My parents first acquired a VHS machine in, I think, 1990, and one of the first videos we had in the house was Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni. This provided an opportunity for my mother, whose tendencies always lean towards the didactic, to educate her children, then aged about 7 and 15 months, not only about Important Opera, but also about the Italian landscape in general and Vicenza (‘the cradle of Palladio’) more specifically. At that time the duel between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore terrified me, and Donna Elvira’s unusual headdress at the time of her first appearance made me think of a grass-grub. However, the ubiquity of this film (which my brother called ‘Johnny Barney’ for some time) meant that when I came to play the opera some years later, I usefully seemed to know it all off by heart.
As well as Losey’s Don Giovanni, other regular viewing included a Glyndebourne Zauberflöte (the Hockney one), Il barbiere di Siviglia (again Glyndebourne), and later the Zefirelli Traviata, which is possibly the reason for my affection for Second-Empire bling. We also enjoyed various productions of Carmen, and I liked especially any that had live horses in them. It also pleased me greatly that James Levine appeared both on Sesame Street and on Plácido Domingo’s Homage to Seville.
In addition to the improving effects of exposure to this music, our mother was able to make various other didactic sorties, usually involving some sort of moral homily. These have been amusing some friends for awhile now, so I’ve been moved to make a list of them.
I can’t remember the exact words, but the implication was definitely that Gilda was a fool. However, this was not her fault, but more the result of parental neglect. However, the general message was ‘Don’t be gullible, like Gilda, or you’ll end up dead in a sack.’
‘Never go into a room with seven men.’ This was a reference to the good sense of Micaëla, who was wise to the wiles of soldiers, and preferred to wait outside for Jose. I must say, this one stuck. In April a friend and I were looking for somewhere to eat on a very cold night in Vienna. We saw one nearby and cosy-looking establishment, but on peering through the window I noticed that there were more than seven men in there, so we went elsewhere.
She had, and still has, nothing good to say about Don José. ‘He should never have left the army. Not suited for the sort of lives those smugglers led. They ran rings around him.’ Carmen ran rings around him too; she was a ‘free spirit’, and I was never sure whether this was a term of approbation or not. Ambivalent approval certainly. Escamillo, being more urbane, could cope with her. José, being a bumpkin, could not. The moral of the story is, don’t trust bumpkins who leave the army for you, or you will meet a sticky end outside a bullring. On the other hand, if you are plagued by such a sad excuse of a human, avoid taunting him unnecessarily outside a bullring.
By today’s standards, this is probably victim-blaming, but it’s advice that has stood me in good stead.
A complex case. When I was 8 or 9, the exact nature of Violetta’s profession was shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. ‘She was very beautiful, and very friendly person, so people wanted to be her friends; some men wanted to be her friend so much that they paid her.’ It seemed that some people (i.e. Germont père) didn’t like this sort of job (patriarchal oppressor! enemy of female independence!). Of course, had V. not been very sick, she would never have fallen for the charms of Germont fils, but if you are very sick, you are not quite in your right mind, and long for company. The main homily was inspired by Flora’s party: ‘It is very, very bad manners for a man to throw money at a woman like that. Very poor form.’ I enquired, therefore, why the formerly nice Alfredo was being so horrible. ‘Oh, he didn’t realise that Violetta was paying for his holidays in the country.’ Naturally, a few years later, when greater knowledge of the world and everything that is the case allowed me to piece together the puzzle, and I realised the truth, I was scandalized.
Regarding the opera as a whole, there was also another moral: if, for some reason, you are ill, you must rest quietly in bed, and not go out at night and drink wine. Stay in of an evening, get on with your knitting, and you will live forever.
Le nozze di Figaro
In my formative years, I found it extremely tedious, apart from ‘Voi che sapete’. However, the useful knowledge to be extrapolated from Mozart and da Ponte’s sublime creation was a case study in how to deal with sexual harassment in the work place. I’ve never, so far anyway, had to employ the tactics Susann deploys in ‘Crudel! perchè finora‘.
This roué was a tricky case. Of course, despicable behaviour, but on the other hand, splendid music for the perfidious monster. The allure of the anti-hero is obvious, even for a seven-year-old. I was also much enamoured of Leporello, as he was generally cheerful in difficult circumstances. Elvira, in the maternal view, was a good, determined sort. I was distressed later to discover that other authorities believed her to be deranged. I had always thought it more of a ‘don’t get mad, get even’ scenario. But what of Zerlina and Masetto. Well, the latter, like the colossal bumpkin José, was out of his depth. Is it any wonder that a female with any spirit would prefer the flattery of a nobleman with excellent taste in boots and a Palladio mansion? Zerlina, on the other hand, is a bit of a gullible. However, she remembered that it is crucial to scream one’s head off in the event of attack. This tallied well with the advice from the community constable on Stranger Danger Day.
I liked Musetta best, and a good thing too, because unlike Mimi, she’s no fool. Mimi is another of these ill people who doesn’t understand that one shouldn’t go rushing around to seedy bars at the behest of a poet. Keep warm, stay out of the snow, and you won’t die. Avoid poets, and persons of irregular lifestyle, really. I was never sure, and still am not sure, if the implication is/was that Mimi is no better than she should be, or another gullible fool like Gilda. ‘You have to be careful with people who want to go out when they should be working hard. Think twice!’