Life as it is really lived – in opera

Article by Tom Sutcliffe

Some people think opera has nothing to do with ordinary life at all – that it is about self-important people who are bent on over-dramatising themselves, and usually shout to make sure you have got the drift of what they want to tell you. If your idea of opera came from a book like Wayne Kostenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat, you will expect it all to be about bizarre eccentrics going over the top; and if you have supped deep of Catherine Clément’s feminist tract, Opera, or the undoing of women you will know that prima donnas’ stage-family life is noisy and brutal – and that operatic women are lucky to escape with their lives.

But this season’s operas at Holland Park are not like that at all. They are all about real ordinary people in everyday situations. It may be a couple of millennia since Gallic druidesses had the chance to have love affairs with generals from the conquering Roman army – the fraught reality that drives the plot of Norma. But the triangular relationship in Bellini’s sublime masterpiece is similar human territory to Luisa Miller and Le Nozze di Figaro. The secret emotions and betrayals of the mating game are explored in intimate detail through every single one of these six Holland Park operas.

One can categorise this season in various ways. There are four familiar and popular masterpieces and two rarities – Fanciulla del West and Luisa Miller. Four of the works are Italian, including two by Puccini – who described Fanciulla as “a second Bohème, only stronger, bolder and more spacious”. Figaro is also sung in Italian, of course, and the one non-Italian work, Die Fledermaus, is not in its original German but in English translation – a wise decision after Glyndebourne’s unfortunate experience last summer. Anyway, Johann Strauss’s satirical comedy has been familiar in English ever since it was first presented at the Alhambra Theatre in London in translation just 30 months after its Vienna premiere. It belongs in English as much as in German. In the 1950s Powell & Pressburger made it into a film called Oh, Rosalinda! with Michael Redgrave as Colonel Eisenstein and Anneliese Rothenburger as Adele.

Here is another category. Half the six operas have happy endings. Minnie and Dick Johnson ride off into the sunset in Puccini’s Western just like Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon. The Countess forgives the Count in the final scene of Figaro despite everything beastly he has done to her. Eisenstein is more or less reconciled to Rosalinde, despite the exposure of his rampant infidelity through all the disguises and mistaken identities of Fledermaus. But a few comparatively happy endings do not mean that the operas of this season are saying that love conquers all. We see that Norma’s honesty and continuing feeling for Pollione eventually reignite his affections – just in time for the pair to share stoically their mutual fate of being burnt alive on a sacrificial pyre. In Luisa Miller, based on Schiller’s great play Intrigue and Love, Luisa and Rodolfo respond to their inextricably complicated circumstances by simply taking poison in lemonade, and dying together: a sort of revenge on his corrupt father. And of course Mimi, in Puccini’s incorrigibly popular Bohème, cannot be saved from the tuberculosis, which casts a pall over the entire opera. Yet whether they are living or dying, all these relationships affirm romantic love in a terribly memorable way. They really do deliver, emotionally – and that is why people believe in and enjoy opera.

 Norma herself is the very model of the operatic diva. She suffers, and she shares her feelings with the audience compulsively through her singing. All opera is confessional – because the aria is by definition not generally a calculating communication, but something blurted out because it cannot be kept in. When people are stressed they are less able to be guarded and controlled in their utterance, and the sheer physicality of singing embodies and reflects that fact. Bellini’s greatest opera measures the intensity of the emotions that are working inside his characters with extraordinary clarity. In Norma the audience sees the tragic process in its absolutely classic form – there is that moment of recognition which comes to Norma when she realises that the man by whom she has had two children (despite her role as druid, and despite the antipathy between her people and the Roman invaders) is now in a passionate relationship with the young priestess Adalgisa, for whom Norma herself nevertheless has no feelings of hatred. In fact, the two most extraordinary qualities in Norma’s character are the occasion for the most famous scenes – first where she contemplates killing her two children conceived with Pollione, and secondly where – as a result of the way she confronts Adalgisa in an extraordinary duet – she knows that it is she who must reveal all to the whole community and take the blame and accept the punishment by fire. We see the pieces falling immovably into place that precede this final moment of recognition when she – like Oedipus – realises where the hand of fate is pointing. We may relish the grandeur of Bellini’s conception. But it is the painful intimacy of all these revelations that make this great opera so realistic and part of the normal human experience – and so devastating.

Puccini’s Fanciulla is an adorable work because of its unusual local colour – and because its spread of character types is broad and convincing. Even today nobody else has attempted to bring alive the world of pioneering America in operatic terms. Some of the music might probably have done just as well for Puccini in his oriental vein – still, red Indians are connected to Asia in their way, so that sense of all-purpose bustling musical activity does just as well for the golden west as for the mysterious east. Minnie and Mimi are very different characters – the heroine of Fanciulla is bursting with health, and a woman on her own who does not need a man to justify her presence and who can lay down a clear and credible view of how people ought to behave. It is a happy opera embodying the possibility of forgiveness and warning against quick moral conclusions. One woman against the world – who chooses to take up the “case” of an outcast. It is not hard to see why the special pleading that is at the centre of this story did not appeal to the public as much as the sometimes mawkish sentiments of La Bohème– though neither opera has any bad people in it, both are fundamentally optimistic and realistic about how the world is.

The story of Bohème is like a haphazard sequence of diary entries. The first two scenes appear contiguous yet they need not be. The first scene ends with Rodolfo and Mimi heading for the Café Momus to consummate their love socially in the appropriate environment, but when we get there it’s Christmas Eve and we are in the middle of a seasonal market of gifts and fantasy trinkets and children misbehaving. There’s a sense that more time has passed for Mimi and Rodolfo. Atmosphere is everything here. Foreground and background serve very different purposes. Puccini is never the slave of realism. The absurdity of the paper fire Marcello and Rodolfo light in their stove contrasts with Rodolfo’s burning reaction to Mimi when she knocks on the door – though even here directors play games with Rodolfo’s sincerity when, rushing to help Mimi after her candle goes out, he often leerily blows out his own to lower the lighting level. Could the way Mimi dies be more delicately touched in? It happens almost unnoticed – death, which in our youthful enthusiasm and energy is so unthinkable, comes about as if it’s almost unimportant. This opera is not about poverty. It’s certainly no egalitarian or political; monument. It’s about getting on with each other, finding a partner, building dreams, being young – an urban, not a peasant opera. Puccini handles the universal values, the things we cannot change when it comes down to it, disease, death, the passing pleasure of company. Mimi does not need to be a saint for her tragedy to be universal.

Die Fledermaus, Luisa Miller, and Le Nozze di Figaro are essentially bourgeois theatre. Fledermaus is in origin a hilarious French farce with lashings of the lunacy of Blackadder mixed in – not very different territory really from Beaumarchais’s Marriage of Figaro, or that engaging film Changing Places. Eisenstein, just like the Count in Figaro, can only make love to his wife when he is convinced she’s someone else (a mysterious Hungarian countess). But Johann Strauss’s Rosalinde is naughtier than Mozart’s Countess – judging by the opening scene’s serenade. Alfred is a grown-up potential lover, not “a child” as Cherubino is supposed to be. And Alfred of course ends up standing-in for Eisenstein in prison, which is what implicitly faithful married life is being shown to be in this more than a little cynical and satirical masterpiece. Other ideas in Fledermaus include the way prisons work, how servants are treated, drunkenness, the idle rich. Just as well that Fledermaus is joking most of the time, because if it were being serious it could almost cause offence. Like all farce it takes a pretty jaundiced if not thoroughly black and bleak view of the life we are leading. The mistake with Fledermaus is not to take the humour and fun seriously enough. The fantasy third act on the morning after Prince Orlofsky’s extravagant festivity, when the truth comes out inconveniently and reality has to be confronted in a very unreal way, is not at all broken-backed dramatically. Perhaps the shift to an entirely different mode of inebriated theatrical fantasy requires a suspension of disbelief. Yes, this is not really a picture of normal life. But the non-singing role of the gaoler Frosch, with his traditional licence for limitless coarse extemporisation, achieves something very remarkable and significant. Frosch and the drunken Prison Governor Frank turn the whole story turned upside down and inside out. The operetta strips away any illusions theatrical or otherwise, and encourages the audience to look beyond the mirror of theatrical reality to the truth of feeling behind it. As Dr Falke reveals what’s really been happening, and who the joke is on, a great deal of self-examination seems called for.

This is absolutely the same mechanism as Nozze di Figaro, where Mozart and Da Ponte are concerned with real feelings – with emotions that are not toyed with or fake. But Figaro is not an opera about a drunken party, despite the implicit presence of those elements. It’s an opera about two unprivileged people taking a serious step into a mutual commitment that many of their social betters seem to be obliged to repent at great leisure. Mozart and Da Ponte are not playing theatrical tricks, not creating a diversionary entertainment – however much fun there is in this never-failing work. Both Beaumarchais’s Figaro and Schiller’s play Intrigue and Poison, on which Verdi based his opera Luisa Miller, are talking about the realities of human society with which we all deal on a daily basis. Whereas we may feel that the fabric of the first four Holland Park operas this year is not everyday, though there passionately affirmed themes are certainly what we may all have to confront, Verdi’s and Mozart’s last two operas of the season are unmistakably documents about real people. In place of the silly fantasies and romantic dreams that crowd around us when we think about Norma or Eisenstein in Fledermaus, the situations and the people involved here are entirely serious.

Luisa Miller is just as much about marriage as Le nozze, though in the Verdi the issue is absolutely central and political – and Luisa’s wishes are misrepresented and her life effectively is sacrificed. In the Mozart the preparations for Figaro and Susanna’s marriage is just a backdrop to the marriage of their masters, and that threatened marriage seems – in all the three Beaumarchais plays about Figaro – to depend on the care and concern that the servants are able to provide. Beaumarchais and Schiller’s plays adapted in these two operas are exactly contemporaneous – having both been first staged in 1784, a notable year in theatrical history. Marriage then as now raises fundamental issues about society. Luisa is a girl of the wrong class, unsuitable for Count Walter’s son Rodolfo – who he wants to marry his niece. There are all sorts of changes made by Verdi and his librettist Cammarano in Schiller’s play – affecting the nature of the society being depicted and the social circumstances of Miller and his daughter. Verdi preferred – at least until much later in his career when he could handle the complex web of characters in Schiller’s Don Carlos – a simpler recipe. So the focus of the intrigue is different, though the manipulation of Luisa is just as unpleasant in the opera as in the play. Like Fanciulla del West which is one of Puccini’s most interesting and engaging works but not very familiar to the public, Verdi’s Luisa Miller has also rather been overlooked compared with more sure-fire works. Both are a bit out of the ordinary and not nearly as dramatically predictable as the better recognised operas by these composers – though both have acquired a significant following among cognoscenti during the 20th century. Luisa Miller is not a ground-breaking work for Verdi, although it’s material is so political and socially conscious. It’s an opera that gathers together the powers that Verdi could supply on the brink of the sequence of such masterpieces as Rigoletto, Traviata and Il trovatore, when he has to focus on the passions of fraught individuals in a Donizettian manner – but it does not exploit the structural opportunities that the narrative involves, and which could not be missed in Macbeth.

Is Le Nozze di Figaro the greatest opera this season? The fascination of opera is partly how such an unrealistic artform whose central technique is singing can handle so many different kinds of question so well. Beaumarchais, Da Ponte and Mozart are not in the same game as Wagner or Verdi, but they are the great originators of the tradition that led to Puccini’s kind of verismo opera where ordinary people are discovered in the ordinary circumstances that we now (when it is on television) call soap opera. The manipulation of power is shown and debated in all the works at Holland Park this season – but the abuse of hereditary power is here seen as a problem for those suffering from it – whereas in baroque opera the problem of power is discussed from the point of view of the powerful facing limitations. Figaro is certainly unrivalled in the detail with which it paints a panorama of life. It is also a crucial work in the history of opera – which transformed the possibilities of the art form. It introduces psychological realism long before the scientific subject of psychology had really been developed. Mozart’s work is also incredibly believable in dramatic terms. The operas this season all skirt around a necessary revolution of the heart. They appeal to a kind of faith in the power of love and responsibility, without which the future must be horrible. When the characters in these operas sing, we believe the subliminal message they are projecting. But, of course, that is why we attend.