Ah. What’s a girl to say when she’s been to heaven & back again? After she’s been serenaded at Carnegie Hall? After she’s been backstage at the Metropolitan Opera? Where in one night she’s met not only Renée Fleming but also Tony winners Donna Murphy and Barbara Cook?
Nothing, dummies. Nothing at all. Words can’t even touch it. Except for this:
Trix (handing Renée Fleming the Playbill, after she’s already signed a CD cover): “Could you sign this, as well?”
Renée Fleming: “Sure. Is this for you, too?”
Trix: “Mmm hmm. It’s all for me.”
Renée Fleming: “Ah, that’s what I always say. Spoken like a true diva.”
Oh, of course that’s not all there is to say. There’s also this. Try to guess which one of us is rich and famous.
And come now. Did you really think I would fail to expound in great, florid, overwrought detail about my very first Metropolitan Opera experience? Not a chance, cats.
January 6, 2005
Rodelinda: Renée Fleming
Eduige: Stephanie Blythe
Bertarido: David Daniels
Unulfo: Bejun Mehta
Grimoaldo: Kobie van Rensburg
Garibaldo: John Relyea
Flavio: Zachary Vail Elkind
Conductor: Harry Bicket
Dopo la notte oscura,
più lucido, più chiaro,
più amabile, più caro
ne spunta il sol quaggiù.
After the dark night,
the sun which shines down on us
is clearer, brighter
more delightful and more precious.
—George Frideric Handel, “Coro: Dopo la notte oscura,” Rodelinda
Now let’s ask ourselves: if I were a person like me (which thankfully I am), what would I most want to recall about this trip when I am old and gray?
First I would want to remember arriving at Lincoln Center, stepping out of a taxi into the dark night, into the soft rain, and walking up the steps toward the New York State Theater, rounding the corner to see the Metropolitan Opera for the first time.
Stop for a moment. Stand still. Hold your breath. Close your eyes. Ignore the noise around you, the bustling crowds, honking horns, the cold, the rain. Breathe again. Open your eyes. Here in the dark, through the rain, see all that golden light rising from the pavement. Think of everything that’s gone before and everything that’s out there waiting; know that in spite of all the madness and anger and horror we visit upon each other, this exists: just a place where pretty things happen. Worlds are not created here, nothing epic or even terribly important is decided or destroyed. Events of great import do not cross the threshold. We would all of us survive without it. There is only joy, and nothing else. Only joy, standing right out here in the open for everyone to see as they pass by. And so many people don’t see it at all. So many people pass right by.
Something I read recently: “Art exists to remind us of things that we should never have lost sight of in the first place.”
There is magic here still, humanity and grace and beauty. In spite of everything, there is joy. Whatever you love, whatever it is, find it. Go to it. Pick it up and turn it over. Look at it, see it, and cherish it. Remember. Reach for the sky, the stars, the moon, shout it loud and then tuck it away inside your heart for the next time, when you need it most. It’s a lovely, precious thing.
Then I would want to remember the house itself: aisles of scarlet and walls of gold gold gold, grand and lush and gaudy and outrageous and spectacular. Sparkling starburst chandeliers disappearing silently into the darkness. Nothing small but me, a Trixie in Wonderland, surrounded by 4,000 people. Settling in and looking up and up and up.
And the opera. Oh, the opera. The orchestra begins, full strings and a bouncing harpsichord. The curtain opens on an 18th-century Italian villa. Sunrise peeks through tall windows in a bedroom bare of decoration, only a table and one chair, a simple bed where a small boy lies, his mother sleeping beside him. He rises to greet the morning, throw open the curtains, play; she is chained to the bed.
Mmm hmmm. Chained to the bed.
What follows is aria after aria, all trills and grace notes, tragedy and comedy, deception, loyalty, royalty, greed, treachery, lust, love, devotion, and desperate passion. A king (Bertarido) and his queen (Rodelinda) are separated by cruel villains; he is believed dead, she grieves. The usurper (Grimoaldo) offers a defiant Rodelinda his hand: marry him and she can remain a queen. I will accept, she tells him at last, but only if you will murder my son before my very eyes:
Spietati, io vi giurai
se al mio figlio il cor donai,
di serbarvi e duolo e affano
Pitiless man, I swore to you
that if I gave my heart to my son
I would visit you with grief and anguish
Taking his arm, she forces him to point his pistol at her son: I cannot be wife to a usurper and mother to the rightful heir at the same time, she says. Her fury is terrifying; it is as if she has gone mad. As if she fully intends for him to shoot. But Grimoaldo cannot. He storms off as she falls to her knees and opens her arms to that little boy, fear and relief flooding her face as she crushes him to her.
Of course the true king lives, hidden in the stables by a faithful counselor (with a real live horse living next door). After much sorrow and longing, the rending of garments, he is reunited with his wife for a brief moment—and one meltingly gorgeous, heart-aching duet: “Io t’abbraccio” (“I embrace you”)—only to be torn apart again, and perhaps forever.
Whew. But this is only the end of the second act, approximately 10:00 p.m. We have a second intermission and a final act yet to come. Following the interval, circling hawks descend upon abandoned seats. Yes, people, opera is hard. Did you think this was The Simple Life? Wherefore art your fortitude?
Act III: coming together, and all that was wrong is made right again. The actual villain (Garibaldo, whom we could identify as the actual villain because he is a bass baritone) is killed in a duel, while Bertarido is returned to his throne and his loving family. Grimoaldo, who was merely confused and not such a bad egg after all (!), will marry Bertarido’s sister and rule elsewhere. A joyful chorus ensues, the curtain rings down. Bows are taken to ovations, bravas, and bravos. Golden confetti rains from above. The rapturous masses stumble from their seats into the cold night air, their heads filled with music and beauty and light.
And somewhere backstage, a diva greets her eager fans.