When both your brothers are dating pianists and one of them is a pianist himself, there’s bound to be a lot of music in your life. That suits me to a T: when they all start discussing concerts, competitions, or their preferences for Schumann or Debussy, I feel as if I’ve stepped straight into the pages of Henri Murger’s La Vie de Bohème. And when one of them gives a concert of their own, it is only natural for the whole group to turn up and lend moral support. So when one of the girlfriends told me she would be accompanying a group of singers in a show she had helped to create, I took the hint, bought my ticket and spread the word, and then hied me to the Latin Quarter, ready to applaud when occasion arose.
Mingling literature and opera, “Che cosa è amor?”, or “What is this thing called love?”, is an exploration of love which alternates readings from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977) and some of Mozart’s most famous arias. While Mozart needs no introduction, perhaps Barthes requires a few explanatory lines: Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a French literary theorist, critic, and semiotician whose work is frequently associated with Jacques Derrida and post-structuralism. He is best-known for the essays Writing Degree Zero (1953) and The Death of the Author (1967).
To be perfectly honest, the sight of the word “semiotics” on a page tends to make me drop the book in a hurry, and my previous encounters with Barthes had not been of a nature to endear him to me. So I was all the more astounded to discover that A Lover’s Discourse was not just entertaining, but downright funny.
As the title suggests, Barthes’ essay is a series of fragments of a lover’s point of view. Some of these are taken from literature (there are several excerpts from Goethe’s Werther, for example), while others are snippets of conversation or anecdotes based on personal experience. These combine with Barthes’ own philosophical thought to form a meditation on the workings of the human heart. The essay is not intended to provide the reader with a conclusive definition of love – it is not a how-to handbook – but rather with a meandering exploration of what it means to love, and how one uses language to express that love. For it must not be forgotten that Barthes was a linguist: as such, he is interested first and foremost in the link between emotion (love) and language (the lover’s discourse).
As mentioned earlier, Barthes frequently draws on literature to illustrate his text; but there are also many references to other forms of creative expression (painting, music, etc). So creating a show that associated operatic excerpts with Barthes’ writing was in perfect keeping with the spirit of A Lover’s Discourse. And Mozart was a particularly apt choice: for which composer has written more, or better, about love in all its forms? Adolescent yearnings (Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete”); conjugal jealousy (Donna Elvira’s furious tirade against her faithless husband Don Giovanni); happy lovers making plans for the future (Papageno and Papagena’s duet) – the singers leapt blithely from one to the other, playing up the comical aspect of each situation.
Comedy is the watchword of the show. This much was clear from the first notes of the overture, which was the signal for the singers to engage in a silent game of musical chairs. As the music quickened, the game got livelier – and messier. Who would end up standing alone, or perched on some unlikely partner’s knees? It was Marivaux’s Game of Love and Chance all over again. The potential for heartache was there (as when Papageno, in despair at his lonely state, hanged himself) but disaster was always averted (the moment when Papagena’s voice was heard and Papageno’s head popped up again over the edge of the stage earned a big laugh). Barthes’ mocking words made even Donna Elvira’s shrill fury funny, as the audience recognised in her their own excesses. Nothing was to be taken too seriously, for this was first and foremost a divertissement.
Considering there was no story-line, I had wondered how the production would be staged, and I must say I was very impressed by the ingenuity and imaginativeness of the troupe. They were clever enough to keep things simple, with regard both to the costumes and to the set, rather than opting for an eighteenth-century rococo look. There were no powdered wigs, hoop skirts, or gilt furnishings adorned with cherubs. Instead, the singers were dressed all in white, with garlands of vine leaves in their hair – a costume that was atemporal and yet managed to recall Greek gods and goddesses, or Wedgwood nymphs and shepherds. As for props, there was only one: a very long, foot-wide red ribbon.
That ribbon was a stroke of genius. There was no end to its uses. It was a superb metaphor for “tying the knot”, and as such, became an integral part of the game played by the lovers on stage, binding them together or separating them as occasion arose. It acted as a blindfold (for is not “wingèd Cupid painted blind”?), doubled as a noose for Papageno’s suicide, and, stretched cross-wise from corner to corner of the stage, turned into a web in which poor Elvira became trapped. It also recalled the ribbons tied around bundles of love-letters. And last but not least, it served as a visual link between the text and the music, binding the disparate elements into a coherent whole. Who would have thought that it would bring together two such different men as Barthes and Mozart, and have them speak to each other in the language of love, for the space of a single night? And leave one, moreover, sighing to be in love oneself…
© Florence Berlioz 2013