An Operatic Point of View

Post image for An Operatic Point of View

by Featured Guest on April 6, 2011

By Carnivore

Troll King commented the other day:

So which is it? Have women always been seen as virtuous or as evil?

Well, let’s see. It has often been noted here, at The Spearhead, that today TV and movies portray men generally as:

  • Bumbling idiots, especially men in a family setting, such as fathers, husbands, brothers and sons
  • Villains who are evil to the core, who could give Hitler and Stalin lessons.

In either case, strong, confident, virtuous women save the bumbling idiot from himself or save the world from the evil men. In the latter case, the strong woman will inevitably have a perfect figure, wear a skin-tight outfit, weigh about 115 pounds and dispatch ten or more evil, 200+ pound men with her bare hands in the span of a minute or two. I would like to take the reader back to a time when a slightly different view of human nature and the attributes of the sexes prevailed in popular entertainment, this being in opera.

The hey-day of opera was the mid to late 19th century and early 20th century. At that time, opera could be thought of as the IMAX of its day – a spectacular combination of all the arts – music (orchestral and vocal), drama, poetry, painting and sculpture (through set design) – into one super production. As it progressed beyond its beginnings around 1600, opera left the exclusive domain of royalty and became a popular entertainment for the growing middle class. I’d like to present some operas and how they portrayed men and women, both good and bad.

A few points before I proceed:

  • All opera composers and librettists (the authors of the words which are sung) worth mentioning, of course, were men.
  • This article won’t solve our current crisis. It is proffered as instruction on our common, male creative heritage to those who haven’t got an operatic clue. Hope you also find it entertaining.
  • No, the operatic vocal sound isn’t as simple as humming a tune. The vocal technique was developed to allow a single voice to cut through a full orchestra and fill a 1000+ seat opera house without microphones or a sound system.
  • The story summaries will cut out some details to save space.


Most people have seen a picture of Enrico Caruso in a clown costume and heard a scratchy recording of him singing “Ridi, Pagliaccio”. (His 1907 recording of this piece was the first record to sell a million copies.) You may wonder what his character, Canio, was belly-aching about. Simply this – he had just discovered that his wife, whom he had fully trusted, was an adulteress and was going to leave him that very night.

Using two common theatrical devices: “the sad clown who has to make people laugh” and “the play within a play”, the composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo, weaves a tragic tale with music and prose in his opera, Pagliacci. Premiered in 1892, it was an instant success. Here’s the story.

The characters are Canio, the leader of a small troupe of entertainers, his wife Nedda and two other entertainers: Tonio and Peppe and, finally, Nedda’s lover, Silvio. Act 1 opens with the troupe entering a small village, setting up their portable stage and announcing a play to be held that evening. Canio and Peppe start to go with the villagers to the tavern but Tonio stays behind. The villagers jokingly ask Canio if Tonio is staying behind to woo Nedda. Canio responds (note that in the troupe’s act, he plays “Clown”):

It’s better not to play a game like that with me.

Listen Tonio and everyone, the stage and life aren’t the same thing.

If Clown surprises his wife with a handsome man in her chamber,
he’ll only make a funny speech, calm down and let himself be beaten with a stick!

But if I should really surprise Nedda, the story would end quite differently.

It’s better not to play a game like that with me.

Some of the villagers ask if he really suspects Nedda. Canio replies, “Of course not! I adore her!” and gives her a tender kiss.

As soon as the crowd has left, Tonio does indeed make a pass at Nedda, but she strikes him with a whip. She has someone else in mind. After he retreats, Silvio appears from the tavern and asks Nedda to run off with him after the play that night. Meanwhile, Tonio overhearing this fetches Canio. He arrives just in time to hear Nedda say “I will always be yours” to the departing Silvio. Canio runs after Silvio but loses him and doesn’t get a good look at his face. In frustration, he demands that Nedda reveal the name of her lover. She refuses. Canio threatens her with a knife, but Peppe stops him and says it’s time to prepare for the play.

Canio is left alone to get ready, overcome with sadness, pain, anger and frustration from the betrayal which he never suspected. At this point he sings “Vesti la giubba”. Given the scene and the strong emotions felt by the character with which anyone who has been betrayed can identify, here is a moving performance by Giuseppe Di Stefano that tears at the soul. Canio feels like a powerless fool, a clown who has to make people laugh while he has a dagger of pain and betrayal in his heart.

Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina.

Put on your costume and powder your face.

La gente paga e rider vuole qua.

The audience pays and wants to laugh.

E se Arlecchin t’invola Colombina,

And if Harlequin steals Colombina from you,

Ridi, Pagliaccio, e ognun applaudira!

Laugh, Clown, and everyone will applaud!

Tramuta in lazzi lo spasmo ed il pianto;

Turn into laughs your spasms of pain,

In una smorfia il singhiozzo e’l dolor.

Turn your tears of sorrow into a grimace.

Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore in franto!

Laugh, Clown, at your broken love;

Ridi del duol t’awelena il cor!

Laugh at the pain which poisons your heart!

You might have guessed the ironic plot of the play within the play: Columbina (played by Nedda), wife of Clown (played by Canio) is having an affair with Harlequin (played by Peppe). Tonio plays the servant Taddeo. Act 2 opens with the villagers gathering for the play and Nedda collecting money. Silvio appears and tells Nedda that he’ll be waiting. He joins the audience.

The play begins and the events of the afternoon eerily repeat themselves in the play. Taddeo makes a pass at Columbina, whom she chases off. Harlequin appears and begins to serenade Columbina. Clown returns just in time to hear Columbina say “I will always be yours” to the departing Harlequin. Canio exclaims “In God’s Name! Those same words!” As the play progresses, reality replaces the play and Canio demands the name of Nedda’s lover. She refuses, so he draws a knife and stabs her. With her dying breath she cries out “Silvio” and Silvio rushes up to the stage calling, “Nedda”. Canio, blinded by rage, turns on Silvio and stabs him to death. Canio drops the knife and proclaims to the audience, “The comedy is finished!”


This opera was composed by Giuseppe Verdi, with a libretto by Francesco Piave based upon a story by Victor Hugo and first performed in 1851.

The opera’s story takes place in the 16th century. Rigoletto is the hunchbacked court jester to the Duke of Mantua. The Duke is an alpha’s alpha, a cad. His hobby is trying to bed the wives and daughters of the noblemen in his court.

The opera opens at the Duke’s palace where a ball is being held. While the Duke is making passes at all the women, Rigoletto mocks their husbands and suggests to the Duke that he should get rid of them by imprisoning them or by execution. The noblemen vow to take revenge on Rigoletto after one of them reveals that Rigoletto is keeping a secret mistress in his home. A Count enters whom Rigoletto mocks because the Duke has plowed the Count’s daughter. You can tell old Riggy ain’t making any friends here. The Duke has the Count arrested. As he is led away, the Count places a father’s curse upon Rigoletto. Rigoletto is visibly shaken.

The noblemen arrange a plot and abduct Rigoletto’s mistress and bring her to the Duke’s palace. When the Duke arrives, he finds out that Rigoletto’s mistress is waiting for him in his bedroom. He immediately rushes to her side. Rigoletto arrives in distress and it’s revealed the woman is really his daughter, Gilda. The Count’s curse has been fulfilled, or so Rigoletto thinks. After the Duke has finished with her, Gilda rushes to her father’s side, half undressed.

Here is where it get’s interesting. While her father is furious and vows revenge, Gilda still loves and defends the Duke, despite him having just pumped and dumped her. Of course, this is no surprise to Spearhead readers. The father and daughter sing a duet, where he’s set on revenge (vendetta) and she begs him to forgive the Duke (here Placido Domingo and Julia Novikova):

Rigoletto and Gilda

Rigoletto: Yes, revenge, terrible revenge is all that my heart desires.

Gilda: O my father, what a fierce joy

Rigoletto: The hour of your punishment hastens on,

Gilda: do I see in your eyes!

Rigoletto: that hour which will be your last.

Gilda: Forgive him and then we too may hear

Rigoletto: Like a thunderbolt from God,

Gilda: the voice of pardon from Heaven.

Rigoletto: the jester’s revenge shall strike you down.

Gilda: Forgive, forgive!

Rigoletto: Revenge! Revenge! No! No!

Gilda: He betrayed me, yet I love him; great

Rigoletto: God,

Gilda: I ask for mercy on this faithless man!

The final act finds Rigoletto and his daughter in a shady part of town by the house of Sparafucile, the assassin. The Duke is inside and Rigoletto impresses on Gilda, who’s still in love with the Duke, that the Duke has forgotten about her and is now trying to seduce Maddalena, the assassin’s sister. Here is where the Duke sings his famous aria, La donna e mobile (this example by Luciano Pavarotti; note Gilda at the window watching while he seduces Maddalena). You’ve probably heard the melody before, if not the aria. Get a load of what he’s singing – no comment needed:

La donna è mobile qual piuma al vento,

Women are as flighty as feathers in the wind.

Muta d’accento e di pensiero.

She changes her voice and her mind.

Sempre un amabile leggiadro viso,

Always a sweet, pretty face,

In pianto o in riso È menzognero.

but in tears or in laughter, she is always a liar.

È sempre misero chi a lei s’affida,

He is miserable who trusts in her and

Chi le confida mal cauto il core!

he who confides in her – his unwary heart!

Pur mai non sentesi felice appieno

Yet one never feels fully happy

Chi su quel seno non liba amore!

who does not drink love on that bosom!

Rigoletto makes a deal with the assassin for the Duke’s life. He will return with the money at midnight in exchange for the Duke’s body in a sack. Rigoletto instructs Gilda to put on the clothes of a man so they can escape later. They depart.

Gilda returns dressed as a man. She overhears Maddalena plead with her brother to spare the Duke’s life. He agrees, if he can find a substitute by midnight. Gilda still loves the Duke despite having been dumped by him and seeing him seduce another woman. She decides to sacrifice herself and enters the house. The assassin, realizing this is the looked-for substitute, mortally wounds her.

Rigoletto returns at midnight with the money and receives a body in a sack. He gloats and drags the sack to the river in order to dump it. At that moment, the Duke does a repeat of La donna e mobile, and Rigoletto, hearing it, realizes he’s been tricked because the Duke is still alive. He opens the sack to find his daughter, who dies in his arms (picture at the top). He screams out in horror, “The curse!” – the Count’s curse has finally been fulfilled.

All Women are Like That

Did that title get your attention? The title of Mozart’s opera, Cosi fan tutte would more accurately translate to “Thus do all” with “all” referring to women. Sometimes, the title is given as “Thus do they all” and even “The School for Lovers” but “All women are like that” seems to be more common. Unlike the previous two operas, which are tragedies, this one is a comedy. Mozart is the composer but the libretto is by Lorenzo Da Ponte, who had a very interesting life. He was the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia College (now Columbia University, New York City). The opera premiered in 1790.

To keep it easy, I’ll simplify the characters’ names to English equivalents. The male leads are Ferd and Will, two young soldiers whose fiancées are Dora (Ferd) and Lily (Will). Dora and Lily are also sisters. Their maid is Thorn, and lastly, there’s the old philosopher, Al.

The opera opens in a coffeehouse with Al discussing women with Ferd and Will. The soldiers are certain that their fiancées will always be failthful while Al thinks they are just being naïve. Al bets them that he can show the sisters would be unfaithful within 24 hours because all women are the same. He swears them to secrecy and requires their pledge to do whatever he says. They agree.

The scene shifts to the two sisters. Al arrives and announces the bad news that the soldiers have been called to war. Ferd and Will arrive and the couples say their tearful farewells all the while pledging their love and faithfulness. Al laughs to himself. After the couples depart, Al gloats at what he thinks will be an easy win:

Oh, poverini!

Oh, poor fools!

Per femmina giocar cento zecchini?

To bet a hundred sequins on a woman!

«Nel mare solca e nell’arena semina

“He who builds his hopes on a woman’s heart,

E il vago vento spera in rete accogliere

Ploughs the sea and sows on sand

Chi fonda sue speranze in cor di femmina.»

And hopes to snare the wind in a net.”

The scene shifts to the sisters’ home. The sisters are pining for their lovers. Thorn, the maid, arrives and asks what is wrong. When they tell her the men are off to battle, she laughs and says so much the better for them since they will come back crowned with laurel (i.e. victory). When the girls protest that they might be killed, Thorn says so much the better for the sisters because they lose those two and all the remaining men are left.

When the ladies protest that they would die if their lovers were to be killed in battle, Thorn replies that is what they think but they wouldn’t do it because no woman has ever died for love or a man – there’s plenty more where the two soldiers came from. She admonishes the sisters to not waste their time with tears but to find new lovers because their men will be doing the same.

The sisters leave and Al returns to bribe Thorn to help with the plot and with a promise of more money if the plot succeeds. He introduces her to two Albanian princes who will attempt to woo the sisters. What Al doesn’t tell Thorn is that the Albanians are really Ferd and Will in disguise. Since Thorn didn’t recognize them, he’s certain Dora and Lily won’t either. The plot is for each soldier to woo the other’s fiancée. The sisters return and the Albanians declare their love and demand a kiss. The sisters turn them away to the men’s secret delight.

Act 2 opens with Thorn urging the sisters to fall for the Albanians. She tells them that since their fiancées have gone to war, they, too, should act like the military and recruit new lovers! Dora confesses that there couldn’t be any harm in a little flirting and Lily agrees.

The Albanians return and proceed to woo the women. The sisters eventually succumb. Later, the men express their anger to Al and swear off marriage. Al recommends, however, that they go ahead and marry them (sung here by Nicolas Rivenq):

Tutti accusan le donne, ed io le scuso

Everyone accuses women, but I excuse them

Se mille volte al dì cangiano amore;

for changing their affections a thousand times a day.

Altri un vizio lo chiama ed altri un uso,

Some call it a sin, others a habit,

Ed a me par necessità del core.

But it seems to me a necessity of the heart.

L’amante che si trova alfin deluso

The man who finds himself deceived

Non condanni l’altrui, ma il proprio errore;

should not blame others, but his own illusions

Già che giovani, vecchie, e belle e brutte,

Be they young or old, beautiful or ugly,

Ripetetel con me: «Così fan tutte!»

Repeat after me….. “All women are like that!”

And Ferd and Will repeat: “All – women – are – like – that!”

The final scene goes through some confusion with the soldiers “returning” and chasing after their rivals. All is finally revealed and all are forgiven. Al collects on his bet and Thorn gets her share.

Lucy of Lammermoor

Lucia di Lammermoor is a tragic opera by Domenico Gaetano Donizetti. The libretto is by Salvadore Cammarano and based upon Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor. It premiered in 1835.

The opera is set in late 17th century Scotland and the plot takes many twists and turns. To very briefly summarize, the Ravenswood and Lammermoor families have been a feudin’. The Lammermoor family has fallen on hard economic times and Lucy’s brother wants her to marry the wealthy Lord Bucklaw. Of course, Lucy doesn’t want to, because she just happens to be in love with – whom else – the head of the rival Ravenswood clan, Sir Edgar whom Lucy’s brother hates.

Sir Edgar goes away on a political trip to France. While he is gone, Lucy’s brother does everything he can to get her to marry Lord Bucklaw – intercepting all of Sir Edgar’s letters; spreading rumors that he has another lover etc. Finally, Lucy concedes to marry Lord Bucklaw and signs the wedding contract. At that very instant, Sir Edgar returns to claim his wife.

Let’s take a break here. It’s at this point that Sir Edgar begins the famous sextet from the opera, “Chi mi frena”. Donizetti’s genius weaves the music and singing of six characters into one fabulous presentation. (Sung here by Jose Carreras as Sir Edgar in a great production with period costumes.) Of course, guys in the USA might better recognize the melody here or here at 2:14.

Anyway, back to Lucy. Edgar curses Lucy and is forced out of the castle. The wedding goes through with Lucy and Lord Bucklaw. As the marriage celebration takes place in the great hall of the castle, it is announced that Lucy has gone mad and killed her husband in the bridal chamber. Lucy appears drenched in blood (picture) and sings the famous “Mad Scene” aria where she imagines that she is married to Sir Edgar. Lucy collapses and is dying. Edgar is meanwhile waiting for a duel with Lucy’s brother when he learns she has died calling for him. Seeing that she really did love him all along, he stabs himself in order to meet her in heaven. Only in an opera, eh?

There you have it – woman as killer, adultress, fickle & unfaithful lover and a thug’s lover. Not the typical female character seen today.

Previous post:

Next post: