Simanaitis Says

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THE ANCIENT Greeks found catharsis and comfort in their theater. And so it can be in opera for our times. I offer three examples “as timely as today’s headlines.”

Revenge of #metoo. The ultimate comeuppance for the likes of, allegedly, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and Donald Trump occurs in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the full title of which adds Il Dissoluto Punito, The Rake Punished.

Don Giovanni, as portrayed by baritone Francisco d’Andrade, 1912. Portrait by Max Slevogt.

Don Giovanni was first performed on October 29, 1787, in Prague. It recounts, in opera buffo style, the tale of an outright lecher. Even his sidekick Leporello flips in singing Madamina, il catalogo è questo which details, among other conquests, 1003 victims in Spain alone.

Mozart: Don Giovanni, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo; Joyce DiDonato; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Deutsche Grammophon; 2012.

Giovanni gets his when the Commendatore he offed in the first act returns in the second as a statue and summons demons who drag Giovanni to hell. See also Dante’s Inferno, a destination guide for Giovanni and other such malefactors.

Hypocrisy Personified. American composer Carlisle Floyd based his opera Susannah on the Book of Daniel’s tale of Susanna and the Elders. Modern-day hypocritical elders and their like-minded pseudo-religious leaders proliferate.

Susanna and the Elders by Guido Reni, oil on canvas, c. 1625.

Floyd’s Susannah was first performed on February 24, 1955, in the midst of the McCarthy era. The opera takes place in New Hope Valley, Tennessee, where a well-mannered young woman innocently bathes in a creek and is spied upon by lustful church elders.

Susannah is later singled out to confess to the entire congregation, but relents and runs home. Reverend Olin Blitch visits her to pray for her salvation, but ends up seducing her.

Susannah’s brother Sam learns of the seduction, and he takes his shotgun to the creek where Blitch is performing baptisms. When churchergoers come to drive her out of the valley, Susannah is waiting with her shotgun. The congregation retreats; she’s left standing alone in her doorway.

Floyd: Susannah, Cheryl Studer; Samuel Ramey; Jerry Hadley; Kent Nagano, conductor; Orchestre de l’Opera de Lyon; Virgin Classics; 1994.

Grim though the tale is, Susannah also contains one of the most beautiful of operatic arias. In Act I, Scene 2, Susannah dreams of leaving the valley for a great world beyond and sings, “Ain’t It a Pretty Night?”

A Conniving Dysfunctional Family. Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen aka The Ring Cycle is based on Norse sagas. But maybe its synopsis will remind you of a more modern one.

Rhine maidens Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde (wonderful names, eh?) confront Albrecht in Das Rheingold, the first of the four Ring Cycle operas. Set design by Josef Hoffman for Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival production, 1876.

In Der Ring des Nibelungen, there’s a philandering husband who’s known to stiff contractors, a wife who protests against bullying and other arrogance, plenty of involvement with the underworld, and Götterdämmerung, which Merriam-Webster renders as “a collapse (as of a society or regime) marked by catastrophic violence and disorder.” There’s also an ambitious daughter who eventually sleeps with her own nephew. Geez.

’Nuff said? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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