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.

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