Opera has always had a close relationship with freedom of thought and expression. In Venice, where the first opera houses opened to the public in 1637, interest in opera grew exponentially over the following few decades, which were characterised by exceptional intellectual and artistic freedom – a freedom that was unthinkable in Rome at that time. Monteverdi and Cavalli took advantage of this favourable climate to pen works whose audacity and moral freedom never cease to amaze us. Erismena reflects the typically Venetian taste for disguise and for mixing up comic, tender and tragic genres. With its games of love and infinite variations on the theme of seduction, Cavalli’s opera encourages us to see a fatal blindness in the passion of love – which amounts to the very alienation of freedom.
Don Giovanni and Carmen present us with two figures who embody freedom at its most radical. In Molière as in Mozart, Don Juan is not content merely to seduce every woman he meets; he also plays with the most basic prohibitions of his time. He defies the social and moral order and throws away the rulebook – both secular and sacred. Refusing to repent, Don Giovanni dies, but his moral condemnation is accompanied by some sort of transfiguration.
Carmen encapsulates a type of freedom which, in its head-on clash with the prejudices of the nineteenth century, provoked a much more violent reaction than the creation of Don Giovanni. Carmen seduces, charms, rebels, refuses to yield to threats and chooses to die rather than give up her freedom. Even more than the novel by Prosper Mérimée, Bizet’s opera has made a mythical figure of its heroine; for the strength of song lies precisely in its ability to heighten feeling, build character and bring human relationships to a form of incandescence that enhances the intensity of our emotional reaction and enables each of us to project ourselves into the story.
Composed in the aftermath of World War II, The Rake’s Progress offers a virtuoso, nightmarish portrayal of the descent into hell of a man betrayed not just by his thirst for riches and pleasure, but by the whole society in which he had once believed: the degradation of the libertine is accompanied by his gradual deprivation of liberty. The countless literary and musical references dotted throughout the score create a kaleidoscopic dimension that is unique in the history of opera. We can also read into it the disillusion and bitterness of its authors, Auden and Stravinsky, both recent immigrants to the United States, towards a civilization that had produced so much destruction and disaster.
The tale of Pinocchio is a true coming of age story: we are not born free, but free we must become. The puppet is unable to control his desires and impulses or to learn from his misadventures. It is only in the belly of the whale that Pinocchio takes his destiny in hand; against the advice of his father, he manages to get the whale to sneeze them out, after which he returns to the world to begin his journey towards a hard-won freedom. This opera by Philippe Boesmans and Joël Pommerat, which will have its world premiere at Aix, is not just a “children’s opera”; it aims to be accessible to all audiences, including children, and it is our hope that, as the performance unfolds, audience members of all ages and all backgrounds will make up that human, intelligent and sensitive community that gives meaning to this revival and re-visitation of the tale.
At a point in history when the values of freedom and democracy are being challenged or resisted around the world, we need to make the full force of these works resound, explore their emotional and critical depth and reflect on their relevance to our times.