A Day at the Opera

September 27, 2012

Multiple Pages
A Day at the Opera

I had my weekend nicely planned. Saturday: small catch-up stuff, paperwork, and household repairs. Sunday: Write a book review I’d promised for midnight deadline…oh, and read the book.

Friday afternoon a friend called: “I have a spare ticket for the dress rehearsal of Turandot tomorrow, eleven AM; wanna come?”

I very much wanted to, so I did. Dress rehearsals tend to come with a couple of 45-minute intermissions, though. It takes two hours to get from my house to the New York Metropolitan Opera. Add in a leisurely lunch with my friend washed down with a few glasses of wine, and there’s a whole day shot.

I couldn’t miss Turandot, though. Opera-wise, I’m a meat-and-potatoes guy. I like the big old classics, the ones that make up most of the Met’s season schedule. If you are a fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Thomas Adès, I have no quarrel with you. We are just, as the late Stephen Jay Gould said of religion and science, operating under different magisteria. Or as a great novelist remarked: “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”

“The rigorously trained human voice is, for me, the most beautiful of all instruments.”

Turandot is one of those big old classics—the last one, really, by date of composition. (The composer died in 1924 with the final act’s last half still unwritten. A lesser talent completed it.) Turandot also has some nonmusical appeal: It gives set designers the opportunity to let out their inner Cecil B. DeMilles. The current Met production shows the result magnificently.

Like most of those big old masterworks, though, it’s sappy and silly. The sappiness is a consequence of opera having come to full maturity in the Romantic Age from 1800 onward. With all the beauty of the music, the voices, and the sets, there comes a point in every opera where I find myself thinking: “Oh, come on!

With Turandot that point comes at the very end. The title character is a beautiful but cruel Chinese princess. To win her hand, suitors have to answer three riddles. Those who fail—all have so far—die gruesomely, to her apparent pleasure.

Along comes a handsome stranger who answers the riddles correctly, so by the rules Turandot must marry him. She hates the thought of it. Not wanting an unwilling bride, the stranger gives her a second chance: If she can find out his name by dawn tomorrow, she can impale, disembowel, burn, or decapitate him.

During the night they meet and he woos her. Confident he has melted her icy heart with the Power of Love, he tells her his name: Calaf. Since the sun hasn’t yet risen, he’s handed the victory to her.

Off they go to report to the emperor, Turandot’s dad. “Noble father, I know the stranger’s name!” exults Turandot. Pause for some dramatic tension. “His name is…Love!”


Turandot is by no means the worst offender on the silliness scale. It’s not just an Italian thing, either. Wagner’s four-opera Ring cycle concerns a gold ring that bestows supernatural powers upon its wearer, yet two different characters are overpowered and have the ring taken from them.

Silliness-wise, Wagner is a serial offender. In Act Two of The Flying Dutchman we see the heroine, Senta, sighing and swooning over a portrait of “a ghostly man” from a legend. Then her dad comes in with the man in the portrait, whom he has just met by chance. Right.

For entire-opera silliness, my vote would go to Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, another love-conquers-all romance in which a cast of Wild West stereotypes—prospectors, poker-players, bartenders, bandits, Indians—sing their way through the story in Italian. It’s the original spaghetti Western. There’s some lovely music, but I giggle quietly through the whole thing, thinking of National Lampoon‘s Il Showdown a Rio Jawbone.

Bellini’s La straniera may have a daft plot, but listen as the immortal Montserrat Caballé enters the Act One trio. With such music, you forget the barmy plot.

You also forget what a jerk the composer was. Bellini’s English-language biographer confesses he couldn’t get to like the guy. Opera composing seems not to attract nice people. Cherubini had a reputation as “the rudest man in Europe,” according to Berlioz. And read up on Wagner if you want to explore the furthest shores of egoism.

I saw Caballé perform at the Met in 1985 in Tosca, with Luciano Pavarotti as tenor lead. As the two lard-tubs waddled and wobbled across the stage playing the parts of passionate young lovers, exchanging the most unconvincing embraces—neither could get their arms all the way around the other—you had to keep reminding yourself that this is a tragic opera.

The whole art form is absurd. In Act One of Parsifal, Wagner’s stage directions require that “A wild swan flutters feebly from over the lake, strives to keep up, and finally sinks dying to the ground.”

Swans are not that trainable, and if they were, the Humane Society would be picketing Lincoln Center. A stuffed version of the creature is usually just dropped from the flies, landing on stage with a THUMP! to bursts of smothered snickering from the audience. Robotics may one day give us a snicker-free Parsifal.

With all this nonsense, why do not-very-musical persons such as myself never pass up a chance to see the classics, even when there’s a list of pending household repairs longer than Die Meistersinger’s libretto? It’s the music, of course—more precisely, the voices. The rigorously trained human voice is, for me, the most beautiful of all instruments. It communicates to me sensations I get from nowhere else.

A quarter-million years ago we were hooting to each other across the savannah while an accompanist whacked on a hollow log with a stick. Now we have these superb voices carrying sublime music to lift us out of what Frances Cornford called “the long littleness of life” up into a realm of esthetic bliss. Civilization!—I’m a big fan.


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