• Random Operatic Observations

      1 Bravos & Boos (Comments)

    Sometimes I have operatic thoughts that I want to share, but that are too short to make into full articles. Today I decided ‘Why not post them anyway?’ So here are three of my random observations.

     

    This is a less formal piece than my reviews, so I hope no one minds my use of terms from TVTropes.org, that all-too-addictive wiki. It’s not exactly the most sophisticated source, but I’m a modern young person and those terms have seeped into my vocabulary.

                                                                                                                           

     

    Silk Hiding Steel                                                                      

    TVTropes.org says that Madama Butterfly is the perfect example of how not to write a “proper Japanese woman” character (“Yamato Nadeshiko” is the classic Japanese term for that type), because Butterfly “completely lacks the required core of steel” that’s a part of the ideal in actual Japanese culture. Not just there, but in various places, I’ve repeatedly heard her described with such phrases as “the weaker sex at its weakest.” Is that really true, though?

     

    I’ll admit, I’m in no position to talk because I’m not Japanese. I know that Butterfly is regularly labeled an offensive stereotype and understandably so. But fragile and painfully naïve though she is, I don’t think she’s a complete wilting lily or helpless kitten. If she were completely weak, would she wait so steadfastly for Pinkerton for three years, despite pressure from all sides to give up? Would she cope so effortlessly with being disowned by her family? Is she weak when she not only rejects Yamadori but does so with amused contempt, not the least bit swayed or intimidated by his wealth and status? Is she weak when she physically attacks Goro for slandering her child as illegitimate? Is she weak when she rounds on Suzuki in rage for daring to suggest that Pinkerton won’t come back? Is she weak when she nearly throws Sharpless out of her house for the same offense? (Yes, I know I shouldn’t assume that anger equals strength, but still, if she were a total fragile flower, wouldn’t she just cry instead?) Is she weak when she so calmly and bravely agrees to give up her child for the child’s own good? (Yes, I know a lot of commentators seize on the wording, “I must obey him,” as a sign of weakness, but I’ve always gotten the sense that she means “obey him for the child’s sake”; I’ve never seen her as just succumbing to pressure.) Is she weak when (yes, I’m venturing into very debatable territory) she so calmly and bravely plunges a dagger into her neck rather than lose her honor?

     

    As far as I’m concerned, she does have a core of steel. She just tragically misuses it, by staying fiercely loyal to the wrong man and by pushing away the people who give her good advice. She’s no feminist role model, but she’s more complex than she’s often given credit for being.

     

     

    Irony at the Movies

    Several days after I saw the movie Quartet, an interesting detail dawned on me that I’m surprised was never commented on in the movie itself. The roles that all four main characters would have sung in Rigoletto, and thus in the all-important quartet, are the opposites of their “real-life” personalities.

     

    In the case of the two men, the funny, flirtatious Billy Connolly character would have played the brooding, tragic anti-hero Rigoletto, while the serious, straight-laced Tom Courtenay character would have played the cheerfully womanizing Duke! In the case of the women, Maggie Smith’s diva with a checkered past would have played the sweet ingénue Gilda, while the sweet, quirky Pauline Collins character would have played the murderous femme fatale Maddalena! And of course, the action of the quartet involves Gilda discovering that the Duke is cheating on her, when in the singers’ real life, she cheated on him!

     

    I don’t know if this is remarked on in the original play the movie is based, but I’m almost positive it’s never mentioned in the movie. Just a little bit of Fridge Brilliance, as they say on TVTropes.

     

     

    Alternate Character Interpretations

    It amazes me how differently the same characters in the same operas can be interpreted by different scholars, directors, etc. The Mozart and Da Ponte operas, in particular, are so open to interpretation that no two productions feel quite the same.

     

    For example, Le Nozze di Figaro… it’s so easy to view Susanna as the strong heroine and the Countess as the fragile one. I’ve read at least one analysis that favored that interpretation as part of the opera’s political message: they wrote that Susanna’s strength compared to the Countess’s weakness is yet another way that the servants are superior to the aristocrats. Yet in the character descriptions at the beginning of Aria-Database.com’s translation of the libretto, the Countess is labeled the strongest character in the opera: another case of Silk Hiding Steel, though they don’t use that wording. Rossini and Cesare Sterbini obviously leaned more toward that interpretation when they adapted prequel Barber of Seville and made their Rosina just as spunky as Mozart’s Susanna!

     

    And the finale… I can hardly believe how contradictory some of the different interpretations are! One book I once read (I don’t remember the title or the author) argued that while Figaro and Susanna have beautifully overcome a crisis with their marriage probably stronger as a result, the Count and Countess’s reconciliation is just an empty public ritual that they’ve probably enacted many times before and will enact many times again. But in The Opera News Book of Figaro, Joseph Kerman insists that their reconciliation is truly, mutually sincere and heartfelt, and that their marriage, for all its turmoil, may actually be stronger than Figaro and Susanna’s. And yes, both books offer musical support for their viewpoints. I have no idea which one is closer to Mozart and Da Ponte’s real intent.

     

    It’s fascinating to see the exact same music and libretto make such different impressions on different people!

    • Totally agree re Cio-Cio-San. She stands up to her family, her culture, etc. Think this comes off best when she’s dressed ‘American’ in Act 2 – which is exactly what she would’ve done.

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