While I am not ignorant of opera in European culture, up until this year I have far more experience with American musicals. Opera struck me as old fashioned (true) and silly (sometimes true) and not important (totally wrong). Now, I believe that Opera was the most important form of art in Europe for more than 150 years, perhaps more than 200 years – from 1700 to 1900.
The pinnacle of opera is found in the mid-1800s when Verdi and Wagner were composing. Wagner was considered the greatest artist of his age, from 1870 to 1940. Verdi was the most popular artist before and during Wagner’s time, and even today Verdi’s top ten are what you will see at any given opera house.
With the enforced shut down of the state of California, my lovely partner and I have been watching operas night after night. Not just any operas but the pre-recorded operas filmed by the Met Opera for broadcast to movie theaters around the US. Thank you, Met Opera. As a writer I have my own tastes for good story and believable characters. I like all sorts of music and I consider the Beatles to be the greatest musical artists of the last 100 years. Here are my reviews of the good operas we have watched.=
The Barber of Seville (A+). Music by Rossini, first performed in 1817. I love a good comedy and this one is perfect. The music is light-hearted, catchy, at times brilliant. Many of the arias written for the main characters are great, and a few are show-stoppers. The story is pretty good and the Met director worked hard to make the staging of the opera even funnier and mad-cap than the story itself. I loved the spinning orange trees and the huge anvil which comes down at the end of the first act. So good, I would watch the first act again.
The Rheingold (A). Music and words by Wagner, first performed in 1869. This is the first, the shortest, and the best of the four operas which comprises the Ring Cycle. There are four good characters: Wotan, the lazy spendthrift Viscount who wakes up one morning to discover his new palace is finished and he doesn’t have the money to pay the workers. Loge, the sly attorney who tries to help Wotan find a loophole in the contract. Albrecht is the rich but low-class merchant who Loge identifies as the mark, the guy they can steal money from. Lastly we have the master builder, Fasault, the voice of reason, who just wants the contract fulfilled (and a new wife). At the end of the opera, Loge is triumphant, having successfully cheated Albrecht out of his wealth, and having paid off the builders. So, the story is pretty good, the music is good and at times, great. The singing is typical for Wagner: fairly uninteresting.
The Met Opera production is very, very good. I really like the Met’s giant rotating central stage thing. It is nearly impossible to describe but the director uses it wonderfully well. The two leads (Loge and Albrecht) do a great job in this production.
Macbeth (A). Music by Verdi, first performed in 1847. This is, as everyone in the English-speaking world should know, a great play. So, the story is great, the characters are great, the plot is tight, and it all makes perfect sense. I love Shakespeare and Macbeth is one of his best plays so… is the opera an improvement? For some scenes, yes, the Verdi opera is even better than the play. Not all of it, but some scenes are better sung than acted. Lady Macbeth’s last aria is a standout, so also is the rousing song sung by the leaders of the revolt against the evil king Macbeth.
I ding the Met’s production for two reasons: first the witches are a steal from Monty Python (a gaggle of English ladies with their handbags… this is NOT a comedy). Second: the use of men with their World War II era uniforms and equipment. No. Just no. Macbeth is a medieval play, it must be staged in a time period when men fought each other with swords. Note: Macbeth is not a tragedy. Macbeth and his wife are bad people who come to bad ends. Good triumphs over evil.
The Troubadour (Il Trovatore). (A-) Music by Verdi, first staged in 1853. A bit long, a bit of a mess at the end (the man writing the lyrics died before he finished and the new guy wasn’t quite up to the challenge). However, this is a good story. Our main characters are real and are motivated by real emotional conflicts. It is a tragedy but it is a fairly sensible tragedy. Musically, Verdi is at the top of his game here.
The only problem is in the last act when our hero is mysteriously defeated, despite the fact that he is fortified before the battle by the love of his wife and his worthy desire to rescue his mother. I’m left wondering… what the heck? Our hero has no tragic flaw, he had good intentions, how can he lose? What is going on here? What is the author saying here? That good men sometimes lose?
The Daughter of the Regiment (A-) Music by Donizetti, first performed in 1840. The two leads are great. The staging is fun. The tank at the end is an inspired touch. This is very much a comedy and the ways a military unit becomes a family.
La Traviata (B+). Music by Verdi, first staged in 1853. This is a very interesting story taken directly from the life of the author (the son of the famous novelist Alexander Dumas). In brief: the young Mr. Dumas had an uneasy relationship with his father and, in Paris he tries to rescue a beautiful young courtesan from her life of making money by sleeping with French nobles. Remarkably, he succeeds and for a few months young Mr. Dumas and his reformed prostitute live happily together. But this time in paradise comes to a sudden end when his father intervenes and forces his son to leave this woman of ill repute. A year later, the the beautiful young courtesan is dead from some disease (or a broken heart? Who can say?).
Young Mr. Dumas wrote this story as a play (The Lady with the Camellias) just a few years later after the events depicted, while his father was very much alive and still very wealthy. The play was an immediate success and young Mr. Dumas went on to become the most popular play-writer in France for the next 30 years.
There are no bad-guys in this opera, its just a love which could not last and then the woman dies and its really very sad. The Met staging is well thought out. Its just a great production.
The problem lies deep in the story: the young Mr. Dumas portrays his father quite sympathetically and yet, the reality is, the older Mr. Dumas behaved badly. He is, to put it bluntly, a villain who gets away with being a villain just by saying “Oh, sorry about that”. The opera, since it was not written by the young Dumas, could have been and should have been more honest. As it is, its just a bit too nice.
La Boheme. (B+). Music by Puccini, first performed in 1896. La Boheme is another very famous opera. This Met Opera production is very, very good with beautifully singers. I personally had a problem with their lead actor, a quite rotund fellow who looked like he had regularly been eating at the finest restaurant in Paris. He was completely unconvincing in the role of the starving artist from Bohemia, reduced to burning his own manuscript for a little warmth.Such a wonderful voice, but would it really be too much to have him lose about sixty pounds to play this role?
The Master Singers of Nuremburg (B). Music and lyrics by Wagner. First performed in 1868. There are so many problems with this opera. First, it is too long. Wagner could have cut an hour or more from the opera and it would be better. The early scene with the apprentice shoe-maker expounding on the proper elements of song-writing is pointless. Who the hell is this guy to be giving lessons on music to anyone? He is a nobody and he disappears from the opera. His whole character is a waste. Also, there are too many master-singers, we only needed three not 10. The other seven disappear after the first act, and we don’t care.
Lastly, there is a fundamental confusion between the real master-singer and the knight. They are, in a deep sense, the same person. They are both Wagner, from two different stages of his life. The Knight is young Wagner, composing on instinct and breaking rules he does not even know about. The actual master-singer (and oddly, a shoemaker by profession) is Wagner of the present-day (1867), older, wiser, able to compose anything, knows all the rules – and when to break them. Young Wagner and Old Wagner have almost nothing to say to each other, there is no conflict between them, nor is there any real meeting of the minds. During the long scene where the Young Wagner (the Knight) improvises his brilliant song, the Old Wagner sits in his chair and offers no advice or critique. Speaking as someone who has collaborated with other brilliant people on a wide range of projects this NEVER happens. There is always some suggestion on how [x] could be improved.
And yet, for all these problems, there is something real here. Wagner is attempting to explain what music and singing is about, what it means. Wager was by this point, a true master of the art form, and he really was in a position to explain to people what he was doing and why. The Mastersinger is a celebration of his art form (and himself) but for all the self-congratulation, there is a good deal of honesty in this opera. The Master Singer is called a comedy and it does end with a wedding but this opera is truly about art, and about the power of opera, as an art, to transform the world. There are many films about making movies, this is an opera about the power of song.
Aida. (B) Music by Verdi, first performed in 1871. Aida is one of the most famous operas and a relatively late creation of Verdi. Musically it is ok, not great. The drama is good, in theory, but the entire second act is a waste as the whole of the second act can be summarized in a single sentence: the male lead is given the job as commander of the Egyptian military with orders to defeat the invaders from the south. That’s it. An entire act with no drama.
The third act is implausible based on what has happened before. In short: the male lead,
having won his war, is given the hand of the Pharaoh’s daughter (and yes, she loves
him). But that’s not all. No, the hero-general is also given the role of heir apparent to the
throne of Egypt when the current Pharaoh dies! Talk about hitting the grand slam. This
would be enough for any man short of Confucius. Instead of looking forward to becoming
the ruler of the greatest land of the ancient world, the hero-general (for reasons that are
never made clear) throws all of this away because he wants to marry the slave girl Aida. As a believable story, this ranks right up there with the tales of Sinbad the Sailor.
Yet, despite the wasted time and the implausible story, the Met Opera production is a
marvel. In all honesty, the Met Opera version of Aida must be seen to be believed. The Met has what looks like a thousand people parading across the stage in the second act, all dressed in reasonably accurate ancient Egyptian costumes with appropriate weapons and props. It looks like some of ancient Egyptian art from Metropolitan Museum of Art has come to life. The entire production is wonderful: the sets, the backdrops, the costumes. It rivals Cecil B. DeMile’s movie The Ten Commandments for visual splendor and that really is high praise. These days we expect movies to be perfect re-creations of historical time periods, but to see this sort of thing done on stage, in person, it is both absurd and thrilling.
Lucia di Lammermoor (B). Music by Donizetti. First performed in 1835. This is an old fashioned opera with irrational hate, characters who are bound by circumstances to do what they absolutely do not wish to do, missing letters, and an unexpected murder. Crazy stuff. Good music by Donizetti. Quality signing. Nice staging. I loved the ghost (too bad she didn’t get to sing). The story seems over-the-top and yet, in the end, almost believable. The scene where the bad-guy goes to the good-guy’s old castle and challenges him to a dual to the death – it is so crazy that I am tempted to believe it was true. The opera is based on a novel (The Bride of Lammermoor) by Sir Walter Scott and the great writer claimed it was based on a true story so… I guess we have to accept that this might have happened.
The Valkyrie. (B). Second in Wagner’s Ring cycle. Music by Wagner, lyrics by Wagner. First performed in 1870. Another very long opera from Wagner, made worthwhile by some great music and an interesting story. The relationship between between the three characters: Siegmund, Sieglinde, and Hunding is nicely done, full of longing, hope, fear, and menace.
The scenes with Wotan are mostly unwatchable because Wotan is one of the worst examples of a hen-pecked husband ever put on stage. Given that Wotan is supposed to be: (1) a god, (2) the most powerful of all the gods, (3) the god-hero who gave up an eye to gain supreme wisdom, and (4) the father of all the Valkyries (as well as Siegmond) – in the opera he acts like a little man who is broken in spirit and bossed around by his massively obese wife. Wotan acts like the complete opposite of a god, instead he acts like a man who is constantly pushed around by other people and has become bitter, resentful, and prone to fits of impotent rage. Wotan has the character of a man who would kick a dog – just because.
It seems clear from Wagner’s biography that he grew to hate his first wife. She was older than him, unfaithful (just as he was), and she kept them alive after he foolishly joined the failed revolution in 1848 against his employer, the King of Saxony. Wagner grew to resent his first wife, and he left her when he finally made his fortune. It is not hard to see echos of Wagner’s miserable relationship to his first wife put on stage with the terrible relationship between Wotan and Fricke.
Despite this huge problem with the second act, the rest of the opera is pretty decent, and really the music for the Ride of Valkyries is one of the most famous pieces of music ever written.
Other operas which are not worth the time:
- Don Carlos by Verdi. Very long, quite uninteresting music. Ridiculous story and largely at odds with the actual history.
- Eugene Oregin – Music and story by Tchaikovsky. Nice staging but a boring opera.
- Tristan and Isolde – another of the massive operas from Wagner. Terrible production by the Met. The first act is set on a 20th century warship? This makes no sense at all. None. Zero. It must be set in a time with sailing ships, and at a time when men killed other men with swords. These are requirements for the story to make sense. I didn’t hear any good music from Wagner during this opera, but I admit to giving up on it.
- Norma: Music by Bellini. Nothing happens. Lots of boring singing, no drama.
- Siegfried: Third in the ring cycle. Siegfried is a total jerk to the man who raised him his entire life, and then Siegfried kills him. This opera makes very little sense. The production is actually pretty good. Mim’s smithy is well done and the mountain top with the ring of fire around it is awesome. There are a few parts of this opera which are good, but 80% is a waste of time.
- Gotterdammerung: Fourth in the Ring cycle and the least rational of them all. Unwatchable as the plot makes no sense given what has gone on before. The music, in places, is wonderful but again, most of the time the actors are signing in a near monotone, or not singing any melody at all.
- Tannhauser. Music and lyrics by Wagner. This is an early Wagner (1845) and…it is not staged well by the Met Opera. The beginning features our main character in the Grotto of Venus. Yes, he is having sex with goddess of love herself and she is revealed as… a rather fat and unattractive opera singer. Some of the chorus music here is magnificent. Wagner does have his moments of musical genius.
- Nixon in China. Music by John Adams. Thought by many to be the best opera composed in the last 30 years, in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king? I know John Adams music quite well and this is a disappointment. It could have been so much better. John Adams has the ability to compose beautiful choral music; he created a true masterpiece back in 1981 with his work Harmonium. The Met production is about as good as it can be in terms of set design but sadly nothing can save an opera with bad music and solos which fail to convey emotions. Why would a composer actively avoid writing beautiful melodies for his opera? As a work of art, I guess it is important but compared to the great operas of this past? Not impressive.