10 September 2008

Scene but not Heard

We’ve all been there: those nights at the opera when, no matter how glorious the music, no matter how distinguished the performances, we find ourselves wishing the darned thing were five hours shorter. Yet how seldom we appreciate the fact that many operas, even the longest ones, are substantially shorter than the composers originally intended.

At great expense and after many years of research (well, it felt like years), I offer a few examples.

The Abduction from the Seraglio: Many astute opera-goers have noted the weird failure of Belmonte, Constanze and their friends to escape from the seraglio at the end of Act II, even though the kids have a ladder and the coast is utterly clear. Instead, they stick around to be recaptured, and we get a third act that few of us were dying to hear. Well, it could’ve been worse! New scholarship reveals that, in Act III, after the “final” curtain, the original libretto called for Constanze to refuse to exit the stage. All the tortures imaginable, she sings, cannot persuade her to shut up and go away. Exasperated, Pasha Selim orders Osmin to kill her on the spot.

The Barber of Seville: Thanks to tenor Juan Diego Flórez (seen above), Metropolitan Opera audiences are now familiar with Almaviva’s marathon eleven-o’clock number, “Cessa di più resistere.” But did you know that, in Rossini’s original draft, Rosina had a reply? It was called “Non resisto niente, uominino insolente,” a forty-eight-minute series of cadenzas, with flute obliggato, later recycled by the composer as the overture to the now-forgotten Dino, Duca di Lucca.

Ariadne auf Naxos: Hardly have the ecstatic final notes of Richard Strauss’s score sounded but the hitherto unseen patron, Herr Jourdain, enters, demanding an encore of the entire opera, including the prologue and the little-known pre-prologue, in which the young Composer gives up a promising career in chartered accountancy. This time, however, Jourdain wants to hear “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” sung backwards.

Der Rosenkavalier: Octavian and Sophie are united at last, and with sweet resignation, the Marschallin prepares to make her exit. But just then, she reveals that she’s on her way to her daughter’s wedding. Octavian cries out, “You mean Elaine is getting married?” “Ja, ja,” replies the Marschallin, “and there’s nothing you can do about it!” Undissuaded, Octavian runs off. In Strauss’s unpublished Act IV, Octavian storms the church where the wedding ceremony is taking place; he and Elaine escape together by horse-drawn omnibus, leaving both Sophie and the Marschallin distraught.

Lulu: It’s well-known that Act III of Berg’s opera was withheld by his widow, and not completed or performed until after her death; what’s not generally known is that she suppressed sketches for a fourth act, which would have come between Acts II and III. In this act, currently being edited by renowned scholar Augustin Achdulieber, the Schoolboy gives Lulu a puppy. She promptly strangles it, explaining to the horrified Alwa and Geschwitz that, because life is long and full of pain, she’s actually doing the animal a favor. Several people in the audience agree.

Les Troyens: Berlioz’s epic was originally projected to last seventy-three acts and eight months, but once the bulk of the balletic interludes are pared away, we’re left with the five-act crowd-pleaser we know today. Among the last-minute cuts to the score are these:
Act I: Cassandra predicts that, in a future time, opera companies in a country called “France” will exist primarily to supply wealthy men with mistresses. To show off the girls’ jambes, French composers will be obliged to write trouser roles and pointless ballets in every stinking opera. Cassandra’s fiancé declares that this is not a bad system, and demands to see her ankles, while a chorus of Trojan women in tights performs a tribute to Gallic sugar daddies.

Act II, Scene 1: Before fleeing the fallen city of Troy, Aeneas and his men decide to take in a show. A forty-minute ballet follows.

Act II, Scene 2: As the women of Troy are taken captive, Cassandra consoles them, explaining that their city’s fame will live forever. Not only will Aeneas found Rome, “a second Troy,” but also Troy, NY, will be voted one of America’s friendliest cities, and the actor Troy Donahue will enjoy great popularity. The women dance with joy, to the theme from A Summer Place.

Act III: The Carthaginian queen Dido receives tributes from her subjects. This part you know, but what you don’t know is that after all the farmers and seamen, Berlioz intended for representatives of the musicians’ local to dance their praise to the queen who has granted them so many hours of overtime.

Act IV: Caught in a storm, Dido invites Aeneas to seek shelter at the ballet theater.

Act V: Abandoned by Aeneas, Dido is disconsolate. Anna tries to comfort her by performing a pastoral ballet, in which a shepherdess castrates all her sheep, one by one, while Dido counts them. Awakened toward the end, Dido announces that she can’t take another goddam ballet (“Adieu, fière jétée”); she kills herself.
Parsifal: Yes, even Wagner’s mammoth masterwork could’ve been longer. According to the composer’s sketches for Act I, the Grail Knights’ rituals are interrupted by a knocking at the door. Kundry’s identical twin sister, Zütt, is sent to answer; she returns with the news that a group of English knights have come in search of the Grail. Amfortas dispatches a French soldier to taunt the foreigners (“Ihre Mutter war ein Hamster, und ihr Vater von Elderberries gestank!”). One of the Flower Maidens enters to ask whether it’s Act II yet; Gurnemanz advises her to call the baby-sitter, because it’s going to be a long night.