Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Disney Animated Opera

People like to complain about the terrible lessons of the old Disney films. Cinderella is too passive. Belle has Stockholm Syndrome. Ariel is just an idiot. And they've tried to appeal more to modern audiences by deviating from the standard stories and creating more proactive princesses in films such as The Princess And The Frog and Frozen, often to the point of feeling really self-conscious and heavy-handed. Not to detract from these movies, of course (and certainly not to detract from the scores, most of which are very good and by Alan Menken). I didn't generate these complaints. I'm relaying them secondhand, and relaying them because I think I can offer a suitable alternative. Several of these classic fairy tales have ready-made operatic alternatives with smart protagonists, good morals, good music, and are out of copyright and already Disney-ready. So to the Disney execs reading this (I know you're out there among my half-dozen or so readers I'm sure I dearly hope but probably not), how are these for some upcoming features?

Cinderella La Cenerentola

What's the problem with Cinderella? Well she's too passive. She plays no role in her fate. She waits around for a fairy godmother, goes to a ball, and then leaves without taking any steps to ensure that anything will work out. That she loses the shoe is pure luck, and everything from then on is driven by the prince. Well, the primary boon of Rossini's La Cenerentola is that that prince finally has a name other than "Charming". It's Ramiro, and it's a perfectly good name, so I'm going to be calling him by it.

Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. These are the archetypal examples of fairy tale princesses just waiting for everything to sort itself out. The latter two at least have the excuse of being in comas, but Cinderella is due for a re-branding. James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim had an answer to the problem in Into The Woods. A clever solution too. In their interpretation, as can be heard in the song "On The Steps Of The Palace", is that Cinderella does not know what she wants. She therefore dodges the responsibility of having to choose by leaving the shoe on purpose, therefore putting the responsibility of dictating the ending in the prince's hands. Now she's not passive, but rather actively dodging responsibility. Now that works out well enough for Into The Woods, but isn't exactly a moral Disney might want when they're not planning to kill off half the cast in Act II. And so we need to find a more responsible Cinderella.

The answer is Rossini's La Cenerentola. In this version of the story, there is no magic -- although many productions stage it that way anyway. The fairy godmother stand-in is Ramiro's tutor, Alidoro. In the beginning, he is disguised as a beggar, and he shows up on Don Magnifico's (the wicked stepfather's) doorstep asking for charity. The two stepsisters turn him away, but Angelina (Cinderella/Cenerentola) gives him some food and coffee. On the reveal that Ramiro is searching for a bride at a ball he is throwing, it's made clear that Alidoro is going around scouting for a suitable bride, which is why he provides Angelina with the means to go to the ball.

But Angelina isn't the only person in disguise. Ramiro has disguised himself as his own valet, Dandini. Dandini in turn takes the place of the prince. This for obvious reasons. Angelina falls for the fake-valet, and vice versa. And now instead of running away and happening to lose a shoe, she deliberately gives him one of two matching bracelets for the express purpose of finding her later. In the second act, of course, all the disguises come off and all ends happily ever after.

And so there's no blind luck, no waiting for everything to work out, and most importantly, no glass shoes. Once she's able to, Angelina takes matters into her own hands. She's not going on any grand adventure or leading some movement, but Cinderella is a simple story, and Cenerentola is a bit better of a character. Certainly a better role model than Cendrillon. Also, she's a mezzo, and mezzo-sopranos suffer from a severe lack of good role models in opera.

Beauty And The Beast The Beauty Stone

I don't know that there's really a good way to spin the Beauty and the Beast story. The two main problems, at least with the Disney version, are that the Beast is not a very nice suitor. He essentially takes Belle prisoner. The Stockholm Syndrome interpretation is popular, as is the interpretation that Gaston (who is as far as I can tell Disney's invention) is completely justified in his actions. The other problem is that the Beast becomes a handsome prince at the end, which sort of undermines the "true beauty is on the inside" moral.

The better alternative is the least successful of the Savoy operas, The Beauty Stone. Mostly a failure because as far as serious drama is concerned, it makes The Yeomen Of The Guard look like The Pirates Of Penzance. After the titular stone has been passed around for three acts, it's taken out of commission by the Devil (who also introduced it to the plot and at every turn basically fails at being a devil), and everyone is back at their baseline level of attractiveness. First the cripple Laine gets the stone, and Lord Philip selects her for a bride. Then she becomes disillusioned with beauty, realizing that Philip only wants her for a trophy wife, so she demands to be let go and she discards the stone. Philip is thoroughly ashamed of all this and so he goes off to fight in whatever war is going on because of course there's a war going on. Then after some rigmarole, Saida, who was already the most beautiful soprano in the cast, gets the stone, but when Philip comes back from the war he goes back to Laine. Saida discards the stone in frustration and then the Devil tries to give Saida the "the beauty was inside you all along" speech for some reason. Like I said, he basically fails at being a devil.

There is one minor detail that somewhat undermines the moral, but it is a quick fix which I'm sure the Disney version will take care to make. Saida has the stone at this point, which, given that she was already the most beautiful person in town, makes her that much more beautiful and so all men on stage (except for the devil) automatically fall in love with her. When Philip comes back from the war, he is blinded, and that therefore makes him immune to Saida's spell. He recognizes Laine by her voice. The problem is that it is implied that the only reason Philip is choosing his bride by voice is because he can no longer judge their looks. The solution is to not blind him, but have Laine's voice win him out from Saida's appearance anyway. Laine singing offstage already managed to snap Simon back to his senses at the beginning of Act III, so there's precedent for that, as is there also precedent for Disney princesses having magic singing voices. So it really works out from all angles.

Speaking of magic singing voices...

The Little Mermaid Die Frau Ohne Schatten

This is one that will probably take some rebranding before Disney can roll it out. But then so did the original Little Mermaid. For a more accurate Little Mermaid see Dvorak's Rusalka. But the basic story elements are there, and Strauss' fairy tale opera Die Frau Ohne Schatten covers most of the issues. The main issue being that Ariel is an idiot.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten has no deal with the devil, nor does it have its princess give up her whole life for some man she's never spoken to. What instead sets up the plot is that the Empress (before she was the Empress -- unlike La Cenerentola, in which everyone has names, basically nobody is given a name in Die Frau Ohne Schatten) was a shapeshifter, and one day, in the form of a gazelle, was attacked by a red falcon. The emperor, in turn, was chasing the falcon. At the last minute, the empress assumed human form, and then lost the talisman that gave her her shapeshifting abilities. Stuck as a human, she ended up marrying the Emperor, who is now obsessed with finding that red falcon.

Now, the empress is still not actually a human, although she greatly resembles one. And what betrays this fact is that she has no shadow. Her father, the evil spirit Keikobad (who never appears on stage), insists that she obtain a shadow within an arbitrary time limit or else return to the spirit realm.

A lot of stuff happens in the opera, most of which I'll be skipping past for the sake of simplicity, and because Disney wouldn't include half the stuff in this opera anyway. The basic overview from here on is that the Empress and her nurse (who is the obligatory plucky sidekick -- in the Disney version she's probably a superintelligent axolotl or something like that) go out in search of a shadow. They come across a dyer (the only named character in the piece -- Barak), and his wife. Without going into details, the nurse cons the wife out of her shadow. Just as things are about to go bad (as things are wont to do when you give up your shadow apparently), the Empress has a last-minute attack of conscience at returns the wife's shadow. Keikobad drags them all to the spirit realm and insists that the Empress take the wife's shadow by force. The Empress refuses, and this act of defiance defeats Keikobad and grants her her own shadow. Also, it fixes the Emperor who had been turned to stone for some reason.

With the same basic plot concept -- magic humanoid non-human stuck among humans given arbitrary time limit within which to become human -- if this isn't an improvement over Disney's current Little Mermaid, who does absolutely nothing conducive to her obligatory happy ending -- I might add that the Empress already has a happy ending, no Disneyfication required -- I don't know what is.

Aida Aida

Disney already did Aida. I really don't know what's up with that. But I guess it's not the worst opera they could pick. I mean, it's not like anybody dies.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Perusing Prunier

In spite of my last post, and perhaps against my better judgment, I really want to like La Rondine. It's a hodgepodge of romantic cliches, but I see why the characters and setting would have been appealing to Puccini. Well, except for the fact that he didn't seem to write any other operas that even approach being similar. Maybe a little Manon Lescaut. And on the face of it, La Rondine seems like, if not phenomenal, it should at least be a good respectable opera like Francesca Da Rimini. Zandonai's Francesca opera, by the way, is one I readily cite as an example of a terrific score making up for perhaps a less-than-satisfactory libretto. But to me, La Rondine falls flat. But I want to like it. So I'm going to dissect it, focusing on the character of Prunier, the poet. Because when all else fails, making things meta automatically makes them better.

Prunier is the first character to whom we're really introduced. He is a poet, and he has a half-finished song about a woman named Doretta. This early in the show, most of the audience should still be paying attention, and so it's pretty clear that this song is going to foreshadow the events of the opera. For the second half, Magda, our leading soprano, takes over. So what we get out of this is that Magda is going to reject a rich suitor for a poor suitor. She's a courtesan, so that should be an easy enough plot.

So that's started out well enough. A little cliche, but at this point I was still willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Well, Magda relates some tales of her youth, and the comprimari suggest that Prunier write about her. Prunier declines on account of he prefers his heroines to have some sort of an edge. He cites Berenice, Salome, and Francesca. I can only assume that the Francesca here is Francesca Da Rimini, which I must take exception to. But then I guess Salome is edgy enough for two sopranos.

Now things get moving. Ruggero comes in. He's the tenor. I mean, Prunier's a tenor too, so you could have been forgiven for thinking he was the protagonist in the first twenty minutes, but now we've got Ruggero, and he's actually the tenor. The way it plays out, Ruggero starts to take the focus, but Prunier keeps trying to pull it back to himself. He is now reading Magda's palm. That's right. We've got a poet who writes prophetic songs and a fortune teller. Also, he calls her a swallow -- that is, a rondine. So now we've heard the title of the opera too. (And in a case where the title isn't the name of a character.) This is where I started to think the opera was getting a bit heavy-handed. But the scene sort of feels like a power struggle between Prunier and Ruggero. Ruggero doesn't really care about the plot of the opera, he just wants to have fun in Paris. But Prunier knows what's up. He's acting as though he's in an opera -- which he is -- and he thinks he's the hero -- which he isn't.

Ruggero asks what to do in Paris. Prunier, a Paris native, is unimpressed with the usual touristy stuff, but now we get a full introduction to Lisette. We'd heard her before. She's had some of the quickest music in the piece. The blabbermouth maid. Now it becomes apparent as she rattles off what one does their first night in Paris that she is the funloving maid as well. The Despina. The Adele. So now we've got two sopranos and two tenors. Prunier wants his soprano to have an edge, so he picks Lisette as the leading lady for his opera. She dresses up in Magda's wardrobe and goes out on the town. Magda dresses down and goes out on the town. Ruggero just goes out on the town.

So as far as Prunier is concerned, Magda is a romantic cliche. He would rather write something he finds interesting. But Prunier isn't the protagonist of La Rondine, Magda is. So this opera is going to be a romantic cliche. Prunier picked the wrong protagonist. He thinks he's in Pygmalion. That he's Henry Higgins and he's going to turn Lisette into a proper lady. But, of course, he's wrong. He's not the main character, and neither is Lisette. That honor goes to Magda. However much Prunier would like to be in another opera, the fact remains that he's in this one.

This could be the part where La Rondine becomes a treatise on opera itself. A sort of Capriccio on the shift from high romantic opera (La Traviata) to verismo (La Boheme). But there's no actual evidence to suggest that this was the intent, and in any case, it falls short, because Prunier's involvement in the opera rapidly decreases from there. After a little bit of stuff in Act II, he only shows up in Act III to tie up the loose ends so that the audience knows that everyone is basically back on square one. Apparently Lisette had a very short offstage singing career, and now she's back to being Magda's maid. Magda, arbitrarily deciding that she can't be with Ruggero -- even though he doesn't care about Magda's "dark secret" and there's no Germont to provide a legitimate motive -- presumably goes back to Rambaldo (who announces via letter that he's prepared to take her back). And nothing comes of Ruggero and Prunier. Not one bit of progress is made over the course of the opera. No one dies, no laughs were had, no lessons seem to have been learned, and Prunier apparently failed in writing an interesting story with an edgy soprano.

So if we take Prunier as the main character of La Rondine, and take his time offstage as important, La Rondine sort of becomes a failed romantic opera about a composer who tries and fails to write a romantic opera. It's the sort of meta-opera you'd find if you followed around the Count instead of the Countess during the events of Capriccio. It's the right opera from the wrong tenor and the wrong soprano.

Now didn't I say everything is better when made meta?

(Note: Basically everything I just said is complete nonsense. It's not Capriccio. It's just a story about a soprano who falls in love with a tenor and drama ensues. I'm reading far too much into it. But I like La Rondine a lot better now!)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Happy Birthday Puccini! Now, A Question...


Dear Puccini,

First off, happy birthday! Thanks for the great operas and all that. Now, can I ask you a question about La Rondine? The question is... well, La Rondine. I don't get it. I mean, I understand it, but it's like Act I of Die Fledermaus followed by Act II of La Boheme followed by the first half of Act II of La Traviata, but without the baritone part that makes it legit. And then no one dies! So, good job on the music and all that. It's probably one of my favorite scores from you. But... La Rondine. What's up with that?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

If You Want To Know Who We Are

Listen up, because I'm about to fix all of the race problems The Mikado may or may not have. My solution is simple and elegant. Set The Mikado in Scotland.

When Sidney Grundy wrote the libretto to Haddon Hall for Sullivan to set, he used a Scottish character to justify some extremely strained rhymes. It is, therefore, I think excusable to make the first line of the show "If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Scotlan'." And all occurrences of the word "Japan" are replaced with "Scotland" and ditto with their respective adjectives. In the case where a three syllable substitute for "Japanese" is needed, the word "highlander" will do, and I don't think anyone will complain.

As for names, well all we need to do is stick on a prefix. Pooh-bah? MacPooh-bah. Nanki-poo? MacNanki-poo. Pitti-sing? Pitti O'Sing. And if the accent is thick enough. No one will care. They'll just hear a sound they assume is a name. And, of course, we have Mr. MacAdo.

And the best part of this is that the pentatonic scale, which Sullivan uses to establish a Japanese style for the music, is also used in a lot of Scottish folk music. Miya Sama will sound thoroughly Scottish coming out of a bagpipe!

Doesn't it really all seem so obvious now?