For the purposes of this article an ensemble is music set for more than two singers; they must be soloists. Thus, choruses are not included here. An alternate to the videos below is provided below each video. These links will allow the viewer to see the video even if it goes dark on YouTube.
Trios are as common in opera as guilt in a psychiatric clinic. The one I’ve chosen is perhaps as beautiful a piece of music ever written for any genre – The final trio from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss was so taken with it that he requested it be performed at his funeral, which it was. The “aging” Marschallin (she’s only in her early 30s) has taken a 17 year old lover. At the opera’s conclusion she gives him up to a 16 year old who’s caught his eye. It’s beautiful beyond description and made more poignant by the certainty that the Marschallin will find a new lover and that Octavian will not be faithful to Sophie as her youth fades or perhaps even sooner. But for a few moments the world is motionless.
Renée Fleming (Marschallin), Christine Schäfer (Sophie), Susan Graham (Octavian). Production: Nathaniel Merrill. Conductor: Edo de Waart. Taken from the 2010 Live in HD transmission.
The quartet from Act 4 of Rigoletto is so well known that its novelty and inventiveness are now taken for granted. It anticipates the movies split screen by about 75 years. Rigoletto and his daughter, another operatic goofy teenager, are outside a disreputable tavern looking at the teen’s love interest; he’s pursuing a prostitute inside the tavern. He’s an oversexed duke. As an aside, why does the duke who seems to be getting his way with the wayward woman decide to go to sleep after the quartet? Joan Sutherland is the Gilda (the teenager). She’s wearing a fright wig and looks older than Joe Biden. But what a voice! Isola Jones’ bodice is held in place by an alteration in space-time.
Sutherland, Isola Jones, Pavarotti, Leo Nucci
The great quintet from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger comes in the third act. Thus, the audience has been in the theater for at least two days. Well, I exaggerate a little. I’ve only been to one live performance of Wagner’s comedy. It started in the afternoon and finished after midnight. There was a supper break somewhere in the middle. The quintet is worth the wait.
Quintet from Act III of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” Karita Mattila (Eva), Jill Grove (Magdalene), Ben Heppner (Walther), Matthew Polenzani (David), James Morris (Sachs). Production: Otto Schenk. Conductor: James Levine. 2001 telecast.
Die Meistersinger Quintet
The Sextet from Lucia DI Lammermoor is so wonderfully constructed that it’s hard to mess it up. But Mary Zimmerman who specializes in deconstructing bel canto operas managed to do so. Putting a camera man with his gear in the middle of what should be a time stops moment is beyond stupid; it’s decerebrate. The video below was posted by the Met. The company’s publicists must have at the same bad judgement as Ms Zimmerman. Anyway, the singing is very good.
Act 2 Sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor. Natalie Dessay (Lucia), Joseph Calleja (Edgardo), Matthew Plenk (Arturo), Ludovic Tézier (Enrico), Kwangchul Yuon (Raimondo). Production: Mary Zimmerman. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Live in HD 2011
There aren’t that many septets in opera. The one at the end of the Venetian Scene in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman is especially good even if Offenbach didn’t write it. Ernest Guiraud may have cobbled it together from the score which Offenbach left almost completely finished. He died four month before the opera’s premiere. Guiraud assembled the version presented at the opera’s first performance. Since then the opera has undergone innumerable transformations. Regardless of its heritage, the septet is a grand piece.
Vittorio Grigolo (Hoffmann), Christine Rice (Giulietta), Thomas Hampson (Dapertutto) and ensemble perform the septet from Act III of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Production: Bartlett Sher. Conductor: Yves Abel. 2014-15 season.
Operatic octets are even rarer than septets. Strauss put three of them into his last opera Capriccio. The plot is pretty complicated. It’s about the relative importance of words and music in opera and also about the esthetics of the theater. I was unwilling to put in the time necessary to understand what exactly Strauss was trying to say. Strauss wrote the libretto along with Clemens Krauss. I don’t wish to devote a lot of study to a German opera written in 1942. The music and acting below is well constructed and is interesting.
Anne Sofie von Otter
Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris
Verdi’s Falstaff is full of multi part ensembles. The end of Act 1 scene 2 has nine separate vocal lines. The men are after Falstaff as are the women, both acting separately. The two young lovers Nanetta and Fenton are after each other. All of this is going on at the same time. The reason that this music functions like a nonet is that it’s the only scene in the opera in which the title character doesn’t appear. Giulini’s conducting is revelatory.
Falstaff Act 1 scene 2 conclusion Giulini
Everybody’s in the opera’s last scene. So the fugue that ends Verdi’s operatic career is a decet. Set to “All the world’s a joke” it is the wisest and basically sunniest farewell in all musical history.
Falstaff finale 10 parts Toscanini
The only operatic comedy as rich in human awareness as Falstaff is Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and it’s a lot longer. The end of the opera is also a decet. It follows the Count’s asking his wife’s forgiveness for his infidelity. She grants it and everybody is happy at the curtain. We know that all will not be well from Beaumarchais’ third play about Figaro et al, but neither Mozart nor Rossini got around to that one.
Ten is as far as I go. If you know of an opera with an 11 part ensemble, let me know.
Opera directed by Peter Sellars.
The Wiener Symphoniker, directed by Craig Smith
Marriage of Figaro Finale