Simanaitis Says

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SLAKING OPERATIC THIRST PART 2

YESTERDAY, WE QUENCHED our operatic thirst at two Parisian cafés and a Russian one on the Lithuanian border. Today in Part 2, we find refreshment in Seville, Spain; Nuremberg, Germany; and in the California Gold Country. With the help of Sir Denis Forman’s A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings, we sure do get around.

Lillas Pastia’s Café in Georges Bizet’s Carmen, 1875. Forman writes, “Carmen is unforgettable, but for opera amnesiacs it is the one with the tor-ee-a-dor song, the gypsy Carmen, and the simple soldier who stabs her to death.”

Lillas Pastia’s Café gets a fabulous Yelp rating. In Act I, Carmen entices Don José to hang out with him there that night. He helps her escape a street-fight rap and ends up in the lockup instead.

Lillas Pastia’s in the 2016 Utah Opera production of Carmen. Image from Utah Opera.

The whole of Act II takes place at Lillas’s place. Carmen and her BGFs Frasquita and Mercedes dance on tables in what Forman calls “Tra la la for the wild free gippo life.” Toreador Escamillo and his groupies arrive. He sings “pop song No. 1 on the Sevillian charts concerning the irresistible sexual power of men who kill bulls (e.g. himself).”

The toreador eyes Carmen, but she’s waiting for her soldier pal Don José. Forman summarizes matters when the latter walks in: “Where you bin? asks Carmen. In jankers says Don José released forty-five minutes ago and I adore you.”

Lillias Pastia’s is that kind of hookup place, and a smugglers’s den to boot. Next thing Don José knows, he’s a smuggler himself.

Several Acts later, he says, “Arrest me for murder. I did it. Carmen, je t’adore.

Forman’s assessment: “Carmen’s impact is direct to the solar plexus, no doubt through the brain, but without requiring too much assistance from that quarter. It is clear, uncomplicated and, as Nietzsche said [Who he? Ed.], is the perfect antidote to the paranoia of Wagner.”

My take: I blame the ambience of Lillas Pastia’s for much of this.

A Tavern in Nuremberg, Germany, in Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, 1881. Though the tavern may be apocryphal, there was a real Hoffmann sharing The Tales of Hoffmann. The opera’s three acts are based on three short stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1776–1822, one of major authors of the Romantic movement. It’s only the Prologue and Epilogue that take place in the Nuremberg watering hole.

The Nuremberg tavern, in the 1881 première. Wikipedia suggests this illustration appears to be by Pierre-Auguste Lamy.

Indeed, The Tales of Hoffman reminds me of walking into a bar for a quiet refreshment, only to be befriended, no, make that accosted, by a guy who’s a tad the worse for drink.

“Lemme tell you about life,” he says. And he does.

The important difference between such an experience and Offenbach’s opera is the selection of tales that the fictionalized Hoffmann relates: In Act I, his first love is Olympia, an automaton whose nature Hoffmann discovers too late in their relationship. Act II’s girlfriend is Antonia, whose fatal flaw is singing herself to death. Act III’s Giulietta is a courtesan who drinks poison accidentally and drops dead in Hoffman’s arms.

In the Epilogue, we and Hoffmann are back in the Nuremberg tavern. He’s well juiced by now: “Y’know what I mean. I’m jus’ unlucky in love.”

The Polka Saloon in Giacomo Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, 1910. Forman sums up The Girl of the Golden West’s action at the Polka Saloon and owner Minnie’s cabin as “The one where a man escapes death through the love of a good woman and a woman escapes a fate worse than death by cheating at poker.”

Minnie’s Polka Saloon. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Puccini’s Fanciulla is to California gold country what his Madam Butterfly is to Japan. He gets stuff wrong (was there ever a Polka Saloon in the Old West?). Yet Puccini succeeds in delivering magnificent opera.

“Hello! Hello!” the miners sing. “Drink whisky straight!” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019

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