Opera is an art form that I have little familiarity with, so I go to each one hoping that it will explain enough about what’s going on and why that I can follow the action. I’ve seen perhaps a dozen Operas, which puts my level of exposure several orders of magnitude behind films, books, TV or most other kinds of theatre. Last night I went and saw Verdi’s opera, Il Corsaro, being staged by the NZ Music School. Unfortunately it was the last night, so this opportunity is not available to you; however, I wanted to try and understand what it was all about, in the hopes of getting more enjoyment out of the next opera I go to.
What is Opera? That may be an overly basic or simplistic place to start, but trying to understand my experience requires it. Opera is a synthesis of music and acting. These two components act together to create a holistic experience.
I suppose that in reality, most Opera, like most musical theatre, lives on primarily as an auditory experience. We listen to Operas, whereas we watch films or plays. We buy, effectively, the sound-track and listen to that, isolated from the acting and actions, except inasmuch as they bleed through into the emotion the music. Perhaps I’m misreading the situation, but to my mind, that makes the musical aspect the primary one; augmented by acting (here a metonymy for the whole echelon of storytelling interests).
The music was beautiful. To my ill-informed musical tastes, Il Corsaro sounded as interesting and engaging as the other Verdi operas I’ve seen; although there was nothing quite as spectacular as the “Glory of Egypt” from Aida the overall impression of the music was similarly good. I like other opera composers a little more – I enjoy The Barber of Seville and Carmen more as musical sounds. Nevertheless, this is beautiful, and the student orchestra performed more than adequately.
So, we turn to the area where I have a little more expertise: the story. The first thing that struck me while watching the events unfold is that Il Corsaro has absolutely no recourse to realism whatsoever. It is a storytelling form that is completely stylized, completely conventional. If you are in tune with those conventions, then you can understand what’s going on. If not – and that includes myself – then while it is more-or-less clear what’s actually happening, the reasons for any specific action begin to verge on the incomprehensible.
In particular, the motivations of the characters are bizare. The corsair captain begins the Opera by singing about some kind of lost or tragic love and how sad he is – but in the next scene he is shown with a lover. He is leaving the lover to go and wage war on the Ottoman – but his motivation is entirely unclear to me. When he gets there, his men set fire to the city, or at least a fire is started by the fighting; he rescues the Sultan’s Harem from the fire… and they are absurdly grateful to him for that, even though it was he who created the need for their rescue. And so it goes. I can’t quite imagine a simple but comprehensive schema for explaining all the behaviour. However, highly stylized storytelling shouldn’t necessarily be disregarded – superheroes often seem similarly incomprehensible to the uninitiated, as do giant monsters and fairy tales.
The story itself didn’t make sense to me, and so I wasn’t really able to engage with it intellectually. However, more seriously, I found the synergy between the music and the story established an even more serious impediment to my enjoyment. The music itself conveys an emotion, and while it was beautiful, I found the emotion I felt in response to the music was frequently in variance with the emotion I thought the story was aiming for. Specifically, the music was all either magnificent or happy, so any time that I thought maybe I should be feeling sad, the music fought me.
At first this made me try and engage with Il Corsaro as I had engaged with Rigolleto, as pitch-black comedy. But whereas I laughed spontaneously in Rigoletto, there was nothing remotely funny to me in this production. That may be a failure of direction of the acting, but I don’t think so.
Il Corsaro was a perplexing theatrical experience. I was able to enjoy it only because it was sufficiently magnificent to overcome its nearly equal absurdity.