Burton D. Fisher
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The first third of the 19th century saw the high point of the bel canto style, with Gioachino Rossini , Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini all creating works that are still performed. It also saw the advent of Grand Opera typified by the works of Auber and Meyerbeer. The mid-to-late 19th century was a golden age of opera, led and dominated by Giuseppe Verdi in Italy and Richard Wagner in Germany.
The popularity of opera continued through the verismo era in Italy and contemporary French opera through to Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss in the early 20th century. During the 19th century, parallel operatic traditions emerged in central and eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Bohemia. With the rise of recording technology , singers such as Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas became known to much wider audiences that went beyond the circle of opera fans. Since the invention of radio and television, operas were also performed on and written for these media. Beginning in , a number of major opera houses began to present live high-definition video transmissions of their performances in cinemas all over the world.
Since , complete performances can be downloaded and are live streamed. The words of an opera are known as the libretto literally "small book". Some composers, notably Wagner, have written their own libretti; others have worked in close collaboration with their librettists, e. Mozart with Lorenzo Da Ponte. Traditional opera, often referred to as " number opera ", consists of two modes of singing: recitative , the plot-driving passages sung in a style designed to imitate and emphasize the inflections of speech,  and aria an "air" or formal song in which the characters express their emotions in a more structured melodic style.
Vocal duets, trios and other ensembles often occur, and choruses are used to comment on the action. Melodic or semi-melodic passages occurring in the midst of, or instead of, recitative, are also referred to as arioso. The terminology of the various kinds of operatic voices is described in detail below. Over the 18th century, arias were increasingly accompanied by the orchestra.
By the 19th century, accompagnato had gained the upper hand, the orchestra played a much bigger role, and Wagner revolutionized opera by abolishing almost all distinction between aria and recitative in his quest for what Wagner termed "endless melody". Subsequent composers have tended to follow Wagner's example, though some, such as Stravinsky in his The Rake's Progress have bucked the trend.
The changing role of the orchestra in opera is described in more detail below. The Italian word opera means "work", both in the sense of the labour done and the result produced. The Italian word derives from the Latin opera , a singular noun meaning "work" and also the plural of the noun opus. According to the Oxford English Dictionary , the Italian word was first used in the sense "composition in which poetry, dance, and music are combined" in ; the first recorded English usage in this sense dates to Dafne by Jacopo Peri was the earliest composition considered opera, as understood today.
It was written around , largely under the inspiration of an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the " Camerata de' Bardi ". Significantly, Dafne was an attempt to revive the classical Greek drama , part of the wider revival of antiquity characteristic of the Renaissance.
The members of the Camerata considered that the "chorus" parts of Greek dramas were originally sung, and possibly even the entire text of all roles; opera was thus conceived as a way of "restoring" this situation. Dafne, however, is lost. A later work by Peri, Euridice , dating from , is the first opera score to have survived to the present day. The honour of being the first opera still to be regularly performed, however, goes to Claudio Monteverdi 's L'Orfeo , composed for the court of Mantua in Opera did not remain confined to court audiences for long.
In , the idea of a "season" Carnival of publicly attended operas supported by ticket sales emerged in Venice. Monteverdi had moved to the city from Mantua and composed his last operas, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and L'incoronazione di Poppea , for the Venetian theatre in the s. His most important follower Francesco Cavalli helped spread opera throughout Italy.
In these early Baroque operas, broad comedy was blended with tragic elements in a mix that jarred some educated sensibilities, sparking the first of opera's many reform movements, sponsored by the Arcadian Academy , which came to be associated with the poet Metastasio , whose libretti helped crystallize the genre of opera seria , which became the leading form of Italian opera until the end of the 18th century.
Once the Metastasian ideal had been firmly established, comedy in Baroque-era opera was reserved for what came to be called opera buffa. Before such elements were forced out of opera seria, many libretti had featured a separately unfolding comic plot as sort of an "opera-within-an-opera. These separate plots were almost immediately resurrected in a separately developing tradition that partly derived from the commedia dell'arte , a long-flourishing improvisatory stage tradition of Italy. Just as intermedi had once been performed in between the acts of stage plays, operas in the new comic genre of "intermezzi", which developed largely in Naples in the s and '20s, were initially staged during the intermissions of opera seria.
They became so popular, however, that they were soon being offered as separate productions. Opera seria was elevated in tone and highly stylised in form, usually consisting of secco recitative interspersed with long da capo arias. These afforded great opportunity for virtuosic singing and during the golden age of opera seria the singer really became the star.
The role of the hero was usually written for the high-pitched male castrato voice, which was produced by castration of the singer before puberty , which prevented a boy's larynx from being transformed at puberty. Castrati such as Farinelli and Senesino , as well as female sopranos such as Faustina Bordoni , became in great demand throughout Europe as opera seria ruled the stage in every country except France.
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Farinelli was one of the most famous singers of the 18th century. Italian opera set the Baroque standard. Italian libretti were the norm, even when a German composer like Handel found himself composing the likes of Rinaldo and Giulio Cesare for London audiences. Italian libretti remained dominant in the classical period as well, for example in the operas of Mozart , who wrote in Vienna near the century's close.
Opera seria had its weaknesses and critics. The taste for embellishment on behalf of the superbly trained singers, and the use of spectacle as a replacement for dramatic purity and unity drew attacks. He advocated that opera seria had to return to basics and that all the various elements—music both instrumental and vocal , ballet, and staging—must be subservient to the overriding drama. The first to succeed however, was Gluck. Gluck strove to achieve a "beautiful simplicity". This is evident in his first reform opera, Orfeo ed Euridice , where his non-virtuosic vocal melodies are supported by simple harmonies and a richer orchestra presence throughout.
Gluck's reforms have had resonance throughout operatic history. Weber, Mozart, and Wagner, in particular, were influenced by his ideals.
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But Mozart's contribution to opera seria was more mixed; by his time it was dying away, and in spite of such fine works as Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito , he would not succeed in bringing the art form back to life again. The bel canto opera movement flourished in the early 19th century and is exemplified by the operas of Rossini , Bellini , Donizetti , Pacini , Mercadante and many others.
Literally "beautiful singing", bel canto opera derives from the Italian stylistic singing school of the same name. Bel canto lines are typically florid and intricate, requiring supreme agility and pitch control. Following the bel canto era, a more direct, forceful style was rapidly popularized by Giuseppe Verdi , beginning with his biblical opera Nabucco.
This opera, and the ones that would follow in Verdi's career, revolutionized Italian opera, changing it from merely a display of vocal fireworks, with Rossini's and Donizetti's works, to dramatic story-telling. Verdi's operas resonated with the growing spirit of Italian nationalism in the post- Napoleonic era, and he quickly became an icon of the patriotic movement for a unified Italy. In the early s, Verdi produced his three most popular operas: Rigoletto , Il trovatore and La traviata.
The first of these, Rigoletto , proved the most daring and revolutionary. In it, Verdi blurs the distinction between the aria and recitative as it never before was, leading the opera to be "an unending string of duets". La traviata was also novel. It tells the story of courtesan, and is often cited as one of the first "realistic" operas, [ citation needed ] because rather than featuring great kings and figures from literature, it focuses on the tragedies of ordinary life and society.
After these, he continued to develop his style, composing perhaps the greatest French Grand Opera , Don Carlos , and ending his career with two Shakespeare-inspired works, Otello and Falstaff , which reveal how far Italian opera had grown in sophistication since the early 19th century.
These final two works showed Verdi at his most masterfully orchestrated, and are both incredibly influential, and modern. In Falstaff , Verdi sets the preeminent standard for the form and style that would dominate opera throughout the twentieth century. Rather than long, suspended melodies, Falstaff contains many little motifs and mottos, that, rather than being expanded upon, are introduced and subsequently dropped, only to be brought up again later.
These motifs never are expanded upon, and just as the audience expects a character to launch into a long melody, a new character speaks, introducing a new phrase. This fashion of opera directed opera from Verdi, onward, exercising tremendous influence on his successors Giacomo Puccini , Richard Strauss , and Benjamin Britten. After Verdi, the sentimental "realistic" melodrama of verismo appeared in Italy.
Later Italian composers, such as Berio and Nono , have experimented with modernism. Italian opera held a great sway over German-speaking countries until the late 18th century. Nevertheless, native forms would develop in spite of this influence. In , Sigmund Staden produced the first Singspiel , Seelewig , a popular form of German-language opera in which singing alternates with spoken dialogue. Yet most of the major German composers of the time, including Handel himself, as well as Graun , Hasse and later Gluck , chose to write most of their operas in foreign languages, especially Italian.
In contrast to Italian opera, which was generally composed for the aristocratic class, German opera was generally composed for the masses and tended to feature simple folk-like melodies, and it was not until the arrival of Mozart that German opera was able to match its Italian counterpart in musical sophistication.
The tradition was developed in the 19th century by Beethoven with his Fidelio , inspired by the climate of the French Revolution. Carl Maria von Weber established German Romantic opera in opposition to the dominance of Italian bel canto. Other opera composers of the time include Marschner , Schubert and Lortzing , but the most significant figure was undoubtedly Wagner. Wagner was one of the most revolutionary and controversial composers in musical history.
Starting under the influence of Weber and Meyerbeer , he gradually evolved a new concept of opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk a "complete work of art" , a fusion of music, poetry and painting. Wagner also brought a new philosophical dimension to opera in his works, which were usually based on stories from Germanic or Arthurian legend.
Finally, Wagner built his own opera house at Bayreuth with part of the patronage from Ludwig II of Bavaria , exclusively dedicated to performing his own works in the style he wanted. Opera would never be the same after Wagner and for many composers his legacy proved a heavy burden. On the other hand, Richard Strauss accepted Wagnerian ideas but took them in wholly new directions, along with incorporating the new form introduced by Verdi. He first won fame with the scandalous Salome and the dark tragedy Elektra , in which tonality was pushed to the limits.
Then Strauss changed tack in his greatest success, Der Rosenkavalier , where Mozart and Viennese waltzes became as important an influence as Wagner. Strauss continued to produce a highly varied body of operatic works, often with libretti by the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The operatic innovations of Arnold Schoenberg and his successors are discussed in the section on modernism. During the late 19th century, the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II , an admirer of the French -language operettas composed by Jacques Offenbach , composed several German-language operettas, the most famous of which was Die Fledermaus , which is still regularly performed today.
Despite his foreign origin, Lully established an Academy of Music and monopolised French opera from Lully's operas also show a concern for expressive recitative which matched the contours of the French language.
Despite the popularity of Italian opera seria throughout much of Europe during the Baroque period, Italian opera never gained much of a foothold in France, where its own national operatic tradition was more popular instead. They show the influence of Rameau, but simplified and with greater focus on the drama.
This was the equivalent of the German singspiel , where arias alternated with spoken dialogue. Another phenomenon of this period was the 'propaganda opera' celebrating revolutionary successes, e. By the s, Gluckian influence in France had given way to a taste for Italian bel canto , especially after the arrival of Rossini in Paris. Rossini's Guillaume Tell helped found the new genre of Grand Opera , a form whose most famous exponent was another foreigner, Giacomo Meyerbeer.
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Meyerbeer's works, such as Les Huguenots , emphasised virtuoso singing and extraordinary stage effects. In this climate, the operas of the French-born composer Hector Berlioz struggled to gain a hearing. Berlioz's epic masterpiece Les Troyens , the culmination of the Gluckian tradition, was not given a full performance for almost a hundred years. Their operas formed another genre, the Opera Lyrique, combined opera comique and grand opera. It is less grandiose than grand opera, but without the spoken dialogue of opera comique. At the same time, the influence of Richard Wagner was felt as a challenge to the French tradition.
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Many French critics angrily rejected Wagner's music dramas while many French composers closely imitated them with variable success. Perhaps the most interesting response came from Claude Debussy. But the drama is understated, enigmatic and completely un-Wagnerian. Other notable 20th-century names include Ravel , Dukas , Roussel and Milhaud. In England, opera's antecedent was the 17th-century jig. This was an afterpiece which came at the end of a play. It was frequently libellous and scandalous and consisted in the main of dialogue set to music arranged from popular tunes.
In this respect, jigs anticipate the ballad operas of the 18th century. At the same time, the French masque was gaining a firm hold at the English Court, with even more lavish splendour and highly realistic scenery than had been seen before. Inigo Jones became the quintessential designer of these productions, and this style was to dominate the English stage for three centuries. These masques contained songs and dances. Since his theatre was not licensed to produce drama, he asked several of the leading composers Lawes, Cooke, Locke, Coleman and Hudson to set sections of it to music.
These pieces were encouraged by Oliver Cromwell because they were critical of Spain. With the English Restoration , foreign especially French musicians were welcomed back.