When a great operatic chorus is sung by a gifted group of singers, the choristers often play a starring role. Sometimes they even steal the show.
Coming together "as a single character, the audience understands what is being said in an emotional and dramatic context that’s more than just backup material,” said F. Paul Driscoll editor in chief of Opera News magazine. In this week’s edition of Opera in Brief, Driscoll introduces us to three of opera’s most magnificent crowd scenes.
1. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi
This is the chorus of the exiled Hebrews who are working as slaves in Babylon. It’s one of the most important and popular choruses in opera. Audiences are often so moved by this piece that they demand an encore.
Driscoll said that “Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate” (‘Fly, thought, on wings of gold’) took on an extra theatrical significance in Verdi’s lifetime and afterwards “because it spoke to the emotions of the Italian people who were also living under occupation and hoping that someday they would be free.
"I think the most effective stagings of ‘Va pensiero’ are those where nothing much goes on except the singing," he added. "It’s incredibly moving to hear this massive mountain of a chorus united in a single thought!”
After the raging success of Nabucco, Verdi went on to become not only a beloved composer but also an important national symbol. “There were many, many talented composers before and many talented composers after,” Driscoll reminded us, “but beginning with Nabucco, Verdi dominated Italian culture in a way that no other composer did until Puccini in the next century.”
“Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate”: Deutsche Oper Berlin Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli
2. The Te Deum from Tosca by Puccini
This scene is from the end of the first act of Tosca. The action takes place in a church.
A hymn of praise — “Te Deum, laudamus” — is being sung by the people while Scarpia, the evil chief of police, is singing about his lustful desire to seduce the beautiful singer, Tosca. Scarpia says that Tosca is so sexy and incredible she “makes him forget God.”
Driscoll explained that Puccini created a "close up" with this moment on stage and that it’s a scene that rarely fails to be incredibly effective. “He cut away to a single voice and was able to balance it against the texture of a beautiful religious service going on inside the church at the same time.”
“The fact that he sings this in a church is still shocking today,” Driscoll said, “but in the early 20th century when this opera had currency it was enormously shocking.”
“Tre sbirri, una carrozza”: Samuel Ramey and Anthony Laciura with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Royal Opera House Chorus conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli
3. The Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky
Historically speaking, Boris Godunov was a rough contemporary of Elizabeth I of England. “Boris was someone who came to the throne under rather murky circumstances,” Driscoll explained, “He was haunted by the fact that he was not a legitimate claimant to the throne.” But in this scene he shines as he is hailed by the Russian people.”
Driscoll went on to say that Modest Mussorgsky wrote this opera of the same name at an extremely significant time in Russian history. Russian life as it had existed for centuries was completely changing. Within decades of the premiere of Boris Godunov, the entire fabric of the aristocracy — and later the monarchy — crumbled and disappeared.
In this scene, Prince Shuysky introduces the people to the new Tsar. As the chorus responds, a “mass of sound” overtakes the stage. “The incredible integrity of the deep voices of the men underpinning this brilliant scene sparkles with Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s music,” said Driscoll. “To me it’s the most thrilling scene in the opera!”
“Prologue: Da zdrávstet Tsar Boris Feódorovich!”: John Lanigan, Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, Sofia National Opera Chorus, André Cluytens