It may seem odd to write about operas that have defects in their plots. After all, the whole art form is artificial in the extreme. People don’t respond to every change in their fate by singing. But the examples below are strange even by the eccentric standards of opera. I have remarked on each of them in earlier posts on each opera. I thought it of middling interest to put them all in one piece. They’re presented in the order of their composition.
Don Giovanni is on most lists of the greatest operas as well as having one of opera’s best librettos. Yet its plot is hard to decipher if you think about it for a bit. The action seems to be continuous over its two acts. And that’s the way it’s played in every production I know about. Yet the libretto says of scene 3 of the second act: A graveyard. Night.(This lonely spot is decorated with a number of statues, including one of the Commendatore.)
For a statue of the Commendatore to have been constructed and placed by his grave a year or more must have passed. Yet everybody acts as if they’re just a day away from his death and they’re all wearing the same clothes. It’s highly unlikely that the peripatetic Don would be hanging around the same locale for a week much less for more than a than a year. So it’s best for the opera goer to apply Richard Feynman’s advice to ignore the whacky implications of quantum mechanics to Mozart’s masterpiece and not worry about its time frame. Also, the opera is usually considered to be set in Seville. But the libretto says nothing about what city the opera takes place in. So not only is it timeless, it’s somewhere in Europe. Spain seems the most likely country, but beyond that we can’t go.
Verdi’s Ernani presents another problem in geography. The opera takes place in Spain, except for Act 3 which is set in the tomb of Charlemagne in Aachen which is almost 1000 miles from where the previous two acts as well as Act 4 are set. Everybody in the cast mysteriously turns up in this burial vault. How they all got there and then back is another operatic mystery. I suspect a wormhole.
Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci has held the stage since it first appeared in in 1892. In the first scene Canio the cuckolded clown invites a group of villagers in Calabria to come to his show later in the evening. He specifies the time as ‘A ventitré ore’ – 11 pm. This seems like a strange time to start a show, especially in the sticks. Every translation of the libretto I can find gives the time as 11 pm. The Wikipedia article on the opera says ventitré ore, is an an agricultural method of time-keeping that means the play will begin an hour before sunset. While this makes sense I haven’t been able to locate another reference for this meaning of the phrase. Leoncavallo grew up in Calabria and could well have been familiar with this usage. He wrote his own libretto so the Wikipedia explanation may be correct.
The next two plot holes are from two Puccini operas – his third and fourth, respectively. The last act of Manon Lescaut takes place as per the libretto: “A desert plain on the borders of New Orleans. The ground is bare and undulating, the horizon boundless…” Everybody familiar with The Big Easy knows about its nearby desert. It’s the one full of gators. Puccini was compulsively careful of the detail and verisimilitude of his libretti, but geography wasn’t his strong suit.
Neither was weather. Act 1 of La Bohème is set in a garret on Christmas Eve. Marcello and Rodolfo complain about how cold it is, remember they’re indoors. To keep warm they burn the manuscript of the latter’s play. After a lot of hijinks and two arias and a love duet, everyone decides to go out for dinner. Where do they go? To an outdoor cafe. This is Paris where the evening temperature on Christmas Eve is typically below freezing. They’re not the only ones enjoying the sub-arctic evening, half of Paris is out with them. Forget the cold, it’s a really great scene.
Isn’t opera wonderful!