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Gods in opera: From the all-powerful to imagined excuses for human (in)actions

The arts have a long tradition of depicting gods but in an age of increased scepticism, depictions of higher powers are more interesting than ever.

By Elizabeth Davis (Former Editorial Assistant)

29 October 2014 at 12.00pm | Comment on this article

There are a moments in Darren Aronofsky's film Noah when the audience is forced to question the existence of God. Take away the deity in the famous story of the ark and suddenly Noah's refusal to save anyone outside his family becomes something much more sinister.

The presence or absence of gods – and the grey area of doubt in between – has proved fruitful grounds for the arts, not least in the world of opera.

It's rare to find unambiguously omnipotent gods in opera (Diana's appearance at the end of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride is a notable exception) because flawed gods are so much more interesting.

More usually, we meet the gods cut down to human-size – as in Wagner's Ring cycle, where the petty jealousies of the gods lead to the fall of Valhalla and the end of their rule. Baroque opera is peppered with human-size gods – from Handel's Jupiter in Semele to King Plutone in Monteverdi's Orfeo. They make mistakes, fall in love, become angry, feel pain, fall into traps. In Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, not only do we see Bacchus falling in love with Ariadne but the 'godliness' of the gods is undermined in the Prologue. Here we see the singers who will become Ariadne and Bacchus in the opera’s second half worrying about their roles, their wigs and being upstaged by a comedy troupe.

But some opera composers have pushed the concept of a god even further, until the deity's very existence is thrown into doubt. And, as in Aronofsky's Noah, that affects how we judge the characters and their actions.

Strauss deliberately leaves the classical gods out of his opera Elektra, and in his Salome the characters argue about whether the Messiah that Jochanaan (John the Baptist) speaks of even exists. Morality in these works is slippery because neither the characters nor the audience agree on who the higher power is – or even if there is one.

In Les Troyens, Berlioz exploits the same uncertainty, sidelining the gods and so throwing responsibility back onto the warring humans. Writing 150 years later, Birtwistle plays on the same doubts in his opera The Minotaur; he gives the creature the ability to speak and focuses not on the shadowy gods behind it all but on the human toll of the Minotaur's killing, and the creature's own suffering.

Mozart's Idomeneo has traditionally been an example of an opera in which the gods are unusually godlike: Neptune the sea god saves king Idomeneo in the first act – but at a cost – and the god's disembodied voice resolves the plot at the end. But in his new production for The Royal Opera, director Martin Kušej casts doubt on the opera's gods. And we're left with the question: if they aren't steering the story's arc, who is? And what justification is there for the characters' actions if Neptune is a figment of their imagination or – worse – an invention to excuse their actions?

In this age of increased scepticism, the gods of opera are more interesting than ever.

Idomeneo runs 3–24 November 2014.

The production is a co-production with Opéra de Lyon and Vlaamse Opera, Antwerp, and is generously supported by the Friends of Covent Garden.

Orfeo runs 13-24 January 2015 at the Roundhouse in Camden. Tickets are still available.

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