Happy Easter with Handel and Mascagni

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.

 

 

21 thoughts on “Happy Easter with Handel and Mascagni”

  1. Thank you, Nick, for your glorious Holy Week offerings. They have brought me peace, comfort and joy this strange Easter-tide. Every blessing to you, Helen x

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  2. I have come to your post late tonight and, with a cup of whisky/honey laced hot milk in hand, have listened with very much pleasure to those two incredible voices. Heavenly, thank you.

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    1. Wonderful. Heavenly indeed, had the great thrill of hearing so so perform in either come up along the side Domingo and Caballe. She was amazing.
      Hope that little concoction doesn’t mean you are poorly; if so get well soon.

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      1. Sorry, that came out as jibber-ish! Meant to say, great thrill of hearing her perform in Aida, alongside Domingo and Caballe. That’s what happens when you dictate and don’t check the response properly!

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  3. I knew of Flagstad and enjoyed that selection from Messiah. (My mother-in-law was of Norwegian descent.)

    Where was I when Cossotto was singing? I totally missed her. Frankly, I should have shut my eyes. Seeing a singer on her knees for almost the whole piece was totally distracting. Both my knees have been replaced, and I will never again be on mine for more than a few seconds. Would she stay on her knees or get up? She rose most gracefully, defying gravity. I must go back and listen without looking.

    Thank you for these lovely selections that ended my listening for this Easter Day.

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    1. I heard her once at Covent Garden in Aida, and she stole the show for me, despite singing with Domingo and Caballe. A stunning stage presence too. So glad you have enjoyed these, and thank you very much for your feedback.

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      1. She must have been amazing.

        I think your posts are the most informative, well-written articles about music I’ve ever read. You have a wonderful gift of teaching and transmitting your enthusiasm to others.

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  4. Oh wow, what an absolutely fabulous voice has Fiorenza Cossotto, 0f whom I had never even heard. Thank you so much for introducing her to me and for seeking out this recording. How wonderful to have actually seen her in Aida, lucky you!

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  5. Our Easter Vigil Mass always ends with the Hallelujah Chorus complete with brass instruments. It was a sorry contrast to be at home and listening to a recording from last year. Boy do I miss the acoustics of church. Thanks for this piece of Handel’s masterpiece.

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      1. I sure did. Last night at our Zoom prayer meeting I was able to tell the man who usually swings the incense how much I had missed his presence. He grinned.

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