Wednesday, July 6, 2016

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

In September, the Metropolitan Opera will open for another season and in anticipation I'm presenting a list of which opera you should see according to your favorite literary classic. I did so last year and am pleased to be your guide to the 2016-2017 season.

Buy your Metropolitan Opera tickets here.

Love The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas? See Guillaume Tell by Gioachino Rossini:
These two historical dramas, both prominently featuring actual figures from history, are swashbuckling adventure tales in which the forces of tyranny are confronted with dashing, debonair heroes, adepts at swordsmanship, musketry, and archery and driven by noble impulses and righteous patriotism. Both novel and opera were deployed as pointed political critiques: Dumas lambasted the hedonism and malfeasance of the ancien regime, while Rossini glorified the nationalist idealism of Tell's rebellion against the Austrians to unify his country, according to the 19th century philosophy of national sovereignty as a utopian state of liberty. The opera is best known for its overture, which has been featured prominently in films as diverse as A Clockwork Orange and Disney's The Band Concert.

Love The Decameron by Boccaccio? See L'Amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho:
L'amour de loin is by far the most modern opera of the Metropolitan season - it premiered in 2000 - and it is the first opera by a woman to be heard at the Met since 1903. The opera tells a fragmented story of unrequited love that transcends distance and even knowing whether the loved one is merely a figment of the imagination. The apparent simplicity of the plot is undergirded by a rich subtext, a dizzying intellectual pool in which the characters come to understand the very nature of love. In other words, it is very much like the love stories told in The Decameron, like Fiammetta's tale of the prince of Salerno whose devastated lover drinks a potion made of his poisoned heart to join him in death (IV.1), or Emilia's tale of Gostanza, who sets off in a boat believing her lover dead, only to find him across the sea (V.2). Though I'm not familiar with the full opera, what I have heard is strongly reminiscent of the music of Georges Auric.

Love Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen? See Rusalka by Antonin Dvořák:
Ibsen's iconic play, based on Norwegian legend and written with total disregard for the exigencies of stagecraft (forty scene changes!), travels back and forth between conscious and subconscious with an ease usually found only in fairy tales, like Rusalka, which is a version of The Little Mermaid with an ending even darker than Andersen's, in which the rejected water sprite is transformed into a spirit of death and her prince chooses in the end to die in her arms, for one final kiss. While Ibsen blends social satire with bizarre instances of surrealism and wickedly ingenious flights of fantasy, and Dvořák's opera tells a simpler, far sadder story, both works are deeply embedded within the folkloric traditions of their composers' respective national cultures and share a vision of the supernatural as alluring and treacherous. Rusalka has become a staple of the American repertory only in recent years, with Renee Fleming making the doomed sprite a signature role. The Song to the Moon is a supreme example of Dvořák's loveliest melodic composition.

Love The Wings of the Dove by Henry James? See Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss:
Strauss's opera, which includes some of the most gorgeous passages of the composer's music, tells a romantic, yet melancholy story. The Marschallin, at thirty two, has taken a teenaged lover, Octavian, who she recognizes will inevitably fall in love with a younger woman. The opera, like Henry James's novel, is set in the rarefied drawing rooms and boudoirs of the aristocratic and wealthy, but the truer parallel is stylistic, with James's dense, opulent, subtle prose the literary counterpart of Strauss's exquisite, textured, and complex score, which makes use of a large orchestra. James and Strauss were roughly contemporaries and while both lived through and were influenced by movements such as decadence and modernism, both were at heart children of 19th century romanticism, a romanticism that remained intact even as it was battered by the sharp jabs of modernity and gained nuances of avant-garde complexity.

Love Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy? See Eugene Onegin by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky:
Landmarks of Russian culture, Tolstoy's novel and Tchaikovsky's opera (based on the novel in verse by Pushkin) both center on women who are trapped within their social position, only able to express their love for men deemed inappropriate by society by risking everything they have. Both are intensely romantic, while also deeply critical of Russian aristocratic society. Neither Tolstoy nor Tchaikovsky (or Pushkin, for that matter) could be considered feminists, but their sensitive portrayals of the tragedies of women whose sole outlet for a restless desire to live outside the confines of their opulent domestic cages was to fall in love illicitly make both the novel and the opera worth examining from a feminist point of view. The opera includes the famous Letter Scene, Tatiana's extraordinary aria, a beautiful, tumultuous evocation of a young woman's first love and her discovery of herself within that love.

Love Candide by Voltaire? See L'Italiana in Algeri by Gioachino Rossini:
Rossini's opera is a dramma giocoso, or a drama with jokes, a genre that developed out of the Neapolitan tradition, and it tells the story of the Bey of Algiers, who is desirous of an Italian bride, having tired of his Algerian wife. He sets his sights on Isabella and instructs his favorite slave, the Italian Lindoro, to arrange it, but Lindoro is himself in love with the girl. The opera's sense of fun, its fascination with absolutism and sex, and its whiplash-quick plotting make it a perfect pairing with Voltaire's picaresque satire, which blisteringly critiques the optimism espoused by Leibniz with a tale of high adventure and romance that lampoons the very genres of which it is comprised. 

Love Adam Bede by George Eliot? See Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček:
The desperation of an abandoned woman with an illegitimate child is at the center of these two works; Eliot's novel is about foolish, naive Hetty who falls for the local squire, even as the honorable laborer Adam pines for her, while Janáček's opera is about Jenůfa, seduced and impregnated by one brother and pursued and disfigured by the other. These dark stories permit some few rays of light at their conclusion, allowing their devastated heroines to seek salvation through love in various, sad forms. Jenůfa is widely considered the greatest Czech opera; it is both a highly idiosyncratic and radical opera and a work that makes extensive use of Moravian folkloric music, an especial passion of Janáček's, who also did priceless work as a musical ethnographer. Those who assume the 19th century novel and all operas are always sentimental will be hard-pressed to find much in the way of sentimentality in these realist dramas centered on the working classes.

Love Emma by Jane Austen? See Cyrano de Bergerac by Franco Alfano:
Though Cyrano de Bergerac is a tragedy and Emma a social satire, both works exploit the drama inherent in the practice of matchmaking, one in a decidedly phallocentric vein and the other in a gynocentric one. Cyrano is a dashing, martial aristo in love with his cousin Roxane and cursed with a nose of astonishing length who agrees to woo his love by proxy for Christian with whom Roxane is infatuated; the meddling, while well-intentioned, goes badly, and tragedy ensues. Emma Woodhouse is a clever, scheming aristo who occupies herself primarily with matchmaking, pairing up all her acquaintance with smug self-satisfaction, and becoming infatuated with the charming Frank Churchill in the process, to her friend Mr. Knightley's chagrin; the meddling, mostly well-intentioned, goes badly, but a happy lack of swords and duelling pistols in the Austenian universe allow all to be set to rights. 

Love Frankenstein by Mary Shelley? See Der fliegende Holländer by Richard Wagner:
I myself loathe Wagner's music, which I find bombastic and vainglorious, but there is no denying his stature as one of the giants of opera. Der fliegende Holländer, or The Flying Dutchman, tells the story of the cursed ship's captain doomed to sail the seas until he finds a woman to love him. Both in its atmosphere of darkness and storm and in its exploration of such grand themes as the nature of mortality, the meaning of life (or the sort of half-life the Dutchman's captain and Frankenstein's monster must endure), and the sacrifices required of those who love, the opera makes a fitting pair with Mary Shelley's paradigm-shifting science fiction novel, in which Victor Frankenstein succeeds in reanimating a deceased body with results both horrifying and heart-breaking.

Love Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore? See I puritani by Vincenzo Bellini:
Lorna Doone and I puritani are both historical romantic period pieces that use 17th century English history as the backdrop for their stirring adventure tales. Blackmore's romance set in the wilds of Exmoor is in the tradition of Scott; John Ridd, son of an honorable farmer murdered by the Doones, former aristocrats turned outlaws, falls in love with Lorna Doone, the granddaughter of his sworn enemy. In Bellini's final opera (he died less than a year after the premiere at age 33), Elvira, torn between her love for Arturo, the queen's champion, and her father's insistence that she marry Riccardo, leader of the Puritans, believes herself abandoned on her wedding day. The contest between the two men soon develops into a battle for control of England (and her religion), while Elvira goes mad with grief, giving the lead soprano an opportunity to sing one of Bellini's brilliant mad scenes. This exceptionally beautiful bel canto opera includes the virtuosic soprano aria, Son vergine vezzosa, and the exquisite tenor aria, A te, o cara, amor talor.

Love Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte? See Carmen by Georges Bizet:
Erotic obsession is the evil spirit under which these lustful characters are born and they pay for its sway over their psyches with more than their lives. While Bronte's goblin-like Heathcliff takes vengeance on his beloved Cathy, who is as proud and wilful as he is tortured and vicious, Bizet's Carmen treats her lovers much as she does the cigarettes she smokes: they are many, they are sensuously enjoyed, and they are tossed aside once their flame sputters out. Carmen is one of the most frequently performed operas in the repertory, a sensuous verismo extravaganza that shocked 1875 audiences with its explicitly sexual and morally corrupt heroine. The Habanera and the Toreador's Song are two of the most famous arias of opera and the score can be heard in dozens of films, from the explicit adaptation starring Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen Jones, to The Aristocats and Up

Love The Divine Comedy by Dante? See Don Giovanni by W.A. Mozart:
Another staple of the operatic repertory, Mozart's Don Giovanni is a masterpiece, a full-blooded and challenging work that opposes the worst excesses of libertinism with a moralism that is too sophisticated to be dismissed by cynics, too terrifying to simply brush aside. The story of Don Giovanni and his thousands of seduced and abandoned conquests ends with one of the most astonishing and frightening moments of opera, in which the shameless, remorseless libertine is dragged down to hell by a horde of demons. The opera's moral - "for a sinner, his death is equal to his life" - is essentially Dante's thesis, the truth that the great poet evokes to chilling effect in the Inferno, and, hopefully, to with salutary consequence in the Purgatorio and the Paradiso

Love The Red and the Black by Stendhal? See Werther by Jules Massenet:
Two preeminent works of romanticism, this novel and opera both deal in the fatal despair of young men in love with women who cannot be theirs. Julien Sorel, the protagonist of Stendhal's novel, longs for the glory of conquest, whether on the battlefield or in the bedroom, but he fails to appreciate the costs of attaining his desires, nor does he reckon with the reality of actual love. Werther, on the other hand, embraces that reality, tumbling into an ever deepening infatuation with his friend's fiancee Charlotte, pouring out his feelings to her in a series of tear-stained letters, and ultimately succumbing to an erotic (though no less real for its eroticism) despair. The opera is a simpler affair than Stendhal's novel, but both seek to dramatize the hopeless outcomes of loving wrongly and both acquit, even if ambivalently, their heroes of true wrongdoing. 

Love Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges? See The Magic Flute by W.A. Mozart (in English)
Though unfortunately, Mozart's opera (my favorite of his) will be presented in English rather than German, the Borgesian reader will find much to appreciate in this fantastic opera, which narrates the many-layered, densely symbolic story of Tamino, a bewildered prince who sets out to rescue Pamina, alluring daughter of the Queen of the Night, from the sinister Priest of the Sun, Sarastro. Tamino is accompanied by Papageno, a bird-catcher who dresses in feathers and plays the pipes, a being somewhere between a buffoonish Sancho Panza and an actual bird. The surreal meets the sublime in a story that could have been composed by Borges's Pierre Menard. 

The Metropolitan season also includes Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner, Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod, Manon Lescaut and La bohème by Giacomo Puccini, Idomeneo by W.A. Mozart, Fidelio by Ludwig von Beethoven, Salome by Richard Strauss,  Il barbiere di Siviglia by Gioachino Rossini, and Rigoletto, Aida, Nabucco, and La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. Synopses of all these operas and many more can be found here.
Tristan und Isolde – Richard Wagner
Tristan und Isolde – Richard Wagner

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