The history of opera is, in a sense, a history of the western world. It’s all there, from the epic tragedies of kings and pharaohs, to the everyday trials of lovelorn peasants and stricken beauties.
The history of opera is also, in large part, a history of the golden years of Italy, home to a disproportionate number of the world’s great composers of stage-music. The Italian-opera trinity of Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini alone wrote six of the 10 operas performed most often in America between 1981-2001, according to research from Opera America.
So, in the same week that Italy celebrates the 150th anniversary of national unification, the Missoula Symphony and Chorale will take a musical trip back in time and across an ocean to explore the history of the world as a whole through a concert of great Italian operatic choruses.
“This music is jam-packed with the emotions we most often associate with Italian opera: passion, melodrama, humor, romance, even silliness,” said Darko Butorac, conductor and artistic director of the MSO. “Given the anniversary that’s happening in Italy, a full concert of Italian opera choruses made sense as a celebration of a big part of that culture, while giving the orchestra and chorus something challenging and exciting that they haven’t had a chance to do a lot in recent years.”
In a pair of concerts this weekend, the MSO and its 100-plus-member chorale will visit music by the aforementioned trinity, performing music from Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”), Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” “MacBeth,” “Il Trovatore,” and “La Traviata,” and Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” and “Edgar.”
They’ll also tackle tunes from some of the less-well-known composers of the Italian heyday, including Boito, Mascagni, and Donizetti.
Butorac said that the music on the program should offer audiences a sampling of tunes familiar both in the concert hall and in popular culture, blended with some surprising obscure gems.
Counting in the first category are tunes such as the Easter Hymn from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” which was featured in the climactic scene of the film, “Godfather III,” as well as the so-called Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” – an energetic chorus that anyone remotely familiar with opera should recognize.
Yet Butorac said that the emotional highlight of the program will likely be one of the most obscure numbers: the final scene from Puccini’s “Suor Angelica,” which the assembled forces will perform together with guest soprano soloist Jasmina Halimic.
“That’s music that a lot of people don’t know, and yet it’s quintessential Puccini – it’s emotional and powerful, it has this big, beautiful melody that just doesn’t stop,” said Butorac.
With the quick succession of short works on the program, Butorac said that the concert will have a relaxed flow with plenty of opportunity for him to speak to the audience about this music he so loves.
“I love doing opera, it’s something I’m very passionate about,” he said. “The concert will be presented in a format that gives me a chance to talk to the audience more than I would in a classical concert. Rather than doing it in program notes, I want to talk about it, because it’s something I’m passionate about.”
Ultimately, while the music should please opera-lovers, Butorac said that this concert in particular would serve as a fine entrée for those unfamiliar with the orchestral or operatic repertoire.
“My way of going about bringing new listeners in to the concert is with one question: Do you like music?,” said Butorac. “Nobody says ‘no’ to that. This is just music, really fun and good music. We try at the Symphony to present it in just a human way. I wouldn’t say it is particularly innovative or creative or imaginative; I’m just playing good music, that’s all it is.
“We offer something on an emotional level, we move people; so for people who’ve never been before, this is a fantastic concert to attend because it’s fun and interactive, and it’s music that will get them excited.”
The Missoula Symphony Orchestra and Chorale will present “Viva Italia!,” a concert of Italian opera choruses, in two concerts this Saturdayand Sunday, Mar. 12 & 13, at the University Theatre. Saturday’s concert begins at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday’s concert begins at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10-$40, available online at missoulasymphony.org, by phone at 721-3194, or in person at the Symphony office at 320 East Main Street.