Murder in Opera

Article by James Naughtie

Opera can almost be defined as the art form that boasts more often of its ability to defy domestic limits. It spreads itself and demands an involvement that should get in return a commitment to the extreme emotions. Bellini said that all opera-goers should have carved inside their heads a motto reminding them that the performance must “draw tears, terrify people, make them die through singing.” He spent his time trying to put beautiful tunes on paper, and hearing angelic voices in his head, but knew that when the curtains parted he was expected to do it all in colours that were vivid and blood-stained. If you’re a nervous and polite soul, you should have nothing to do with opera.

So murder is quite natural. When Adriana sniffs the poisoned violets, it is nothing more than we expect. The characters who inhabit the operatic stage have lives that almost demand exists of that sort, preceded by the traditional moments of recovery just before the end to allow the singing of a last aria. One of the joys of opera is that no veils are drawn over the dark side of life: indeed you could say that the point of opera is to bathe these dark places in light.

When people ask opera goers to explain their attraction to melodrama and blood-soaked plots, I often feel that the best answer is the most obvious one. It feels real. Strange and manufactured though some of these characters are, and weird though some of the settings and pseudo-historical backgrounds may be, the opera stage is a place where emotions can pretend to be true, without the awkward conventions of life that we tend to call normal. You know when you go into the theatre that you will see a story that you are unlikely to hear unfold next door but that it will touch you because in its drama you can still sense an intimate humanity. It means that murder, though it would terrify us if we came across it, can be accommodated.

If you look at this year’s Opera Holland Park season, from comedy in La Rondine to the passion of Les pecheurs de perles and the familiar gloom of Don Giovanni, you can sense that completeness that opera provides. A thin slice of life is never enough. Somehow it has to reach towards a bigger view, in which anything less than the most profound emotions can seem inadequate. There are many operas – especially comedies, for obvious reasons – where you don’t expect the stage to be cluttered with dead bodies. It would be odd if Albert Herring ended with a village massacre. Yet the power of the form lies in its ambition to plunge into the depths whenever it can and to present them as pictures of life that don’t seem as remote from our own experience as we would like to believe.

This is not a trick that needs to be done in the grand manner. If you spend four nights, and twelve hours, with the Ring you are taken into a world of wraiths ad slimy creatures, dwarves and giants, incest and destructive love, heroism and deceit. A new universe springs out of the first bars and subjects itself to fire at the end. Most operas don’t compete with that ambition, but they have the same spirit of adventure. Nothing is impossible; everything can seem real; the bizarre can become the everyday. This is a magic spell that works.

Why should Adriana require a murder? It does and no-one could suggest that it is an important piece of theatre, tacked on to give the piece an ending. On the contrary the theatrical death in the embrace of the congratulatory bouquet is the most natural operatic death imaginable. From those rapid opening bars and the stage chatter that introduces the opera, Cilea’s quicksilver score demands a moment of blazing personal drama at the end, a piece of grand guignol with soul.  Adriana’s end would only be uncomfortable if she died in a more normal way. Why would we bother?

W.H. Auden once said that the power of opera lay in its ability to create a willful and passionate state of being. He went on the say this of great operatic characters – he mentioned Giovanni, Tosca, Lucia, Tristan, Isolde and Brunnhilde: “In real life they would all be bores, even Don Giovanni.” Even if we don’t believe the total that is added up in the catalogue aria, I’m not sure that is true. But leave him aside. The truth is that we cannot imagine any of these figures in our lives; despite the hours of passionate embrace we have with them and the time we spend looking forward to meeting them again. They float in a different sphere, where poisoned violets or the dagger in the night or the plunge from the battlements is the natural way of bringing to an end an argument or a passage of despair. The difference between someone who dips into an opera or approaches it tentatively for the first time, and those who come back for more, is that the necessity of that depth and violence has become obvious.

Wagner was famously obsessed with demonstrating that music and character and drama and words could be fused into something that would be transcendent. Opera’s triumph is in demonstrating that you don’t have to submerge yourself in the waters of the Rhine and the mountain fastnesses of gods and giants to understand his point. As long as the drama can lift you out of the here-and-now, it will work. The dark chords of Don Giovanni transpose the salons and the alleys of the plot into something where it would not be peculiar to have dinner with a statute. The score acts like an alchemist’s potion, turning base things into things that shine. And in that world, we don’t only find ourselves willing to accept that bad things happen, we want them to happen.

This comes about because the false world created on the stage isn’t false at all. Strange characters they may be, but the wheel of fire on which they’re bound is the same as ours. They can perform many revolutions in the course of an evening, while our own progress is snail-like, but their experiences touch us because we suspect that even if we don’t expect to be killed in a swordfight, or sent to hell by a moving statue, or be poisoned by a bunch of violets. We understand the shape of the arch, the movement from innocence the sweetness of that question.

The trick is worked, of course, because we aren’t lectured from the opera stage. We’re seduced. Though we want it to happen, we have a natural human resistance to the idea that such exotic characters can be trapped in such an electrically-charged world where within half an hour they can move from contemplation to war, or from hate to melting love. As an argument, it wouldn’t work. Music changes everything by inventing new rules for the world. In a few bars, passions rise and fall, fortunes wax and wane, armies rise and retreat. Great music has the power to change our understanding of time to imposing its own frame, and it works best when it deals with life in a fashion that, outside the theatre, we try to avoid. Often, that means death.

How could Adriana Lecouvreur end without an unfair and violent death? You might as well ask how Tosca might be expected to rumble Scarpia in Act II, how Carmen might understand that Don Jose was bad news from the start, and how, in I Pagliacci, Canio should know from the start that Nedda was bound to die and he’d be left holding a bloody knife over Silvio’s body. The point is that they do know and when Canio says at the end of Pagliacci “La commedia e finite” he is speaking with terrible irony.  Lives are finished, and blood is flowing, but the whole comedy of life is bound to go on.

Without that tragic understanding, opera could not make sense. Daft people doing daft things don’t make good drama, and there are many great operas that no one could imagine being adapted successfully for the “straight” stage.  They would seem absurd. So character and plot have to be transformed, in the way that has happened with so many stage dramas which have caught the eye of a great librettist or composer and been turned through music into something where the rules of the game allow so much more. In the right hands, the most unlikely things can happen naturally.

We know this can happen without a fanfare. You don’t need a Wagnerian weight to turn the world to your purpose. It does, however, require boldness. An opera that shies away from the violent consequences of love betrayed, or treats the trust between brothers or comrades-in-arms as cheap, will not seem like an opera at all. These emotions have to rise up and take on a life that seems out of the ordinary but reflects the secret life that the audience has within.

That, of course, is why people cry at the opera. It’s not because of a good tune – thought it’s as good a reason as any for crying – but because in an over-the-top swaggering and unapologetic way the music-drama is representing to the audience a life that is more familiar than the plot would often have us believe.  In a dingy Sicilian village, or a wild nineteenth century theatre, or a seduction-palace in Seville, this is a world we recognise because the axis on which it turns is the same as our own. We may not know people like this (all the pseudo-Don Giovannis of my acquaintance have been even bigger liars than da Ponte’s) but we understand the passions that drive them and the horror that, so often they bring on themselves.

Death, therefore, is essential.  Opera is no place for the quiet shuffle away from the dark. If this kind of drama is going to use music to transform a story into something deeper and somehow more complete, it can hardly avoid the sweep of life from innocence to death. Anything less in opera seems a bit of a cheat, unless it’s that rare construction – a perfect comedy. And they, of course, are dark by nature too.

So throughout this summer the wonderfully craggy outline of the Holland Park Theare is the setting for drama that sits happily in that fading light and occasional chill wind to the sound of those amorous peacocks that we know so well. The music starts; the light begins to go; a different kind of world lights up. The reason we come is that we want to spend a few hours in that world and feel its visceral grip again. These are nights for the big emotions, not the whimper of puppy love. People need to love – and to die.

Sometimes people come to opera with a sense of wonderment at the love of the melodramatic and violent that seems to spring from the put every time a conductor raises the baton. They wonder – why do people always die? Well, people do die. That’s what happens. All that opera does is to turn the business of life that we usually leave just under the surface into the main plot itself. We want to watch it and to hear it because we know that opera’s claim is true. These are the things that move us; these are the deepest feelings.

Assassination? Murder? The death of a lover? Opera can make them seem the most natural thing in the world. That secretly, is why we love it.