Cheer leaders

Opera unswervingly believes in the potential for a divine spark in humans, says Robert Thicknesse

On Opera

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


I think it was Auberon Waugh, or one of that gang, who pointed out that there’s nothing like Mozart’s well-known Classic FM standby Alleluia for gradually but catastrophically lowering the spirits. This would-be jubilant peroration is a handy flag-waver for stuff we greet with open hearts, and even quite enjoy to begin with, but soon realise we need to strangle or beat to death — the chief example being the period of Yuletide revelry which, for the first time in centuries, has been made so happily optional this year.

Opera, like some sulky teenager, has always refused to have any truck with these festivities. Not for us the rancid cheese of the Nutcracker ballet, It’s a Wonderful Life, Aladdin with Ant ’n’ Dec, the cursed Tiny Tim: that nauseating offal that clogs up the usual avenues of escape. (True, in Germany they will insist on sticking on the opera version of Hansel & Gretel, which features some rather sickening angels, but that’s hardly our problem.)

Opera, like some sulky teenager, has always refused to have any truck with these festivities

It’s not just Christmas — opera gets antsy at anything that smacks of religion, in which it bears a striking resemblance to the Church of England: when not simply pretending there is no such thing as Christianity it would appear to be actively engaged in plotting the downfall of the whole operation.

Naturally, both outfits squeal camply after the atmospherics: twilit cloisters are constantly stalked by cowled figures, there are tolling bells and distant organs intoning boring tunes a-go-go. But this is all about as actually Christian as Matthew Lewis’s naughty monk.

Opera lays out its objections from the whistle. In Claudio Monteverdi’s 1641 Coronation of Poppea, Cupid, in some award-winning blasphemy, nicks the final climactic line of Dante’s Paradiso, the ecstatic vision of the Triune Godhead, and applies it to his horn: behold, if you will, the actual “Love that moves the sun and the other stars”.

Thereafter, priests pop up merely to act as the patsies in cheap jokes, or to put people on bonfires. Christian feast days are none too auspicious, either, and ripe for derision: the bloodbaths of Cav & Pag happen, uncoincidentally, at Easter and the Assumption respectively.

Why has opera got such a downer on the God squad? Essentially because they are tussling over the same what’s-it-all-abaht bit of the agenda, the same turf — which admittedly in their present reduced circumstances looks a bit like two bums going head-to-head for the last sheltered patch between pools of vomit in the doorway of Greggs.

And opera’s bid to supplant religion has been known to backfire: those blond lunks Siegfried and Parsifal auditioning as the new Jesus were swiftly undermined by real-life heart-throbs like Reinhard Heydrich and Baldur von Schirach claiming their inheritance.

As opera fannies around in decorative irrelevancies, it seeks to conceal its true programme — which really consists in scouting about for reasons to be cheerful in a world full of arseholes, located within an indifferent or malevolent universe. And opera unswervingly believes in the potential for a divine spark in humans (even the arseholes), generally ignited and fanned by love.

This is best expressed in odd, awkward pieces of which the acme is no doubt Mozart’s Magic Flute, a kind of idiot savant blast of clairvoyance expressed through a freaky mix of panto and esoteric fooflah.

Opera unswervingly believes in the potential for a divine spark in humans (even the arseholes), generally ignited and fanned by love

Nobody really knows what turns the Flute from a fairytale adorned by a bunch of cute slogans into a serious manifesto to renew the face of the earth: Mozart’s pared-back late style, the radiance of his harmony and a transfixing wizardry in sound, an economy, clarity and warmth that is largely down to the lucky accident of his existing at just the right moment between the mathematical perfection of the baroque and the wild subjectivity of Beethoven.

Mostly it’s the adamant conviction behind this brew of folksy romps, earnest Bachian counterpoint, bells that make evil prance away, hymns, crazed rage-arias and the sweetest of love songs: Mozart’s absolute sureness that true wisdom is born of human love, that with a bit of faith and a sturdy avoidance of falsehood — and perhaps a magic flute — the earthly paradise is a serious possibility. As with Thomas Hardy’s Christmas cows, you catch yourself believing, or at least hoping, it might be so.

That’s all fine and dandy, but hardly the thing for this of all seasons of heavily modified goodwill. For that we must turn to our true Christmas poster boy, Goethe’s pettish poet Werther, the guy who turned the whole of Europe into self-pitying emos aeons before Kurt Cobain’s first minor-key whinge.

Yet in Jules Massenet’s fey romantic opera, this pill has one big, unarguable redemptive moment: deranged for the love of his mate’s wife, and by the sheer horror of an old-time Wetzlar Christmas with its carolling German moppets, foul glühwein and enforced roistering, he chooses the day itself to top himself in a particularly messy, drawn-out and attention-seeking way. And I think we can all applaud levels of integrity like those.

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