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Laughing in the face of tragedy: Black comedy in opera

From Così fan tutte to Anna Nicole – operas have long come with a sharp edge.

By Elizabeth Davis (Former Editorial Assistant)

21 August 2014 at 12.02pm | Comment on this article

Opera has long been a vehicle for decidedly dark comedy, from nasty practical jokes to decidedly ambiguous happy-ever-afters. Here, we take a closer look at five of our favourites:

Così fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1790)

Mozart referred to his third and final collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte as an 'opera buffa', and it's habitually labeled a comedy – there are plenty of laughs to be found amid the confusion, chaos and mistaken identity of this meticulously crafted masterpiece. But at heart, this opera is about two sisters (Dorabella and Fiordiligi) who are tricked into swapping lovers and falling in love with each other's fiancé, which leaves a decidedly bitter aftertaste to the ‘happy-ever-after’ final scene, for all Mozart’s wonderful music. In the libretto the two women swap back to their original partners, but modern directors have found ingenious ways to deal with the tricky ending, sometimes having the women swap partners yet again.

Il turco in Italia by Gioachino Rossini (1814)

Rossini’s light-hearted comedy Il turco in Italia is as bright and breezy as they come, but this operatic candyfloss is still spiced with some of life's darker elements. Shortly after the start of the opera we meet Zaida, who has had to flee her dashing lover Selim and life she led in a Turkish harem because of death threats from jealous rivals. Then there's the unhappy marriage of Geronio and his much younger, fickle wife Fiorilla, whose eyes seem to rove to every many she meets. Even Rossini's famously labyrinthine plot twists don't quite manage to leave everyone happy: it’s only right at the last minute, and after Fiorilla has lost much of her joie de vivre, that the couples are (at least temporarily!) happily reunited.

Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi (1893)

Verdi’s larger-than-life drunken knight, taken from Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts I and II and The Merry Wives of Windsor, is a comic delight – he chases after young women, runs up a huge bill at the Garter Inn and is tipped into the Thames from a laundry basket. But, as in Shakespeare’s original, Falstaff is as much an object of ridicule and pity as he is the bringer of laughter. In Verdi’s opera, Act III in particular has a vein of darkness running through it, from Falstaff’s opening aria bemoaning the wickedness of the world (‘Mondo ladro’ – 'Thieving world!') to the scene in Windsor Great Park in which the followers of a fake ‘Queen of the Fairies’ pinch and punch the portly knight before the final fugue concludes 'Tutto nel mondo è burla! ('All the world's a joke!').

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Kurt Weill (1930)

This unique opera is the largest work to spring from the iconic partnership of  Weill and dramatist Bertolt Brecht. When the opera opens, Fatty the 'attorney', Trinity Moses and Leokadja Begbick are on the run from the authorities for a clutch of crimes. They decide to found a new city dedicated to pleasure, greed and excess. Weill found inspiration in jazz and cabaret music but also - more unexpectedly - in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with its mix of comedy and tragedy, and speech with singing. The opera is bitingly satirical and uses the darkest of black humour to hammer home its critique of the excesses of capitalism. But, as always with Weill and Brecht, they put on a top-class show while making their political point.

Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage (2011)

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s controversial opera, a Royal Opera House commission and revived for the first time in September 2014, takes the story of model, ex-stripper and film star Anna Nicole Smith and charts her meteoric rise (and fall) from single mother and supermarket worker to household name and widow of an octogenarian billionaire. Turnage himself has said ‘three-quarters of the piece is comic’ and throughout the work Richard Thomas’s deeply acerbic libretto mines comedy from the bleakest situations – Smith’s first job in a fried chicken restaurant, her decision to pay for breast enlargement, the arrival on the scene of her husband-to-be in the strip club where Smith works and his sudden death at one of Anna’s wild parties. It’s only in the second half of the opera that the comedy gives way to an ever-growing sense of tragedy.

Così fan tutte runs from 22 September—19 October 2016. Tickets are still available.

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