Opera librettos are hardly the place where you might expect to pick up insight into the human condition, let alone commentary on issues of the day. And yet, and yet. In depressing times like these, I turn to Offenbach, a composer who has in him the crystal pure spirit of comedy. La Périchole is rarely performed, alas. The heroine is a street singer, and she has a wonderful aria with the refrain, “My God, how stupid people are.”
As for Mozart, whose 250th anniversary is now being celebrated, we can recruit him to defend our values. In his opera Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail, a party of Westerners are in the hands of Muslim Turks. In a duet with a startlingly contemporary resonance, Osmin, one of the Turks, thinks he can do as he likes with the marvellously named Blonde, because his master, the Pasha, has given her to him as a slave. Blonde stands up to Osmin with the words, “Girls aren’t goods to be given away, “ and she goes on, “I’m an English woman, and for that reason nobody ever compelled me to do anything against my will.” When she repels Osmin saying, “Don’t you dare touch me,” he replies, “Don’t oblige me to use force.” Finally the indomitable Blonde tells him to shove off – the libretto has a fairly coarse verb – and he shoves off, complaining that the English must be mad to allow their women to have free will.
Someone ought to present a recording of Entfuehring to the Vatican, since Pope Benedict is only taking Mozart’s point about the use of force in personal relations, and enlarging it.