Simanaitis Says

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IN MY CONTINUING efforts to relate Donald J. Trump to the arts, and vice versa, today let’s look at operatic characters who bring his personality traits to mind. With several of these characters, it’s a two-fer.

Buffoonery, Bullying. Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau is the boorish bully in Richard Strauss’s Die Rosenkavalier. He delights in bragging to his cousin Princess Marie Thérèse von Werdenberg, the Marschallin, of seducing peasant girls on his estate. Baron Ochs is coarse and rude and propositions chambermaid Mariandel (who is actually the Marschallin’s lover, Octavian, in disguise).

Baron Ochs, as portrayed by Richard Mayr. Portrait by Anton Faistauer, 1927.

In Act III, Ochs fails in his seduction of Mariandel/Octavian, tries to blackmail the Marschallin, and finally storms out pursued by bill collectors.

This is just a Strauss comic opera, mind, not real life.

Lechery. By contrast, Richard Strauss’s Salome is most definitely not a comic opera, and King Herod comes to mind as a personification of lechery.

Salome Dancing Before King Herod, by Georges Rochegrosse, 1887. Painting in the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska.

Herod has the hots for his teenage stepdaughter Salome and inveigles her to dance naked for him. In return, she demands the head of John the Baptist. Then, after a bit of necrophilia on her part, Herod has Salome put to death.

Olive Fremstad, 1871–1951, Swedish-American diva, holds the head of John the Baptist in the Metropolitan Opera’s 1907 Salome.

Not a comedy, for sure.

Hypocrisy, Mendacity. Don Basilio in The Barber of Seville is Gioachino Rossini’s embodiment of hypocrisy and mendacity. However, unlike our current crop Inside the Beltway, he’s intentionally a comic character.

Basilio is Rosina’s music teacher; she is the opera’s female romantic lead. Come to think of it, she’s also the one honest character of the lot: Count Almaviva masquerades as poor student Lindoro while wooeing Rosina. Her guardian Bartolo lusts for her (or, actually, for her dowry). Almaviva’s servant Figaro has a multitude of gaming going as well.

To ingratiate himself with Bartolo, Basilio starts false rumors about Almaviva. “La calunnia è un venticello,” he sings, “Calumny is a little breeze.”

Basilio, as portrayed by Feodor Chaliapin, 1873–1938, Russian operatic bass, in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, 1912. Image from Steven East, Bass Baritone.

In Act II, Almaviva shows up as a substitute music teacher, saying that Basilio is ill. When Basilio arrives unexpectedly, he’s bought off by Almaviva who tells him how ill he looks.

There are other complications a’plenty, and ultimately Basilio accepts another bribe, the Count and Rosina are married and Bartolo is happy to keep the dowry.

Yep, this is a comedy, not real life.

Abuse of power, Licentiousness. The Duke of Mantua in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto is a rude womanizer and not a beloved ruler. The tale is based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi S’Amuse, The King Amuses Himself, which was banned by censors for political reasons after one performance, November 22, 1832. Verdi dodged authorities 20 years later by changing the character from France’s real Francis I to a Duke of a long-extinct Mantua, Italy, ruling family.

The Duke of Mantua, as portrayed by Enrico Caruso, 1873–1921, Italian operatic tenor, in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, 1912.

Early on, the Duke brags about his seductions: ”Questa o quella,” “This woman or that.…” Rigoletto is the Duke’s kyphosis-challenged (can we say “hunchback” these days?) jester. Both are cursed, the maledizione, by the father of one of the Duke’s victims.

The curse comes to fruition: Rigoletto’s beloved daughter Gilda falls for the Duke. He leads her on. Gilda sacrifices her life to save the Duke from assassins hired by her father Rigoletto.

And I used to think of opera as escape. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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