Anagnorisis in Operetta



Aristotle, who got so much wrong in his physics, was not exactly on the mark in his analysis of Greek tragedies, “The Poetics,” either. But he did emphasize that an especially effective device in a play is the “anagnorisis,” a sudden “recognition” of a character hitherto thought to be someone or something else; and in the case of a person, he or she often turns out to be a blood relation. The most tragic of them all is Oedipus’ realization of who Jocasta is and the happiest is Iphigenia’s realization of who Orestes is as she is preparing his execution in Tauris.

When it comes to opera, anagnorisis is used quite a bit–which should not be surprising since most operettas are based on plays. Here, I will omit plots based on classical Greek plays, since that would be begging the question.

Strepponi, the first Abigaille

In “grand” opera, the device is used more awkwardly. The evil Abigaille in “Nabucco” learns offstage by means of a conveniently found letter that she is not really of royal birth; while the Gypsy Woman’s revelation that the Count di Luna has just executed his own brother is far too tersely stated and far too quickly accepted as the final chords come crashing from the orchestra.

One of these two is the King of Barataria…they think

It is in light operas that the device is used to far better effect. The cleverest use is probably at the very end of “Cox and Box” when the two discover they are long lost brothers by virtue of one’s NOT having a strawberry mark on his arm. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore,” the honest sailor Richard Dauntless sells out his relation Robin Oakapple by revealing to one and all that Robin is really Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, the evil Baronet of Ruddigore. At the end of “The Yeomen of the Guard,” Elsie realizes that the man she thought was Leonard Meryll is actually Colonel Fairfax. The denouement of “HMS Pinafore” turns on the past event of Little Buttercup’s having switched the Captain and the lowly tar in infancy (although here it is rank and not relations that is revealed); and we all know that “The Gondoliers” ends with the realization that Luiz the Drummer Boy is really the King of Barataria.


In  the first two instances, part of the fun is the audience’s being in on the joke all the while; while in the last two the audience is just as surprised as are the characters on the stage.

513UuSaxQWL._AA160_Note: It is remarkable that the entire cast accepts these last two revelations as true without question. But then  again, Gilbert wanted to wrap things up, and if the plot up until then was accepted, why not the denouement?

The prize for the most elaborate use of the disguise and subsequent recognition has to be awarded to “Die Fledermaus.” Dr. Falke was once the victim of a practical joke played on him by one Eisenstein and he prepares an elaborate revenge. Knowing that a  certain young and ennui-ridden Russian nobleman, Prince Orlofsky is giving a ball, Falke has invitations sent to Frau Eisenstein (Rosalinde),  her maid Adele, and the warden of the local jail, who is to escort Eisenstein to jail that very evening. Then he secretly persuades Eisenstein to go to the ball before going to jail, and of course runs into maid, wife, and jailer.

As soon as they leave, a sex-driven Italian tenor, Alfredo, arrives to woo the wife and is caught by the Warden in Eisenstein’s dressing gown. To save Rosalinde’s reputation, Alfredo allows himself to be arrested in the husband’s place, making him the only major character NOT to go to the ball. At the ball, Eisenstein spends most of the evening trying to seduce his own (masked) wife, even offering her his woman-winning watch, but getting nowhere.

There is an extremely funny sequence in which Husband and Warden, both posing as French nobility, try to carry on a conversation in their “native” language and finally agree that German is good enough for a Viennese party.

Once Eisenstein  tries to check into the jail, he finds “he” is already in a cell. Determined to get to the bottom of things, he assumes a second disguise as a Lawyer and listens to his wife and lover pleading their case. Since nothing short of a deus ex machina could disentangle this plot, the librettists provide one by simply having the entire cast show up in the jail and blame it all on the champagne. In short, Dionysus is triumphant and all ends well.

sex on a rampage, but no consummation

A similar series of disguises and mistaken identities drive the plot of “La Vie Parisienne,” in which both a Swedish nobleman and his wife separately plan to live it up while in Paris. A young man falls for the wife, poses as a hotel manager and guide, brings them to his own home, which he declares is a hotel, brings the husband to a party at a friend’s home at which all the servants have to play high-class guests…and so on and so on. All ends amicably with a salute to wine. (Well, there are only so many ways to end an operetta like this!)

Whatever would Aristotle have thought about all this?

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.