Is That All There Is?

Saturday, May 21, 2011 - 06:29 PM

I am enough of an optimist that I will write this post for May 21st even though some people say this day will be the end of the world. But I am enough of a pragmatist that I have decided to wait a few days to do the laundry.

All of this talk, both rapturous and apocalyptic, has put me to mind of what is known in German opera as the Schlussszene: a great dramatic closing scene that only a word with three consecutive S's could convey. A Schlussszene is not so much the end of an opera as slamming the whole thing shut with a bang. These are not unique to German opera. Tosca’s leap off the Castel Sant’Angelo is a pretty good one. In a completely other way, Porgy getting on a cart led by a goat to find Bess in New York does not have the visual or musical wallop of more famous scenes, but it goes straight to the gut because we know what will happen to him.

Because I know you somewhat better now than I did a couple of months ago (this is my 21st post), I can hear you saying that the greatest Schlussszene is the Immolation Scene and finale of Götterdämmerung, which brings Wagner’s Ring Cycle to a thrilling conclusion. And you are right.

But there are others. I love the end of Lohengrin, where many things happen in less than 90 seconds all narrated by a thrilling orchestra. The scene is great because singing, acting, chorus, stage effects and orchestra are all doing something that leads to an amazing climax. I think the conclusions in Andrea Chénier and Les Troyens, which you have seen in earlier posts, are pretty great too.

I have one more that is more in keeping with the themes of today. Mussorgsky’s magnificent Khovanschina is less well known than his Boris Godunov, but I actually prefer it. Khovanschina ends with religiously devout people, so-called “Old Believers,” setting themselves alight in their church rather than give in to the modern forces they consider sinful. This is group immolation, which is more impressive even than Brünnhilde doing herself in.

The YouTube clip from the Bolshoi in Moscow does not communicate the effect as well as the production at the Met, which returns on February 27, 2012 after a long absence.

I invite each reader of the blog who survives May 21 to write in and describe your greatest closing scene in opera -- your favorite operatic Schlussszene If I am here on Monday, you will read about the Teatro Grattacielo, another excellent small opera company in New York doing a worthy performance on Tuesday May 24 at Rose Hall. I hope to see you there, if fate allows.

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Comments [11]

concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

A kiss, and another kiss. The ending of Otello. Also love the ending of Turandot. His name is love. And the chilling "He was your brother" from Il Trovatore.

May. 23 2011 02:49 PM
Vaughn from NY

One of my favorite endings is Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. The power of a group of nuns marching to the guillotine to be martyred while singing Salve Regina. The creepy beauty of each voice dropping out of the music as an ominous sound effect recreates the drop of the blade. Finally, Blanche joining her sisters in line and marching to her death singing Deo patri sit gloria. Disturbing, moving, powerful.

May. 23 2011 11:25 AM
Mary Jane Hodge from Melville, NY

Don Carlo - (4th or 5th act but in the graveyard) all that wonderful stuff with the great singing from Carlo, Elizabeth and then the apparition of the grandfather Carlos showing himself. It is so scarey, sensuous and thrilling.

May. 22 2011 11:55 AM
Anna Morris from Cape Town, South Africa

Fred, I am writing to you from Cape Town, South Africa, where it is almost 2:00 pm on May 22nd and no sign of an end, rapturous or otherwise. But I was a Manhattanite for many years and used to run into you at the Met Opera.
What a marvelous topic - endings - the beginnings of the "what ifs" of our imagination, especially the cataclysmic ones.
Your commentators, with one exception, were a pleasure to read and each added to your topic and thoughts. But Mr Ken Lane's use of your platform for his own aggrandizement was truly distasteful. He does himself a disservice by so doing.
Hopefully he will desist in future leaving comments to your erudite and humorous readers.

May. 22 2011 07:52 AM

Hmmmm.. The Met's Khovanshchina had a lot more smoke ... That scene was more dramatic, too. The Bolshoi production's a bit ... tepid ...

May. 22 2011 07:36 AM

Khovanshchina! YES!!!! Saw it four times at The Met ...

May. 22 2011 07:27 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

In' a sense ALL OPERA well performed leaves an ethos of a puncta, a feeling that "it must be so." Prokofieff's "War and Peace," and "The Gambler" in which in 1957 I sang the title of Alexis, both had a finality about them, that one could feel could not have ever been written otherwise. Obviously, the Gotterdammerung and Khovanschina apocalyptic finales top the list for sheer "blazing glory."

May. 22 2011 04:12 AM

I'm so happy the world didn't end, Fred. Otherwise there would be no more of these breezy and wonderfully informative blogs. Keep 'em coming!

May. 22 2011 02:32 AM
meche from MIMA

I enjoyed the post and the youtube selections but I must say that cataclysm is not my thing. With the exception of "Gotterdammerung" I prefer a peaceful ending. Come to think of it, "Gotterdammerung" has a wonderfully peaceful denouement when the ring is restored to its rightful place.

May. 22 2011 02:16 AM
RLGetty from New York, NY

Oh well I didn't get raptured but I did get a rupture trying to reach for a recording on the very top of my shelf, so fitting for a day like today, Donizetti's Il Diluvio Universale (The Universal Flood), which I hadn't heard in a while and has fine music. The opera's appropriate for any Christian catastrophe of biblical proportions since the plot is derived from the narrative of Noah's ark. Its ending's rousing, with orchestra, chorus and principals in grandiose fashion, some of them inundated, screaming for help, others safely sailing away on the ark. Opera Rara recorded it recently and YouTube has some excerpts, you can check it out.

The interesting thing about the premiere in 1830 at Teatro San Carlo was that it had to be canceled 3 times, due to, you guessed it, torrential rains never before seen in the history of Naples!

May. 21 2011 10:11 PM
Scott Roe from Manhattan

Fred Plotkin; you are the living end. I love it when, in the last moments of an opera, a soul goes to heaven. The effect is heightened by my skepticism vis-a-vis the alleged afterlife. (Not that I am so vainglorious as to imagine I'd be going to heaven, were there such a place). In some cases, I fill in the blanks by thinking the poor dear thing on the stage will most surely ascend, to sing with the angels, with proper intonation and vibrato, forever. Mimi, Butterfly -- and then the Nozze Countess may not die but she deserves to go to heaven, in my estimation. Consider too, Senta. She may be in a German opera but her name is Italian for "Listen up!" As if you could miss a Senta worth her salt, in any event. She goes to heaven before "The End," Der Schluss, along with her soulmate the Fliegender. Many people feel extremely happy when that opera ends. Still, because I love when the underdog finally gets her just reward, the scène finale of Berlioz's Damnation de Faust gets me every time. To paraphrase Hemingway, we must all give thanks that there is never any end to opera.

May. 21 2011 07:18 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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