The Real History Of Opera

Huw Edwards discovers how some of the greatest operatic masterpieces reflect the social, cultural and political circumstances of their age.

Episodes

SeriesEpisodeTitleFirst
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0101The Marriage Of Figaro2000072320001209

Vienna in 1785 was a political melting pot where Enlightenment ideas held sway. The young Mozart had arrived hoping to confirm his early musical promise - and the vehicle he chose was a banned French play.

0102Fidelio2000073020001216

After the storming of the Bastille, as Europe struggled to rediscover the meaning of liberty, Beethoven, facing up to his deafness, began to write an opera about the discovery and rescue of a political prisoner.

0103Boris Godunov2000080620001223

Musorgsky's opera was written in the 19th century, but its real story, its folk melody and orthodox chant, and its vivid portrayal of the Russian people have made it a timeless drama of the Russian experience.

0104Don Carlos2000081320001230

Verdi's opera is set in Spain and tells the story of a Spanish king. But its heart and music are in 19th-century Italy and in the people's struggle for national unity.

0105Peter Grimes2000082020010106

The 1945 premiere of Benjamin Britten's most famous opera was a sensation. But the opera contains many messages - not all of them welcome to the British establishment.

0106 LASTThe Mastersingers Of Nuremberg2000082720010113
0201The Magic Flute2001092520020401

In the last year of his life, Mozart had one last attempt at capturing the popular imagination.

0202La Traviata2001100220020408

Verdi used a story of doomed love to satirise Napoleon II's new capitalism and to question middle-class morality.

0203The Flying Dutchman2001100920020415

He explores how Wagner's resentment at past rejection fed into his first great opera.

0204 LASTCarmen2001101620020422

Bizet's opera is so familiar that the controversies of class, race and gender underlying it are easily forgotten.

0301Don Giovanni2003020420030707

Mozart's tale of murder and revenge offered a simple message of divine retribution.

0302Eugene Onegin2003021120030714

Behind Tchaikovsky's treatment of Pushkin's epic novel lie some strange instances of life imitating art.

0303Salome2003021820030721

Huw Edwards looks behind the reputation for the real history of Richard Strauss' shocking operatic version of the famous story of Salome and finds a disturbing snapshot of turn-of-the-century artistic values.

0304 LASTOtello2003022520030728

Huw Edwards finds that Verdi's setting of Shakespeare's great tragedy has its roots in the Italian unification movement and in the struggle for musical supremacy in a Wagner-dominated world.

0401La Boheme2004032320040530

Today Puccini's bitter-sweet tale of doomed love set against a backdrop of Bohemian Paris.

0402Cosi Fan Tutte2004033020040606
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Today, he investigates Mozart's immensely popular comic opera set in sunny Naples but mirroring the concerns facing the troubled world of Enlightened Vienna, where Joseph II's dream of a secular morality was fading fast.

0403Aida2004040620040613
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Today, he looks at the most spectacular of all Verdi's operas, a tragic love story set against the dramatic backdrop of Ancient Egypt.

0404 LASTPorgy And Bess2004041320040620

Huw looks at George Gershwin's revolutionary opera, which focuses on the lives of a poor black community in the heart of America's deep South.

0501Madama Butterfly2005101120051015

Had it happened 100 years later, the events behind Madama Butterfly would have dominated Huw's 10 O'Clock News headlines and caused a major diplomatic incident between America and Japan.

A visiting American naval captain procures a 15 year old local Japanese girl for what is little more than casual sex on a long term contract.

She becomes pregnant and, with the connivance of the diplomatic service, the baby is removed from the care of its mother, and the girl commits suicide.

Edwards finds that Puccini's Madama Butterfly is indeed based on fact, but rather than cause political outrage when it was premiered in 1908, it just pandered to the smutty fantasies of European and American men.

With contributions from Puccini experts Alexandra Wilson, Conrad Wilson, and Japanese historian Naoko Shimazu, Huw Edwards digs behind the 19th and early 20th century willow patterned façade so embraced and loved by European society to find a boiling political and militaristic upheaval completely ignored by the composer, but which would soon rock the world order.

0502The Threepenny Opera2005101820051022

by Kurt Weill is a simple story of 18th century life in London's Soho - or so it would seem.

The Beggar's Opera, on which it was based, is a satirical panning of British society and establishment, with Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and the composer Handel directly in the line of fire.

Both operas were runaway successes.

Huw Edwards looks at why The Threepenny Opera was as relevant and explosive to its 20th century Weimar Republic audience as its predecessor was in 18th century London.

0503Un Ballo In Maschera2005102520051029

Verdi had terrible trouble getting his work past the censors.

With the fight for Italian independence gathering strength, the last thing the aristocrats needed was the assassination of one of their number on stage - especially when the plot was based on real events.

0504 LASTGounod's Faust2005110120051105

is the most enduring adaptation for the theatre of many works which take as their source Goethe's great masterpiece.

One of the most popular and most performed operas in the world for more than a hundred years, it's nevertheless extremely problematic - full of wonderful melody and lavish spectacle, but Gounod is accused by some of turning Goethe's philosophically and intellectually challenging play into nothing more than a sugary dollop of Victorian sentimentality.

Huw Edwards investigates the dumbing down, or not, of the famous story.

0601Tosca2006111420061118

Set in Rome in 1800, Puccini's classic features a jealous diva, an artist willing to die for his political convictions and opera's most ruthless villain.

0602Semele2006112120061125

A comedy of sexual politics set amongst the Olympian gods, Handel's Semele is based on a libretto by William Congreve. It combines some of the most beautiful music Handel ever wrote with biting insights into lust, marital infidelity and the gold-digging methods of Princess Semele, a mortal who has set her sights on seducing the King of the Gods.

0603Guillaume Tell2006112820061202

Rossini's last opera is about the political ideal of a conservative population rising up against tyrannical overlords and in 1829, the year before the July revolution, it had a special resonance for the Parisian people for whom it was written.

0604 LASTTristan And Isolde2006120520061209

by Wagner was claimed by many critics to have attained the highest summit of all music. On the other hand, many others condemned the work as being incomprehensible.

Huw attempts to understand the philosophy behind a passion so great it can only be consummated in death, and how music that never seems to resolve can be so beautiful.

0701Mazeppa2007100920071013

Tchaikovsky's opera tells a true story of betrayal, love, torture, war and the fight for Ukrainian independence. The action centres on the battle of Poltava in 1709, a decisive victory in the war against Sweden which established Russia as a major power.

0702La Clemenza Di Tito2007101620071020

Mozart's tale of power struggles in ancient Rome was commissioned for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia in 1791.

0703The Merry Widow2007102320071027

Vienna at the turn of the 20th century saw an extraordinary flowering of art, architecture, philosophy and music. Musical theatre was famous for its commentary on politics and society and Franz Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow was no exception.