The artform has been much maligned over the years for farfetched stories, but beneath the nonsensical plots lurks buried treasure.
Opera? Silly? You’d think a 400-year- old art form adored by millions, which brings lumps to throats and makes the hairs stand up on your arms, deserves more respect. And I do. Honestly. I’d be the first to admit to a passion verging on the obsessive. But opera has a dark secret. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know this, but opera is silly. Nay, sometimes it is very silly. It inhabits a world where people sing instead of speaking, where innocent bystanders are apt to form flash-mob-style choruses, and where a person can take ten minutes to sing their lungs out before they expire, no matter how deadly the wound or how advanced the respiratory disease.
Opera and outrageous plots go hand in hand: babies switched at birth; poisons that turn out to be love potions (or vice versa); a world of cross-dressing so confusing you find men singing with women’s voices playing women disguised as men.
There are plenty of examples in the standard repertoire: Il Trovatore, Così fan tutte, Adriana Lecouvreur. Many nowadays find it hard to understand how you can throw the wrong baby on the fire (indeed some might think throwing any baby on a fire is a little out of the ordinary). How many of us wouldn’t recognise our own fiancé if he walked in wearing no more cunning a disguise than a fancy jacket and a false moustache? And have any of your acquaintances ever died from sniffing a bunch of poisoned violets?
But dig a little deeper and you quickly discover these plots are tame. In the silly opera stakes they are also-rans: opera-lite, so to speak. Prepare to take a walk on the wilder side, where anything can happen and the show’s not over until the fat lady’s swept to her death by an avalanche.
10. La Nonne Sanglante
There are plenty of operas where a chap accidentally marries the wrong lady, but not so many where he accidentally marries a dead one. La Nonne Sanglante (or The Bloody Nun) is gothic horror taken one (or some might say several) steps too far. Both Verdi and Berlioz considered the libretto before seeing the error of their ways. It was left to Gounod in 1854 to rush in where cannier composers had feared to tread. Packed with good tunes, the work enjoyed a sensational run of 11 performances before the new director of the Paris Opéra took it off for “violating the bounds of good taste”.
So What's the Plot?
In typical operatic fashion, Agnès loves Rodolphe though their families are at loggerheads. To heal the breach, one of those helpful hermits with which opera abounds suggests that Agnès should marry Rodoplhe’s brother. The lovers are forced to elope, and in a logic-defying brainwave they decide that Agnès will attract less attention if she disguises herself as the ghost of a murdered nun believed to haunt the castle grounds.
Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Rodolphe mistakenly runs off with (and marries!) the “real” ghost. His brother promptly dies allowing, Rodolphe to legitimately marry Agnès, except that the groom is now haunted every night by the grisly nun, who will only release him from his vows if he kills her (unidentified) murderer.
The spectre duly appears at the nuptials and indicates to Rodolphe that his father, Ludorf, was the murderer. Horrified, Rodolphe abandons the wedding and Agnès’ s kinsmen vow to kill him. Ludorf, consumed by guilt, allows himself to be murdered in Rodolphe’s place (“it was dark, Your Honour”). He expires on the tomb of the bloody nun who, expiated, ascends to heaven praying for his soul. As Dame Edna would say: “Spooky!”
La Nonne Sanglante: Osnabrück Theatre/ Hermann Bäumer Yoonki Baek, Natalia Atamanchuk, Eva Schneidereit CPO7773882
9. Die Toten Augen
Nowadays something of a forgotten man, d’Albert was born in Glasgow, a city he apparently loathed. After an uninspiring stint as a protégé of Sir Arthur Sullivan in London, he fled to the more conducive Germanic bosom of Franz Liszt in Weimar, where he proceeded to compose no less than 21 operas in a serious Teutonic vein. Only Tiefland has a place in the repertoire today, which is a great pity as d’Albert’s late romantic idiom is undeniably attractive.
Die Toten Augen (The Dead Eyes) from 1916 has a particularly luscious score and is set in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
So What's the Plot?
Our heroine is Myrtocle, wife of the Roman ambassador Arcesius. In an ideal Jack Spratt sort of way, Arcesius is hideously ugly while Myrtocle is conveniently blind. Don’t rock the boat, you might say, but no – one of those operatic meddling slave girls has to go and drag Myrtocle off to Jesus, who promptly grants her the gift of sight.
Learning of the miracle, Arcesius hides from his wife, ashamed of his deformity. Returning home, Myrtocle assumes that his handsome friend Galba must be her husband (because Arcesius has always been kind, she naturally assumes he must be a looker). When Galba, who it turns out has always fancied her, gives her a kiss, Arcesius scuttles out and strangles him. Once she discovers her mistake, Myrtocle curses Jesus for healing her and stares at the sun until she is blind all over again. When Arcesius returns, she tells him she saw Galba and the murderer but not him, thus allowing her husband to believe that she never learned that he was ugly. And so they all live happily ever after – except for the dead friend; oh, and Jesus of course…
Die Toten Augen: Dresdner Philharmonie/Ralf Weikert Dagmar Schellenberger, Hartmut Welker, Norbert Orth, Olaf Bär
Better known for his piano, guitar and orchestral music, the Spanish composer Albéniz very nearly had a rival career as a composer of English opera. He was taken up in London by the appositely named Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, a banker of considerable financial resource but one of the most execrable librettists in the history of opera. Merlin (1902) was the first of a projected Arthurian trilogy but it had to wait until 1998 for its concert premiere, which revealed some undeniably superb music.
So What's the Plot?
In Money-Coutts’s dramatically inept take on Mallory, Merlin is centre stage rather than Arthur and co. Rather caddishly, the cunning sorcerer has imprisoned Nivian, a Saracen slave girl, who he forces to dance, Salome-esque, on a daily basis in order to seduce a tribe of lascivious gnomes away from their golden hoard. “Nivian’s charm of mystical measure, cheating the gnomes to desert their treasure” – you see the level of doggerel we’re up against?
Merlin’s complicity in Arthur’s “royal revealment”, (drawing the sword from the stone), enrages Morgan le Fay. When Nivian asks for help to win her freedom, the sorceress tells her how to imprison randy old Merlin in the gnomes’ cavern. The next time he needs gnome-gold, Nivian “arouses him” before asking to hold his wand (symbolism as subtle as a brick here). With a curious lack of wizardly foresight Merlin lets her have it before sauntering into the cave to“pillage the hive of the elfin honey that men call money”. It rather serves him right when Nivian strikes the rock, trapping him inside forever. And that’s that, thank heavens.
Merlin: Orquesta Sinfónia de Madrid/José de Eusebio Plácido Domingo, Carlos Alvarez DECCA (Download)
Meyerbeer was a German Jew who wrote in Italian before becoming the most successful French opera composer of his age. Little surprise, then, that several of his works are contenders for most confused plot of the century. Il Crocciato in Egitto, for example, has a man called Armando, played by a woman, disguised as a man called Almireno, pursued by a woman called Felicia disguised as a man but played by a woman....
Dinorah (1859), is a deliciously tuneful opéra comique based on at least two Breton tales, which might account for its convoluted plot. Its most famous aria, Ombre légère, is a coloratura duet for the leading lady and her shadow!
So What's the Plot?
A year before the opera begins, we learn, a storm destroyed Dinorah’s home on the day of her wedding. Her fiancé Hoël subsequently snuck off in search of the treasure of a legendary fairy folk. Dinorah duly went mad and has been roaming the countryside in her bridal gown with her pet goat – who plays a crucial role, as we shall see.
Hoël returns, inexplicably unable to recognise Dinorah despite the wedding dress. Having discovered that the first person to touch the magic hoard will die, he enlists a cowardly bagpiper as his hapless stooge. All three follow the goat, who supposedly will lead them to the gold. A storm breaks out and the animal is seen running across a tree over a ravine. As she’s attempting to save it, lightning shatters the makeshift bridge and Dinorah plunges into a chasm. Hoël now recognizes her by her necklace (obviously) and rescues her. Repentant, his singing restores her sanity and he persuades her that the previous year was all a dream. The poor old goat, however, doesn’t even get a curtain call.
Dinorah: Philharmonia Orchestra/James Judd Deborah Cook, Christian de Plessis, Alexander Oliver OPERA RARA ORC5
6. The Poisoned Kiss
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams’s fourth opera, written in 1929, is a curate’s egg – a great deal of charming, English music coupled with a plot of unparalleled confusion, and crucially unsure of how lightly or seriously it is meant to be taken. The composer was always afraid it was “too high-falutin’” and tried to wrest it entirely from its hapless librettist.
So What's the Plot?
Once upon a time the Empress Persicaria was forbidden by her parents to marry Dipsacus, a magician by trade. Out for revenge, and blaming the Empress, Dipsacus has brought up his daughter, Tormentilla, on a diet of poisons so that the first man she kisses will die. His hope is that Tormentilla’s victim will be Amaryllus, the Empress’ son. She, however, is horrified at her father’s plan: “Oh, who would be, unhappy me, brought up on prussic acid?” No, really...
Despite the fact that he has stunned her pet cobra (a tricky moment to bring off on stage), Tormentilla falls in love with Amaryllus, who for some reason is disguised as a goatherd. Her father banishes her for disobedience to, of all places, a luxurious townhouse. There she is watched over by three goblins, Hob, Gob and Lob, who have perversely chosen to masquerade as society journalists. The Empress also sends spies in the form of three mediums.
In an awkward turn towards the serious, the two young people cannot resist the pull of love. They kiss, and Amaryllus passes out. All is not lost though; for a reason never properly explained, the Empress, suspecting just such a plot, has brought Amaryllus up on antidotes! In a sentimental finale, the Empress is reconciled with Dipsacus and it’s weddings all round. And only in opera would the hobgoblins tidily cop off with the mediums.
The Poisoned Kiss: BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox Janice Watson, James Gilchrist, Richard Suart CHANDOS CHSA5020
5. Maria de Rudenz
I’m not for a moment suggesting that Donizetti wasn’t one of the greatest opera composers in history but, with his prolific output and taste for the histrionic, this article might easily have been called The Ten Silliest Donizetti Opera Plots. Where else are maidens imprisoned in towers in the hope that they will contract malarial fever (Pia de’ Tolomei)? Or die of horror (in full cabaletta) on being presented with the still-warm heart of their lover (Gabriella di Vergy)? Or expire from the poison sucked from their lover’s envenomed wound (Imelda de’ Lambertazzi)? His 1838 schlock gothic horror, Maria de Rudenz, is one of his most extreme tales.
So What's the Plot?
Before the opera begins, Maria and Corrado have eloped but he, suspecting her of infidelity, has abandoned her to die during a day trip to the Roman catacombs. The despicable fellow returns to Rudenz Castle under a false name and makes love to Maria’s wealthy cousin Matilde.
Not the kind of girl to be easily disposed of, Maria returns and is concealed in the castle by a faithful old retainer, a resourceful lady who has a document proving that Corrado is really the son of a notorious murderer. Having failed to read the writing on the wall during the catacombs incident, she is prepared to keep this secret if Corrado returns to her. He, with typical bad grace, stabs her and leaves her for dead...again.
Matilde and Corrado duly marry but as the bride retires there is a terrible scream: Corrado is confronted by his wife’s corpse and what he takes to be Maria’s ghost but is of course the indestructible dame risen once more. Revealing Corrado’s secret to all and sundry, she tears the bandages from her wound and expires... For the third time.
Maria de Rudenz: Philharmonia Orchestra/David Parry Nelly Miriciouiu, Robert McFarland, Bruce Ford OPERA RARA ORC16
Of course, operatic silliness is even more outrageous when the authors’ intention is to be taken seriously. It seems wrong, therefore, to include L’Étoile (or The Star), Chabrier’s sparkling 1877 opéra bouffe, as the composer certainly meant for his audience to laugh. So deliciously absurd is the plot, allied with a felicitous score, that it earns its place by sheer nonsensical chutzpah.
So What's the Plot?
The despotic but vaguely inept King Ouf The First is roaming the streets in disguise, hoping to be insulted by one of his subjects. As a birthday treat he intends to execute the unfortunate offender using his favourite device – a chair with a spike that impales its victim via the derrière.
In another part of town, Prince Hérisson de Porc-Épic (that’s Prince Hedgehog of Porcupine) arrives with Laoula, the daughter of the neighbouring monarch. For no obvious reason, they are disguised as travelling salesmen. Laoula is unaware that they intend to marry her off to Ouf and, to complicate matters, she falls in love at first sight with Lazuli, a penniless pedlar. Goaded into an argument Lazuli slaps the king and becomes a prime candidate for the spiky chair. But in the nick of time Sciroco, the Royal Astrologer, reveals that their horoscopes predict that Ouf will die exactly a day after the pedlar.
To keep Lazuli happy, Ouf helps him to escape with Laoula in a boat. Alas, Hérisson orders the guards to shoot and Lazuli plunges into the lake, leaving Ouf to await his own impending death. When the clock strikes five and nothing happens Ouf is incandescent. He’s about to throttle Sciroco when Lazuli, who of course was neither shot nor drowned, appears. He promptly threatens to kill himself if he can’t marry Laoula and Ouf, outsmarted, gives in with refreshingly good grace.
L'étoile: Orchestre de l'Opera de Lyon/John Eliot Gardiner Colette Alliot-Lugaz, Georges Gautier EMI (DOWNLOAD)
3. Das Nusch-Nuschi
Hindemith’s 1920 burlesque puppet play was intended to provide a contrast to his two other one-act operas: Murder, Hope of Women (where one man ends up slaughtering the entire company) and Sancta Susanna (in which a sexually disturbed nun is frightened by an oversized spider). Das Nusch-Nuschi is a bawdy comedy about castration, with little dramatic logic but plenty of musical jollity. Hindemith himself dismissed one of its dances as having “no purpose but to provide ‘experts’ with an opportunity to bark about the bad taste of their creator. Hallelujah! – It is essential that this piece be danced(or rather wobbled) by two eunuchs with incredibly fat and naked bellies.”
So What's the Plot?
Tum Tum, servant of Lord Zatwai, is tasked with procuring a woman from the emperor’s harem. As Zatwai is a bit of all right, four royal ladies declare that they are up for it. Suddenly a flying Nusch-Nuschi (half giant rat, half crocodile) appears. Stumbling over the monster on his way home, the inebriated Imperial Field marshal Kyce Waing squashes it beneath his vast backside, but not before the beast gives him a nasty nip in the nether regions. Kyce Waing mistakenly believes that Tum Tum has saved his life and takes him into his service.
The voracious Zatwai, meanwhile, pleasures the eager harem ladies one at a time, to the accompaniement of two monkeys whose only role is to intermittently sing “Rai! Rai!”
Tum Tum stands accused of having abducted the emperor’s wives on behalf of his master and, when questioned in court, he declares that he works for Kyce Waing. The Field marshal is summoned and sentenced to be castrated. When the royal executioner discovers that it’s already been done, the amused court naturally settles for a jolly singing and dancing contest instead.
Das Nusch-Nuschi: Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Gerd Albrecht Harald Stamm, Wilfried Gahmlich Wergo WER 6014650
2. L'Oca del Cairo
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
It’s a great pity for connoisseurs of silly plots that the 27-year-old Mozart never completed L’Oca del Cairo (or The Cairo Goose), a three-act piece of operatic madness. He finished about 45 minutes of music before abandoning the libretto because of its ridiculous ending.
So What's the Plot?
Don Pippo, a collector of rarities, had a wife, Pantea, who he treated badly and who disappeared some years previously. He believes her dead but she’s actually living in disguise across the bay. Meanwhile he’s locked his
daughter Celidora up in a tower with another girl, Lavinia, for company. Don Pippo plans to marry Lavinia and intends that Celidora shall marry Count Lionetto in exchange for the title’s golden “Cairo Goose”, which belonged to Cleopatra. Celidora has a lover, Biondello, and for no obvious reason, Don Pippo has bet him that he can’t get her out of her tower within a year. Biondello gets his friend Calandrino (who also wants to marry Lavinia) to construct a gigantic hollow goose. Biondello hides inside and a disguised Pantea presents it to Don Pippo, who lets her take it into the garden to entertain the imprisoned girls.
The Don’s wedding ceremony is disrupted when a message is received from Count Lionetto declaring that he has no intention of marrying. Pippo inexplicably offers Celidora’s hand to the first taker – cue for the goose to step forward. Without thinking about it too deeply, he orders his daughter to take the goose’s ‘hand’ while he takes Lavinia’s. But in a moment of confusion, Pantea swaps places with Lavinia. The opera was meant to finish with a triple wedding, though why Pantea would want Don Pippo back again is anyone’s guess.
L’Oca del Cairo: London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis Ileana Cotrubas, Peter Schreier, Felicity Palmer Philips (Download)
1. La Wally
Catalani’s 1892 romantic opera is famous for three things. First, the unfortunate name of its heroine – a wally in slang meaning either an idiot or, admittedly less likely, a pickled baby dill cucumber! (The fact that Wally is short for Walburga only rubs salt in the wound.) Secondly, it contains the aria Ebben, ne andro lontana, made famous in the film Diva. And thirdly, the opera contains a notoriously tricky-topull-off death scene. The libretto is based on The Vulture-Wally, a tale from the Tyrolean Alps, and the vulture bit comes from the leading lady once stealing a vulture chick from its nest – you can see the type of free-spirited lass we are dealing with here.
So What's the Plot?
Wally is loved by Gellner but alas is in love with the fickle Hagenbach, the son of her father’s enemy. Given the choice of marrying Gellner or quitting her father’s house, Wally decides to go and live in the mountains. Herfather dies, leaving her rich; Gellner, still keen, persuades her that Hagenbach loves the village publican. With a large dash of operatic logic, Wally agrees to marry Gellner as long as he kills Hagenbach (who, equally illogically, has now decided he loves Wally!).
On his way to confess his newfound love, Hagenbach is cast into a ravine by Gellner. He is rescued by the ever-resourceful Wally, who has had second (or is that third?) thoughts. She then heads for the mountains once again.
Hagenbach finds her and confesses his love but just as it seems there might be a happy ending, an unexpected snowfall sweeps him into yet another ravine. Poor old Wally follows suit and, as promised, the opera really is over when the fat lady is swept to her death by an avalanche.
La Wally: l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo/Fausto Cleva Renata Tebaldi, Mario del Monaco, Piero Cappuccilli Decca 4758667
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