Showing posts with label opera. Show all posts
Showing posts with label opera. Show all posts

02 October 2023

Detection at the Opera

Given that crime plays such a big part in opera, it is surprising how few detectives show up on the stage. Surely this is in part historical, most operas being composed before the golden age of detective fiction. The many murders, assassinations and betrayals of the genre tend to be handled by private revenge, royal or judicial fiat, or even, as in Lohengrin, by trial by combat.

Though Oedipus of Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, and Hamlet of Ambroise Thomas's opera of the same name, are exceptions, both based on ancient, even mythic sources. In operas dealing with what were contemporary settings or events, the investigator is hard to find.

So it was with great interest that I noticed a revival of Umberto Giordano's 1898

Fedora, an opera, not about the hat, itself beloved in detective fiction, but a Russian Countess, who tries her hand at detection. The libretto was based on an 1882 play by Victorien Sardou– a drama that opened just four years after the birth of Sherlock Holmes.

Rich, beautiful, fascinating, and impulsive, Fedora is splendidly embodied by Sonya Yoncheva in the Metropolitan Opera's recent production. A fine singer, an excellent actor, and a great beauty, Yoncheva is as close to an ideal Fedora as one is likely to get.

This is important, as Countess Fedora holds central stage in each of the three acts, and without a virtuoso voice and a charismatic presence, the wild melodrama of the opera would be impossible to sustain. The Met's promotions promised romantic passion wrapped around a mystery and proved to be a rare instance of genuine truth in advertising.

Both the romantic passion and the mystery are propelled by the countess. She is much in love with her fiance, one Count Vladimiro, and the opera opens on her first visit to his home. She has barely arrived when the Count, badly wounded, is rushed inside by his coachman and servants. He's been fatally shot. Police are summoned, servants questioned, and a neighbor, Loris Ipanoff, becomes the prime suspect. Motive, unknown, but Nihilist terror is one theory.

When the police fail to apprehend Ipanoff, the grief-stricken and impatient Fedora swears vengeance. Dismissing the efforts of the crime squad, she sets out to find him and gain proof of his guilt. This will be a plot line familiar to many contemporary readers, but I suspect was something of a novelty at the time of the opera's debut performance.

In the second act, Fedora is in Paris along with the suspect, a susceptible romantic who has fallen in love with her, a sentiment Fedora welcomes in two ways. She hopes to use his affection to secure his confession, but she is not entirely immune to Loris Ipanoff's charm, especially when embodied in as handsome a tenor as Piotr Beczala.

At a lavish party in her Parisian residence, Ipanoff at last admits to the shooting, but claims that it was not murder and that he has proof of his real innocence. Fedora demands the evidence, and he promises to present it after the party.

So far, I think Miss Marple, if not Sherlock Holmes, would approve. Fedora has pursued the case with ruthless devotion and a fair bit of dexterity. However, she makes a grievious amateur mistake: she jumps to conclusions and informs the Russian authorities of Ipanoff's confession before seeing his exculpatory evidence.

When he arrives, Ipanoff presents a dramatically different version of the fatal event, and he has a letter from the philandering Count to prove his case. Admitting she was wrong, the Countess confesses her real feelings for Ipanoff, but it is already too late. A tragic ending is ensured and appears promptly in the final act of the opera.

The libretto of Fedora makes a clean sweep of the unfortunate Ipanoff's relatives and dispatches the remorseful Countess for good measure. Modern taste, of course, is kinder to investigating amateurs of both sexes. Think of Hitchcock's North by Northwest, where the female lead switches allegiance and winds up with Cary Grant, a completely understandable move.

Nineteenth century opera audiences were less forgiving, as well as passionately fond of deathbed scenes of beautiful women. The wilful and independent Fedora dies - admittedly most elegantly - restoring the 'natural' order and providing a cautionary tale for any later sopranos with a taste of sleuthing.

The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations, is available from Apple Books

The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations is available.

04 November 2019

Mythic Mystery

The last few nights I have been watching Die Walkure on PBS. I am not a big Wagner fan, finding his operas slow going, despite all the exotic trappings, the remarkable singers, and the frequently beautiful music. But I had seen broadcasts of the production when it debuted at the Met a decade ago, and I was curious to hear the new cast and to see how the famous – or infamous – Lepage machine had held up.

Wotan tries to get Fricka to see things his way
What struck me on this second viewing was how contemporary the situation was and how familiar the details of the whole Ring must be to any modern mystery aficionado. It’s a classic story of greed and power leading to disaster and regret, with some right up-to-the-minute touches.

Wotan’s troubles really start with luxury real estate in the opening of the Ring cycle. He goes into debt to the giants Fafner and Fasolt in order to build Valhalla, a home for the gods, complete with the rainbow bridge to bring the dead heroes who will defend the gods in the afterlife. Just how that will work out is left unclear, but later on, Wotan will worry that his semi-undead army might be led astray by bribes from a rival.

Those worries are in the future. The giants build Valhalla and, as contractors are wont to do, demand payment. When Wotan is short of cash, the giants seize Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty. The gods realize that this is a bad bargain, for without Freia, they are going to age and die.

Crisis in Valhalla. Wotan and Loki, fire god and trickster, go off to seize the Rheingold. The McGuffin in the opera of the same name, the Rheingold, had already been stolen from the Rhine Maidens by the master craftsman, Albrecht, who has forged the Ring of the Nibelungs, a trinket which guarantees world domination at least some of the time.

The Valkyries
Alas for Wotan, though he and Loki trick Albrecht and seize the treasure, every last scrap including the famous Ring is owed to the giants. They, in turn, immediately fall out over it. Fasolt is killed and Fafner, in a real self re-invention, turns himself  into a dragon, slinks back to the Nibelung forest and guards the golden hoard in his cave.

Wotan has his palace, the giant has his payment. All should be well, but Wotan, Valhalla in hand, wants the security of the Ring and realizes that his hands are tied by the treaties he has made with his rivals. Unlike certain modern politicians who withdraw from treaties without more ado, Wotan wants plausible deniability. He wants a hero who will, as heroes in these things tend to do, fight the dragon and get the gold.

Wotan sets out on this dodgy project, romancing first Erda, the wise earth goddess, and producing the Valkyries, lively equestriennes in odd costumes with wonderful music. But though Brunhilde, the protagonist of Die Walkure, is the most complex, morally alert and interesting character in the whole Ring, she is not a hero. Male gender required.

Wotan’s second try, a liason with a mortal woman, produces the ill-fated twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. While the boy is out hunting with his father, the family home is attacked by Hunding, a nasty piece of work, who murders the mother and kidnaps Sieglinde, forcing her to marry him, combining a @MeToo moment with news out of the Middle East.

Siegmund, brave, loyal, devoted, has hero written all over him, but when he finds his sister and falls in love with her, he offends the Fricka, queen of the gods and defender of marriage. Siegmund must die, and only Brunhilde’s courage saves Sieglinde and her unborn child. This will be the long-sought hero who, hampered by a notable lack of sophistication, will kill the dragon, marry his aunt, betray her love, get himself killed and bring on Gotterdammerung.

It’s a lot of keep in mind, but somehow with a philandering politician, a wronged but shrewd wife, luxury real estate, unsupportable debt loads, more or less bare-faced theft, plausible deniability, not to mention rape, murder, and mayhem, the world of the Ring doesn’t really seem that exotic.

19 August 2018

Nazi Ladybug meets die Valkyrie

ladybird nazi
Not sure what’s in the air, but friends and I have had to deal with a variety of insurance adjusters. Must be those uninsured caribou, but that’s not today’s topic. One estimator stood out from the rest, this one in Holyshiteitshot, Arizona.

Like some big men, he walked with a back-leaning Sidney Greenstreet tilt. He firmly planted one foot in front of the other, rather how I imagine Nero Wolfe walked. Round, he was very round, rotund. He’d dressed head to toe in blinding red– crimson cap, carmine knit shirt, vermillion belt, scarlet shorts, sanguine socks, cerise shoes. As for underwear, I would have bet on blood-red briefs, exactly the same shade as the rest of his costume.

The Arizona sun went into eclipse as he bore down upon me. He looked like an oversized ladybug.

No, not quite. Because he sported curly dark hair and beard, it’s fairer to say he looked like a slightly-crazed Santa’s workshop helper dressed as a ladybug.

Melayna plays the horns
“Melayna Walküre seizes the helm in Wagner’s
Das Rheingold.”
— Jean Poole, Opera Revue
“But Leigh!” you say. “That’s not like you to comment on other people’s looks. That’s… that’s… unkind. And besides, his costume didn’t feature ladybug polka-dots.”

Hold on, this is justified, I promise.

Enter Melayna. See, the adjuster hadn’t come to visit me; I simply happened to spot him plodding through heat thermals rising from the parking lot. Melayna was his client.

And she outshone the sun. He was… thunderstruck. Melayna’s pretty, very pretty. She’s also… how the Germans say… kräftig, robuste, widerstandsfähig. Loaded with tattoos, she gobsmacked him like an operatic Valkyrie.

Hormones sizzled in the heat. Birds began twittering highlights from The Sound of Music.

Trying to introduce himself, his voice squeaked like a hyper-ventilating soprano. Kind Melayna helped him reel in his tongue. I strolled off to let young love blossom like Boraginaceae along the Rhine. That’s when ladybug-dude made a fatal mistake.

Lady Bug Superheroes
Botanical and zoological gardens buy cartons of ladybugs by the thousands. Why? Ladybugs, aka ladybirds, devour aphids. Destructive little aphids devour plants, literally sucking the life out of flora.
    We’ve upset the balance of nature, which can no longer naturally produce sufficient ladybugs to munch down on aphid evildoers. Thus botanists and farmers depend on ladybug growers.
Desperate to impress his dazzling darling, he boasted about the only thing in his life he thought worth bragging about, his penchant for white supremacy, his passion for the Aryan nation, his regard for the red, white, and black. Ladybug-boy, he wanted her to know, was a secret Nazi.

Alarmed in the middle of cheeping ‘Edelweiss’, songbirds choked. They scratched to a halt like a needle dragged across a record. Boraginaceae withered on the vine. Ladybug-boy’s overtures sank into the molten tar of an Arizona parking lot.

It gradually dawned on our horrified heroine that the ladybug costume exactly matched the red in Nazi bunting. Melayna, see, one of approximately four Democrats left in Arizona, happened to be the least likely fan of neo-Nazis. This girl hadn’t forgotten America and its Allies fought a war to rid the world of Nazis.

“Fräulein Layna shows
Der Ring des Nibelungen
fans how the Valkyries ride.”
— Percy Flage, The Village Vocal
Besotted ladybug-dude not only failed to grasp he’d lost the attention of his süßen Liebling, but he botched the simple insurance estimate. Melayna wondered how die Schwarzen and Hispanics fared at the whims of this Aryan Red Avenger.

Departing into the red-rimmed sunset, she left the smitten Storm Front wannabe pining. Not that day or the next, but sometime she vowed she’d share a quiet word with his insurance overlords.

Don’t ƒ with the fräulein, don’t mess around the Melayna.

Shortly, a cleansing shower refreshed her. As rushing water sluiced away the slime, she even hummed a little Wagner tune. Nothing’s like Ride of the Valkyries to lift a girl’s spirits.

♪♬ Dum de-de-de dee dah… ♩♫