Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Which Opera You Should See This Season, According to Your Favorite Literary Classic

Having devoted a number of years of my life to the study of la lirica, or operatic singing, I'm often disappointed by the steep decline of interest in opera, especially among Americans. Nevertheless I remain optimistic that an interest in opera can be fostered, especially in those who are enthusiastic about other art forms. Thus, I offer to you, the ever-more-cultured and ever-more-interesting reader, a guide to which opera you should see this coming season at the Metropolitan Opera, based upon your favorite literary classic. It seemed simply too boring to me to recommend the literary source material for the operas, thus, while the lover of Shakespeare's Othello would certainly enjoy Verdi's Otello, I tried to think more broadly and find more scintillating choices. This coming season is roundly dominated by nineteenth century Italian opera, not that I'm complaining, but it's unusual for the Met to have a season with so little German opera (and only one Wagner work!) and one single solitary French opera. You can buy your tickets to the Metropolitan Opera here.

If you love Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, see Giacomo Puccini's Turandot:
Having sung in the children's chorus for Turandot and scampered about among the principal players, I can say from personal experience that it is one of the most thrilling of Puccini's works. Turandot is a cruel and icy Chinese princess who executes all suitors who fail to win her hand by answering three riddles. An exiled prince of Tartary, though discouraged by his blind father and his faithful servant Liù, nevertheless presents himself for the challenge. By far the most tonally modern of Puccini's operas, with bitonality and pentatonic harmony faultlessly integrated into his lushly romantic scoring, Turandot recalls the themes of Andersen's The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid, and The Nightingale

If you love Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, see Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore:
Donizetti's popular comic opera is a Cinderella story with the gender roles reversed. Nemorino is a poor, rather bashful peasant, hopelessly in love with the wealthy Adina, but certain that he could make her love him if only he could get hold of a love potion. An itinerant quack, Dulcamara, is more than happy to supply the desired potion, in fact a not-so-harmless bottle of Bordeaux. Fast-paced and deliciously witty, this opera is a showcase for a lyric tenor, who gets to sing the showstopping aria, Una furtiva lagrima. Austenites will love its effervescent wittiness, its satiric yet never cruel depiction of class, and its richness of romantic misunderstandings.

If you love Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, see Gioacchino Rossini's La Donna del lago:
Rossini's lavish romantic melodrama, based on a book-length poem by Walter Scott and for many years absent from the repertory, is set in the Highlands of Scotland. Two rivals for the lovely Elena's hand, Rodrigo and Malcom, unite in battle against the Scottish throne, but unbeknownst to them, Elena has a ring with which she can beg a favor from the king. Scott was a favorite author for the romantic opera composer and this lavish adaptation, though far more Italianate than Scottish in style, is, if anything, more dramatic and suspenseful than the original poem. Its decidedly dark depiction of violence, passion, and self-sacrifice echoes the gloomy ardors and miseries of Emily Bronte's lovers on the moors.

If you love Gabriele D'Annunzio's The Child of Pleasure, see Giacomo Puccini's Tosca:
This richly decadent opera, one of the most iconic of all time, offers to the dramatic soprano one of the most challenging roles in the repertory, both vocally and dramatically. Floria Tosca, a prima donna, and Cavaradossi, a painter, become entangled in the evil machinations of Scarpia, chief of police, who hopes to infiltrate the pro-Napoleonic resistance and take Tosca for his lover. Puccini never used motifs to better effect than in this savagely violent opera (multiple murders occur on stage and the plot includes torture and attempted rape) and the music, including the aria Vissi d'arte, is heart-stoppingly gorgeous. Artistically stunning, the opera surely pleased D'Annunzio's aesthete Andrea Sperelli, lover of art as passion and passion as art.

If you love Dante's Inferno, see Richard Strauss's Elektra:
In this, the most tonally modern of Strauss's operas, Elektra seeks blood revenge after her father Agamemnon, and later her brother Orestes, are murdered. Though it's now regularly performed, its first scheduled Met performance was canceled because of the opera's brutal and salacious material. The starring soprano remains onstage for the entire duration of the opera, a remarkable challenge for even the most accomplished singer. Interestingly, despite her ruthlessness and blood lust, Dante placed Elektra in Limbo, among the righteous pagans, because her vengeance was, in his eyes, justified; that being said, the ghastly atmosphere of some of the lower circles of Hell is sweepingly evoked by Strauss's music.

If you love Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers, see Gioacchino Rossini's The Barber of Seville:
Though it's unfortunately being presented in English, Rossini's most popular opera, which includes Figaro's Largo al factotum and Rosina's Una voce poco fa, is a comic farce about a wily barber who schemes to unite Count Almaviva with his lover Rosina, whose miserably old guardian covets her for himself. When well performed, this opera can be one of the funniest ever written, and its broadly humorous characterization is very much in keeping with the outrageously outsize characters of the Pickwick Society.

If you love Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, see Gaetano Donizetti's Don Pasquale:
Don Pasquale is a crotchety old codger, whose vain pretensions at marriage are exploited by the devious Dr. Malatesta in order to reunite Pasquale's erstwhile heir Ernesto with the poor widow Norina. Norina is a particularly wonderful character, lively, inventive, and intelligent. There is a vein of wry pathos running through the farcical happenings in this delightful opera buffa that elevates it above many comic operas. As in Tom Jones, the hilarity ensues as sex, money, and social status become confused, while egos inflate and are punctually deflated.

If you love Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, see Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut:
The opera that made Puccini's reputation at the beginning of his career, Manon Lescaut is about the bewitching young Manon who effortlessly and gaily seduces men as they offer whatever she happens to want at the moment, whether it happens to be sex or luxuries. Her true love, however, is the poor Des Grieux. The opera, inevitably, ends in tragedy. Manon and Emma Bovary share a desire for love as a romantic adventure, and an allergy to a settled bourgeois marriage; though Flaubert's naturalistic writing style could not be more different from Puccini's romantic musical story-telling, the two doomed heroines are sisters in frustrated sentimental ambition.

If you love Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, see Georges Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles:
This new production of this stunningly beautiful fairy tale opera is a special treat, as it will be the first time the Met has presented it since 1916, when Enrico Caruso sang the role of Nadir. Nadir and Zurga are two fishermen bound by friendship, but that bond is threatened by their love for a Brahman priestess. The plot is fairly unimportant, essentially a backdrop for the characters' passions, expressed in some of the loveliest melodies of French opera. The exotic half-magic and eroticism of the opera are echoed in Marquez's richly imagined novel about true love in a world unfriendly to such sentiments.

If you love Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, see Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto:
Verdi's tragic masterwork follows the unscrupulous, vengeful Rigoletto, court jester to the womanizing Duke of Mantua, who finds himself the victim of the sort of cruel prank he'd often played for the Duke, when his beloved daughter Gilda is seduced. Two of the most famous arias of all time, La donna è mobile and Caro nome, are showstoppers, as is the quartet in Act 3, in which Verdi's mastery of musical perspectives takes the fore. Both Hardy and Verdi were masters of tragic composition, literary and musical, and both excelled at creating heroines of depth, moral courage, and bottomless passion.

If you love Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, see Gaetano Donizetti's Anna Bolena:
Donizetti's first great success, this retelling of Anne Boleyn's brief reign as queen of England is in distinct contrast to the story as told in contemporary sources, like The Tudors and Wolf Hall. In this opera, Anna is a victim of Enrico VIII's fickleness, and Giovanna Seymour, far from a rival, is in sympathy with her predecessor, whose tragic demise is spurred forward by the return of her former lover Riccardo Percy. The solicitude of the two women for each other forms a striking contrast to the cat-fight most of us are accustomed to. Adultery, motherhood, scapegoating, and womanly sacrifice are themes in common with Hawthorne's masterpiece. 

If you love Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard, see the double bill of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci:
These two brief tragic operas are essentially inseparable in modern performance. Both tell stories of jealous passion that end in murder and both are set in the south of Italy, Cavalleria in Sicily and Pagliacci in Calabria. Cavalleria, based on a play by father of the verismo movement Giovanni Verga, is about the violated Santuzza, who avenges her misery by betraying her former lover to the husband of his new mistress; it includes the great aria, Voi lo sapete. I Pagliacci, based on historical incident, follows Canio, leader of a troupe of traveling players, who suspects his possessively adored wife Nedda of a clandestine affair with a villager; it includes the great tenor aria, Ridi pagliaccio, one of the most heart-breaking of tragic opera. These operas, like Lampedusa's novel, reflect a vision of the vanished South, dramatic, fiery, and provincial, but already in a state of advanced decay.

If you love Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, see Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème:
One of the most popular works in the repertory, La Bohème follows the love lives of a group of Bohemian artists living in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Rodolfo is the archetypal unpublished poet slaving in a garret and in love with the lovely consumptive Mimì, while his best friend Marcello, an equally unsuccessful painter pursues the fiery, vivacious Musetta. Act 2, set in the Café Momus, was according to Debussy the best description of Paris of that period. In its delicate exploration of youth, poetic idealism, and romantic fatalism, the opera would surely have pleased Alcott's Jo March, authoress of sensational tales, and has much in common with some of Alcott's own romantically inclined novels, such as Moods or Rose in Bloom.

If you love William Shakespeare's As You Like It, see W. A. Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro:
I must admit that Le nozze di Figaro is my least favorite opera ever, but as I am decidedly in the minority, I nevertheless proffer it to the Shakespeare enthusiast as a fitting choice. Mozart's perennial favorite follows the fortunes of the valet Figaro, his love the maid Susanna, and the unhappily married count and countess. Couples are made, unmade, swapped, and reunited, tricks are played, and the pretensions of  the pompous are punctured. Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto is poetically and fluidly written, though not on a par with the work of Shakespeare.

If you love J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, see Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser:
Though I myself dislike Wagner intensely, there is no denying that he is one of the giants of opera and his lengthy settings of Medieval legend and Northern mythologies should delight the Tolkien fan. Tannhäuser travels from the couch of Venus to seek his fortunes in the world of men, where he falls in love with the beautiful Elisabeth, but his pagan views on sensual love clash with her Christianity and she begs him to crave absolution from the pope. There is a definite Wagnerian influence on Howard Shore's scores for The Lord of the Rings films, which should further please the Tolkien fan.
If you love Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, see Alban Berg's Lulu:
This twentieth-century opera is certainly the most challenging production of the Met's season, daring tonally and dramatically. In a series of phantasmagorical episodes, the entrancing, irresistible Lulu takes lover after lover, tumbling headlong to her doom and refusing to compromise her own desires, wheresoever they lead her. Berg used Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique but in a particularly unique fashion, delineating different tone rows for each character, so that they almost function like motifs. Though Lulu is distinctly more sexually explicit, like The House of Mirth, it follows the ambitions and eventual decline of a woman whose desires and abilities are either coveted as possessions or disregarded.

In addition to those listed above, the Met will be presenting Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Gaetano Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, Giuseppe Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Il trovatore, W.A. Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Richard Strauss's Die Fledermaus, which will be performed in English.

If you're looking for more resources, Naxos has a handy site with succinct summaries of dozens of operas, while The Grove Book of Operas, edited by Stanley Sadie, is an excellent guide to the most frequently performed operas in the repertory and includes synopses, performance history, and a smattering of musical and social analysis.


  1. The first opera I ever saw was The Magic Flute (in English) and I always thought it was a great introduction for me at 10 or 11. The first opera I totally fell in love with was Tosca, probably because there was this clarinet player in the orchestra who just KILLED with the big solo in "E lucevan le stelle". One of my all time favorites is Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites; I believe the Met still uses the same production that it has for many years, and the last act is a coup de theatre beyond all belief. I saw Lulu with Stratas many years ago and the memory is indelible.

    This was a great post, and a wonderful example of cross-pollenation in the arts and in your writing. Brava!

    1. The first opera I saw was Carmen and I still remember it quite vividly - I was probably 8 or 9. Tosca was also my favorite! And I wonder who that clarinet player was... :)