The Synod on the Family and the Opera

Cardinal Burke is coming to Vienna this week at the invitation of Una Voce Austria. On account of the recent Synod on the family they have organized a presentation of a volume on the family to which Cardinal Burke contributed, the highpoint of which will be a panel discussion with the Cardinal Burke. Before that Prof. Thomas Stark is going to give an extended critique of Cardinal Kasper’s theology. I am to give a brief introduction explaining the context. I should probably make some sort of reference to the genius loci of Vienna, and so I have been thinking that I might mention the opera.

Gaudium et Spes says that we share the joy and hope, grief and anxiety of the men of this age and especially the poor and miserable. Viennese opera, as exemplified in Mozart and Richard Strauss, has the advantage the advantage of making joy and grief coincide. And this is especially true about the joy and grief of conjugal love. Mozart knows all about the nobility of this kind of love, and its natural desire for eternity and indissolubility: Ich würde sie voll Entzücken An diesen heissen Busen drücken, Und ewig wäre sie dann mein! [Rapturously I should press her to this ardent breast, and then she would be mine for ever.]

There is something quasi divine about the marriage that exceeds human power: Mann und Weib, und Weib und Mann, Reichen an die Gottheit an. [Man and wife, and wife and man, approach the deity.]

And this quasi divine element is immediately connected to procreation: Wenn die Götter uns bedenken, / Unsrer Liebe Kinder schenken, … Der Segen froher Eltern seyn; / Wenn dann die kleinen um sie spielen, / Die Eltern gleiche Freude fühlen, / Sich ihres Ebenbildes freun. / O welch ein Glück kann grösser seyn? [when the gods remember us, / crown our love with children … they will be the blessing of their parents, / when the little ones joyfully play about them, / the parents feel the same joy, / rejoicing in their image and likeness. Oh, what joy can be greater?]

But the opera knows only too well that the promise of eternity in love too often goes unfulfilled. In Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos Zerbinetta assures the heartbroken Ariadne that her ‘eternal’ passion will be replaced by another like it soon enough:

And her prophecy is fulfilled when the god Bacchus shows up and makes Ariadne forget Theseus. Ist es nicht schmerzlich süss? [Is it not painfully sweet?] Zerbinetta asks. But pain rather than sweetness is often the dominant result of inconstancy. Mozart’s (and Da Ponte’s) Così fan tutte and Le Nozze di Figaro sparkle with comic brilliance on the surface, but under the surface is a deep sadness, and an unbearable pain. Così fan tutte might be the saddest opera ever written: the cynical destruction of love: Come scoglio immoto resta [Like a rock standing impervious] Fiordiligi sings, but the orchestra already belies her words:

In Figaro the deep pain and sadness of unfaithfulness is made quite explicit in the Countess’s arias dove sono and porgi amor:

I went to Figaro recently and was reminded of something the French novelist Hadrien Laroche recently said (in a talk on David Foster Wallace) that on contemplating how people suffer, and how they suffer from their inability to feel their suffering, how the instinctive hardening of the heart that is meant to protect against suffering is itself suffering, when one sees all this one can only weep. Watching Figaro one wants to weep, but also to laugh at the coincidence of the sad and the ridiculous. There is a recognition in Figaro that healing can only come through forgiveness, and yet there is something ambiguous and unsatisfactory about the forgiveness at the end:

There is no sense that the Count as repented of his unfaithfulness, and so the reconciliation seems insincere (which fits with the last part of Beaumarchais’s trilogy). Richard Strauss does give us a picture of true forgiveness and reconciliation in Die Frau ohne Schatten. The tanner’s wife gives up her power of bearing children in return for modern conveniences, but she later recollects the true meaning of marriage and is reconciled to her husband. This is one of the most beautiful things in all of opera:

But the tanner’s wife’s clarity is more difficult to achieve for more sophisticated persons. The Marschallin is the picture of a sophisticated Viennese lady—pulled in various directions at once. She goes to Church:


And yet she cannot yet give up her lover. Later she does give him up, because she wanted to love him ‘in the right way’:

It seems that her renunciation is made possible by her recognition of how evil it would be to let Ochs marry Sophie—one point on which she is entirely certain. She has mercy on Sophie from her own experience, and this is what lets her give her Octavian. She sees that letting things take their course in this case would not do; she must act, and she must be willing to give up what is most dear to her. That is something.

Don Giovanni makes up for the moral ambiguity of the other Da Ponte operas with the admirable clarity with which it sees things from the aspect of last things:

The eschatological perspective is the key to dispersing the fog of ambiguity. The Church sees the nobility of marriage as a sign of the eschatological union of Christ and His Church, but she therefore also sees that it is only a sign of the final happy end and not that final happy end itself, and this allows her to be both hopeful and realistic. I recently heard a young theologian, a supporter of Cardinal Kasper, claim that it would be absurd to require a young woman abandoned by her husband to a “a martyr” to marital fidelity. But it seems to me that this neglects the end; the Church can indeed require persons in such a situation to forgo the happy end in this life because she knows that they will thereby gain the true happy end in the life to come. But she cannot (contra Kasper) make her peace with relationships that directly contradict the sign of God’s fidelity, as such contradiction excludes the final end, and leads to the hell that received Don Giovanni. To make peace with such relationships (however much they may resemble marriage outwardly) would not be mercy, but cruelty. And mercy, as even the Marschallin understands in her best moments, requires firmness. The Church forgives, but unlike the Countess Almaviva (on my interpretation) her forgiveness is a healing forgiveness that therefore must coincide with contrition or at least attrition on the part of the sinner. The Church is truly merciful: when her children fall a thousand times she picks them up a thousand times, leads them to  repentance, dries their eyes of tears and helps them start anew. She looks on the suffering of her children and pities them, she looks on their joy and rejoices with them.

The Queen of the Night is often interpreted as a figure of the Church, but this is not at all what the Church is like. She could be better compared to Pamina. In her duet with Papageno (see above), she shows her love of the beauty of marriage and of Papageno’s natural attraction to it. But she has no illusions about it; she’s sees the laughable in Papageno as well. One could do a Regietheater re-invention of the Zauberflöte in which Pamina would be transformed in to a figure both of the Church (in relation to Papageno) and of Chastity (in relation to Tamino), Tamino’s marrying Pamina would thus be his entering the monastic life. Papageno’s “ich bleibe ledig” would then acquire the opposite meaning: he doesn’t want to follow the evangelical councils. And the Church is content that it should be so: she sees the great value of the sign of marriage in this world, while at the same time seeing that it does not have the highest value, that it is only a sign of what is to come. So she can look with joy on Papageno, and will comfort him when he falls, but will try to get him to stand up again, and if circumstances were to separate him from Papagena she would remind him that our time here is short.

In Ariadne auf Naxos Ariadne thinks that Bacchus is in fact death itself. She is wrong as turns out, but if she were right she would not be unfaithful. For this is what fills the Church with hope even as she looks at the grief and anxiety of this fallen world— that this earthly life is but a brief prelude to the encounter with her true Bridegroom, a prelude that is indeed already marked by a partial fullfillment, but only partial, the bridegroom’s promise will only be fully realized in the eternal life to come: et convertam luctum eorum in gaudium et consolabor eos et laetificabo a dolore suo.

4 thoughts on “The Synod on the Family and the Opera

  1. Pingback: Cardinal Burke’s Visit | Sancrucensis

  2. Pingback: Two Ways of Staging the Marriage of Figaro | Sancrucensis

  3. Pingback: Two Ways of Staging the Marriage of Figaro | When I Discovered Your Words

  4. Pingback: Shoujo and the Bride of Christ (III): Rose of Versailles – Beneath the Tangles

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