Poster for 1867 revival of "Orphée aux enfers" By Jules Chéret.

Summer is usually opera season here in St. Louis but this Sunday (March 3) Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra get a jump on it with “Operatic Favorites.” It’s a collection of overtures, intermezzos, and other orchestral bonbons from operas by everyone from Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) to Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924). And tickets are going fast.

[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]

Here's what’s on the bill of fare.

The “Toccata” that opens Monteverdi’s 1607 “L’Orfeo” is first. It’s essentially three fanfares that serve to introduce the character of La Musica (the spirit of music). She delivers a brief prologue that sets up the story, introduces Orfeo, and concludes with a poetic request for silence as the tale unfolds.  Members of the SLSO haven’t performed this since Opera Theatre presented the opera back in 1997, so a return is long overdue.

Aubrey Allicock and Monica Dewey in
The Marriage of Figaro at Opera Theatre
Photo by Eric Woolsey

Next, it’s the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Mozart (1756–1791). It’s a lively piece that sets the musical stage very effectively for the comic scenes that open this opera, which is based on the second of the three “Figaro” comedies by the multi-talented playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732–1799).  

Next up is the overture to the most popular operatic version of the first “Figaro” play, “The Barber of Seville,” by Gioachino Rossini (1793–1868).  It’s lively stuff as well, even if it was made up of recycled material from two earlier operas, “Aureliano in Palmira” and “Elizabeth, Queen of England.” Of course, I can’t hear the overture these days without thinking of the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon “The Rabbit of Seville,” but maybe that’s just me.

Zoya Gramagin, Taylor P. Comstock in
Manon Lescaut at Winter Opera
Photo: ProPhotoSTL

The mood turns more dramatic with the next two selections: the “Intermezzo” from “Manon Lescaut” by Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) and the great bel canto aria “Casta diva” (“Chaste goddess”) from “Norma” by Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835). The former is a musical picture of the journey of Manon to the grim prison at Le Havre, where she and other courtesans are scheduled for exile in New Orleans. The latter is a plea to the moon goddess for peace by the druid priestess Norma.

Christine Lyons as Norma in
Norma at Winter Opera
Photo: Convergence Media

Sunday, the role of Norma will be played not by a soprano but instead by the instrument of Associate Principal Cellist Melissa Brooks. I’m guessing it’s the arrangement by conductor Mathieu Herzog since that’s the one that shows up most often on YouTube, but it should be in good hands in any case.

Amilcare Ponchielli (1834–1886) was an influential and popular composer in his time, but today his 1876 drama “La Gioconda” is the only one of his operas that’s still performed, and then only at big houses with deep pockets because of its many large and elaborate sets. Most of us know it by the ballet sequence we’ll hear on Sunday, the “Dance of the Hours.” This has been so successfully parodied—first by Walt Disney and then by Alan Sherman—that it might be hard to listen to it without a chuckle, but let’s all do our best, shall we?

The second half of the concert opens with another overture, this time to the 1866 opéra comique (i.e., there’s a happy ending) “Mignon” by Ambroise Thomas (1811–1896). His operas aren’t performed often these days, but the tuneful overture to “Mignon” frequently shows up in recorded collections of overtures and, of course, on programs like this one.

The cast of Carmen
Opera Theatre
Photo: Eric Woolsey

Neither George Bizet (1838–1875) nor his opera “Carmen” need an introduction. Nor, for that matter, does “Les Toréadors” from the first of the two orchestral suites that Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud assembled from the score. We’ll hear it this Sunday just before another work derived from Bizet’s opera that does merit a few comments: the 1883 “Carmen Fantasy” for violin and orchestra by the Spanish violinist/composer Pablo de Sarasate.

Sarasate’s skill was legendary, and this mini-concerto bristles with technical challenges, including an elaborately ornamented version of the famous “Habanera” and the insanely fast finale, based on the Act II “Danse bohème.” The last time the SLSO presented the “Carmen Fantasy” Assistant Concertmaster Erin Schreiber blew everyone away with her performance, so it’s good to see that she’ll be the soloist once again.

Finally, we close with two heaping scoops of Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880): the “Barcarolle” from his “Les contes Hoffmann” (“The Tales of Hoffman,” left unfinished at his death) and the “Galop infernal” (a.k.a. “The Can-Can”) from his first hit “Orfée aux enfers” (“Orpheus in the Underworld”) from 1858.

Yes, we have come full circle to the tale of Orpheus. But since it’s an opéra buffon (a comic opera) the myth is played for laughs. In this version, Orpheus is a violin teacher who is more than happy to be rid of his irritating wife Eurydice and has to be bullied into getting her back from Pluto. Jupiter gets involved, lightning bolts are thrown, everybody dances the Can-Can, and all ends happily.

L-R: Anthony Webb as Pittichinaccio,
Brooklyn Snow as Giulietta, and
Emma Sorenson as Nicklausse in
Les contes d'Hoffmann at Union Avenue Opera
Photo by Ron Lindsey

In 1938, French composer/conductor Manuel Rosenthal (1904–2003) assembled some of Offenbach’s Greatest Hits into “Gaîte Parisienne,” a ballet for choreographer Léonide Massine and the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo. This, too, has proved to be boffo both on the stage and on recordings.

The final scene of the ballet combines a brief appearance of the “Galop” along with a longer version of the “Barcarolle.” The program notes suggest that this is what we’ll be hearing Sunday, in which case you might as well check out Rosenthal’s own 1977 recording on Spotify with the Orchestre de L’Opéra de Monte-Carlo for a sneak listen.

That said, nothing on this Sunday’s program requires anything in the way of preparation. Even if you know nothing about opera, this is the kind of music that’s designed to send you off with a shine on your shoes and a melody in your heart, as the old song goes.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra along with soloists Erin Schreiber (violin) and Melissa Brooks (cello) in a program of orchestral opera selections. The performance takes place at 3 pm on Sunday, March 3 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus.

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