Last night, I attended the sleeper hit of the Santa Fe Opera’s summer season: Maometto II, by Rossini (of Barber of Seville fame) with libretto by Cesare della Valle. Like the rest of the audience, I was agog at the vocal range of the four main characters and their grace under pressure: they are asked to sing passages so difficult that angels would go whining to God about them. The direction was visionary and brilliant, the set design was both dazzling and functional, and the orchestra was impeccable.
But something was gnawing at me: as I watched the plot unfold, I kept wondering: what kind of father is that? Is this really parental love? Truth be told, by the end of the opera, I was mortified that so much destruction and tragedy had occurred and it could largely be attributed to the actions and attitudes of….Daddy Dearest.
Reduced to its essentials, the story of Maometto II is this: Maometto II (Mehmed II), the historical Ottoman conqueror who invaded Constantinople and brought the Byzantine Empire to its knees, is on the verge of conquering Negroponte and its Venetian inhabitants. In the past, in Corinth, he was disguised as the nobleman Uberto, and he had fallen in love with Anna, daughter of Erisso. Anna loved Uberto passionately, and when Erisso tries to wed her to his general Calbo in order to protect her should he be killed by Maometto, she tells them both she is in love with Uberto.
Then the plot thickens. Erisso is now the ruler of Negroponte, and his enemy is the invader Maometto, who has superior force and will surely conquer the city. When Maometto shows up, it turns out he is none other than Uberto. He has deceived Anna about his identity but not about his love: he offers her the throne, his undying affection and clemency for her father and Calbo. Erisso is a stand-up-and-fight guy. He could save the population, himself, and his daughter by surrendering to Maometto, but he decides to fight to the finish. Anna betrays Maometto, even though she loves him, to support her father. Then, expecting the wrath and vengeance of the powerful Muslim ruler, she throws herself on his sword.
At first blush, it seems as though Erisso is deeply concerned about his daughter’s welfare: but is he really? He consults with his military leaders about whether he should surrender or fight. A plea is made for surrender, but he opts for his general’s feeling that they should fight to the death. Interesting. A military leader who uses a democratic forum for deciding on military strategy. But why doesn’t he apply the same standard to his daughter Anna? He tells Ana whom to marry, rejects her when she is torn between her love for Maometto and her love for her father, accuses her of going over to the enemy side, and his emotional abandonment is so painful for Anna that she betrays Maometto, and sets off a chain of events that will allow Erisso to defeat Maometti and lead to her own death. For Erisso, honor and valor are more important than life itself: his, his peoples’, his daughter’s.
Maybe you think I am making this up, but just look at what happens: Maometti, the ruthless military leader, is depicted as being a gentle lover, caring to his men, flexible, compassionate, and willing to have Erisso and Calbo rule alongside of him to make life easier for his beloved Anna. Erisso is like the trunk of a tree: he will not bend.
Anna, ever her father’s daughter, puts virtue and honor over love and life; she adopts her father’s value system because he is so demanding and unbending and she wants his love and approval. Calbo loves Anna, and because he loves her, he feels deeply her dilemma and her pain. Erisso may feel her pain, but his own pain is more important: the pain of defeat and possible humiliation. The libretto is sprinkled with the word “foolish” as it applies to Erisso and Anna. It is foolish to put virtue over love and life. It is foolish for Erisso to reject his daughter when he should be loving and protecting her. Erisso hands her a dagger and tells her to kill herself before a Muslim lays hands on her. Ever dutiful, it is exactly what she will do.
The staging of the opera includes the portrait and the urn of Anna’s deceased mother. The suggestion is that Anna is a motherless child, and she desperately needs the gentle guidance and support of her mother. Many times during the opera, Anna reaches her hand upwards to the sky and out towards the urn; it is as if her only way out is to join her dead mother and know eternal peace because she cannot have peace or true love on earth. She asks her father to marry her to Calbo next to her mother’s burial spot: she obeys her father, is a dutiful daughter, rejects and infuriates Maometto, and sees no choice left but death.
From a democratic leader, in my eyes, Erisso devolved to a selfish, cruel, uncompromising, uncaring father who is blinded by his own notions of heroism, duty, sacrifice, and honor. “How can you leave your daughter in danger like this?” Anna asks her father, and “what God advised you to be so cruel?” But Erisso is deaf to his daughter’s needs. “Your tears are useless,” he tells her. His daughter has brought shame on him; that is what matters. He wishes he had died in battle to avoid the shame he suffers from Anna. He talks to his dead wife about Anna’s “shameless passion.”
I wonder what Erisso’s relationship was like with his wife: did she, too, suffer from his rigidity and adopt his value system?
“What divine voice speaks to me?” Anna asks. It is her father’s voice she hears inside of her; not God’s. “Heaven and my father have triumphed,” she announces. “I have renounced all earthly emotions and await death,” she sings. A brave and strong woman, she nonetheless marries the wrong man to satisfy her father, and then she sacrifices herself on the altar of duty and honor. With her last breath, she refers to herself as a “faithful soul.” Faithful to what, I wondered. Certainly not to herself or the man she loves. Faithful to dear ole dad.
When I left the opera, I was wondering about the internal lives of Erisso and Maometto: what made the former so rigid and controlling, and how did the heart of Maometto burst open to allow so much tenderness and compassion to come in?
The answer lies in the magnificent King Roger, where the inner landscape of the 12th century Sicilian ruler IS the story of the opera. Sung entirely in Polish, the startling work by composer Karol Syzmanowski, with libretto by himself and Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, lifts us out of our seats and carries us into the tormented soul of the king and, I think, the composer himself. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, the ruler speaks these immortal lines: “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” In the Santa Fe opera production, director Stephen Wadsworth has Roger suffocating in his clothes, loosening them, and finally removing them; he sheds his crown, robe, and even the shirt underneath as he bares himself, his soul and his torment, in much the same way King Lear tried to do before the Fool stopped him.
The music begins with a gong—and, like the gong used in Buddhist practice, it invites the listener into meditation. The opera takes place at night, and it invites the viewer into the dark night of the king’s soul. There is no joy, no passion in his life; when his wife Roxana comes to kiss him, he pushes her away. His posture is bent over, weighed down by the crown he wears, the responsibility of leadership, and his inner struggle. He goes to church, but the God he worships is remote, above the clouds, and He rules by force and might: the angels bow before Him, and He expresses his presence through violent forces of nature: fire, wind and thunder.
And then, a stranger comes into the kingdom: a tender, Pied Piper-like shepherd who wears a crown of ivy leaves and praises a pastoral God of freedom, liberation, beauty, love, sensuality, joy. Immediately, the church-goers call for him to be punished and, unthinkingly, Roger sentences him to death. He is a tangible God, who reigns on earth, associated with the gentle aspects of nature: lilies and butterflies, lakes and roses. He is a God who goes looking for the lost suffering human lambs of his flock. In fact, He may be the good shepherd himself: “He is beautiful like me,” the shepherd sings of his God.
But this is a God who cannot be killed. He has already entranced the king’s subjects and, most of all, the queen Roxana. They all follow him, leaving Roger baffled, tortured and alone…except for his adviser Edrisi. He tells the shepherd to come to the palace later at night to be tried and judged, and his entry code will be “Roger.” There is some confusion, and the code may also be “Shepherd.” Or perhaps they are one and the same: the shepherd is Roger, and the entire drama between a severe, angry, fearful, restricted soul and a free, fearless and loving one is played out inside of Roger’s psyche. The shepherd cannot be chained or tied up. “Why bind me when I am yours already?” the shepherd asks Roger as he takes off his chains: “I am free. Whoever would be free, follow me,” the shepherd sings. The shepherd reminds Roger that he was summoned to the palace by Roger himself. Because Roger called out for God, God came. God is in Roger. God is Roger. Is this blasphemy or spiritual enlightenment? “Does your God really love you?” the shepherd asks Roger, implying that he and his God can and do love Roger. The Higher Power is a power that elevates the soul of Roger to heights he never dared to contemplate.
Roger is physically embraced and soothed throughout the opera: by his wife, Edrisi, the shepherd himself. He sheds his adult and kingly veneer, and becomes a helpless child. “Like a child, I am afraid,” he sings. He needs care and tenderness to soothe the torment in his soul. He needs a parent –a father--who is not like the severe, remote God he believed in before, but is more like….the good Shepherd. Accessible. Present. Mysterious but close. Mystical but reachable. Unknowable but familiar. Spiritual and deeply personal. At the end of the opera, Roger calls out to Roxana, and she comes back. Together they sacrifice to the new God, as dawn comes. Roger has sacrificed his rigidity, fear and anger. The nightmare is over. Roger emerges from the dark night of his soul. He puts his robe back on…with the ivy crown of the shepherd on his head. His rule—and, indeed, his life—will now be a combination of strength and mercy, love, freedom, and embracing of nature and all that is natural.
The idea of what is natural or unnatural is at the heart of the opera and the composer’s life. He was gay at a time in Poland, between the world wars, when coming out was unthinkable. He traveled to Sicily and north Africa, where he could express who he was. He was liberated. Then he came back to Poland. What was clear became cloudy. He lived the nightmarish tension of restraining or expressing passion, love, yearning and desire. In his life, he was bound up, in chains. But by the end of the opera, he steps out of the dark night, into the dawn: he literally comes out and is free.
There is no more cruel parental love by Eriso. Maometto’s love is returned and he can rule with strength and compassion. God is a God of love and understanding. In King Roger, the solution to all the problems in both operas is clear: love, love, love.
(Photo by Paul Ross)
IF YOU GO:
Dinner is served at the Cantina of the Santa Fe opera, and après- dessert is a deep, passionate talk (about whichever opera is being performed that night) by Desiree Mays, a Santa Fean who regularly lectures at the Met and the Los Angeles Opera.
One and two hours before each performance, there is a free lecture by Oliver Prezant, who will literally have you singing.
For more information: www.SantaFeOpera.org
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Judith Fein is a multiple-award-winning travel writer, speaker and author of the acclaimed book LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Her website is www.globaladventure.us