Sense of Place
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Sense of Place

Many operas are inextricably linked with their settings. FRED PLOTKIN muses on the European locales that bring music to his ears.

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The Swiss Alps
© Frischknecht Patrick/agefotostock 2015
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Juliet’s tomb in the monastery of San Francesco al Corso, near Verona
© San Rostro/agefotostock 2015
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The interior of the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris
© Gregory Downer 2015

Certain operas are especially alluring because the music evokes an unmistakable sense of place. Sometimes, the connection has to do with the title character or the emotional details of the plot, but as often as not, I feel the spirit of the locale through the pure abstraction of music — which makes up for settings in many contemporary opera productions that pay little heed to an atmospheric sense of place.

In visiting a locale associated with an opera, one often hears the music it evokes. When I am in Paris’s Church of Saint-Sulpice, the music from that scene in Massenet’s Manon plays in my mind’s mp3 player. 

Here are five other places where I hear music from one or more operas whenever I visit.

VERONA  

“There is no world without Verona walls but purgatory, torture, hell itself.” So says Shakespeare’s Romeo. The love story of Romeo and Juliet has often been told in musical terms. There are at least twenty-five operas — the most famous by Gounod (Roméo et Juliette) and Bellini (I Capuleti e i Montecchi) — as well as a ballet by Prokofiev and symphonic treatments by Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and others. 

Because this tale is more of a legend than a historical account, many of the locations associated with the star-crossed lovers are evocations of a time and place rather than real landmarks. There are always crowds in courtyards off the Via Capello, where stands a thirteenth-century house with a balcony that is said to have been Juliet’s. I look in briefly and then move on to places tourists don’t visit. The house attributed to Romeo’s family on Via Arche Scaligere gets some traffic, though it is closed to the public.

The Piazza delle Erbe is the market square I associate with crowd scenes from the story. Nearby, I am alone at the Volto Barbaro, where Tybalt dueled Mercutio, and in front of the Baroque Palazzo Carlotti, a structure built long after the play’s action near the spot where Romeo is said to have avenged Mercutio’s death. Most people make a stop at the massive Roman arena (where Verona’s famous opera festival takes place) without noticing the Portoni della Bra, through which Romeo departed Verona and escaped to Mantua.

Last stop is the Monastery of San Francesco in Corso. It was the only one outside the city walls at the time of the story and therefore accessible to the exiled Romeo. It was here, I imagine, that the young lovers died.

THE SWISS ALPS  

These mountains in the land-locked citadel of wealth, chocolate and cheese in the middle of Europe have a music all their own. The silences and murmurs of nature fascinated Wagner during his long exile in Zurich and Lucerne. But opera characters feel them too. Mathilde, in Guillaume Tell, sings of the somber forests. The overture in the same opera evokes hunting horns, rushing water and alpine storms.

Seated on some lofty plateau, I take out my Swiss army knife, slice the apple William Tell would have split on his son’s head with an arrow, then cut a chunk of Appenzeller cheese and uncork some Dôle wine. I can picture a regiment of young recruits trooping by, led by Marie, their “daughter,” and hear the irrepressible lilt of Donizetti’s melodies. Suddenly, the nine high Cs in Tonio’s “Ah! mes amis” come echoing through a ravine.

Romeo and Juliet make their presence felt, after a fashion, in Switzerland too. Frederick Delius’s Village Romeo and Juliet is the story of Sali and the girl he loves, Vreli. Their fathers plow adjacent tracts of land in a place called Seldwyla in the shadow of the mountains. The two escape to the woods, where they declare their love. Delius’s music stirs feelings of silence and rapture.

Down by Lake Constance, still framed by mountains, I might not immediately experience the place as the setting of Halévy’s Juive. And yet, at dusk, the plaintive aria “Raquel, quand du Seigneur” finds its way into my mind.

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St. Petersburg locale: the Winter Palace and Neva River
© Ivan Vdovin/agefotostock 2015

SAINT PETERSBURG  

The grand public spaces of Saint Petersburg — whether indoors or out — are part of a great many operas, novels and composers’ lives. I hear opera music all over town. I imagine the Anichkov Palace, on the Nevsky Prospekt, as the setting in Act I of Fedora. I hear the grand ball scene of Eugene Onegin when I am in the Yusupov Palace. On busy days in warm weather, I hear the unmistakably jittery staccato of Shostakovich’s percussion as local people talk animatedly and haggle in markets.

I make a point of stopping at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, not only in tribute to the wonderful musicians it has produced but because this is where the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater stood until 1886. I climb the original grand staircase as the overture to La Forza del Destino whirls in my head; this is where Verdi’s opera had its premiere in 1862.

But the opera I hear incessantly is Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. The Winter Palace, a splendid prototype of the “rich house” where the doddering Catherine the Great has a stunning cameo in the opera, is the city’s finest building. I like to think of the Sheremetev Palace, which now contains a museum of musical instruments, as the residence of the Old Countess. The music as her maids obsessively surround her after the ball is as Russian as it gets. And then there is that music of churning inevitability that depicts poor Lisa sinking beneath the waves of the Neva River.

SEVILLE  

Seville is the sensual locale for hot-blooded and friskily romantic characters, many drawn from plays by Beaumarchais. Figaro (the titular Barber of Seville) comes into the service of Count Almaviva as he pursues and later weds Rosina. (Her balcony is said to be at the corner of Calle Segovia and Calle Argote de Molina.) She reappears as Countess Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro, along with her maid Susanna and the impetuous adolescent Cherubino.

This is where Don Giovanni prowls for women and Giovanni’s female counterpart — the fatalistic and libertine Carmen — fights, loves and dies. The Old Tobacco Factory (now part of the University of Seville) is where she tangles with a coworker and is arrested by Don José. I like to walk in the historic Santa Cruz district. Nearby is the bullring where Carmen meets her end.

The musical sounds of Seville in my head are the steady clack-clack of castanets and the incessant beat of heels in flamenco. I hear the wind lazily blow the blossoms off the ubiquitous orange trees (whose bitter fruit is not edible).

We know that Fidelio is set near Seville, too, though I don’t think I have ever seen a production that makes much of that connection. But I honor that wonderful opera by visiting the splendid Triana market — fragrant with oranges, tomatoes, watermelons and persimmons — which is built atop the former St. George’s Castle, which held a prison that could have been the setting for Beethoven’s opera.

I hear choirs in the Seville Cathedral, the world’s largest Gothic church. Christopher Columbus (depicted in operas by Donizetti and Glass) is buried here, but my strongest association is the enormous censer lit by a friar who jumps on it to make it swing through the central nave. What a place for an auto-da-fé!

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Ballydowane Cove, County Waterford, Ireland
© Irish Image Collection/agefotostock 2015

THE COAST OF IRELAND  

While other places bring more than one opera to mind, the rugged Irish coastline makes me think exclusively of a single character — Isolde.

The Irish princess is an abstraction as much as a character. She is fierce, feisty, beautiful and not easily tamed, like the natural settings of her native land. I see her and feel her as I stand on high cliffs with green expanses at my back and churning sea below. When I stand there with the spray in my face, hearing the thunder of waves crashing against rocks and smelling brininess in my nostrils, the overpowering sounds of Wagner flood my ears. There is nothing and no one else. spacer 

FRED PLOTKIN is the author of Opera 101 and Italy for the Gourmet Traveler. 

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