I made a sort of Christmas resolution to write something in this blog every day, in the hope that a few people might start to look at it. Today, here in the Northern Sporades, it has been damp and dreary; It is already evening and I didn't write anything. So here, unrehearsed, and provoked simply by what I said of Beethoven's 'Fidelio' yesterday, are a few random thoughts about opera.
I can sympathise with those who think they can't stand opera. For one thing, the ludicrous plots, whose idiocy shows in concentrated form in the synopses in sleeve-notes for CDs: 'Meanwhile the count, disguised as a student, is climbing up to the balcony of Despina the servant...' The way any dramatic action is interrupted by the 'necessity' for a character to come downstage and sing a complete da capo aria. Above all, the ghastly shrieking of the huge sopranos in Wagner. (Like many who love opera I don't much care for Wagner except in theory.) To enjoy opera you have to suspend not just disbelief but a whole tranche (what incidentally is a tranche?) of critical faculties while sharpening various others.
Let us consider one or two plots. Verdi's 'Rigoletto' for a first example; an opera Nabokov dismissed as 'A packaging error'. Rigoletto the hunchback is the court jester. He has a secret; at home he has a beautiful young daughter of whom he is very protective. A nobleman gets to hear of this and sets about getting into the garden to seduce her, but to his surprise he falls, for the first time, genuinely in love. Meanwhile (opera needs lots of 'meanwhiles') Rigoletto, on his way home from work, encounters Sparafucile, a Iago-like chap with a splendid deep bass voice and who offers to do any murders Rigoletto might happen to need. When Rigoletto arrives home there is an ecstatic reunion of father and daughter which always makes me think of the joy of a dog who has been shut in the house all day while his master is at work. Dad pops off to bed and Gilda the daughter sings about just the beloved name of her secret lover, the nobleman. Her music is full of little jumps of an octave or a sixth, mirroring the light, skipping quality of the character: Verdi is a much more skilled composer than many think. But back to the silly plot: various worthies of the court, curious about Rigoletto's secret, are spying on her, and they kidnap her 'for a joke', tying her up in a sack.
'Meanwhile' Rigoletto has discovered that some chap is trying to seduce his daughter, and arranges for Sparafucile to do the necessary. A body-containing sack is duly delivered.
Well you've guessed the rest. Gloating over his sack, Rigoletto hears in the distance the seducer singing his trade-mark aria 'La donna e mobile', known vulgarly as 'Arseholes are cheap today, cheaper than yesterday...' So who's in the sack? Guess. With her dying breath Gilda of course sings a great big aria.
What utter nonsense. But the music is very beautiful. A friend of mine once found himself sitting at the opera next to the German composer Carl Orff, who said to him 'Oh, who cares what they're saying? I come for the music.' (I think the opera was Richard Strauss's 'Der Rosenkavalier' which marks the end (except for Puccini who is a special case) of the great romantic opera tradition: romantic opera fits neatly into the nineteenth century. In fact, at the end of 'Der Rosenkavalier' it comes full circle: the two young lovers, finally and unexpectedly coming together, sing their exquisitely beautiful duet 'Ist ein Traum kann nicht wirklich sein', and Strauss, for all his genius, comes up with a tune that could have been written by Mozart.) End of digression. What I wanted to say was that 'Rigoletto' can be read as a feminist text: an attack not just on the 'gay seducer' attitude to women, but more importantly on the overprotective attitude of fathers who keep their daughters locked up at home like dogs deprived of their freedom. Incidentally Gilda's mother is dead, and when Gilda has the temerity to ask about her Rigoletto responds with an aria about her being an 'Angel'. No doubt he also thought she was a virgin.
I was going to continue with a consideration of 'Cosi fan Tutte', which many consider Mozart's greatest opera. This has a plot of such outrageous sexism that it demands a whole essay, and it's time for coffee, piano practice, whisky and bed.
But to repeat: The music is very beautiful.