It is one of the great scenes in opera: Mimi, a poor seamstress, comes to the Paris garret door of Rodolfo, a starving poet. She drops her key and, as they grope for it in the darkness, their hands touch. This touch inspires Rodolfo's magnificent aria, "Your tiny hand is frozen."
That translation of "Che gelida manina" is fairly faithful to the Italian (with "tiny" conveying the impact of the diminutive ending, "ina.") The meter is identical, and it is quite singable. But somehow it sounds wrong, even a shade ridiculous, compared to the original words that launch Act I of "La Boheme" into its fervent finale.
A more elegant translation, perhaps, and certainly a more natural one is that of Ruth and Thomas Martin, which has been performed here by the Prince George's Civic Opera: "How cold your little hand is; let me warm it in my own." But it still sounds odd.
Generations of opera-going have accustomed English-speaking people to Parisian poets and seamstresses who do not speak to one another in French but sing in Italian. So do the gods and heroes of ancient Greece; members of the ruling class in Renaissance Scotland; medieval Spanish noblemen, Gypsies and troubadours. We know this from Monteverdi's "Ulisse," Donizetti's "Lucia" and Verdi's "Trovatore." Historically, the experience is absurd, but who cares? Musically, it is overwhelming.
Tonight, flying in the face of this tradition, the Washington Opera will present to its audience a Spanish nobleman, a Turkish pasha and his harem superintendent speaking and singing in English. The odds are that it will succeed. Opera in English is still a subject of heated debate among the cognoscenti, but the conditions for this new production of Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" seem to favor opera in translation.
It is comic opera, a form that works better in translation than serious operas, which tend to be rendered comic, or faintly ridiculous by expressions like "Hark! What dreadful sound disturbs my spirit?" or "Desist, thou traitor!" It has spoken dialogue, which almost demands translation. It is being given in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, where every word should be clear as a bell. The original text is in German, which translates more easily into English than Romance languages do. For example, in the first aria, this translation makes the tenor hold the almost unsingable syllable "bring" for four bars, with a little flourish at the end. (But the tenor cannot complain; in the German text, the syllable is also "bring.")
Tonight's opening will be the professional premiere of the version by Andrew Porter--an expert in the making of singable translations, whose "Magic Flute" was well received here last season.
In a logical world, theatrical performances are given in the language spoken by the audience. In the world of opera (where logic plays a very small role), such productions are exceptions to the rule. This year, the Washington Opera is giving three of its eight offerings in English--a high percentage outside of companies (usually small, and struggling) that do everything in English. But "Abduction" is the season's only translation; Benjamin Britten's "The Turn of the Screw" and Gilbert and Sullivan's "Trial by Jury" were written in English.
Why should audiences sit through three or four hours of drama in a foreign language? The most powerful reason is tradition, which is largely nonsense. The best reason is the music, which was written for a particular set of words and can sound uncomfortable with any others. But there is also the question of the cast. International opera companies may have (as the Washington Opera did for this season's "Tosca") an American soprano and baritone, an Italian tenor and a French bass. Since they can't all sing in their native languages, as they would probably prefer, the original language is a reasonable compromise.
Opera companies have been known to adapt the language of a production to the wishes of a star singer--notably the Metropolitan Opera and the great Italian basso Ezio Pinza. In the 1940s, Pinza managed to sing "Some Enchanted Evening" in English for hundreds of performances of "South Pacific," but in the '30s he would sing "Boris Godunov" only in Italian. The Metropolitan Opera accepted this condition, and the result was a production whose highlights can still be heard on a vintage CBS recording. For the coronation scene, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus erupts in exultant cries of "Gloria! gloria! . . . Salute ed ogni bene al nostro Zar!"This is followed by Pinza's moving performance of the great monologue, "Ho il poter supremo," the clock scene, "Oh, suffocai," and the farewell to his son, "Addio mio figlio."
The music is unquestionably Mussorgsky (with some outside help in the orchestration), but somehow a subtle flavor of Giuseppe Verdi creeps in.
The Washington Opera has elicited a bit more cooperation from one of the foreign singers on this year's roster--John Reed, formerly of the D'Oyly Carte Company, who has been brought in for "Trial by Jury" and was asked to fill out the evening, in French, in Offenbach's "Monsieur Choufleuri." Reed has never performed in French before, but agreed to "have a bash at it." Next week, we will see whether his bash is comme il faut.
Once upon a time, it didn't seem to matter terribly what language was being used for an opera; the acoustics in many opera houses and the diction of many singers made it hard, much of the time, to tell whether one was hearing English, French, German or Italian. But times are changing; today, the theatrical side of opera is emphasized as much as the music, and a new generation of singers has arrived with strong skills in acting (including the projection of words) as well as singing.
An audience nurtured on televised opera has become accustomed to knowing in detail what is going on--helped by subtitles on the screen. Until opera companies install readout screens for simultaneous translation, the prospect is that the demand for opera in English will grow along with the rapidly growing opera audience.
It is probably time for a crash program to develop graceful equivalents for "I fly to thee on the rosy wings of Love."