Monday, April 21, 2008

opera rules

This past weekend was Knoxville's annual Rossini Festival. There were two different operas performed and an Italian street fair. Probably other festivities as well. Knoxville Symphony partners with Knoxville Opera Company, so I played two performances of Tosca. You would think that during the Rossini Festival we'd play a Rossini opera, right? (or I would, at least) Puccini wrote Tosca and Verdi wrote La Traviata, which was the other opera performed.

Usually I have enough down time during an opera to piece together the plot from reading bits and pieces of the translation that is projected above the stage. In Tosca, though, I rarely was able to put the viola down. It is one of the rare pieces of music where the violas have more juicy bits to play then the 1st violins. I looked up a synopsis on the internet and realized that tragic operas all follow the same basic rules:

1. True love is not allowed. If you follow your heart, you WILL pay.

2. Opera characters have terrible eyesight. Women masquerading as men, men changing their names to escape whoever.... As an audience, we have just met these people. WE recognize them when they are disguise and we're sitting far away. It's a wonder they are able to negotiate the stage when they can't recognize a disguised lover who is two feet away from them.

3. It's not over until EVERYONE is dead. There is NO happy ever after in tragic opera.

4. Death is never swift

Earlier this season I had the pleasure of playing Verdi's La Forza Del Destino. (also with KOC) The basic plot is as follows:

Don Alvaro and Leonora are in love, but it's forbidden. (Rule #1) Leonora's father enters to see them about to run away together. D.A. surrenders to father, drops his gun on the floor. It goes off and kills Leonora's father. (one down) D.A. and Leonora run away separately. D.A. changes his name and Leonora masquerades as a man. (rule #2) They both join the army. Leonora fears that it will be discovered that she is a woman, so she goes to a monastery and pleads with them to take her in since her brother has vowed to kill her because she (and D.A.) killed Dad. The monks take her in but make her live in a cave in solitude.

Meanwhile, D.A. (who now goes by a different name) has become fast friends with Leonora's brother who doesn't recognized him because he changed his name. (Rule# 2) D.A. is wounded in battle and thinks he is going to die, so he asks brother to get rid of a box without looking in it. Of course brother looks, he sees a picture of Leonora and figures out who D.A. REALLY is. D.A. is miraculously saved in surgery only to find himself in a sword duel with Leonora's brother. He escapes, changes his name again (rule #2) and joins the same monastery where Leonora is hanging out in a cave. Leonora's brother tracks him down and forces him to duel. D.A. kills him. (two down) Hearing D.A's voice, Leonora comes out of her cave. Realizing what has happened, she leans over her dying brother who, in his last effort, stabs her in the heart. (three down) She goes on to sing a looooooong aria before dying. D.A. then throws himself over a cliff. (four down) And, CURTAIN.

Beautiful music but what a depressing way to spend an afternoon! I'll take comic operas full of man-birds, dragons and men dressing as women / women dressing as men any day.....

By the way, if you do attend an opera (and, despite my personal dislike of the plots of tragic operas, it IS a really fun thing to do. Just think of it as a soap opera in Italian.) try to get seats where you can see into the orchestra pit. All sorts of crazy things are going on. Friday night our giant set of orchestra chimes started to pitch over. A bass player caught them, boosted them back up and they started pitching the other way. Turns out that they were off of a caster. So our panicked percussion section was madly trying to steady the chimes as quietly as they could while still counting rests.

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