Preposterous Opera Plots

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Which opera has the most ridiculous and over-inflated plot? Where huge events hinge on one character not recognizing another because they’re wearing a hat or some such tiny device; where characters find themselves related in the most stupendously unbelievable way. I’m working on an idea about how often such sublime music came out of frankly sometimes pretty dire story matter.

There are so many to choose from, really. Verdi’s Il Trovatore is generally reckoned to be pretty ridiculous and I find Beethoven’s Fidelio a bit risible. Some aspects of La Traviata stretch the credibility a bit, I think. You could say that Dorabella and Fiordiligi (Cosi fan tutte) should have been able to recognize their own boyfriends, even with fake moustaches, but perhaps in 18th century Naples things were a bit stricter than now and they never got close enough to see them properly. The plot did, however, prompt what I think is some of Mozart’s best music, and the plot does raise all sorts of interesting and troubling ideas.

The turn of the plot at the end of Puccini’s Suor Angelica can cause many opera-goers to wince a bit, but it may well depend on your religious sensibilities, not just dramatic ones. Of course, some people simply hate the music as well; but I think it’s completely ravishing, and that Angelica’s final aria manages to transcend my own issues with the plot, so that one seems to fit the bill.

But if you want an utterly gaga opera with gorgeous music, try Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, although it’s not quite right in this context as its bizarreness is entirely self-aware (sex-changing women, sex-changing men, men giving birth, policemen on pantomime horses, choruses of babies, etc., etc.).

In more recent years, I’d nominate Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs Kong as fairly risible and incomprehensible. It was the detached head sticking out of the floor of the stage advising someone who was trying to make a phone call that (and here you have to sing operatically) “you need a sixpence, twopence won’t do” that did it for me. I remember absolute howls of laughter at the line “Only the dead come here, and they’re dead boring”, as if Birtwistle was some sort of comic genius. I didn’t dare point out that the only reason it seemed remotely funny was because the rest of the opera was so mind-numbingly tedious.

The most incomprehensible opera plot I know of was one by Haydn called La Fedeltà Premiata (can’t remember the librettist). It means “Fidelity Rewarded” which is more than can be said for the effort needed to follow it. Impossible to work out “who is madly in love with who”, as Ogden Nash called it. The only thing to do when taking guests to see it was to warn them not to bother trying.

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4 Responses to “Preposterous Opera Plots”

  1. For a goofy plot I love Xerxes, with a king in love with a tree and all sorts of silly misunderstandings and then – kapowee – all is resolved neatly at the end. But what music! I often watch the ENO DVD and I enjoy it greatly. I think silly plots are ok if the opera is a comedy and it’s done well. I think for sheer lunacy of “how much more can anyone take” is La Forza del Destino. Ahh… there’s so much, I could go on and on. But thank you for this post Robin… it got my wee brain thinking.

  2. Yes! Verdi’s La forza del destino. Whole story hinges on gun being thrown on floor, accidentally firing and killing lover’s father. Later developments include: two main protagonists in a family feud swearing eternal friendship on a battlefield when incognito; later one kills the other in a duel outside cave of nun who turns out to be his (the loser’s) sister. The whole opera is pretty absurd plot-wise, too long, dramatically inept and musically disappointing.

    One of the most risible things about Fidelio is the final chorus, with the freed prisoners praising God and a despotic monarch for giving them their freedom – and this is cited as a hymn to liberty and enlightenment! The rest of the work isn’t much better – either dramatically or musically – Beethoven just wasn’t a natural opera composer.

    One interesting aspect of Suor Angelica is the effect the dead little boy has on audiences at the end of the opera; he is one of several characters that leave a huge impression on the operas they are in, that don’t sing anything, Madame Butterfly’s child is another and a third example in Puccini are the prostitutes in Manon Lescaut.

    He does have one scream (out of view) but John the apprentice in Peter Grimes is surely a contender, and Tadzio in Death in Venice is surely the most prominent non-singing character in opera.

    The Major-Domo in Ariadne auf Naxos is also a key character, though he does speak. It’s a wonderful role for a retired comic singer such as Derek Hammond-Stroud.

    Thanks for your comment, Blog Princess G.

    • I watched the Met HD encore broadcast of Madama Butterfly on the weekend, at one of our biggest cinemas. Have you seen this? It’s the Anthony Minghella production. And speaking of children, there is quite a brilliant touch in dealing with Sorrow/Trouble, who has to be a total pain to cast normally. I mean, he’s supposed to be three years old, so they usually cast a short five year old, but there are not too many great five year old actors.

      SPOILER ALERT

      This production cast Sorrow as a puppet, and it’s at first unnervingly odd, then a touch creepy, and ultimately brilliant and desparately moving. I cried my eyes out – act II was sublime, and proved to me that the entire act is one long aria for the soprano, in this case the wonderful Patricia Racette who gave 110%.

  3. Wonderful comment, thank you. Yes, I have seen the Minghella Madama Butterfly.

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