Ladies and gentlemen, this is it! After almost two years, we have finally reached the top spot on this list. It was an eventful time, I must admit. This list has kept me company through some interesting changes and I am slightly bummed it is now over. But, not all good things must come to an end, so I can promise you that 2015 will hold more fun and entertaining entries – provided I can find the time and inspiration required for such a task during my last semester of my master studies; those of you that have done something similar, know that the last semester is dedicated to writing, writing, writing (and reading, reading, reading obviously). I am confident, however, that I will perform well enough to be able to spend some time on future entries.
Also, in case you have not noticed it or are on entirely different calendar, today marks the last day of 2014 for those of us that live in the western part of Europe. It was a Richard Strauss year, to begin with (yey!). Apart from that, a number of important musicians left us for the other side (Claudio Abbado and Lorin Maazel come to mind instantly). International politics changed very little, new terrorist organizations came to take up the mantle from old ones, people are dying like flies in certain areas of the world thanks to the outbreak of Ebola… I could go on cataloguing the newsworthy parts of 2014, but that is not my job. I am not a journalist (although at some point I thought I might become one) and I should not speak my truth, because my truth is offensive – to say the least. Therefore I will stick to my 2014, which was good. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good and it left me with a sense of satisfaction. Granted, I still am lonely, hardly go out to live life in the broader sense (or at least a sense a certain somebody I know has), but let’s face it: not everybody is meant to be a pop star, or merely a star. Sometimes it is more important to be the silent stream and not the raging river: it is easier to drink water from the first one, while the latter might pose some safety concerns to the thirsty traveler. So, I remain optimistic about my chances in life.
And there was another reason why 2014 was so good to me: I finally took up the opportunity given to me as a student in one of the richest (both financially but most importantly, culturally) cities of Europe. I literally exploited the offerings the theatre, opera and orchestras had to offer and I am simply grateful that I can enjoy these until July 2015. I experienced incredible performances. I was moved to tears, I laughed my heart out, I was shocked and appalled (because Regietheater) and I discovered sublime works of art that need to be made more “famous” or even “popular”. All that to the incredible price of 8 to 9 Euros per performance! But enough of my year. I have made a decision, based on a suggestion by a co-student here to write a book and I plan on doing that. So, when the time comes and you are interested, you will be able to get a better insight (not specifically on my 2014, but in general). Today I am here to write my final entry in my list of the 10 operas I absolutely love and couldn’t live without.
Let me start with some introductory notes, to keep up with tradition (yes, I just spent one page “introducing”, but not the subject matter). A few months ago I found myself in a lovely group of people and we were discussing a variety of things. Thankfully those had nothing to do with politics, but arts, literature and philosophy. At some point the question was asked of who is the most important thinker, artist, in short, person of note that influences our everyday lives, whose ideas we might accept and try to live by, you get the idea, right? Well, when my turn came up, I instantly and without thinking replied: Georg Friedrich Händel and Richard Strauss. The reactions I got were quite interesting, but definitely positive. The one that stood out, however, was a very simple question: how can you combine two composers whose composing style is so diametrically different, since they were born almost two centuries apart? The answer is rather simple: they both wrote sublime music for the female voice and their quests in their operas are usually focused on the tragedy of love, both, however, having enough sense to know that humor is a necessary part of life, therefore adding moments that are truly hilarious. And finally, both have left at least one work that contains an incredible and unique reading of the female psyche. As for their lifestyles, well, there are more than just enough similarities there (the only notable difference in Händels life was his love life, which remains a mystery, even today; my personal guess is that he either was gay or asexual, but that is my personal guess). So, as you might have guessed already, my dear and faithful reader, today’s entry will once again deal with two operas, rather than one. I know, you might say I’m cheating, but, let’s keep in mind that in the Winter Olympics of 2002 in Salt Lake City in the pairs competition in figure skating, two gold medals were awarded, because the judges were corrupt… (By the way I totally agreed that the Canadians were better than the Russians and deserved the gold, but those are really old stories!)
So, here it comes then: the winners of the Top 10 Operas I Love are… drum roll, please… Alcina and Der Rosenkavalier! By the way, if I may congratulate myself, the title of this entry is brilliant, I know.
SPOILER ALERT MOST DEFINITELY. GO SPEND THE NEXT SIX HOURS WATCHING THE OPERAS AND THEN COME BACK TO READ MY TAKE ON THEM.
Back so soon? Alright then, read on at your own peril. The story in both cases is about love, in all its forms and facets. In Alcina the title figure is a witch, who lives on a remote island and enjoys love games, but bores relatively easy. Therefore, she changes her past lovers into all kinds of things (rocks, lions, bushes etc). But, as it so happens, she eventually falls in love with Ruggiero, who is a knight and who also happens to be betrothed to Bradamante, a kick-ass warrior princess herself (at least in the original by Ariosto she is an extremely successful warrior). Those two are truly in love with each other, there is no doubt about that. Because, once Ruggiero disappears, Bradamante sets out on a quest to find him. Ruggiero does not love Alcina, but is charmed (literally) into thinking he is. As you can guess, magic plays a significant role in this opera, because it is through Angelica’s magic ring (it negates all magic surrounding it) that Ruggiero realizes the truth and remembers his one true love, Bradamante. But, Alcina falls in love with him and sadly for her this is her first – and in all probability – last time. I could go on for a very long time explaining all the little details in this opera, but I won’t. Instead, I shall refer you to my bachelor thesis "Armida - Medea - Alcina: Literary Origins and G. F. Handels Operatic Counterparts" (can be found online), which devotes an entire chapter to Alcina and her story.
Here I will only try to explain the love affairs that arise. Obviously the most prominent one is the one between Alcina and Ruggiero. This love affair is an artificial one, in that it was created by Alcina through a love spell. Therefore, it is also one sided. While Alcina develops true emotions, Ruggiero is simply enchanted. Once the spell breaks through Angelica’s ring, he immediately remembers Bradamante. An extremely important scene in this regard is Ruggiero’s aria in the second act “Mio bel tesoro”. The parts sung aside are the key to this aria. (The absolute center piece for Ruggiero in this opera is his other aria “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto”, also in the second act, because in it his confusion is made perfectly clear).
The next love affair is that between Ruggiero and Bradamante. These two, as already stated, are the real deal and in the real world of opera seria, they would have been the protagonists. But Handel breaks the rules and places Alcina in the front. So, while we do have the usual trials and tribulations all heroic pairs have to go through in opera seria to prove they truly love each other, this is not what drives the plot. Yes, it is Bradamante’s arrival on Alcina’s island that sets the action in motion, but this is not the core of the piece. The audience knows that Ruggiero and Bradamante will find each other again, therefore this love affair is simply present to “play by the rules”.
The second most interesting love “affair” in this opera is an ingenious touch by Handel himself. He took the liberty of adding a boy soprano to play Oberto, a young boy, the son of one of Alcina’s former lovers – but importantly – not her own. Alcina has transformed Astolfo, Oberto’s father, into a lion. But she has kept the boy and is clearly exhibiting signs of motherly affection. This is one man in the making she loves as a mother. Oberto reciprocates those feelings, but at the same time his deep love and devotion to his father prevents him from fully accepting Alcina’s care. He constantly searches for him and it is his love that helps him see through Alcina’s plan in the end and prevents him from killing his father. The moment Oberto turns away from Alcina and accuses her of being a barbarian, is a turning point for both characters: Oberto grows up and shows magnanimity and Alcina loses the one man she felt no attraction to, but loved with a certain kind of innocence.
Finally, we have a short lived comic relief. This is provided by Morgana, Alcina’s sister and Ricciardo, who is essentially Bradamante in male disguise… Morgana is actually betrothed, or at least in a relationship, with Oronte, Alcina’s general. But clearly their relationship is not what it used to be, because the moment Morgana sets eyes upon Ricciardo, she immediately forgets Oronte and woos the newcomer. Some very funny scenes ensue between the two of them in the first act, but the laughter dies out in the second act. This love affair is a reversal of the central one, since Morgana falls for a trick; and this relationship has almost no time to bud, because the action is paced rather quickly. It gives Handel the opportunity, however, to compose an incredibly beautiful and elegiac aria for Morgana in the beginning of the third act.
You might say, now, that Alcina has absolutely no similarities with Der Rosenkavalier. The first one is a drama, because there is no happy ending (Alcina loses Ruggiero and her magical powers, Ruggiero is doomed to die once he returns to the real world, thus leaving Bradamante a widow), while the second one is considered a romantic comedy (even though neither Strauss nor Hofmannsthal ever dubbed it one). However, Der Rosenkavalier is not as funny as one might think.
Let us take things from the very beginning: yes, there is an older (by older we mean somewhat over thirty) aristocratic lady, who, in her husband’s absence amuses herself with a younger (by younger we mean a boy of seventeen) cousin. Did I mention that the cousin is also written for a female voice? Trouser role, everyone! Yey! Said aristocratic lady, however, is extremely wise and in light of the events of the first act – the arrival of the vulgar cousin from the land – she contemplates love, life and the meaning of everything, thus bringing a rather gloomy atmosphere about.
And, also, delivers the blow to her own “undoing”, by sending her young lover as a representative of the Baron to the young brides’ home. If that doesn’t spell disaster, I don’t know what does! Obviously the two young people fall in love at first sight (the scene is brilliantly set to music and words) and obviously their love triumphs over both the Baron, who is made a fool in the third act and the Feldmarschallin, who, being who she is and having foreseen this moment, graciously blesses the union. Happy ending? Not by a long shot!
Love in the time of Der Rosenkavalier is a trifling matter, especially in the aristocratic circles. Take for example the two thugs (they too have their uses, of course), who sell the black paper. In it, they report about every love affair happening in the happy city of Vienna. The Feldmarschallin is appalled by this, but, at the same time she too is a member of this elite that cuckolds husbands and gets the same treatment (probably). The only distinction between her and every other Viennese aristocrat is that she is prepared to face the consequences and understands how the world works. In her own experience (and words) men always fall for the younger girls and there is no exception, not even her beloved Octavian can escape that fate.
While at first we believe Octavian to be true to his Bichette, once Sophie enters the picture, we are manipulated into rooting for this love over every other. Why? Because the Baron of Lerchenau is presented as a complete buffoon and a bit of a savage too (and womanizer, yes) and because the music is so sublime, we are left without a doubt that this was a match made in Heaven. Then, of course, comes the third act and its divine conclusion. If this were a Rossini opera, we would expect the Feldmarschallin to invite Octavian and Sophie for threesomes, every time the husband was out of the picture. Alas, this is not Rossini and there needs to be a clear cut ending. Or is there? If one reads the words of the final trio more carefully, one immediately sees that all three characters realize that there is nothing clear cut about their relationship. At the very beginning, in the “recitative”, Octavian addresses the Feldmarschallin, ignoring Sophie altogether. It is the Feldmarschallin that commands the scene, even in the final trio. Sophie, growing up as well in this scene, realizes that while she gets to keep Octavian, the Feldmarschallin will always have a piece of him. And Octavian, in typical male fashion, is absolutely torn between the two of them. Only when the Feldmarschallin leaves the stage, does he manage to focus entirely on Sophie. So, while the music is quite simply divine, both Strauss and Hofmannsthal make a silent comment about fidelity (Strauss, however, was extremely faithful to his Pauline, even though she forever remained jealous and never fully trusted him…)
So, why are these two operas on the top of my list? They are a bittersweet moment in the history of opera. Strauss’ work remains extremely successful and popular, even today, which is no surprise, while Handel’s is slightly less known, but is definitely gaining in global recognition. I have seen both operas live in Munich (and Alcina in Vienna as well). While the Munich production of Der Rosenkavalier is a fairly traditional staging, it is nonetheless very entertaining and to this day I believe that I have had the pleasure of seeing it four times (each time, the audience breaks out into applause whenever the curtain is raised to reveal the second act stage, which is indeed quite marvelous). Alcina on the other hand was a one timer, both in Munich and Vienna. But in both cases the protagonists were Anja Harteros (who might not strike you as a Handelian soprano, but her Alcina is something truly incredible) and Vesselina Kasarova, who is brilliant as Ruggiero and – having sung the role quite often – manages to bring forth elements that are crucial to understanding this character. I must say here that my first encounter with both singers (whom I have come to love and respect deeply ever since that day) was in Munich’s Alcina. It was also the last performance of that particular staging (by Christoph Loy), were Kasarova had a twisted ankle, could hardly stand on her own, yet managed to pull through an evening that lasted almost four and a half hours, delivering one of her best performances to date. The Munich production is also one of the best interpretations of this opera I have seen so far and I truly hope that at some point in the future, the Bavarian National Opera will pick it up again… The Vienna staging was totally weird and hardly made any sense, but it was occasionally funny. There is a DVD/Blu-ray version of it, so you can pick it up or see it online. I do have a dream that one day I might be asked to stage Alcina, because I have some truly great ideas for this opera, but that is only wishful thinking…
So, that was that. I know I did not deliver in this last entry. I apologize deeply, but I felt compelled to finish the list before 2014 was officially over in my time zone, so that I could start 2015 with a clean slate. Despite the shortcomings of this entry, I hope you enjoyed it, at least a bit.
Well, with my admittance of my inability to wow you before the year ended, I would like to wish you all a very happy new year, filled with music, opera, theatre, good literature, friends, family, a sufficiently stuffed wallet, wise decisions and above all else health! Happy 2015 people! We made it!