Nano-opera: Magic Flute and Madame Butterfly

Magic Flute

Another opera nano-synopsis, this time for Magic Flute, in particular San Francisco Opera’s 2007 production, which seems to take place on a Batman set and features characters and costumes from a bunch of other movies: Big chested ladies with scary bras headed by Cruella de Ville from 101 Dalmatians, aka the Queen of the Night, battle with the Planet of the Apes headed by the knight from The Seventh Seal, aka Sarastro, for the hearts of Tamino, Birdman, and Birdmanina.

For benefit of those who didn’t see it, Sarastro’s gang gave “helmet hair” a whole new meaning, and Sarastro himself was a dead ringer for Max von Sydow’s knight (the one who plays chess with Death) in The Seventh Seal. Nearly every character besides a few of the leads wore costumes that in some odd way or another drew attention to their breasts or man-breasts, particularly the Three Ladies and their über-Lady, Cruella de Ville. If the ladies and their queen had managed to triumph, we might have called it bra-us ex machina.

In any production, Magic Flute is yet another opera that has real problems when viewed from a feminist or vaguely enlightened perspective. The Queen of the Night is your typical mother spurned and scorned and bears a not unreasonable grudge against Sarastro, the man who stole her daughter from her after her husband died, but somehow the librettist finds a way to make everything her fault and cast Sarastro as the good guy. One wonders if Mozart perhaps saw a little more gray between the black-and-white lines of the libretto, though, given that the Queen and the other women have all the best arias and most powerful singing. Sarastro gets to make various heartfelt, sincere, warm-fuzzy “love makes the world go round” points, and sure enough he does seem to be a bit of a natural facilitator, but he always does so impotently–the arias are set in the basement of the bass range where even the best singers struggle to project. Even this production’s costumer also seemed to give the ladies some benefit of the doubt–they got all the best costumes and hair!

Librettists seem to find heartbreak to be just and reasonable grounds for women to commit suicide. Perhaps this is wishful misogynist thinking, as many of opera’s heroines would seem to me to be justified in killing off the men rather than offing themselves. I’ve already made the case for the Queen of the Night above, and it’s not hard to extend this argument to the rest of opera’s greatest hits.

Madame Butterfly
Take Madame Butterfly for example: impregnated and then abandoned by a lying ne’er-do-well Pinkerton, who’s enabled by a regretful but spineless Sharpless, Cio-Cio San offs herself in despair, but wouldn’t it be more satisfying and considerably more realistic for Cio-Cio San, Suzuki, and Kate to whack Pinkerton and Sharpless instead, and then continue on about their business of raising the brat together?

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    • Anonymous
    • Nov 8th. 2007 10:04am

    Great opera review. I had never thought of Lady of the Night as Cruella DeVille. Now I’ll never be able to think of her as other than Cruella.

    Re Butterfly, your version might make more sense but it would certainly detract from the tragic drams. I find it difficult to not break down in tears throughout the second and third acts because I know how it ends.

    Knowing that the story ends in a slapstick brawl would ruin the effect, though springing an alternate ending as a surprise might certainly be a pleasant surprise–once.

    Dad

    • Anonymous
    • Nov 8th. 2007 10:06am

    Re penultimate paragraph, make that ‘drama’ not ‘drams.’

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