Any opera fan would drool over the line-up for this year's Abu Dhabi Festival closing gala. Hosted by the Russian Dmitri Hvorostovksy, a baritone with a voice like molten gold, it also includes the dazzling soprano Ekaterina Siurina in a programme sure to test both singers' skills to the limits.
But while opera aficionados will be delighted, there's no denying that the genre can be a bit confusing for novices. How should a good opera singer sound? What are those less tuneful, barely accompanied bits of singing between arias? And why are opera composers so obsessed with sleazy aristocrats? If you're not sure of the answers to these questions, here are some notes to help you bluff your way through Monday night's Emirates Palace gala with a straight face.
Meaning "beautiful song", this singing style long dictated what a good operatic voice should be.The gold standard when most of the music included in tonight's gala was composed, proper bel canto singing should include:
- A light tone on the high notes (in other words, no glass-shattering screeches).
- Crisp, not loose, vibrato (no warbling).
- Clear divisions between notes (no slurring).
- Impeccable legato, meaning that the notes should appear seamlessly joined.
Singers with a good bel canto style should also be able to tear through complex decorative trills and runs and have excellent breath control.
This begs the question - isn't this what all good opera singing should sound like? Not necessarily. After its early 19th century heyday, many composers felt bel canto singing prized technique over emotional expression. A new louder, more dramatic style - cruelly dubbed the "Bayreuth Bark" after the hometown of Wagner's opera festival - became fashionable, which placed greater emphasis on words and raw power.
Since the 1950s, however, bel canto singing has been back with a vengeance - it made the careers of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland - and should be much in evidence at the gala.
The fiddly bits. Meaning "colouring" in Italian, coloratura describes all the "look-at-me!" sections in opera singing, including trills, runs of notes and vocal leaps. All these are forms of "colouring in" that decorate a melody and, while common throughout opera, were especially popular in the early 19th century.
Perhaps the most famous example of coloratura singing is the Queen of the Night's Aria Die Holle Rache (Hell's Revenge) from Mozart's Magic Flute, where the singer invariably brings the house down with leaps that reach notes so high only dogs should be able to hear them. This year's gala is positively dripping with coloratura show-stoppers, with Rossini's delightful Una Voce Poco Fa (A Voice Just Now) giving Siurina a chance to show just how agile her pipes really are.
The boring bits. Pronounced as in French - "restatEEV" - recitatives are the parts of an opera's score where singing mimics the rhythms of everyday speech. Recitative was long used for dialogue between arias, with singer's voices originally accompanied by only a harpsichord or viol. While these recitatives could be beautiful, alternating them with action-halting arias created a jolting stop-start-stop rhythm that hindered an opera's narrative flow, so Verdi, Wagner and most composers after them ditched them in the mid 19th century.
As the festival's closing gala is a selection of songs rather than a fully staged opera, it'll be light on recitative, but you may hear a few lightly sketched, thrumming bits of it at the beginning of some arias.
La Nozze Di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)
Lewd aristocrats who can't keep their hands to themselves are everywhere in opera, but few treat the subject with such brilliance as Mozart's 1786 version of Beaumarchais' play. With mistaken identity and hiding in cupboards aplenty, the plot features Figaro, servant to the Spanish Count Almaviva, trying to stop his boss from forcing his advances on his bride-to-be on their wedding night.
What could just be a cynical romp, however, is turned into something delicate, magical and wistful by the sheer beauty of Mozart's score. At this year's gala, look out for Siurina singing the opera's gorgeous Deh Vieni, Non Tardar (Hurry, Don't Be Late), in which Figaro's fiancée Susanna woos an imaginary lover in song in order to make her bridegroom jealous.
Barbiere di Siviglia (the Barber of Seville)
What, Figaro again? It seems composers just couldn't leave the French playwright Beaumarchais alone, and Rossini's opera of 1816 features many of the same characters as Mozart's earlier Marriage of Figaro.
Adapted from Beaumarchais' trilogy, the opera's plot catches the characters earlier on, when a younger Count Almaviva is scheming to marry the very same wife we find him trying to cheat on in Mozart's opera. It's no wonder that the dazzling, frothy score, written in just three weeks, has made it one of the most popular operas ever. With impossibly catchy tunes and frequent jaw-dropping coloratura, the music stretches singers to their limits but never lets elaborate decoration trip up its sense of joy and pace. Beyond the aforementioned Una Voce Poco Fa (sung by the count's future wife), perhaps the highlight of the gala will be Hvorostovsky's barn-storming version of Figaro's opening number Largo al Factotum (Make Way for the Factotum), an aria so popular it's even been covered by Bugs Bunny.
Does Mozart's love duet La Ci Darem la Mano (There We'll Join Our Hands) sound even better because we know what a lying cad his hero Don Giovanni is? An arrogant, priapic aristocrat (yes, another one), Don Giovanni has been seducing Europe's nubile women as if it's an Olympic sport. By the time he's singing the wonderful aria from Mozart's opera of 1787 with his new crush Zerlina, he's already murdered a recent conquest's father and dodged another woman he's spurned - and it's still only Act One. Don Giovanni eventually gets his comeuppance, dragged to hell by a ghostly statue of the father he killed, but the beautiful music the character sings - featured in the gala - still manages to make a life of carousing, heartbreak and lies look rather attractive.
A head of state is led into trickery and disgrace by his own libido - is it just me, or does Verdi's opera of 1851 have spooky echoes of contemporary Italy? You may not be entirely surprised to hear that Rigoletto hinges on the schemes of - you guessed it - another lewd aristo. This time it's the Duke of Mantua, who is intent on grabbing any woman who comes to hand and doesn't shirk from using his high office to get away with it. When the duke turns his attentions to the daughter of his court jester Rigoletto, however, things end tragically - though, in a sad note of realism, not for the duke. Musically, the opera is a delight. The gala includes the opera's tender Caro Nome (Dear Name), where Rigoletto's daughter Gilda fantasises about a student she has met, unaware that it is the duke in disguise. As an angry note in a programme heavy with love songs, Hvorostovsky's performance of Cortigiani, Vil Razza (Courtiers, Vile Race) may stick out more, a torrent of eloquent rage from Rigoletto against the corrupt, double-talking politicians who threaten his daughter's honour.
* Opera Gala: Dmitri and Friends is Monday night at the Emirates Palace Auditorium at 8pm. For details, visit www.abudhabifestival.ae.