Saturday, March 21, 2015

Set, Trilogies, and Queen Elizabeth

The way you're brought up can affect how you view the world in some seriously strange ways. I, for instance, was brought up with the card game Set. We would mostly (and still do, though less frequently, particularly as we add new games to our collection) play this game on family trips during the evenings when we had nothing else to do. So I've never played Set seriously or competitively (if that's even a thing), but over the years of playing it occasionally, it seems to have become thoroughly ingrained in my mind. This Tetris effect has been lying in wait for quite some time before it decided to to come out into the open.

I was thinking the other day about Donizetti's three queens. I know it wasn't his intention for them to be presented holistically as a trilogy, but that's the way they are today, and so that's the way I was thinking about them. And in particular, I was thinking about all the reasons they make for a terrible trilogy. I mean, I love the three queens (well, I love Anna Bolena, I like Roberto Devereux, and I enjoy Maria Stuarda for the music), and certainly do not want to detract from either their individual quality or the herculean feat of singing all three, but I was thinking, and I came to the realization: Wait a minute -- I'm playing Set!

Set is a pattern recognition game. There are eighty-one cards, all unique, and each with four attributes. Color, shape, number, and shading. Twelve cards are laid out on the table at a time, and the goal is to spot "sets" of three cards. Valid sets are such that for each attribute, the three cards in the set either share it between all three, or don't share it at all. In other words, no two can share an attribute without the third also sharing it. (Come to think of it, this is like an inverted visual version of the Incompatible Food Triad except not really.) So if we take Donizetti's three queens as a set, here are the various set violations:

  • Queen Elizabeth appears in two of the operas, but not the first. And worse, between those two operas, she is only the protagonist in one. She's the villain in the other, even though her role in both is similar.
  • Anne and Elizabeth both have rivals who are sympathetic mezzos. Mary's rival is an unsympathetic soprano.
  • Anne and Elizabeth are both undisputed  sopranos, while Mary is sometimes portrayed by a mezzo. (Love you, Joyce!)
  • Anne and Mary are both wholly sympathetic victims in their operas who get sentenced to death. Elizabeth is more morally ambiguous character in a position of power who does the death-sentencing.
  • Anne and Mary have their operas named after them. Elizabeth doesn't. This may well be because...
  • Anne and Mary both die in their operas. Elizabeth doesn't. Her opera is named for the character who does die instead.
  • Anne and Mary have the affections of tenor, and this runs parallel to the tragedy. Robert does not return Elizabeth's affections, and this precipitates the tragedy. Anne's case a bit more complex, but Henry was going to get rid of her anyway, and Smeaton got involved all on his own.
And these are the reasons I have a hard time seeing the three queens as a proper trilogy. If they were one continuous story, like the Ring Cycle, I think I could forgive them, the thematic links then being secondary to the story itself, but they're not one continuous story. (Well, technically they are, but they're generally not presented as being; Anna Bolena even has a completely different cast of characters from the other two, and there are no cross-references between any of them.)

But maybe there's a third opera we could substitute in to resolve these issues. I think there is, though it would require some rebranding. As much as I love Anna Bolena, I would let it stand aside as its own opera (it's certainly strong enough to do so), and I would place in as the first part of the trilogy the more obscure Donizetti opera Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth. That's kind of a long title. Maybe we could call it Amelia Robsart or something. Elisabetta Primo? Unfortunately, Elisabetta Regina D'Inghilterra is already taken.

Elisabetta takes place chronologically before Maria Stuarda (or so I assume, given that Mary Stuart died in 1587, Robert Dudley died in 1588, and Robert Dudley doesn't seem to be on the last year of his life during the opera.), and concerns Elisabeth dealing with a romantic rival (who is not officially a mezzo, but, like Mary, could probably be played by a mezzo (I don't know this for certain; IMSLP has one score for the opera, and it's a handwritten one that I don't want to even attempt to decipher, but Joyce DiDonato featured an aria from the character on her recent album Stella Di Napoli)), and given the character parallels, I thus propose that in all three operas, when presented as a trilogy, Elisabeth be portrayed by the same soprano, her rival by the same mezzo, and her uninterested love interest by the same tenor. The three queens trilogy becomes the Queen Elizabeth trilogy, and all the set violations are resolved.

Well, save one. In Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, Elisabeth deals with her problems by executing people. In Il Castello Di Kenilworth, she pardons Amelia and Leicester. I feel I can be a bit more forgiving with this, because if the operas are presented as a continuous story, that justifies their being presented together more than any thematic links could. Going chronologically, this is kind of a step down, character wise, going from forgiving to brutal-if-regretful. Maybe we could play it backwards. It becomes a Bel Canto Merrily We Roll Along. Merrily We Roll Along would just be depressing played forward, but going back in time as it does, it opens with the most grim events, and ends on an optimistic note, though it leaves the audience with a little bit of a sour note, knowing what's going to happen next. The trilogy, instead of just being three operas that happen to be about Tudor queens, becomes a character study on Queen Elisabeth. And if you don't want to do a character analysis, well, the music is still an absolute delight.

The Tales Of Hoffmann: GOA Order

So I was considering the order of the acts in The Tales Of Hoffmann. Each act, save for the prologue and epilogue, is a mostly independent story about Hoffmann meeting a soprano, falling in love, and, of course, it doesn't work out for various reasons. Meanwhile Nicklausse is just hanging around waiting for Hoffmann to get a clue. The acts were written in the order of Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta (each act being called by the name of the soprano starring in it), which I will shorten here to OAG. But a lot of performances perform the acts OGA, swapping Giulietta and Antonia. There's a very good reason for this, I think, in that Antonia's act is the most dramatic, at least musically, and is the only act to end in true tragedy. Ordering the acts OGA, you start with the fairly lighthearted Olympia act, and then go on to the fairy-tale Giulietta act (okay, they're all fairy-tales; Giulietta feels the most like it to me; it's plot dense, alright?) before getting to the complete tragedy of Antonia. They increase in intensity, and that's good enough for most opera companies. So for the most part, the two generally accepted orders are OAG and OGA. But I would like to propose an alternate ordering. GOA.

My reasons are primarily thus:

  1. Though the acts do not necessarily increase in intensity, character arcs become more prevalent.
  2. Inserting the lighter Olympia act in the middle gives something of a breather for both the audience and the cast. (Except for the soprano playing Olympia, but if she's not playing all three roles (as is the case in most productions) what does it matter where her act falls. If she is playing all three roles, Olympia first might make more sense, but I'll leave that distinction to the sopranos.)
  3. Nicklausse directly references Olympia in the Antonia act, which makes most sense if Antonia follows Olympia directly. By this constraint, however pedantic, the only two acceptable orders are OAG and GOA. OAG is already one of the two defaults, so I really have nothing more to say on this point.
In a large part, The Tales Of Hoffmann is about the Muse and Stella fighting over Hoffmann's attentions, the muse taking the form of Nicklausse, and Stella taking the form of the three sopranos over the course of the opera. Presenting Giulietta first opens the tales with the barcarolle, possibly the opera's most famous tune, which has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story. It's a duet for soprano and mezzo, and presents Giulietta and Nicklausse, not directly rivals in this story, but rivals in the arc of the opera as a whole, in equal prominence, and sets up what I think the character arcs are, carried by the GOA order. Nicklausse, to start, is Hoffmann's loyal friend and sidekick. Nicklausse has Hoffmann's back, and helps him out of a pinch in the end. By the Olympia act, Nicklausse is a bit more cautionary, and attempts to warn Hoffmann about what's going on. Nothing much comes of this, but Olympia is kind of dramatically stagnant across the board. In the GOA order, it acts as a bridge. Were it just Giulietta and Antonia, there would be no progression, the characters would simply stop and jump to the next page. Olympia paces it, and even if the characters do nothing much, allows the audience to take in what's going on. This is good, because by the Antonia act, Nicklausse is much more forward, directly presenting to Hoffmann the choice between love and art, and singing the beautiful Violin aria. Hoffmann for the third time ignores Nicklausse's advice to turn back, this time with truly tragic consequences.

The first two sopranos in this order, Giulietta and Olympia, aren't tremendously tragic. Giulietta's a villain even, conspiring with the villain Dapertutto to steal people's shadows and reflections. Why? I don't know. Dapertutto pays Giulietta with jewels, so I guess she's vain or greedy or something and that's bad. The thing is, it presents the soprano and the bass together. (And at this point, I'd like to raise that Councilor Lindorf really isn't a villain. The one villainous thing we see him do is intercept a letter from Stella to Hoffmann, and while this isn't exactly nice, tenors in other operas have done worse.) Presenting Dapertutto and Giulietta together somehow, I think, makes Dapertutto less villainous. In the Olympia and Antonia acts, the villain is actively working against the soprano. For Antonia, he doesn't even have a motive, he just seems to be killing her for fun. At least with Olympia he was taking his revenge on Spalanzani for cheating him out of money. And with Giulietta, Dapertutto is not targeting the soprano, and even though we are not given a motive for why he wants Hoffmann's reflection, we see that he does not target Hoffmann specifically, but simply as one of his many victims. Dapertutto is more of a presence of evil than an active villain in this regard, and Giulietta's working for him. In this act, Hoffmann is simply an idiot, he should have listened to Nicklausse (this is a recurring theme in the opera), and everyone, if not happy, at least survives.

Olympia has no real tragedy. Coppelius smashes her to bits, sure, but he was doing so because Spalanzani cheated him, and Olympia wasn't even alive anyway. I don't really feel that sorry for the automaton. Now Coppelius does play a mean trick on Hoffmann, and makes a fool of him (though, again, Hoffmann is an idiot in this act, and should have listened to Nicklausse), but Coppelius doesn't really do anything truly evil. Maybe he just wanted to test out his cool augmented reality glasses, and since Hoffmann happened to be hanging around, used him as a test subject. And imagine how good that stunt must be for advertising!


See the world as it ought to be!

Hoffmann tested, Nicklausse approved!

Reduced price for a limited time only!

(I did not think this advertising thing through.)

And this brings us to the last act. Nicklausse makes his/her most desperate plea for Hoffmann to give up. Hoffmann doesn't listen. The character tenor gets an aria. And then we finally get Antonia and Dr. Miracle, and there is absolutely no given reason Dr. Miracle wants to kill Antonia. This is a point I'll get back to later. Here the soprano, the first one to actually return Hoffmann's affections (to recap, Giulietta was trying to steal his reflection, and Olympia was a robot) dies. And, once again, Nicklausse has to rush in at the last minute to save Hoffmann.

This is where the art versus love theme really comes to a head. Because Antonia has an incredibly convenient illness that will cause her to die if she sings. And of course Hoffmann inspires her to sing. (Dr. Miracle gets her to sing by conjuring up images of her dead mother, but that's beside the point.) And Hoffmann is willing to give up art for her. And then she dies, and Nicklausse wins. So in the end, I guess it could be said that we have the villains, especially Dr. Miracle, to thank for Hoffmann choosing art over love, but then the pseudo-tragedy for Olympia and Giulietta mostly results from Hoffmann being an idiot, so maybe not.

And this brings in the major point that in GOA order, as the stories progress, the soprano becomes more tragic, the villain more villainous, and Hoffmann less of an idiot. The stories also become much broader. Giulietta, on the whole, I think is the most complicated plot of the three, with more nuanced characters, and Antonia is the simplest, with characters characterized in simple character archetypes. And right after the tragedy of Antonia, we snap back into the real world, where Hoffmann is telling the story. He's telling the stories in a tavern, presumably having a few drinks, and the explanation for why the stories themselves progress this way is that over the course of the evening, Hoffmann is growing more drunk and distraught, and so the characters become more stylized and the plots less complex, but more emotional. When Hoffmann is finally pushed over the edge telling the story of Antonia, he snaps back to reality. The Giulietta act may appear to work better for bringing him back, as it would have him recognize that Stella is not right for him, and that maybe she and Lindorf make a better pair, but in the state Hoffmann's in at the end of the opera (Nicklausse describes him as ivre-mort, dead-drunk) I wouldn't think he'd be capable of forming a story like Giulietta.

The final remaining conflict I can think of right now is Nicklausse increasing prominence through the three stories, which other than that, become more Hoffmann-centric. If the three stories are supposed to be told as Hoffmann is coming to his epiphany, what's he doing foreshadowing his own tales with speeches from his best friend telling him he's wrong? At this point I'm actually justifying my proposal rather than actually arguing for it, but consider that Nicklausse is the Muse, and, given that he/she's right there when Hoffmann is telling the stories, could easily be inserting (or inspiring Hoffmann to insert) him/herself into the stories. From Giulietta to Olympia to Antonia, Nicklausse does progressively less in the story, and starts talking progressively more about the bigger picture of the opera. Nicklausse is a character independent of Hoffmann's stories, though present in them, and can thus go against the grain of Hoffmann's own storytelling.

So there you have it, The Tales Of Hoffmann in GOA order. To recap, presenting the acts in this order allows the stories to grow simpler and more emotional as Hoffmann drinks in the tavern throughout the evening. The characters become more stylized, and the endings more tragic. Nicklausse becomes more preachy, and in the end, wins for Hoffmann's attentions. On the off chance anyone is reading this, what do you think? Are there any details I overlooked? Let me know!