Opera in Literature

War and Peace

The penultimate performance of Prokofiev's War and Peace this season at the Met is tonight, and how I wish I could go, if only to see the enormous sparkly red chicken puppet again. Also, I read in the Financial Times that the production features 4 live chickens, in addition to a horse, a dog, and a goat, not to mention the 170 singers. It is idle talk on my part, as I have not yet finished reading Tolstoy's work. It took 557 pages, but War and Peace does have an opera scene in Volume II, Part Five, VIII-X. I especially like the description of Natasha's initial impressions of the opera in Chapter IX:

After her life in the country, and in her present serious mood, all this seemed grotesque and amazing to Natasha. She could not follow the opera nor even listen to the music; she saw only the painted cardboard and the queerly dressed men and women who moved, spoke, and sang so strangely in that brilliant light. She knew what it was all meant to represent, but it was so pretentiously false and unnatural that she first felt ashamed for the actors and then amused at them. She looked at the faces of the audience, seeking in them the same sense of ridicule and perplexity she herself experienced, but they all seemed attentive to what was happening on the stage, and expressed delight which to Natasha seemed feigned. "I suppose it has to be like this!" she thought. She kept looking round in turn at the rows of pomaded heads in the stalls and then at the seminude women in the boxes, especially at Helene in the next box, who- apparently quite unclothed- sat with a quiet tranquil smile, not taking her eyes off the stage. And feeling the bright light that flooded the whole place and the warm air heated by the crowd, Natasha little by little began to pass into a state of intoxication she had not experienced for a long while. She did not realize who and where she was, nor what was going on before her. As she looked and thought, the strangest fancies unexpectedly and disconnectedly passed through her mind: the idea occurred to her of jumping onto the edge of the box and singing the air the actress was singing, then she wished to touch with her fan an old gentleman sitting not far from her, then to lean over to Helene and tickle her.

Anna Karenina

Cuttlefish in Anna KareninaAt the moment I am reading the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. Though I attended a performance of Prokofiev's opera at the Met a few years ago, I stubbornly refused to read the titles. Thus I did not manage to piece together the plot, as my Russian skills are minimal, so the book has not been spoilt for me. Last month I finished reading Anna Karenina, unwittingly following one Ms. Winfrey, whose show I have never watched. Most of Part 5, Chapter 33 of Anna Karenina occurs at the opera.

Vronsky, listening with one ear, moved his opera glass from the stalls and scanned the boxes. Near a lady in a turban and a bald old man, who seemed to wave angrily in the moving opera glass, Vronsky suddenly caught sight of Anna's head, proud, strikingly beautiful, and smiling in the frame of lace. She was in the fifth box, twenty paces from him. She was sitting in front, and slightly turning, was saying something to Yashvin. The setting of her head on her handsome, broad shoulders, and the restrained excitement and brilliance of her eyes and her whole face reminded him of her just as he had seen her at the ball in Moscow. But he felt utterly different towards her beauty now. In his feeling for her now there was no element of mystery, and so her beauty, though it attracted him even more intensely than before, gave him now a sense of injury. She was not looking in his direction, but Vronsky felt that she had seen him already.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

A fortnight ago I was reading E.M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and laughed quite heartily at the following scene in Chapter 6 at a performance of Lucia:

    Harriet, meanwhile, had been coughing ominously at the drop-scene, which presently rose on the grounds of Ravenswood, and the chorus of Scotch retainers burst into cry.  The audience accompanied with tappings and drummings, swaying in the melody like corn in the wind.  Harriet, though she did not care for music, knew how to listen to it.  She uttered an acid "Shish!"
    "Shut it," whispered her brother.
    "We must make a stand from the beginning.  They're talking."
    "It is tiresome," murmured Miss Abbott; "but perhaps it isn't for us to interfere."
    Harriet shook her head and shished again.  The people were quiet, not because it is wrong to talk during a chorus, but because it is natural to be civil to a visitor.  For a little time she kept the whole house in order, and could smile at her brother complacently.
    Her success annoyed him.  He had grasped the principle of opera in Italy--it aims not at illusion but at entertainment--and he did not want this great evening-party to turn into a prayer-meeting.  But soon the boxes began to fill, and Harriet's power was over.  Families greeted each other across the auditorium.  People in the pit hailed their brothers and sons in the chorus, and told them how well they were singing.  When Lucia appeared by the fountain there was loud applause, and cries of "Welcome to Monteriano!"
    "Ridiculous babies!" said Harriet, settling down in her stall.