December 25, 2008
Che gelida manina*
It's raining and windy outside and warm and cozy inside, the tea is hot, the armchair is comfortable and all the dogs are asleep. Must play some Christmas music, or some opera.
Remember how Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts to the opera in Pretty Woman? He tells her, "People's reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don't, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul."
That is such pure, steaming bullshit. ["The first time they see it"? See it?!]
Opera is all about the music. Should be self-evident, right? But people who have never been insanely in love with music don't get this, so they say things like the above, or "We went to the opera in Moscow and saw Madame Butterfly and it was so hilarious, because we were in Russia listening to people singing in Italian and pretending to be Japanese, ha ha ha!"
Imagine watching a great sheepdog win a difficult trial and then hearing someone say, "But his ears don't match and his coat isn't full enough and his head is simply a disaster!" Same. exact. thing.
It's nice if an opera's director is cutting-edge and the production values are terrific, and it's even better when the singers are reasonably attractive and age-appropriate and can act; but what really matters is, can they sing? Can they sing so well, with such insight and with such intelligence that it breaks your heart? Are the orchestra and the conductor terrific? Is the music great? That's all that matters. It's the reason people who love opera can be oblivious to everything from non-traditional casting and weird set design to sixty-ish baritones pretending to be young Gold Rush-era miners singing, "Whisky per tutti!" [I love Fanciulla like the air I breathe.] The music is all that matters. Opera lovers know the score [and keep a copy on the bedside table].
Give a listen to Victoria de los Ángeles from Spain, one of the best singers ever, if you ask me. This recording of an old familiar is from 1958.
Now here's a a chance to test your aficionado skillz and shrug off the odd set, the costumes, the camera work, a ridiculous plot and the fact that a woman, a mezzo-soprano, always sings the part of the young man Octavian. The opera is Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, first performed in 1911, and the music is beautiful beyond belief. Anne Sophie von Otter is Octavian; Barbara Bonney is Sophie.
Honestly, the things one finds on YouTube! Here's the last scene from Act I of La Bohème. La Scala, 1979... hey, that tenor looks kind of familiar:
Ileana Cotrubas was Mimì in that vid. And now I must bundle up and go feed the sheep. As a matter of fact, my truck does have a most excellent CD player. Off to the farm —
*"What a cold little hand." [Otherwise known as "Remember to check the water trough."] From Bohème, but you knew that.