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A look at the plot device of letters in opera.

By Kate Hopkins (Opera and Music Publications Officer)

27 November 2012 at 4.52pm | 6 Comments

Throughout the history of opera, letters have played a vital part in the plots of many works. Here are a few examples of operas where letters loom large:

Le nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Letters play a very complicated part in this Mozart masterpiece. In Act II, Figaro decides to distract Count Almaviva from seducing Figaro’s fiancée Susanna by sending him an anonymous letter telling him that his wife is unfaithful. The plot backfires when the Count decides to confront the Countess – just after she has hidden the page Cherubino in her cupboard. It takes a great deal of cunning on Susanna’s part to convince the Count his suspicions are unfounded. A second letter plays an important role in Susanna and the Countess’s plot to shame the Count (letter duet: ‘Sull'aria'). When the Count receives the letter they have concocted, he believes Susanna is genuinely planning a tryst with him. Unfortunately, Figaro gets to hear about the letter, and he believes it too. He becomes wildly jealous, and much further confusion follows before Figaro and Susanna, and the Count and Countess, are reconciled.

Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi

Letters whiz about the stage from the start of Verdi’s sparkling comedy. The large and lecherous Sir John Falstaff, in need of funds, sends two (identical) letters to the wealthy Windsor wives Alice Ford and Meg Page. Alice and Meg realize what Sir John is up to and determine to teach him a lesson. Letters – delivered to Falstaff by their friend Mistress Quickly – play a key role in their schemes, particularly Falstaff’s final humiliation in Windsor Forest.

Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky

Eugene Onegin contains perhaps the most famous letter in all opera. When the literature-loving Tatyana falls in love with the sophisticated Eugene Onegin, she writes him a long and passionate letter explaining her feelings (Letter Aria: ‘Puskai pogybnu ja’ (I cannot hide my love)). Onegin coolly rejects her and tells her to be more guarded in showing her emotions. However, in Act III the tables are turned when Onegin falls passionately in love with Tatyana, who is now married. To music from her Act I Letter Aria, he declares his intention to write to Tatyana and tell her his feelings.

La rondine by Giacomo Puccini

Letters provide a wake-up call in the final act of La rondine. The courtesan Magda has spent several months pretending to her young lover Ruggero that she is a simple working girl. When Ruggero tells her that he has written to his mother asking permission for them to marry, she realizes that she will not be able to keep deceiving him. A note from her former protector Rambaldo, stating that he will take her back on any terms, shows her that her former life is still an option. A third letter finally makes up Magda’s mind for her – Ruggero’s mother writes to him of her pleasure that her son has found a good and virtuous fiancée. Unable to keep lying, Magda confesses her past to Ruggero, and leaves him to return to her old life in Paris.

The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten

And finally, the ‘letter plot’ takes on a supernatural tinge in Britten’s take on Henry James’s ghost story. A young Governess arrives at the remote Bly House to take care of two young children, Miles and Flora. Soon after her arrival, she receives a letter telling her that Miles is expelled from school for causing ‘an injury to his friends’. This makes her uneasy. And things get a lot worse when she encounters the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the former valet and governess at Bly House. Increasingly frightened of the ghosts, and the effect they are having on Miles and Flora, she writes to the children’s guardian to ask for help. Peter Quint threatens and cajoles Miles into stealing the letter. The Governess eventually confronts Miles, and her frantic questions about the letter may be one of the factors that contribute to the boy’s death.

Kasper Holten's new production of Eugene Onegin will be on stage from 4 - 20 February 2013 while La rondine returns to The Royal Opera from 5 - 21 July 2013.

This article has 6 comments

  1. Mark Pemberton responded on 28 November 2012 at 12:15pm Reply

    Letters are even more crucial to The Turn of the Screw than your description, since the whole plot is effectively a dramatisation of the letter sent by the Governess to the Narrator.

  2. Alexandra responded on 29 November 2012 at 7:44pm Reply

    Great overview! Thanks!

    The letter reading/writing scene in 1994's Conrad Susa opera of Dangerous Liaisons is pivotal to the plot and ingeniously staged.

  3. Surely the most famous is "Teneste la promessa, la disfida ebbe luogo! il barone fu ferito,p ero' migliora.... " :-))) (read on her deathbed by Violetta Valery)

    But my favourite letter/love notes business goes on and on and on in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia "Egli attende..... qualche segno, poverin, del vostro affetto: sol due righe di biglietto gli mandate, gliiiiii maaandaaaaate e qui verrà....." etc,etc,etc :-)

    • Stelucia responded on 10 June 2013 at 5:40pm

      Not forgetting the letter Rosina gives to Figaro in Act 2, leaving him speechless: Già era scritto!... oh ve' che bestia.E il maestro io faccio a lei!. etc, etc
      Or the same letter which Almaviva (as don Alonso ) gives to Bartolo.

  4. David Hinam responded on 28 February 2013 at 1:51pm Reply

    Boris Godunov, by Moussorgsky.....not strictly a letter but worthy of comment is Varlam's drunken attempt at reading his own arrest warrant in the Inn Scene.

  5. Stelucia responded on 10 June 2013 at 5:51pm Reply

    ROH forgot Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia. This is an opera where letters play a critical part in the plot.
    In fact, whatever happens in Barbiere is directly related to a letter sent, received or falling in the wrong hands.

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