved the music of Janáček. Its musical vocabulary is totally unique, all muscle and no fat, as if hewn from Moravian granite.
In The Cunning Little Vixen, the musical language is perhaps a little less severe, and in the Forester’s aria in Act Three, the composer applies a wash of warmth and colour to the text – the perfect accompaniment to the words, which are about renewal and the cycle of life.
6. Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Act Two Finale
It would be difficult to compile a list like this without mentioning Mozart. Indeed, you could compile a list which is exclusively Mozart. Just take Figaro: the Sextet from Act Three, or the Trio from Act One, or even Barbarina’s F minor aria from Act Four.
I’m going to cheat however, and add to my list the entire 20-minute through-composed Finale of Act Two which must be one of the greatest spiritual and intellectual achievements in any artistic field.
7. Loesser Guys and Dolls: ‘Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat’
From the sublime to the ridiculous. No need to explain why … I just like jazz and musicals!
8. Korngold, Die tote Stadt: ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen’
And finally to the opera that Mahler never got round to writing, but Korngold certainly managed to deliver successfully. Die tote Stadt definitely had to feature on my wishlist, and particularly this aria.