Cher Public

Le droit du canard

Oh, we’ve a veritable cassoulet of canards to feast upon this week, cher public, courtesy of our old friend Rupert Christiansen.

In a little essay with the provocative title “Why opera directors must stop patronising people,” Mr. C. attempts to make a number of points, none of which I think he lands with any success. But what I’d like to take on is his niggling about what one might call historical accuracy as it applies to historical fiction.

Let us begin with the statement “Le Nozze di Figaro doesn’t make sense later than Napoleon’s abolition of the droit du seigneur on which the plot is premised.” Now, this sounds all very learned and fancy, but the problem is, it’s poppycock.

To begin with, the so-called “droit du seigneur,” that is, a codified rule that a nobleman has the right to take the virginity of a newly-wedded bride, is largely, if not completely, a myth. There may have been certain customs in very early European feudal societies in which a king or chieftain would deflower a bride as part of a fertility ritual, and certainly, then as now, powerful and wealthy men often regarded sexual favors as a perk of office. But there is very little evidence of any of this practice being codified as law.

To continue, even if we assume a codified “droit du seigneur” existing in Almaviva’s domain, his renunciation of this “right” does not mean that he was actively practicing it beforehand. Politicians are constantly making proclamations renouncing this or celebrating that, and it all amounts to so much posturing. So it is perfectly plausible that within the story of Figaro, Almaviva is simply currying favor with his subjects or else preening as an enlightened despot. What easier and less controversial way to strike such an enlightened attitude than to ban a “law” that has not been enforced for centuries, if ever?

Surely the point of introducing the motif of the droit du seigneur is ironic; that is, at the very moment Almaviva is boasting about his advancement of the rights of women, he is chasing his valet’s bride.

But the broader issue here is that Le nozze di Figaro is a fiction, not a historical treatise. The creator of a work of art is allowed certain license in arranging and adapting the hard facts of history in order to craft a more entertaining and meaningful work. For example, Da Ponte  (following Beaumarchais) evokes the ahistorical droit du seigneur as a jumping-off point for a play that is brimming with improbabilities and downright impossibilities: the unlikely perfect timing of the comings and goings in the Contessa’s boudoir driving the farce plot, or example, or the literally incredible set of mistaken identities in the final scene, as if the Contessa and Susanna would, even in moonlight, could utterly bamboozle their husbands by no more complicated ruse than the simple exchange of cloaks.

In other words, Le nozze di Figaro, like any other great work of art, creates its own reality. It does not take place in our world but rather in a world of the artist’s invention. It is deliberately artificial. So why should the single historical detail (and not a true one at that) of the droit du seigneur necessarily be treated with such reverence?

True, the libretto of Le nozze di Figaro alludes to the “droit du seigneur,” though it never uses the term specifically:

Susanna: “Ei la destina per ottener da me certe mezz’ore… che il diritto feudale…”
Figaro: “Come? Ne’ feudi suoi non l’ha il Conte abolito?”

In the spirit of enjoying Figaro as artifice, why cannot we take the general principle of the powerful man’s sense of entitlement to the sexual favors of his women subordinates (of which the droit du seigneur is a specific manifestation) and then apply it in a different context? Is it so implausible that, for example, a modern employer who has recently signed off on an “enlightened” policy forbidding sexual harassment in his workplace should then turn around and start making passes at one of his employees? Or, for that matter, is it so hard to stretch the imagination to say “in this created reality set before us, a powerful man is saying one thing and doing the opposite, as hypocrites do?”

On a similarly “historical” note, Christiansen insists “Don Giovanni should be someone who visibly has the rank and appearance of a gentlemen – that is what makes his behaviour so damnable and incredible to the other characters.”

Well, to start with, Don Giovanni’s behavior is “incredible” to only one character in the piece, i.e., Don Ottavio, and even in his case the incredulity is short-lived.

From the moment Donna Anna recognizes Don Giovanni as her assailant and her father’s murderer (i.e., only minutes after her first meeting with him following the crimes) she is utterly convinced of his guilt. She never stops to say, “But the problem with all this is that no gentleman would ever do such a thing, so there must be some other explanation.”  Yes, Ottavio hesitates a bit (“O ciel! Possibile che sotto il sacro manto d’amicizia…”) and then, after Anna’s outburst in “Or sai chi l’onore,” reflects a moment more (“Come mai creder deggio di sì nero delitto capace un Cavaliero!”) though this last aside can just as easily be taken as an expression of astonishment as disbelief. The next time we see Ottavio, he’s armed and masked, ready to confront Don Giovanni in his own home.

Donna Elvira never gives her “husband” the benefit of the doubt on account of his noble status, and Masetto mistrusts him at once specifically because of his rank. Before the simple country maid Zerlina has spent more than two minutes alone with Don Giovanni, she observes, “Ah! non vorrei… [a]lfine ingannata restar.  Io so che raro colle donne voi altri cavalieri siete onesti e sinceri.” There is nothing “incredible” about this gentleman’s lechery here: Zerlina has him pegged.

So no one is surprised (or remains surprised, anyway) that a gentleman, or anyway this particular gentleman, should be prone to screwing around and murdering old men. What gives Don Giovanni some measure of temporary impunity, though, is his noble birth, or rather the power that this noble birth confers upon him. So, just as with Figaro before, what drives the story is a powerful man’s sense of entitlement, of regarding the indulging of his pleasures even at the expense of others as a given, something to be accepted unquestioningly.

In the 18th century, power generally derived from rank, but the story of Don Giovanni is just as true when the power derives from some other source. It might be great wealth, for example, or it might be political status or remarkable personal beauty. In the production of Don Giovanni Christiansen seems to be complaining about, Calixto Bieito‘s for English National Opera, that power derives from fame and (as Bieito puts it) “charisma.”

Don Giovanni in this production is not, as Christiansen calls him, “another lecherous yob,” but rather a personality everyone in Zerlina’s wedding party recognizes the moment he walks in. (For example, the amateur videographer who’s shooting the wedding reception immediately turns his camera and starts filming the famous newcomer.) So, maybe he’s an soap opera actor, maybe he’s a football player, maybe he’s a pop singer or star DJ: the point is that he’s not just a “yob” but someone out of the ordinary who gets what he wants because of who he happens to be. The elegant manners and fine clothing Christiansen seems to think define Don Giovanni’s “nobility” are in fact only signifiers of his power in the particular context of 18th century Europe. Other societies have other, perhaps more subtle signifiers, but they all mean the same thing: power, and, by extension, arrogance and the cruelty that accompanies it.

So what it seems to me is that Christiansen is overlooking the broader themes of these operas and niggling instead about relatively trivial specifics of period detail. The value of nontraditional productions, I think, is that in deliberately violating our expectations of such period detail, they encourage (or force) us to consider the more universal themes of the works.

There’s a lot more to question in Christiansen’s piece, specifically what he calls directors’ “agendas,” but maybe this is enough for one week’s worth of canard.

  • turings

    I agree that a work of art doesn’t have to accurately represent the historical realities of the times it’s set in, but one of the reasons that art usually doesn’t work this way is because it mediates reality through genre conventions.

    Figaro’s world isn’t entirely of Mozart/De Ponte/Beaumarchais’ invention – it’s a world of clever servants/love-sick masters and mistaken identities in a tradition of comedy that goes all the way back through Shakespeare to Plautus. And its first audiences would have recognised and accepted these conventions, and been interested in the ways in which they get played with in the piece – maybe much in the same way that modern movie audiences don’t really worry about whether or not a rom com really reflects reality, because they know what they came to see.

    How these sort of genre conventions in the work link to how it gets staged is another question. We still recognise performance styles of one sort or another when it comes to how a Verdi baritone, for instance, should sound, but we don’t really have a shared set of conventions for what the stagecraft should be. There’s an idea that we used to – and that some segment of the audience would be happy to keep showing up for Figaros and Giovannis in tights, and that that is part of the tradition in the same way that long white tutus are still essential to the second act of Giselle.

    Personally, I don’t mind if the staging is ‘traditional’, abstract, updated, but I generally prefer it to respect the genre of the piece in the sense that a farce stays a farce and a melodrama stays melodramatic in any sort of staging (I think this is why I didn’t much like Sher’s moody L’Elisir or Tcherniakov’s family drama Giovanni).

  • MontyNostry

    Ceci n’est pas un cassoulet.

    • manou

      Au contraire -- its a cassoulet au confit de canard. Although it looks more like a salmigondis, of course.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Whatever it looks like, it looks great.

        • manou

          Lunchtime, Cocky?

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            I’m not sure where I’d find such a thing in darkest Windsor. And I’m not sure I’d manage an afternoon’s work after it even if I did!

            • manou

              Try The Garter -- after all they cater for Falstaff.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        Looks like dead duck in a pot.

      • MontyNostry

        You’re right manou. It looks more, er, structured than I expect a cassoulet to look. I didn’t even see the haricots hiding behind the duck. And are those roast potatoes??? Or some kind of oval saucisse?
        My vision of a cassoulet is more like this. Less elegant, to be sure.

        • oedipe

          I am with you Monty, I had to look twice for the haricots when I saw the picture. Not the kind of cassoulet I am used to, at any rate. Where is the thick, tasty sauce?

          • Buster

            Paula Wolfert should analize this picture -- her quest for the perfect cassoulet is a classic:


            • MontyNostry

              Buster, that spelling (‘analize’) puts a whole new spin on the theme.

          • manou

            The sauce is in the Christiansen article.

  • La Valkyrietta

    I always feel that putting Nozze in a different century than the XVIIIth to satisfy the caprice of some modern director or producer is doing violence to the composer, the librettist and the play’s author. It is unnecessary. If the director wants to exercise his creativity, it is best to create something rather than to distort a perfectly good work that has stood the test of time. I know, I risk the director saying, if he reads this, “this guy (gurl?) has old fashion caprices”. :)

    Sometimes the distortions of directors are ridiculous and violently work against the work produced. I love Harteros singing of ‘Pace’ in Forza -she could be more Italianate and use more chest, but those are minor observations. I hate the fact that she has that modern table in her cave, and a wealth of crosses. I hate even more that she has a dress on she could use in today’s New York to go to the Met. I could not stop laughing at seeing her take a perfectly sliced wheat bread when she was to sing about the ‘misero pane’. She is supposed to be in a cave, near Hornachuelos, many centuries ago, and father Guardiano is supposed to leave nearby some food so she does not starve. Usually in productions they exhibit a loaf of bread. The production we saw with Harteros makes you think the soprano had just been to Zabar’s or Citarella to pick a little something for a sandwich before going to perhaps a Long Island cemetery. I don’t know, whatever the director had in mind I think it would have been best for the audience for such director to leave those thoughts in his mind. Or write another opera.

  • armerjacquino

    Excellent piece. I couldn’t agree more with the idea of a work of art creating its own reality. People sometimes seem very keen to pin down things which the original leaves vague or doesn’t bother itself with. For example, the production of OTHELLO I was in last year was variously described as being set in Iraq or Afghanistan. It wasn’t: it was set on an army base somewhere hot and Mediterranean, just as Shakespeare requires. Indeed, to be any more specific would have raised the question that certainly doesn’t seem to have bothered Shakespeare: that at no point in history has Cyprus been under Venetian rule. But of course that doesn’t matter: in the play, and the reality it creates, the Venetians rule Cyprus and that’s that.

    As for Giovanni, there are a slew of court cases in the UK at the moment which perfectly illustrate the point that in the modern world celebrity can sometimes provide the same kind of impunity as aristocracy used to. Various long-ago sexual abuses are being investigated and tried, and the alleged victims are saying the same thing in evidence over and over again: “I tried to report it, but they just said he was a big star and that nobody would believe me”. Note, too, that these cases aren’t about megastars, but about fairly B-list, cheesy DJs. Who knows what a stadium-level rock star or a sporting hero might have been able to cover up. A production with a contemporary setting might be able to address these issues in a more impactful way than one which says ‘Cor, aristocrats got away with a lot 200 years ago, didn’t they?’

    One tiny quibble: it’s maybe sophistry to say that droit du seigneur is never directly mentioned: ‘diritto feudale’ is a pretty literal translation.

    • Batty Masetto

      Basically behind you all the way, AJ, but Cyprus was under Venetian rule from 1489 to 1570 or 1571.

      But you could always substitute the seacoast and deserts of Bohemia instead.

      • MontyNostry

        That reminds me of an EU-led exhibition about Cyprus I visited in Brussels a couple of years ago. A room was devoted to each period of the island’s history until it got to the Ottomans, at which point it more or less skipped three centuries to the British period. Point taken.

      • armerjacquino

        My apologies! What can I say, misled by a director again…

    • Batty Masetto

      P.S. It’s always baffled me – here we have an art form where characters die while singing at the top of their lungs, execute their own brothers, fail to notice that their boyfriend is actually a girl, and on and on. Yet people who are sophisticated enough to overlook these manic improbabilities with aplomb get all hung up because somebody isn’t wearing the right costume.

      • turings

        I suppose because the first set of improbabilities are written into the piece and the genre it belongs to, whereas the ‘wrong costume’ is specific to the particular set of performances.

        • Batty Masetto

          Costuming improbabilities are deeply ingrained in the genre as well. This costume appears to have been well accepted by the conservatively inclined, but if you don’t find it preposterous, you’re not very well informed historically:

          • turings

            Heh, things you can’t unsee :)

            Yeah, clumsily put of me. I meant modern dress of one sort or another might seem like the ‘wrong costume’ if you think a particular set of costuming conventions are an integral part of the piece.

            A conservative argument might go that Verdi’s Aida was always more about exoticism than history, so kitschy orientalising costumes are part of the tradition … And so shiny!

            • Batty Masetto

              But abstraction and metaphor have always been intrinsic to all live theater (unlike film, which trades heavily in visual literalism). What flummoxes me is that people who are unfazed by the extreme levels of abstraction and metaphor in virtually every other aspect of opera are suddenly completely thrown when they’re reminded that costume and scenery are abstractions and metaphors, too.

              (And with all due respect to the goddess Nekhbet, I do think Olga might have looked better if they’d just gone and put a real chicken on her head.)

            • turings

              I’ve never seen live chickens on stage – maybe for the triumph? Must be cheaper than elephants.

              I just think it’s more about where different members of the audience draw the line about what they think is part of the tradition and what isn’t, than about what is improbable on the face of it. For some people, faux Egyptian costumes and the libretto’s specified time and place are as important as singing it in Italian and not cutting the score.

              And then sometimes clumsy updates can create problems where melodramatic elements in the plot suddenly look stupid and clunky because the setting is otherwise naturalistic.

            • grimoaldo

              “I’ve never seen live chickens on stage”

              This yt clip has been watched 3779 times so far, maybe 1000 of those by me, there are live chickens in it --

              The refrain, in W S Gilbert’s translation, goes --
              “There are some who are Spaniards by birth
              There are some who are not Spaniards by birth
              We are all genuine Spaniards by birth
              Unlike those who are not Spaniards by birth!”
              which I find to be the funniest thing ever, don’t know why

            • turings

              And now all my dreams have come true! :)

              That is brilliant -- I’d never heard it before. And the chickens were everything you could have hoped for.

            • Batty Masetto


            • Regina delle fate

              I’ve seen live chickens in Peter Hall’s Fidelio, Francesca Zambello’s Carmen and -- don’t ask -- Richard Jones’s Makropoulos Case. :)

            • manou

              Do not forget Chocholka.

    • Often admonished

      For example, the production of OTHELLO I was in last year was variously described as being set in Iraq or Afghanistan.

      Hytner/NT? That was a very well spoken production. It was so well acted and paced that I think it would have been intelligible whatever its context.

      • armerjacquino

        Thank you, I’m glad you liked it.

  • MontyNostry

    Talking of Figaro updates, I’d be interested to know what people think of McVicar’s ROH transposition of the piece to (I think) France pre-1848. Does it add anything new to the piece, or does it just get away from the frills and furbelows associated with the 18th century? I haven’t seen the production, so I have no views on the matter. I do have a feeling, though, that the piece needs to be set in a period ahead of a major social upheaval.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      As you say Monty, although the costumes are different, it has always struck me as thoroughly straight forward and traditional. It is well directed, though, or was when I saw it both when new and in 1 fairly early on revival.

      • armerjacquino

        The telling detail in the McVicar NOZZE is that nothing’s ever private- everything’s eavesdropped on and overheard. That’s contrary to the libretto at times, but is in the spirit if not the letter.

  • MontyNostry

    Talking of which, has anyone ever seen a Capriccio set in France in soixante-huit? I know some of the period references would be awry as a result, but I think it could work quite well, what with dandies in velvet sitting down to play at the harpsichord and Madeleine appearing in 60s-fabulous eveningwear for the final scene.

  • mountmccabe

    I agree, this is an excellent piece; a fantastic response.

    Christiansen uses a quite specific definition of “patronising”, I find it patronising in another sense to say that opera productions have to aim for “simplicity”.

    There are certainly poor productions out there but not everyone is going to agree on which ones and why. His comments make me want to see that La Donna del Lago he’s attempting to deride.

    • MontyNostry

      mountmccabe -- Really, that Donna del Lago wasn’t worth bothering with. The concept, which was indeed pretty impenetrable anyway, was forgotten about for most of the show, which was one of the dullest I’ve seen in a long time. The image of Joyce floating in her glass case was rather pretty, though.

      • semira mide

        Monty, agree about the Donna del Lago production. I’m not sure that a PhD would have helped anyone understand why a singer depicting Rossini was wandering about on stage -- and cooking! The production sure got criticism from the Walter Scott Society as well. Not sure that other productions of this opera currently available are any better.

        • MontyNostry

          semi -- I think the main point about the DLL was that it was just a bad production. And I didn’t think it was much of an opera either! Maometto II at Garsington was a much better evening (in an updated, but pretty straightforward production), even without the star singers.

          • MontyNostry

            Whoops, DDL.

    • Well this is a different canard, this idea that opera productions have to be crafted for some lowest common denominator. In the US, we hear, “but won’t people seeing Rigoletto for the first time be confused or disappointed or possibly mortally wounded by a production that doesn’t include pumpkin hose and codpieces?” In the UK the argument more often takes the form, “But what if the audience member doesn’t read the lengthy program note from the dramaturg ahead of time and therefore is unable to catalog every minute point of psychological symbolism introduced in the production?”

      The fact is, a really good opera production is going to communicate to its public’s emotions and intuition rather than (directly) to its intellect. A good production is exciting and surprising. It may be delightful or it may be disturbing, but it will make you feel something. The thinking part can be done later.

      This is true even in so dense and demanding a production as Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal: what one is supposed to “do” when confronted with this production is simply to react to it intuitively, to take in the imagery as it coincides with the music, and to let the whole experience work its magic on you. It does not seem to me that the intention of Herheim is that the audience should be mentally footnoting each visual allusion: ah, that’s the facade of Wahnfried; ah, that’s “Germania;” ah, that’s Marlene Dietrich and so forth.

      Christiansen’s thesis, if you can call it that, is that the opposite is true, i.e., that directors expect their audiences to process the productions intellectually in real-time. I think this mistaken notion is at least in part a function of the critics’ trivial pursuit of reference-spotting, e.g., writing reviews in which the discussion of the production consists of ticking off the name of which painting in the British Museum upon which the designer based his setting for act 2.

      • Regina delle fate

        There is no “UK argument”. That’s in your imagination. Not everyone in the UK agrees with Christiansen. Indeed, this is a song he has been singing for well night 30 years. That genie left the bottle in the UK decades ago and poor Rupert is still trying to get it back in. His views represents a minority, a vocal minority, perhaps, but a minority nonetheless.

        • Regina delle fate

          I should add that he is the critic of The Daily Telegraph, the last refuge of English fuddyduddyism whose readers have an average age of about 94. I have no doubt that part of his brief is to bolster and massage conservatism of his readers. In fact, he is a far more nuanced and broad-minded critic than the caricature of him that generally gets “airtime” on Parterre. He also moonlights as a ballet critic, and there has always an element of “Why can’t opera be more like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle etc?” in his opera notices. But that’s certainly a view among a proportion of opera lovers everywhere, isn’t it?

          • oedipe

            I have no doubt that part of his brief is to bolster and massage conservatism of his readers.

            TonyT in the NYT: “Virtuoso Poignancy Unfettered by Concepts: Zeffirelli’s ‘La Bohème’ Staging Still Elicits Sighs and Awe”


    • Regina delle fate

      Mountmccabe -- the Donna del Lago -- isn’t is coming to the Met -- really was a turkey, a wannabe Regie production that simply updated the action and played it out as if it were in the Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh. I’m not sure how you make La donna del Lago “relevant” to contemporary audiences -- a concert performance, perhaps? -- but that definitely wasn’t it. I’m sorry I missed the David Alden production at Garsington which was apparently very interesting, though not untraditional, either.

  • I wonder whether harping on the question of whether the “droit du seigneur” was actually documented in custom or law is a bit beside the point. It’s a bit like Reagan’s speeches about “welfare queens driving Cadillacs”. It doesn’t matter whether the claim is true, what matters is that there WAS (or for some, IS) a widespread belief that the claim was (is) true. (Beaumarchais, after all was not the first to use the “droit du seigneur” as a plot hinge in a theatrical work.) Both “droit du seigneur” and “welfare queens” are political myths, designed to organize public opposition to a particular social group. One could rephrase RC’s point by saying that post-Revolutionary changes to the legal code didn’t end a practice, it ended the widely-held belief that such a practice could take place. Beaumarchais’ specific plot seemed plausible in an 18th century in a way that it would not have in the 19th.

    So I don’t think that La Cieca gets the better of Rupert Christiansen in the historical argument. But she certainly does with regard to the aesthetic one. Productions which transpose settings help us perceive underlying patterns between different eras, or help us to understand a familiar subject from a fresh angle.

    • I see your point, and in all fairness, since I talk about the idea of an artist creating his own reality, I should extend that privilege to Beaumarchais as well: if he wants to take what amounts to an urban legend and treat it as fact in the context of a work of art, then that is absolutely his privilege.

      However, I don’t see that the “droit du seigneur” motif is actually the “hinge” of the plot. It’s more a pretext, actually, no more integral to the plot than the MacGuffin is to a Hitchcock film. The plot of FIgaro could actually transpire quite easily without any mention of the “droit” whatsoever: the Count is trying to make Susanna right under Figaro’s nose, and, as matters stand, his advances have to be resisted in an indirect way.

      As I did point out above, the value of the “droit” motif is that it adds an ironic touch to the comedy, the idea that the Count is a hypocrite who likes to appear enlightened so long as this “enlightenment” doesn’t include granting his inferiors the right to say “no” to him. But the hypocrisy of the Count doesn’t drive the plot; the story could progress along very much the same lines if he were simply a lecher who made no pretense at taking a high moral ground.

      • As I said above, I thought you had the better of the aesthetic argument -- just not the historical one.

        Nor was I making the argument that the droit du seigneur was “the” plot hinge -- plots (to my mind) can have more than one.

        As a footnote, I would add that, in my opinion, the “droit du seigneur” element is more than just an “ironic touch” to expose the Count’s hypocrisy. In the context of the time, it played upon a real fear that one’s personal liberty was captive to the whims of the socially powerful -- and as such, it was invitation for the audience to “aprite un po’ quegli occhi”. And being a theme which is introduced right at the beginning of the opera, it sets the tone for all that follows.

        • Wait -- La Cieca, did you just revise your comment? What showed up in my mailbox is something different from what I see now on the page. My post at 11:10 AM is now a response to something readers can no longer see.

          The comment I was responding to began… “Well, another point here is that I don’t see the “droit du seigneur” motif is actually the “hinge” of the plot.”

          • I added a paragraph at the beginning. The second paragraph now begins However, I don’t see that the “droit du seigneur” motif is actually the “hinge” of the plot. — and your comment still makes perfect sense as a response to that paragraph.

        • The fear that one’s personal liberty is captive to the socially powerful is hardly extinct.

          And, editing, “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi” as presented in Da Ponte’s text has nothing to do with the oppressive power of the aristocracy. It has to do with the folly of trusting in women’s fidelity:

          Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi,
          uomini incauti e sciocchi,
          guardate queste femmine,
          guardate cosa son!

          • Right -- we are in total agreement that the opera can be transposed to different places. My footnote was merely a comment that I think the “droit du seigneur” motif -- however it is presented in a transposing production -- is more serious than an “ironic touch”.

            For clarity’s sake, let me add that La Cieca’s first draft of her comment at 10:45 did not include her first paragraph. Had it done so, then I would not needed to have responded -- we both (now) agree that “urban legends”, though factually false, have shaped public consciousness of reality (and have been instrumentally used by politicians and playwrights to manipulate their audiences) and we both (as before) agree that, despite Beaumarchais’ use of the “droit du seigneur” motif, a production of “Figaro” could reasonably be set in a different place and a different tame.

          • I see that the comment at 11:15 has been revised too. Getting very hard to keep track of these things, La Cieca.

            The use of “aprite un po’ quegli occhi” was a little rhetorical flourish -- I was simply suggesting that Beaumarchais was making an implicit exhortation to the audience to open their eyes to the monstrosity of the feudal code. I presumed everybody here would recognize the original quotation and that they would also recognize that I had repurposed the line in a new context. It was just a little joke, really.

            • I promise to be more careful about the editing -- I keep forgetting that under the current WordPress functionality I have that capability though no one else does.

              The “Aprite un po” moment is a good example I think of why the opera of Figaro is actually superior in many ways to the Beaumarchais. Figaro’s tirade in the play is the outcry of a revolutionary against the oppressive political system of 18th century Europe, whereas the aria is developed from only the first couple of lines of the speech, the complaint about women’s infidelity. The Beaumarchais version of this scene is I think narrower and more dated in its focus, while the aria is more universal: men never do understand women.

            • oedipe

              I think the “droit du seigneur” motif — however it is presented in a transposing production — is more serious than an “ironic touch”

              Absolutely. Beaumarchais used this “legend” as a way of attacking a social order he was keen to subvert all through his career. It’s not just an “ironic touch”, it is a weapon of subversion.

              The Beaumarchais version of this scene is I think narrower and more dated in its focus, while the aria is more universal: men never do understand women.

              Really? Beaumarchais’ criticism of the hypocrisy and corruption of the rich and powerful is narrower and more dated than focusing on “men never do understand women”?

      • manou

        I may be wrong, but I understood that Hitchcock said that the MacGuffin was absolutely central to the plot as the crucial object being fought over or pursued.

        • Maybe “integral” is the wrong word in this context. A MacGuffin is meaningful only in that the antagonists are fighting over it, but it doesn’t matter what the specific value or identify of the MacGuffin is. To use the a classic example, the action of The Maltese Falcon would proceed identically if the object in question were the Hope Diamond.

          • manou

            Yes -- the point of it is that it is a pretext -- but indispensable.

      • Another thought about “urban legends”, and their import, in 18th century France occurs to me:

        It’s been years since I’ve read Robert Darnton’s “The Literary Underground of the Old Regime”, but some of the points I think he made there (and elsewhere) included the following:

        * Most people in mid-18th-century France weren’t reading the Enlightenment thinkers, they were reading porn and political tracts (written in Paris, manufactured in Switzerland, smuggled back into France).

        * Darnton remarked that there wasn’t actually a clear dividing line between the porn and the political tracts. “Political tracts” should be interpreted in the loosest possible sense -- along the lines of “Hilary Clinton killed Vince Foster” and “Obama is about to impose sharia law”. The French tracts were highly sexualized. Improbably lurid tales about the court and about the clergy functioned as “porn with a message” (or perhaps the verse). There was no tale so outrageous, no orgy so absurd, no deviance so appalling that it wouldn’t find a ready market of buyers interested in both the salacious details and in the political overtones. Many (most?) of these books contained generous numbers of engravings.

        * This might affect our understanding of the context in which Beaumarchais placed his “droit du seigneur” motif -- a more upscale version of a tactic regularly employed by the Parisian gutter press.

    • antikitschychick

      but, and this may just my understanding of it, isn’t La Cieca suggesting that the practice of droit du seigneur can be manifested in various forms, and that it can therefore also make sense in a contemporary context?

      In other words, when one reads the statement about droit du seigneur in CR’s piece, he seems to have a very specific conceptual definition of droit du seigneur but doesn’t express it professedly, which is problematic because, as Cieca points out, it can signify a slew of different things given varying contextual settings.

  • antikitschychick

    Fabulous piece. La Cieca knows her stuff when it comes to literary and cultural criticism :-D. This was a pleasure to read from beginning to end.

    I would only add that, great works of art create a reality that is both subjective and temporal. The reality of what we create and therefore “see” is only in our minds via the projections and meanings we assign through semantics and also relative to the contextual surroundings of the work.

    Happy Friday btw!! :-D.

  • grimoaldo

    Very good essay La C and you are right to point out the fallacy of what Rupert says about Figaro and Don Giovanni.
    However these “move the setting to modern times” productions do not always work, do they, you do not like the Vegas Rigoletto production at the Met La C as you said in the chat because you feel it makes the drama implausible and introduces geographical impossibilities (“dump the body in the river”, apparently there is no river in Vegas, I wouldn’t know.)
    Personally as long as the musical performance is good enough I can put up with almost anything from the production, you can always just close your eyes and listen to the music and I have done just that often, but there are some things that I find extremely annoying and spoil my enjoyment --
    *Staging an overture with running around or noise onstage so even if I do just close my eyes I still cannot enjoy the music without extraneous distractions
    *Directors, often from spoken theatre or cinema, who take no notice of the fact that their leading actors also have to sing often long and taxing music over an orchestra and place them far upstage or even in the middle of the stage for difficult musical pieces when it was the assumption of all 18th and 19th century opera composers anyway that the stars would sing their music right at the very front of the stage, which makes it much easier for them to be heard without stress
    *Stage directors who drag out secco recitatives in Mozart or other operas, put pauses into them, etc and treat them as if they were spoken dialogue in a play, they are not, that is simply a bad and inauthentic musical practice,secco recits were always delivered briskly and always should be, conductors should not allow the directors to treat them in that way
    I do agree with Rupert when he says ” There is no honour, by the way, in being roundly booed.” No there isn’t and it is a contemptuous attitude to the audience to consider being booed and having curses screamed at you as a badge of honour -- “old-fashioned dinosaurs, who cares what they think, we wanted to upset these so-called “opera-lovers” and we did, good! they hated our show, that’s just what we wanted”.
    Also I think that it needs to be remembered with these articles from the UK when they are read and discussed here that Rupert is of course mostly writing about the situation with opera in Britain, very different from that in the US as millions and millions of pounds are given from tax revenues every year to the opera companies to put on shows.Decent seats at Covent Garden are still very expensive though, out of the price range of most tax payers who are contributing to it so even if they wanted to, which most of them do not, they couldn’t afford to go (unless they want to sit in restricted view areas). But a large portion of the tiny minority of the tax payers who have funded these productions who actually do turn up to see them hate them, detest them, protest, write letters, stop going. Of course I have not done a scientific poll, but it is my feeling that in Britain the audiences don’t like what is termed “regie”, by and large. It is no use saying “you have to like it because that is what you are going to get”, parts of the audience will be alienated and stop going. In Germany, Austria, other parts of continental Europe, the music and opera loving audience is so strong that they will probably keep going no matter what, that is not the case in Britain or the US, why should opera houses all over the world be exactly the same with the same “with-it” directors staging the same productions in Munich as in London?
    It is notable that Rupert is actually hoping that the opera houses will be in financial difficulties and not be able to afford “needless expenditure on scenery and costumes”.
    I also agree with Rupert when he praises the virtue of simplicity and says that concert performances of operas can be as satisfying, or more so, than staged ones, not only musically but even theatrically.
    (Sorry for such a long post).

    • I do agree with Rupert when he says ” There is no honour, by the way, in being roundly booed.”

      This is one of RC’s more egregious strawmen: where are all these directors who are reveling in being booed? I certainly have read interviews with directors who have interpreted booing as “there were some people in the audience who didn’t understand what I was trying to get across” or “the people who were booing would have preferred to see the piece done in a different way” or even sometimes, “those booing cretins have always hated me, and to hell with them.” What I don’t see are directors claiming that they want to be booed, or that the booing in some way validates their work.

      Of course I have not done a scientific poll, but it is my feeling that in Britain the audiences don’t like what is termed “regie”, by and large.

      All right, here’s another canard, the notion that the “audience” is a static entity, and that if you do something that offends, say, 5% of that audience, then necessarily the audience size will be reduced by that 5%. This is not necessarily true. Something that offends one current audience member may convince a casual visitor to the opera that this art form has something to offer. Or, for that matter, that “offending” an audience member just the once is enough to make him swear off your company’s offerings forever. Again, this is not necessarily true: individual audience members, or some of them anyway, have the capacity to learn and to understand new things, if you give them enough time and enough opportunities. Most people when offered the choice between something new and something familiar (in opera or when ordering lunch) are going automatically to make the “safe” choice. But if we had always been allowed to make the “safe” choice in what to have for lunch, we’d all still be eating strained carrots and peanut butter sandwiches seven days a week. Somewhere along the line, someone challenged us to try something different, and even though we may have resisted at first, we developed more sophisticated tastes.

      So it is with audiences at opera: what they say is, “we want more of the same; keep it simple; entertain us.” But part of what the audience is paying for is skillful curation: they are hiring the experts at the opera company to expose them to new and different ideas, not just the same familiar stuff over and over again.

      RC’s bit about the financial difficulties is so obvious and classical an example of concern trollling I didn’t intitially want to dignify it with an answer. I don’t think a professional critic needs to go around making arguments crafted to appeal to the reader’s lizard brain.

      • armerjacquino

        If ‘British audiences’ didn’t like regie, ENO would have closed down in about 1984.

        • grimoaldo

          Well “Audiences for ENO shows continue to decline, according to figures published by The Stage today.”

          It is heavily subsidized out of tax revenues, so it is not a straightforward case of “if audiences didn’t like it it would have closed down”.
          I say this with enormous love for ENO which I went to, pre and post 1984, hundreds and hundreds of time.

          • Regina delle fate

            Grim -- many factors have contributed to ENO’s decline at the box-office, and Regie is the least of its worries. The Powerhouse era was pretty much wall-to-wall Regie, or at least the best British-based directors’ take on Regie, but, since the current regime has been in charge, ticket prices have skyrocketed. This season, they raised the top prices by nearly 30% and the cheapest tickets by 26% and we had the anomaly that you could see Wozzeck at Covent Garden with Mattila and Keenlyside for 60% of the price of ENO’s pretty decent new production with Leigh Melrose and Sara Jakubiak (who was excellent, though obviously she doesn’t put bums on seats). Also, singing everything in English has lost friends among London operas, mainly, I think because the diction of younger singers is so poor that you can’t understand a word they sing without surtitles. The voices also seem less substantial and powerful than the singers who made their names in the early days of the Coliseum, which is now deemed too big for ENO as it currently stands. Even since its lovely renovation, the Colly doesn’t have the spacious foyers and bar facilities that the “new” Covent Garden does, although it is still a more pleasurable evening out than most of the cramped West End theatres. My main beef with ENO today is that is doesn’t develop relationships with top British singers as it did in the days when Janet Baker, Barstow, Remedios, Hunter, Masterson, Bailey et al had huge followings and could fill the theatre just by their presence. For all the oprobrium dealt out to a singer like Barstow, she was a star in London, and people flocked to see her Violetta, Salome, Forza Leonora, Elisabeth de Valois and Fidelio. ENO has no-one even vaguely resembling her these days, and they can’t be bothered to nurture singers over seasons any more. But that, I guess, is a worldwide problem these days. ENO is certainly protected by its subsidy, but they need to do a lot more to bring back a core audience. I’d hate to see it going the way of New York City Opera, which is not inconceivable any more.

        • Regina delle fate

          Indeed, Armerj

  • grimoaldo

    Rupert C also says “even the most conservative opera-goer loves Jonathan Miller’s Wodehousian take on The Mikado”.
    Well “The Mikado” is an absolutely indestructible show in my experience, no matter what you do with it, however it is staged, by school productions,amateurs, highest level professionals, it always works.The hit of the Edinburgh Festival fifteen years ago or so was a production of “Mikado” from Spain performed in Catalan.
    The very great Donald Adams who performed the title role with Do’Oyly Carte for twenty years or more and also appeared in the Miller production said he felt the Miller production “misses the joke”. What he meant was that the joke is having the characters dressed up in Japanese costumes but making fun of England and English people, not Japan or Japanese people in any way whatsoever, it is Gilbert’s topsy-turvy humour, present a picturesque stage picture and pretty Japanese costumes and then satirize England, not Japan.

    • armerjacquino

      Miller’s production doesn’t miss that joke, it adds an extra layer to it- or puts a hat on a hat, depending on your point of view. But I’d say even if you don’t like it that would be down to overkill rather than omission.

    • A contrary view.

      You can insist that the subtext of the Mikado is what is most important, but at some point you have to deal with that thing that’s above the subtext.

        • grimoaldo

          There was a vogue in Victorian England for Japanese decoration on “vase and jar, on screen and fan” as the very first words of The Mikado say. The “wacky” work takes those decorative figures and animates them in a never-never storybook fantasyland that has nothing to do with Japan or Japanese people at all, as the first article you link to says, Gilbert did not do any research into Japan, he knew nothing about it, none of the jokes in The Mikado are lampooning Japan or Japanese people in any way at all.
          I can see that white people putting on “yellowface” would be offensive to Asian Americans, D’Oyly Carte never did that.

          • grimoaldo

            Or this clip from the Mike Leigh film “Topsy-Turvy”, which meticulously and miraculously reproduces the costumes, decor, make-up, blocking and choreography of the original production of The Mikado, you will see that the costumes and decor are authentic to a certain extent, but the actors are not wearing “yellowface”, I do agree they should not do that,and really it is all as English as can be except for the decoration, that is the joke.

            • My last go-around of this, because I feel like I’ve spent too much time this week explaining “Why Orientalism Might Be Bad, M’kay”

              First of all, yellowface.

              Compare and contrast images of Jacqueline Varsey. The D’Oyly Carte link is instructive because it also shows us the Aladdin effect in contrast between Katisha’s eyes and Yum-Yum’s: good characters are given more stereotypically “white” features malicious characters are even more racially “marked”.

              This D’Oyly Carte webpage is all kinds of awfulness, by the way:

              “Never slow to take an opportunity when it offered itself, a male dancer and Geisha girl were hired to coach the company as to the correct oriental manner and makeup.” As you know, “orientals” have one manner and one form of make-up. Also, are the women in Mikado all Geishas? That would be novel.

              I have to say that the color sequences of this 1926 promoseem to show characters with yellow-tinted skin. That is possibly an artifact of the color-processing, though. What is indisputable are the embarrassing attempts to create “Japanese” movements -- the demure shuffle steps for the ladies, the spastic waving of fans, and so on.

              I’d add more images and film clips, but it’s just too depressing.

              Let’s skip to the heart of the argument. You seem to maintain that the Mikado character are all “British” -- their silliness is making fun of the British etc. That is the subtext, as you see it.

              The text is that the characters are Japanese. The music has bits of Japonisme in it. The characters carry these names that disgustingly infantilize the Japanese language. The text is a bunch of white people (more often than not) dressing up in a way they think to be Japanese, throwing in gestures thought to be stereotypically Japanese, talking and singing about life in Japan, in front of decor that is though to be stereotypically Japanese.* Nowadays, a lot of Asian-Americans (and not just them) look at that kind of spectacle and think “wtf?”

              If the goal is to mock Victorian culture, then there is no need for Japanese. They can be left out of it. Dress as English people. Change some of the orientalizing text. And you can change the names to something less offensive as well.

              This is by and large seems to have been the approach taken by the Skylark Company of Minnesota in conjunction with the Asian-American theater company Mu Performing Arts. The characters were dressed as Victorians, Nanki-Poo becomes Frankie-Poo, and so on.

              If we are supposed to appreciate The Mikado for its satire of Victorian English mores, then take it out of Japan and put it back in England where it belongs.

              *Nota bene: it matters not a jot what or how much G&S actually “knew” about Japan. Ignorance about an ethnic group has never stopped people from saying embarrassing things about them or portraying them in embarrassing ways.

            • Palate cleanser:

              The “Ichiriki Teahouse” scene from the famous Kabuki play Chushingura, aka “The 47 Ronin”.

            • Can you conceive, though, M. Croche, of a framing device for the presentation of this operetta that would defuse or, ideally, subvert the inherent racism of the piece? And would the piece be worth performing under such conditions?

            • Certainly, La Cieca -- I think I mentioned the Skylark/Mu production already. Set it in England. Set it on the moon. (I recall the Berkeley Opera Company once got around the “orientalist” issue of L’Italiana in Algieri by rewriting it as “Riot Grrrls on Mars)

              I guess a company in Mobile tried re-setting The Mikado in a modern Japanese Steakhouse, with a variety of contemporary Japanese figures (chef, DJ etc.) filling out the various roles. Not sure this would have been much better if you still have white people imitating Japanese, but at least the concept seems to recognize that there is a problem with the traditional approach to staging the opera.

              You could also do a “backstage” version of The Mikado, where the characters sometimes sing as the actors playing them -- this would at least have the effect of denaturalizing the Japonisme.

              But the first thing one has to do is recognize that there is in fact a problem. But problems provoke novel solutions. The challenges of “problem” Shakespeare operas, like “The Merchant of Venice” and “Othello” have provided much fresh thinking about how Shakespeare’s theater relates to the world.

              I’ll leave you with a clip from The Mikado Project:

              Her name is Yum-yum. Yum-yum! You might as well call her “Eat me!”

            • SF Guy

              Considering that David Henry Hwang’s rewrite of Flower Drum Song was done with the support and encouragement of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, and that Hal Prince substantially tweaked Show Boat’s depiction of blacks in his ’90’s revival, the opera world seems to be relatively behind the times in dealing with this issue.

              Berkeley Opera’s “Riot Grrrl” L’italiana was a charmingly funky step in the right direction:

            • SF Guy

              Take Two:

            • grimoaldo

              I’m sorry but I must protest against The Mikado being called “racist”, how can you be racist about drawings on a vase, that is what it is made clear at the very beginning of the work that the characters are, it is just a fantasy.
              And the names are not infantilisations of Japanese names, they are Victorian baby talk, it is not trying to make any comment about Japan, it is just being zany -- a governess or nurse or mother talking to a small child “eat your Yum-Yum”, “use your Nanki-Poo” (handkerchief), “if are you going to Katisha”(ah-choo, sneeze), “that’s a Pitti-Sing” (pretty thing) etc.

            • Grimoaldo, which other G&$ operettas have characters with infantilized baby-talk names?

            • Grimoaldo, which other G&$ operettas have characters with infantilized baby-talk names?

            • grimoaldo

              It isn’t baby-talk names but G&S’ first collaboration, Thespis (the music is lost) has a cast of gods and goddesses and a troupe of Greek actors and some of the latter are --

              but Gilbert was not trying to insult ancient Greece and the names in The Mikado are not trying to belittle Japanese people or making a comment about Japan, he couldn’t make any comment about Japan because literally the only thing he knew about it was the decoration he saw on vases and screens etc, he just thought it was pretty.
              But I am starting to feel uncomfortable with this discussion now as if I might be seen as trying to defend racism so I think I will not make any more comments about this issue.

            • SF Guy

              The issue here is not whether there was any racist intent when these works were created--there pretty plainly wasn’t--but how they’re perceived in the context of today’s multi-ethnic society. Today’s audiences see these works with a different set of eyes, and if these works have contemporary relevance, if they are more than just charming museum pieces, this needs to be taken into account.

  • That is a buffet of cannards, Cieca Carissima. I do have to say I agree with you. While it is nice to see people in XVIIth century garb (the clothing is just gorgeous, I jave to say) we tend to think is it is the clothes that make the story and not the actions of the people and the reasons for those actions.

    we are so blinded by the absence of paniers that we forget what the story is all about.

    And by the way, I am not a huge fan of Bieito but I think his Giovanni is amazing. His staging, in my opinion is trully a drama giocoso as I see elements of both.

  • Here’s a thought: i think directors like to set Nozze di Figaro in the 1700’s because people associate that era of history with a certain kind of literature that’s, for lack of a better word, raunchy. Therefore, the whole libretto has a comic, sex-romp element.

    You take away the oh-so-sexy dresses and stockings and usual stage shtick Nozze di Figaro isn’t funny anymore. It’s a pretty dark story about abuse of power, infidelity, and sexual harassment. Are directors and audiences prepared to accept that without the 18th century trappings, what we’re left with is a disturbing drama?

    I mean, look at the divided reaction to Wolf of Wall Street. I personally loved the movie, but many people were extremely offended at the movie. The modern lens simply doesn’t allow for most people to consider Count Almaviva remotely funny. Setting it back in time to the 1700’s adds some distance and vintage charm to the otherwise disturbing undertones of da Ponte’s libretto.

    • antikitschychick

      You bring up some very interest points Ivy and I totally agree with you that Wolf of Wall Street was indeed polarizing. I loved it just as you did, mostly due to Leo’s amazing acting, but I do recognize that the debauchery, prevalent throughout the film was, not only deliberate but served a very important purpose.

      Moreover, I think the issue of whether an opera, or any literary work is interpreted as “dark” or a “light/comedic” depends on our own perceptions and whether we think there is an inherent (sense of) morality embedded within the work. In the case of The Importance of Being Earnest for instance, both interpretations (light/dark) are equally valid. The play can be interpreted in a very dark/cynical way, if we adopt the position that the moral fiber of the characters is either malleable, or non-existent, given the rampant use of false identities by both Algernon and Jack/Earnest. Thus making it a profoundly bleak play, which again I think is OK. Or, the play can also be interpreted as whimsical, lighthearted, and as the title suggests “trivial” in that it is primarily concerned with the artificiality found in the social circles of the British aristocracy. It all depends on one’s own reading of it really. But it is precisely this amorphous quality that makes the piece a great work of art imho.

    • turings

      I think you’re right, Ivy. I think the politics of updating sexism (and racism) is a minefield, and hard to do without changing the genre of the piece.

      Haven’t seen the Wolf of Wall Street though.

      • Well Wolf of Wall Street was a depiction of some of the worst excesses of Wall Street but presented in a raunchy, entertaining, at times comic manner. Leo gives the performance of his life as Jordan, a total criminal and drug addict who is nevertheless funny and charismatic. I loved the movie but I know many people who found it offensive to their senses.

        I bring this up because Jordan (Leo) is very much a Count Almaviva — someone who abuses his power to get financial and sexual favors. And many people found Jordan disgusting and the movie disgusting for even portraying him as appealing.

        Nozze di Figaro if set in modern times would be sexual harassment and abuse of power. The cleverness of Susanna is indeed enchanting but modern audiences might wonder, “Why would Susanna play along with this at all? Why wouldn’t she immediately slap a lawsuit?”

        But in 1700’s settings, modern audiences can think, “Oh, it was THAT age, and they nobility all behaved like that.” It allows audiences to put Nozze di Figaro into the bedroom/upstairs-downstairs comedy slot.

        • DonCarloFanatic

          We all know most women do not dare. Job loss, years of expensive litigation, further harassment, loss of community, and eventual loss of the lawsuit because of lack of “evidence” all militate against a woman who suffers harassment taking legal action.

          • Ok maybe not a lawsuit, but my point stands that the idea of “you must sleep with your fiance’s boss before you get married” is less likely to be the take-off for a comedy today.

            • armerjacquino

              But that’s not the takeoff of NOZZE. The takeoff of NOZZE is ‘my fiance’s boss wants to sleep with me but I’m damned if that’s going to happen, no matter how powerful he is’. There’s never any sense that Susanna is going to be coerced into sleeping with the Count against her will.

    • armerjacquino

      Is NOZZE all that disturbing? Yes, there are dark themes but they always run alongside a rich humanity. At the end, the predatory bully is roundly defeated by the forces of kindness, trust and love- and then forgiven. It’s purest Enlightenment.

      • turings

        I don’t think it’s out here yet – will check.

        Another way is to give Suzanna agency by suggesting that she really wanted it, which updates the sexism to a version of ‘they’re all like that’ that’s recognisable to us, while also making her less likeable and less interesting.

        I suppose what I really have in mind is more the Donna Annas in the Tcherniakov and Guth Don Giovannis – not that you can’t have Donna Anna as a rape fantasist in an eighteenth-century frock as well, but it was just striking to me that the updated settings in those cases seemed to make these female characters more like sexist stereotypes rather than less. And no fun either.

        So I know what you mean about cosy costume dramas having a soporific effect on the audience, but I also think that sometimes transferring characters as ‘types’ from one period to another, where the social and cultural constraints are different, can also have a flattening effect.

      • I think it CAN be very disturbing if you think a lot about the themes. Or if it’s put in a modern context. I mean, suppose you work with a girl and you guys are dating and soon to be married. Your boss wants to tap your girl before the marriage. I think with there being more respect for workers (I hope), more awareness of sexual harassment, the subtext of the opera becomes less comic.

        The modern production that starred Anna Netrebko as Susanna (can’t remember the director) put a spin on it by having Susanna attracted to the Count by herself, thus adding some ambiguity to the storyline. But it wasn’t funny anymore.

        I just think that what is comedy and what’s not changes as society changes, and Nozze di Figaro is definitely a comedy whose themes are less funny with modern day worldviews. It’s not like La Boheme, which remains a nice romance no matter what the setting.

        Also, by contrast, I think Cosi fan tutte is one of those operas where setting is irrelevant, because the “women are all like that” themes are still used by comedians today. Young lovers being silly and self-absorbed is still a comic theme.

        • armerjacquino

          I know where you’re coming from, but I think a good director can stay true to the work and present it in a modern setting without killing the comedy. Let’s say, for example, that the Day 1 discussion in the rehearsal room is that Susanna doesn’t want to go to litigation because she doesn’t want her friend the boss’ wife publicly humiliated. Suddenly it becomes about the best way to bring down this entitled pig. In those terms it could easily be no more disturbing than your average John Hughes high school flick (sudden images of Molly Ringwald as Susanna and James Spader as the Count are not helpful here…)

        • oedipe

          It’s not like La Boheme, which remains a nice romance no matter what the setting.

          La Bohème is a melodrama, because Puccini wanted it to be a crowd-pleasing melodrama, not because it reflected the society of its time. It pleses today’s audiences because they still like melodramas, in spite of their “modernity”.
          The novel the libretto is based on, Henry Munger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, which was published in 1851 -45 years before the prima of the opera- is not a melodrama, and it’s not a nice romance: it is a haunting and fiercely realistic story about poverty and alienation. The only thing that is not “modern day” about this novel is the lack of modern means of communication and the more miserable living conditions (though even that I am not sure about: extreme poverty has not yet been eradicated, I don’t think).

          • oedipe


          • armerjacquino

            The other difference between the Murger original and Puccini’s opera is that the novel is very very funny.

            • oedipe

              And Mimi dies all by herself, because Rodolpho (Murger) doesn’t make it in time to the hospital to be with her when she dies.

            • manou

              Très drôle, effectivement….

            • pobrediablo

              Yeah, it’s a hoot. Especially the first scene.

          • oedipe

            And also, BTW, the actual Café Momus didn’t look anywhere like the “realistic” Zeffirelli set, which is is only a figment of his imagination. Hey, Café Momus wasn’t even in the Latin Quarter, it was on the Right Bank of the Seine.

          • -Ed.

            FYI Kindle has a free download of the book. Good news, the preface appears to have been written by the author.

  • Ilka Saro

    On the issue of droit du seigneur, it was alive and well in the newborn United States at the time that Nozze was being premiered on the continent. Whether the seigneur in question was a high profile politician like Thomas Jefferson, or a slave merchant, or the horny teenage son of some owner of a small farm, enslaved women in the US appreciated the full force of droit du seigneur whether it was on the books or not.

    • One can make a similar, though not identical, case for pre-emancipation Russia. Rapes of serfs was common, practices like “first night rights” were not unknown. Formally, they were forbidden by law by the mid-19th-century (“mistreatment of serfs”), but cases were hard to prove and the legal system, to put it mildly, did not always work in the favor of enserfed women.

      • Ilka Saro

        I just saw The Invisible Woman, a movie which tells a story of Charles Dickens and his affair with a young actress. I have no idea how accurate or inaccurate the movie may have been, but in the movie this young actress had a mother (also an actress) who impressed on her daughter that she was not in the position to ignore the attentions of a wealthy and famous married man. Hardly droit du seigneur, but a variation on the theme that men of power and authority did not have to concern themselves much with how their actions might affect the reputations of “lower class” women, and that those women were in a position which made refusal difficult.

        • The actress was Ellen Ternan. Dickens was 45 and Ellen was 18, and Dickens left his wife and mother of his 10 children. Dickens also blamed HIS WIFE for having so many children. (Talk about not understanding biology …)

          A more modern version of this: George Balanchine when he was 61 fell passionately in love with the young ballerina Suzanne Farrell. She was 19. Farrell made it clear that while she loved and admired Balanchine, it wasn’t “that way” and she refused to either sleep with him or marry him. Her mother pressured Suzanne to just give in and be Mrs. Balanchine. Other dancers in the company spoke to Suzanne about how it would be for the greater good if she slept with him. “It doesn’t have to mean anything” was their advice. Eventually she married another dancer in the company. Her mother was outraged and refused to speak to Suzanne for many years. Farrell and her husband both left the company. Farrell returned after 5 years, and she and Mr. B worked together professionally.

          But apparently, Farrell was the first and last ballerina to turn Mr. B down.

          • Ilka Saro

            PI, thanks for that. I remember seeing Farrell in the 80s at City Ballet and I thought she was remarkable. At the time, I had no idea about her relationship with Balanchine. By the time I saw her, Balanchine had died. I only knew that she was one of the dancers who had worked with him. At that post Balanchine time, afficionados were dividing up the company into “true Balanchine dancers” and “everyone else, poor dears”.

        • armerjacquino
          • Ilka Saro

            I am curious to read the book, because the movie left a sort of gap. In her post-Dickens life, Ternan has kept her past identity secret and is married with a child. In the last few minutes of the film, a friend who has figured out her real identity talks with her about it, she goes through some kind of powerful grieving process, and concludes that somehow she is content with her life, and loves her husband and son. Although the movie is interesting, it felt like something rather large and significant was cut out, leaving is with a resolution that has no clear relationship to the things that went before.

  • Grane

    Haven’t read this, but I’ve read her life of Dickens. Excellent.

  • kennedet

    I went to a Concert earlier today and enjoyed the music and also viewing the audience. Of course, I hated the empty seats but it is always refreshing to see youngsters at these performances because they hopefully will be the future classcal music audience.

    I then come home and open parterre box and experience a wealth of intellectual stimulation from all of you and your love for opera in its many forms. Thank you for that.

    However,at the risk of insulting the audience….. I can’t fathom that the average concert goer…and I know there are exceptions… have a clue about the intricacies and analysis of various subjects that I read on this website. I am not proposing “dumbing down” by any means but when I talk to my many friends,acquaintances and even the people sitting next to me and hear the various comments regarding the performance…. I am baffled by their shallow responses or their lack of knowledge. This is not a “gloom and doom” pronouncement of things to come or I hope not an arrogant assessment on my part but just a statement of reality. Feel free to respond, if you wish.

    • oedipe

      Yes Kennedet, the world is full of ignorance, of “urban legends” and self-serving, self-reinforcing stereotypes. Should we embrace this as the progressive modernity of the new (wo)man, as the way of the future, unencumbered by useless (and pretentious) interest in history and in cultures other than our own?

    • DonCarloFanatic

      It’s not just ignorance, but ignorance of musical intricacies. They haven’t spent as much time as you have delving into music. They also might not be able to articulate why they even show up, let alone come back.

      I never studied music as such, despite a very good cultural education from my parents and later in college. Most of what I’ve learned about opera has been by the seat of my pants--and on this site. Which means the majority has been only in the last few years, despite the fact that I have been attending operas, concerts, symphonies, ballets, etc. for many decades. Pitch? What’s that? Scooping? Huh? Trills? Show me. All these things are new to me. I’m learning every day here. So please, no dumbing down.

      Parterre is one place where I have to stretch, where I learn new stuff. I very much want to, since the rest of the world is so blandly unchallenging. I enjoy the struggle to understand what people on this site are talking about.

      Surely, among those vast, ignorant crowds of people who bother to show up at operas, there are others who want to know more, too. Perhaps now is not their moment. Or they may have personal reasons for not connecting as you do to a particular opera. But perhaps something you say will spark them to pursue more knowledge.

      Dumb down nothing.

      • kennedet

        But don’t you understand Don Carlo that the very fact that you are very fortunate to have been given “a very good cultural education from my parents and later in school” makes you an exception to the rule? If we need to break opera or anything else down to its basic rudiments in order to educate those who haven’t had your experience…I say go “go for it”. Let’s get them interested and attending anyway we can.

  • Speaking of Russians and serfs I downloaded the diaries of Sophia Tolstoy on kindle. Before their marriage Lev Tolstoy gave his wife his diaries of his pre-marriage years which included many flings with serfs and one long-lasting affair with a serf which produced a child. The diaries made it clear that for Lev, this affair with the serf girl wasn’t just a fling, but a real love affair. These revelations shocked Sophia Tolstoy, and much of her diaries are an endless exercise in insecurity.

    She seems to have been an exceptionally high-strung woman, but one of the ongoing themes is that she feels like simply “the wife,” who’s expected to bear his kids, manage his household, copy his manuscripts, etc. as he explores his other passions in writing and religious mysticism. He doesn’t want her to develop her own interests.

    I wonder how many plantation wives felt the same thing — a nagging insecurity that they were just “the wives” while their husbands “really loved” women who were lower class (“common” people as Sophia would say). I would gather this would have been a huge insecurity.

    • At least Sophia Tolstoya had the good taste to become infatuated with Croche-favorite Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev. Who knows, had late 19th-century Russia been more sexually liberated, Tolstoya might have been famous today as the “Alma Schindler of the Steppes”.

      • Oh I love her cougar attachment to Taneyev! She’s quite an interesting woman, if you read her diaries. She’s intelligent and high-strung and complains a lot that her husband isn’t affectionate. You can see where he put Sophia into his female characters.

  • jackoh

    I’ve always thought that the best way to get someone to understand something is to “talk to them in their vernacular.” That is, communicate to them from the standpoint, or frame the message in the context, of their own familiar experiences. One of the problems of operas presented in the form of powdered wigs and tights is that it declares from the moment that the curtain goes up that what is to take place on stage has little to do with anything resembling your life. So it tends to reduce the production to a mere entertainment, a trifle to be enjoyed (the music, the singing, the spectacle) without any lasting impact as far as your own encounter with the world is concerned. If a director can create a production of one of these “wigs and tights” operas (dispensing with both the wigs and the tights) and make it speak to and (hopefully) illuminate my own experiences, I would consider that to be a success. And I wonder if any number of those who composed those operas might not agree.

    • jackoh

      Allow me to amend what I posted above. On reflection, it is not the case that a production based on “powdered wigs and tights” would be automatically irrelevant to modern experience. Two instances have come to mind, both not from the world of opera but from film. Stephen Frears’ “Dangerous Liaisons” and Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus.” Both of those productions had plenty of powdered wigs and tights, but both went far beyond being mere entertainment and illuminated, and indeed centered on, experiences that, while dramatized in a particular historical setting, speak to anyone of any time.

      • oedipe

        Have you ever seen the Opéra Comique Atys production?

        • phoenix

          Completely offtopic, forgive me. I just wanted to thank oedipe for recommending the Lakmé bdcst today. It was a great performance.

          • Batty Masetto

            I only had time to tune in for the second half, but it was indeed very enjoyable. Sabine Devieilhe was very good and Frédéric Antoun sounded terrific. Looking forward very much to hearing more from both.

            Made for a nice chat too.

            • manou

              Indeed -- I listened to the whole thing and enjoyed it enormously. The chat was most entertaining, and we all attempted to reform the unreformable -- with zero success.

            • Feldmarschallin

              Meant to say this already a few weeks ago and this might especially be of interest to Oedipe. There is an interview with Sabine Devieihle in the January Opernglas.

            • Agnese di Cervia
          • Cicciabella

            Seconded re oedipe. Oedipe, never stop extolling the beauty of French opera and promoting singers who keep the French style of singing alive. Sabine Devieilhe and Frédéric Antoun are the real thing.

            • MontyNostry

              Frédéric Antoun has been around a while, but his career seems to have been a bit patchy -- which is quite surprising for a good-looking tenor who can really sing lyrical French repertoire. (I saw him as the Chevalier in the Carmélites a few years ago.) Does anyone know why he is not more of a star?

            • Buster

              Beats me -- he acts well, too, and is very attractive. Saw him as Achille in the Minkowski Iphigénie en Aulide, and in Armide:

            • MontyNostry

              He’s due to do Tonio at Covent Garden later this year -- two performances with Ciofi, following on from l’incontournable JDF. He doesn’t seem to be a pingy ‘string of top C’s’ tenor, though, more of a Des Grieux … which is maybe both rarer (and more interesting) these days.

            • Regina delle fate

              Oedipe -- can you tell me anything about Julien Dran? I heard a snatch of something French I couldn’t recognise on the radio, but it sounded like a classic French tenor with superb diction and a not ringing but bright and penetrating top. Does he sing much in French opera houses?

            • Regina delle fate

              Monty -- hasn’t JDF cancelled the entire run with Ciofi?

            • MontyNostry

              Not according to the cast list on the ROH website, but that probably doesn’t mean much. Let’s hope they have the excellent Colin Lee at the ready. And if Ciofi cancels too, I’m sure Ermonela can make herself available.

            • Krunoslav

              Antoun was excellent as Roméo opposite Nicole Cabell at Spoleto.

              NYCO had him debut as Le Prince Charmant, and cute as he looked, and good as his French was, the music is of course for a Falcon and it didn’t really work. Music Director Manahan to his discredit put up no fight with Madame la director Renaud Doucet, to whom Fred looking hot in a letter jacket was clearly more important than Massenet’s gorgeous music.

              Fiend and Billingsgate wouldn’t know what to do with good French style if they heard it. And Gelb is content to have Sony’s Vittorio Grigolo onboard. Take a look to see just how well his undeserved SOLO MET RECITAL is selling…

              But Antoun is excellent, definitely worthy of a more prominent career.

          • oedipe


            Actually, Redbear deserves the credit for recommending the broadcast, not me. Truth be told, I had given up on recommending anything, considering the big virtual yawn I was sensing on Parterre every time I recommended something…

            I’m glad people who listened in did like the Lakmé. I saw the 1/14 performance and I thought it was even better, especially Devieilhe. She sounded a little tired on the broadcast yesterday, it seemed to me. The role is long and difficult and she has been singing it every other day for the last 10 days. One criticism I could make is that she micromanages and is a bit too rational (unlike the wacko Dessay). But that’s a minor complaint. The weak link in the performance was the very pedestrian conductor; although, to his credit, he chose HIP instruments for his orchestra, which was rather interesting to hear.
            Incidentally, both Devieilhe and Antoun are quite good actors too: the last scene was very moving.

            As for the reason why Antoun is not better known outside of the French speaking countries and Holland, what can I say: he probably doesn’t have the right network…Someone was asking on another thread why the Met hires Scott Hendricks instead of Tézier… The Met has programmed Les Pêcheurs de Perles for next season. What are the chances of hearing Devieilhe or Antoun in it? What are the chances of hearing ANY francophone singer in it?


            Thanks for the info about Opernglas.


            Julien Dran is a well known quantity in France, he sings regularly on provincial stages or at the Opéra Comique. He is a good singer, but not of the quality of Frédéric Antoun. He will be Roderigo in Otello in Orange next summer.

            BTW, Antoun will be the male lead in a new opera by Marc-André Dalbavie, to be premiered in July in Salzburg. The title role (Charlotte Salomon) will be sung by another very up-and-coming young French singer, Marianne Crebassa. Buster will probably get to see her as Siébel in May in Amsterdam.