Introduction: That’s amore

Article by Mark Valencia

‘Opera is about dilemma, not plot,’ observed the baritone Thomas Hampson on BBC In Tune earlier this year, thereby articulating a truth that audiences often understand instinctively if not explicitly. ‘It’s about characters caught in their own fate – the big contemplations about who we are as human beings. That’s the driving force of all opera.’

It’s certainly true of this season’s Opera Holland Park offerings, especially the heroines. Even Will Todd’s young sleepyhead in Wonderland is forced to confront a succession of quandaries – although Alice will be spared the grown-up misadventures of older women with their more complicated emotions.

What’s love got to do with it? Everything. In terms of who we are as human beings it’s the daddy of them all.

All four main-stage operas explore love in ways we can recognise and identify with even today. Peel away the vestiges of outdated social and sexual morality and they still speak more truthfully about life than stab-and-die epics like Carmen and Tosca, or suffer-and-succumb shows like La traviata and La bohème. Their humanity elevates them all.

Take Don Giovanni. The anti-hero’s victims have been simultaneously beguiled and appalled by their seducer, and at varying levels of desperation they long to extricate themselves from his hold over them. Of the three we get to meet (because there are, according to Leporello’s catalogue, another thousand in Spain alone), Donna Anna is the straightforward one – so much so that some modern directors like to accrete a spicy dimension by making her complicit in her own rape, or even her father’s murder. Zerlina, felled by the Don on her wedding day, is young, impressionable and in thrall to her libido; but it is Donna Elvira who intrigues us the most because she has no one waiting for her indoors. Her back story is ambiguous, her destiny darkly fascinating.

Elvira has the most dignity and, in ‘Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata’, perhaps the best aria. It’s certainly the most profound moment in the opera. Yet she remains a shadowy figure who’s so damaged by her injury at the Don’s hands that her only remaining purpose in life is to punish him. Once that is achieved Zerlina goes home to dinner, Anna pairs off with Don Ottavio (eventually), but Elvira determines to live out her days in a holy order. She is a soul in torment and not even retribution can cure that.

Mozart’s interest in Elvira’s psychology doesn’t mean he treats her well. Her dignity is a thing to be punctured, it seems. She’s Margaret Dumont to the Marx Brothers of Giovanni and Leporello; an object of humiliation when forced to hear the list of her former lover’s adulteries, or when subjected to an identity-swap prank at the start of Act 2. Yet her dilemma remains real. It tears her apart, and us too.

The heroines of La rondine and Zazà have dilemmas that are more recognisably banal but none the less moving for being so. Both are women we can relate to, even though they exist in a Belle Époque world steeped in waltzes and foxtrots. It may be Paris à l’italienne but it’s still recognisably the city of Colette’s demi-monde and Mucha’s cabarets. At any moment they might turn a corner and run into Gigi, or even each other.

La rondine was originally commissioned as an operetta for Vienna, but the First World War put paid to that. In truth it’s hard to imagine Puccini composing anything fluffy and inconsequential, so his relief at being able to refashion the project in his accustomed style is almost palpable. But the end result was not a commercial success, probably because the story lacks a big event and all early operagoers could see was a Traviata-lite that ends at around Verdi’s halfway point. Nobody is stabbed or shot or carried off by tuberculosis; instead there’s just a lightly-etched dalliance between Magda and Ruggero and a mildly amusing sub-plot involving Lisette and Prunier. La rondine is a tale not of tragedy but of loss and letting go; and the lack of a big mortal catharsis left its early audiences unstirred. Puccini was stung by the opera’s failure and referred to it thereafter as ‘my dear, forgotten child’.

Yet it deserves greater success than it has known, not least on account of its irresistible musical colours. And at long last it is beginning to appear more regularly on the world’s stages. As indeed it should. La rondine’s calling-card aria ‘Chi il bel sogno di Doretta’ is done and dusted within minutes of the start, but the opera goes on to explore themes of love and separation that are simultaneously timeless and modern, and it does so through some of the most adorable music that even Puccini ever wrote.

Magda’s alter ego in Leoncavallo’s world is Zazà, a cabaret star who bets – successfully – that she can win the heart of a wealthy businessman. It’s a reckless moment of hubris that ought to tee up an emotional cataclysm, but disaster never quite strikes – at least not in the usual operatic way of things. Instead, Zazà’s affair ends in a controlled manner that is both prosaic and exquisite.

Zazà predates La rondine by some 17 years, yet they could be companion pieces. It isn’t known how familiar or otherwise Puccini was with his colleague’s opera, but they were close contemporaries, not to say rivals. Indeed, in younger days they had written competing versions of La bohème against the same clock.

The score of Zazà is a feast, drenched in lushly melodic colours that sway with a heady, schmaltz-free sentimentality. If you don’t yet know it you are in for a treat. It begins like something out of Hollywood’s golden age, a trembling rhapsody that promises high drama and hopeless passion, but what makes Zazà so good is that it sidesteps predictability and delivers neither of those two extremes. Leoncavallo’s slender tale calls for an extravagant orchestra, a busy chorus and any number of minor characters, with moods that range from lubricious eroticism to a hushed farewell to love.

Both Zazà and La rondine share a lightness of touch, rich orchestration, melodic perfume, humanity, romance and an absence of melodrama. They promise a fascinating juxtaposition.

All four main-stage operas in the season share a compassion for their passionate heroines, but it’s Janáček who puts his through the wringer. The psychological turmoil of Kát’a Kabanová, as a young woman struggles to cope with uninvited feelings, is harrowing yet strangely beautiful. Not only is its plot driven by the very forces to which Thomas Hampson alludes, its score shares with Jenůfa the intangible flavour of a parable, or of a fairy tale gone wrong. When Kát’a tells Varvara her dreams of soaring among lofty, golden cathedrals, the music flies with her; but she is no Mélisande and she comes down to earth with a bump. The more you dream, it seems, the more you suffer when reality bites.

Concentrated, haunting and iridescent, Kát’a Kabanová is a nigh-perfect opera. More, it’s the perfect first opera for anyone who loves a dark tale. Kát’a, pure of heart, longs to be faithful to her weak husband, Tichon. If only she were not so irresistibly attracted to the dashing Boris, and if only her companion Varvara had not handed her the key to a garden gate beyond which she becomes prey to her instincts. For Kát’a is an innocent – a creature of impulse. In that respect she’s like The Cunning Little Vixen, the subject of the composer’s next opera, except that being human she is cursed by morals and sadness. (The ageing Janáček’s infatuation with a married woman 38 years his junior, Kamila Stösslová, famously inspired both operas; but neither of them is her portrait. Kát’a is less a depiction of a true character than the projected wish-fulfilment of an old man who, in his mind, may have cast himself as the dashing Boris).

Although based on a play by the Russian Ostrovsky, Kát’a Kabanová marks Janáček’s return to the stifling provincial society of Jenůfa: a Moravian equivalent of Peter Grimes’s ‘Borough’. It has a prevailing hostility that’s only lightly veined with gestures of kindness. Of the three couples at its heart, one pair is monstrous (Kabanicha and Dikój), one free (Varvara and Kudrjaš) and one adrift in hopeless love (Kát’a and Boris). But there’s a seventh person too: Tichon, Kát’a’s passionless husband. His presence is the dilemma that drives the opera, because Kát’a, having at last known true love, realises that she can no longer live in an arid marriage.

The speed of Kát’a’s death mere seconds after plunging into the Volga may seem improbable, but then this is opera, not reportage, and temporal accuracy is neither here nor there. And it’s less improbable than Gilda’s drawn-out demise in Rigoletto. Anyway, Kát’a’s final moment is of little consequence as her real dying has been done in the extended aria that precedes it. It makes you think that perhaps Donna Elvira got off lightly.

Love, in its kaleidoscopic complexities, dominates a season that explores femininity through the eyes of four male composers and their librettists. Beyond doe-eyed adoration (in Janáček’s case rather too much), these creative men have one thing in common: the desire to comprehend the female of the species.

Mark Valencia is the Opera Editor of WhatsOnStage and a regular contributor to Musical America