March 28, 2006

Poor show

There is, undeniably, something voyeuristic about opera, something about the form which makes it less empathetic than a novel. One may read a novel about illness or death or war or genocide and not feel that these events are being laid on for your entertainment: the whole idea is to put you within the events and the minds of those who experience them. Dickens may kill Little Nell: Primo Levi may walk you through the death camps, but in either case, you are there, watching it happen but wishing it would not. In opera, there is a greater distance. It is a show, which a novel is not. A novel does not seek to send you out of the theatre whistling the tunes.

At the same time, there is a heightened emotional atmosphere in opera, deriving partly from its musical nature, which serves, as music normally serves, to intensify and lay bare emotion. It derives also from its melodrama, itself a requirement of the form which, in the short period permitted to complete the action, allows relatively little scope for character development and little more for ambiguity. Opera is stark, and none less stark than Puccini: his heroines, like those of Verdi, die, and dying is what they are there for. There is never any doubt about it. You know what is going to happen: there is no sense of wishing it were otherwise.

Moreover opera is an art form with a repertoire: the material is not new, the conclusion and the working-out are already familiar. The pleasure in Puccini is not the plot, any more than it is in Shakespeare, where there is no capacity to surprise us. We need to know what is going on (I was not, in fact, totally familiar with La Boheme, nor with the Spanish in which the surtitles naturally were written) in order to appreciate the meaning of the songs. But the chances are we know how this is going to turn out, and even if we do not, the ending will not surprise us any more than we can be surprised by the death of Macbeth or of Hamlet. Hence, while we feel the death of Mimi or of Butterfly, there is no sense of wishing to prevent it, or wanting the plot to jerk from its apparent direction. In the action of a novel the hero may be trapped: we wish the hero to escape. In the action of an opera we know already there is no escape. If anything, we egg on the pursuers, since we wish the action of the opera to proceed. Cio-Cio-San must die. Violetta must die. Mimi must cough her last in the cold of winter. We want it to happen: we want to be there to watch it happen. There is something inescapably voyeuristic about opera.

But possibly the most voyeuristic element of opera is the contrast between the audience and the scenes that they have come to see. It is, in practice if not of necessity, an art form patronised by the better-off, by those who do not know cold in their homes, by those who do not sell their coats to fetch a doctor for a dying friend. That is not the audience which watches La Boheme - nor was it the audience for whom it was written. The opera is watched in warmth and comfort though it is about the absence of both.

Why does Mimi die? Why is Mimi doomed to die? Mimi is doomed to die because she is poor. It is her poverty, not the winter, which ensures that she is cold. Alcindoro does not know what cold is: Musetta does, and for that reason soaks Alcindoro for his money. Mimi knows cold but does not know money. For that reason she has consumption; for that reason she has no rest cure, no long stay at a spa. Her poverty places her in Puccini, not in Thomas Mann. She dies in an unheated room without a coat, clutching Musetta's muff: our coats are in the cloakroom and our seats are nice and warm. Che gelida manina: our hands are warm and fresh from holding drink.

We know what is going to happen, because they tell us so: in the third act, when Rodolfo and Mimi separate, they do so above all because he cannot bear to watch her die. But we can bear it. There was an interval before the last act, as there was before the third: in each of them I had una copa de cava at the bar. I had two glasses of champagne and then I came out for the last act to watch Mimi die.


At April 07, 2006 11:15 am, Blogger Chris said...

Don't beat yourself - or opera audiences - up too much.

The audience for King Lear will(generally speaking) not be wandering home naked and mad across a blasted heath, nor have that many watchers of Macbeth actually killed a man.


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