To pay homage and celebrate the final Cesare sung by Sarah Connolly–possibly the final mezzo Cesare on a major stage, as the CTs have just about completely taken over the role–a few of us made the trip to that little opera house on private property in Lewes. National representation, l-r: UK, Finland, Canada, Australia.
Back to us on a picnic blanket, minus the UK, who took the photo
On paper, it looks like hubris: how can film noir, hockey, comics and opera tolerate (let alone enhance) one another? But ten minutes into Hockey Noir, a graphic opera composed by Andre Ristic to the libretto by Cecil Castellucci and video-projected comic book panels by Kimberlyn Porter, the resistance was futile. I sat up and got drawn in; the stock characters came alive to subvert the stereotype; the music became driven, full of energy and surprising at every turn.
You know that an opera succeeds if the words, the visuals, and the music blend just so, that intangible quality that makes or breaks the piece. It almost doesn’t matter what an opera is made of or what it is ‘about’, as long as this particular alchemy happens. I have no interest in hockey nor can I fathom our obsession with it. I don’t read comic books very often and to film noir I much prefer the screwball talkies. And yet and yet, none of that mattered in this case. The libretto (Cecil Castellucci, who collaborated with Ristic on another comic book opera) uses the clichés from noir films—stock characters of the double-crossing dame and the mobster, and some cliched lines in the dialogue–which can potentially dull down the piece. But they are used knowingly, for mimetic exacerbation, and put through the wringer of the two languages, or to be more precise through the hard-boiled, lumpen and underground versions of the two languages. It’s Montreal of the 1950s, pre-Quiet Revolution, when the boss (corporate and criminal, both) indeed did speak English, if not exactly posh English, but the dominant language of the libretto is the joual, rough, rudimentary, spiked with anglicisms, and creative spelling and grammar.
To that, some singers have to add another layer: soprano Pascale Beaudin, who sings the “hotshot player” Bigowsky, has to sing in French with a heavy Anglo accent, and this tells us that Bigowsky followed the trajectory of many allophone immigrants families to Quebec: English first, then French (maybe) later. Bigowsky is, as Gretzky is too, an East European name, possibly Russian or Polish, and in one scene Beaudin/Bigowsky has a line in Russian (was it Russian?), preceded by “As my mother always said.” Another East European name gets a tangle of Anglo-Franco textual material: the mobster boss Romanov (baritone Pierre-Etienne Bergeron), who while technically a total Anglo, swears and threatens in both official languages. I have never encountered a swearing aria that relishes the words and ties them to music so effectively, let alone one in two languages, let alone one that employs Quebec’s Catholic treasure box of swears, let alone one in which the music intervenes to bleep the swear words before they’re completed.
So what happens in the opera? Well, as in many noirs, the plot is somewhat obscure, and in the event doesn’t matter all that much. The aforementioned young hotshot hockey player Bigowsky refuses to fix the Montreal-Toronto match on behalf of Romanov, who plans on putting a lot of money on a Toronto win. To avoid the consequences, and in a nod to Some Like It Hot, Bigowsky goes underground and starts dressing as a woman. His cloche hat is very much Jack Lemmon as Daphne, but without the camp and the winks – this is, thankfully, a touch darker and angstier. His best team mate Lafeuille (tenor Michiel Schrey) bonds with a fan girl who, it transpires, is a brilliant coach—in fact, Bigowsky en feminine who just can’t resist the call of the rink. The character is called Gal Friday, so Howard Hawks lovers also get a nod, as does the recurring character of the super competent female professional from the talkies like His Girl Friday. It’s raining references to opera’s own history too. The Dame/Madame Lasalle (mezzo Marie-Annick Beliveau) who’s plotting for the overthrow of Romanov gets a Queen of the Night-like aria–only grubby, low-rent and from within a deep existential crisis. Bigowsky is a trouser role in the best tradition of trouser roles, and as such of course gets a feminine attire act too so we can observe a soprano singing a man who for plot purposes cross-dresses as a woman. Another way the tradition is honoured is that Beliveau gets a romantic thing with a female singer – Madame Lasalle – and a proper seduction/recognition scene. Elsewhere in the opera, there’s a catalogue aria. Of sorts. In a thoroughly non-sexy version of a Don Giovanni standard, Lafeuille and Romanov in “Games played: 1123” list Lafeuille’s hockey stats.
Ristić’s compelling music is the circulation that keeps this work so alive at all times. Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal is on stage, a string quartet, an electronic keyboard and a set of percussion instruments, all conducted by the ECM’s AD Veronique Lacroix. As needed, the keyboard stands in for a Hammond organ, the electric instrument often heard in hockey matches of the era. The score is made up of the segments—arias, duos, ensembles—held together by detective voice-over (Jean Marchand). There’s a pervading atmospheric darkness, continuously disturbed by the forces of angular twisted sounds, unusual pairings of timbre via voice with instrument or instrument with instrument, mimetic details like the swoosh of skates against the ice and pre-recorded sounds like the crowd cheering. No film noir music is directly quoted that I could tell, so no echoes of saxophone, fortunately. Madame Lasalle’s arias involve some extended techniquing such as screaming in thinned out falsetto, and yo-yo-ing on a note for comic effect, but among other solos Bigowsky’s going underground aria stands out – “How do you become invisible to men? Become a woman”. The ensembles though is what I found most exciting of all. In “Quand l’avez-vu la derniere fois?” each character comes out of an electronic sound-field, which is pleasantly unpleasant and indeterminate, to tell of their last encounter with Bigowsky. The scenes of a hockey match at the end are fast and fun, as the projections, the characters and the instruments play without friction together. Shots are fired just before the final tutti, “J’aurais pu mourir”, which works as an epilogue. Everybody survived, but the music is grim. Bigowsky’s career continued going great until it didn’t, Lafeuille retired to the suburbs, Lasalle became the new Montreal Boss and Romanov… well, ran for city council and later became prime minister (to accompany this statement, the projection showed an orange-haired Romanov).
I’m not entirely sure why the singers were miked. Were some voices distorted in real time, and had to stay plugged to the grid? I couldn’t tell. But the small Jane Mallet certainly did not need singer amplification and the miking is perhaps the only component that diminished the show, not enhanced it.
The panels by Kimberlyn Porter are unfussy and vintage, no distracting details, and thanks to the video design by Serge Maheu they get some camera-like movement–closing in, gros plan, moving lense. They stay low key, and are there to complement the stage. Comic book panels may feel archaic and certainly less lively than film projections, but there’s pleasure in that tech delay, and it works well with the 1940s and 1950s aesthetic.
Closes tonight at the Jane Mallet Theatre, and tours Belgium in Nov/Dec. Tickets here.
Wajdi Mouawad, playwright and director entirely new to opera, read the libretto to Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio one day and decided it was not woke enough. Instead of looking at some other productions of this opera and and reading up on in and on Mozart’s own politics and oeuvre, he decided that, according to his notes:
-it condemns one civilization at the expense of another [it does not]
-that it might be read today as an exercise in caricature, or casual racism [libretto does not inevitably read as anything. If you decide to stage it like that, sure]
-it could constitute an argument for the “wholesale rejection of Islam and the East, thereby falling into larger patterns of Islamophobia in the West which would have us blame all our problems on the threat of an undifferentiated “Arabic” Other”. [What to do with this? I’ll just add that Ottomans weren’t Arabic and nobody in the libretto calls them that.]
So Mouawad rewrote the libretto (or Lyon-COC asked them to do it) to make the western side of the east-west encounter more obviously nasty. Like, really really nasty – and he wants you to know how nasty they are by opening the opera with the scene of a party in which the smug Europeans drunkenly discuss the escape from the Seraglio (the retelling of which we are about to see) by making fun of those awful Muhammedans and by desecrating the representations of the Prophet. This is entirely made up by Mouawad and is nowhere in the libretto.
What’s already in the original libretto, and what a good director can easily bring forward, is precisely the undermining of the idea that “west is best” and that “east is backward”– and the questioning of the east-west division tout court. But Mouaward keeps putting these ideas into the libretto with his own rewrites.
Terrified that any sign of cultural differences could be read as ‘Orientalist‘, Mouawad opted for a set of grey blocks and dresses all the principals in plan robes at the Pasha court (well, I say court… grey walls, on a planet, somewhere). The Janissaries and courtiers are all bald-headed creatures of indeterminate sex. While talking happens face to face, much of aria singing is to the audience: the old-fashioned p&b or a wish to de-naturalize the staging, I couldn’t decide.
Mouawad wants us to know loud and clear that the “Muslim” side (that’s what the Pasha & comp are reduced to here) are not the bad guys; that the pompous, prancing, moneyed idiot that is Belmonte represents the awful Europeans accurately (that’s already in the original libretto, hello). The abducting of women and their captivity is actually quite a sedate business. The Act II Blonde-Osmin battle of the sexes over consent is presented as purged of any real danger of violence ever breaking: it’s a teasing performance. So is Osmin’s rage in another scene.
There are a couple of extraordinary moments in the staging which stand out amidst all the blandness. After the intermission, the opera re-opens with a muezzin chant and we’re in a mosque, with women and men of the Pasha’s court praying — separated, and this is used well for the secret Pedrillo-Blonde exchange. It’s a moment of stillness: the Allahu Akbar chant and the swishing of the clothes as the worshipers bow and rise in prayer. (Did Ottoman Turks use Arabic in prayer? But of course Mouawad’s Pasha is not very Turkish; Mouawad is more interested in placing him and Osmin as the “Muslim Arabic Other” of the Bush Jr. era Pentagon and the American cable news.) Another intriguing tidbit: Blonde leaves the Seraglio pregnant. (This does not make the Act II negotiation between Osmin and Blonde entirely meaningless: they’re already in a relationship, but the question of consent of course remains.)
The musical side too was unusually clunky last night – disjointed, until almost two thirds in, when music finally gained its polish and the stage and the pit finally danced to the same tune. (Johannes Debus at the podium.) The fizz sorely lacked from the overture, and the act 1 continued as a very deflated, fatigued Mozart. Jane Archibald as Konstanze had her ups and downs, vocally, but credit to her for carrying this production in German — the Lyon one was with French dialogues, and this was a whole new chunk of spoken text to learn. Goran Juric as Osmin and Claire de Sevigne as Blonde were more evenly fueled throughout the evening, with Juric’s bass tireless and precise, and de Sevigne’s sharp, bright, exact singing, though a bit more volume wouldn’t have gone amiss. The actor of Israeli origin, Raphael Weinstock, played the Pasha. Mauro Peter was a decent Belmonte and got to shine in a lot of pretty music, though the character itself is a pompous balloon in need of piercing. It’s a tough act to pull, making Belmonte lovable, and he eventually gets there.
Yet the greatest sin of this production is not that it tries to make an 18th century libretto as inoffensive and didactic as possible; its greatest sin is that it’s deadly boring. The dialogues are endless because they are explanatory; the drama is expunged entirely, because that’s what happens when you eliminate any hint of genuine conflict, disagreement or even difference.
And I must add one last thing. Mouawad was probably asked to rewrite the libretto because he was born in Lebanon and has lived both in Middle East and “the west’ (Canada, and now France). Which is great. But if a woman of any culture was asked for her take on the libretto, it would have been a different take — and a different staging. For example, Leila Slimani, I wonder what she’d make of it? Mouawad’s now flaunted feminist record is not entirely impeccable (7 years ago, he chose to hire Bernard Cantat as a collaborator, the pop singer who served a sentence for killing his girlfriend Marie Trintignant, explaining that the singer had “already paid his debt to society” in, among other places, this insufferable Letter to My Daughter).
Bon ben. Men continue to write and rewrite the canon and decide what is and isn’t culturally offensive and what is and isn’t feminist in it.
Instead of leaving the production thrilled by its directorial vision and musical interpretation, I left Mouawad’s Seraglio thinking about that instead. And of that woker-than-thou correction our Prime Minister recently offered to a woman speaking in public.
I got hold of the libretto for Die Entführung aus dem Serail the other day (Cassell Opera Guides, London 1971) because I wanted to read it before the Wajdi Mouawad adaptation opens at the COC next week and see for myself again if the original was so egregiously xenophobic and orientalist as to warrant a radical rewrite. It is not, I will argue. It had occurred to me that this might be the case when I watched McVicar’s couldn’t-be-more-trad Abduction right after I watched the livestream of this Mouawad production from Lyon two years ago. But I wanted to be sure; and reading and re-reading the libretto itself, English by the German original (translation Lionel Salter) would be essential.
Libretto is a hodge podge by Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger after C. F. Bretzner with Mozart himself editing as the dramaturge. There are two Ottoman Turkish characters, Pasha Selim and Osmin, mirroring the other two aristocracy + proletariat pairs, Constanze and Blonde, and Belmonte and Pedrillo. Pasha is a clement and wise ruler (similar to Tito, but more personality and more moral judgment – and in a lot of productions way hotter), and it’s only Osmin, something of a basso buffo, that may ruffle some oversensitive feathers. He is rough and peeved and mistrustful of the westerners, and threatens with torture and worse. In a lot of productions these play out as not particularly dark threats, since Osmin does not make these decisions himself, the Pasha does. Another instance where feathers may be ruffled — and which maybe ruffled Mouawad’s too — is the scene of the failed forced seduction between Osmin and Blonde who is technically in his possession, but resistant. At one point, he says “Tenderness? Coaxing? This is Turkey, and here we dance to a different tune. I’m the master, you’re my slave; I command, you must obey!” The argument that Blonde is clutching to is: I’m an Englishwoman, I’ve known freedom, and cannot submit now just because I’m in another part of the world.
There’s much to unpack here, nothing is straightforward, as is there much to unpack in the libretto as a whole. As Brigid Brophy, who wrote the intro to the Cassell guide, reminds, the “westerner goes abroad, writes home about the local customs” genre that bloomed alongside the global expansion of capitalist trade and colonization is more often than not a form of criticism of the local, western mores and governance – a form of political criticism of one’s own rulers disguised as a postcard from an exotic place. (OK, you can argue, but why didn’t the lot of them take the time to read up on different cultures instead of fantasizing about them for their own purposes? Some have, others haven’t. A valid question for another conversation.) Here’s Brophy:
Exploration, commerce and empire gave eighteenth-century Europe the raw material for a cult of the exotic… Painters, including Stubbs and G.B. Tiepolo; architects, including J. Effner and John Nash; writers such as Pope, Montesquieu and Defoe; and librettists and composers of opera, including Frederick the Great and Mozart.
The effect made at home by travellers’ tales was the opposite of the effect intended abroad by most of the travellers. Missionaries set out to Christianize pagans, militarists and merchants to subdue and exploit savages. But from the information they sent back to Europe the message read by Enlightened thought was that pagans and savages might be more moral and more civilized than Christendom.
The taste for the exotic was the aesthetic and fictional face of a searching intellectual comparison. […] The form of the fictitious traveller’s tale, in which the traveller questions the natives about the institutions of their society and the answers cast a satirical and sceptical light on institutions at home, had been sketched by Sir Thomas More and is still in use by science fiction. In the eighteenth century Swift expanded the traveller’s tale into Gulliver’s Travels and Voltaire developed the form into his pamphlets in the shape of fictions (including his interplanetary science fiction, Micromegas).
So to return to my main question: of all operatic librettos of the standard repertoire, does The Abduction warrant a rewrite? Or do good, complex operas allow, are roomy enough, for a rewrite within existing parameters through an innovative, seriously engaging production? That’s what good staging does: identifies the kinks in the piece, and works up a concept that would make the opera viable to us, the present day audience. As I mentioned in my notes about the Lyon streaming of The Abduction, while Mouawad eliminates the danger of sexual slavery by making the easterners into Enlightenment salonniers who resolve conflicts through communication and not violence, the now notorious Bieito production of The Abduction emphasizes nothing but sexual slavery.
A good libretto can take this kind of interpretive beating on the regular, and is better for it.
And that’s how we re-signify most operas, without having to actually rewrite them. Has anybody done it with Butterfly, the rewrite? (Bieito’s production again reverses various things through the staging, but does not rewrite the actual text.) If there’s an opera in need of intervention, it’s that one. Or The Rape of Lucretia, which for me is a lost cause until someone radically re-stages the ending. The dramatically weak IlTrovatore could also use some help from a smart playwright. Most of Gluck needs an infusion of life. Yet the recent rewrite of the ending of Carmen in one (1) Italian production caused a disproportionate amount of international uproar.
The NYT went to Lyon the year of the premiere and hailed the production in its piece on (roughly) how art brings people together and reconciles the antagonisms, but it’s unfair to ask that of opera or any art form – to program itself in order to fix historical injustices. Is that what the arts are for? What an operatic production is for? I’d argue good art does that any way, but not because it sets out to do that, but by its very existence.
Anyway. I have a soft spot for Mozart and his librettists, who take the side of the women, the servants and the ‘cultural other’ par for the course. I’d argue that he’s the last of the standard rep titans whose operas should be rewritten because ‘offensive’ or ‘cliched’.
Remains to be seen if the COC Abduction is in any way different than the Lyon livestream. I’m keeping an open mind. Mouawad, who is now running Theatre de la Colline in Paris, has not been reviving his own production here; this fell to Valerie Negre, assistant director, and I think that’s good. Women should stage and (if needed) rewrite things that directly concern them, and decide if something in an operatic work is misogynist or not by themselves. I hope more of them break into opera directing – there are quite a few in the assistant tier right now. Negre had to follow Mouawad’s instructions, I’m sure, but maybe she added her own touches here and there as well.
First guest is Victorine de Oliveira, contributing writer @ Philosophie Magazine in France, who talks about her opera and classical highlights this season, books she’s been reading and also the French opposition to the MeToo. (Recorded on Skype, please forgive the extraneous sounds) People mentioned: Lea Desandre, Claus Guth, Kaija Saariaho, Terry Gillian, Paris opera loggionisti, Sarah Bakewell, a historian of the May ’68 Ludivine Bantigny, sociologist Eva Illouz, Virginie Despentes, Catherine Millet & the signatories of the PasMois letter.
Song: Emoke Baráth with Emese Virág on piano, Debussy’s “Nuit d’etoiles” (Hungaroton label, May 2017)
Followed by the conversation with opera director Christoper Alden on directing Rigoletto at the COC, the figure of the “Fallen Woman” in Verdi, working on a Peter Pan play via Leonard Bernstein and Nina Simone, whether his (rent-controlled) apartment in NYC is more Zeffirelli or minimalism, what his worry would be if the Met ever came calling, and what is opera to do in the age of Trump and the internet domination of culture.
It’s called Alto, it’ll cover music and literature and occasionally other stuff too and it’ll drop last Thursday of every month. The first episode is right here and on the Soundcloud, & can be streamed or downloaded. Guests Jenna Douglas Simeonov of Schmopera, John Gilks of Opera Ramblings, Joseph So of Ludvig Van and Opera Canada, and Sara Constant of The WholeNote and I talk about the good, the bad and the WTF of the year that was.
I’m still getting the hang of the technical side of things so don’t judge my sound equalization, clip quality or my anti-radio voice too harshly. For now.
I also realized while I was editing the audio file that there’s not a lot from my own list in the mix, but that’s just fine, there was so much to talk about that I never got around to going down my own list. I did point out my Greatest Disappointment, so there’s that. Here’s the run-down of some of the Best of… choices but for the Worst of… (and we were all much naughtier than our writing voices) you’ll have to listen in.
John of Opera Ramblings, Best Shows:
Neema Bickersteth’s Century Song at The Crow’s Theatre
Toronto Symphony with Against the Grain: Seven Deadly Sins, staged for concert
The Ana Sokolovic Dawn Begins in the Bones recital 21C Festival at Koerner Hall
The Vivier show, Musik fur das Ende, by the Soundstreams
Category: Reconciliation : COC Louis Riel, the symphony putting on shows with First Nations content; Brian Current & Marie Clements’ opera Missing which opened in BC; land acknowledgements in the arts world.
Sara Constant, Digital Media at the WholeNote:
The Soundstreams Vivier show
Intersections Festival hosted by Contact Contemporary Music (Jerry Pergolesi’s ensemble) – immersive event at Allan Gardens
My own addendum to this:
Soundstreams doing R Murray Schafer Odditorium
PLUS Judy Loman in anything
Joseph So, a long-time opera critic (Opera, Ludvig Van, Opera Canada):
Category: Event – the Trio Magnifico concert at the Four Seasons Centre (Netrebko, Hvorostovsky, Eyvazov)
Toronto’s best operatic performance: COC’s Gotterdammerung
COC’s Arabella (even though he describes it as a “German Harlequin novel” – or maybe because of that exactly?)
Best recital: Barbara Hannigan & Reinbert de Leeuw recital: “Like Melisande is singing Berg, Schonberg, Webern and Zemlinsky”
Best singing performance in an opera: Andrew Haji singing Nemorino in COC’s Elixir d’amore
Best opera seen abroad: Goetz Friedrich’s Ring in Deutsche Oper Berlin – the farewell performance.
Jenna Simeonov (Schmopera):
Absolute top of the chart: ROH Rosenkavalier directed by Robert Carsen with Renee Fleming, Alice Coote and Sophie Bevan.
The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak – an opera with puppets by Wattle and Daub at Wilton’s Music Hall in London.
Katie Mitchell’s production of Written on Skin at ROH with the original cast
A Schmopera interview highlight of the yer: Dr. Paul E. Kwak on vocal health of singers.
+ + +
For detailed info on the musical tidbits in the podcast, head here.
My own Best of 2017 coming out before end of year.
Against the Grain’s new Handel concoction, Bound, is still very much a work in progress. Last night, we had a chance to see the first version of the three-year process of developing a production, and the final version may end up being completely reinvented.
The founding idea is good: 7 characters who are confined due to a brush with the immigration law sing Handel arias about their condition. The spoken bits connect the arias – the Stage (voiced by Martha Burns, in a dark far away corner of the COC’s Jackman Studio) interrogates each inmate in a weary and slightly menacing tone through a glitchy microphone.
The Handel aria texts (Cara sposa, Ombra mai fu, Iris hence away and Ah mio cor I did manage to recognize) are discarded and new words written to build the stories for these specific characters. Music is often rearranged as well (Topher Mokrzewski @ piano) – sometimes to the detriment, when the coloraturas are sacrificed, and sometimes the arrangements indeed enrich the song, as when Arabic-inflected singing is added to Miriam Khalil’s character take on Ah mio cor.
The cast of young singers are good actors to one though neither is exactly a fireworks Handelian voice. The vocal side would matter much less if the dramatic core of the piece solidified — which is still not entirely the case. Is the State specifically Canadian, or is it American, or an abstract cross-cultural entity? Is the State meant to be uniformly oppressive? In which case, the individual stories need to be revised and made more specific. In one case, a man was asked about a German relative of his who’s had ties to the Nazi party. Sadly, Nazis are back in the news and I wasn’t entirely sure if the libretto was suggesting that the relatives of Nazis or the Nazis themselves have been in the past or are being today unfairly prosecuted or harassed by association?
Another character is sister of a man who committed I presume one of those white terrorism acts: lots of innocent people are killed, is all I gathered; and the man’s name is Liam, the name which, when sung out in a plaintive aria, sounds almost comical. She is being interrogated, I presume, as is customary to talk to family members of mass murderers? I am not entirely sure that that too is an extremely oppressive act.
Perhaps the main dramatic problem is that the reason why these characters are being interrogated remains unknown? More detail would help clarify the absurdity of the charge – the vagueness doesn’t help. Perhaps Joel Ivany should look at some of the news stories and work them in, with changed names? One of the characters wears a hijab, and is questioned by the State about it – but the exchange just doesn’t sound credible. Since we don’t have all the other information on why she’s being detained, it sounds like she is being given extra hard time because of the hijab? The hijab question is also a bit more complicated than that. If the State was Iranian or Saudi Arabian the woman harassed would be the one without a hijab or niqab. I kept thinking of Zhara Kazemi, who was an Iranian-Canadian photographer apprehended on false charges and beaten to death in a jail in Iran. Might be wise to take a wider look at what some other States are doing as well when it comes to women and how they dress.
Left as vague as this, neither of the character stories actually work. The one thing that is clear is that they are all massively incovenienced. A big crime in Canada, I know… But silliness aside, if the libretto is to stay Canada-specific, the stories should be more specific. A clear cut case that Ivany could have used is toddlers being stopped at border crossings because their names appear on do-not-fly lists, for instance. Or live-in caregivers being denied family sponsorship visas because their children have medical conditions which would be “a burden to Canadian health care system”. Or the live-in care-givers themselves. There is much to be mined from the actual news – no need to invent vague unspecific instances of what we are told is oppression.
This show can be much better. Meet you same place, next year?
Head over the Globe to read my article on Tim Albery’s COC-Santa Fe-Minnesota produced Arabella which will open at the COC next week. I look at the politics and geography of Hofmannsthal’s libretto — it concerns me not only as a lover of Strauss-Hofmannsthal collabs but personally as well, as I am South Slav, like Mandryka. South Slavs appear in Austrian and German opera and operetta with some regularity, and I’m all in favour. The Merry Widow, for example, both lampoons and celebrates Montenegrin culture, and I can’t really muster any amount of cultural appropriation outrage (actually these cultural crossings are crucial if humanity is to progress and de-parochialize, but that’s a topic for another post. Cultural theft is also another, and very different topic).
Strauss consulted South Slav folk song sources and gave Mandryka some of the stuff, if of course Straussified and deconstructed. But the text to “I went through the wood” sounded familiar, and after some memory refresher journey through YouTube, I remembered and tracked down the actual song that still exists and is still being performed in various musical arrangements in Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia. The text is utterly absurd, and perhaps an allegory for proposing or propositioning or getting married:
I went through the wood, I don’t know which one
I met a girl, don’t know whose daughter
I stepped on her foot, don’t know which one
She screamed, no idea why.
which is almost word for word (with one extra line added) what Mandryka says:
Gieng durch einen Wald, weiss nicht durch welchen
Fand ein Mädchen, weiss nicht, wessen Tochter!
Trat ihm auf den Fuss, weiss nicht auf welchen,
fieng es an zu schrein, weiss nicht warum doch:
seht den Wicht, wie der sich denkt die Liebe!
Now, stepping on somebody’s foot is odd, but there’s a slang expression to step on a crazy rock, stati na ludi kamen that means to get married, to get hitched, so maybe it’s connected. I also read in a Balkan folkie forum that in some parts of Serbia this version of the song is usually sung at weddings. (There’s another version of I walked through the wood, in which there’s no stepping on feet but in which the man and the woman come across each other and just know they’re meant to be.)
I think Hofmannsthal and Strauss knew a thing or two about the Balkans. There are clues that Arabella and Mandryka are meant to be, and this song appears as one of those clues, I think. I don’t think it’s there to illustrate how bizarre those “Slavonian” songs are, though that’s a legit surface read too. It’s both a clue, and something that’ll sound absurd to the Viennese.
Another thing also intrigued me. Zdenka (a Slav name, by the way) lives as a man Zdenko because the family can’t afford the dresses, the balls, the accoutrements required to bring another daughter into the high society. This is also what has been happening in some impoverished families in rural, mountainous parts of Montenegro, Dalmatia, Bosnia and Albania. There is no money to raise a daughter, so she is raised as a boy – and will later dress as a man, work as a man, run the farm or the household as a man. In order to be able to live as a man, though, she can never marry — or even date. Did Hofmannsthal know about the Balkan sworn virgins (virdzinas)? I wouldn’t be surprised. (Croatia and Bosnia don’t have them any more, the last one in Montenegro died recently, but Albania still has a couple of dozen, to the delight of western documentary filmmakers, journalists and novelists.)