Amazing libretti

In the March 22nd New York Review of BooksCharles Rosen reviewing the current production of Verdi’s Ernani at the Metropolitan Opera:

It is clear that Verdi was planting his flag in the field of the most extreme Romanticism (though Ernani, admittedly, is not as silly as the next great opera of Verdi, Il Trovatore, where the gypsy Azucena tries to avenge her mother’s death by kidnapping the baby brother of the Count di Luna, whose father has ordered her mother burned at the stake; she intends to throw the baby into the still smoldering fire, and somewhat absentmindedly throws her own baby in by mistake).

Rosen’s synopsis of the libretto of Ernani is just as funny, but longer.

Opera libretti are a rich field of weirdness. Mozart’s (well, Schikaneder’s) Magic Flute is notoriously hard to summarize in a way that makes it sound sensible. Anna Russell made a career out of retelling Wagner’s Ring Cycle for laughs. And so on. Some libretti merely have small tinges of oddity: Puccini’s Manon Lescaut set in “a desert outside New Orleans”, for example.

Maybe someone has already assembled a collection of Amazing Libretti in synopsis. (I’m reminded of a collection of Amazing Torts put together, in newsletter form, by Harvard Law School friends of mine many years ago.)

5 Responses to “Amazing libretti”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Carmen: A Synopsis

    Act 1. Carmen is a cigar-makeress from a tabago factory who loves with Don Jose of the mounting guard. Carmen takes a flower from her corsets and lances it do Don Jose (Duet : “Talk me of my mother”). There is a noise inside the tabago factory and the revolting cigar-makeresses burst into the stage. Carmen is arrested and Don Jose is ordered to mounting guard her but Carmen subduces him and he lets her escape.

    Act 2. The Tavern. Carmen, Frasquito, Mercedes, Zuniga, Morales. Carmen’s aria (“The sistrums are tinkling”). Enter Escamillio, a balls-fighter. Enter two smuglers (Duet: “We have in mind a business”) but Carmen refuses to penetrate because Don Jose has liberated her from prison. He just now arrives (Aria: “Slop, here who comes!”) but hear are the bugles singing his retreat. Don Jose will leave and draws his sword. Called by Carmen shrieks the two smuglers interfere with her but Don Jose is bound to dessert, he will follow into them (final chorus: “Opening sky wandering life”).

    Act 3: A roky landscape, the smuglers shelter. Carmen sees her death in cards and Don Jose makes a date with Carmen for the next balls fight.

    Act 4: A place in Seville. Procession of balls-fighters, the roaring of the balls is heard in the arena. Escamillio enters (aria and chorus: “Toreador, Toreador, all hail the balls of a Toreador”). Enter Don Jose (aria: “I do not threaten, I besooch you”) but Carmen repels him wants to join with Escamillio now chaired by the crowd. Don Jose stabs her (aria: “Oh rupture, rupture, you may arrest me, I did kill her”) he sings “Oh my beautiful Carmen, my subductive Carmen”.

    Supposedly from an English-language synopsis of Bizet’s opera Carmen from a performance in Genoa, Italy, quoted in a program of the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Symphony Orchestra, quoted in turn by Don Train in Harvard Magazine, March-April 1993.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Peter Salus on Google+:

    I don’t know, Arnold. I don’t agree with Rosen, either. Ernani is, admittedly, silly. Whether it is sillier than “Norma” or I Puritani,” must be a matter of taste. In fact, it’s no more absurd than Dukas’ “Ariadne [and Bluebeard]” at the very end of the century. But recall that Voltaire said that opera was an art form in which whatever “is to silly to be said may be sung.”
    Verb. sat.

    And Robert Coren:

    Voltaire had it pretty much right, I think. In any case, just about any opera plot can be made to sound silly when summarized.

  3. H. S. Gudnason Says:

    There’s a Robert Benchley essay that includes three summaries. The one that’s sort of Ring-like ends with the Brünnhilde character riding off on a tricycle. I’ll try to find the reference.

    My favorite line from a program sysnopsis is not from an opera but a play, Grillparzer’s Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn (A Faithful Servant of His Master) from a 1972 production at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The English summary of one of the acts begins with the sentence, “The queen arouses her brother.” It turns out, however, that we’re in a land of political intrigue, not Act I of Walküre.

  4. h. s. gudnason Says:

    Here’s the Benchley:

    I obviously made up the bit about the tricycle.

    One of the things that make these good–the same is true of Anna Russell–is that he obviously knows what he’s writing about. The sources for most of the bits are identifiable, and he just carries their description to an absurd extreme.

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