A Night at the Opera

When I went back to Venice over Christmas, I realized that I'm almost a different person when I'm there... For starters, I have much more of a hankering to write prose. (What can I say? The city is my muse!)

But not so much when I'm stateside. It's a habit that I need to cultivate, though...

So, I thought I'd share some more emailed "oldies but goodies" from my pre-blog period, as a step in that direction. Here's a rather stream-of-consciousness one from today's date a year and a month ago...

I hope you enjoy them!
Thanks as always,

Wow... quite the effect being up after mistakingly drinking prosecco after having previously taken an ambien. Certainly not one of the wisest of my wise ideas! I did manage to get to sleep, but now I'm stumbling around awake and just attempting to type, believe you me, is fun...

Still, it rather works with my evening... We went to see "Le Roi de Vehores" at the newly rebuilt and completely restored Venetian opera house, the Fenice or Phoenix. It had originally burnt down and been rebuilt in the nineteenth century, hence the name, and then most recently burnt to the ground in the famous fire in 1996, I think it was... I had been lucky enough to catch an opera there before, so for me the new building has some basis for comparison... It's absolutely stunning! They wanted to reproduce the building down to the smallest details, and they may have well succeeded.

Written originally by Jules Messenet for the Paris Opera in 1877, "Le Roi de Vehores" was everything that your average opera should make the most of.... the gleaming, grand new theater itself, rich costumes, sets with complex stage mechanisms, and the music... it's easy not to love opera, of course, but there were these moments of crystalline perfection when the voices, even just 2 or 3 or else with the entire company, when these powerhouse voices would enter these almost transcendental harmonies. And the effect was a lot like being inebriated, where your senses are on overload, and you try to grasp onto, savor, hold on to these fleeting moments as they pass before your eyes and finally through your fingers forever.

The plot's sumptuous silliness certainly heightened this effect, rather not unlike in "Moulin Rouge," I think. Opera's plots are typically more silly than sublime, and depending on the extremes of silliness involved, either the opera has to embrace this or else wastes its energies trying to compensate or apologize for it. So, the plot? It went something like this...

Act ONE:
Bad boy meets good girl, only to discover that she is a celibate priestess in the Temple of Indra. When girl refuses his affections, saying that only the king can release her from her vow, the bad boy accuses her of having entertained a lover in the temple, whom--she explains--comes to hear when she sings the evening prayers, but he's never even dared to touch her hand... No matter, the bad guy insists, I want this guy punished. So, when she begins to sing her prayers, he appears, and--low and behold!--it's been the king himself all along! They sing songs of living happily ever after once Mahmoun's invading army is defeated.

Act TWO:
In the camp of the king's army, the girl watches some soldiers play chess, waiting for the King to return from battle, and she believes that the checkmate of the white king is a bad omen. She retires, and the defeated remnants of the army return, telling the camp that the king is dying; the bad guy takes the opportunity to seize power for himself. Alim [the king] arrives, weak and pale, and tries to rally his soldiers, but they reject him at the bad guy's bidding, and he dies in the girl's arms.

OK, now... you might think, "Well, that was a quick opera..." BUT WAIT! There's more (a good two hours more!)...

Heaven. Heaven's having an Edwardian-style garden party at the moment, with an extensive indian-flavored ballet sequence (including male dancers in rhinestone g-strings... you gotta love high art!) After quite a lot of this unabashed flousing around, the king arrives in Paradise and begs the god Indra to be allowed to return to life for the sake of his girl. The god accepts: he will be reincarnated, but as a commoner, not as a king. In addition, his life will be linked to the girl's, so that if she dies, he will too.

(This last act was the most unabashed, most sumptuous silliness I have ever seen, but it has to be done perfectly with the exact proportion of verve and the slightest sense of self-irony to be able to truly pull off gods at a cocktail party without being cheesy... It may have well be the very best of all five--yes, FIVE!--acts).

In the palace, the girl mourns the death of the king and swears that she will not marry the bad guy; on the palace steps, the ex-king is overjoyed that he has returned to life. He stops the bad guy, about to enter the palace to see the girl; the people are confused to see a man with the features and voice of the dead king. He demands the love of girl; the bad guy orders him killed, but the High Priest, recognizing the will of Indra, intervenes and takes him into the temple.

In Indra's temple, the girl, who has fled from the palace's wedding chamber, draws a dagger to plunge it into her own breast, but she pauses to listen to the evening prayer. As he always did before during the evening prayers, the king arrives through the secret door and the lovers try to flee together. But the bad guy arrives with soldiers! The girl, trapped by the bad guy's men, stabs herself to escape him; Alim, feeling the same blow, dies with her. A vision of paradise appears as the lovers die, and the bad guy begins to suspect that he will regret his evil deeds at the hands of the gods.


So, there you have it... guy finds girl, guy almost loses girl because she's a priestess, girl finds out guy is king, guy loses girl when he's killed, girl refinds guy when he gets reincarnated, but boy loses girl when she stabs herself in the chest, inadvertetently taking his own life from him in the same moment. (And THAT, my dears, had a running time of 3 hours and 50 minutes with two 20 minute intermissions...) So, like I said, it was the sheer fun of taking such opulent silliness seriously just for the pure joy of it! If that makes any sense... well, if that doesn't make any sense, the opera itself certainly wouldn't have made a whole lot!

So, the Barber of Seville is coming to town in January 2005. This is a classic comic opera (whereas, technically, the other one I just saw was a tragedy, despite the rhinestone g-strings), much inspired by Bugs Bunny cartoons (or should I say that the other way around?!), written in the early glory days of opera by Rossini... If you're never gotten into opera before, as a premise, it's not unlike "Shakespeare: The Musical!" :-)

It's not as long, and they'll be projecting the words in English above the stage. So, what do you all say... Do we do a night at the opera, dressed to the nines, drinking champagne? After all, if the Marx Brothers could do it... we certainly could (even if many of us aren't even related!)

(January 4, 2005)

1 comment:

planettom said...

Venice-as-muse: Maybe you need to create a Virtual Venice in Maine.

You know, dig some canals in the backyard or something. :)