I saw Donald Trump at the Metropolitan Opera the other night. He wasn’t in the audience (that was the other Recognizable Hairdo, Anna Wintour); he was onstage. Into a rural village rode a man in his gilded vehicle, bedecked with his personal logo. He steps forth, clothed in clashing orange and red, covered in golden, faux-noble medals and chains, wearing a hat, which also sported his personal brand, that barely covers his outrageous hair. “Attention, attention,” he cries. “I’m sure I need not inform you all/Of whom you see before you.” But of course, he’ll tell them anyway. He’s a yuge deal: “From here to the Sahara/Renowned… known in all the universe./ And… and… in other places!” He begins to talk, promising the villagers solutions to all their problems, from physical pains to lovesickness—for a small fee, naturally.It’s not the Donald himself, of course, but the quack doctor Dulcamara, a character from Donizetti’s 1832 comedy L’Elisir d’Amore (The Love Potion). The Trumpian spirit, however, is in full force: Dulcamara is garish, grotesque, popular, funny—and he sells snake oil. He even appears in a gold cloak and waistcoat in the second act that Trump wouldn’t hesitate to borrow, if only for his butler at Mar-a-Largo. A few years ago Dulcamara may have read like an outrageous caricature, but not this year, when the Republican front-runner has literally sold quack medicine (Trump-hawked vitamins were “customized” based on urine sample tests you mailed into his company) and now is doing the same economically and spiritually to the country. Dulcamara feels as solid and real as Ben Bernanke. And that points to something important at the heart of the comedies of the bel canto period, the operas which flourished in Italy in the first half of the 19th century—and are often, unfairly, maligned as pretty but lightweight.Two of them, both by Gaetano Donizetti, are on stage at the Met right now: L’Elisir d’Amore, a revival of a 2012 Bartlett Sher production, and Don Pasquale, in a staging of Otto Schenk’s 2006 take. Both are treats, marked by first-rate singing, beautiful staging, and great comic timing. This production of Pasquale in particular is perhaps the most flawless all-around productions I’ve seen at the Met (rivalled only by the current iteration of Carmen), and it’s a crying shame that it’s on such a short run. (Yesterday was the last production of only five that were scheduled for Pasquale; L’Elisir runs through April 7.)L’Elisir tells the story of a love triangle in a rural Italian village: Nemorino (sung by tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Robert Downey, Jr.) pines after Adina (Aleksandra Kurzak, a coquettish Polish soprano—one sympathizes with Nemorino), who, to make him jealous, encourages the affections of Sgt. Belcore, head of a troop of soldiers that has just come to the village (bass-baritone Adam Platcheka—think of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast). With the help of the supposed magical love potion (a bottle of Bordeaux) from Dr. Dulcamara (baritone Alessandro Corbelli), the boy plucks his courage up, learns to play hard-to-get and then to ask for what he wants, and wins the girl. The soldier moves on to the next villager, the doctor takes all the credit, and sales go through the roof.L’Elisir was Donizetti’s first major comic hit; Don Pasquale was his last. The eponymous Don, sung by Abrogio Maestri, is a septuagenarian Roman nobleman and miser who’s not taking his nephew Ernesto’s (Javier Camarena) determination to marry a girl of his own choosing well. He resolves to marry himself off, and so deprive Ernesto of his inheritance. Luckily, his friend Dr. Malatesta (Levente Molnar) has just the girl—Malatesta’s sister Sofronia, just back from a convent. Only, she’s no such thing: Malatesta has decided to teach the old coot a lesson, and sends for a fake notary and Ernesto’s beloved, Norina (Eleonora Buratto), in disguise. Rather cruelly, he doesn’t tell the young lover what he’s up to, and Don Pasquale forces the horrified Ernesto to bear witness. But as soon as the “notary’s” papers are signed, Sofronia turns from a demure convent girl into a raging harridan, spending the Don’s money with abandon and filling his household with servants and geegaws. At his wits end, he promises to do anything to be rid of her—at which point, the ruse is revealed, and the Don, chastened, blesses Ernesto’s (real, legal) betrothal to Norina.As the name bel canto (literally “beautiful singing”) promises, both operas are vocally gorgeous—and the performers live up to them. I was not very surprised to learn that during the performance of Pasquale after the one I attended, Camarena received an encore—despite the fact that, by hallowed tradition, audience demands to resing a song are exceedingly rare at the Met. It was the third Met encore of his (still young) career, a feat that has only been matched by Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Florez. And as to the other tenor in question, Grigolo’s rendering of “Una furtiva lacrima” brought down the house. The singing all around, and the conducting (particularly that of Maurizio Benini, who guided the orchestra through Pasquale’s overture in a way that made me reconsider Donizetti) was a credit to the global stature of the Met.But as good as the music can be, many critics both historically and presently have tended to look askance at the other elements of bel canto operas. The characters are dismissed as stock, the plots as repetitive and derivative. The overtures were allegedly just supposed to get the drunken, flirting theater crowd to calm down, with the implication that the distracted audience was as mindless as the plot. Donizetti’s contemporary, French composer Hector Berlioz, argued disdainfully that:
To the Italians music is a sensual pleasure, and nothing more. For this most beautiful form of expression they have scarcely more respect than for the culinary art. In fact, they like music which they can take in at first hearing, without reflection or attention, just as they would do with a plate of macaroni.
(I don’t know who Berlioz was consulting on Italian food, but it wasn’t my grandmother.) In the English-speaking world, criticisms of Italian opera in general and this period’s comedies in particular often focused on the accusation that both the action on stage and the audience off were salacious and scandalous. Even today, one is more likely to hear damning by faint praise: sure, the music is very pretty—in a few cases, such as L’Elisir and Pasquale, bel canto comedy is so good it’s never left the stage—but it’s not as serious as Wagner, mind you. (You may not be surprised to learn that this line of criticism originated with Wagner himself.)But this season at the Met has been a revelation, exhibiting again and again how deeply bel canto works, and those of Donizetti in particular, can plumb. In staging the “Tudor Queens” trilogy, the Met has showcased the bel canto master’s skill at tragedy on display: as I have written, the first two tragedies revealed deep pathos and religious and political meaning. (The third part, focusing on Queen Elizabeth, is coming soon.) L’Elisir and Don Pasquale indicate why bel canto comedy is also due for a cultural reevaluation. They bring out how tremendously inventive bel canto comedy can be when done right and how real its characters can become—as much because of as despite their stock origins—and ultimately, how deep its message can run.Consider Americans watching a football game: the audience often shows up after drinking, a bit rowdy, and is soon silenced by the national anthem. It involves the same stock positions, deployed 11 at a time, often in familiar variations. The action, depending as it does on these limitations, is in the broadest sense predictable. And yet, is there not endless variation? Can anyone deny that millions of Americans care deeply about the game? Does it not reflect, embody, and bring to the fore deeply-held values? (If you disagree on this last part, take it up with Michael Mandelbaum). The Italians, likewise, kept coming back to bel canto comedies because they were deeply meaningful.To understand why, start with those stock characters. As is often noted, they have clear precedents in commedia dell’arte: the love-struck Pierrot, his beloved Columbina, the old merchant Pantalone appear more or less as Ernesto, Adina, and Don Pasquale, for instance. The commedia dell’arte characters in turn have their precedents in the “types” used by the ancient comedians of the Greek New Comedy of the third century B.C. and its heirs in Rome, Plautus and Terrence. These men—and their successors in the Renaissance, including Shakespeare, whose works such as The Comedy of Errors draw heavily on classical “types”—were anything but thoughtless. They were able to use types the way that great coaches deploy their linemen, receivers, and running backs in novel and explosive ways to achieve this end. (One might also note that real life consists of types—husband and wife, for instance—who retain individuality; great playwrights and composers are often those most skilled at bringing out this paradox.)Ultimately, New Comedy, Shakespearean comedy, and bel canto comedy all open a socially acceptable space not just to laugh at our own foibles, but to explore chaos and existential societal questions. These can come in sexual forms—who’s sleeping with whom, who loves whom—but expand far beyond that. Nemorino, the hero of L’Elisir, is literally a “little nobody”; his name is a diminutive of the Latin nemo, “no one.” His anguish as he wanders the stage, watching his beloved courted by a man who has a position and physical gifts he simply does not—and perhaps cannot—possess, is a universal concern in a world in which there is always, in some way, a bigger fish out there. The series of misunderstandings, misinterpretations of social signals and emotions, that power these little village dramas are the same forces that, when felt by kings and ministers, lead to world wars. The difference between comedy and tragedy, it has often been noted, is that comedy ends in a wedding, whereas tragedy ends in a funeral.And that points to another deep truth: for reasons that are rooted in the very structure of comedy since Menander, the arc of the plot, no matter how zany it gets, always returns to social order. Adina may flirt with Belcore, but she returns to Nemorino. To note that comedy encourages marriage (or at least stable monogamous relationships, at the end) isn’t preachy, it’s simply definitional: if she goes with the bad boy rather than the good one, then this becomes the plot to Carmen, and it’s a tragedy. The restoration of order completes the joke, makes it something to laugh at rather than to cry over. And so in L’Elisir, the girl calms down, the boy becomes more self-assured, both grow up. The incorrigible types (Dulcamara and Belcore) remain incorrigible but these two change. Don Pasquale is even more interesting. At first glance, it seems another play about a love-triangle. But actually, it’s ultimately about Don Pasquale’s refusal to age gracefully and accept his role in life. This has not only caused unhappiness to his nephew, for whom the Don should care, but prevented a young couple from having kids (the Don is clearly past it), spending money (his miserliness is causing his house to fall into open disrepair), and employing people in his community. (A chorus of servants, hired by Norina, drives this point home nicely.) Conversely, when Ernesto is joined to Norina, it signifies that fresh blood and money will flow through these vital channels again: buried beneath a lot of laughs, nothing less than the perpetuation of society is at stake. But Don Pasquale isn’t just preaching for the patriarchy—its take on social order is a message that every millennial in corporate America who wants superannuated boomers holding down jobs above her or him need to get out of the way can get behind.This dual nature of comedy—that it explores scenes of social disorder, and yet resolves into and reinforces order—has often confused those with a political bent who try to use culture to influence politics. Conservatives are often blinded by the chaos that comes to the surface in the middle of comedies to the deeper lessons works contain. Social conservatives will wax wroth about sex and immorality in plays whose message ultimately reinforces marriage. In the process, look prudish and ridiculous, further hurting their cause. As Jim Geraghty pointed out a few years ago, beneath the bondage gear and the killing (and the dissolution of Brad Pitt’s marriage), Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the tale of a couple who get over a dry patch in their relationship and trouble at work by finally relying on each other again. It’s probably worth any ten “wholesome” works for teaching that lesson. Just as bad if not as prudish are the earnest neocons who want every minute to reflect good ideas on economics and foreign affairs (think, if you can, of An Amerian Carol.) Medieval divines, not exactly the least uptight types, firmly believed Plautus, whose plays contain more sex and violence than the 70s, to be conducive to virtuous education. Maybe take a hint?But digging beneath the surface of comedies also illustrates the limits up against which culturally-conscious liberals, for all their dominance of—and often, greater attention to the importance of—Hollywood and the broader cultural scene, come up against. Without endings that are often conservative—not just pro-marriage, but also entailing self-sacrifice, the denial of pleasure in favor of duty, or even willingness to lay down one’s life for a cause (don’t believe me? Go watch Strangelove — or even Snakes on a Plane)—you wind up with real trouble closing out a story. A few “dissolution scenes” aside (think of the end of Blazing Saddles, for instance), you need to put back together, albeit in some new and improved form, the social order you’re taking apart in order to make a comedy funny—or even to end it. This is why, despite a thousand attempts, liberals in Hollywood have never been able to make free love acceptable to the culturally sensitive bourgeois—they literally don’t work onstage. It’s also why they were able to make gay and lesbian relations culturally mainstream—but only once they were presented as gay marriage.Of course, you don’t need to dwell on any of this to enjoy L’Elisir or Don Pasquale. Watching Ernesto, played by the (roughly) 5’6” Camarena jump up and down in fury in front of the portly, self-assured, Don Pasquale (Maestri is 6’6”) and not even come as high as the latter’s eyebrows is funny no matter how you think about it. Listening to Dulcamara’s patter is a better laugh than worrying about Trump. And I could listen Buratto or Grigolo sing all day (or Maurizio Benini conduct the Met Orchestra—his direction of Pasquale’s overture was sublime.) But if you are so inclined, such reflections bring out the deeper meaning of our fun. And to the cognoscenti, they should vindicate and encourage the further production of bel canto opera, so often underestimated as dramatic and operatic genre. Either way, go see Don Pasquale or L’Elisir d’Amore for as long as they’re on—you won’t be sorry.