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Some of Opera's Little Inside Jokes

By FRANK BEHRENS
ART TIMES Jul, 2003

The things we miss that a first-night audience caught immediately! I have always suspected an inside gag when Polonius tells Hamlet that he once played Brutus. Could it be that he really did? By which I mean, did the same actor who played Brutus in "Julius Caesar" possibly play Polonius in "Hamlet," which seems to have been written soon after?

In the final scene (before the epilogue) of "Don Giovanni," the Don has an on-stage ensemble playing tunes from three popular operas of Mozart's time, the last of which is the "Non piu andrai" from "Le Nozze di Figaro." The servant Leporello complains "I've too much of that one!" While most current audiences spot the joke of Mozart using his own tune from his last opera, the really funny point is lost to them. The singer playing Leporello was indeed the very one who sang Figaro and therefore might very well be tired of that song.

Another self-reference comes in the third act of "La Belle Helene," when Agamemnon, Menelaus and Calchus are decrying the lack of morals in Greece (=Paris). When they mention how even the quality of the music has decayed, the orchestra strikes up a slightly disguised version of a tune from Offenbach's own "Orphee aux enfers" to underscore their complaint.

But of all the comic operas, the one that might need the most footnotes for our enjoyment of the work today is Gilbert & Sullivan's "Ruddigore." Based on an earlier play written for private performance, "Ruddigore, or The Witch's Curse" tells the tale of Robin Oakapple, a village youth, who is in reality Sir Ruthven (pronounced Rivven) Murgatroyd. Thinking Ruthven dead, the younger brother, Sir Despard, has inherited the family curse, put upon them long ago by a witch, which obliges him to commit one crime a day or die in horrible agony at the hands of the pictures of all of his ancestors who step out of their frames to accomplish this. Er, yes, that is Gilbert having a lot of fun with the Gothic plot that even by his day had been greatly outdated, plots that in the 1960s were revived in all those Vincent Price films. (Note: Price himself plays Sir Despard in the BBC version of "Ruddigore" and is a non-singing delight.)

One of the production numbers in the Act I finale is a salute to the four seasons that is followed by a lovely dance, a combination which might become your favorite choral piece from all of the "Savoy" operas. Later in Act II, there is a funny bit in which Robin, now a wicked baronet, threatens a young maiden and her sailor fiancé but is thwarted when the sailor holds aloft a Union Jack, before which Robin cringes. There is no audio recording of this work with all the dialogue and I hold it among my favorites, mainly because it is so seldom done.

So witness my amazement when a baritone I once knew asked us to see him in a production of an obscure opera called "The Vampyre" in an English translation at some church in mid-Manhattan. Composed at the height of the German Romantic period, this opera tells the tale of a Vampyre named--hold on--Ruthven and…!

Suddenly the Union Jack sight gag made sense to me. What is the obvious feature of a Union Jack? A cross! Anathema to any good vampire and how the original "Ruddigore" audience must have laughed since "The Vampyre" was probably well known to many of them. No, I have no record of performances of this work in Gilbert's day, but it is obvious that he was familiar with it and one can assume so was his audience.

But wait. In Act II of the German work, some characters step forward and sing a song celebrating the seasons.Of course, here it is a drinking song, something that Gilbert uses only in "The Sorcerer" (in which case the drink is tea) and in "The Grand Duke" (in which it is only a recollection of some Pommery 74 at a past affair). For those of you familiar with the "Ruddigore" lyrics, here is a prose translation of the first verse from "The Vampyre": "In winter, one must drink; the blood of the grape warms us and thereby wine tastes so good." In "Ruddigore" we have: "In the spring-time seed is sown/In the winter grass is mown/In the autumn you may reap/Winter is the time for sleep." A different point of view but still too much for coincidence, I must say.

Now this is but one slightly extended example of how digging into the background of a work can enhance our appreciation of that work enormously. Can you imagine how that would do for a complex work like Wagner's Ring Cycle? Worth a short series of essays, perhaps? We shall see.

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