Turns Out You Don’t Really Need a Plot
I took a long weekend in Chicago these past few days and saw far more theater than I can afford, which is kind of how you do in that town. (I was also treated very generously to a couple of those tickets by my parents, who are wonderful people and even worse addicts than I.)
The final item on the agenda was the Lyric Opera’s opening (this time around — not a new production) of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which is without a doubt one of the stupidest plots ever set to music.
Even for Giuseppe “She Threw the Wrong Baby on the Fire” Verdi it’s a stupid one. The full synopsis is here if you want to try and wade through it, but an excerpt will give you a pretty good idea what it’s like:
Scene 1: Twenty-five years later
The Doge has exiled many of his political opponents and confiscated their property. In the Grimaldi castle, Fiesco, to avoid discovery, is using the name Andrea Grimaldi, plotting with Boccanegra’s enemies to overthrow him. Unknowingly, years earlier, the Grimaldis had adopted Boccanegra’s child (and Fiesco’s granddaughter) after discovering the orphan in a convent. They called her Amelia, hoping that she would be the heir to their family’s fortune, their sons having been exiled.
All of which is a drop in a great big bucket of misplaced children, coincidental adoptions, and more secret identities than a federal investigation at a porn studio. So this is a pretty silly one even by operatic standards, is kind of the point here.
And you know what? Didn’t matter a bit.
Turns out Simon Boccanegra has one of Verdi’s best scores, especially the orchestration, which I don’t normally pay too much conscious attention to but which captivated me this time around. And the singers all played their roles with character and a touch of gravity, and kept their faces straight (well, horribly distorted, really; they were singing at the time) even on the silliest lines.
Which just goes to show — for all we agonize about it, plots don’t necessarily matter all that much. A very silly one can still move us.
You think of some of the greats, literary successes or commercial, and they don’t actually have much in terms of plot at all. Even Harry Potter is just a potboiler British schoolboy story, and its author can now afford to live in an actual castle when she wants.
Of course, the corollary there is that if you don’t have plot, you’d better have one hell of a production instead. Lyric Opera, happily, delivered that. (I’m not so sure that J. K. Rowling did, myself, but vox populi.)
I’ll leave you with another example of a terrible plot that became a household name: Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle, as helpfully explained by opera singer Anna Russell. And if you haven’t seen these yet, they’re well worth your time. Enjoy!