Comedy, Flirtation, Faithlessness, and Despair


Count Almaviva, Rosina, and Figaro in a scene from Utah Opera’s current production of “The Barber of Seville”


My wife and I went up to Salt Lake City last night for dinner (at the Market Street Grill, a very good seafood restaurant even if we set aside the fact that it’s in landlocked Utah) followed by Utah Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.


It was an excellent performance, exceptionally well acted — though there were, unfortunately, too many empty seats.  Rossini’s opera is intended to be funny, but sometimes I’ve seen it presented with a bit too much of the solemnity that some imagine necessary to High Art.  This was not one of those performances.  I thought that Celena Shafer was especially good as Rosina, the young ward who is the object of both Count Almaviva’s and Doctor Bartolo’s attentions.  She managed to channel a cunning, rebellious, and willful teenager perfectly, with lots of broad physical comedy.  And there were also moments with Almaviva and Figaro that had the audience guffawing — not just politely chuckling as self-consciously urbane opera audiences sometimes do.


Which brings up an issue that occurs to me from time to time:  Why do Americans overwhelmingly tend to think of opera as austerely classical art, designed only for high-brows, intellectuals, aristocrats, pretentious snobs, and/or social climbers?  Is it because operas are usually in foreign languages?  (All Utah Opera productions are accompanied by supertitle translations, by the way, as happens in most modern opera houses.)  I don’t know.  But The Barber of Seville is no more austere, no more intellectually demanding, no more art-for-art’s-sake, no more intimidating, than is a good Broadway musical.  It’s no more aimed at merely a small elite than is Newsies, which my wife and I saw in New York City last week.


Anyway, I recommend this current production from Utah Opera.


A scene from “The Testament of Mary,” with Fiona Shaw as the aged, lonely, painfully bereaved Mary


I’m not sure, though, that I can recommend the other play that my wife and I recently saw in New York City.  We attended a performance of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, a one-woman show starring Fiona Shaw in the Walter Kerr Theatre on 48th Street.


We went knowing that it would be difficult, that it would assault some of our most sacred core beliefs.  And it was and it did.  It’s certainly not for every taste, and “austere” fits it perfectly.  As a review in the New York Times put it, the play has a vulture, but no angels.  Literally.  It does have a vulture.


For a considerable period before the play actually begins, Mary sits within an apparently plexiglass box, iconically clothed in pink and blue and holding a lily, with votive candles at her feet.  The play, though, literally takes her outside that devotional box.  The lily and the votive candles vanish within the first minute, and, for a brief but rather shocking time toward the end, she’s actually entirely naked on stage.  The playwright’s intention, obviously, is to present Mary in a manner that’s very foreign to the dogma and piety of the Catholic Church.  (Both he and Ms. Shaw were raised as Irish Catholics.)


And indeed he does.  Mary is depicted, apparently in her old age, living in exile in Ephesus, as angry, lonely, cynical, exasperated, and a thorough unbeliever.  She smokes and drinks on stage.  She denounces the apostles and the first Christian disciples generally as “misfits,” fools, and “malcontents.”  She seems, frankly, more than a little deranged.


She changes the story of Christ as it’s told in the New Testament gospels in many ways, large and small — perhaps to make the point that the whole thing is arbitrary, whimsical fiction from start to finish.  The raising of Lazarus and the healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda, for instance, are both placed before the miracle of turning water into wine in Cana, which the gospel of John expressly says was the first of Jesus’s miracles.  Characters are confused and invented.  Mary has a fictional cousin, for example, with the Latin name of Marcus, who is apparently a Roman military officer and who shows up as a malignant presence at the crucifixion — from which Mary herself and all of the other Christians flee in cowardly terror.  (There are no touching scenes at the foot of the cross.)  Other characters called “Mary” and “Miriam” — the same name in Hebrew and Aramaic (and, for that matter, in Arabic) — play distinct but fictional roles.  Mary and Martha and Lazarus live in Cana, up near Nazareth in the Galilee, rather than, as the New Testament says, just over the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem in Bethany.  Lazarus is raised from the dead — a curious acknowledgement of a New Testament miracle –but he’s raised to a life of incapacity, pain, inability to speak, embarrassing mental confusion, and despair.


Mary derides the story of the Virgin Birth, and, most important of all, she mocks the tale of the resurrection as a farce based upon irresponsible exaggeration by the disciples of a terrifying dream that she and Miriam had experienced.  (She admits that it’s odd for two people to have the same dream at the same time.  Another curious nod in the direction of something not quite ordinary.)  Nobody was actually there in Jerusalem to have witnessed any “empty tomb”; the apostles were too cowardly to stick around in the city.


The Testament of Mary is a horrifying depiction of maternal grief.  Perhaps it’s good for us to be reminded of how much her Son’s crucifixion must have hurt her.  (“Yea,” said the aged Simeon to the young mother of Jesus, according to Luke 2, “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.”)  Those who objected to Mel Gibson’s powerful film The Passion of the Christ because of its violence seemed to me to be demanding what cannot be and never was — a clean and gentle crucifixion.  We cannot even begin to grasp it if we demand that it be G-rated.


But believing Christians cannot accept Mary’s last cry, the final words of the play:  “Was it worth it?  No!


Those who accept the message of Christianity believe that God judged us, and it, “worth it.”  “For God so loved the world,” explains John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  And, in Romans 5:6-8, the apostle Paul expands upon this theme:  “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.  For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.  But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”


For that, we are, or should be, grateful beyond words.


In any event, if you think that Broadway means light theatrical comfort food while opera is challenging, deep, and austere, I offer The Testament of Mary and The Barber of Seville as unmistakable counterexamples.



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  • Lucy Mcgee

    Die Fledermaus was my first and last opera. It made me cry. Growing up in a small town in the 60′s, I never knew such human created wonder existed. My aunt was a director at Oper Graz at the time, and so I was not only sitting near front stage, but had the chance to gawk in awe at the actors backstage. It was amazing.

    Very few of my friends have ever enjoyed opera and I haven’t made a commitment to support it here in Portland. My better half would rather have me clamming, hiking or fishing in our copious spare time.

    Although I’m not a religious person, I’ve always believed that when we truly appreciate the best humanity offers, it should serve as a testament as to why we should all strive to make this planet a better place for our future generations. Last month, I watched this video of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona after a 60 Minutes documentary. Amazing.

  • Kent G. Budge

    I have seen exactly two operas in my life, Die Fledermaus and Cosi Fan Tutti. I’d like to see more really first-rate opera, but the only opera house in the neighborhood is both avante garde and exceedingly expensive.

    Which may answer your question.

  • Raymond Swenson

    I didn’t know that you occasionally exercised such masochism in your entertainment choices.
    My main exposure to opera growing up was Giancarlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, written for TV as a Christmas story about the magi en route to Bethlehem, and sung in English.
    It seems to me that Les Miserables is basically an opera, with virtually no word merely spoken. And last year’s movie version, with its realistic settings, made it much more intelligible to me than the national touring company performance on stage.

  • Sarah Stankiewicz Dailey

    LDS opera singer here. We talk about the perceived elitism of opera in American culture quite a bit in the field since that stereotype is often a barrier to creating new audiences for our livelihood. I think the issue stems, of course, from a multitude of factors: Opera as an art form having long been nurtured by European traditions and wealthy aristocrats, the strangeness of many works being in a foreign language, the social/cultural aspects associated with it (It’s long! You have to get all dressed up to go! It’s always expensive! Everyone is fat and wears Viking horns!), etc. Nevermind the notoriously short attention span of the average American music listener and the general lack of music education that could equip people with the ability to understand and analyze complex musical forms.

    To interested parties looking to hear more opera, might I suggest finding a local movie theater that shows the Met Opera Live in HD broadcasts? There are starting to be quite a few theaters that carry them. Also, check out your local insitution of higher education. Just about every one of them has a music department and even if they aren’t staging full productions, they often will stage evening of opera scenes programs.
    Dr. Peterson, I always appreciate you mentioning your attendance at cultural events. Quite a few of my colleagues have sung for various Utah opera companies and others in the Intermountain West.

    • DanielPeterson

      Good to hear from you — thanks for your kind note! — and many thanks for your suggestions.

      I try to be something of an evangelist for opera and for classical music more generally. Many Americans find both intimidating, but there’s no genuine, intrinsic reason for this. (But you know that, of course.)