Category Archives: Theatre

La commedia è finita! – on the Cuckold as a Comical Figure

I recently saw my first Pagliacci ever, and I was blown away. What a powerful, tight, intense piece. Although I did not know the story in advance, I knew enough about operas to know where it was going, but I still got goosebumps at the ending with Canio’s rash act and his wonderfully meta declaration that “the comedy is over”.

And then I also really feel that Pagliacci marks a pivotal point in the history of male characters in theatre, namely the point of intersection between the cuckold as a comical and a tragic figure.

Certainly the comical cuckold is the more prominent one of the two. In the history of theatre, the figure can be traced back as far as to mimes and pantomimes in the 1st century B.C. The few surviving descriptions of the aliterary mime shows make it clear that infidelity was a recurring theme within the genre, and representations of the mime in various reliefs show tableaux of beautiful ladies, their charming lovers, and their stupid, cuckold husbands. As Marianne Grandjean notes in her article on the mime of late antiquity, the cuckold is often depicted as a bald man, perhaps to indicate that he is older than the woman and her lover, and it seems clear that these cuckolds are comical figures: The charming young lovers point at them with ridiculing attitudes, and the audience are supposed to laugh at these men. It is of course difficult to say exactly how these men became the butt of the joke, but as oscenity and sex jokes played an important part in the mime shows, it seems pretty safe to me to say that it was the cuckold’s unsatisfied sexual appetite that made him as a character: He wanted some, and he wasn’t gettin’ any.

No link has ever been identified between late-antiquity mime and the commedia dell’arte tradition of the 16th century, but the cuckold of the commedia dell’arte, Pantalone, has a lot in common with the cuckold of late-antiquity mime shows. Often known as Pantalone il Bisognosi (Pantalone the Needy), his trademark was, to put it bluntly, that he wanted to have a lot of sex, especially with his beautiful young wife, the female lead, who didn’t care for his advances and who would cheat on him with a younger, more handsome lover, while the audience laughed at the silly, cockblocked old man.

Pantalone. Even in the 16th century, footsie pajamas apparently did not do it for the ladies.

The Pagliacci characters are a typical travelling commedia dell’arte troupe. There’s no Pantalone in Pagliacci, but the character of Pagliaccio seems to be based partially on Pantalone, partially on the more recent commedia dell’arte character of clownish Pierrot. However, Pagliacci came about in the time of the Italian verismo in the 19th century rather than in the heyday of Pantalone and his fellow commedia dell’arte characters, and I think this shows when it comes to the motif of the cuckold. As late as in the 18th century the ridiculous cuckold could still be found on stage in plays by the likes of Molière or Beaumarchais, but by the end of the 19th century, the tragic cuckolds started appearing: Most prominently, I suppose, in plays by Strindberg and Ibsen. In Ibsen’s The Wild Duck the revelation that Hedvig may not be Hjalmar Ekdal’s daughter marks the crux of the tragedy, and of course in Strindberg’s The Father the entire plot revolves around the notion that Laura has made a cuckold out of The Captain. And there is certainly no humour in the Swedish realist’s take on the theme. Not only does The Captain genuinely grieve for the loss of the love that once was between himself and his wife:

CAPTAIN. (…) I feel your shawl against my mouth; it is as warm and soft as your arm, and it smells of vanilla, like your hair when you were young! Laura, when you were young, and we walked in the birch woods, with the primroses and the thrushes–glorious, glorious! Think how beautiful life was, and what it is now. You didn’t want to have it like this, nor did I, and yet it happened. Who then rules over life?

The idea of his wife’s possible unfaithfulness (and, thus, the fact that Bertha may not actually be The Captain’s child) also disrupts his entire perception of his own existence:

CAPTAIN. (…) I do not believe in a hereafter; the child was my future life. That was my conception of immortality, and perhaps the only one that has any analogy in reality. If you take that away from me, you cut off my life.

I haven’t done enough research to determine whether or not it is plausible that Pagliacci composer and librettist Leoncavallo had read or attended the cuckold tragedies of Ibsen and Strindberg, but the verismo opera composer clearly shares their interest in exploring the psychology of the cuckold. What is so exceptionally fascinating in Pagliacci is, however, that Leoncavallo examines the tragic aspects of the cuckold man all the while acknowledging the comic potential of the motif. The central aria of the opera revolves around the idea of laughing at the cuckold buffoon (“Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), and in the frantic play-within-the-play ending the opera, the ambiguity of the cuckold as a comical/tragic figure is constantly at play. The audience-within-the-play wants nothing more than to laugh at the buffoon, but cuckold Canio’s very real despair is constantly creeping into the caricatured pantomime grief of the cuckold Pagliaccio.

Significantly, Canio’s unfaithful wife Nedda is not dealt the demonic tendencies of Strindberg’s Laura. Rather, she becomes a painful inbodiment of the conflict between the comical and the tragic cuckold: We can’t help rooting for the poor woman who loves her Silvio so dearly, and it’s for her sake that we want to regard Canio as the fool. As several researchers have noted, the theme of the cuckold in late-antiquity mime shows as well as in the commedia dell’arte did not come out of nowhere. The motif became popular in the male dominated patriarchies of late antiquity and 16th century Italy in which women would often be at the mercy of their controlling husbands and have very limited means of personal or sexual emancipation. Tellingly, both the mime shows and the commedia dell’arte marked themselves by allowing women to rise to fame and fortune on stage at a time when women were generally not allowed to star in theatre productions. In late anitquity there are even instances of women becoming managers of mime troupes and it is easy to imagine that these women would have been a driving force in the furthering of the ridiculous male authoritative figure in the mime shows. Pagliacci was written at a time when women’s liberation was slowly building and the need for ridicule of partriarchy was less acute, but the beauty of it, to me, is that the cuckold story of Pagliacci doesn’t claim to hold any simple solutions to the infidelity issue. Canio may declare that the comedy is over, but the tragedy that lingers instead pertains to both sexes. And the commedia dell’arte tradition with its clownish cuckold lives on within the verismo tragedy whenever Pagliacci is staged.

What then of the cuckold character today? More than a decade has passed since Pagliacci, along with a sexual revolution, so surely we must have reached some new level of awareness when it comes to the issue of infidelity?

Well, I guess maybe we haven’t. When it comes to the tragic cuckold at least, many of the perceptions of biological paternity found in Strindberg are very much alive today. I have noticed it, for example, in Per Olov Enquist’s excellent novel The Visit of the Royal Physician (2000) about King Christian VII of Denmark and Doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee. In Enquist’s take on the highly dramatic story of the German royal physician’s rise to power as de facto king of Denmark, enlightenment-inspired Struensee is portrayed as the hero in a horribly backwards, medieval Denmark, and his wrongful execution is depicted as a terrible loss. However, Enquist allows Struensee some vindication in the epilogue in which he notes that the child that Struensee fathered during his affair with Christian VII’s queen, Caroline Mathilde, lived on and granted him a kind of immortality. “The little daughter Louise Augusta grew up in Denmark (…)” writes Enquist, and goes on to describe the beauty and fertility of the princess:

“She is described as very beautiful, with a ‘disturbing’ vitality. (…) She married the Duke Frederik Christian of Augustenborg who was hardly her equal in any way. She did, however, have three children with him (…) today there is not one European monarchy that cannot trace its heritage back to Johann Friedriech Struensse, his English princess, and their little girl.”

The juxtaposition of sexual potency and immortality is striking to me in this paragraph in which the Danish monarchy seems to play the part of the cuckold husband whose DNA is not carried on or at least only carried on to a limited degree, opposite Struensee as the handsome lover who fathered a beautiful, vivacious daughter.

"I'm bringin' sexy back/Them Danish boys don't know how to act/I think it's special what's behind thy back/So turn around and I'll pick up the slack."

I also find it telling that the theme of the cuckold as a figure is still something that is predominantly associated with a male character. The betrayed woman has always been, and continues to be, a tragic figure, doesn’t she? Even today we love to revel in the not-at-all-funny pain of historical betrayed woman characters struggling to make it in a partriarchal society, such as Betty Draper or Saul Dibb’s Duchess of Devonshire. It’s still hard to imagine a hilarious comedy about a younger, handsome man cheating on an older woman who is laughed at for her inability to maintain her young husband’s sexual interest. I can’t even imagine a movie like Forgetting Sarah Marshall with the tables turned so that it’s the betrayed woman we’re laughing at, rather than Jason Segel’s naked, unattractive, blue-balled, cuckold boyfriend character. The idea that a woman might be a ridiculous sex-crazed authority rather than a vulnerable victim with hurt feelings still seems alien in our contemporary narratives. The only character vaguely of this sort that I am able to think would be Jennifer Aniston’s sexually harassing boss in Horrible Bosses.

I guess you could say that the development of the cuckold motif in the history of drama and comedy is a good indicator that we still have a long way to go towards equality. Still, I think I prefer to see it as a testiment to the genius of Leoncavallo, rather than to the backwards nature of today’s cultural perception of gender, that his tragic comedy Pagliacci still feels so intensely relevant today.

The Apostrophic Prop – My five favourite inanimate objects in operas

Opera props. They don’t get the grand arias, and yet they often manage to steal the show. Below are five examples.

5. “Vecchia zimarra” – Colline’s coat in La Bohème
I’m including this one because it’s probably one of the most famous instances of an inanimate object taking center stage in an opera, and it illustrates quite well how an object can be useful in the story of an opera.

The element of surprise is an important factor here. Opera makes much use of the apostrophe – the idea of addressing someone who is absent or dead (or dying). We’re used to opera characters expressing their yearning for their lover (like Rodolfo in “Ah, Mimì, tu più non torni”) or their native country (like Aida with “O patria mia”) or praying to an – absent – god, like Norma’s “Casta Diva”. But when a character is suddenly addressing an inanimate object which, thus, becomes the apostrophe, it’s hard not to be taken by surprise and struck by the gesture. It seems unreasonable to be wasting that much attention on a stupid old coat when a woman is dying on stage at the same time.

But of course that’s exactly the effect that the composer and librettist are going with Colline. We’re thrown at first by the amount of attention Colline’s squandering on his measly piece of clothing, but once we recover we understand all the more fully the miserable poverty which is at the core of the La Bohème story. No one should have to be that attached to a coat, and certainly no one should have to make the choice between a warm coat in the winter and medicine for a dying friend.

4. “La tua fanciulla io sono” – The handkerchief in Otello
If there is something silly about the attention paid to the coat in La Bohème, the attention paid to the handkerchief in Otello is downright grotesque. Otello and Desdemona share such a great, solid love, and yet something as thin and flimsy as a handkerchief is able to come between them, and this point adds considerably to the feeling of tragedy in the story. Shakespeare always had a great eye for little details like these, but I think Verdi added a lot to this particular opera MacGuffin in his opera. The handkerchief appears in several scenes throughout the opera, the Emilia/Iago/Desdemona/Otello quartet with the handkerchief in its center being the most interesting of these, I think. Like in Verdi’s much more famous quartetBella figlia dell’amore” from Rigoletto, we get to hear the confusing, conflicting thoughts of four different individuals all at once, as the wretched, fatal little handkerchief changes hands for the first time in the opera:

(from circa 06:29)

The handkerchief-MacGuffin impressed Puccini sufficiently that he included a reference to it in his Tosca. “Iago had a handkerchief, I have a fan” says Scarpia, as he schemes to make a fan come between Tosca and her lover Mario.

3. “Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst” – The Severed head of John the Baptist in Salome
Sometimes the fascination of the apostrophic inanimate object in an opera stems from the fact that the object is in fact inanimate, that is, not living. This is the case in Richard Strauss gruelling opera Salome in which Salome addresses the severed head of John the Baptist:

The scene is horrifying because we, the audience, are all too aware that the bloody, lifeless, severed head that Salome is clutching can serve as nothing more than an apostrophe. Yet Salome insists that it is not an apostrophe, that Jochanan is there, sensitive to her touch, and her lips pressed against his.

Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen, Jochanaan! Wohl, ich werde ihn jetzt küssen! Ich will mit meinen Zähnen hineinbeißen, wie man in eine reife Frucht beißen mag. Ja, ich will ihn jetzt küssen, deinen Mund, Jochanaan. Ich hab’ es gesagt. Hab’ ich’s nicht gesagt? Ja, ich hab’ es gesagt. Ah! Ah! Ich will ihn jetzt küssen … Aber warum siehst du mich nicht an, Jochanaan? Deine Augen, die so schrecklich waren, so voller Wut und Verachtung, sind jetzt geschlossen. Warum sind sie geschlossen? Öffne doch die Augen, erhebe deine Lider, Jochanaan! Warum siehst du mich nicht an? Hast du Angst vor mir, Jochanaan, daß du mich nicht ansehen willst? (….) Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ah! Ich habe ihn geküßt deinen Mund, es war ein bitterer Geschmack auf deinen Lippen. Hat es nach Blut geschmeckt? Nein! Doch es schmeckte vielleicht nach Liebe … Sie sagen, daß die Liebe bitter schmecke … Allein, was tut’s? Was tut’s? Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ich habe ihn geküßt, deinen Mund.

2. “L’ho perduta! Me meschina!” The pin in Le Nozze di Figaro
Brrrrr! Ok, on to something a bit lighter: Le Nozze di Figaro. This opera buffa is basically one big scheme, and a pin plays a quite important part in it. Susanna, while trying to trick the lustful Count into thinking she’ll meet him in the garden for a tête-a-tête later that night, hands the Count a letter sealed with a pin that he must give back to her as a confirmation of their date. Barbarina is charged with the responsibility of bringing the pin back to Susanna, but she loses it. Despite not quite grasping the significance of the pin, she is devastated and naively tells Figaro of her blunder. Figaro doesn’t realise that Susanna is merely playing an elaborate prank on the Count and gets jealous out of his mind.

There’s a bit of the Otello handkerchief atmosphere going on here, what with all the marital problems and jealousy, but it’s quite obviously played for laughs by Mozart and librettist da Ponte. “L’ho perduta, me meschina” is a much too beautiful and solemn aria to be sung about a silly little pin, and the use of a pin as a prop on stage has great comedic potential: It’s way to small to ever actually be seen from the audience seats. There is also something ridiculously phallic about the image of a pin (consider Burt Bacarach’s song lyrics: “What do you get when you fall in love?/A guy with a pin to burst your bubble”), and indeed Danish director Kasper Holten once staged a version of Figaro in which it was obvious that Barbarina was singing about the loss of, well, her bubble to the Count’s, ahem, pin. Finally, there is the possible slap-stick gag of a character accidentally pricking his finger on the pin, which does in fact happen to the Count as he is first handed Susanna’s note. This causes him to deliver my all-time favourite random throw-away line in an opera:

“Ugh, women are always putting pins everywhere!”

1. The embroidered jersey – Peter Grimes
The one opera prop that truly gets to me, however, is the knitted jersey from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. Ellen Orford and Grimes’ friend Balstrode find a small jersey that has washed up on shore, and by its special ornamental embroidery Ellen recognises it as a jersey she knitted for Grimes’ young boy apprentice. Grimes’ previous apprentice died in accidental circumstances, and Balstrode and Ellen Orford have tried hard to defend Grimes against the claims that Grimes was responsible, but the washed up jersey forces them to face the fact that Grimes has, whether wittingly or not, brought death upon yet another child.

Embroidery in childhood was
A luxury of idleness.
A coil of silken thread giving
Dreams of a silk and satin life.
Now my broidery affords
The clue whose meaning we avoid.
My hand remembered its old skill –
These stitches tell a curious tale.
I remember I was brooding
On the fantasies of children
And dreamt that only by wishing I
Could bring some silk into their lives.
Now my broidery affords
The clue whose meaning we avoid.

A silk and satin life – the ornamental anchor that Ellen stitched on the jersey holds such a heartbreaking significance. The purpose of the jersey was to keep the apprentice warm enough for him to perform his duties at sea. But the purpose of the stitched anchor was to show the boy that he was cared for, that he was human. The aria reminds me of a passage from Alice Munro’s short story “Privilege” about the significance of a series of bird illustrations amid the ruthless, merciless conditions at the early-20th-century provinsial school of Rose, the young protagonist:

“One thing in the school was captivating, lovely. Pictures of birds. Rose didn’t know if the teacher had climbed up and nailed them above the blackboard, too high for easy desecration, if they were her first and last hopeful effort, or if they dated from some earlier, easier time in the school’s history. Where had they come from, how had they arrived there, when nothing else did, in the way of decoration, illustration?
A red-headed woodpecker; an oriole; a blue jay; a Canada goose. The colors clear and long-lasting. Backgrounds of pure snow, of blossming braches, of heady summer sky. In an ordinary classroom they would not have seemed so extraordinary. Here they were bright and eloquent, so much at variance with everything else that what they seemed to represent was not the birds themselvess, not those skies and snows, but some other world of hardy innocence, bounteous information, privileged lightheartedness. No stealing form lunchpails there; no slashing coats; no pulling down pants and probing with painful sticks,; no fucking…”

If the surroundings are reducing indivduals to dispensable things to be used and discarded, if accusations and verbal abuse has taken the place of dialogue, then the communication through the inanimate object becomes the only means of expressing love, and hope, and recognition.  And there’s so much of that in Ellen’s aria here: Her love for Peter, her hopes for a happy life with him, and her recognition of John, the apprentice, as a fellow human being who might want something pretty to look at.

Is it still burning?

I had a terrible nightmare last night about a raging fire. I couldn’t figure out why I had dreamt about a fire, until I remembered that I’d watched this incredible and highly effective new commercial for the Royal Danish Theatre, that Annina Teatime also blogs about today.

In the commercial, one of the royal actors recounts a dream he had about a fire consuming the old theatre. “It was horrible – and beautiful!” he says. “Is it still burning?” whispers his young actor colleage when the curtain is about to go up.

It’s apparently not embeddable in WordPress, but here it is.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Opera – My Top-5 Chart of Opera Moments

Last night I took The Boyfriend to the Opera for the first time, to see Don Carlos. The Boyfriend is not an operafan, he had only ever seen one opera prior to the one last night, and it hadn’t been much of a success. So I was of course a tad nervous about what he’d think of his second go at the genre, and maybe that’s why I found myself talking non-stop during the break about why the King Philip’s aria in the third act is the best operatic music ever written, what other scenes in other operas were my favourites, and why, in general, opera is a great, great art form, complete with my arms flailing wildly and me mimicking like a crazy person, eager to get the message through.

After the fact I realized, of course, that I could have spared myself a lot of that flailing and mimicking, had I only waited to give him this lengthy lecture ’till we were in the vicinity of a computer. Because, seriously, after youtube.com has been invented there is really no need for trying to describe anyone anything any more: You just click on that youtube icon on your Favourites link, do a search, and show them what the hell you’re talking about. It’s all there.

And so, I’ve decided to do a top-5 chart of my favourite opera moments, here on this blog, so that I may show my boyfriend, and anyone else interested, exactly what the hell I’m talking about when I talk about opera. Each opera moment will be illustrated with the courtesy of youtube, and described by me.

5. “Deh vieni, non tardar” – Le Nozze di Figaro

This aria from the fourth act of The Marriage of Figaro is lovely. There is no other word for it. Seductive, smooth and flexible, the sound of it flows like a cool breeze through a garden on a warm summer night. 

After her marriage to her beloved Figaro, a valet, chamber maid Susanna has snuck into the castle’s garden where she’s conspiring with her lady, the Countess, to play a trick on The Count, who’s been neglecting his loving wife and pursuing Susanna, who wants nothing to do with him. However, as Susanna realizes that Figaro is in the garden, too, furiously and wrongly believing Susanna to be about to, well, “perform her feudal duties” with their master, Susanna decides to get back at her jealous spouse by showing herself from her most seductive side, thus enraging him further.

And well she succeeds! To me, Susanna is easily the sexiest among operatic heroines, with her shrewd mind, tough will, witty tongue and attractive appearance, and all of these virtues shine through in this aria, where she lets her soprano slides like sweet caresses from one note to the other, all the while never loosing sight of the tricks she’s playing on the two men in her life; the Count and Figaro. The woodwinds in the orchestration are deliciously ambiguous, harking both of the enchanting scene that Susanna is describing in her aria (murmering streams, laughing flowers and fresh turf), and of Susanna’s surpressed giggles at her own scheme. 

I’m not crazy about Susanna’s heavy-looking costume in the above clip, but the scenery and the dark-blue light are very nice!

4. “Tutte le feste al tempio” – Rigoletto

If I were to make up the most humiliating and morfifying scenario possible, I think it would be having to live through a very unpleasant sexual encounter, only to be faced immediately afterwards with my father, who, as I would learn only in that same instant, was actually a court jester, complete with a hat with little bells on it.

These, exactly, are the circumstances in this very moving scene from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Gilda, who’s been overly protected by her father to the point where she hasn’t even known what his name was or what he did for a living, has just learned about the birds and the bee the hard way: She has been abducted to the castle of the Duke of Mantova, and the Duke (whom she believed to be a poor student who was madly in love with her) has date-raped her, and when she finally escapes she finds her father there, – dressed up ridiculously in a court jester’s outfit! And he’s asking her to tell her what just happened to her! “Heaven, lend me courage!” exclaims Gilda before starting her recount of her sufferings, and one certainly can’t blame her.

The recount she delievers is the mournful, minor-key aria found in the first 3:40 minutes of the above youtube file, and I think it’s incredibly beautiful. It contains all the fragility, uncertainty, immense joy, and terrible sadness of the Gilda character, who’s the epitome of all the naive-and-abused, young women this world has ever held.

The remaining four minutes of the youtubed video show Rigoletto’s desperation upon learning of his daughter’s dishonour, and subsequently his very moving attempt at comforting her sorrow.  I like both Andrea Rost’s and Paolo Gavanelli’s performance in this seemingly very traditional staging of the opera. (Even if I think that Gilda’s nightgown could have been a little more risqué than it is. She’s very demure-looking for a recent date-rape victim).

3. The Final scene of Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin is a relatively new aquaintance to me.

I first saw the opera last Spring in a Copenhagen cinema, where the staging of the above clip was shown on the big screen. I was there with an opera-loving friend, and neither of us were prepared for the impact the opera had on us. After the first act, we were both very much affected by the rejection that Tatiana lived through, and ended up spending the entire break relating to her pain and discussing painful rejections that we had lived through ourselves. And, familiar the storyline of Eugene Onegin, we were both looking forward to the final scene, where Eugene Onegin re-enters an older, married Tatiana’s life, only to be rejected by her, even though she still loves him. “That ought to show that haughty jerk!”, we agreed, anticipating sweet, by-proxy revenge over the men who had hurt us “Then he’ll regret his own arrogance!”

But then, when we did reach the final act, what we found was that there was no victory in her rejection – at all. Tatiana was miserable and not triumphant in the least, when she rejected Eugene Onegin. And contemplating their desperate last duet with each other, we fully forgave him, too. Because revenge isn’t sweet at all, and no triumphant haughtiness could ever make up for the pain of lost love. Which is a beautiful message, but a heart-wrenching one, too. My friend and I were both moved to tears and were visibly trembling when the lights in the theatre went up again after Eugene’s “O, lamentable fate!” and the opera’s dramatic final cords. She and I had to take a long walk afterwards to steady ourselves, we were that shaken. I’ll never forget that day.

I think the above staging, with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky is absolutely brilliant, and I can’t imagine it being done better than this. The scenography and the costumes are simple, but bear impact, Renée Fleming is wonderfully sweet in the part of bold daydreamer Tatiana, Hvorostovsky is every bit as haughty as he should be, and the two of them have magnificient chemistry. Bravi! Also, *sob*.

2. “La povera mia cena fu interrotta” – Tosca

I love that thing they often do in operas, where they pretend to do be casually chit-chatting, all the while they’re totally hating each other or scheming against each other. Eboli and Rodrigo do it in Don Carlos, too, Ieronimus and Leonard do it in Masquerade, and Iago and Cassio do it in Otello.

No one, however does it better or more interestingly than Tosca and Scarpia in Tosca, I think. “My humble dinner was interrupted” says Scarpia, which is just such a wonderful euphemism for what just happened –  Scarpia has violently interrogated Tosca’s political rebel boyfriend right in front of her, and, upon his continuous denials, has had his guards dragging him off to be executed! Dramatic Floria Tosca is not a good actress in real life, so of course she can only keep up the chit-chat for so long before she once again interrupts Scarpia’s dinner. “How much [money do you want]!”, she snaps at Scarpia, in the hopes of buying Mario, her boyfriend, free. Ah, but Scarpia doesn’t want her money, he says, he wants something else – namely her; her body. Scarpia is still terrifyingly matter-of-fact when he proposes this gruesome negotiation, but it doesn’t last: Soon his desire for Tosca shines through his slick conversational skills, and he throws himself at Tosca, with a druggingly passionate claim, leaving Tosca to understand that more than negotiating with cold, corrupted chief of police, she’s dealing with a sadistic maniac: “Already in the past I burned with passion for the diva. But the way you’ve been tonight, I have never seen you before. Your tears were lava to my senses, and that fierce hatred that your eyes shot at me only fanned the fire in my blood.”

In other words, the more she hates him, the more she rejects and fights him, the more he wants to get it on with her. Ick! The most claustrophobic moment is reached when Tosca, desperate to escape Scarpia and his devilish suggestion, cries: “I hate you, vile person!”. “All the same to me,” groans Scarpia, “- spasms of anger, or spasms of passion…!” The scene ends with the eerie sound of the scaffold drums beating for Mario outside the window that Tosca vainly threatens to jump out of, as Scarpia advices Tosca to think over his proposition veeeery carefully…

It doesn’t get much better than this, drama-wise, I think. Tosca is desperate, and Scarpia is so scary, yet grotesquely alluring in his raging passion. The subsequent scene with Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte” is very popular, but I’m actually not too fond of it. To me it halts the action in an otherwise perfectly composed, action-packed second act, and brings too much attention to Tosca, whose diva-like psychology I regard as insignificant to the story. To me, Tosca is the story depicting the movements of a society where a conservative reign is giving way under the pressure of a rapidly growing rebellion, and as such, the diva Floria Tosca only represents the goods that each party hope to gain; love, beauty, art, popularity. Floria Tosca is Mario the rebel’s boyfriend because the times they are a-changing in Rome, and the rebels are starting to win. And when the old, losing regime, represented by Scarpia, realizes this, they do what an oppressive regime always does when threatened: They use violence to get what they want. It’s this political movement that we see in the second act of Tosca, brilliantly depicted through the struggle of a woman against the sick passions of a sadistic man.

The staging shown in this clip, featuring Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, is from a very popular recorded staging of Tosca, but I have to say that I’m not all that crazy about it. I prefer the 2002 Jacquot Tosca movie, in which Ruggero Raimondi shines enough in the part of Scarpia to make up for the fact that Angela Georghiu and Roberto Alagna are totally hamming it up. (I do like the way Gobbi grabs his man-boobs upon singing about Tosca’s tears being like lava to his senses, though! :D)

1. “Ella giammai m’amo” – Don Carlos

This is my bring-to-a-desert-island aria. As I explained to The Boyfriend, arm-flailingly, last night; this aria simply contains all human misery. All the misery of humankind, worked into one, amazing aria. Aging King Philip, realizing that his wife doesn’t love him, finds himself old and unloved, and destined for a lonely death, a death that will offer him the only peace he will ever be able to find. Accordingly the music of the aria moves from anguish at his broken heart, over a lento march of sorrow at the thought of his own royal funeral, and on to an agitato wish to rise above his human form and be a God, who might look into the heart of his wife, of Elisabetta, the heart that will always be closed to him. It doesn’t get any more moving than this, I think. Verdi’s music is brilliant, and I love the lyric’s subtle use of the colour of white as something threatening: The youthful, pale light of dawn that awakens Philip from his reveries, his own white hair that Elisabetta contemplated sadly when she received him as her husband. Absolutely perfect.

I like the staging of the youtubed video, although I think it’s a shame that the editor has left out the first few bars of the prelude to the aria – this is one of those arias where the anticipation of the prelude forms a complete symbiosis with the release of sentiment that the aria delievers. I love the EMI recording of the opera with Ruggero Raimondi sining Philip: Raimondi beautifully climaxes with a powerful forte at the final, desperate outcry “Amor per me non ha!”.

/marie

Halloween Posting – “Vous Qui Faites l’Endormie”

Edited because I posted the same video twice… 

I am really sorry that I’ve been so inactive here at the blog lately. Things have been busy ‘s all. I don’t have time for much posting right now either, but seeing as tonight is Halloween, I thought I’d just pop in and post something appropriately spooky.

The spooky item in question is the aria “Vous qui faites l’endormie” from Gounod’s Faust, an aria I’ve always been very fond of.

The aria is sung by Mephisto, but what I particularly like about it is that it’s not a through-and-through testimony of evil and darkness like Iago’s credo in Otello (the music of which I always loved, but which I always had issues with, lyrics-wise, but that’s another story). Rather, Mephisto’s aria is a truly devilish mix of seduction and horror. Because the aria actually presents three different viewpoints: (1) a serenader’s, addressing a young woman and appealing to her to resist her lanquishing lover, (2) a narrator, coolly recounting the course of the events, (3) and a third person warning the addressed girl to resist the young man:

“You who are supposed to be asleep
Don’t you hear,
O, Catherine, my sweetheart,
Don’t you hear my voice and the patter of my feet?”
Thus your lover calls you
And your heart believes him. Hahaha!
Don’t open your door, my beauty,
until that ring is on your finger.”
 

The second stanza follows the same structure:

“Catherine, whom I adore,
why would you refuse
from your love who begs you
why refuse such a sweet kiss?”
Thus pleads your lover
and your hearts believes him. Ha ha ha!
Don’t give a kiss, my sweetheart,
till that ring is on your finger

It’s this neutrality, achieved through the polysonic nature of the aria, that’s so scary, I think. To use a modern term for it; it seems psycopathic, the way the narrator is able to step in and out of characters like that. And of course given the context of the aria, as well as Mephisto’s laugh, it all serves as a cruel mockery of character Marguerite: At this point in the opera, Marguerite has already opened her door (in every possible Freudian or literal definition of the term) to her lover; she has not waited for the ring on her finger, and she has become pregnant with her lover’s baby and is now in a desperate situation.

I rather like the version of the aria linked to in this post. It’s Ferrucio Furlanetto singing Mephisto, and I like the aesthetic effect of the gloomily lit hall, and the symbolic value of Mephiso being dressed as the perfect stunt-double for Faust.

Another, even more interesting-looking version is this one:

Sublime Bryn Terfel (who is, in my opinion, the definition of a larger-than-life stage personality) is a much more stoic and solemn Mephisto than any Mephisto I’ve ever seen, and it works very well in contrast to the fumbling, overdosing Faust (Roberto Alagna) in the background. 

Make sure to catch the last thirty seconds of the clip – there’s some delicious HoYay! going on between Mephisto and Faust, complete with Terfel fondling Alagna, which is a scenario I never, ever could have enviosioned. :)

Happy Halloween!

/marie

Replay: Veronika by Xofia

Copenhagen is not compltely lost when it comes to underground theatre, so proves theatre group Xofia’s latest staging REPLAY Veronika. I attended the performance in May and was very impressed with this thougtprovoking and inspired staging.

REPLAY Veronika 

The play was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake, the idea that a lapse in time could occur, setting history for a period of time, and thus suspending man’s free will momentarily. In REPLAY Veronika such a phenomenon occurs, resulting in the repetition of eight years (1999-2007), and main character Veronika is the only one in the world who preserves her free will and thus her ability to change her fate as of November 14 2007, the date that marks the occurence of the timequake.

The play queries the idea of a free will as Veronika, even when given the opportunity to change a less than desirable destiny, chooses to a large degree to follow the road already taken, and it does so in a fresh and sympathetically unresolved manner, leaving the ending open and inviting the audience to make a guess as to what will follow. It’s a kind of like a modern Everyman play, one might say, drawing on latter-day mythology in lieu of the lorn Christianity-inspired gallery of characters of medieval mystery plays. Veronika (Birgit Ulla Uldall-Ekman) with her mirroring surarium-name is Everywoman and the object of identification, God-like character Time (Sara Damgaard Andersen) embodies the much-worshipped media holding the remote control to a flat-screen monitor and effectively rewinds and fast-forwards, Lev (Bjørn Vikkelsø) is Veronika’s road-not-taken personified as the passionate, distant man in her life, contrasted by earthbound, button-down-shirted husband Jakob (Asger Kjær Pedersen),  and clingy girlfriend Lily (Stina Mølgaard Pedersen), while The Stranger (Ulf Rathjen Kring Hansen) is an anon.-angelic kind of helper, dressed very appropriately like a film-noir informant in a hat and cottoncoat. It’s hard not to identify with Veronika as the years flash by in the course of about 80 minutes, relating to her story as well as (re-)considering one’s own actions and choices of the 1999-2007 time-span.

The art direction is very effective; the stage settings show the inside of an apartment, ambiguously decorated so that it reflects both claustrophic conformity and wall-paper-tattering rebellion, and I especially love the aforementioned flat-screen monitor: The rewinding and fast-forwarding is a brilliantly tangible way of presenting the passing of time, and I have always been a total sucker for the use of multi-media in modern theatre. I think it’s such a great Michel-Foucault-”Des espaces autres” way of depicting the juxtaposition of spaces, and such a juxtaposition is naturally relevant in a performance on the subject of life choices and dimensional displacement.

Finally, it was great to see a theatre make such great use of the programmes for their productions! Xofia’s visual designer Søren Meisner (also in charge of the absolutely awesome web design at xofia.dk) has done a magnificent job with the layout, and his poster (the above picture) is a rare example of promotional art offering an interpretation of and thus interacting with the stage performance.

/marie