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OPERA CHAOS IV

IT’S TIME—ta da!—to share more operatic madness. As Peter Ustinov noted, opera “rides the razor edge of absurdity,” and it’s good fun to read about the occasional hysterics of this musical art form.

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A Night at the Opera, edited and compiled by Barry Hewlett-Davies, St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Both www.abebooks.com and www.amazon.com list it.

Barry Hewlett-Davies’ collection is a hoot.

As an example, the end of the second act of Giocomo Puccini’s Tosca is dramatic indeed. Tosca knifes the evil Scarpia, arranges candles next to his body and contemptuously sings “This is the man at whose feet all Rome trembled.”

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Giocomo Puccini’s Tosca, Act II, the Metropolitan Opera, c. 1910.

The curtain slowly comes down.

But then, inexplicably, it rises again to reveal Tosca helping Scarpia to his feet.

With great presence of mind, Scarpia faces the audience, lets out an agonized moan and falls to the floor again. Tosca tries a reprise of her solemn “This is the man….” as a panic-stricken stage hand interrupts her by bringing down the curtain, this time for good.

Another good Hewlett-Davies story: In a production of Charles Gounod’s Faust, a particularly rotund bass playing Mephisto got stuck as he rose through a stage trapdoor. Not realizing that the lower half of his costume was revealingly torn, he sang “Why do you start as you greet me? Does it frighten you to see me?”

Hewlett-Davies reports that the curtain had to be lowered for the sake of decency. One woman was said to have fainted; the rest of the house rocked with laughter.

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida can have its moments as well. This is the opera where Egyptian warrior Radamès and enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida fall in love.

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Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, libretto, 1890.

Not surprisingly, the love affair ends tragically with Aida joining Radamès as they’re both entombed in a temple vault. A solemn moment is when two giant stone doors move into place, thus sealing their fate.

In one production, writes Hewlett-Davies, “Ramadès and Aida were in their vault, the tomb doors were closing slowly, ladies in the stalls were dabbing their eyes with their handkerchiefs…”

However, instead of sealing, the tomb doors, on separate tracks, “passed one another like silent stately tramcars until the left-hand door went off stage-right and vice versa.”

Eventually, a slow blackout brought relief to the two lovers in their final clinch.

The conductor Sir John Barbirolli tells Hewlett-Davies of another Aida production, this one in a theater containing a backstage loo of Victorian-age plumbing.

The opera ran its usual course until, in Act 4, Ramadès plaintively sings “Aida, where art thou?”—at which time, someone flushed the vintage loo with Verdian vigor.

“I’m afraid the opera ended there,” Barbirolli recalled afterwards, “though we did continue gallantly to the end.”

There are stories concerning composers as well: Giacomo Puccini was in a Milan hotel when he heard a barrel-organ played in the street below. The organ grinder’s tempo was annoyingly slow in “Un bel di,” “One beautiful day,” a familiar aria in the composer’s Madama Butterfly.

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Organ Grinder, Season of Grand Opera, watercolor by Arthur Weindorf, 1939.

Puccini rushed down to the street, wrested the handle from the organ grinder and began turning it like mad.

“There!” the composer said, “That is the proper tempo. Don’t you ever let me hear you playing it any other way again.”

The next day, the organ grinder was outside the hotel once more, this time with a sign that read “Pupil of Puccini.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014

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