Midsummer Nights: Tales From the Opera

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Title: Midsummer Nights: Tales from the Opera

Writer: Various edited by Jeanette Winterson

Publishing House: Riverrun

Date of Publication: April 18th 2019  (first published January 1st 2009)

Rating: 4 stars

‘’When we read, when we listen to music, when we immerse ourselves in the flow of an opera, we go underneath the surface of life. Like going underwater the noise stops, and we concentrate differently. […] In the end, it is all about the feeling.’’

One of my earliest memories from my childhood was the voice of the greatest of the great, Luciano Pavarotti, soaring over the sounds of happy, daily life in our household. Along with the perfume of freshly roasted Espresso, this was one of the most valuable values inherited from my beloved Grandma. A child of Naples, Opera and singing were in her blood. And even though I was too young to understand those strange sounds that were a daily reality, the seed had been planted and soon roots grew. Now, I cannot imagine a day without an aria, or a musical extract from the dramatic, luxurious, magnificent world of the Opera. Opera is Culture, Classical Musical, like Classical Literature, IS Culture. And without it, we are dead. The ones who deny this need to do some serious reading. Vain hope, but still…

So, I was more than eager to hold this collection (and what a beautiful front cover…) in my hands and I wasn’t disappointed. A number of today’s ‘’biggest’’ names have contributed with stories inspired by some of the most famous operas. There were some pretty significant ‘’duds’’, written by authors that have never disappointed me before, but what can you do? It happens, once in a while…Still, this book is the perfect company for a midsummer’s evening, accompanied by cold wine, and a Puccini aria…

‘’Only the songs knew me – only the songs- the daylight and the dusk, the night and the day.’’

First Lady of Song by Jackie Kay: Inspired by The Makropulos Affair by Leoš Janáček. A singer from Prague is made immortal by her father and narrates her story of memory, glory and loss. An elegy to music and a question of whether eternity matters when everyone you love dies and you are the only one left to cope with loss after loss. A 300 years journey and a tale set in Prague? Yes, please!

‘’They stagger out into the light. They stand about ragged dazed, heartbreakingly hopeful. They’re like a false resurrection. They look up in the sunlight. Summertime, they sing, and the living is easy. Fish are jumping and the cotton is high.’’

Fidelio and Bess by Ali Smith: A brilliant story inspired by Beethoven’s Fidelio and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. A melancholic tale of love, race, gender, sorrow. So beautiful! 

‘’But it is a country that looks to me as if it doesn’t really need humans. It is large everywhere, pale sometimes in the sunlight, with marks of fierce colour, and the water is that deep and plunging sort that would sooner kill than delight you. Everything is just murderously there. Everything seems as if it is on death row, the grasses, the rocks, the snake, the light.’’

Freedom by Sebastian Barry: An Irishman and a Blackfoot, two men from (only seemingly) different worlds find understanding in Music and Theatre. Inspired by Natoma by Victor Herbert.

To Die For by Kate Atkinson: The story of two actresses, an English and an American, with lots of musings in the different perceptions of Art, fame, royalty, etc. This was supposedly inspired by Verdi’s La Traviata and it was horrible! Unimaginably awful writing, focus on sex in its most vulgar, ugly form, a ridiculous nymphomaniac as a protagonist. This isn’t Opera, this is porn for the uneducated masses. What did the editor have in mind, I wonder?

So, watch this instead…

‘’You’re telling me you’ve never heard Mahler’s First Symphony? Eighteen years old! Whatever have they been doing with you all these years?’’

Preach!!

‘’Another time, another night, a hot early summer’s night, the windows flang wide on the jasmine-scented courtyard below, something crept around the drawing room. Something? – an oboe? A flute?

The Growler by Julie Myerson: Inspired by Ariadne Auf Naxos by Strauss, this is the fascinating, melancholic story of a young au-pair in Florence, and the grandmother of a boy left by his mother because her new boyfriend doesn’t like children (!) Beautiful Italian atmosphere, beautiful Italian nature, music and life.

The Ghost by Toby Litt: Inspired by Mozart’s Don Giovanni and set in London, this is the creepy story of a young boy and his strange obsession with ghosts and death. However, his incoherent sentences prove to be much more than mere creations of a child’s imagination.

P.S.As fantastic as this story may be, I am so done with the ‘’irritating wife who can’t see beyond the end of her nose’’ trope. My patience, people…

Nemo by Joanna Trollope: Inspired by L’Elisir D’Amore by Donizetti, one of my favourite operas. Truly, if you have never listened to Luciano Pavarotti’s mythical, divine rendition of Una Furtiva Lagrima, you need to remedy this NOW!

 So,  this one was the definition of SACRILEGE! And no, now I refuse to use the phrase ‘’In my opinion.’’ Trollope took a mystical experience and reduced it to a feast for horny heathens. She turned the elixir of Love into a pill for sex marathons, if you can believe it! How is supposed to comment on that? She took a creation of our heritage and turned into garbage for the modern masses that can’t distinguish between Love and a naked selfie.

And this is the mirror of our pathetic, modern society and every value that has gone down the drain for the sake of modernization…

The Pearl Fishers by Colm Toibin: Inspired by Bizet’s Les Pecheurs De Perles. I could never imagine that Toibin would disappoint me. This story started as a feverish tale of childhood, love and abuse, but soon was turned into another ‘’piece’’ of graphic, distasteful sex scenes. No. This has nothing to do with Opera. And at this point, I began to fear that a few of these stories served as a vehicle for a certain agenda that is as remote from Culture as I am from Geometry…

Key Note, or, Che Gelida Manina by Anne Enright: Inspired by Puccini’s La Bohème, a beautiful story of a poet whose muse is still that young girl he fell in love with, in 1969, in Dublin. Short but powerful.

‘’Like everybody else in the Labour Club, Hazel had come down from the holy mountain and joined the carnival of everyday compromises.’’

No kidding…

First Snow by Andrew O’Hagan: Inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Oh, I loved this one! Elegant, funny, and very honest on issues such as pseudo-feminism and the relationships between women and men. At its heart, a complex heroine and a mysterious man with a keen interest in Russian Literature. This is a gem. An ode to Literature, independence and Russian culture. Set in Scotland.

‘’I am speaking personally, but how else is there to speak.’’

Goldrush Girl by Jeanette Winterson: Inspired by Puccini’s La Fanciulla Del West. From the very first page, this story screams ‘’Jeanette Winterson’’. Such a poetic, lyrical tale. Such a beautiful, haunting narration of Puccini’s most unique opera. Magnificent!

The Martyr by Ruth Rendell: Inspired by Hendel’s Theodora. Read this and weep…

‘’Everyone expects them to behave like hippies.’’  

Seriously? A sentence like this in a story set in the 4th century AD? Sure, yes, I mean where is Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan? We’ll have a Woodstock with peplums! The writer either addressed her story to complete and utter idiots or she didn’t care one iota for Language and History and all kinds of basic credibility and went on violating everything. Needless to say, I didn’t continue with this abomination.

String and Air by Lynne Truss: Inspired by Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. This story was truly amazing! Creepy, atmospheric, moving. Two black cats are the vehicle to a tale of troubled souls and possible curses. 

The Empty Seat by Paul Bailey: Inspired by The Makropulos Affair by Leoš Janáček, Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron by Strauss. A tender, sad tribute to sacrifice, to the battle against the Nazi monsters, endurance, family and the cruel, yet intoxicating, universe of the Opera.

My Lovely Countess by Antonia Frazer: Inspired by Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart. What if the beautiful, over-the-top drama of the Opera could be transferred to our own daily life? Well, chaos would follow swiftly. This is a story of revenge and the strange games of Fate, and an ode to the most fascinating female roles of the Opera.

‘’White is the colour of remembrance. The hoar frost on the blades of grass that cling to the castle walls, the hollow between the ribs and the heart. A shroud, a winding sheet, a ghost. Absence.

 The trees are silhouettes, mute sentinels, slipping from green to grey to black in the twilight. The forest holds its secrets.’’

‘’Green is the colour of history. Not the white and black on a page or notes on a stave. Not the frozen grey of tombstones and chapels. It is green that is the colour of time passing. Olive moss, sable in places, covering the crow’s feet, cracks in the wall. Emerald weeds that spring up a path long unused. The lichen covering, year by timeless year, the inscription on the headstone, the letters, the remembered name.’’

‘’Red is the colour of dying. What else?

The violent rays of the setting sun through glass, flooding the chamber crimson. The petals pulled from a rose, strewn on the cobbled stones of a garden no longer tended. The colour of the damaged, beating heart. Blood dripping through the fingers.’’

La Fille de Melisande by Kate Mosse: Inspired by Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. The beauty of Mosse’s writing, the atmosphere, the grief, the legend… What a masterpiece in a few pages…

Now the Great Bear… by Andrew Motion: Inspired by Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. A family story, narrated through Music and Death. Quiet and haunting.

Forget My Fate by Marina Warner: Inspired by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The ordeal of a professor as she struggles to teach one of the immortal legends to a class of young heathens who call themselves ‘classicists’’ but dismiss the Classics (…Goodreads community…ahem…) Interesting story, but a tiny bit slow and unnecessarily confusing.

The Albanians by Alexander McCall Smith: Inspired by Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. A spirited, refreshing story of suspicions, doubts and love, set in Edinburgh.

There is a lovely Epimetre with coherent overviews of each opera that inspired the stories of the collection. And don’t mention the word ‘’spoilers’’, that ghastly word of our contemporary clueless society. We are readers, for God’s sake, we ought to know certain operas by heart…

‘’’Acts of love and death. […] In the distance, the bell strikes another hour. It marks the end of one history and the beginning of another.’’

Bonus: Luciano Pavarotti as Canio, in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

One Comment Add yours

  1. What an interesting sounding collection of names! Several appeal (Warner) but there are as many that repel (Trollope, Fraser – can’t bear her Jemima Shore books) – which is a pity because I might have to end up skipping quite a few!

    Liked by 1 person

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