Tag Archives: opera

Real magic

While reading a collection of short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 1927), known as the “father of the Japanese short story”, I came across the following passage (it’s taken from his autobiographical story The Life of a Stupid Man, translated by Jay Rubin):

He suffered an onslaught of insomnia. His physical strength began to fade as well. (…) But he knew well enough what was wrong with him: he was ashamed of himself and afraid of them – afraid of the society he so despised.

One afternoon when snow clouds hung over the city, he was in the corner of a café, smoking a cigar and listening to music from the gramophone on the other side of the room. He found the music permeating his emotions in a strange new way. When it ended, he walked over to the gramophone to read the label on the record.

Magic Flute – Mozart.”

All at once it became clear to him: Mozart too had broken the Ten Commandments and suffered. Probably not the way he had, but…

He bowed his head and returned to his table in silence.

I found this passage particularly powerful, as it manages to convey very elegantly one of music’s most intriguing characteristics: its universality, that is, its ability to reach straight into the hearts of people who lived under completely different social conditions and many hundreds years apart, forging a bond between all those who feel our common humanity through works such as Mozart’s sublime opera.

And that is some real magic indeed.

Wagner’s 200th and the adventures of the Ring

I was first introduced to the Nibelungenlied (‘The Song of the Nibelungs’) through Fritz Lang’s magnificent Die Nibelungen, a series of two silent fantasy films (I. Siegfried & II. Kriemhild’s Revenge). Based on an epic poem written around 1200 AD, the screenplay follows the story of dragon-slayer Siegfried, his murder by Burgundian warrior Hagen of Tronje, and finally the revenge of his wife Kriemhild.

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Siegfried on horseback with Alberich, king of the dwarfs (still from Die Niebelungen by Fritz Lang)

Wagner’s famous opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (‘The Ring of the Nibelung’) is also based, however loosely, on characters from the Nibelungenlied and the Norse sagas. Not long ago, I happened to come across a wonderful 2-volume edition of Wagner’s Ring with some exquisite illustrations by Arthur Rackham that date back to 1910-11.

‘Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde’, illustration by Arthur Rackham

Lang’s visual artistry and Rackham’s captivating images notwithstanding, the most remarkable and ambitious work of art related to the Ring and the myth of the Nibelungs by far remains Wagner’s monumental opera cycle itself. I have wanted to watch Wagner’s operas on stage for a long time, and the opportunity finally arose this year on the occasion of the composer’s bicentennial. So far, I’ve had the chance to watch Siegfried in Amsterdam’s Muziektheater, which also stages the Ring cycle in its entirety.

Wagner’s 200th birthday was celebrated through a series of events and festivities booth within and outside Germany. Meanwhile, the composer’s strong anti-Semitic views and later association with the Nazis have continued to spark controversy up to this day. Same goes for the staging of his works, as it was made apparent this year in Bayreuth. Powerful as Wagner’s music may be, it seems to carry with it such a heavy load of historical allusions and connotations it often becomes impossible to be freed thereof.

A hymn to unfulfilled love

In most cases, books are admittedly better than the movies they serve as a basis for.  But can the same be said about music adaptations? What about all those cases where novels and poems become a chief source of inspiration for great composers, leading to the creation of some of their most stunning and everlasting masterpieces?

I remember reading Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin when I was still in highschool, my teenage mind trying to reconstruct the novel’s theatrical setting and visualize its vivid characters. I would picture Onegin as a proud, fine-looking dandy kindly rejecting the love and pure feelings of young Tatyana, a landowner’s charming and shy daughter of introspective nature. Furthermore, I would try to follow how a silly quarrel could end with the fatal duel between Onegin and his good friend Lensky and how, finally, Onegin’s feelings for Tatyana would change when they would meet again many years later, their roles now having been reversed.

These fading images and scarce recollections of Pushkin’s novel came back to me recently, after watching Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin performed by the Stanislavski Opera at the Royal Theater Carré in Amsterdam.

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I’ve never been a big opera enthusiast, but works such as this always make me think of the considerably powerful effect opera can have when performed convincingly and given the right context. In the case of Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music adds a whole new dimension to the familiar story, and it feels as if Pushkin’s masterpiece has been translated into a universal language that brings out its very essence, making it accessible to anyone with enough sensitivity and eagerness to partake in the dramatic events happening on stage.

Although Eugene Onegin touches upon several intriguing themes such as social conventions and the link between reality and fiction, it is ultimately a tragic story about unfulfilled love. It is evocative of the very human cry of desperation on behalf of the broken-hearted that has been repeatedly expressed through art since antuiquity, as in Sappho’s prayer in Hymn to Aphrodite:

Hear and heal a suppliant’s pain:

Let not love be love in vain!

Unlike Pushkin’s dark finale, Sappho’s hymn ends with Aphrodite’s promise to resolve the intense pain and the goddess’s assurance that the reluctant lover will soon know love as intense as that suffered by the poet:

Soon, thro’ long reluctance earn’d,

Love refused be Love return’d.

In Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, it is the sheer magic and moving power of music that serves as a substitute for such divine intervention, bringing thus consolation and a much-needed catharsis to the agony of the audience.