Franz Liszt (1811-86) was best known as a composer, virtuoso pianist, teacher, and essayist. Among his works for solo piano are dozens of ‘transcriptions’, ‘paraphrases’, ‘fantasies’, or ‘reminiscences’ based on popular operas. These pieces are characterized by both their beauty and thematic insight. The only other composer who could match, or even surpass Liszt, at this sort of writing was the contemporaneous piano virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg (1812-71).

At first, Liszt wrote these pieces for himself as he performed them with extraordinary success all over Europe. After he stopped concertizing he continued to write piano solos based on operas. I’ve chosen 10 of these along with some material from the operas themselves.

Fromental Halévy is known for his opera La Juive which in turn is remembered almost entirely for its tenor aria Rachel, quand du Seigneur. Today it is rarely done. It was a favorite of Enrico Caruso and was the last opera he ever sang. The Met had intended to revive it for Richard Tucker, but his death aborted the opera’s return. The company did mount eight performances of the work in 2003 for Neil Shicoff. I attended one of them. While Shicoff was great, it was easy to realize why the score has remained on the shelf. Réminiscences de La Juive was written when Liszt was still in his 20s. It doesn’t reference the famous tenor aria. Of course, it was designed to show Liszt’s phenomenal technique while giving a precis of the opera. Here is the great tenor aria Va prononcer ma mort, Rachel quand du seigneur sung by Tucker during a concert performance of the complete opera in London (1970).

Spirto gentil is from Act 4 of the Italian version (La Favorita) of Donizetti’s opera written for Paris to a French libretto – La Favorite. The tenor has just learned that the woman he’s fallen in love with is the King’s mistress or favorite. It’s a great tune that requires elegant phrasing. The young Luciano Pavarotti had everything needed for the great tune. I could have forsaken the high note he inserts near its end, but he had it so he used it. Pavarotti Spirto gentil. Liszt’s arrangement of the aria is straightforward and lets the melody sing for itself.

Liszt’s fantasy on Bellini’s La Sonnambula uses five themes from an opera abundant in great melodies. Thalberg wrote a Grande caprice on La Sonnambula. Liszt gets right to the operatic material. Thalberg as was his fashion on all his opera pieces starts with a nonspecific introduction that segues into music from the opera. After about 4 minutes it dwells on Ah! non credea mirarti is a candidate for the most beautiful melody yet written. I find the Thalberg version the more satisfying. This opinion, of course, is purely a matter of taste. The listener can make up his own mind.

Liszt’s Funeral March from Dom Sebastien is about twice as long as the march is in the opera. It’s a wonderful display piece. Incidentally, Sebastien is still alive at this point in the opera and remains so until the end of Act 5 The opera is rarely done today. It was the last completed by Donizetti before he went mad from tertiary syphilis. It is best known for its tenor aria ‘Seul sur la terre’ in the original French. It’s often done in Italian as ‘Deserto in terra’. The English/American tenor Alfred Piccaver gives Deserto in terra a superb reading. It’s from the second act. Piccaver’s career was based at Vienna’s Staatsoper. He declined offers to sing at the Met.

Liszt’s riff on the sextet from Lucia Di Lammermoor is a superb recreation of one of the greatest ensembles in all opera. Perfection cannot be improved and he doesn’t try to. This version of the sextet as Donizetti wrote it is from the 1955 performance of the opera in Berlin led by Herbert Von Karajan with Callas and Di Stefano in the principal roles. The number was so enthusiastically received that it was encored.

Liszt’s Réminiscences des Les Huguenots is a fine recapitulation of Meyerbeer’s masterpiece, even if its somewhat jaunty conclusion is a bit out of place for an opera that ends with mass murder. It features the great 4th Act duet for Raoul and Valentin. No composer has written a finer love duet and only two or three have equaled Meyerbeer’s inspired composition. Raoul and Valentine are together. He is about to leave and join his co-religionists. Valentine is desperate to prevent him from meeting death by going to the assistance of his fellow Protestants and admits she loves him, which sends Raoul into raptures. However, they hear the bell of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois ringing, the signal for the massacre to begin, and Valentine faints as Raoul leaps out the window to join the doomed Huguenots.

The duet when done as a concert piece usually starts midway. Here’s the whole piece; it’s more than 15 minutes long. Nicolai Gedda and Enrigueta Tarres are the performers. Gedda, of course, was one of the great singers of French opera during the second half of the last century. He’s superb. Tarres is acceptable. Les Huguenots Act 4 duet.

The duet is so grand that it deserves another version. This one is from a 1988 concert performance in Berlin (in German) and starts midway. The late Pilar Lorengar is outstanding as Valentin. Richard Leech is stupendous as Raoul. I was so impressed by his singing that I went to New York to hear his Met debut as Rodolfo in La Bohème. He was good, but not at the level he reached in Berlin. He sang 176 times at the Met, and had a nice career, but failed to live up to the high expectations his early work generated. Les Huguenots Act 4 duet 

Liszt’s Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto concentrates on the last act quartet which is the other sublime Italian opera ensemble. There are countless performances of the quartet available. This one is from a 1945 Met broadcast featuring Bidu Sayao, Martha Lipton, Jussi Björling, and Leonard Warren. The great cast gives a spirited reading of the piece even though they don’t finish together.

The Miserere from Il Trovatore is a great tune from an opera that consists of one inspired melody after another. Verdi’s melodic and dramatic fecundity is astounding. The Miserere follows a great soprano aria. Instead of the expected cabaletta he presents the listener with an off stage chorus over which the soprano makes a series of dramatic utterances against which the tenor, also offstage in a prison cell, interjects his mournful condition with a melody of extraordinary beauty. The combined effect is unique. Liszt’s transcription (linked above) is fine, but nothing can touch the original. This excerpt is from the 70 year old complete recording of the opera featuring Zinka Milanov and Jussi Björling.

Liszt did not lose interest in Verdi’s work. His take on Act 3 of Don Carlos is obviously a later composition as the first performance of the opera was in Paris in 1867. Liszt portrays events that take place in Act 3 scene 3 of the original five act version which is built around an auto da fe. The music is that of the entrance of those about to be burned as well as the heavenly voice promising the condemned succor. It ends with a volley of pianistic fireworks.

Here is an edited version of the Auto da fe scene. It’s from a Met performance in 2010 conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin with Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip. The confrontation between the king and his son is omitted.

Finally, the duet that ends Aida. Technically, it’s a trio as Amneris utters a few words above the tomb into which Radames has been sealed. He finds that Aida has surreptitiously joined him. Liszt prefaces the final duet with the sacred dance from Act 2 scene 2. The opera was first performed in 1871, how soon after the premiere Liszt wrote this fantasy is not known. Sacred dance and final duet. The conclusion of the Tomb scene is sung by Milanov and Jussi Björling – O terra, addio

If you wish to further explore Liszt’s piano compositions based on opera go to Andrei Cristian Anghel’s Liszt at the Opera. If it’s available he’s got it.