Plants In Opera

Reprinted from the Aug 2016 newsletter of THE HORTICULTURAL SOCIETIES OF PARKDALE AND TORONTO.

This summer, I went on a holiday trip to Europe. Curious as it may seem, my object was not to visit gardens but to see operas at the Munich and Bregenz Opera Festivals (7 shows in 11 days). I want to share this with you but how can I do this in the context of a horticultural society newsletter? Well, plants appear in opera, sometimes as important items in the action of the story, sometimes as potions for death or love, sometimes as poetic imagery.

Easily, I was able to call to mind a number of examples: from the Shakespeare set of operas by Verdi and others, like Macbeth’s Birnam Wood, the herb list in Hamlet/Amletto, and the strawberry handkerchief in  Othello (yes, there are operas on many of these plays), to Handel’s Xerxes, as a love song to a tree! Some more familiar operas containing even more references are: La Bohème and Madama Butterfly by Puccini, the Faust operas, Die Rosenkavalier about a silver rose, and the greatest rose reference of all, Carmen, and then Wagner and more Verdi and more Strauss, and more…what a richness! I can’t describe them all so I shall make a choice from all these riches.

First, some research. Research is very different from days past; I am no longer hauling heavy tomes from the shelf, now I Google it. So, searching on plants and flowers in opera produced a fair amount of information. Wait a minute…there is a better way…why don’t I just ask my friends.

I am active on a Facebook site called Met Opera Live in HD Fans. During the Metropolitan Opera season, we discuss the season’s productions, comparisons with previous productions, availability of DVDs and downloads, cast members, sets…all that stuff. Out of season, like now, we share info on what other productions have been put on YouTube, our bucket lists for productions we would like to see, what we have seen in summer festivals, and when we are going to see the new season productions. So I posted a note:

Greetings, Opera Buffs. I am writing an article for my horticultural society newsletter to join two of my passions, opera and plants. Can you think of some operas that reference plants or flowers? As examples, I have Carmen, some Wagner operas, the Shakespeare operas by Verdi and others, some Puccini references and Der Rosenkavalier.  Anything else come to mind?

Within a day I had more than 150 responses on a good 50 operas, some I had not previously known, by many, many composers. Be careful what you ask for. But thanks, guys!

Now…what to write about. I can’t include all due to space considerations, so I have chosen to write about some works of my favourite composer, Richard Wagner, and about botanical references in three operas, Parsifal, Die Meistersinger and The Ring of the Nibelung (which is actually 4 operas to tell the whole story).

PARSIFAL: This opera is about the Knights of the Holy Grail. It is a relatively short Wagner opera lasting only 4 hours. In the first act, potions and poultices (Balsam from Arabia) are offered to ease the pain of the injured King. They don’t work. In the second act, Parsifal, the still innocent tenor, visits the castle garden of the bad guy, which is inhabited by maidens traditionally dressed as flowers. These days the girls are oftenTraditional Production from 1975 shown as something crazily or symbolically different, sometimes entirely artificial, and from the way they act it is doubtful that they are maidens. Ah well, that’s the way of the modern designs in opera. In the third act, Parsifal, less innocent but still a tenor, returns to the Grail Knights on Good Friday and notes that the meadows are full of flowers. This is God’s Blessing on the holy day, which the very beautiful music describes. The Good Friday Spell is sometimes played on its own in orchestral concerts. 

DIE MEISTERSINGER: Longer, at 5.5 hours, this is Wagner’s only comedy and some of it is pretty raucous. It features Hans Sachs, a historical medieval poet and shoemaker (and curiously not a Tenor), and is about the nature of art and the creative process; is it determined by rules or by inspiration? At one point Hans Sachs smells the aroma of the Elder Tree and it stimulates him on to the first of his wonderful philosophical monologues. The love poem/prize song that is developed during the course of the opera is an ecstatic (yes, it really is) description of the garden in which sits the muse, the loved one.

“Shining in the rosy light of morning, the air heavy with blossom and scent, full of every unthought-of-joy,a garden invited me and, beneath a wondrous tree there, richly hung with fruit, to behold in blessed dream of love, boldly promising fulfilment to the highest of joy’s desires, the most beautiful woman: Eva in Paradise.”

THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG: These stories are from Norse mythology about a struggle amongst the Gods, dwarves, dragons, giants, and men and their descendants. This required 4 operas, Das Rheingold, Die Walkure (Valkyrie), Siegfried and Gotterdammerung (The Downfall of the Gods), of approximately 20 hours performed usually over 4 days. The struggle is for the usual stuff: gold, power and world domination, and follows the cursed Rhinegold (magic gold) as it leaves a path of death and destruction from the Rhinemaidens (water sprites); to the Nibelung (dwarf) Alberich; to the God Wotan; to the giant Fafner who then turns into a dragon; to the man Siegfried (Wotan’s grandson); to the Valkyrie Brunnhilde (Wotan’s daughter, formerly Goddess and then human); back to the Rhinemaidens after it has been cleansed of its curse by Brunnhilde’s love, by fire and by the river (deep breath). Love redeems the world, ok, and then the story starts again. The family lineages are a treat.  For a comedic and unforgettable description of these operas, see  Anna Russell.

Yggdrasil, the World Ash TreeThe World Ash Tree figures in this work as a very important part of the story line. Wotan, the chief God, has made his staff of power from a branch of this tree. The world is controlled by the laws and contracts that have been written on this staff but Wotan is not free to act on intuition as the wooden staff (the law) is stiff and cannot bend. In another ash tree growing through the roof of a house (yes, really), Wotan has stored a sword he made for his human son, Siegmund, for the time of his need. The staff is eventually broken by Siegfried, Siegmund’s son (using his father’s sword), who in his innocence is free to operate entirely on intuition and passion, and this act leads to the downfall of the Gods. (Wagnerian rock/paper/scissors).

The golden apples of the Goddess of Youth and Beauty, Freia, figure in the first opera, Das Rheingold. This goddess and the apples, which keep the gods young, were in danger of being used as payment to the giants but the cursed Rhinegold was used instead.

Three potions figure in these operas: one of sleep in Die Walkure, one of poison, which doesn’t work, in Siegfried, and the third of forgetfulness in Gotterdammerung. The first and the third cause a change in direction of the plotline.

So you can see this is complicated stuff but it only tickles the surface of what happens in works of other composers with a lot of references to roses, herbs, gardens, flower perfume, potions of sleep, love, magic and poison, magical transformations, miracles and of course, the greatest herbals of all time, wine, beer and schnapps.

Barbara Japp

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