- Opera—The Art of Dying, and: Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”
Death seems to be in the critical air these days since there have been many books of late that connect opera with death. Of course, one could easily say that love and death are the central experiences of human life so it is not surprising that opera reflects these realities—as in fact do all forms of Western theater.
The Hutcheons' book, a sequel to an earlier book by these two authors, again discusses the theme of death in opera, focusing primarily on both German and Italian opera in an insightful way. The earlier book, titled Opera: Desire, Disease, and Death, also emphasized the love-death theme in many operas. This new book adds to the earlier one, expands its topics, and centers on death. It also benefits from a very readable writing style. Opera: The Art of Dying begins with the medieval concept of the dance of death and shows how this theme has appeared in various forms in much of the history of opera. Composers have dealt with this theme in various ways—and of course death remains one of the most recurrent themes in all literature.
The trouble with the basic approach in Opera: The Art of Dying is that it ignores comic opera. Since comic operas generally end with a marriage and a celebration of the continuation of life, they obviously do not reflect the thesis of the book. Thus, such significant operas as The Marriage of Figaro, The Barber of Seville, L'Italiana in Algeri, Falstaff, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg are not discussed at all. This omission complicates the authors' contention that "opera is obviously an art form obsessed with death as the narrative device of choice to conclude either its melodramatic or its tragic tales. As a result, audiences have come to see staged death as emotionally wrenching yet dramatically satisfying" (146). Not mentioning comic opera advances the book's thesis by simply ignoring any contradictory evidence.
This reminds one of Catherine Clement's Opera, or the Undoing of Women. She wants to prove that opera is a misogynistic art form, so she [End Page 192] mentions all the women who are victimized by men in opera—Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Donna Anna, Susanna, etc. She conveniently ignores all the female villains in opera—the Queen of the Night, Salome, Dalila, Ortrud—so that her simple-minded thesis can appear more persuasive. But whereas Clement uses often simplistic analyses of opera—her analysis of the Ring cycle is particularly ridiculous—the Hutcheons have some very perceptive things to say about the tragic operas they write about. Indeed, the chapters on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and the Ring cycle are very good. Here their thesis fits perfectly with the material under analysis, and Wagner's obsession with death and suicide are seen as part of the fear of and fascination with death that we all have since it is the human reality we must all eventually face. This book also includes wonderful discussions of the many versions of the Orpheus myth—particularly those by Monteverdi, Peri, and Gluck. That death remains a recurrent fascination in opera (and theater)—if not the only fascination—is convincingly presented in this fine addition to the topic of opera and death.
Scruton's new book, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," connects the opera in an informative way with sex and religion and shows how many primitive religions associate sex with God. The book does not generalize about opera as an art form but instead reveals how Tristan reflects German Romantic culture and its religiosity.
Scruton, who has written widely and perceptively about German philosophy, shows how Wagner's Tristan und Isolde draws on the philosophies of Kant and Schopenhauer. Both philosophers discuss the...