(Previous section here.)
I said before that this is an opera about mistaken identities. But before we get to that, let me revisit the thing about the stabbing. There was something weird with the subtitles when I watched this – they would appear at some times and not others. The source of this problem remains a mystery to me, but when I went back and watched the first bit of the opera with the DVD player window smaller, I got all the subtitles!
Turns out that the stabbing? Well, that was Belfiore. Violante lost one of his Yo La Tengo tapes, or overseasoned the paella or something, and he let her have it with the dagger. And then he ran away. So, the part later where Ramiro brings news that Belfiore is to be arrested for Violante’s murder makes a bit more sense. The accusation isn’t a mistake, or at least it’s only a mistake in that she isn’t dead, not that he didn’t stab her. And I have to give credit to Christoph Strehl (Belfiore). My impression of this character was that the accusation that he had stabbed Violante made a certain amount of sense — and I remember having this thought even before I got the plot straight; my notebook will back me up on this — because this really is a guy who just might get lost in his own thoughts and accidentally stab someone.
This incident of violence in Violante and Belfiore’s past is echoed in slightly different form in Arminda’s treatment of Belfiore. When they first meet, her attitude in “si promette facilmente” is along the lines of IF YOU DECEIVE ME I WILL HIT YOU WITH STICKS and it is fairly clear she means it:
(You may notice that there is an intrusion of German into the English subtitles at 1.16. I cannot explain this.)
Arminda is not a nice person and I myself would rather not marry her given the option, but given that this is an opera about the consequences of romantic misunderstandings (we will adopt an eighteenth-century definition of ‘romantic misunderstanding’ that extends to stabbing) having someone like Arminda in the story makes sense. Then again, hitting Belfiore with sticks might be a waste of effort on Arminda’s part. This is a guy who seems fairly oblivious to his physical surroundings: we catch him later on sprawling contentedly in a bed of cactus. Then he shaves one. (There is a hair-buzzer left over from where Serpetta was shaving Don Anchise in Act I.) As I said, this guy is not really all there. He runs into things, and falls over things, and kisses people he does not intend to and when he and Violante go mad in Acts II-III it actually kind of makes perfect sense.
So. Mistaken identities. Or rather one mistaken identity, Violante’s, and a great many mistaken or wrong-headed motives which combined with the general unpleasantness of a number of other people (you thought Despina was a pain in the ass? Wait till you meet Serpetta) leads to confusion, unhappiness, madness, despair — but only for a little while. Like I said, it all works out. When I describe the story it sounds far worse than it actually seems on the stage. This is an opera in which taking a knife to the gut is the kind of problem that just sort of goes away after a while. Although they do make a few alterations to the libretto in the last scene, so that while the original has everyone neatly paired off, in this version Don Anchise merely throws up his hands and says “marry whoever you want!” and it’s all left a little more open.
As the foregoing might suggest, it’s an open question whether this opera is really about anything. But this is not really a problem. Particularly in Acts II and III the production creates a mood in which strange behavior and moments of madness and bizarre incidents of violence coexist peacefully with various slightly buffa love stories – this is done in part via the acting (many of these characters wander around sad, confused and/or slightly out of it) and partly through the way the set looks, with all the bright white and pale green. When I say it’s not really about anything I don’t mean that it doesn’t hold together, because it does. The story is convoluted, but the impression this production gives of the whole is not. It’s a bit weird and it’s not exactly happy – but, strangely enough, it makes sense.
So – on to the music!