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Opera Reviews

A compilation of opera reviews since 2019.

2019-02-022021-12-03 in progress
certainty: log importance: 3
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This page is a compilation of my opera reviews since watching Carmen in February 2019. Reviews are sorted by rating in descending order.

See also my book⁠, film /   TV⁠, & anime reviews⁠.

Carmen

Carmen opera

First opera review. How does a Met HD live opera broadcast work? Extremely well! They are lavishly produced, with multiple cameras and live directing, subtitling, and bonus features like seeing backstage. The opera itself is wonderful: it makes a great impression to sing and play orchestral music the entire time through, and the character motivations are painfully realistic and believable. I understand now the description of opera as a totalizing Gesamtkunstwerk: it combines all the art forms in an extremely technically-demanding combination, brutally punishing any imprecision, for hours on end, overriding the lack of realism to produce an exaggerated effect overpowering the viewer’s emotions, rendering it the most prestigious art of its era. The opera was interestingly “red pill”-like in depicting Carmen as demanding ever more sacrifices and ultimately abandoning her lover, leading to the final murder-suicide. Watching Carmen made me a believer in the Met HD broadcasts, and I resolved to watch more.

I attended a live broadcast in my local movie theater of the NYC Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Carmen on 2019-02-02 in the Metropolitan Opera House (the titular role played by Clémentine Margaine with malignant splendor), which was part of their long-running “Metropolitan Opera Live in HD” broadcast series, one of a number of special screenings distributed through Fathom Events⁠.

While watching They Shall Not Grow Old in December 2018⁠, I noticed it was done through a “Fathom Events” rather than the usual movie distributors, and made a note to look that up afterwards. I did and realized it was actually something I had intended to look more into almost a decade ago, way back in 2008, when I noticed that the local university theater had live opera broadcasts. Opera, while more of a topic for parody these days than anything else (even among urban elites), is nevertheless one of the major Western art forms and a major influence (or at least, assumed common knowledge) on so many important Westerners like Friedrich Nietzsche⁠, and I’d always felt the lack of seeing one. Even if I did not like them, I still ought to see at least one to know what they are like. But actually going into NYC to the Met would be an all-day trip on the train, quite expensive, and requiring planning. (I was not bothered by the need for subtitles, as I have always needed & preferred them.) The broadcasts were a better approach, but I still needed to figure out when exactly any of them aired, how one gets tickets for them, which ones I might want to see, and so on, and unsurprisingly, I never did wind up going & soon enough forgot entirely about the Met broadcasts. Once in a while I might think about finding a filmed version, but watching one on a TV or computer screen seems unfaithful enough to the original & sufficiently diminished/​unrepresentative to hardly be worthwhile. So when I saw them on the Fathom Events website, I resolved to not let it slip this time, and fortunately for me, the first opera was Carmen, which I knew to be one of the most popular & exciting operas, and an excellent first choice, and scheduled a reminder to go.

Day of, I showed up, and behind a crowd of elderly people, bought my $22 ticket. (Expensive, but it is not your ordinary movie, and much longer as well: 3h40m nominally.) I was surprised how large the audience was: I counted at least 120 people in the auditorium. I was not the youngest person there, but I was not far off.

The broadcast began sometime before I showed up as a live feed of the audience in the Met Opera House, switching between multiple angles and parts of the audience; modern opera-going audiences appear to not dress up much, and selfies were much in evidence. The live audience was far younger than my remote audience, and I suspect most of them were tourists, benefiting from a tourist-friendly 1PM–5PM Saturday scheduling to see big city opera. It was quickly clear that this was no cut-rate broadcast with one or two fixed perspectives zoomed back to cover the whole stage being aired at low resolution and jittery streaming, but one with a full complement of cameras & crew and dynamic movie-style directing yielding a rock-solid high-res video stream. The broadcast switched over to some introductions with our host set backstage among the technical crew like the sound engineers. (Hunched in front of their giant consoles with all the knobs and widgets, they reminded me of the air traffic controllers in the NY TRACON, or sailors in control rooms.) Then the opera began in earnest.

The opera was amazing. How could one get up? It’s such a vivid tragedy, watching Margaine’s Carmen casually seduce another woman’s man for the challenge and then, growing bored after forcing him to sacrifice everything, discarding him, dooming them both. The directing of the cameras was skillfully handled, and the subtitles (doubtless drawn up in advance) threaded the fine line between distractingly translating every last spoken fragment or repeated chorus & translating so little one became confused. The time flew by to the intermission, where the broadcast again went above & beyond—where the live audience sees the curtain fall and presumably must kill time by wandering off to the bathroom or idling on their phones, the broadcast audience instead goes behind the curtain again, to watch the Met Opera House’s famous technical features in action as the stages and sets rotate, pieces descend on wires to fit in place, sets get trotted in piece by piece by a small army, nervous actors assemble in their place and do little routines to psych themselves up, and a few of the actors or staffers get interviewed (like the child actors, 11–13yo, whose interview may not have shed tremendous light on anything, but they certainly handled it better than I would’ve at their age & they did seem to be having fun scampering around on stage). I always like seeing behind the scenes, so I didn’t even get up for the intermission.

The ceaseless assault of music, singing, choreography and sets, while not necessarily superior in every point of detail (there are musicals whose best songs or lyrics are better than Carmen’s best songs or lyrics, ballets or dances whose best dancing is better, dramas whose best writing is better, symphonies whose best music is better etc), adds up to more than their sum. At first glance, it seems strange to have such long scenes which consist of a few lines sung over and over again, and to have such extreme shifts in characters, like falling in love at first sight or becoming murderous in an instant; no play or movie or novel, even ones which aren’t trying to be realistic, would dare such rapid shifts. Even source material for operas like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which do have rapid development of changes which normally would require decades, or at least months, have lengthy speeches detailing character evolutions to make them believable. Perhaps the evolution is cut short and characters change largely by fiat, and repeat lines so much, because it’s extremely hard to write 3+ hours of good music corresponding to a comparable amount of text as a regular play; it is difficult enough to write great music which is just a few minutes long and can be on any topic, and it must be even harder to write 3 hours of transcendent music covering things like Juliet bickering with her nurse. The opera, however, is like a waking dream: just as a dream compresses centuries of epic drama into a few minutes of REM sleep, because our critical faculties are shut down by sleep and we will accept any illogic and go along with what it meant, an opera combines the singing and music to power through the plot and create the necessary effects in the audience. We can accept that the heroine has fallen madly in love with the hero for no reason other than a letter, because the combined effect of her singing with the orchestra reinforcing her in the midst of the on-stage pageantry overwhelms us with her emotions and forces us to believe (while reading the libretto would leave us rolling our eyes). Taking any breaks for play-style dialogue or attempting to be more realistic risks breaking the spell by slackening the intensity.1

Watching Carmen brings home to me why opera survives, and why it was for so many centuries the pinnacle of European art, a sacred sacrament at Bayreuth, an obsession of intellectuals like Nietzsche, and a challenge to composers like Mozart: the opera form is indeed the Gesamtkunstwerk par excellance, in combining all the art forms into one. Consider an opera like Aida during the victory march scene, and what it requires: massive Egyptian sets, which must be changed every act, constructed and operated by scores of stagehands, using mechanized stages and rigging to allow ascents & descents & rotations; a specialized stage with an orchestra pit in a large opera building located centrally in a major city (the only places an opera can be supported); a full orchestra full of >70 (or 120 for Wagner!) professional musicians capable of playing the most technically demanding music for at least 2 hours in concert with the singers on stage, with expensive instruments and finely-typeset musical scores; a dozen equally highly-specialized opera singers for the major roles, who must memorize and sing hours of lyrics, and then typically scores of extras singing in chorus (for a Met production of Aida, at one point I counted over 100 people on stage singing before I gave up); financial support for all of this during months of rehearsals which will yield a handful of performances during the opera season, after which the opera house will shut down for months, and much of the work must be redone for the next production. Just the scenery and infrastructure is highly demanding—it’s no accident that one keeps reading about opera houses like the aptly-named La Fenice burning down. All of these art forms must come together in a seamless unity and maintained at the highest pitch of perfection for several hours, and any failure will be screechingly obvious. Performing an opera like the Ring Cycle is an esthetic Manhattan Project. It tasks the entire artistic establishment of a nation, and putting on a successful opera must have functioned for developing countries somewhat like building a particle accelerator or launching a rocket or holding an Olympics does now: proof of wealth, competence, and the ability to coordinate and combine many disparate technically-demanding task.

I stumbled out impressed and regretful I hadn’t followed through a decade ago. Am I an opera fan? I don’t know, but I’m giving it another go.

I immediately checked for the next broadcasts on Fathom Events, but was not too interested by the description of La Fille du Régiment2⁠, the Bolshoi’s Swan Lake is sadly not being broadcast at my theater, but there is a broadcast at the end of March of Wagner’s Die Walküre I am excited about—I enjoyed reading The Ring as a kid, so how much better should it be to see an actual production of it? (It may not be Bayreuth, but at least I don’t have to spend a decade waiting for tickets & travel halfway around the world only to get a heavy-handed environmental parable with copulating crocodiles).

Akhnaten

Akhnaten (Philip Glass⁠; 2019 Met HD⁠; libretto)

The rise and fall of a prophet. Akhnaten is one of the shooting stars of history: a brilliant figure whose short career spans the world wreathed in flames and ending in agonies, like Alexander or Emperor Julian the Apostate or Napoleon. Posterity claims them for its own as their contemporaries could not. Akhnaten comes out of nowhere, declaring a new supreme god to dethrone Amun and a new city⁠, only for it all to melt back into the sands of Egypt, damnatio memoriae’d & forgotten for thousands of years.3 Even without the connection to Tutankhaten (better known by his later name Tutankhamun), Akhnaten draws the eye of anyone interested in monotheism or ancient Egypt (such as Sigmund Freud) for how singular he is—how could such a monotheist (even if perhaps he was really just a henotheist) emerge in ancient Egypt, Egypt of the eternal cycles? Why did he worship the sun? Why did he seem to eventually turn on and persecute the old gods? How did he fall? What did he make of it all?

No interior sources. Glass, wisely, does not attempt to answer this. We have no accounts from companions like Alexander, or chroniclers like Julian, or scores of volumes of letters & diaries like Napoleon. Egyptology struggles to infer the most basic facts about Akhnaten, like whether he fathered Tutankhamen or whether he co-ruled with his own father or when he persecuted the old gods. We have the striking “Great Hymn to the Aten”—which Glass makes the centerpiece of Akhnaten—but was that even written by Akhnaten? And we have nothing at all for Nefertiti (who may or may not have ruled after Akhnaten). With such scanty materials, the task is insurmountable.

Akhnaten evokes in us Akhnaten’s religious awe. Instead, Glass aims at evoking a mood of Ægypt, as it were. Every scene is a ceremony (drawing on the Book of the Dead⁠/​Pyramid Texts), and movement is ritualized and slow, weighted with solemnity; the visual imagery, like Akhnaten’s ascent in front of a giant sun while singing his hymn, hits like a hammer. (Wagner would be jealous.) The music repeats with variation. In a particular stroke of production genius, a troupe of jugglers appears throughout as servants and soldiers etc; while initially a little perplexing, I soon realized that juggling was perfect, because the balls become symbolic of the heavens as they travel in orbits, always returning to the same point. (This was a risky choice because the juggling makes it difficult for the actors to move around safely, and even professional jugglers may drop balls over the course of several hours—as in fact they did several times. I do not blame them because while I liked Glass’s music, I’d find it staggeringly difficult to maintain my concentration & juggle in sync with the music for hours without an error.) The costumes are psychedelically weird: silk robes sweep blood-red across the stage during an ostensibly-romantic duet, and the idea to make Akhnaten’s royal robes out of gilded faces from baby dolls is inspired (although perhaps daemonically). Dislocatingly, the Met HD chooses to provide subtitles for neither the spoken English narration (commentary from Akhnaten’s deceased father Amenhotep III, the physically overpowering Zachary James, reduced to a passive observer) nor sung English (“Great Hymn to the Aten”) nor the various other languages.

The net effect of the lighting, juggling, costuming, singing, and music is an altered state of consciousness and a religious awe. The sun rises, the sun sets; and there is always another meteor.

Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess (Met HD opera; Gershwin)

Another unusually recent opera, Porgy and Bess is famous for not just focusing on African-Americans but legally discriminating against non-African-Americans in its casting (WP describes the white Gershwin stipulating this because “he believed that Metropolitan Opera staff singers could never master the jazz idiom, which could instead only be sung by a black cast”), yet, received as denigrating and insulting early on and its reputation rising as a beautiful portrayal of a marginal and long-gone community. (In its reception, it reminds me of Freaks⁠, which similarly featured a mainstream creator/​director spending time with a stigmatized and obscure group and trying to preserve them, only to be accused of exploiting them for public mockery.) The circumstances were surprisingly political too: the Met manager took to the stage to announce that while the lead Porgy was ill, he would still be performing, alluding to the ‘dark times’ we were experiencing in which spirits needed lifting (he was not referring to coronavirus⁠, which was still being pooh-poohed as a purely Chinese matter); later, during the extras, an actress brought in to advertise Agrippina much later in February, noted its portrayal of lies in the search of the supreme executive power was sadly all too contemporary. Two such naked references to Trump, where I had seen none in all the Met HD opera broadcasts previously, makes me think people in NYC were taking Trump’s impending inevitable acquittal rather hard—they must truly had been convicted he would be convicted, and to see it whimper out, however utterly predictably, must be painful. Fortunately, the HD debut was damaged by neither disease nor disappointment.

The plot is ostensibly like Manon⁠, in which the beautiful but aging drug addict Bess, who has been enjoying the high life with her thuggish paramour (and pimp?) Crown, is abandoned when he impulsively murders another man after drinking & gambling at the end of the working day when all the employed men return and becomes a fugitive. She is scorned by the community, but taken in by the lonely crippled beggar Porgy, who discovers how much he needed to love and be loved. A third man, “Sportin’ Life”, slithers about the stage tempting people into buying drugs (cocaine), or just hanging about, waiting for an opportunity to take Bess off to the Big City and prostitute her out for a few years to make some real money, instead of peddling out in the sticks to poor fishermen.

The murdered man is not forgotten, and his funeral proceeds (despite a lack of money for the undertaker), and Bess is accepted when she says she has become an honest woman and tries to make amends. The women try to knit things back together and keep the men on the straight & narrow (bourgeois) path, but are constantly set back by men like Sportin’ Life, extravagances like gambling (the funeral shortfall is similar to the amount we saw lost gambling), men taking unnecessary risks (like fishing in a storm), and female defectors like Bess or Manon.

Crown, in hiding on an island, reappears during a picnic, and Bess is unable to resist his masculinity and alpha ways. He returns to claim her for good in the middle of a devastating hurricane, boasting of defeating God, and vaunting his strength with vulgar song. Another woman runs out into the storm, fearful for her hardworking (but now drowned) husband, and Crown leaves to show off further by assisting her. He survives but she does not, leaving her child an orphan (and perpetuating the cycle of poverty). Crown returns again that night, but Porgy chokes him to death. Porgy is arrested for Crown’s murder, but the community is reflexively silent (as it was for the original murder) and he is eventually released for lack of evidence. Unfortunately, Sportin’ Life has struck, and convinced Bess that Porgy would be locked up for life, and in despair she relapses into her expensive drug addiction, and they leave for the city. Porgy learns this, and having little choice, enslaved by his love, departs from his home for a distant city with no place for him; as noble as love may be, one feels that his love has doomed Porgy to years of misery, at best, before possibly a faded Bess returns to him (assuming she does not die of disease, drugs, or delinquents during).

While ostensibly about Porgy & Bess from start to finish, it quickly becomes apparent that the opera is really about the community: the damage done by gambling, drinking, and extreme events like murder; the difficulty of surviving the elements in dangerous subsistence occupations; problems caused by well-intentioned but destructive intrusions from the outside, like the justice system; and falling back on religion as a crutch for weak willpower and defense against social pathologies. What is built over decades is demolished in an instant—a single stab bickering over nothing, a choice to fish in hurricane season, and leaving to follow a no-account woman.

(I tried to rewatch Porgy & Bess in July 2021, when this performance was rebroadcast as part of the Met HD program rebooting post-coronavirus, but failed due to miserable theater service. The theater had, presumably in response to the labor supply shortage, merged its ticket & concession lines into a single long slow line, which meant that I had to wait >20 minutes just to buy my $22 ticket! When I realized that I would miss “Summertime”⁠/​“Roll Them Bones” and who knows how much of the first act, I walked out in disgust and emailed the theater a complaint.)

The Ring Cycle

Die Walküre

Wagner’s Die Walküre opera (Met)

Second opera review, after Carmen. Oddly, this is #2 of The Ring cycle but neither #1 nor #3 were broadcast. Not as enjoyable, but impressive in its own right. It works better at providing a mythic sense than contemporary efforts like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at least.

Following up my attendance at a live broadcast of the NYC Met Opera’s performance of the opera Carmen the previous month⁠, the next up was Die Walküre. This was awkward because I missed the first part of The Ring⁠, Das Rheingold⁠, which, confusingly, despite being performed in March and scheduled in April as well, appears to not be part of the “The Met: Live in HD” program at all! There’s no explanation on either the Met website or Fathom Events, so I guess I’m just going to have to miss out. In any case, I went.

Both the local & live audience differed from Carmen; my local audience was substantially smaller, somewhat over half the size but skewing younger (one guy showed up wearing Viking horns4), while the live NYC audience was the opposite, easily twice as large while older and far whiter and less touristy. I don’t know what accounts for that. The format was largely the same, moved forward an hour to start at noon rather than 1PM because it is longer than Carmen, padded out somewhat by 2 intermissions, which I spent watching their little documentaries, particularly about “the Machine”, using the bathroom, and going back to my car for snacks. I was concerned about the length, but my snacks proved adequate, and if the time did not exactly fly the way it does in Carmen, it did not weigh overly heavy on my mind. Incidentally, I did finally find out how the live Met audience gets subtitles as I again failed to spot any subtitle displays; checking afterwards, turns out they simply have screens built into the backs of seats like airlines, which is called an “electronic libretto”. (I wonder what they did before? Supertitles?)

The most striking part of Die Walküre was of course the Machine. The Machine is essentially a dozen or so enormous planks (flat on one side, beveled on the other) on a cylinder which can be raised to various heights & rotated; it looks like an executive desk toy, grown to demented size. The production is almost ostentatiously minimalist, using the Machine as an all-purpose setting—now it’s a crooked set of pillars evoking a snowy forest, now the vertical timbers of a cozy home, now a mountain crag for Freya to lecture Odin from atop, now a set of 8 horses, and so on. With 6 camera projectors beaming computer-mapped images onto it, the projections can be used while it moves because they are rock-solid, preserving the illusion (initially I assumed there were screens built into the ‘planks’ until an actor crossed in front). For all that it is apparently colossally expensive, a safety hazard (the number of references during interviews or videos to it being safe have the usual effect of undermining confidence in precisely that), was repeatedly embarrassing to the Met (crashing in years past and showing Windows logos in the middle of a performance), and is a bit of a sunk cost, I see why the Met might continue pursuing it: it is a more powerful system than I would’ve thought.

Did I enjoy it as much as Carmen? To relay an anecdote of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (by way of Borges) when asked how agreeable was Wagner’s company, “Sir, do you think the talk of Mount Etna is agreeable?” Carmen was surely much faster-paced, amusing, and entertaining, but Die Walküre surely aims at something else. To judge it on those grounds, it is far more successful than contemporary superhero films which so consciously imitate The Ring in trying to provide secularized mythic cycles to substitute for Christianity or progressive rock or Greek plays.

It stands alone fairly well, as we see the full arc of Siegmund/​Sieglinde, and how it awakens Brünnhilde, transforming her from a personification of Odin’s will to a human, while encapsulating the grand scheme of The Ring in Odin’s monologue, explaining how he is empowered but trapped by his past choices and dependent on free agents to liberate him; through the rest, Odin remains a figure of dramatic irony—to what extent is he genuinely despairing or furious with Brünnhilde, and to what extent (like Morpheus in The Sandman) is this all in fact part of a Xanatos Roulette? Act 1–2 work particularly well as they compress a full tragedy, while Act 3 in retrospect strikes me as unfortunately extended, not able to support so little meaningful plot (I particularly noticed lines of dialogue being repeated illogically in Act 3). I particularly liked the performances of Siegmund/​Sieglinde, Freya, and Brünnhilde; I enjoyed Odin (played in this performance by Solid Snake) but in retrospect think he might’ve played the role too seriously, without regard for the irony, as I don’t think any viewers innocent of the overall Ring plot or the monologue would be suspicious that he was anything other than he appeared. And reading reviews, Hunding was praised too but I found him absurdly diabolical (the actor made such weird faces for villainous sneers that the old woman next to me involuntarily laughed several times). So… maybe I enjoyed it. It was interesting, if nothing else.

Rheingold/Siegfried/Götterdämmerung

Das Rheingold⁠, Siegfried⁠, Götterdämmerung (Met, “Nightly Met Opera Streams”)

Last year I could only watch Die Walküre⁠, missing out on the full Ring cycle. This was unfortunate. The Ring is the Red Army of Anglophone culture: it is constantly lurking on the fringes, occasionally making its presence known. Whether it’s The Lord of the Rings (so profoundly popular, and something that may be the most lasting work of 20th century pop culture), or its omnipresence in Hollywood like Apocalypse Now or Bugs Bunny. But where does one see the cycle? After I encountered Margaret Amour’s The Nibelungenlied (in its handsome green 1961 Heritage Press hardcover edition), I read my way through the Eddas, the Volsung Saga, several of the other sagas, Heaney’s Beowulf and so on up to The Ring, at which point I halted. It is not something you see at your local high school or movie theater. The famed Bayreuth theater might as well have been on the other side of the planet for all the good it did me (which it is). My library had no VHSes or DVDs of it; you can check the libretto out from your library, and I did as a kid, but that turns out to be laughably useless: you might as well read the Wikipedia summaries. (Not that it existed then.) If I had known that Met theater broadcasts existed—but then, I didn’t know the NYC Met opera even existed. It is fortunate then that the Met streams included all of them and I could finally watch the Ring cycle in its entirety, as diminished as it may be on a computer screen.

Das Rheingold proves to be largely prologue and set up. Aside from repeatedly raising the puzzle of what Loki’s motives are (a puzzle that Loki takes with him and is never dealt with in the subsequent operas), I have little to say about it.

Moving on to Siegfried & Götterdämmerung: Siegfried, we learn, is congenitally immune to fear and unable to understand even what it is. Such disabilities are not unheard of, and are typically due to brain damage, such as genetic mutations or prenatal trauma. In Siegfried’s case, while his prenatal care was shockingly lacking and his delivery circumstances in a dark forest were primitive at best, a genetic etiology from a homozygous mutation appears more likely given his status as an F2 hybrid of an Æsir/​human cross and then a sibling mating—a situation practically calculated to simultaneously maximize outbreeding depression & inbreeding depression⁠.

His dwarf caretaker Mime is unable to teach Siegfried fear with his crude behavioral interventions such as telling him to fight a frightening dragon (although we can note that in such cases, the separate CO2 suffocation fear reflex is often intact⁠, so Siegfried likely could have been able to learn fear by strangling rather slaying). Unsurprisingly, like most such cases of individuals lacking key adaptive drives like fear or pain, Siegfried is poorly equipped for the real world⁠, and not long after leaving the highly-controlled environment & oversight of his legal guardian Mime, Siegfried is the victim of a street fight and dies with a net inclusive fitness of 0, having been unable to prudently navigate the human social dynamics of his local gang hierarchy.

The death of Siegfried may seem tragic, but we should note the broader perspective that this is how natural selection removes such severely disabling mutations from the gene pool, and in lieu of modern medical interventions & any understanding of genetics, this was perhaps the best that could be done under the medieval circumstances. I applaud Wagner for illustrating the subtle mechanisms through which selection operates and how even apparent banes like fear & cowardice are in fact boons.

Joking aside, the ending opera Götterdämmerung is easier to describe by who survives than who dies5⁠; some of the humans survive, the Rhine Maidens receive their gold back, and pretty much everyone else is dead or implied to die when Loki, at Brünnhilde’s charge, presumably sets Valhalla on fire (Odin having helpfully heaped up firewood around it). Further, the flooding of the Rhine wipes the slate clean, the hoard of the Nibelungs is lost in the dragon’s cave, Valhalla is rubble, Odin’s treaties are all abrogated. It is a Götterdämmerung, but curiously, it is not the one described at all in the Eddas (there is no hint of resurrection, or the gods waking up and discovering, mysteriously, their old chess set laying on the ground). For all his textual research to create a palimpsest, Wagner resorts to this as an ending. There is no narration; no character like Erda tells us what to think; neither Siegfried nor Brünnhilde ascend to heaven in a redeeming Christianizing gloss as we might expect of the creator of Parsifal, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, or Lohengrin. Despite the many hours we have now invested listening to character explain things at often enormous length, we are left alone. Everything fades out to meandering, quiet music that passes away.

What does it mean? What does all this music amount to? Surely Wagner did not mean his magnum opus to be merely a showcase for his music and opera singers (or a standing challenge to opera houses to be able to perform the cycle). The Bayreuth Festival was supposed to be a secular sacrament for the modern German man, annually combining his national mythological heritage with all the arts to transform him. So what does it mean?

I’m comforted to read in Wikipedia that Wagner appears to have been just as uncertain as I was, going through no less than 6 radically different versions of the ending: Odin’s plan succeeds as the Ring is returned, the Nibelungs liberated, and the happy pair ascend to Valhalla, redeeming the gods’ sin and ending the cycle of theft/​inheritance. Or, they ascend, but the gods now depart, powerless and replaced by their moral superior, Siegfried. Or, all must perish in fire, and humans rule thenceforth, seeking not power but only love. Or, the Schopenhauerian version has Brünnhilde enlightened6 by her sufferings, and liberated from the wheel of reincarnation, leaving behind only the ashes of the old order. Or, finally, her speech is dropped, as is the presence of any other character, and there is only the music. Which is the truest? If we trust Wikipedia, the ending has a definitive meaning:

Although Wagner never set either the Schopenhauerian or the Feuerbachian lines, he did include them as footnotes in the final printed edition of the text, together with a note to the effect that while he preferred the Schopenhauerian lines, he declined to set them because their meaning was better expressed by the music alone.

Her part of the tale is elevated from, as Tolkien remarked of Guðrúnarkviða II⁠, “only in the background of the tale, a brief and terrible storm beginning in fire and ending in it”7⁠, to the skeleton key for the cycle: she literally ends the cycle (of corruption, struggle, and betrayal) with her enlightenment.

Like Takahata’s final anime The Tale of the Princess Kaguya⁠, the Ring warns us of the self-defeating nature of desire: taken too far, what is virtue becomes vice; what should be a blessing, is a bane.

Gold is beautiful, and Das Rheingold opens with rhapsodies about its beauty, but this beauty causes far greater ugliness. Wagner’s Odin worked for the sake of power, for building Valhalla and binding the world with his treaties and impeding potential rivals who might abuse the Rhinegeld’s power; it is admirable to strive for greatness, to defend oneself and one’s own, and to build things for the ages, but what did Odin sacrifice to do so? Odin didn’t sacrifice quite like Albrecht, but he sacrificed his honor, then his relationship with his wife, then his children & grandchildren. The result of all his work was fugacious, a pinchbeck glory: betrayal, incest, misery, fire, destruction of his works, and death for all. The sins of the fathers are passed down to the sons, like Alberich’s son Hagan, whose “Hagen’s Watch” is unlike almost any other scene: cursed by the burden of carrying forward his father’s quest for revenge & the Ring, he becomes like “butter scraped over too much bread” and can find no joy in living. Lesser characters likewise throw away something by lusting for more, to receive, in the end, the nothing of death.

Only the final inheritor of the Ring, Brünnhilde—who acts out of compassion by taking pity on the suffering, refusing complicity in cruelty—escapes the lure of the Ring, and the (seemingly) endless cycle of schemes and revenge, vengeance, greed, betrayal, etc. The Ring cycle illustrates the harmful consequences of craving (particularly for power), the need for compassion in the face of the impermanence of all things, and how to escape suffering through acceptance. Not a Christ figure (like so many Wagnerian women), redeeming sin and ensuring Heaven, but a Buddha, ending the karmic chain of cause-and-effect arising from desires and cravings, and achieving enlightenment, liberation from the wheel of suffering.

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. O what an awakening! All hail!

An apocalypse puts everything in perspective. The thunder rages and the lightning burns, but the muttering storm too shall fade and pass away: all things, even the deathless gods, come to an end. The earth is cleansed, a new day begins, the gods discover their old chess pieces laying in the fresh green grass, and the viewer walks out of the theater in the suddenly-bright sunlight, feeling, somehow, wiser and younger.


Agrippina

Agrippina (Met HD opera; George Frideric Handel)

A surprisingly ribald & ironic comedy of Agrippina scheming to make Nero the Emperor Nero, drawing on Tacitus & Suetonius (taking many liberties with characters, particularly Poppea/​Ottone). I and the audience laughed regularly at the broad physical comedy. Spoilers: she succeeds.

This production sets the drama in a vaguely-1980s Manhattan (but with smartphones), and leans in to the comedy and sexual manipulation. The MILF empress Agrippina, having secretly learned her husband Emperor Claudius has drowned, without formally naming an heir (Claudius’s other children, particularly Britannicus⁠, never come up), summons her son (from an earlier marriage) Nero. Nero, cross-played by Kate Lindsey⁠, is a heavily-tattooed club rat, a coke fiend, something of a break-dancer (Lindsey is given gymnastic choreography, including an aria while planking, which is just plain showing off), and a sociopath who hungers for the throne to better sate his desires, including his Oedipal ones. (The cross-play is not as arbitrary as it seems: Handel wrote the role for castrati⁠.) Agrippina reveals the truth, and sends him out into the streets to bribe the masses and show his philanthropy for the cameras. Simultaneously, she rushes to recruit Claudius’s two primary supporters (Narcissus & Pallas), both of whom lust after her, and promises each of them her exclusive affections should Nero ascend; meta-fictionally, she meets the second at the opera, where the pamphlet helps cover up a handjob she administers to seal the deal. (Fortunately, she brought hand sanitizer in her purse.)

The plot succeeds, and Nero is being acclaimed—when Claudius returns alive. He had been saved from drowning by a heroic officer, Ottone⁠, and has decided to designate Ottone his successor. Agrippina’s scheme foiled, she lucks out when the guileless Ottone confides in her that he wishes only to marry the beautiful Poppea: who is the target of Ottone, Claudius and Nero. Agrippina seizes the opportunity of this love polygon, and tells the gullible Poppea that Ottone has betrayed her for the throne, and she should get revenge by telling the horny Claudius that Ottone was denying him her affections. Enraged, Poppea plays along. Claudius, played by the blinkered bear-like Matthew Rose (who plays the lecherous old man comedy-bits well, including the attempts at sexy poses), falls for it. Despite her success, Poppea is crushed by the betrayal of her love, ripping up old love letters and stuffing her face with a box of Valentine chocolates.

The next day, instead of anointing Ottone, degrades him, proclaiming him a traitor without further explanation. All and sundry desert him, Agrippina slapping him on her way out. Alone in his despair, Ottone gets the longest segment of the opera. Nero finally gets named the heir, and Agrippina appears to have won. To tidy up loose ends, she orders the two supporters to murder each other.

Drunk at a bar, Poppea laments Ottone’s betrayal, falling asleep. In an extended interlude, the barflies snap selfies with the drunk Poppea, and continue drinking and admiring the bartender’s juggling and dancing (to a harpsichord instead of a jazz pianist) when who should Ottone walk in and overhear her mumblings? He convinces her to hear him out, and Poppea realizes how Agrippina deceived her. Instead of unmasking Agrippina, she plots her own revenge, by telling both Claudius and Nero to come to her penthouse at the same time. She hides Nero in a closet (with Ottone in another—no wonder women need so many closets), and when Claudius comes, reveals she ‘really’ meant Nero was the one obstructing him, and as proof of how Nero was harassing her, pulls him out of the closet. Claudius is infuriated at Nero’s low morals, and expels him.

The two supporters, having decided that trying to murder each other is not that appealing after all, throw themselves on Claudius’s mercy, revealing the original plot to put Nero on the throne. Claudius summons everyone, and enquires into what exactly is going on. Agrippina persuades him her intentions were benign and preserved the throne for him in his absence, and he decrees that—as in any proper comedy—everyone will get what they want, and there will be a marriage, with Ottone and Poppea wedding while Nero will ascend the throne.

All’s well that ends well, happy music plays, and the curtain descends, as Claudius’s butler, who has killed time in between arranging arraignments by reading a copy of Tacitus, turns to the end and starts laughing. The End.

The comic ending, of course, is ironic, as any viewer in 1709, steeped in the classics like Tacitus & Suetonius, would be well aware, because this is actually a tragedy, a tragedy of how Claudius failed in the vital matter of the succession: far from having cleared everything up and ensured a happy ending, Claudius set the stage for disaster—Claudius & both supporters were likely murdered by Agrippina after he began considering a different heir than Nero, Nero would then murder Agrippina and become one of the worst Roman Emperors ever, which would dismay the noble Ottone who thought only of the empire’s good and the love of Poppea, and who would be banished by Nero (ultimately committing suicide after his own bid for emperorship fell through post-Nero), a divorce forced, and Poppea taken for his own, only to be beaten into miscarriage by Nero. Nero himself didn’t exactly die in his sleep, either. The slapstick and sexual comedy emphasizes this by the contrast; as they pursue their petty lusts and schemes, they set in motion disaster on a vast scale.

Compared to other later actions, it is striking how univocalic and straightforward the action is: every scene is dominated by the single voice of the character pursuing the action, and deceiving the other characters, often alternating between their spoken deceptive ‘dialogue’ and truthful monologue asides. Agrippina in particular always has a plan and is executing it, without a shred of remorse; it’s not so much that she’s evil as she is aimed solely at the goal of enthroning Nero, and nothing else enters into her amoral considerations (like Nero being a sociopath), as she dances to her own music with celebratory booze. (It is something of a uniquely female role: Agrippina is utterly invested in Nero, as she can have no more children; it’s harder to see a man quite the same, as they always have other options, and to be pursuing other intrinsic drives like conquest and prestige.)

Entertaining, funny, and beautiful, Agrippina is worth a watch.

Manon

“Individual organisms are best thought of as adaptation-executers rather than as fitness-maximizers. Natural selection cannot directly ‘see’ an individual organism in a specific situation and cause behavior to be adaptively tailored to the functional requirements imposed by that situation.”

Tooby & Cosmides1992, “The Psychological Foundations of Culture”

Review of Manon, a French opera about a beautiful countryside girl whose craving for the ‘good life’ leads her into the Parisian demimondaine as a courtesan.

Exemplifying Girardian mimesis, Manon wants what everyone else wants, and wants what she can’t have, like her spurned lover only once he has taken religious vows. She plays off suitors, who compete in negative-sum games for her favors, until eventually she goes too far and is imprisoned, destroying her health; cast down, she realizes that ‘living only for pleasure’ was not the ideal life.

This scenario seems to exemplify the extent to which polygynous competition can result in negative-sum games, making almost everyone worse off except a few winners (and those possibly only temporarily).

Manon opera Jules Massenet⁠; 2019 Met HD, 2019-10-26. Manon follows a naive & beautiful young French girl from the countryside to ascending the heights of the Parisian demimonde⁠, akin to but earlier than Moulin Rouge! & more contemporary to the Edo-period Japanese “floating world” (but still similar to contemporary night clubs & host / hostess bars).

While being shuttled to a convent for storage, presumably before an arranged marriage, Manon is propositioned by a rich lecher, and then meets a young aristocrat who falls in love on sight and convinces her to run away with her; excited by her glimpses of a wider world, she does. His father is opposed, and arranges for him to be kidnapped away from their love-nest, while Manon is seduced away by promises of great wealth, that her paramour could never offer her after being disowned. She is an enormous success as a courtesan, becoming a queen-bee, twisting rich men around her finger (and incidentally spurning the rich lecher despite his best efforts)—until she hears that her old lover, embittered by her infidelity, has shaken off the dust of the floating world and cut his hair to become a (Catholic) priest, vowing to renounce the world, and women specifically. Naturally, she immediately rushes there to seduce him back and succeeds. Alas, she still lusts after a high-class lifestyle, and how is he to provide? Well, he can risk his good name & credit by high-stakes gambling, particularly against the rich lecher who sees an opportunity to finally take Manon; surprisingly, he is not ruined by bad luck or cheating, but wins enormously, so enormously that the rich lecher calls the police in for revenge. Both are eventually released, but Manon’s health has been ruined by prison, and she dies in his arms.

The settings and costume are bland, especially compared to Turandot, but I liked the music overall more, and the plot/​characters are far better and interesting to consider. For example, Manon says repeatedly how “wonderful” it would be to live only for “a life of pleasure”—but what ‘pleasure’, exactly? There are so many kinds, and it is worth interrogating this further.

In the first scene, when looking in at the rich man dining with his courtesans (on an equally rich dinner of many courses described earlier to the audience), Manon does not ever mention the food, nor the fine wine, nor the conversation; she mentions only how beautiful the courtesans look with their “gold” jewelry. Later, queen of courtesans herself, where does Manon take her pleasure? She demands her lord bring the ballet opera to her hotel (but what aesthete would demand such a thing, compromising the performance?); she promenades during a drinking party, but never drinks herself; we can safely assume that she was deflowered by her chevalier while living in sin together but this is only implied, and everything is consistent with her not even prostituting herself (which might sound improbable but in other milieus like contemporary escorts or supermodels or the Japanese pleasure quarters, the highest ranking women prided themselves on rarely or never having sex with clients, much less in any kind of explicit quid pro quo, unlike common harlots); she doesn’t engage in any visible fine dining, either, lets her men do the gambling and merely collects the winnings, and certainly there is no dabbling in high-level business or politics or such sordid recreations as drug use. Manon’s one visible pleasure is that of dressing up to the nines and accompanying rich powerful men in public, singing the praises of (giving her) “gold” and pleasure.

What ‘pleasure’ seems to mean primarily to Manon is the pleasure of prestige and social status climbing—of being seen by all and sundry as the most desirable woman in the room, and knowing that she is being seen as such, and is the “queen”, with perpetual proof provided by the male attention & gifts of costly tributes. The fact that the courtesans at the beginning were wearing a relatively shiny yellow metal or eating delicious food was of no importance; the importance was mimetic, that gold is a costly signal, proof that a rich man had chosen them out of all their competitors, and everyone could see the gold & fancy clothes and be impressed (even if they would otherwise be contemptuous of courtesans). What Manon craved was social status, and her fall in the introduction is learning that she by sheer luck and simply looking pretty, can seize high social status by manipulating men. (The attention from the rich man and the Chevalier, while ‘sexual harassment’, provide her with the external assessments that her country life & sheltered upbringing had—deliberately?—deprived her of.) By exploiting her beauty, Manon, an obscure country girl with no particular talents or connections, can vault straight to the top of Parisian life (and thus, France). And her alternative, going to the convent, would be a “living tomb” not because of its architecture or because religious life is worthless, but because the social order of a nunnery is designed to crush a pecking order based on beauty: nuns would have to shave their heads, wear habits, isolate themselves completely from men, and a new pecking order based on seniority would be ruthlessly enforced, putting Manon, as a novice with uppity opinions of herself, at the lowest possible level. This is a compelling motivation. Prestige is a high more addictive than any drug, and men will certainly fight & die for a piece of ribbon; how much more so women?

The price, of course, is that her shortcut to the top means her time at the top will be short. Like fine art, the objects of desire are desirable not for their traits themselves, but for the fact that others want them, with a distant weak anchoring in some objective, and in her case, highly perishable, quality. (Nobody actually enjoys any piece of fine art to the degree of $500 million, much less a tenth or a hundredth of that; fine art is expensive because it is expensive, just a bubble that doesn’t pop. Being a beautiful piece of art is merely a starting point, and often an unnecessary one.) Just as Manon wants gold and dresses because other women want them and so getting them becomes a costly signal, men want Manon because other men want Manon. Her beauty is insufficient; as Manon the country girl, she attracts notice, but no one in the opening scene is going to kill themselves over a girl off the train, however cute she may be. But, after trading in her beauty, and accumulating social proof, and bootstrapping her way up through a succession of progressively more elite men by raising her standards ever higher and demanding more and more (like Carmen⁠, Manon doesn’t want any man she can have), she becomes Manon the courtesan, scourge of chevalier and chef alike, accompanied by lords and sought by the richest of men, and now she is worth dying for. The equilibrium, however, is fragile, as Manon’s fading beauty must inevitably intersect with a young new thing bootstrapping her way up, and unlike fine art, her bubble can pop—an epidemic of undesirability can erupt, and suddenly there is no one who wishes to bestow gifts of hundreds of francs on Manon for the pleasure of her company in public in order to be seen with her (“Manon who?”). All that is left is a terrifyingly high burn rate to ‘maintain appearances’ in the hopes of a dead cat bounce, no long-term relationships (having repeatedly burnt bridges to trade up), revulsion from respectable men & women, and no career or salable skills. Such a story, like Sunset Boulevard or countless aristocratic families, may terminate in homelessness or dire poverty, with the protagonist living off fumes from the faded memories of having once been high status (more addictive than any drug…).

This may not sound like it is all that great a choice. But it’s not that great for the men either. Paying for courtesans tends to be an older man’s game, because younger men are still building a career and have not amassed the resources necessary to compete. They must throw away the best decades of their lives, and risk their lives, to even have a chance to compete. Since there is a limited number of such elite courtesans, who are well-known enough to be ‘desired because they are desired’, they are short-lived monopolies, and can extort the maximum possible from their suitors, who are subject to the winner’s curse: the man who most overpays is most likely to win. There are no refunds of gifts or gestures, so it constitutes an all-pay auction⁠. Because things like diamonds or fine wines are in fixed supply, their cost can increase without bound, creating ruinous negative-sum competitions. And because these prices are completely unrelated to any intrinsic quality and said qualities are subject to steeply diminishing returns and low resale value, enormous value can be destroyed. (Paying 10,000 francs for a large diamond to give to Manon does not provide 10 times the aesthetic beauty of a 1,000 franc diamond, induces wasteful diamond mining and retailing, and Manon cannot even sell it for 10,000 francs so it is a terrible way to transfer value as well. Truly, tertius gaudens.) And should they blow so much money as to win Manon (rather than concentrating on finding a good wife, harming prospective wives as well as themselves), she may soon leave them for a higher bidder, and even if she does not, within a few years, she will likely no longer be ‘Manon’ anyway and merely a pretty woman past her prime. The men would be far better off if they could instead organize a cartel and suppress runaway competition; it would still be an improvement if they could settle matters with a second-price auction and at least then only the winner has to pay; it would even be an improvement if they could instead literally light bonfires of cash to compete (as that would not waste resources on low value but costly signals and would simply redistribute their wealth to the rest of the population via deflation).

Seen from a far enough distance, the demimonde (past the basic tier of straightforward entertainment/​prostitution) looks like a coordination problem: it is an infernal machine for manufacturing inequality while also immiserating society as a whole. Social norms (such as intrasexual competition or sumptuary laws) typically suppress both the buying & selling of sex & prestige, channeling energies into monogamous marriages while young with relatively small sunk costs (eg. dowries rather than lavish events or costly signals), but a few defectors (male & female) can initiate a different ecosystem: females can aim at the top of the social hierarchy rather than settling for more modest middle or lower-class statuses in a stable long-term relationship, while the most elite males can hope to maintain polygamous relationships with the most beautiful and desired women, with bubble-like dynamics. If you’re one of the lucky ones, the highs are high; but the lows are low indeed: all of this comes at the cost of destroying long-term prospects, creating runaway negative-sum competitions, and removing individuals from the marriage market (since the sex ratio is 50:50, how does a rich man have many concubines or courtesans without depriving less-wealthy men of women?).

I am reminded of contemporary online/​mobile dating. It has been a breakthrough in logistics, allowing (especially urban) users to find each other out of millions of people, conveniently and quickly. Why then does everyone seem to hate it, and point at OKCupid or Hinge or Tinder data? Why are there complaints that young people are not having sex or that there appears to be a shortage of ‘good’ men/​women (eg. Bruch & Newman2018⁠/​2019⁠, Lichter et al 2019)? Why do polygamous societies seem rather worse off than monogamous ones (Henrich et al 2012) when such dynamics appear to be what women gravitate towards given the opportunity by circumstances or technology?

Manon offers food for thought on all of these, despite being set centuries ago in Paris. In this regard, Manon is infinitely more satisfying intellectually than Turandot. There’s potentially something to the dynamics in Turandot but it’s so farcical and the psychologies so hollow that whatever truth there is to Turandot’s scheme is lost. Manon’s and her suitors’ choices are, on the other hand, all too understandable and well-motivated and interesting to watch.

Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly (Puccini⁠; 2019 Met HD):

One of the most popular operas, relies heavily on beautiful visuals and interesting gimmicks like puppeteers, at the cost of establishing plausible psychology for either protagonist or justifying the tragedy. Beautifully staged, this is true “poster art”.

Picturesque, not plot or psychology. Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas, as the crowded theater (both locally & in NYC) testified. The plot is trivial to summarize: in Act 1, Butterfly shows up and is married and bedded by a caddish American naval officer who bluntly admits he intends to abandon her; in Act 2, she denies that she has been abandoned and awaits her husband; in Act 3, she commits suicide upon realizing she has been abandoned. Even compared to some operas, this is remarkably simple, almost Aristotelian: a handful of characters, a single setting, and scenes set on just 3 days.

Romantic sins of commission vs omission. It’s interesting to contrast it to the two operas I watched last month⁠, Turandot & Manon: all 3 share the same theme of a female protagonist who risks ruin in love, but the ruin is different each time—in Turandot, Turandot ruins countless men by refusing all of them in a particularly vicious way and nearly dooms herself to spinsterhood, and in Manon, Manon is ruined because she accepts a worthy man but spurns him for a brief but glorious life as a courtesan only to realize too late that she made the wrong choice, while in Madama Butterfly, Butterfly is ruined because she accepts an unworthy man but refuses to spurn him when she finally realizes her mistake. (To make this list exhaustive, we’d need an opera in which a woman accepted a worthy man and was then faithful to him as they lived happily ever after. But what fun would that be?)

Unconvincing psychologically. Turandot was unsatisfactory in examining Turandot’s psychology and motivation, but Madama Butterfly is more unsatisfactory, because its length gives it less excuse for providing less. Why is Butterfly so in love with a cad? What causes such fidelity? For that matter, why is the cad such a cad? He rather cheerfully plans his exploitation of Butterfly, and only in Act 3 experiences any remorse (far too late of course), and is too much of a coward to even see Butterfly again, depriving the opera of a potentially insightful scene. (Compare, say, Carmen⁠, where the characters are almost too believable.) The characters are as thin as the paper of a shōji wall. Certainly, Butterfly is tragic, but it is the tragedy of watching a cartoon villain kick a puppy and not a person. The suffering of a dog like Hachikō is particularly pure, but if Puccini wished to compose an opera on that theme, he should’ve done so on Hachikō.

But beautifully staged. And also like Turandot, it seems Madama Butterfly rises on the strength of its music and scenery rather than plot or psychological insight or realism. Here it is excellent. A mirror across the roof of the stage emphasized dramatic single-color lighting and characters mounting up steps to come onto stage, or hanging rope curtains of cherry blossoms. The production makes striking use of black-clad kuroko stagehands & puppeteers on stage to slide shōji walls to rearrange the stage and assist entrances/​exits, or to carry paper globes or cranes, or to manipulate a bunraku-style puppet (used for Butterfly’s son in Act 2–3, and a dream sequence). As strange as it sounds to have 3 men clad in black hunched over a puppet of a little boy with a permanently surprised expression dressed in a sailor outfit as a major character, the puppet & Butterfly are entirely credible a pair—perhaps more so than Butterfly and her cad (the latter played by a last-minute substitution performing for the first time, interestingly). The 3 acts all end on visual high notes: surrounded by stars, kneeling into the sunset, and at the center of a cross of red silk. (I did notice that the Met HD production people screwed up the camera placements a few times, obstructing the view of one camera with another, which was odd given how simple this opera is.)

If opera is “poster art”, then Madama Butterfly succeeds splendidly and deserves its popularity.

Turandot

Fairy tale logic pageantry. Turandot opera (Puccini⁠; 2019 Met HD).

Fairy tale opera: a despotic Oriental princess chops off the heads of suitors if they cannot answer her riddle. A random prince happens to do so, sets her a counter-riddle, she fails, he tells her the answer, she falls in love with him for no reason, The End. Yeah, pretty dumb. Some amazing costumes and sets, though.

Turandot largely stands on the strength of its pageantry, as the plot and characters follow a fairy-tale logic: an exotic princess demands princely suitors answer her riddles or forfeit their heads. She is, apparently, revolted by the fact that some other princess centuries ago didn’t get to marry for love, although the real reason seems to be simply being so stuck-up that no man could possibly be good enough for her. A disguised prince does answer her riddles (they are not good riddles), and challenges her to find out his name overnight (his counter-riddle is even worse); she fails, despite driving their loyal servant to suicide to safeguard the secret from Turandot’s torturers, and he tells her anyway (as a show of strength, presumably); she then (somehow) falls in love and decides to lose on purpose. The End.

The plot is thoroughly ridiculous and Turandot is worse: I don’t expect a detailed geopolitical exposition of how she could execute dozens of princes without starting a war, but her reason is flimsy and there is not a trace of remorse from her or concern by anyone else afterwards about behavior more reminiscent of a serial killer than a sovereign. And why should she fall in love with the prince at all? What redeems it as an experience is the pageantry: the executioner’s initial scene is magnificent spectacle, and the Met must be proud of how absurdly over-decorated the throne room & everyone’s costumes are for the imperial scenes.

Dialogues Des Carmélites

Attractively staged and a compelling premise, but meaning falls flat. Dialogues des Carmélites opera (Met HD):

Dramatic opera on the martyrdom of a convent of nuns during the French Revolution. Starkly minimalist staging. Invokes many great themes, but does not really live up to them or explore them to any satisfying depth.

An unusual modern opera (1950s), based on a screenplay inspired by the play production of a novella (which led to an ugly legal dispute), by some unfamiliar names; I initially was going to give this a pass but the local opera group’s brochure praised it and I liked the visuals of the Met’s preview.

The historical martyrdom in question is simple to describe: a convent of nuns was dispersed by the French Revolution’s Terror⁠, but continued religious activities, were caught, and were guillotined; for opera’s purposes, they earned immortality by collectively singing a hymn on the way to the guillotine (amusingly, WP says there is considerable disagreement on what was sung, which one would think would be difficult to disagree on). The opera doesn’t particularly elaborate on this, proceeding linearly from the protagonist entering as a novice, to death of the cloister’s mother superior with ominous premonitions, the expulsion of the nuns by soldiers of the French state, and finally their reappearance in a prison cell prior to the mass execution, which the still-free protagonist witnesses and voluntarily joins at the last second, dying with them.

Eschewing the lavish costuming of Carmen for its cast of nuns and the varied scenes of Ring for almost a single stage setting (a large cross-shaped stone-paved area in the center of the stage), D embraces an intensely austere approach: with sharp stage-lighting on the cross and total darkness everywhere else, the black-white habits of the nuns means they appear by magic when they turn toward the audience and the white flashes, while they vanish into darkness the instant they step off the cross. The cross area, standing in for all locations in the cloister and times in the play (how much time passes? it must be years given the chronology of the French Revolution, but there’s no way to tell), regularly creates uncertainty, and combined with the constant disappearing acts, there is a phantasmagoric feel which emphasizes the monologues and dialogues.

The singing struck me as overall being much less interesting, suffering from a lack of drama (‘dialogues’ admittedly tells you to not expect as much as, say, Wagner), and I was surprised at how apparently little inspiration it takes from traditional Catholic music (which must be one of the richest veins of religious music in existence, particularly for Western music). I can remember the mother superior’s death scene and of course the final march to the guillotine, but I draw a blank on the rest.

I was left less disappointed than puzzled, feeling I was missing a lot, as if the whole opera were simply incomplete. Many subplots which appeared important were dropped without a word (the fugitive priest, the informer blacksmith, the fate of the protagonist’s brother), and characters are badly underdeveloped. The protagonist Blanche initially comes off as so neurotic that one feels she needs less a prioress than a psychiatrist, and is seeking refuge in the Carmelites for entirely inappropriate reasons, with no serious discussion of her personal growth or avocation. The mother superior’s scenes take up much of the opera’s running time, and while they are impressive (it can’t be easy to sing opera like that while lying crippled on top of a bunch of sacks), the upshot seems to be that her death was a difficult one and her decades of faith & virtue & meditation upon death all proved entirely useless, and she had failed to foresee & protect her sisters. Her final act is to order one of her nuns to watch over Blanche and see to her spiritual growth. It is unclear how her death or the overseeing ties into anything else (aside from a vague speculation that her ‘good death’ was karmically transferred to Blanche somehow), and I was further perplexed by how the nuns are depicted as indecently eager and thrilled to martyr themselves, being blocked only by the new mother superior’s strict orders, and finally succeeding when her back is turned—which (like Blanche’s original motivation for entering religious orders) smacks of satire rather than sacredness. Finally, Blanche’s character shows hardly any development, and we ultimately have no idea of why she suddenly changes her mind and voluntarily joins her imprisoned sisters to be martyred.

As much as it invokes the great themes of the religious life and taking orders, religious persecution, the terror of death, and the conflict between living & dying for one’s faith, I find that its name is misleading as it actually says little about any of these themes.

The Magic Flute

Gorgeous nonsense. The Magic Flute (Mozart⁠; Met ‘special holiday encore’⁠/​cast)

Rebroadcast of abridged 2006 performance (which demonstrates how much Met HD broadcasts have improved technically over the past decade). Gorgeous nonsense. With excellent music by Mozart, lyrics unusually in English, and eccentrically colorful costumes/​sets, but mostly unconvincing characters (not helped by abridgement), and a plot stuffed full of Masonic symbols but lacking any sense.

This is a re-broadcast of an abridged performance broadcast through Met HD in December 2006, which apparently was the first ever Met HD broadcast. It demonstrates the improvements in Met HD broadcasts over the years, as it is distinctly lower-resolution than current Met HD broadcasts, and lacks all the featurettes that enliven the intermissions. The abridgement of The Magic Flute appears relatively minimal, dropping a few slow scenes such as Pamina alone in a garden, but nothing major; the real change is that it’s an English adaptation instead of using the original German. I had not been expecting that, and I am not sure I appreciate it either, because they dropped all the closed-captions—making it harder for me to understand than the German would’ve been.

Nathan Gunn’s Papageno bird-catcher character is a particular highlight as he athletically crawls or cavorts around the stage, and he seems to be having by far the most fun of anyone on stage. The stage settings and costumes lean heavily into surrealism: the Queen of the Night’s female servants have heads mounted a meter above their blacked-out faces, controlled by sticks, for no particular reason other than it looks cool & they can, and one almost expects the cheerfully-malignant vulture character Monostatos, played by quite a chubby actor, to draw eyes on his chest and a mouth on his belly and make fat jokes. The music is excellent, of course, and the Queen of the Night’s aria is justly famous—one can scarcely believe that any human singer is capable of hitting such high notes, and so loudly, for so long.

Its flaw is that, aside from Papageno & Monostatos, the characters are uninteresting and the plot is bizarrely schematic and completely reliant on lazy deus ex machina & narrative convenience. Further, it can’t quite seem to make up its mind if it’s supposed to be a farce, or ultimately a serious meaningful drama. I charitably assumed while watching that perhaps the opera had been brutally cut down in the adaptation process.

It is easy to see why people reach for Masonic interpretations: surely all these heavy-handed symbols and out-of-the-blue twists and cardboard characters mean it must be some sort of contemporary mystery play-like allegory, and there is an esoteric interpretation that renders it a satisfying artistic work as opposed to a series of musical set pieces strung together by a threadbare excuse for a plot? But unless Wikipedia greatly misleads me, no, it’s as absurd as it looks. So Mozart’s The Magic Flute is the Neon Genesis Evangelion of operas—it sounds even better than it looks, throws around a lot of portentous symbolism, but doesn’t make sense so people keep resorting to a Western occult tradition to make it make sense…

I don’t think I will want to watch The Magic Flute again the way I do other operas like Carmen.

Wozzeck

Wozzeck (Alban Berg⁠; NYT⁠, New Yorker).

Failed anti-war opera. A relentless crashing bore and a third-rate Carmen being crammed into an anti-war mold. I was left wishing it was either much shorter or much longer. The production absolutely hammers in the WWI kitsch theme, and the reviews praise its ‘searching criticism of militarism’ or whatever in driving the titular Wozzeck to madness and murder—except the text and events don’t support that in the least. It’s unclear if Wozzeck has so much as even been to a war, much less it had anything to do with his problems; the ‘sadistic’ (in Wikipedia’s description) townspeople act quite normally, Wozzeck’s captain comes off as a quite nice chap, and even the mad doctor running medical experiments on Wozzeck wants to do nothing worse than diet experiments which entail stuffing him full of beans & mutton. Marie is hardly threatened by starvation as she shows off her new gold earrings (shades of Manon), Wozzeck himself seems well off, with so few official duties he can do all these part-time jobs, and as he lives in the barracks and presumably the Army feeds him, he is hardly in any danger of starvation or homelessness. Wozzeck doesn’t seem tragic or noble so much as a rather dimwitted Charlie Brown unable to understand his problems, such as what looks like schizophrenia⁠, but still trying to live up to various obligations he (entirely unnecessarily) took on. If Wozzeck had gone for more of a Catch-22 or Agrippina approach, perhaps it could’ve worked, but then it ends in a grim-dark derp-serious ending.

The production relies heavily on gimmicks. Dressing everyone up as cripples or in gas masks is cute the first time, as are the eccentric Monty Python-style clipshows—except they are done again and again and again, without any rhyme or reason. The video clipshow is beamed onto the stage endlessly, and could be useful, similar to the projections used in The Ring⁠, except it never seems to connect with the action! What does any of this have to do with militarism, or WWI, or anything? A similar point can be made for the choice to close with Wozzeck’s bastard being played by a puppet with a gas mask head, much like the bastard in Madama Butterfly⁠, except while there using a puppet instead of a child actor was interesting and cool for how well the puppeteers interacted with Butterfly, here it is just pointless. The production seems particularly dumb when, checking Wikipedia’s plot summary, I see that it just hacked out various connective tissues, like why he drowned himself (paranoia in trying to retrieve the murder weapon), or that the captain/​doctor were supposed to see him drowning while the production just has them wander by wondering about an odd sound and anti-climatically leaving.

Relentlessly crashingly dumb, with no good parts, and the worst Met opera I’ve seen so far—this was the first Met HD broadcast I was seriously tempted to get up and walk out early, even after telling myself it was only about an hour and a half. The Magic Flute⁠, Turandot⁠, and Dialogues des Carmélites all had some weaknesses, but also had their strengths, and I never thought of leaving early. I don’t know if Wozzeck is normally this bad, but this production certainly was bad in its crudity and illogic. On the bright side, the 2020 operas can only go up from here!


  1. How then do Broadway-style musicals—which usually intersperse long play-like segments in between the musical numbers—still work? I think they may work by concentrating all the musical effort into making the musical numbers even more catchy than the music in an opera, which must fill time.↩︎

  2. I would watch some of it in March 2020 and wasn’t impressed.↩︎

  3. Curiously, Glass himself seems to have described Akhnaten as a success: “Akhnaten had changed his (and our) world through the force of his ideas and not through the force of arms.”⁠. Shalom Goldman also mentions that Glass was interested in Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, which (controversially and almost surely incorrectly) claims that Akhnaten’s ideas were preserved and ultimately created Moses & Judaism, so perhaps that is how Glass interprets Akhnaten as a success.↩︎

  4. Would Wagner have approved? Surely most attendees who come to watch, Viking horns or no, would be unable to appreciate his accomplishment, from the Wagner tuba to his musical motifs (I know I struggle to hear them)—but still, they come.↩︎

  5. Oddly, apparently Alberich survives. I find this untidy, and I prefer to imagine (given his general absence from the physical action & spectral appearance during his lecture to his son, in “Hagen’s Watch”) that he died of old age or longing sometime before.↩︎

  6. The Schopenhauer-ending speech:

    Were I no more to fare to Valhalla’s fortress, do you know whither I fare? I depart from the home of desire, I flee forever the home of delusion; the open gates of eternal becoming I close behind me now: To the holiest chosen land, free from desire and delusion, the goal of the world’s migration, redeemed from incarnation, the enlightened woman now goes. The blessed end of all things eternal, do you know how I attained it? Grieving love’s profoundest suffering opened my eyes for me: I saw the world end.

    Schopenhauer himself:

    But if we turn our glance from our own needy and embarrassed condition to those who have overcome the world, in whom the will, having attained to perfect self-knowledge, found itself again in all, and then freely denied itself, and who then merely wait to see the last trace of it vanish with the body which it animates; then, instead of the restless striving and effort, instead of the constant transition from wish to fruition, and from joy to sorrow, instead of the never-satisfied and never-dying hope which constitutes the life of the man who wills, we shall see that peace which is above all reason, that perfect calm of the spirit, that deep rest, that inviolable confidence and serenity, the mere reflection of which in the countenance, as Raphael and Correggio have represented it, is an entire and certain gospel; only knowledge remains, the will has vanished. We look with deep and painful longing upon this state, beside which the misery and wretchedness of our own is brought out clearly by the contrast. Yet this is the only consideration which can afford us lasting consolation, when, on the one hand, we have recognised incurable suffering and endless misery as essential to the manifestation of will, the world; and, on the other hand, see the world pass away with the abolition of will, and retain before us only empty nothingness. Thus, in this way, by contemplation of the life and conduct of saints, whom it is certainly rarely granted us to meet with in our own experience, but who are brought before our eyes by their written history, and, with the stamp of inner truth, by art, we must banish the dark impression of that nothingness which we discern behind all virtue and holiness as their final goal, and which we fear as children fear the dark; we must not even evade it like the Indians, through myths and meaningless words, such as reabsorption in Brahma or the Nirvana of the Buddhists. Rather do we freely acknowledge that what remains after the entire abolition of will is for all those who are still full of will certainly nothing; but, conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and has denied itself, this our world, which is so real, with all its suns and milky-ways—is nothing92.

    1. This is also just the Prajna—Paramita of the Buddhists, the “beyond all knowledge,” i.e., the point at which subject and object are no more. (Cf. J. J. Schmidt, “Ueber das Mahajana und Pratschna-Paramita”.)
    ↩︎
  7. As quoted by Christopher Tolkien, pg 55, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, J.R.R. Tolkien2012. Christopher sources it to “Oxford lectures”; all Internet quotes of it seem to postdate 2012 and stem from it, so those lectures appear unpublished.↩︎

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