Next Performance

Spring 2022
May 14, 2022 7:30 PM May 15, 2022 2:00 PM

Performances of Hélas mon Coeur are dedicated to the memory of Dr. Aurelio De La Vega, longtime board member and benefactor of the Verdi Chorus, who passed away in February. To carry on his important legacy of sponsoring the guest sopranos that sang with the Chorus, donations may be made to the Maestro Aurelio De La Vega Guest Artist Fund which provides financial support to guest soloists who sing with the Chorus in performances.

Spring 2022
Concert Program
ERNANI (1844)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
“Esultiamo! Letizia ne inondi”
The Chorus
“Evviva! Beviam!”
The Men’s Chorus
“Gran Dio…Oh de’ verd’anni miei”
Roberto Perlas Gómez
FIDELIO (1805)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
“Gott, welch dunkel hier!”
Todd Wilander
Prisoners’ Chorus (“O welche Lust!”)
The Men’s Chorus with Bill Ketchum and David Eric Peterson
“O namenlose Freude!”
Julie Makerov and Mr. Wilander
MACBETH (1847)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
“Che faceste?”
The Women’s Chorus
“Giorno non vidi mai”
Mr. Gómez, Esteban Rivas, and the Women’s Chorus
The Women’s Chorus
“Patria oppressa”
The Chorus
“O figli, o figli miei…Ah, la paterna mano”
Mr. Wilander
“Si colmi il calice di vino”
Ms. Makerov and the Chorus
“Sangue a me”
Mr. Gómez, Ms. Makerov, Mr. Wilander, Rachel Labovitch, and the Chorus
Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886)
“Feste! Pane! Feste! Pane!
The Chorus
The Chorus
Mr. Gómez and the Chorus
“Cielo e mar!”
Mr. Wilander
Umberto Giordano (1867-1948)
Spring Chorus (“O Pastorelle, addio”)
The Women’s Chorus
“La mamma morta”
Ms. Makerov
Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)
“Glou! Glou! Glou!”
The Chorus
“Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach”
Mr. Wilander, Joseph Gárate, and the Chorus
“Scintille, diamant”
Mr. Gómez
“Belle nuit”
Ms. Makerov, Anne Marie Ketchum, and the Chorus
“Hélas mon coeur”
Mr. Wilander, Mr. Gómez, Ms. Makerov, Ariana Stultz, Elias Berezin, Jamie Sanderson, and the Chorus
“Des cendres de ton coeur”
Ms. Makerov, Mr. Wilander, Mr. Gómez, Ms. Stultz, Mr. Berezin, Mr. Gárate, Mr. Sanderson, César Ballardo, and the Chorus
Spring 2022
Concert Notes
Hélas mon coeur

“Hélas mon coeur” - Alas, my heart - is Hoffmann’s bitter lament at the loss of yet another of his doomed loves. The history of opera is replete with broken hearts and the loss of great loves, beginning with the first extant opera, Peri’s Euridice. That history, however, is not limited to simply love stories, tragic or otherwise. In Euridice and Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Orpheus doesn’t simply lament the loss of his bride Euridice, he goes on a brave quest to save her from the depths of the underworld. Opera literature abounds with examples of heart as it refers to courage and honor as well as love, and this performance covers the gamut of the language of the heart. We begin with the story of Ernani, a political insurgent but also the embodiment of the bravehearted romantic knight who sacrifices life and love to honor a vow. Fidelio portrays a brave young woman who goes undercover as a man in order to rescue her husband, a political prisoner locked away for years, and ironically premiered in Vienna, then under the occupation of French soldiers. In Macbeth we see the consequences of leaders who lack all heart in their thirst for power, as well as the broken hearts of refugees who have lost everything, including their families, to Macbeth’s bloody progress. La Gioconda depicts two lovers at the mercy of the Inquisition as well as jealous suitors who betray all principle in order to win the lovers for themselves, much as the brave couple in Andrea Chénier are sacrificed not just to the heartless revolutionary ideals of  political fanatics in France, but by envious admirers who abandon honor to get their way. And finally, we end with the poet Hoffmann, who has his heart broken repeatedly, but whose Muse reminds him that from the ashes of his heart, his artistic gift will be reborn. Political repression and brutal regimes continue to this day, but music and art can remind us of the power in our hearts. Remember that Orpheus was only allowed to go to Hades and back because of the beauty of his music.


Following the success of three of his first four operas for La Scala, Verdi hoped to reach a wider audience and accepted a commission from Teatro La Fenice in Venice. He chose as his vehicle the French play Ernani by Victor Hugo (which became a major stalwart of Sarah Bernhardt’s repertoire). Hugo based much of his hit play on the true story of a Robin Hood figure in Spain during the reign of Don Carlos I (later crowned Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and the grandfather of the title character in Verdi’s later opera Don Carlos). Verdi chose for his librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who, for the next two decades, was to become one of his most frequent collaborators. Ernani scored a great success in Venice, as well as establishing Verdi’s career outside of Italy. The composer suffered his usual travails with finding the right singers, as well as difficulties with the police and the Austrian censors over Ernani’s scenes of conspiracy against a ruler. Verdi craftily gave in on a few minor details while retaining the overall incendiary feel of Hugo’s play, which the authorities were apparently too obtuse to notice. Although none of Verdi’s early operas were “contemporary” nor overtly connected with the politics of the day, they all featured themes of liberty and patriotism, as well as opposition to tyranny. Given Italy’s roiling politics during the Risorgimento of the 1820’s through the 1870’s, it is easy to see how Verdi became such a potent figure on the larger Italian stage outside of the opera house. Indeed, his very name became a rallying cry with a double meaning – “Viva Verdi!” – as the letters of his last name also stood for “Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia” (Vittorio Emanuele King of Italy, later to be the first king of the united Italy). With Ernani, Verdi moved toward a drama of individuals, with the chorus acting more as support than as a central character, as in Nabucco and I Lombardi.

Ernani (the alias of a Spanish nobleman, Juan of Aragón, whose family has been banished by Don Carlo’s father) has joined a band of rebels and outlaws fighting against the king. Ernani is in love with Elvira, a young noblewoman he hopes to free from her elderly uncle Silva, who intends to marry her against her wishes. The opening of Act II is set in the grand hall of Silva’s castle on the planned wedding day. The guests exult at the prospect of the marriage (“Esultiamo!”) and hope that everything will smile on Silva’s castle on such a beautiful day. Elvira’s beauty is like a flower loved by heaven and earth,  and Silva is a handsome and gentle knight full of wisdom and knowledge. They pray the marriage will be a happy one and blessed with children as wise and beautiful as their parents.

At the beginning of Act I, in a rebel camp in the mountains near Silva’s castle, the outlaws whom Ernani has joined are found eating and drinking. Toasting their lives (“ Evviva! Beviam!”), they seek their pleasure in wine and gambling, for gold is vain treasure and their only friends are their muskets and daggers. They wonder why Ernani is so pensive and pale (“Ernani pensoso”). Saying they share a common fortune, they tell him to cheer up and at least find some pleasure in wine.

The Electors of the Holy Roman Empire are assembled in the cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle to elect a new Emperor following the death of Maximilian I. Don Carlo hopes to be chosen Emperor but is also informed of a plot to assassinate him. He hides himself within the tomb of Charlemagne to spy on his foes. As he waits the arrival of the conspirators, he contemplates his destiny. Great God! (“Gran Dio!”) These people sharpen their daggers on the marble tombs to slaughter him. Scepters! Wealth! Honor! Beauty! Youth! What are you? Ships floating on a sea of years, which the waves batter with incessant worries until, reaching the rock of the tomb, your name crashes with you into nothingness! Oh, dreams and lying ghosts of his green years (“Oh de’ verd’ann miei”). If he believed too much in you, the enchantment has now disappeared. If now he is called to the most sublime throne, he will rise like an eagle on the wings of virtue. Ah, he will make his name as the victor of centuries.


Born to a family of musicians in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven began his musical career as a pianist, moving to Vienna at the age of 21 to study with Josef Haydn and rapidly achieving success as a virtuoso pianist, a role that he gradually abandoned due to his increasing deafness by the end of the 1790’s. Early musical compositions from the same period were followed by a rich legacy of symphonies, piano pieces, chamber music, sacred and secular choral works, and many other forms, including his only opera, Fidelio. He continued to conduct his own works in the early 1800’s, until his almost total deafness caused him to withdraw from public appearances in 1811. In spite of his isolation and frequent illnesses, he composed some of his greatest works in his later years, including the 9th Symphony and the Missa Solemnis.

Beethoven had had an early relationship with the theater during his youth in Bonn, including a stint as continuo player and later playing the viola for its opera house. As well as composing ballet and incidental music for theater including overtures to Coriolanus and Egmont, he constantly sought a suitable libretto for an opera. He had no interest in popular opera buffa, but at last was offered a French libretto entitled Leonore by Jean Nicolas Bouilly, which had already been set to music in two different French operas. Beethoven was strongly drawn by the humanitarian idealism of the Enlightenment that had taken hold of thought all over Europe, and Leonore’s treatment of unselfish loyalty and courage perfectly suited his aims, even if the libretto itself was deficient. It also suited current taste, which favored the genre of “rescue opera.”

The first version, set to a German libretto by Ferdinand Sonnleithner, premiered in Vienna in 1805 and closed after three performances. Its relative failure was due not only to an overlong and muddled libretto, but the fact that Vienna was under French occupation and the population mostly stayed away. Following revisions and cutting from three acts to two, a second version in Vienna the next year was much more successful, but withdrawn by Beethoven after two performances in a dispute with the producer. Finally, with a revised libretto by G.F. Treitschke, the version most frequently used since then began its successful career in 1814 at another theater in Vienna. Known more for its four different overtures than as an opera, those overtures were only one example of the many revisions that Beethoven made to the piece – the tenor aria “Gott! welch Dunkel hier!” performed in this concert – was revised at least eighteen times before its final version. 

Ostensibly set in 16th century Spain, the story is much informed by the political upheavals taking place in Europe during Beethoven’s lifetime, particularly the French Revolution, and it appealed to Beethoven’s personal beliefs in liberty and justice. Set in a fortress near Seville holding mostly political prisoners. Fidelio is the name assumed by Leonora, the wife of the nobleman Florestan. He has been falsely imprisoned by Pizarro, the governor of the fortress, whose malfeasance had been discovered by Florestan. When the opera begins, Florestan has been hidden away from the other prisoners for over two years, while Pizarro has spread rumors of his death. Leonora believes her husband is still alive and has determined that he’s likely in the fortress. Disguising herself as a young man, “Fidelio” obtains a job with the head jailer to find and rescue Florestan. After Pizarro hears that the King’s minister has been informed of the unjust imprisonment of the fortress’s captives and is on his way to investigate, Pizarro resolves to kill Florestan immediately to prevent his revealing the truth. Leonora blocks Pizarro’s plan and saves her husband’s life, and as Florestan and the other prisoners are freed, Pizarro is led away to his own execution. 

The beginning of Act II is set in an abandoned cistern of Florestan’s prison dungeon (which Pizzaro has ordered be dug with his grave). In chains, he looks around his barren cell. God! What gloom! (“Gott, welch Dunkel hier!”) O horrible silence! It is desolate and there is no living thing but him. Oh, what a heavy trial. Still, God’s will is righteous and he won’t grumble. The measure of his suffering is up to God. In the springtime of his life, happiness fled from him. He dared to boldly speak the truth, and the chains are his reward. He willingly endures all his pains, and the path of his life ends in shame. But sweet consolation in his heart: he did his duty! He starts as he seems to feel a gently rustling breeze. Is a light shining in his grave? He thinks he sees an angel, fragrant of roses, sitting consolingly by his side. An angel, so like his wife Leonora, who leads him to freedom into a heavenly kingdom! 

As Fidelio, Leonora has persuaded the jailer to let the prisoners out into the spring day for a brief respite to celebrate the King’s birthday, and they emerge from the dungeons into the unfamiliar sunlight. Oh what joy! (“O welche Lust!”) They can breathe easily in the open air! Only here is there life; the prison is a tomb. They will trust in God’s help. Hope whispers gently to them: they will be free, they shall find peace! Oh heaven! Rescue! What joy! Oh freedom, you return! They advise each other to speak softly and restrain themselves, as they are watched by ears and eyes.

Leonora has intervened as Pizarro is about to stab Florestan, standing between them and revealing her true identity as she draws a concealed pistol and tells Pizarro to first slay his wife. At that moment, trumpets announce the Minister of State at the gate, and Pizarro admits defeat. Leonora’s real identity is revealed to all, and she and Florestan celebrate their redemption. Joy inexpressible! (“O namenlose Freude!”) After indescribable suffering, such immense delight! Leonora draws Florestan into her arms as he exclaims at God’s great mercy. They both thank God for their joy. Oh heavenly ecstasy! Inexpressible joy!


Verdi was eager to compose operas based on Shakespeare’s major dramas. He long considered setting Hamlet and The Tempest, and a libretto of King Lear was actually completed for him, although Verdi never set it to music. He was ultimately to write three operas based on Shakespeare, Macbeth being the first in 1847, concluding with his final operas, Otello and Falstaff. The choice of Shakespeare was a daring one – Shakespeare’s plays had only recently, and unsuccessfully, been publicly performed in Italy. In addition, it was considered practically operatic suicide to compose an opera without a conventional love story (however intense the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, it is hardly that) and without a significant tenor role. Nonetheless, Verdi’s Macbeth was a rousing success and soon was played all over Italy. Verdi himself was quite happy with the opera and dedicated it to his father-in-law and longtime patron Antonio Barezzi, writing to him: “Here now is this Macbeth which is dearer to me than all my other operas, and which I therefore deem more worthy of being presented to you.” Verdi was to retain a keen interest in later productions of Macbeth and rewrote considerable parts of it for its Paris production in 1865, which is the version used in most performances.

Generally a stern taskmaster with librettists, Verdi was even more forceful regarding Macbeth. Before assigning the libretto to his frequent collaborator, Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi drafted his own, highly detailed synopsis for the opera and continued to write extensively to Piave criticizing problems with Piave’s script. Verdi finally had several scenes rewritten to his specifications by his friend Count Andrea Maffei (his librettist for I masnadieri and a trusted literary advisor). Although incensed by later suggestions that he was unfaithful to Shakespeare, Verdi made at least two significant changes. The witches as written by Shakespeare are three haggard crones, but Verdi wrote them as a three part chorus, and actually regarded them as the third main role in the work besides Macbeth and his Lady. To heighten the importance of the witches, Verdi severely reduced the number of other characters compared to Shakespeare, but added a crucial component. The common people of Scotland do not appear in Shakespeare, and Verdi’s scene of the Scottish exiles does not exist as a scene in Shakespeare’s play, although the text is drawn from Shakespeare’s scenes for Malcolm, Macduff and Ross. Like “Va, pensiero” and “Signore, dal tetto natio” from I Lombardi, the Exiles’ Chorus, “Patria oppressa,” is a lament for the devastation of one’s native land – an emotion strongly felt by an Italian public hungry for freedom from Austrian rule.

Macbeth opens with the appearance of three covens of witches amidst thunder and lightning. They exchange their news (“Che faceste?”): one has slit the throat of a boar, another has put a curse on a sailor whose wife has insulted her. She vows to drown both him and his ship, and the other witches will help her by raising the winds and casting him onto a shoal. A drum announces the arrival of Macbeth. The witches whirl in a dance as they sing of their powers to fly above sky and ocean, vagabond sisters weaving a circle around earth and sea.

Macbeth enters with Banquo. The two victorious generals exult that they have never seen a day so fierce and so fair (“Giorno non vidi mai”). The witches hail Macbeth, not only as the rightful Thane of Cawdor, but as Thane of Glamis and King of Scotland. Macbeth is startled, and Banquo asks the witches to predict his future as well. The witches tell Banquo that he will be lesser than Macbeth and yet greater, and not be king but a father of kings – his descendants will be kings of Scotland. Once more hailing Macbeth and Banquo, the witches vanish. Shortly thereafter, messengers arrive to announce to Macbeth that King Duncan has rewarded Macbeth’s valor by naming him Thane of Cawdor. Realizing that one of the witches’ predictions has already come true, Macbeth and Banquo leave to attend on the King. The witches reappear and comment on their departure (“S’allontanarono!”) They agree to meet again when they next hear thunder and lightning. They will fly away now, but will take care to fulfill their prophecies and foresee that Macbeth will return to seek further predictions.

In Act I, Macbeth murdered King Duncan and blamed it on Duncan’s son Malcolm, who fled the country. Having been elected King to succeed the murdered Duncan, Macbeth’s rule is bloody and tyrannical. In Act IV we find a group of Scottish refugees at a deserted spot on the borders of Scotland, not far from Birnam Wood. Verdi outdid even the canny showman Shakespeare in this scene. Although Malcolm’s and Macduff’s descriptions of the people’s misery in Shakespeare’s play evoke our empathy, they cannot match the people themselves telling us how they are suffering as Verdi and his librettist do. Long a master at using the chorus as a vital character, Verdi does no less than present us with the voice of a nation. The exiles bemoan the fate of their oppressed homeland (“Patria oppressa!”). They can no longer call her by the sweet name of mother, now that for all her children she has been turned into a tomb. The cries of the orphans and the bereaved spouses wound heaven with each new dawn, and heaven can only respond with pity throughout eternity. The death knell tolls for all of them, but none of them are brave enough to offer a prayer for those who suffer and die.

The nobleman Macduff stands apart from the exiles, lost in his own sorrow. He has learned of the deaths of his wife and small children, whom Macbeth ordered murdered because the witches warned him to beware of Macduff. He mourns his children (“O figli, o figli miei!”), all killed by the tyrant along with their unfortunate mother. Did he, Macduff, abandon the mother and children to the claws of that tiger? Ah, his paternal hand (“Oh, la paterna mano”) was not there as a shield for his dear ones, against the perfidious assassins that brought death to them. And to him, a fugitive hidden away, they called in vain with their final sob, their last breath. He begs God to let him come face to face with the tyrant, and if Macbeth should escape Macduff, then God himself can take Macbeth in his arms and pardon him.

Once crowned King, Macbeth had Banquo assassinated out of fear of the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s offspring will become kings. In the finale of Act II at a banquet in his castle, Macbeth asks Lady Macbeth to propose a toast to the court. Lady Macbeth tells the courtiers to fill their cups to the brim with wine (“Si colma il calice”), and let pleasure be born and sorrow die as they drive away hatred and scorn. The courtiers join in her toast.

Macbeth is terrified to see Banquo’s bloody ghost appear at the table and orders the ghost to begone. No one but Macbeth can see the ghost, but the court is infected by his terror, and Lady Macbeth tries to shame him into silence. Macbeth cries that the ghost wants blood from him (“Sangue a me”) and swears that blood it shall have! He vows that the witches will tear away the veil hiding his future. Lady Macbeth berates his feeble spirit. His fears have created empty ghosts. The crime is done, and the dead cannot return. The noble Macduff vows to quit the country. Now that it is ruled by an evil hand, only the guilty can live in it. The courtiers suspect that Macbeth has guilty secrets. He is frightened by apparitions and they begin to recognize that their country has become a den of thieves.


Amilcare Ponchielli received his early musical education from his father, a businessman who was the organist at their church. From the age of nine, the composer studied at the Milan Conservatory. His first professional opportunity was as a church organist, and then as the music director of the Cremona Theater, where his first opera premiered in 1856. However, the opera that established his international reputation, La Gioconda, did not premiere until 20 years later, at Teatro all Scala in Milan. By this time he was a professor at the Milan Conservatory (where his students included Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni). Although hailed at the time as the most important Italian opera composer since Verdi’s retirement in 1871 following the premiere of Aïda, Ponchielli is today known outside Italy almost exclusively for several arias from La Gioconda and especially for that opera’s ballet, The Dance of the Hours, beloved by ardent admirers of the balletic hippos and crocodiles in Disney’s Fantasia. 

La Gioconda was based on the 1835 play Angelo, Tyrant of Padua by Victor Hugo, and set to a libretto by the brilliant composer and librettist of Verdi’s final two operas, Arrigo Boito. Boito did his best to rein in the melodrama of Hugo’s complicated farrago and moved the story from Padua to Venice in the 17th century, a more exciting stage setting, but he remained unhappy with the plot and signed the libretto “Tobia Gorrio” (an anagram of his name.) Boito’s most interesting development was to expand the character of Barnaba, the stereotypical villain of Hugo’s play, and depict him as driven by his desire for La Gioconda rather than purely evil. Barnaba dominates the entire libretto (rather than disappearing halfway through as in Hugo’s play) and can be viewed as an early study for Boito’s splendid portrayal of Iago in Verdi’s Otello. Maria Callas made her Italian debut as La Gioconda and it became one of her signature roles in her rise to stardom. Ponchielli’s opera is also notable in that it has a principal role for each of the six major voice categories. An immediate success at its premiere in 1876, Ponchielli revised it several times, the streamlined 1880 version being considered the signature version. 

“La Gioconda” is the sobriquet of a singer in Venice in the 17th century. Although the nickname means “the joyful woman,” in the case of this unhappy character, this can only be seen as ironic. She is enamored of Enzo, a Genoan nobleman disguised as a sea captain. Enzo has been banished from the city to thwart his engagement to Laura Adorno, who was forced to marry a leader of the Venice Inquisition instead of Enzo. The master spy of the mysterious and feared Council of Ten, Barnaba, variously disguises himself as a street singer and a fisherman, and is obsessed by La Gioconda. In his drive to have her, he becomes a threat to both Enzo and Laura, but La Gioconda selflessly sacrifices herself in order to save Enzo and her rival.

The first scene of La Gioconda is set in St. Mark’s Square during Carnival.The spy Barnaba leans against a column surveying the crowd. They are excited about the celebrations and feasts (“Feste! Pane! Feste!”Pane!”) They exclaim that the Republic will tame the human race until all its people and even the galley crews shall have celebrations and feasting. Joy disarms lightning and shatters bonds. They sing! Whoever sings is free. They laugh! Whoever laughs is strong. Their serene God wishes it, He who gladdens this lagoon with the silver of the moon and the purple of the sun. The bells of St. Mark’s ring with joy. Long live the Republic! Barnaba calls to the crowd that the trumpets announce the regatta, and the excited crowd rushes to the boat race.

Act II opens on Enzo’s ship, as he awaits his beloved Laura, whom Barnaba has promised to bring to him. The sailors and boys sing a sea chantey as they work on the various parts of the ship.  The sailors on deck call to look to the rudder (“Ho! he! ho! he! Fissa il timone!” )and hoist the sails. The men in the hold call that they’re in the lowest depths of the ship, where the furious winds whistle uselessly and break their wings. The cabin boys scamper around the boat – some of them are at the summit, some at the foot of the sails, some on the quivering rope ladders. Look at the agile cabin boys jump! They’re the squirrels of the sea!

Barnaba has hidden in the shadows on the dock, carefully studying how many guns and men the ship can muster. He sends his henchman to summon forces to seize the ship and its captain. Disguised as a fisherman, he bursts out with a fisherman’s song to distract the sailors while they are surrounded. Fisherman (“Pescator”), drop your bait, and may the waves prove faithful with a happy evening and good fishing. Fly, my tranquil song, into the blue vastness of the sky. May a peaceful siren fall into the net! As the sailors join in the song, Barnaba continues to size up his foes, telling himself to spy with glances like lightning, and among the shadows count how many will be dead. From the deserted, brown island his fortunes will arise. Stay on guard! Divert their suspicions – laugh and be on the alert, sing and spy and laugh! He returns to his song, saying that Venus shines serene in the voluptuous sky, and he will catch a resplendent siren in his net.

As Enzo awaits Laura’s arrival, unaware that Barnaba intends to betray them, he sends his sailors down to rest and remains on watch, alone on the deck. Sky and sea! (“Cielo e mar!”) The ethereal veil shines like a holy altar. Will his angel come from the sky or from the sea? He waits for her, with the wind of love today blowing ardently. Ah, that man who sighs for you, conquers you, oh dreams of gold! Through its deep aura neither land nor sea appear. The horizon kisses the wave, the wave kisses the horizon! Here in the darkness where he waits with the yearning of his heart, he calls to her to come to him, come to the kiss of life and love.


The verismo composer Umberto Giordano was the son of a pharmacist and went into music against his family’s wishes. After studies at the Naples Conservatory, he wrote primarily for the opera. His best known works today are Fedora and, by far his most enduring success, Andrea Chénier. At its premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1896, its great success established his status as one of the leading hopes of Italian opera following Verdi’s last opera in 1893, along with Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and Cilea. Luigi Illica was one of the leading librettists of the time, whose works included La Wally as well as Puccini’s La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. Illica loosely based his libretto on the life of the French poet André Chénier, a historical figure in Paris who supported the French Revolution but was himself executed during the Reign of Terror. He and the aristocrat Maddalena di Coigny fall in love in spite of their political differences, and when Chénier is sentenced to death as a counter-revolutionary, Maddalena bribes a jailer to let her take the place of a condemned woman so that they may die together. 

In Act I, a chorus costumed as shepherdesses (à la Marie Antoinette) appears at a grand ball in Paris, oblivious to the social ferment going on outside the walls. The “shepherdesses” sadly sing farewell to each other (“O Pastorelle, addio”) as they set out for unknown and foreign shores. Alas! They will be far away tomorrow, and once they abandon their homes, they will have no joy in their hearts until they return. 

In Act III, after Chénier has been arrested and awaits trial, Maddalena appeals to her former servant Gérard, now a leading figure of the Tribunal (and long in love with Maddalena), to save Chénier’s life. He demands that she submit herself to him and she says if her body is the price of saving Chénier, then so be it. She describes her mother’s horrible death at the hands of a mob. They killed my mother (“La mamma morta”) in the doorway of Maddalena’s room. She died and saved her daughter! Then in the deep night Maddalena wandered with her servant Bersi when suddenly a flash flickered and lit up her way on the dark road - her birthplace was burning! Thus she was alone and surrounded by nothingness. Hunger and poverty! Need, danger - she fell ill. And Bersi, good and pure, made a market of her beauty on Maddalena’s behalf, Maddalena who brings misfortune to whomever wishes her well. It was in that suffering that love came to her - a voice full of harmony said to her, “Live on! I am life! In my eyes is your heaven - you are not dead! I will gather your tears. I am on your path and will support you - smile and hope! I am love! Is everything around you blood and mire? I am divine - I am oblivion! I am the god that descends upon the earth from the heights and makes of the earth a heaven! I am love!” And the angel approaches and gives you the kiss of death. My body is the body of a dying woman. So take it - I am already a dead thing!


Jacques Offenbach was famed in his lifetime for his light operas, bringing the form of what we now call operetta to the peak of its popularity and style. Founding his own theater in 1855, he combined social and political satire while sometimes parodying grand opera. Described by Rossini as the “Mozart of the Champs-Elysées,” Offenbach wrote almost 100 light operas, of which Orpheus in the Underworld, La belle Hélène, La vie parisienne, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, and La Périchole remain popular 150 years later. (He was so driven to compose that even his carriage was equipped with a writing desk, inkwell, and candles.) Following financial disaster at his theater after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the Second Empire’s collapse, he went on tour in the U.S. to recoup his losses.

On his return to Europe, he dedicated himself to composing his most enduring masterpiece. He did not live, however, to see the success of Les contes d’Hoffmann, a “serious opera” on which he had justly placed so much hope for posterity. Having famously said that he would die with a melody at the end of his pen, Offenbach had in fact just completed Hoffmann’s piano score and was at work on the orchestration when he died, only four months before the Paris premiere in October, 1880. The orchestration and final version were prepared by Ernest Guiraud and the premiere was everything Offenbach could have hoped. Achieving over 100 performances in Paris alone in its first year, it was followed by a worldwide recognition that has never faded.

Recent musicological research, aided by Offenbach’s heirs who allowed access to over a thousand pages of additional material by the composer, has provided a more accurate view of Offenbach’s intentions for the final shape of Hoffmann. The Verdi Chorus presents some of these important changes, especially in the fully restored finale to the Venice act (“Hélas, mon coeur”) as well as the opera’s original ending as Offenbach had intended it (“Des cendres de ton coeur”).

Using a libretto by Jules Barbier (also the librettist for Gounod’s Faust) and his brother Pierre, Hoffmann is based on the “memoirs” of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German writer, composer, and painter best known for mysterious stories featuring supernatural characters and devices, including the tale that became The Nutcracker. Mixing fantasy and realism, the three acts with epilogue and prologue tell of four of Hoffmann’s love affairs, which he recounts to a group of students in a Nuremberg tavern. 

In the Prologue, the curtain rises on an empty tavern, inhabited only by the Spirits of Beer and Wine. They introduce themselves (“Glou! Glou! Glou!”) as the friends of mankind, who chase away languor and worry. 

The poet Hoffmann enters with his ubiquitous friend Nicklausse (a trousers role for mezzo-soprano), who is also his Muse in disguise and who watches over him throughout the opera. The students demand that Hoffmann amuse them with a story. Hoffmann obliges them with the legend of Kleinzach, a dwarf in the court of Eisenach (“Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach”). The woeful Kleinzach had legs that went “clic clac,” had a hump for a stomach, a nose black with tobacco, and a head that went “crick crack.” The reveling students echo his ludicrous descriptions.

As Hoffmann is describing Kleinzach’s features, the music and tempo change as Hoffmann falls into a reverie. He describes a beautiful face that he sees once more, remembering how he followed this woman, leaving his father’s house like a madman to pursue her across the countryside. He rhapsodizes about her dark hair, her beautiful blue eyes, and the sweet and vibrant voice that still resonates in his heart. Lost in his memories, he is startled out of them by the demand that he finish the story of Kleinzach. 

In each of Hoffmann’s encounters with a woman, including the Prologue and Finale, there is a malevolent nemesis who thwarts his happiness. In the Giulietta act, the bass-baritone who sings all four of these roles is named Dappertutto. Supernatural powers are a frequent plot device in the actual tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann, three of whose stories were used in devising the libretto. Dappertutto uses his dark arts to charm Giulietta into stealing Hoffmann’s reflection with a magical mirror and induces her to do so by offering her a ring she can’t resist. Addressing the diamond, he tells it to sparkle (“Scintille, diamant”), like a mirror that captures a lark, to fascinate and entice her. Both a lark or a woman fly on wings or with her heart to this conquering bait. One leaves its life there, the other loses her soul. 

In Venice at the courtesan Giulietta’s palace overlooking the Grand Canal, Giulietta and Niklausse join in the famous Barcarolle. They sing of the lovely night, the night of love (“Belle nuit”) and ask the night to smile upon them and bestow its kisses, as time flies and carries away their tender thoughts. The night is sweeter than the day.

In the scene ending this act, Hoffmann despairs of his love for Giulietta. Alas, his heart has again gone astray (“Hélas mon coeur.”) He curses the love that consumes him, but cannot calm his reason. With her face and gaze as clear as dawn, he hates her and adores her! He wants to die of her kisses. The demonic Dappertutto mocks Hoffmann for being in love in vain again, and taunts him that the beautiful courtesan has sold her kisses to all of the men present. Giulietta laments that while she adores Hoffmann, she can’t resist Dappertutto’s spell and the diamond ring with which he has bribed her to steal Hoffmann’s reflection. Nicklausse knows that his friend burns with love again, and fears his heart will break. Giulietta’s guests, including a betrayed former lover and her current paramour, alternately deride Hoffmann and commiserate with him. The guests pity the lovesick poet and observe that Giulietta captures hearts only to break them. Warning Hoffmann that whoever adores her is cursed and will die from her kiss, they urge him to calm his heart, ending with a despairing “alas.” 

Following his third and final story of failed love, Hoffmann remains in the tavern, dead drunk. The woman whom he hoped to be his fourth love, the actress Stella, enters after her performance, but he is too drunk to notice her presence. Hoffmann’s nemesis, this time in the person of Lindorf, escorts Stella away. In the Finale, Hoffmann’s Muse reclaims him as her own. From the ashes of his heart (“Des cendres de ton coeur”), his genius will be rekindled and serenity will smile on his sorrows. His Muse will soothe his blessed suffering. Hoffmann regains consciousness and hears the Muse, Stella and Lindorf, invisible to him, proclaim that while he has been ennobled by love, even greater is his growth as a result of his tears.

Notes by Tony Arn
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