Habemus Operam: Popes and Cardinals in Opera

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OXFORD, England--On March 19, as I dressed to give a talk about opera at the Bodleian Divinity School of the University of Oxford (yes, friends, opera is divine), I watched as the BBC provided complete coverage of the ceremony of the installation of Pope Francis. As I looked at the procession of cardinals, the costumes, the scenery courtesy of Michelangelo and Bernini, and heard the choirs, I thought "how operatic!" The stage direction was extraordinary (no bizarre stage director concepts here) and, when the new Pope received the Fisherman's Ring, it was as dramatic as the Presentation of the Rose in Der Rosenkavalier.

This spectacle prompted me to think about representations of popes and cardinals and other potent Catholic figures in opera. I will share the ones that have come to mind today but I am sure I am leaving some out. Please comment below with your favorites.

The new pope has indicated that he took the name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). This man, who gave up a wealthy life to commune with nature, has never given his name to a pope before. It is seldom noted that Francis is the patron saint of Italy. He is also the patron of animals and the environment, and I pray the new pope will become an advocate for safeguarding the planet as it is being overwhelmed with population and rapacious exploitation of natural resources. There is an opera, Saint François d'Assise, by Olivier Messiaen that is a 20th century masterpiece. It is not to everyone's taste, but it does merit periodic presentation. The original, splendid interpreter of the title role was José van Dam.

As it happens, on the day the white smoke issued from the Sistine Chapel and Pope Francis appeared for the first time on the balcony before the throngs on St. Peter's Square, I saw Don Carlo at the Met. Verdi's depiction of religious figures and their relationship to God was dramatically complex and trenchant. The Jews were an oppressed people in Nabucco who served as a surrogate for Italians to see themselves while under foreign occupation. Stiffelio is a rather severe Protestant minister with a long-suffering wife Lina.

But most of the religious figures in Verdi are Catholics. Prominent among them are the characters in La Forza del Destino. There are two figures, the rather somber Padre Guardiano and the sympathetic monk, Fra Melitone, both of whom tend to the spiritual and temporal needs of Leonora, who dresses in hermit's garb and lives in a cave for five years. Giovanna d'Arco is the story of Joan of Arc, a Catholic saint. It was successful at its La Scala premiere in 1845 but, when presented in Rome, the Vatican censors insisted it be rewritten to tell the story of Orietta, a woman on the island of Lesbos who fought valiantly against the Turks.

Don Carlo is Verdi's most anti-clerical opera, one in which the Spanish Inquisition is seen as abetting and often dictating the interests of the King of Spain. The Grand Inquisitor in the opera is not a pope and may not be a cardinal, though he dressed that way. And yet he wields incredible, unseen power which, as we know, can corrupt. In this case, it certainly has. Watch Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip II and Eric Halfvarson as the Grand Inquisitor, who pardons the king for wanting to kill his son (reasoning that God allowed his son to be killed). Then the Inquisitor asks for the head of the Marquis di Posa, who agitates in favor of the people of Flanders and Brabant. Among their many perceived sins is that many are Protestant.   

This is also the opera that has an auto-da-fe in which heretics are burned (ignore the Hungarian subtitles in this clip and admire Mirella Freni as Elisabetta, Plácido Domingo as Carlo and Nicolai Ghiaurov as King Philip II). It is amazing that this was allowed to be represented on the stage, but the first performance of the opera was in 1867 in Paris, as Don Carlos. Sung in French, it was a huge mosaic of the passions of royals and prelates.

A very interesting character is Cardinal Brogni from Halévy's La Juive. This opera is the story of religious intolerance of the Catholic hierarchy against Jews. Before becoming a cardinal, Brogni was a count who fathered a daughter. She was found near death after a fire, as only babies in opera could be, by Eléazar, a rabbi who nurses her back to health and she becomes La Juive (the Jewish girl). After many plot turns, Brogni agrees to spare the lives of Eléazar and his "daughter" Rachel if they convert to Catholicism. They refuse and, after Rachel dies when immersed in a cauldron of boiling water, Eléazar informs Brogni that she was really his daughter and, therefore, a Christian. Here is Ferruccio Furlanetto as Brogni in an aria, "Vous qui du Dieu Vivant," from the opera.

I am a big fan of Hector Berlioz's rather fanciful first opera, Benvenuto Cellini. The story, drawn from Cellini's colorful and not wholly accurate autobiography, is about the Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith who receives a commission from Pope Clement VII (1478-1534), who was a Medici, to do a statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa. Cellini (1500-1571) struggled to cast the sculpture because of its unusual shape. When, in the opera, he achieves it, Berlioz accompanies the moment with glorious music. The statue is now in the Loggia dei Lanzi on the Piazza della Signoria in Florence.

One of my favorite operas, Tannhäuser, has the pope as an offstage character. In the third act, we hear the pilgrims return to Germany from Rome. The title character was among them, having gone to Rome to seek pardon from the Pope for his sins. He does not receive it. Watch as Gwyneth Jones, as Elisabeth, looks for him among the pilgrims while Bernd Weikl as Wolfram looks on. He is not among them and Elisabeth leaves, brokenhearted.

The Pope told Tannhäuser he would only achieve salvation if his walking staff suddenly bursts into flower. And, at the end of the opera, it does as the man resists the temptation of Venus and, in death, is reunited with Elisabeth. You do not have to be Christian, or even religious, to be deeply moved by this scene, especially with Richard Cassilly, Bernd Weikl as Wolfram and Tatiana Troyanos as Venus.

You probably do not know about Clement IX (1600-1669), who was Pope in the last two years of his life. He was a Tuscan named Giulio Rospigliosi. The family had a considerable fortune and a palace in Rome. While his papacy was brief and not particularly distinguished, he is notable because he was an opera librettist who wrote texts for works that were both sacred and comic. Some of his operas were performed in his palace. As pope, he participated in the opening of the first public opera house in Rome. Pope Clement IX had a considerable devotion to all of the arts. He commissioned a painting by Poussin and was very well-read.

Rospogliosi's operas receive infrequent performances but are worth exploring. One is called La Vita Humana, ovvero Il Trionfo della Pietà (Human Life, or the Triumph of Piety), with music by Marco Marazzoli. Another one, semi-comic and with religious elements, is La Baltasara, ovvero La Comica del Cielo, with music by Antonio Maria Abbattini.

It was widely reported that the new pope, Francis, is an opera lover. Amen to that.