Opera is at its most steamy when passion trumps reason.
“Stagings that recognize that spontaneity are what make a scene seem really sexy,” said F. Paul Driscoll, editor in chief of Opera News magazine. But a sexy libretto can't be effective on its own. It should be supported by sensuous melodic lines and colorful orchestration, which help to turn up the intensity exponentially.
On this edition of Opera in Brief, Driscoll talks about three of opera’s sexiest librettos.
The composer Richard Strauss wrote his own libretto for Salome based on a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name. The play was written in French for Sarah Bernhardt. Driscoll explained that Strauss set an impossible task for the title character because she’s a teenage girl who has to sing with the voice of a Brünnhilde. “But if you’ve ever dealt with a teenage girl who is in the throes of her first passion,” he said, “I think a Brünnhilde voice is pretty appropriate because there’s a lot going on hormonally. And that’s what Salome is – a young girl who is obsessed to the point of murder with John the Baptist or Jochanaan as he is called in the libretto.”
Driscoll went on to explain that the sexual nature of the opera caused problems with Salome from the very beginning. Marie Wittich who was originally cast in the Dresden production in 1905 refused to do the "Dance of the Seven Veils." “That is the first instance,” he said, “of a double being used – a tradition for which many sopranos who don’t have a dancer’s figure are quite grateful!”
When the opera was first presented in 1907 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, it was withdrawn from circulation after only one performance because the box holders were shocked at the graphic depiction of sex and passion on stage.
“Dance of the Seven Veils”
Inge Borkh is a German soprano who was at the Metropolitan Opera for a few seasons. She was considered to be a great Salome.
Inge Borkh singing “Ah, du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen, Jochanaan!”
Driscoll told us that Manon is a dream role for most young sopranos. “I think it’s because the arc of the character is quite interesting,” he said, “She starts as this oversexed little kitten who’s on her way to Convent School, runs away and has her first ‘romance’ with Des Grieux. That gets broken up and we see her ruling Cours- La-Reine and being the object of fascination for generations of men.”
The libretto was created by a pair of writers – Henri Meilhac and Philippe Giles. It is an adaptation of Abbé Prévost’s novel, Manon Lescaut. “Both of these writers worked a lot with Offenbach in the opéra comique form or what we would call operetta,” Driscoll went on to say, “So the play of language against music was something in which they were both expert.”
When Manon finds out that Des Grieux is going to become a priest, she goes to church and seduces him there. “It’s one of the best examples in opera - indeed in all theater - of a female to male seduction,” he told us. This is “a girl who really doesn’t have a game” when we first meet her in the courtyard of the Inn and “she’s really a pro by this point,” he said, “She knows exactly what buttons to push to get Des Grieux to throw off his cassock and surplus and just run away with her all over again!”
This recording features the Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles who sang Manon in many places including the Metropolitan Opera. Driscoll praised her unbelievably beautiful voice and also targeted her idiomatic command of the language. “You would not know that French was her third or fourth language,” he said. “She was a wonderful interpreter of French repertoire - the way she hits the words when she asks him to look at her. The way she talks about her hand. Someone said to me that in Italian or German repertoire, it’s one big wave of emotion. In French repertoire, it’s like the edge of a beach. There are a thousand little waves that just gradually wear that shore down and that’s exactly what Manon does in this scene.”
Victoria de los Angeles singing “N’est-ce plus ma main que cette main presse?"
Semele has a very polished, witty, sophisticated libretto by William Congreve who was one of the great restoration playwrights. Congreve is the author of several of the most famous phrases in the English vernacular one of them being, "Music has charms to soothe the savage breast." He wrote The Way of the World and several other successful comedies.
Semele is a mortal woman who has an affair with Zeus or Jupiter as he’s referred to in this particular opera. Semele gives birth to the God, Dionysius. “It’s a great piece of theater,” Driscoll said. “Jupiter flies over Semele in the form of an eagle and she succumbs.” In "Endless pleasure, endless love," Semele lets us know just how much she’s enjoyed getting to know the King of the Gods. She rather enjoys this "trick" and she thinks she could probably get better at it with lots and lots of practice.”
There’s imagery throughout the aria. For instance, “as Jove’s head lies on her breast,” Driscoll explained, “she sings ‘useless now his thunder lies.’ I don’t think she’s talking about the weather, but you’ll have to tell me after you’ve listened to it!”
This is Kathleen Battle in a recording with John Nelson in the early 90’s. “In 1985 on the occasion of the Handel tricentennial, Battle sang a performance of this opera at Carnegie Hall, Driscoll told us, “I was there that night and it’s still one of the most exciting nights I’ve ever had in the theater. She was spectacular!”
Kathleen Battle singing “Endless pleasure, endless love”