Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

61Fkw5KeniL._AA160_Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

The things we miss that a first-night audience caught immediately! I have always suspected an inside gag when Polonius tells Hamlet that he once played Brutus. Could it be that he really did? By which I mean, did the same actor who played Brutus in “Julius Caesar” possibly play Polonius in “Hamlet,” which seems to have been written soon after?

51vXsWzszeL._AA160_In the final scene (before the epilogue) of “Don Giovanni,” the Don has an on-stage ensemble playing tunes from three popular operas of Mozart’s time, the last of which is the “Non piu andrai” from “Le Nozze di Figaro.” The servant Leporello complains “I’ve had too much of that one!” While most current audiences spot the joke of Mozart using his own tune from his last opera, the really funny point is lost to them. The singer playing Leporello was indeed the very one who sang Figaro and therefore might very well be tired of that song.

Another self-reference comes in the third act of “La Belle Helene,” when Agamemnon, Menelaus and Calchus are decrying the lack of morals in Greece (=Paris). When they mention how even the quality of the music has decayed, the orchestra strikes up a slightly disguised version of a tune from Offenbach’s own “Orphee aux enfers” to underscore their complaint.

This video has some bad cuts but it does have Vincent Price!

But of all the comic operas, the one that might need the most footnotes for our enjoyment of the work today is Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore.” Based on an earlier play written for private performance, “Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse” tells the tale of Robin Oakapple, a village youth, who is in reality Sir Ruthven (pronounced Rivven) Murgatroyd. Thinking Ruthven dead, the younger brother, Sir Despard, has inherited the family curse, put upon them long ago by a witch, which obliges him to commit one crime a day or die in horrible agony at the hands of the pictures of all of his ancestors who step out of their frames to accomplish this. Er, yes, that is Gilbert having a lot of fun with the Gothic plot that even by his day had been greatly outdated, plots that in the 1960s were revived in all those Vincent Price films. (Note: Price himself plays Sir Despard in the BBC version of “Ruddigore” and is a non-singing delight.)

All but the most patriotic British vampires would fear this

One of the production numbers in the Act I finale is a salute to the four seasons that is followed by a lovely dance, a combination which might become your favorite choral piece from all of the “Savoy” operas. Later in Act II, there is a funny bit in which Robin, now a wicked baronet, threatens a young maiden and her sailor fiance but is thwarted when the sailor holds aloft a Union Jack, before which Robin cringes. There is only audio recording of this work with all the dialogue (Ohio Light Opera on the Albany label) and I hold it among my favorites, mainly because it is so seldom done.

So witness my amazement when a baritone I once knew asked us to see him in a production of an obscure opera called “The Vampyre” in an English translation at some church in mid-Manhattan. Composed at the height of the German Romantic period, this opera tells the tale of a Vampyre named–hold on–Ruthven and…!

Suddenly the Union Jack sight gag made sense to me. What is the obvious feature of a Union Jack? A cross! Anathema to any good vampire and how the original “Ruddigore” audience must have laughed since “The Vampyre” was probably well known to many of them. No, I have no record of performances of this work in Gilbert’s day, but it is obvious that he was familiar with it and one can assume so was his audience.

Sorcerer + incantation + teacup = spoof of “Der Freischutz”

But wait. In Act II of the German work, some characters step forward and sing a song celebrating the seasons. Of course, here it is a drinking song, something that Gilbert uses only in “The Sorcerer” (in which case the drink is tea) and in “The Grand Duke” (in which it is only a recollection of some Pommery 74 at a past affair). For those of you familiar with the “Ruddigore” lyrics, here is a prose translation of the first verse from “The Vampyre”: “In winter, one must drink; the blood of the grape warms us and thereby wine tastes so good.” In “Ruddigore” we have: “In the spring-time seed is sown/In the winter grass is mown/In the autumn you may reap/Winter is the time for sleep.” A different point of view but still too much for coincidence, I must say.

Yet another joking reference is in the “Incantation” scene from “The Sorcerer,” in which the music and offstage chorus is very similar to that in the Von Weber opera “Der Freischutz” in which the magic bullets are cast. It is only the situation that make the Gilbert scene funny, while Sullivan’s music is magnificently serious.

Now this is but one slightly extended example of how digging into the background of a work can enhance our appreciation of that work enormously. Can you imagine how that would do for a complex work like Wagner’s Ring Cycle? Worth a short series of essays, perhaps? We shall see.

The Question of “Morality” in Musical Drama

IMG_20150527_0001_NEWThe Question of “Morality” in Musical Drama

A local personality wrote a letter to the Editor some time ago praising a local production of “Camelot,” which is the usual thing that happens after your friends put on a show of dubious or genuine value and everything about it and everyone in it was “just wonderful.” However, the writer then went on to condemn a production of “Fledermaus” that had taken place several years earlier because it (in her view) celebrated adultery.

Come again?

513UuSaxQWL._AA160_The last I heard, the plot of “Camelot” concerns the adulterous love between Lancelot and Guenevere and how it brought down first the Table Round and then the kingdom. And the last time I looked, the plot of “Fledermaus” involves the UNsuccessful attempt of a tenor to seduce a middle class wife (Act I) and her husband’s UNsuccessful attempt to seduce her while she is disguised as a Hungarian (Act II). In short, “Fledermaus” celebrates the triumph of middle class morality while “Camelot,” not explicitly approving of the affair, certainly makes us sympathize with the lovers.

So which of the two plays is the more “moral”? Without getting into deep philosophical water, let us agree for now to define “moral” in the weakest sense that most people would accept as necessary if not sufficient: doing no harm unto others under all but extraordinary circumstances. Now let us see what harm an opera can do. (And I would very much appreciate any opinions pro or con on what could be a touchy subject.)

Lorenzo da Ponte, librettist

What is one to make of the Mozart opera based on the career of the great amoral Don Giovanni? We first meet him fleeing from an outraged Dona Anna, just after an attempt at her honor (but to what extent he succeeded is left perfectly ambiguous throughout the work). He then kills her father, albeit reluctantly, in a duel; and when next seen, he runs awkwardly into Dona Elvira, whom he has indeed seduced recently and who is seeking to “tear out his heart.” The Don beats a hasty retreat, leaving his servant Leporello to explain to Elivra, “Well, that’s the way he is”—an excuse that makes me physically ill whenever I hear it applied to ego maniacs who choose to live by their own rules.

His next seduction, that of the peasant girl Zerlina, is just about to succeed, when Dona Elvira makes a quick entrance and puts an end to that. When he has Zerlina alone again in a dark garden, her fiancé pops out of a bush and puts an end to that. When he maneuvers Zerlina off stage during a ball, her screams bring all concerned to her rescue, and that puts an end to that.

Act II sees him safe and sound, ready to seduce a maid; but the sudden appearance of Zerlina’s fiancé puts an end to the last attempted seduction in the opera. No wonder the librettist Da Ponte makes Don Giovanni exclaim in the middle of Act I, “It seems the Devil is amusing himself today by opposing the progress of my pleasures. Everything is going wrong.” You see? No harm is really done (if you ignore his murdering the father at the start of the play).

So is this opera harmful? You might argue thus: IF we do find ourselves sympathizing with Don Giovanni, THEN we are only recognizing similar desires in ourselves. But WE can suppress them, whereas HE cannot. THEREFORE his failure is to be applauded, however much we might enjoy his trying. Do we feel that way about the cardboard characters in “Camelot”?

Satan as imagined by Gustave Dore

It seems that Da Ponte has created such a strong personality that we can still admire him all the while we disapprove of his intentions and methods. Is “Paradise Lost” immoral because Satan is such an impressive character? Is “Richard III” immoral because the main character spends most of the play thoroughly enjoying wiping out most of his family–and making us enjoy watching him do so? Perhaps we had best look to our definitions before any real arguments can be offered.

I suppose that Mozart’s audiences, like many audiences today, demanded high morality on stage but wanted to be titillated along the way. You see, we have no idea of how the original baritone played the role. All those mythological and Freudian interpretations of the characters came much later. Don Giovanni as the Corn God, Don Giovanni as the Libido, Don Giovanni as Prometheus. As with any strong fictional being, interpretations of this character changes over the years to suit the world-outlooks of the country and times of the evolving audiences.

Finally, we must also consider the very knotty question of the emotional associations each of us brings to a work of art. But that is a point that deserves its own essay some time in the future.