I promised I’d be back on this most peculiar of Easter Days. I won’t however, deter you long. There are two uplifting pieces I’d like to share with you today in praise of this festival, my favourite in the Christian calendar; one will be familiar, the other, perhaps, less so.
‘A star is born.’ No, not that one. I’m not sure when the phrase was coined first, but the original film of that name was released in 1937, just two years after the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where her performance as Isolde in Tristan and Isolde prompted a leading critic to dispense with her notes and assert ‘A star is born.’ Flagstad assumed that status almost instantly and went on to be one of the very greatest Wagnerians ever.
She had two things in her favour: a stunning, powerful soprano voice, ideal for Wagner; and she was also something of a beauty. The perfect combination for the operatic stage.
Handel’s Messiah, whilst often performed around Christmas, has a text actually more suited to Easter. So here is my first clip today: ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth.’ You will be familiar with it for sure, but finding a Flagstad recording was a lovely surprise. What a life-affirming passage this is, and never more suitable than on the day of the resurrection. This performance was sung after her retirement. She is 63: it’s still a huge voice!
The second I want to bring you is The Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana, a one act opera by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945). Although he wrote sixteen operas, this one is the only one played nowadays and is invariably paired with I Pagliacci (as ‘Cav and Pag’) by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), who is similarly known for this one alone. Cavalleria Rusticana was an instant success, but Mascagni’s Fascist sympathies alienated his adoring public and left him both disgraced and broke.
What these two one-act operas have in common is their emphasis on ‘verisimo’ opera, the attempt to convey the lives of real people, normal folk, if you will, as opposed to heroic, often mythical, characters in grand opera. The action in Cav takes place on Easter Sunday and involves a simple plot of love, jealousy, and death.
Between the two scenes comes this fabulous soaring tune, here led by another enormous voice, the mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto (b 1935). The quality of the image leaves everything to be desired, and the subtitles are only going to be of limited help, but there is no mistaking the voice.
So there you have it. Two Easter offerings by two of the great voices of the twentieth century. Wherever you find yourself, alone or in company; however disorientated you might feel today, may this music bring you every possible hope and comfort.