People who enjoy opera are prissy, bombastic gas bags
so out of touch with real life they can’t even tell when they’re bored.
Growing up in the Midwest, that pretty much summed up my opinion until well into my twenties. Everything I needed to know about opera I could learn from Bugs Bunny or the Marx Brothers.
Then I married an Italian.
Cesidia Tessicini, my late wife, I cannot thank her enough. She taught me to see opera a new way, not as some grandiose exercise in self-congratulation but as great stories told through music. Operas were the mass entertainment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially for Italians—what movies, TV and pop/rock concerts are today.
Ignore the snoots, she said, and just listen to the singing.
But even then my appreciation didn’t click in for good until I saw on PBS a presentation of Tosca starring and directed by Placido Domingo and performed in the actual Rome locations described in the action: the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, the Farnese Palace, the Castle Sant’ Angelo.
Why was it this particular opera that turned the trick? The singing? Sure. The realism, natch. But more importantly for me, Tosca is a crime story. It appealed to me the way great film noir does: visceral, dark, passionate, beautiful. (Night and the City, by the way, would make a great opera. Force of Evil already is one.)
Is a lot of opera hokey? Sure. So are most kung fu movies. Seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of the Flying Daggers? They’re operas with fighting sequences instead of arias. All the same grand themes appear, set against historical backdrops: love, villainy, fate, betrayal, death.
But that brings up the big caveat: opera is about the music. The singing in particular. The real dramatist isn’t the librettist, it’s the composer, which makes opera quite different than stage plays.
Until my ear was used to the sometimes blaring (and too often warbly) stylistic eccentricities of voices projecting into large halls, and I had enough exposure to musical theory to enjoy the phrasing in not just the arias but the recitative (rech-ah-tah TEEF) sections—where spoken language is accompanied by music or sung in music that imitates human speech—I found a lot of opera impenetrable and dull. I also had to learn the stories well, so the action wasn’t just a bunch of costumed mouthpieces gesturing grandly and wandering about.
It helps, for those still learning, to have superscripts at the opera house or subtitles in a video version. I’ve named the best video performances I’ve found so far of three of the five operas I name below (the other two are usually only performed in concert format, unfortunately), so you can check them out of the library or buy them and enjoy them at home. Or check out the opera on CD and read along with the libretto as you listen.
Now, five great operas that deal, at least somewhat, with crime.
The Rake as Cop Killer:
Don Giovanni by Wolgang Amadeus Mozart
Serious opera—opera seria—all but smothered the audience with pomposity during the eighteenth century and would have died out if not for Mozart’s Idomeneo. But its Mozart’s comic operas—a form called opera buffa, based on commedia dell’arte—that truly transformed the entire form and made Mozart’s reputation. Especially the three great comic operas he composed with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (an opera in himself—a defrocked priest banished from his home town for his lascivious ways): Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Cossi fan Tutte, and Don Giovanni.
Think Marx invented class consciousness? Both commedia dell’arte and opera buffa were popular art forms that thrived on lampooning the nobility and aristocracy by emphasizing the bawdy, street-smart wiliness of their servants in outwitting them.
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau joined the debate in a pamphlet battle called Le Guerre des Buffons, or “The War of the Comic Actors,” in which he derided the stiff, artificial, elitist, maudlin conventions of opera seria, written for and financially supported by the nobility and aristocracy, as out-of-step with the Enlightenment. Instead he championed the more melodic, egalitarian, naturalistic and creative spirit one sees in opera buffa, which was supported by ticket sales to its working and middle class audiences. (The particular opera Rousseau chose as his example of great opera buffa, Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, is a one-act gem. Check it out.)
By the end of the eighteenth century, the lowbrow opera buffa, once considered the artistic equivalent of the circus, had completely superseded opera seria as the musical art form of choice among composers and listeners both, largely due to the growth of the middle class and the humanistic world view it embraced. Oh, and, well, the music.
Don Giovanni, based on the tales of Don Juan, enjoys much of its popularity due to the characters of the Don’s cranky but duplicitous manservant Leporello and the coquettish Zerlina (who, when her boyfriend is jealous, encourages him sweetly to punish her—in one performance I’ve seen, she even got on all fours and wagged her tush, inviting him to spank her). The music follows these characterizations by giving Leporello and Zerlina brighter, funnier arias, while the aristocrats get the heavy stuff, often as caricature.
But the crime? After sneaking into the bed of Donna Anna (and having her chase him out, begging to know his name, the wily dog), Don Giovanni is confronted by her father, Don Pedro, the Commendatore (police chief) of Seville. First Don Giovanni mocks the old man then, all too easily, runs him through. The rest of the action pursues the Don as he continues to mock and abuse everyone he chooses—most poignantly, Zerlina, whom he ravages on her wedding day—and the shamed and hypocritical Donna Anna as she tries to help avenge her father’s death (and salvage the honor she arguably willingly gave away) until, in the breathtaking final scene, the Commendatore’s statue comes to life and transports the lascivious Don Giovanni away to Hell.
A stellar performance can be found on DVD: Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Weiner Philharmoniker and Wiener Staatsopernchor; filmed live in Salzburg in July 1987. Samuel Ramey (the Marlboro Man of opera) as Don Giovanni, Kathleen Battle as Zerlina, and two fabulous performers in secondary roles: Ferruccio Furlanetto as Leporello, an Julia Varady as Donna Elvira, the Don’s tormented wife.
The Rake as Serial Debaucher:
Rigoletto by Giuseppi Verdi
Sensing a trend already? The lecherous nobleman returns—he is an opera staple—this time in the guise of the Duke of Mantua.
An aesthetic tension resides at the heart of this work, one I’m not sure is altogether intended—or, if it is, resolved. Verdi had not altogether thrown off the melodic lightness of his bel canto forbears—Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini—when he wrote Rigoletto, and as a result one watches and listens unable to tell for certain whether the Duke is merely a girl-crazy bon vivant, as the music sometimes suggests, or something much more menacing, as the libretto makes plain.
In the best performances this tension becomes focused, with the Duke’s melodic arias used to characterize his flippant disregard for the damage he wreaks. In less than great performances, he just seems schizzy.
Another note on credibility (or the lack thereof): Both Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, and even the assassin’s cutthroat sister, Maddalena, fall hopelessly (and somewhat incredibly) in love with the Duke despite his evil alleycat ways. I know, just like high school. Meanwhile, I remind myself: it’s about the singing.
The opera is based on a play by Victor Hugo titled Le Roi S’Amuse. The political sensors would have banned the opera had Verdi retained a king as the villain—the opera was written during Italy’s Risorgimento, and Verdi was fiercely anti-monarchy—so the action was switched to Renaissance Mantua. The protagonist, though, remains the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto. (What was it about Hugo and hunchbacks?)
Action: the over-sexed Duke of Mantua is surrounded by fawning, two-faced courtiers who laugh even as he drags off the unwilling Countess Ceprano while her husband looks on in fury.
Even more unfeeling than the courtiers, however, is the jester Rigoletto, who speaks the dark, viscous, uncaring words the Duke dares not.
Rigoletto jeers Ceprano so viciously even the Duke upbraids him. But the jester refuses to back down, believing himself untouchable.
When Rigoletto mocks the heroic Count Monterosa, whose daughter the Duke has “dishonored,” Monterosa curses him.
(Note: For Verdi, a curse wasn’t small taters. As a boy he called out his town priest during Mass, “May God strike you down with lightning!” Not long afterward, that very thing transpired. Verdi was called to where it happened and saw the priest sitting in a chair, his face charred black, his thumb glued to his nose as though he were taking snuff. But I digress.)
Monterosa’s curse begins to take form when the courtiers believe Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, is actually his lover, and they abduct her for sport and bring her to the Duke. The Duke recognizes her as the girl he’s seen in church and who has stolen his, um, heart. He proceeds to do the usual, to which Gilda responds with despairing bliss.
Rigoletto seeks revenge by employing the assassin Sparafucile (Spar-a-foo-Cheel—a great name): but who expects anything to end well for a hunchback? Especially a cursed one.
A film rendition exists, shot on location by director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in 1983, with the Weiner Philharmoniker and Wiener Staatsopernchor (another trend). Luciano Pavarotti performs as the Duke of Mantua, Ingvar Wixell as Rigoletto, and Edita Gruberova as Gilda. I didn’t find this version entirely successful. It’s “filmic” in the worst way and looks at times like Fellini trying his hand at porno.
Note: I considered titling this section The Hunchback Stays in the Picture. But, obviously, I didn’t.
Never Trust a Crooked Cop:
Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini
When it first appeared in 1900, Tosca was derided by one prominent critic as “a trashy little thriller.” (I know, what’s not to like?) It pits one of the great opera heroines—Floria Tosca, the flighty, impetuous, jealous diva—against one of the great villains: Scarpia (another great name), the devoutly pious and rapacious, murderous, scheming chief of the secret police in Rome.
Puccini has been faulted for making Scarpia’s music too lyrical, especially in his brief “Credo” at the start of Act II, when he admits that love is far more gratifying when taken by force than sweetly surrendered. This is a minor quibble (and one you could take with a great many composers, including the revered Verdi—see above), because the truth remains that Act II is one of the great events in all opera: a seamless evocation of torture, betrayal, brief victory, despair, rapacious lust and the heroine’s murderous revenge. The action is graced with luscious, passionate music in which the love theme and Scarpia’s theme battle throughout, plus one of the great arias of the repertoire (Vissi d’arte).
Last but way not least, the second act contains a murder scene surpassed by none. (If you watch no other clip, don't miss this one.) As Tosca stabs Scarpia, she sings, “This is Tosca’s kiss.” As he dies she taunts him, “Are you choking on your blood? Killed! By a woman!” As he expires, she spits, “He is dead. Now I forgive him.” And as she pulls from his cold grasp the letter of transit for her and her lover, Cavaradossi, she stares down at Scarpia’s corpse and reflects: “And to think, all of Rome trembled before him.”
A very good performance on video: Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro dell’Opera, Roma. Filmed live. Luciano Pavarotti performs as Mario Cavaradossi; Raina Kabaivanska as Tosca, Ingmar Wixell as Scarpia.
For a glimpse of what Pavarotti can do in the role of Cavaradossi, check out this rendition of E lucevan le stelle, the signature aria of the third act, where the condemned man sings of his realization, now at the hour of his death, that life has never been sweeter (“Tanto la vita”):
Even Serial Wife Killers Deserve a Little Privacy:
Bluebeard’s Castle, by Béla Bartók
For my money, an often overlooked gem is this one-hour, one-act, two-character tour de force from Béla Bartók, based on a mystery play with a folktale theme.
Bluebeard brings home his new bride Judith who has been warned by all her family and friends not to marry the notorious count.
Judith knows of the rumors surrounding him, and when she sees seven closed doors in his dark castle, she demands to see what lies behind them. Bluebeard begs her to forego her curiosity but this only makes Judith more terrified he’s hiding something. Reluctantly, he agrees to show her what lies behind the first five doors. One by one they open, revealing Bluebeard’s torture chamber, then his weapons, his treasure, his secret garden—everything tinged with blood.
Through all this, Bluebeard comes across more haunted than malevolent, even gracious and despairingly sad. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his creepy moments. When Judith notices that everything has blood on it, he replies:
Through and through my castle trembles.
Stones of sorrow thrill with rapture.
Judith, Judith, cool and soothing
is the blood that oozes freshly.
Silly Judith—she thought the walls were just weeping.
Finally, he asks she content herself with the fifth door. It opens with the most stunning music of the opera, a “Zarathustra-meets-Debussy” series of block chords dominated by brass that evoke the vast reaches of Bluebeard’s estate.
But Judith is not content. Bluebeard is rumored to have killed his three previous wives and she’s almost mad now with fear their bodies lie behind one of the two remaining doors. Bluebeard tries to dissuade her, saying now that she is there his castle will ring with music and be filled with light.
But she will not relent.
The sixth door opens with a vast, moaning sigh and beyond it spreads a vast lake of tears.
Bluebeard tells her the seventh door must remain closed forever but she defies him, saying she knows now the rumors were true. He is a murderer and his slain wives lie behind the last door. She demands he open it. When he does, the three previous wives appear—alive. They come and garb Judith in robes, then take her away with them, behind the seventh door, while Bluebeard laments that now his castle will return to darkness forever.
A very good CD version of this opera can be found on Phillips with Iván Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra, László Polgár as Bluebeard, Ildikó Komlósi as Judith.
If Mom Doesn’t Get you, The Furniture Will:
L’Enfant et les Sortileges by Maurice Ravel
Ravel wrote this dazzling one-act opera with the intention of seeing it realized as a Disney-esque animation. This has never happened, strangely, nor is it often performed because of the difficulties the fantastical story presents.
It’s another one-act, and runs a little over an hour. The libretto is by Collette and concerns a wicked little boy who gets scolded for not obeying his mother. Once she leaves, he goes berserk, saying he intends to be evil.
At which point: the chair he’s sitting in comes to life. The chair’s been ruined by the boy: He carved his name in the wood with a knife. The chair tells him how badly it hurt when the blade scored his flesh.
Then the clock speaks, recounting his own tale of woe, followed by:
The wallpaper (shepherds and shepherdesses sing a haunting choral duet back and forth, lamenting the fact that since the boy tore the wallpaper, they will never be reunited).
Dishware (singing in pseudo-Chinese—get it? Dishware? China?).
Even the fire (”I warm good boys but I burn the bad”).
A fairytale princess sings a haunting aria of how she now floats in limbo since the boy burned her storybook before he finished reading it.
A mad mathematician comes to taunt him with ridiculous sums.
Then the walls give way, the garden appears, and the animals and trees all surround him with increasing menace. Only an act of kindness spares him.
What makes this piece so stunning is Collette’s inventive text captured beautifully in music by Ravel’s melodic genius and his dazzling, intricate orchestrations (Stravinsky called him “a Swiss watchmaker”).
A brilliant rendition from 1961 can be had as part of Deutsche Grammophon’s Original Re-Issue series, with Loren Maazel conducting the Orchestre National de la Radio Theatre Française. A very successful treatment of the piece, especially visually, is from the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, where Maurice Sendak did the designs—brilliantly. You can catch the whole opera in six segments on Youtube (two of which are below, and others are embedded in the highlighted links above).
Now, go out an enjoy some evil—everybody sing!
So, Muderateros—have I bored you stupid with all this talk of opera? Do you still think it’s just for stuffed shirts and snobs?
Any favorite opera or performance you’d like to share?
When it comes to crime in song, would you rather stick with Johnnie and Waylon?
* * * * *
Jukebox Hero of the Week: Here’s my favorite part of L’enfant et les sortileges, with the Maurice Sendak design—the sad duet between the shepherds and the shepherdesses, and the utterly heartbreaking scene with the fairy princess:
Or, if your preference is a mad mathematician, slinky dancing cats, and menacing trees (breathtaking stage design in this segment):