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Natalie Dessay, a French soprano, once said that text of many operas are silly. She wasn’t the first to say it, and she won’t be the last.
Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, the libretto of which was written by Emmanuel Schikaneder, is a great first-time opera: it has tuneful melodies, humours, and relatively easy story. But when you strip away the Masonic theme, Die Zauberflöte is a love story that makes no sense: Tamino falls in love with Pamina because he sees her picture, and Pamina falls in love with Tamino because she hears that Tamino falls in love with her after seeing her picture. It may be more accurate to say that Tamino falls in love with a picture, and Pamina falls in love with the idea of Tamino’s falling in love with her picture.
Opera has never been a story-first artform. That is not to say that having a strong libretto isn’t important, but absurd stories aren’t usually enough to condemn operas into oblivion. Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, his last (and unfinished) opera, is a case in point: it is the 19th most performed opera around the world in the 2014-15 season according to Operabase.
Turandot tells the story of a Prince named Calaf falling in love with Turandot, a murderous Princess who chooses her future husband on whether he can answer her three riddles: those who fail to answer will be executed, and the one (Calaf) who can answer them will become her husband. The final act opens with perhaps the most recognisable aria of the entire operatic history, Nessun Dorma, but the aria is the only redeeming feature, because the whole narrative falls apart soon afterwards.
Turandot has no feeling for Calaf; in fact, she laments his success in answering her riddles. Calaf offers to be killed if she can find out his name by the next morning. Before dawn, Calaf kisses Turandot at some point, and she falls in love with Calaf by some operatic miracle.
This is ridiculous.
Opera-goers don’t go to operas to see the stories. In fact, the design of historical horse shoe-shaped opera houses suggests that the drama on-stage wasn’t nearly as important as the numerous dramas inside the boxes: if one is seated on a side box, it might be easier to watch the royal box and the box on the opposite side than the stage. People went to opera to see and to be seen.
And then, they experience the music, marvel at technical ability of singers, and watch visual spectacles. In this combination of various forms of art, story often comes last. Dramatic tension and emotions are achieved mostly with music. Without the music and visual spectacles, it is hard to tell what’s left of an opera.
A while ago, I attended a performance of La Traviata, with Sonya Yoncheva playing the heroine, Violetta Valéry, at Opéra national de Paris in Bastille. Many no doubt attended the performance to see Sonya Yoncheva, for she had been hailed as the best Violetta since Maria Callas. But hardly anyone, I imagine, was there for the story, as La Traviata is the most performed opera, and, unlike watching a film in a cinema, opera-goers have known the stories before attending performances.
As far as story goes, La Traviata is relatively strong. An adaptation of the novel La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils, the opera tells the tragic love story of Alfredo Germont and Violetta. The story has everything: a young, passionate lover, a young, beautiful, and ill woman who dies, and someone who separates them.
In the original novel, the reveal of the intervention of the father only happens in the final chapters in the form of letters written by the heroine during her long and agonising death. Obviously, one couldn’t do this in an opera, so the father’s intervention was played out chronologically, which, in my view, diminishes the tension. One would also wonder why a woman dying of consumption (tuberculosis) could still sing her lung out just before dying. But otherwise, La Traviata is a faithful adaptation of the novel in its substance, if not in its text.
But it isn’t without its faults. The second scene of the second act began with a party, where two groups of entertainers enter and perform. Those two numbers (Coro di zingarelle e mattadori) have nothing to do with the main plot, which is to set up a confrontation between Alfredo and Violetta. Those two numbers are there simply because they are entertaining to watch. In the famously lean production of La Traviata at Oper Graz, the director, Peter Konwitschny, has cut them out altogether. Whether you like it or not, one has to admit that nothing has changed in the core of the story.
Wagner was keen to rid operas of everything extraneous and put audience’s attention to the stage and the stage only. The theatre he designed—Bayreuth Festspielhaus—cannot be more different: no more boxes on the sides, and all audience can see is stage; even the pit isn’t visible.
It is easy to imagine the Festspielhaus experience: the whole theatre is in complete darkness, the whole audience becomes quiet, and low E-flat from the double bass floats out from the invisible pit, as if coming from nowhere. It would be like watching a film, where the only thing you can see is the stage.
In Wagner’s works, music drives the story and emotion more than the sung dialogues, the visual effects, and the narratives, which, unsurprisingly, quite absurd. Wagner drew inspiration from Norse mythology, which are no more bizarre than stories from Greek mythology: flawed Gods, super-heros, monsters, violence, incest, quests, and so on, are features in both system of mythologies. The story of the Ring is strange enough that earned a hilarious mocking by singer Anna Russell.
There is no denying, however logic-defying the plot is, that watching a Wagner opera can be a fulfilling one. Even in some of the badly received productions, such as Graham Vick’s production of Tristan und Isolde at Deutsche Oper Berlin, where the mythical love story is reduced to a modern domestic dispute, the moment when the infamous Tristan chord finally gets resolved in the finale Liebestod was cathartic.
Wagner became the father of modern film music before cinema existed. The techniques he uses to develop and transform Leitmotifs in Der Ring des Nibelungen have long since become the bread-and-butter of film music, something we can hear in the soundtrack of blockbusters such as The Star Wars. In a sense, films have become the new Gesamtkunstwerk, while operas, even the best and most moving of them, remain an artform that tells strange stories.