The Operatic Canon: Forgotten Chestnuts and Poisoned Violets


Placido Domingo and Renalda Tebaldi

As a genre, opera is not a high earner.  Indeed, the amount of money that must be invested to produce one is staggering: the costs are high and possibility for success unpredictable. Thus the question of programming has been a primary concern since the start of public opera. What will audiences want to hear? How can balance be achieved between the composition and its execution? Which works will keep the reliable patrons coming and draw in new audience members to the performance?

As musicologists, many of us enjoy tackling the question of which works are popular and why (conversely, we also enjoy wondering why some works disappear completely from the repertoire). Most of the time, we attempt to find broader patterns that we feel reflect societal values, yet such hypotheses can be nebulous and difficult to isolate.  Today, I would suspect — contrary to popular belief — that one could partake in a variety of repertoire unprecedented in the history of the genre, even if local opera companies (particularly in North America) feed their audiences a steady and unwavering diet of Puccini. (I have nothing against Puccini, but I do have something against the constant programming of Madama Butterfly/La bohème every season).

I write this as I am listening to Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Adriana Lecouvreur by Cilea, possibly the least vero of verismo operas: the heroine is killed by her rivals after sniffing some poisoned violets (one constant of opera regardless of era may be the suspension of disbelief). This afternoon’s performance is a tribute to Domingo, who made his Met debut in the role of Maurizio 40 years ago and he is singing the lead role again in the same production. As anyone who has been in a standing room for such an occasion can attest, the casting of a Tenor (of the Three) is almost a guaranteed sell-out. Even the most casual opera-goer might be motivated by the opportunity to hear a legendary singer — sufficiently motivated that poisoned violets as a plot device become acceptable. Singers have drawn audiences since the beginning of the genre as well and witnessing an artist navigating the challenges presented by an opera apparently never gets old.

One of the real contemporary advantages for opera-goers, though, is the opportunity to hear revivals of neglected works and I find it fascinating to see works that have disappeared from the common repertory. Of course, there is the compelling question of why: historical circumstances, performing difficulties, or even the argument that plots are simply too unbelievable for today’s audiences. I would submit that it would be difficult to create an opera with more inherent silliness than some in the canon today (Wagner, I’m looking squarely at you) yet audiences still flock, so the third of these tenets seems to be a stretch (not to mention the fact that I am currently listening to an opera that features death by poisoned violets).

Fortunately for fans of opera, some stages are championing these forgotten chestnuts, providing us with the opportunity to have a far better understanding of what earlier audiences knew. Opera scholar Carolyn Abbate has pointed out that contrary to the image projected by textbooks and scholarly literature, the vast majority of people ca. 1905 would not know Richard Strauss’s Salome — but they would have been very familiar with Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon. This disconnect between the canon as it was staged and the canon created by historiography is important to keep in mind and I believe that there is much to be gained, both for scholars and opera-lovers, in hearing these old pieces with new ears.  One venue that does stage such works is Vienna’s Volkstheater where the repertory is generally a mixed bag between operetta, opera, and musicals. It was here that I had the opportunity to see Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha, a perfectly pleasant light opera with a true show stopper in ‘The Last Rose of Summer.’ Their version of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld is entertaining and amusing (you may know the can-can, but do you know the operetta?).  Continuing in this tradition, they will stage Daniel Auber’s Fra Diavola this year in a new production.

There is a certain comfort in seeing familiar works with established singers, but the chance to expand one’s repertoire should not be passed up. While balancing between novelty and familiarity for audiences can be risky, it is encouraging that operatic establishments are allowing us to rediscover these forgotten pieces and (for scholars) rethinking perceptions about the canon.


2 comments for “The Operatic Canon: Forgotten Chestnuts and Poisoned Violets”

  1. Interesting comments. Despite the lasting popularity of certain operas by Verdi and Puccini etc, the operatic repertoire today is in fact more diverse than ever before in the four centuries old history of this great art form.
    We can everything from operas by Monteverdi, Handel,Rameau,Gluck and mozart as well as ones by Philip Glass,John Adams, John Corigliano,Kaaia Saariaho, William Bolcom and other contemporary composers.
    50 years ago, you had little if any chance of ever seeing operas by Janacek,Dvorak, Schreker,Zemlinsky,
    Szymanowski,Dukas,Chausson, Berlioz, Braunfels, Chabrier, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other composers who have written notable but long neglected operas.
    Today you CAN, despite the
    lasting popularity of Puccini.
    The operatic repertoire, far from being in any way ossified, is in fact in constant flux.

    Posted by Robert Berger | May 12, 2009, 11:23 pm
  2. Hi Robert, thanks for your comment. Actually, it came at a great time because just last night I went to see Tosca at the Vienna State Opera, and was reminded of why some of these chestnuts do stay popular. I should hope that part of why anyone goes to hear the opera (instead of simply listening to recordings) is for the experience of hearing great performances, and the tenor last night, Jonas Kaufmann, sang the role of Cavaradossi superbly. His ‘È lucevan le stelle’ was delivered with confidence and strength, showcasing a truly wonderful voice.
    I certainly agree with you that we have more options that ever for opera in today’s world. However, for those of us who (normally) do not have access to more established companies, the seemingly endless Puccini parade gets old. I was a bit disappointed with the Met Opera Broadcast offerings for next season, which seem to be much of the same, despite the fact that the company is presenting several of the less ossified works.

    Posted by Zoë Lang | May 13, 2009, 8:27 am

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