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If only there were an opera based on…

Some opera fans love opera in spite of the plots. They accept that most opera plots are absurd and overdrawn, but make excuses for the art form in light of its other merits. I take the opposite approach: Opera plots were part of what first drew me to opera. I read a lot of melodramatic novels and plays in high school, and I thought it was fabulous that many of them were still performed, albeit in operatic adaptations. Werther, Hernani (Ernani), Kabale und Liebe (Luisa Miller), Die Räuber (I masnadieri), El trovador (Il trovatore), La fuerza del sino (La forza del destino)—you’d be hard-pressed to find straight theater companies performing any of these pieces, especially in the United States, but they’re relatively easy to find in opera houses.

Of course, some of my favorite stories never made it into the hands of librettists and composers. (Are there any aspiring opera composers reading this? If so, please take note!) Here are some that I think would make great operas, along with plot summaries and musings about how an operatic adaptation might work:

  • Alexander Dumas’ play Antony (1827) already reads like an opera:

Antony leaves on a long journey even though his beloved Adele has been expecting him to ask for her hand. In his absence, she marries another, but her husband’s business keeps him far from Paris. Antony unexpectedly returns just in time to save Adele’s life (by preventing a carriage accident), but he is gravely injured. He stays in Adele’s house to recover, but, concerned about her love for Antony, Adele leaves the house to rejoin her husband abroad. Antony follows her, rapes her, and brings her back to Paris. Antony and Adele become lovers. At a party, Antony’s servant brings him news that Adele’s husband is on his way back to Paris. Antony goes to her house warn her, but they end up trapped in her room with her husband approaching. At Adele’s urging, Antony stabs her and claims it was because she resisted his advances.

I envision this with traditional operatic roles: Antony as a dark-voiced tenor, Adele as a lyric soprano, the husband as a bass-baritone. The plot is like some of Verdi’s, but I see Adele’s part as a little lighter and more agile than the soprano parts in most of Verdi’s dramatic works. In my dream casting, the leads are played by Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann.

  • Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos’  El delincuente honrado (1773) is a sentimental drama with a slightly-out-of-date political point (namely, that dueling should not be a capital offense):

Severely provoked, Torquato killed the Marquis of Montilla in a duel. He is now married to the Marquis’ widow Laura, but he is tormented by guilt that she is unaware of his role in her former husband’s death. Just as he reveals his secret to her (along with his intention to punish himself by leaving her forever), he receives news that his best friend Anselmo has been arrested for the murder. Anselmo confesses (falsely), but Torquato stops him and proves that he is actually the criminal. The judge condemns him, but has a very difficult time doing so because he discovers that he is actually Torquato’s long-lost father. Everything ends well when Anselmo, who had gone to see the king as soon as he was released, arrives with Torquato’s pardon just in time to prevent the execution.

 I haven’t settled on a musical style for this operatic adaptation, but I am very excited about the possibility of some gorgeous tenor-tenor duets for Torquato and Anselmo and an epic “woe is me” aria for the judge (probably a bass-baritone) when he discovers that he is Torquato’s father. I think René Pape would play the role perfectly.

  • As those of you who follow me on Twitter may have gathered, I’m a little bit obsessed with Thomas Otway’s play Venice Preserv’d (1682), a drama of foiled conspiracies and betrayed friendship:

After saving Belvidera’s life, Jaffeir marries her against her father’s will. As a result, her father, a rich senator, cuts the couple off, and they become financially desperate. Jaffeir’s friend Pierre, a member of a conspiracy against the Senate, uses Jaffeir’s resentment to convince him to join the conspiracy. As a pledge of his loyalty, he turns Belvidera over to the group along with a dagger (to kill her if he betrays them). However, when he learns that a conspirator attempted to rape Belvidera, he steals her back and, at her urging, betrays the conspiracy to the Senate. All the conspirators except Jaffeir are sentenced to be tortured to death; overcome by guilt, Jaffeir threatens to kill Belvidera with the dagger he had given the conspiracy. He cannot do it; instead, he bids her farewell forever and visits Pierre in prison. Although Pierre had insulted and hit Jaffeir in front of the Senate, he now forgives Jaffeir and asks him a favor: to kill Pierre and spare him public torture and shame. Jaffeir stabs Pierre, and then stabs himself. Belvidera, upon hearing the news, goes mad and dies.

This plot has a La clemenza di Tito vibe to it, and I think we should write and cast accordingly. Jaffeir and Pierre should be mezzo trouser roles, played by some combination of Sarah Connolly, Alice Coote, and Sarah Graham. Belvidera can be a coloratura soprano, and her father can be a baritone. The two side plot characters—another Senator and the courtesan he visits, who is also loved by Pierre—could be a comic bass and a darker-toned soprano. The music should be in the Mozart opera seria tradition. (Yes, I basically want another Clemenza.)

I’ll stop there. I could write a much longer list, but instead I want to hear from you. What books or plays would you like to see turned into operas? Leave your ideas in the comments!

(Author’s note: I found out in the course of writing this article that opera adaptations exist for several of my other favorite works of literature—among them Ninety-Three, The Marquise of O, and Macías—but simply are not popular enough to be part of standard repertoire. If any opera company directors are reading this, feel free to revive those adaptions near me.)

  1. AndreiAndrei08-16-2013

    Why would anyone say that opera plot are absurd and overdrawn. They are usually based on classic authors like Shakespeare. This impression might be due to the fact that the golden age of opera was the romantic period, where creations (in music and literature) were made to get auditor’ tears and sympathy.
    To answer your question of what would make it for a good libretto, I would say dramatic love stories, action based stories and comedies in general. But people come to opera to listen to the music, not to hear a story and acting, because movies have overthrown opera for quite a while, so I don’t expect any operatic singer to act better than Pacino, but I expect him/her to sing it better than Pacino, if you know what I mean. Perhaps the discussion could be taken further to why nothing significant has been written after Puccini’s death? Why opera houses continue and will continue to play over and over again the same well known operas? One answer would be “rating” – no once will come to an unknown opera, except for few enthusiasts or experts. Just for curiosity, while writing this post, I took a look to Met’s and Scala’s schedule for the season, well well, guess what, good old stuff in 99%.
    For a moderate opera enthusiast, with limited knowledge and education, as I am for instance, the plot means very little since I don’t speak neither Italian, neither German, so I don’t quite understand what are they saying on the stage, however, enough for me to know that singing Rigoletto in English would be a disaster. So… what’s left for me to do? A single thing: listen to the music! If the music sounds good to my ear I will listen it again, even learn some Italian to understand more, but if the music sounds annoying, I don’t care about the story.

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