Monday, February 24, 2014

Opera: Making Books Better (Unless That Book Is Little Women)

Much like the television and movie adaptations of now (Gone Girl the movie is happening, guys — not sure how riveting it's going to be if you already know the twist but OKEY DOKEY), back in the day, people would take books and adapt them for other forms of popular entertainment. LIKE OPERA.

I know!

Yes, from early on with Mozart and Beaumarchais's sexy new play Le Mariage de Figaro, to present day with Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking, opera is On Top of It when "It" means giving you that thing you liked already, but now with people singing the whole time instead of just boring words with no music.

What's that? You want to know what popular operas are based on books? WELL THEN.

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini. Because opera likes confusing people, Mozart set the second of Beaumarchais's trilogy to music in 1786, and Rossini set the FIRST to music in 1816. One is clearly better (HINT: it's Barber). While Mozart put a lot of "stuff" and "themes" to think about in his opera, it's also a million hours long and boring as hell. Barber of Seville is a nonstop fun ride of catchy songs and Bugs Bunny-like disguises. Basically, disguised nobleman wants to marry captive pretty girl. Captive pretty girl's old gross guardian wants to marry her. Disguised nobleman ends up marrying captive pretty girl AFTER MANY COMIC SHENANIGANS.

Such as this.

 Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti. "Lucia di Lammermoor" is just 'Lucy of Lammermoor," and yeah, it's an Italian opera set in Scotland. OBVIOUSLY. It's also based on the novel The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott, which by most accounts sucks. Some characters were changed a bit for the opera, but overall the story in both versions is very much like Romeo and Juliet, except at the end, Lucia has to marry some guy to make an alliance, the guy she actually loves returns right after she signs the marriage contract (of COURSE), and she then goes crazy and stabs her new husband in their room like 27 times, comes back downstairs, sings her Mad Scene for about 15 minutes and then drops dead.

This is the only scene you'll ever see promoted for this opera

La Traviata, Verdi. OMG IT'S LA TRAVIATA. Which is the best opera ever. Okay, so Traviata is just Moulin Rouge. I wrote a paper on this in high school. But what the opera itself is based on is La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils. Not père — fils. So not the guy who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, but his wispy son who decided to write about falling in love with a courtesan who then coughs herself to death. IT'S SO GREAT. And the book itself is really good, too. MAYBE the best book an opera's based on. Save one. This next one.

Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky. The verse novel Eugene Onegin by Pushkin is huge in Russia. No, I don't think you get it — it. is. huge. Pushkin is the Russian Shakespeare, and Onegin is his most famous work. When Tchaikovsky had to adapt some  of the verses for his operatic version, PEOPLE LAUGHED AT HIM FROM THE AUDIENCE. Laughed at his sad attempts at rewriting Pushkin to fit his miserable music! How dare you, sir! How dare you. 

What happens in this is a 16 year old girl is smitten with this guy Onegin, writes him a love letter, he comes to see her and is all dismissive and mansplainy, she is crushed — CRUSHED — and then years letter she's married to a nice old man and is high up in society and he sees her at a party and ah-HAH, this time it is HE who is smitten. But she has honor and stuff and says no, and The End. There's an awesome rhyming translation of this book by Douglas Hofstadter that I was ob-sessed with in high school and you should read it because it's great. Or maybe that's just when you're 16.

Manon, Massenet. This opera kicks ass. It's part of the five act French grand opera tradition, complete with ballet, and what essentially happens is it's the downward spiral of Manon Lescaut from innocent country girl, to fairly innocent mistress, to courtesan, to prostitute, to dead. AND THE MUSIC'S SO GREAT. If you're on Spotify — N'est-ce plus ma main. Find it now (the Beverly Sills version). She's trying to re-seduce her old boyfriend WHO IS NOW A PRIEST, and she obviously succeeds, because that aria is the best. This is all based on the novel Manon Lescaut by Prévost, and you can totally give it a miss, but I'm grateful to it for giving us Manon. I. Love. Manon.

Werther, Massenet. I might be a giant Massenet fan. BUT ONLY BECAUSE HE IS SO GREAT. Okay, this one is based on The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe (original title: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) and is about an emo poet who meets a girl he falls in love with at first sight, but she's engaged to another guy, and in the end Werther shoots himself in the head. There's a whole fun story here about the pronunciation of the opera title, because the original's German, but the opera's in French, so you retain the — you know what, not important, but still fun.

The book's okay, but really focused on philosophy and whatnot, so if you solely want Werther being emo over Charlotte, THE OPERA IS FOR YOU. I got obsessed with it back in the day solely based on the angst radiating from this picture:

There are, of course, others. Verdi wrote operas based on Othello and Macbeth. Thomas wrote a Hamlet, Gounod wrote Faust and Roméo et Juliette, Mark Adamo did Little Women, Puccini did Scènes de la vie do Bohème, Bizet did Prosper Mérimée's Carmen. ET CETERA. But these are the pretty fun ones.

In conclusion, opera is great and you should go see one.

And its fans are kind of fun.