The cat in a hat

A colourful glimpse into a dramatic feast of sex and death

On Opera

You know the old joke — why does everyone hate X (say, Geoff Boycott or Hillary Clinton) on sight? Answer: “It saves time.” Over the years film has happily performed this service for opera, such masterpieces as Pretty Woman and Godfather 3 exposing its fancypants sham as the apotheosis of naff, so camp and tragic that only foreigners and perverts can even pretend to like it — usefully helping everyone to the correct attitude without any need to actually try the thing out. Brilliantly for us pervs, of course, this keeps the riff-raff away.

The best bit of opera on film comes at the beginning of Werner Herzog’s jolly Fitzcarraldo, where Claudia Cardinale and Klaus Kinski arrive sweaty and oil-stained (actually, only him: you could still eat your supper off her) for the last bars of Verdi’s Ernani at the Manaus opera house after their eventful Amazon trip, some time back in the early twentieth century.

Little tubs Caruso and arthritic crone Sarah Bernhardt (miming) are playing the love-birds — Bernhardt done as a zombie sleepwalker in drag by Jean-Claude Dreyfuss — and the staging is a chilling display of glued-to-the-floor taxi-hailing, like something at Covent Garden. With this beautifully mad fantasy Herzog neatly makes his points about how amazing opera is, how strange the past, and how ghastly the rubber-planters of Manaus.

Thus did Sarah turn pseudo-historical pulp like Adrienne Lecouvreur, Le passant, La Tosca into hits

Of course, la divine Sarah never actually appeared in any opera, but her extraordinary acting had the effect of turning the most dreadful plays into sensations. (I suppose something similar happened with Mark Rylance and the fatuous Jerusalem, a reminder of the perennial cretinism of theatre and its audiences.)

These, usually written by the fecund Victorien Sardou, were produced simply to let Sarah do her thing, namely to pose and gesture and use her hypnotic voice to give the drivel she was spouting a magical semblance of meaning; Shaw noted that she simply substituted herself for whichever magniloquent dame she was playing.

Thus did Sarah turn pseudo-historical pulp like Adrienne Lecouvreur, Le passant, La Tosca into hits — which were then preserved for eternity in the amber of opera (see also Oscar Wilde’s embarrassing Salomé, written for Sarah but never performed by her, transmuted into one of the seminal operas of the twentieth century by Richard Strauss).

One of these farragoes was Sardou’s Fedora (1881), subsequently operatised by Umberto Giordano and, like a day-release mental patient, getting a rare glimpse of the sun at Belcombe Court in Bradford on Avon, courtesy of If Opera (from 24 August). Giordano being no Puccini, this show has never got very near the hit parade, but it has a preposterous charm of its own.

The play had been inspired by the entertaining 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II by the well-bred young terrorists of The People’s Will, an organisation itself ripe for comedy with its M.O. of seeking to galvanise the slack-jawed Russian yokelry with earnest lectures.

This was not a success, as it emerged that (as in East Anglia) what the pigsty-dwelling turnip-munchers most thirsted for was the smack of firm, authoritarian government, plus incest and line-dancing.

opera has ever been supremely cakeist with its fanatical pro-sex agitprop rubbing up against an urbane acceptance that it is basically a blood sport as well

Well, fresh examples of Russky bestiality always make great box office, so Sardou shoehorned the resonant MacGuffin of anarchist murder into his stupid romantic melodrama. When the aristo fiancé of Princess Fedora gets whacked in Saint Petersburg, she swears vengeance on the main suspect, Spartist Count Loris, before (in a non-surprise move) falling in love with him when he explains it was a crime passionel prompted by her fiancé’s jazzing of Loris’s wife.

Alas, too late! — for Fedora (in her fetching new hat) has already denounced Loris to the Tsarist KGB, his family has been arrested, and his little bro languishes in the dungeons on the banks of the Neva.

Even Shaw, while drooling over Bernhardt’s performance, noticed what crap this was, a compendium of “everything that has no business in a play”. Ever the neomaniac, Sardou worked in bicycles, bloomers, electric bells and telephones (half of it happens in France and Switzerland) amid the doom-laden Russian snow, troikas, swags, scented letters and Byzantine crosses, for an opportunistic East-meets-West stroganoff of carnality and intrigue.

In short, an opera waiting to happen — one of those that is itself a film manqué: 30 years later Hitchcock would have made something like The Man Who Knew Too Much out of it. And definitely a pre-Code romp: one of the jolliest features is its preserving of late nineteenth-century attitudes to sex. When Fedora gets round to shoving Loris into bed, it is with the promise that “in my arms you shall find another mother”.

And we should note that the extra-curricular fiancé/Loris’s wife shaggerama is the immediate cause of no fewer than five deaths: fiancé (shot), wife (hysterical onset of fatal pneumonia), bro (drowned in prison), mum (grief) and Fedora herself (poison from inside her big old crucifix).

Well, opera has ever been supremely cakeist with its fanatical pro-sex agitprop rubbing up against an urbane acceptance that it is basically a blood sport as well. Yet this judgy hecatomb frankly feels a bit Victorian: one seeks for geopolitical allegory, some yet-unstudied Freudian contribution to the brewing First World War.

But perhaps in the end Sardou’s just getting a laugh out of Russia, where, as with English cricket, everything always works out so much worse than it really needs to.

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.


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