The New York City Opera is coming to town this week with what looks, at first glance, like a very poor showing in the field of operatic mortality. After all, in an area as notoriously dangerous to life and limb as opera, you hardly expect to be confronted with three performances in a row in which no one died.
But that is exactly what Julius Rudel's company is asking us to accept. Just look: opening night, Tuesday, "The Marriage of Figaro." No performance Wednesday - which rules out asny possibility of a soprano slipping a knife into anyone. Thursday night, "The Merry Widow." Now certainly that does not sound like an opera in which someone perishes?
Friday night they repeated "Figaro," which takes care of that. Not until Saturday afternoon, with a matinee of "Butterfly," will audiences in the Kennedy Centre Opera House see someone done in onstage. Ordinarily, as any opera lover can attest, a visit to the opera house is likely to present the avid fan with an assortment of causes of death that might seem unthinkable, not to say ludicrous, to any but the most rabid opera nut.
Who believes it when some principal character is swallowed whole by a huge sea serpent, just because he upset the serpent's boss? Who, except a Monday night subscriber to the Metropolitan, would take it for granted that self-immolation was exactly the way to go for Norma, Brunnhilde and Dido, to name only three? But in opera, as Anna Russell put it immortally years ago, "You can get away with absolutely anything so long as you sing it!"
So soprance throw their newborn babies into the ocean ("Mefistofele"), or expire by simply lying down under a poisonous mancanilla tree ("L'Africaine"), or get crushed beneath a platoon of soldiers' spears ("Salome.") Then there is that larger, if more mundane region of operatic mortality where lachrymose ends are caused by nothing more than utter chargin. How else can you explain the mysterious sinkings to the ground of Leonora in "La Fayorita," or of that famous murderess, Lucy of Lammermoor, or, for that matter, of stupid Elsie of Braband, with her swan-type brother?
However, the New York City Opera will make up for this initial anemia in wholesale lots on Saturday night with the fifth of its operas, "The Golden Cockerel," by Rimsky-Korsakov. Nobody in this one dies of anything as simple as complete exhaustitude. No sir. The text of Rimsky's fantasy opera states flatly "the moonlight shines down upon the ghastly faces of countless dead bodies." Countless.
And how did they die? They were soldiers in the army of King Dodon, and they all killed each other! Even for opera, that's very special. What's more, they did it all for the favor of a smile from the seductive beauty, the Queen of Shemakhan. Now THAT is a neat way to raise opera's mortality rate for beyond the wildest dreams of any actuarial.
After that bloody scene, "in a narrow gorge in a wild and desolate spot," the rest of the New York City Opera's passings from this vale of tears will seem terribly small potatoes. Only three in "Mefistofele" - Marguerite's child (the one who is drowned by her mama), Marguerite herself and finally Faust, whose deathbed repentance cheats the Devil out of what he thought was a sure thing.
As for "Boheme," who in the face of "countless dead bodies," can ever again worry about poor little Mimi who, after all, might have lived to a questionable old age with Roholfo if they'd only had a little money at the start.
The surprise kicker in the New York Opera weeks here turns out to be Puccini's wild western, "La Fanciulla del West," fancifully translated "The Girl of the Golden West," In this one, no one dies. Not a soul, in spite of shooting, cheating at poker, bolld dripping from an overhead loft and a hanging that is not interrupted until poor Dick Johnson has the noose around his neck.
The principal novelty of the company's visit here is the Rimsky-Korsakov opera.This may be, though I am not sure, the opera's first major production in Washington. When the opera was new, the Russian censors would not permit it to be given until after the composer's death in 1908. The reason: Its satire rests on the stupidity of the aristorcracy, and it was claimed that there was too much resemblance between King Dodon and Tsar Nicholas II, not to mention a striking paralled between the military in the opera and the inefficient conduct of the Russo-Japanese War.
At the Metropolitian Opera's premiere of "Coq d'Or," as it was then called, in 1918 Piere Monteux was the conductor. The work was given with a double cast: singers seated on benches on either side of the stage, and dancers center stage miming choreography by Fokine. The reason for this was obvious: The company's principal ballerina was Rosina Galli, at the time the wife of the general director, Giulio Gatti-Casazza.
In later productions, in which Lily Pons and Ezio Pinza were the famous singers, they took over center stage. A soprano now living in Washington scored one of the fines triumphs in that opera's history. Mattiwilda Dobbs, who now teaches at Howard University, was a smash in the role of the queen in Covent Garden in 1954 and in San Francisco in 1955.
Pushkin's fairy tale, in the libretto of Vladimir Byelsky, will be sung here in English, which may give audiences a chance to understand what's going on during the colorful story.
And, to return to the never-never land of operatic deaths, how do you suppose King Dodon perishes? In what must be unique in all operatic doings-in, he gets his when the Golden Cockerel, outraged because the king has killed the bird's master, the old astrologer, flies down and delivers a mighty peck at the royal head, Dodon falls dead. Ah, opera.