Human tragedies and anxieties bombard us everyday in news stories online, in print and broadcast, and via Twitter and Facebook.
There isn’t much we can do about it, other than try to escape now and then. TV has situation comedies, cop shows, spy thrillers, and gang sagas. Or, how about a night at the movies? There are fiery car chases, bullets flying everywhere, things exploding—everything to thrill a teenage boy, but not an adult who wants peace and quiet and a dose of positive.
There are concerts. Classics can be relaxing, inspiring, uplifting, but contemporary pieces wander about aimlessly. As for rock concerts, there’s no relaxation with heavy beats, no melody, unintelligible words and much pelvic gyration.
Which brings us to opera. Opera company managers wring their hands over the dearth of new operagoers. No wonder. If it’s a comic opera and you don’t speak Italian (or no English “surtitles” are projected on a screen), you won’t get the jokes.
As for dramatic opera, most of it was created in the 19th century and may seem hopelessly outdated. That was long before automobiles, air travel, telephones, and the wonders of modern medicine.
Consumption—tuberculosis—was a scourge, seemingly incurable. Had Puccini known in 1894 what we know now, he could have saved the heroine of La Bohème from a tragic death.
In the original, Rodolfo is a struggling poet, leading the bohemian life in Paris. His friends go out to get some food and wine. Enter the beautiful, charming Mimi. As happens in opera, it is love at first sight between Mimi and Rodolfo. They sing a soaring duet, but Mimi is beset by coughing.
As it worsens, Rodolfo is helpless to do anything to alleviate her suffering. In the final scene she is in his arms. They proclaim their undying love in a poignant duet. She breathes her last. Rodolfo shouts in despair, “Mimi! Mimi!” then collapses in unbearable grief.
Think of the possibilities if a modern writer, staying true to Puccini’s music, were to update the story to reflect what we know today about tuberculosis. Mimi once again would be in Rodolfo’s arms. They have just heard from the doctor. Her tuberculosis is now curable. With proper medical management, prescriptions, and plenty of warm sunshine, Mimi will live a long and happy life.
Their present poverty won’t stand in the way. They can sign up for France’s cost-free national health insurance. And, although he doesn’t yet know it, Rodolfo’s poetry will make him famous and prosperous. As the good health news rolls in, they sing a radiant duet. Rodolfo sings Puccini’s version of, “I’m gonna build a little home for two or three or more, in Love Land, for me and my gal.” Mimi beams at him, her illness is gone. They gaze at a bright, warm sunset as he sings, “Mimi! Mimi!” and smothers her with kisses.
Take that—Grim Reaper!
The same thing can happen to Aida, the heroine of Verdi’s opera of that name. In 1871, The Khedive of Egypt commissioned him to write it to celebrate the opening of his new opera house in Cairo.
It has the dramatic love triangle so popular in 19th century opera. Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter, loves Radames, Captain of the Guard who loves the slave girl Aida (who, unbeknownst to him, is the daughter of the King of Ethiopia).
Radames is chosen to lead the Egyptian army to repel an Ethiopian invasion. His forces prevail. A rejoicing chorus and the Pharaoh sing, “Our songs his glory praising.” Captives are led in, including Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, unrecognized by none except Aida, his daughter.
Radames has not yet returned from the battlefield so Amneris tricks Aida into revealing her love for the hero by saying he died in battle. Bereft, Aida sings, ”O love, O joy, tormenting.”
When Radames arrives, the Pharaoh gives him his daughter’s hand in marriage and heirdom to his throne. Now a large dose of plot thickener: Amneris comes to the banks of the Nile to prepare for her wedding. Aida follows secretly to get a last glimpse of her beloved. Her father sees her and persuades her to get from Radames the movements of his army. She does, then Amonasro steps out of the shadows to persuade the hero to join his army which, after all, consists entirely of freedom fighters who want to rule themselves. He also promises him Aida’s hand in marriage. Dazzled, Radames agrees. Alas, Amneris has been listening and denounces Radames as a traitor. The high priests condemn him to be buried alive. Amneris promises to get him pardoned if he will renounce Aida. No dice, he says, so it’s off to the tomb under the temple. Secretly, Aida has hidden herself there so they could die together. Duet: “The fatal stone closes over me. To die, so pure and lovely.”
Love deaths are so 19th century. It needn’t end that way if a faithful Verdi musicologist were to update it. He would have Radames’s aide slip into the tomb while the priests were deliberating and affix a plastic explosive to the inside of the tomb door. Then, after the door closes over the lovers, instead of dying in each others arms, Radames pulls the trigger, the muffled blast opens a hole and they step out—free.
He sings a Verdian version of the new finale (in Italian of course) along these lines: “I’m gonna a build a palace for two or three or more in Love Land, for me and my gal.” They live happily ever after.
Next: find a way to deal with Richard Wagner’s otherworldly dwarfs, giants, and magic rings.
Mr. Hannaford’s favorite opera is Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” wherein the good people live happily ever after.
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