June 22, 2016

The spider's web of Virginia Opera's new season

C. M.von Weber, composer of... TURANDOT?
Virginia Opera has announced the 2016-2017 season with the usual ballyhoo of brochures, subscription sales and press releases. Briefly stated, it shapes up this way:

Sept/Oct: A double-bill of Kurt Weill's "ballet chanté" The Seven Deadly Sins with another treatise on sin, Leoncavallo's familiar Pagliacci.

Nov/Dec: Rossini's beloved sit-com The Barber of Seville.

Jan/Feb: Weber's masterpiece Der Freischütz

March/April: Puccini's unfinished spectacle Turandot.

Starting around September I'll resume weekly posts sharing my insights about what makes these pieces tick. For now, however, as I'm hip-deep in the process of studying them, I'm struck by a web of unlikely coincidences and interconnections linking these works, which otherwise would seem to having nothing in common.

Take Turandot, for example. Amazingly, Carl Maria von Weber wrote an overture in 1809 for a production of the Carlo Gozzi drama on which Puccini based his opera. It's an odd, idiosyncratic march-like piece trying hard to sound "Eastern" with a perkily disjointed, asymmetrical tune sounding rather jolly for such grizly goings-on. You can hear a recording of it at this link.

Another surprising mention of Turandot happens in delving into the career of the great German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose text for The Seven Deadly Sins formed his final collaboration with Weill in 1933. It happens that not only was Brecht's final play a comedic version of Turandot, but - like Puccini! - it was left unfinished at his death in 1956. Brecht began his Turandot before leaving Germany during the rise of Hitler; feeling its subject matter unfit for American audiences, he did not turn his attention to it again until his return to Germany. It's not clear why he didn't get around to completing it.

Like all of Brecht's stage works, his Turandot is a political statement; unlike his other works, however, Turandot is said to be a broad farce, using heavy satire to criticize the class of liberal intellectuals the playwright held in contempt. In this version of "ancient China", the Emperor is a weak ruler, manipulated by the intellectuals of the royal court. The traditional plot-point of riddles and decapitation of those who fail them is tweaked to offer a critique of a failed economy:

A dispute has developed between the Union of Clothesmakers and the Union of the Clothesless. To settle the matter, the Emperor orders a grand debate. The wisest men in China must offer plausible answers to the question: "Where is the cotton?" so that the people of China can understand where all the cotton has gone. The intellectual who comes up with the best answer will marry Turandot (who is quite the flirtatious sex-pot in this telling); all the rest will taste the executioner's axe

So much for Turandot as a common thread in this coming season, but I have another: the Thirty Year's War.

Lasting from 1618-1648, this bloody conflict began when Protestants rebelled against attempts by the Holy Roman Emperor (Ferdinand II of Bohemia) to stifle religious freedom. The war caused over a million casualties and redrew the map of Europe before it staggered to its conclusion.

The first link to the Thirty Years' War in our season is straightforward: Der Freischütz takes place immediately after the war's end. Arch-villain Caspar, it turns out, was a combatant. Who knows? Maybe he wasn't evil so much as suffering from PTSD, right?

Where else does the war turn up? Again, in the works of Bertolt Brecht. The play many consider his masterpiece, Mother Courage and her children, written in 1939 to protest the rise of Nazism and Fascism. Though clearly addressing contemporary times, the play takes place in Germany during the Thirty Year's War.

I haven't mentioned Pagliacci or Barber yet, you'll have noticed. Anything cooking there, link-wise? Well, sure. Uh... er... they're both Italian.

Uncanny, isn't it?

See you after Labor Day.





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