or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sing For Your Supper

Last night for the second time in three days I watched "Tosca", one of my three favourite operas ever*. First was the Metropolitan Opera version with Hildegarde Behrens, who was a terrific singer but perfectly happy to jettison a beautiful sound in favour of dramatic truth: after she's stabbed a man through the heart (going against everything she believes in, but he was about to rape her) and is screaming at him to hurry up and die already, it's not a pretty sound, but it's not supposed to be. It's supposed to make your hair stand on end, and by god it does.

Last night I watched an Italian broadcast version from the Teatro Carlo Fenice in Genoa (there are eight others on the site: the "Salome" is particularly good). Even though it's sung in Italian, it's subtitled, which is only fair: when I'm watching an English opera, I want subtitles, because when the words and the music duke it out in opera, the music always wins.

I had only ever watched "Tosca" with English subtitles, but I didn't really need them this time around because I knew the story well enough: still, I didn't mind the Italian subtitles, and it was a novel experience to see the words that were being sung rather than a translation. Early on, a priest says, "Il paniere e intatto," which means "the basket [of food] is untouched."

"Paniere" is instantly recognizable as a relative of English "panniers" (taken, as so many fashion words are, from French), sort of the opposite of a bustle (which augments the form of the buttocks), worn under a dress to exaggerate the width of the hips to cartoonish proportions, as you can see.

I had known this for years. But in Tosca, when the priest holds up the basket and the subtitle says "paniere", I understood instantly that "paniere" was essentially the same word as "pannier", and that both of them meant "bread-basket", because French "pain" and Italian "pane" mean "bread".

The Tosca in the Genovese production was Daniela Dessì, and Italian opera-goers, a committed lot to begin with, sure know how to treat a hometown girl: after she finished her big number, "Vissi d'arte", they went insane and wouldn't stop cheering and applauding until she broke character, acknowledged them, and agreed, encouraged by the conductor, to sing the number a second time.

You won't see this in North American houses, whose patrons consider breaking character, or any sort of intrusion into the opera, to be bad form. (There was sneering when Anna Netrebko did it in her triumphant "Anna Bolena" at the Met last fall.) Though the repeat has a long history, I didn't even know it was still done in Italy, but there's the proof. And just to show that they don't discriminate when it comes to local talent, when the Cavaradossi, Fabio Armiliato, also from Genoa, sang his big number, "E lucevan le stelle", they screamed and clapped and wouldn't stop until he agreed to sing it again, too. It was awesome. I wish I had been there. I told Jim that if we ever go to Italy, then we are going to an opera, and he said, "Obviously."

European audiences don't shout "Encore!" when they want a rerun, even though "encore" is French for "again". They shout "Bis!", which means "twice", naturally enough, because "bi-" words in English mean two of something: bilateral symmetry involves two mirror-image sides, a bicycle has two wheels. And can you think of a common English word that uses "bis"?

Right: "biscuit". "Cuire" is the French verb for "to cook", "cuit" means "cooked", and "biscuit" literally means "twice-cooked", just as in Italian "biscotti", which are made by forming the dough into a loaf, baking it to firm it up, slicing the loaf, and then baking the slices a second time. German "Zweibach" is made the same way, and means exactly the same thing: "twice-baked".

* The other two are "Lucia di Lammermoor" and "Salome". I could listen to them and watch them again and again, and do, and never get tired of them, because they are so effective at doing what opera does best, which is bypassing rational thought and going straight for the limbic system. You will feel pity, horror, sadness, revulsion, because the music really leaves you no choice.


Blogger D.J. said...

Obviously I've been corrupted by laboring in the vineyards of science; when you asked us to think of a word that uses "bis," my first thought was "Bismuth!" (Which, naturally, is an etymological orphan, so it's a good thing it's not a common response.)

And just to cause more trouble, my first operatic loyalty will always be to Gilbert and Sullivan, where the music is strictly subordinate to the lyrics. Gilbert would famously drill his singers over and over until they properly enunciated every single syllable, lest the audience be deprived of his genius.

Thursday, January 12, 2012 7:55:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Bismuth is a very good answer, one which didn't even occur to me, and if I had done my homework (by looking up bis* in MoreWords) I would have discovered it and written that bit differently.

As for Gilbert and Sullivan, they're not opera, exactly, are they? I mean, not to be a snob or anything. I know the line between opera and operetta can be a blurry one, and the G&S canon is usually called "Savoy operas", but...okay, what it really boils down to is that I just don't get anything out of G&S. To each his own.

Thursday, January 12, 2012 10:24:00 AM  

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