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A look at the plot device of letters in opera.
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.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff © Catherine Ashmore/ROH 2012
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.
Simon Keenlyside as Eugene Onegin and Peter Rose as Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin © ROH / Bill Cooper 2013
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.