Sunday, October 14, 2007

"The Gondoliers"

Last night, my 40th birthday, was my first time at the opera.

Warning, SPOILERS AHEAD! So, be forewarned if you are planning on seeing "The Gondoliers" any time soon.

For starters, I think I picked a good venue to pop my opera cherry. I mean, for your first time there are only a couple of venues that come to mind. La Scala. Kennedy Center. The Met. Sydney Opera House is right up there.

Our seats were good. Imagine the venue as a clock. The stage runs from say the 10 o'clock to 2 o'clock. I.e. the stage runs along a line parallel to the 9 - 3 equator, but bisects the circle north of the equator, forming a secant rather than a diameter (two radii) as a line bisecting the circle at the midpoint would be known. (Feel free to check my math; I could be wrong.) The front row is A. We were in row Q (i.e. 17th row), seats 13 and 14 (with seat number one being to the far right as you look towards the stage). So, as I said, good seats.

Obviously, I don't know that much about opera. I know some basic factoids. Some big names. Verdi. Wagner. "Carmen". "Madame Butterfly". Gilbert and Sullivan. I knew some key titles of G&S. I knew they worked (exclusively?) in comedy. They wrote in English. I didn't know the plot, but it seemed like it was pretty standard opera fare, since I know some plot synopses of one or two other operas. Here is my synopsis of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Gondoliers"

The Story (and I am sure I probably have some of this out of order.)

Opens with all the maids (i.e. of marriageable age) singing how they are waiting for two guys, brothers, to come and choose their wives from among them. The rest will then reluctantly pair off with the remaining gondoliers of Venice. Apparently these two gondolieri, Marco and Giuseppe, are some kinds of swinging dicks because the chicks are literally lining up for these guys.

Now we switch to a boat at sea. In the boat are a group of Spanish nobility. The Duke of Plaza-Toro, his Duchess, their daughter, the beautiful Casilda, and the Duke's drummer, Luiz. Their ship is caught in a storm and they manage to make port in Venice.

While the Duke is disappointed with the stateliness of the greeting he gets, it is fortuitous that the band has landed in Venice. The Duke and Duchess tell Casilda a secret. When she was an
infant, she was secretly married to the equally infantile Crown Prince of Barataria.

The Duke receives a visit from a fellow Spaniard, Don Alhambra, the Grand Inquisitor. When the prince was still a baby, Don Alhambra spirited the child away from his father after the King had become a Wesleyan Methodist. The young prince was entrusted to a gondolier, Baptisto Palmieri, who raised the young royal alongside his own son.

The Crown Prince's father, the King, has recently been killed in a terrible insurrection. The new young King of Barataria is here in hiding in Venice, and Casilda is to be crowned Queen of Barataria. Casilda feigns happiness at the news but in truth she is crushed because she is in love with the drummer, Luiz.

Marco and Giuseppe show up and pick their brides. Since they are the perfect guys, and they don't want to offend anyone, they agree to let Fate decide. They are blindfolded and then chase the chicks around until each catches one. Giuseppe is immediately betrothed to Tessa, and Marco catches Gianetta. They are married right away.

There is a problem with Casilda's marriage. Baptisto Palmieri, a drunkard, had forgotten which boy was the prince and which his own son. So, now either Marco or Giuseppe is the new King of Barataria. This also means that one is not married to either Tessa or Gianetta but is married to Casilda. Either Tessa or Gianetta is married to a king, and hence not really married at all.

However, there is one other who can discern the identity of the true King, the infant prince's nursemaid, who just happens to be Luiz the drummer's mother. She is to be sent for by the Inquisitor and "urged" (read tortured) to divulge the true identity of the King.

In the meantime, Don Alhambra invites Marco and Giuseppe to go to Barataria and rule jointly as King until the mess is cleared up. Despite being Republicans, the gondoliers and their wives are delighted at the prospect of royal life. However, Don Alhambra informs Marco and Giuseppe that since one of them is the King they may not bring their wives until it is determined which is which. He neglects to tell them that the rightful King is, in fact, married to Casilda already.

The gondoliers are installed at court in Barataria and the first Act ends.

Three months later we find all the members of the court lazing about, while the Kings do all the work and live on a single ration. It is at this point that the wives show up and everyone is overjoyed to be reunited. The decision is made to hold a huge, raucous banquet and ball. There is much drinking and dancing culminating with everyone passing out on the floor.

Don Alhambra has returned and wants to know why servants were dancing at a noble ball. They try to explain that everyone is of rank now. Don Alhambra rebuts that when "everyone is somebody, then no-one's anybody". He then informs the gondoliers that one of them is married to Casilda.

The Duke and Duchess arrive in splendid regalia. The Duke tells Casilda how he was applied for under the Limited Liability Company Act (in effect, incorporating himself) and is now quite rich. He and the Duchess complain about the lack of formal reception and try to educate the two prospective kings in the finer points of royal behavior.

The Duke and Duchess tactfully arrange for a few minutes alone between Casilda, Marco and Giuseppe. Casilda explains that she will do her duty and honor her infant marriage, but that her heart belongs to another.

The wives are crushed to learn that neither of them is to be a queen and that in fact one of them isn't even married. They sing a duet in which they fantasize about what they will do to Casilda if she turns out to be married to her husband. Then the two couples and Casilda sing a song lamenting their impossible situation.

Finally the old nursemaid shows up, strapped to a torture rack. Under the rack, she finally admits that neither Marco nor Giuseppe is the King; that the King is in fact her own son, Luiz.

I gondolieri are disappointed that one of them won't be King, but are elated to be returning to Venice with their wives. For her part Casilda is ecstatic that her long lost husband has turned out to be none other than her very own true love, Luiz.

Now, from what little I know of opera, I gather that some of the plot devices in use here are pretty common fare. For example, I think the shipwreck victims washing ashore plot device is used a lot. Ditto the mistaken or questioned identity.

One other thing I am not sure about. There were five dancers who appeared often on stage but who didn't sing. They were in white-face and masks, and wore outfits that are sort of Renaissance Italian clown suits, for lack of a better description. For example, one guy wore a one piece cover all that was loose and puffy at the ankles and wrists. He has little puffy balls for buttons up his chest and some sort of round, frilly collar. He was done up in white face and had a cylindrical (i.e. flat top) hat, not unlike a fez but a bit taller. The women wore tights and tutus. They would build the scenery between acts and engaged the crowd, albeit silently, almost like mimes, at one or two points. I get the feel that these are stock opera characters that you'd see in a lot of opera productions, but I am not sure. Maybe somebody can help me out with this.

Below is a short movie of the last few seconds of the cast's last curtain call.

As far as first experiences go, this was a good one. I just bought a seven DVD set of Wagner's "The Ring Cycle" by James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera. The gloom and doom of Wagner and Norse mythology is much more to my taste. Hopefully, I'll enjoy it on DVD.

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