Enchantment: The Seductress in Opera 
by Jean Starobinski, translated by C. Jon Delogu.
Columbia, 262 pp., £17.50, March 2008, 978 0 231 14090 4
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I’ve been told you can’t judge a book by its cover; and not by its subtitle either, it would seem. Jean Starobinski’s Enchantment presents itself as concerned with ‘the seductress in opera’, but not much of it actually is. It consists, rather, of a collection of occasional pieces, most of which have previously been published. They offer relatively impressionistic accounts of one or another opera. Starobinski has a good ear for wordplay and his essays are very strong on literary, historical and anecdotal background. Much of it opera addicts will find fascinating, some of it they will find illuminating, and all of it is impressively erudite. But there’s nothing much holding the book together except its covers.

Starobinski has provided an introduction to the English translation that may be intended to reduce the sense of scatter, but I don’t think it succeeds. It does, however, provide quotable examples of his sometimes overheated style. On Ulysses listening to the minstrel Demodocos sing of his (Ulysses’) exploits: ‘In opposition to the immemorial eternity of the golden age stands the eternity to come of human memory. In opposition to the immortality without glory of the time before time stands the glorious immortality of the hero who has gone through the test of time and whose existence is saved by song.’ Either you like that sort of thing or you don’t. On balance, I guess I don’t. In any case, it seems to have strayed some distance from enchantment and seduction.

About a third of the book discusses the Mozart operas, which are, when you come to think of it, rather strikingly seductress-free. In Mozart, it’s almost exhaustively the men who are into sexual predation; the women, especially in the operas with Da Ponte’s librettos, are either victims (Donna Anna, the Countess), or charming connivers (Susanna), or flirts (Zerlina), or romantically aroused but passionately bewildered (Fiordiligi, Dorabella). I suppose the Queen of the Night has some credentials as an enchantress, but she cares about power and revenge, not seduction. She devotes her spectacular appearance in Act I of The Magic Flute entirely to arranging for the tenor, Tamino, to fall in love with the soprano, her daughter Pamina, of whom he has seen only a portrait. The plot is notoriously a tangle, and the Queen of the Night’s motives never are made very clear; but they’re certainly not erotic. Idomeneo is about neither seduction nor enchantment but the transfer of sovereignty – Poseidon makes an appearance, but neither Circe nor Aphrodite is anywhere in view.

Seductresses are also thin on the ground in several of the other operas to which Starobinski turns his attention. Poppea and Alcina are plausible enough (though, arguably, the former is less an enchantress than a social climber who uses sex as a ladder). But Electra? Or, of all people, Juliet? Starobinski also has a piece on Ariane (the Dukas Bluebeard rather than the Bartók) but I don’t really see how she’s supposed to meet the requirements advertised: she’s more a feminist agitator than anyone’s idea of an enchantress. In the event, Bluebeard’s previous wives, whom she offers to liberate, prefer their dungeons to her conversation. I suppose Manon (in the Massenet version) squeaks by, though she strikes me as lacking the calculation that a bona fide seductress ought to have. In fact, she’s a bubble head, too in love with her clothing to be much inclined to take it off. (It’s true, as Starobinski points out, that Des Grieux calls her an enchantress; but his understanding of women is, putting it mildly, not to be relied on.) There’s a delicious and revealing duet towards the end of the first act in which Des Grieux sings: ‘We’ll live together in Paris, our hearts united for ever.’ Manon replies: ‘Together! In Paris! In Paris!’ Is it the cohabitation that attracts her, or the shopping?

And where is Carmen? And where is Kundry? And where is Medea? And where are Isolde and Cleopatra and Delilah and Musetta and Salome? To say nothing of Lulu and Renata? (Renata is the heroine of Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel. She is an enchantress and a seductress and a schizophrenic to boot.) And what of Katerina Lvonava Ismailova, the ‘Lady Macbeth of Mitensk’, who, though initially less seducing than seduced, having once got the hang of fornication likes it so much that she strangles her husband and poisons her father-in-law (with mushrooms) rather than give it up? Such a plethora of opportunities Starobinski has missed.

Somebody really should write a book about enchantresses in opera. Enchantment and seduction are the genre’s preoccupation; and the sirens are its heraldic figures. The enchantress sings and the hero dies; give or take a bit, that’s what operas are about. There is a brief passage from Carmen I’m very fond of. Having been arrested for taking a knife to one of her colleagues, Carmen is trying to seduce her way out of jail with a song, the famous ‘Seguidilla’. ‘What a good time we could have chez mon ami Lillas Pastia if only you would let me go’ is more or less the gist. Don José is the officer in charge. He loves his mother. He is very susceptible and easily confused. He is not strikingly intelligent. ‘Tais-toi,’ he says. ‘Je t’avais dit de ne pas me parler.’ ‘Je ne te parle pas,’ Carmen replies, ‘je chante pour moi-même.’

Now that is naughty of Carmen, and quite untrue. She is not, in fact, singing for herself; she is singing for Don José, and she does so with malice aforethought. But also, and equally to the point, she is singing for us. We, who witness the seduction – who see the effect that the song has on Don José – are ourselves seduced; what works on him also works on us. In opera, the situation between the audience and the characters on stage is rife with this sort of ambiguity; that’s one of the reasons this preposterous genre works. To be sure, all drama seeks for empathy. We understand the situation the characters are in, and we sympathise and are moved. But in opera, there is something else as well; in opera, we ourselves hear the siren’s song.

Verse drama is opera’s nearest analogue among the arts; it has its arias too. But I often wonder whether the characters in the drama are meant to hear the verse. Oberon to Puck (Britten has a lovely setting of this in his opera of A Midsummer Night’s Dream):

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight
. . . And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes
And make her full of hateful fantasies.

Marvellous, breathtaking poetry; but surely it’s meant for us, not Puck. He’s there just to get his marching orders; presumably, the adjectives go over his head. When Oberon finally remembers there’s a plot to advance, the diction comes back to earth with a perceptible thud: ‘And look thou meet me ere the first cock crow.’ ‘Fear not, my lord, your servant shall do so.’

Opera plays a different and more risky game; in effect, the audience and the characters on stage are in it together. We respond to the song the seducer sings, not just to the singing of it. It doesn’t always work, of course; often enough the seducer ignores the soprano and sings to the house, and we’re painfully aware of it when he does. But when opera does work, it can work wonders. It plays with the space between the audience and the action in a way no other genre can, and the audience is rapt, swept away, transfused with emotion; in two words, enchanted and seduced. Other art forms occasionally try for this effect, films more often than most. In Hitchcock, a door slams and the audience is startled by what startles the hero. Likewise, Hitchcock and legions of less distinguished directors regularly conjure up an orchestra ex nihilo, and we are intended to be moved by the music it plays. But it’s a cheat, an artifice, calculated to amplify the effect of the action on the audience. Film music comes from nowhere and the characters can’t hear it. Even when it works, there’s the sense it hasn’t earned its success: the impression one’s arm has been twisted is very strong. What 19th-century composers called ‘melodrama’ attempted the same trick, but it wasn’t any good and eventually they gave it up.

Manipulating the distance between the audience and the action is, of course, what dramatists do for a living; it’s their métier. But it’s risky since, notoriously, it’s the fate of enchanters sometimes to lose their powers. Opera works on the very cusp between melodrama and mere recital. The sense that it must surely fall one way or the other makes for much of the excitement that performances can achieve. Somebody really ought to write a book about all that.

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