Top Ten Lost Opera Characters
Today at the grocery store a poor young lady had accidentally gotten separated from her mom and was in tears at the camera counter, while a sympathetic clerk called again and again for her mom to retrieve her. As the girl was still there a half hour later, I began to feel uneasy on her behalf. Fortunately, by the time I left, she had been reunited with her mother, who proceeded to berate the pathetically relieved young lady in no uncertain terms, and unfairly, I thought, because the girl’s lifeline, that indispensable icon of our age, the cellphone, was malfunctioning or out of power. I think kindness is the noblest human virtue, especially since we may share it with superior creatures like dogs and dolphins; nobler than love, or charity, or faith, pace St. Paul. Anyway, I got to thinking: What operatic characters get lost in their operas? Maybe I should send the question to the Metropolitan Opera Quiz, and win their super-duper prize package, but such is my loyalty to Holdekunst readers that I offer it here first, gratis.
1. Obviously and of course, Humperdinck’s immortal Hansel and Gretel. I certainly hope there isn’t anyone left who doesn’t know enough to take this very great opera seriously. It’s sort of like Siegfried, except all fairy tale and no polemics. The pantomime of the fourteen angels can leave even the jaded listener in tears, even if he isn’t anxiously waiting for his mom at the camera counter.
2. Golaud and Melisande. The most delicate of metaphors, to the most delicate of musics, the first scene of Debussy’s greatest work is melancholy magic.
3. The protagonist of Erwartung, again, like the previous two exemplars, lost in a metaphorical forest. Only this time, we are plunged into the nightmare hysteria of Dr. Caligari.
4. Siegfried, in the first scene of the third act of Gotterdammerung. And who does he run into, but those not-so-agreeable substitutes for a Greek Chorus, the Rhine maidens. And thus, after he spills the beans, Brunnhilde has a chance to know everything, which endows her with truly awesome grandeur in opera’s greatest scene, her immolation. Certain uncharitable wives of mine might refer to the Rhine maidens as the Rhine “———s”. I don’t say yea or nay to that.
5. Keeping with the Wagnerian theme, Parsifal. He’s lost for the duration of his opera, basically. Could anyone be that stupid? At least the music is good. (talk about damning with faint praise)… Nietzsche thought Klingsor the only human character in the piece. As is so often the case, The Weimar Zarathustra hits the nail on the head.
6. Can we count Tom Rakewell and his fellow madmen? Adonis and Venus…being lost in the thickets of madness is perhaps the cruelest way to be lost. Stravinsky finally proves that he’s human after all with Anne’s exquisitely sad lullaby. Take the rest of Stravinsky, please, but let me have Rake’s Progress. Now and then let me borrow Petrushka, however!
7. Manon and Des Grieux in the last act of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. I know it’s a commonplace to joke about the Louisiana “desert” but doesn’t this passage refer to the “Louisiana Purchase”? …I’m way too lazy to dig up an American history textbook to do some fact checking, so you, my humble reader, are hereby commissioned to do this for me.
8. Dido and Aeneas in the “Royal Hunt and Storm” music from Berlioz’s Les Troyens. If your coupling doesn’t result in the founding of a great empire, you just ain’t trying hard enough.
9. How about Michel, in Martinu’s wonderful Juliette, ou la Cle des Songes (Juliet, or the Key of Dreams)…like Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, he spends the whole work in a dream.
10. If I am allowed a sentimental metaphor, who is more lost than the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro? Dove sono…where are they? Those beautiful moments, those days of pleasure…maybe the agitated young lady from the grocery store will grow up to be an opera singer, and will have special insight into what John Berryman called “the epistemology of loss”…