History, Myth, and Opera

More than thirty years ago in History Today, Paul Preston wrote, “Opera and history are inextricably intertwined,” adding that, “It is as impossible to understand Verdi without a sense of the Risorgimento as it is to understand the Risorgimento without listening to early Verdi.”  Studying the nineteenth-century campaign for Italian unification without understanding the role played in it by the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) would be like studying the Second World War without appreciating that Allied morale owed much to Big Band music.

Analogies limping as they do, it takes three minutes to listen to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” but it takes a couple of hours to listen to an opera.  Along with an investment of time comes willingly suspending disbelief.  For most Americans of a certain age, their first and most enduring encounter with opera was on a Saturday morning, watching Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd parody Richard Wagner’s Ring in a Warner Brothers cartoon, What’s Opera, Doc? (1957).  Operatic emotional excess easily lends itself to mockery.

Even children, maybe especially children, see that musical hyperbole, not to mention women wearing helmets with horns, can come across as pretty silly.  After all, no one goes through life singing one’s inmost desires and despair, and needing to live in a chronic state of adolescent anxiety and self-centered drama seems to be the specialty of tiresome bores, such as lonely people who make an art of hypochondria.

In July, 2009, Charles Moore wrote in The Daily Telegraph, “opera can liberate the imagination,” explaining that in opera there is no “need to make a character individually convincing,” since “the situation is archetypal.”  Opera’s archetypes carry it into the realm of myth, and great historical personages and events are great because they sum up deeper, mythic importance.

Significant historical figures occur in opera, from Attila the Hun to Richard Nixon.  There is even an opera set in the time of the Desert Fathers, Thaïs (1893), about a fourth-century monk who seeks to convert the formerly wayward woman known to history as Saint Thaïs of Egypt.

Worth considering here is one of Verdi’s less famous works, Simon Boccanegra.  First performed in 1857, Verdi revised it in 1881, and it is the revised version that is most usually performed and recorded.  It had its American premiere in 1932 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  As Roger Parker wrote in Verdi and His Operas (2000), Simon Boccanegra “contains some of the mature Verdi’s greatest dramatic music,” making it “one of the composer’s most compelling creations.”

The historical basis for this opera is Simone Boccanegra, the first doge, or elected duke, of the Republic of Genoa.  He was elected in 1339, and after twenty-five stormy years, he died, most probably having been poisoned.  By profession he was a corsair, a kind of pirate, but the common people saw in him their best hope as threats loomed from European powers and Muslim forces.  Ordinary people turned to a dynamic tycoon prominent outside the stagnating political establishment.  From the moment of his election, however, he faced roaring opposition, some comfortably-situated people refusing to accept him as their doge.

Verdi’s adjustment of the fourteenth-century reality makes this now obscure populist into a man for all time.  The opera begins with a leader of the popular party persuading a local goldsmith that their only hope lies in backing the swashbuckling corsair.  Enter Boccanegra himself, soon to be confronted by Jacopo Fiesco, a nobleman deeply distraught.  His travail derives in part from Boccanegra being in love with Fiesco’s daughter, Maria.  Fiesco despises the low-born Boccanegra and can never forgive him for getting Maria with child.

Act One ends with Boccanegra’s election and Maria’s death.  Act Two begins twenty-five years later, with Boccanegra harried by opposition and intrigue.  A bright spot for him is discovering that his daughter, named Maria after her mother, survived infancy and has returned to Genoa.  Amidst political strife, father and daughter are reunited, and he sees ahead of them nothing but happiness, not least because she is going to marry Gabriele Adorno, a fine young gentleman of the city.

History and opera meet, alas, and the operatic Boccanegra is slipped a fatal dose of poison.  Tragedy dominates the genre of opera, but opera’s tragedy presents the fact we all face in real life:  If our highs get too high, our lows will be devastatingly low.  Moreover, all but the most optimistic or obtuse have an inner wariness when everything seems to be going along just fine.

Recent productions of Simon Boccanegra have been hit or miss.  In 2010 at the Royal Opera House in London, Plácido Domingo, then nearing seventy, fulfilled a lifelong ambition to portray Boccangera, but the role was written for a baritone, not a tenor.  Still, according to Andrew Clark’s review in Financial Times, “he brings more histrionic intensity to the part than any true baritone.”

In 1995 the Metropolitan Opera mounted a new production by Giancarlo del Monaco, a trendy rendition that fell far short of expectations.  As Joseph Volpe, former general manager of the Met, wrote in his memoirs, The Toughest Show on Earth (2006), “The Eurotrash impulse to make fun of traditional conventions reared its head in a confrontation between ax-wielding plebeians in black and sword-toting patricians in red.”

Opera can open itself to risk, such as an aging tenor taking on a role for a baritone.  However, opera cannot sustain tinkering with its inherent archetypal quality.  Maybe Shakespeare’s plays can best be done in modern dress, but opera needs no updating to reveal its timeless truths.  Set Simon Boccanegra in the 1300s, as Verdi intended, and audiences in each generation will see its contemporary relevance.

History, myth, and opera all have relevance for everyday life.  Opera in particular often seems to be the private reserve of an exclusive club, pompous men in white tie and tails and snooty matrons in tiaras.  Opera’s demotic appeal occurs in Jack Kerouac, actually and then fictionally, visiting Denver, Colorado, and attending a performance of Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio.  “I was so interested in the opera,” Kerouac wrote in On the Road, “that for a while I forgot the circumstances of my crazy life and got lost in the great mournful sounds of Beethoven and the rich Rembrandt tones of his story.”  It is a reaction any composer of operas would hope to inspire.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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