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Today, we continue with the plots of opera “warhorses”—those repertoire standards most likely to be referenced in pop culture. Again, despite any snark below, I love all of these works and heartily recommended them to anyone considering exploring the world of opera. The operas below represent the second half of the top ten most-performed operas in the world: Madama Butterfly, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, Rigoletto, and Don Giovanni. For the first half, please see the previous post in this series: Opera 101—Plots in 101 Words or Less.*

So, if you don’t want to be like the hapless border guard in Hopscotch above, read on and learn how to distinguish the “Figaro!” of The Barber of Seville from the Figaro of The Marriage of Figaro.

SPOILER ALERT: Lots of weddings. And, of course, death. Circle of life don’t you know.

Giacomo Puccini, Madama Butterfly (1904)
Based on: a short story by John Luther Long and a novel by Pierre Loti
Notable Cultural Reference: Fatal Attraction
Setting: Nagasaki, 1904

American naval officer Pinkerton rents a house for his Japanese child-bride, Cio-Cio San (aka Butterfly). Renting should’ve been a clue he wasn’t playing for keepsies—always get the deed, ladies. To make matters worse, her uncle turns the wedding guests against her for converting to Christianity. Pinkerton’s not good for much but manages to knock her up before skipping town. Fast forward three years: Butterfly waits patiently while maid Suzuki knows the score. But, wait, Pinkerton comes back! Unfortunately, he and his new American wife just want the kid. Butterfly celebrates by slicing her throat. Drama queen.
TL;DR: Miss Saigon

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “Un bel dì vedremo” and “Coro a bocca chiusa” (aka the Humming Chorus)

Gioachino Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) (1816)
Based on: a play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
Notable Cultural Reference: Bugs Bunny: “The Rabbit of Seville”
Setting: Seville, 18th century

Pretty and rich Rosina is the ward of elderly Dr. Bartolo. Bartolo hopes to marry her once she’s of age, and schemes with music master Don Basilio to keep her secluded until then. Nevertheless, Count Almaviva has managed to woo her with some righteous balcony singing and enlists Figaro(!), Bartolo’s barber, to help him gain access to the house. Letter upon letter makes the rounds—sometimes even turning into laundry lists. Figaro(!) tries to distract Bartolo with a shave, but Bartolo is having none of it. He fails to stop the inevitable wedding, and seems mollified with promises of money, but…

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “Largo al factotum della città” (aka “Figaro!”)

Lucas Meachem is Figaro, the barber of Seville. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Lucas Meachem is Figaro, the barber of Seville. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) (1786)
Based on: a play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
Notable Cultural Reference: The Shawshank Redemption, Trading Places
Setting: Seville, 18th century

The Marriage of Figaro is (surprise!) about the marriage of Figaro, former Sevillano barber, now valet to Count Almaviva. Although not really because it’s mostly about how the once-smitten count is now a cheating cheater who cheats. The countess (young Rosina all growed up) and her maid Susanna (Figaro’s fiancée) plot to catch him in action. Hijinks ensue, especially when old Dr. Bartolo arrives seeking payback from Figaro for screwing up his plans to screw Rosina. His secret weapon is Marcellina, who turns out to be Figaro’s long-lost mother, so that sort of backfires on him. Or does it? Double wedding!

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: Overture, “Non più andrai”

Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto (1851)
Based on: a play by Victor Hugo
Notable Cultural Reference: Frasier: “Out with Dad”
Setting: Mantua, 16th century

Rigoletto, a hunchbacked court jester, keeps his beautiful daughter secluded lest she catch the duke’s roving eye. Too late! Gilda has secretly been making googly eyes at him in church. Furious over the jester’s endless mockery, cuckolded noblemen kidnap his “mistress” (i.e., Gilda), bringing her to the duke so he can have his way with her. Rigoletto vows revenge and hires an assassin. Despite knowing the duke’s a no-good scoundrel, Gilda sacrifices herself to save him. Idiot. As Rigoletto dumps the wrapped corpse in the river, he hears the duke singing and discovers it’s Gilda who’s dead. Aw, sad, frowny clown.

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “La donna è mobile”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Giovanni (1787)
Based on: the legends of Don Juan
Notable Cultural Reference: Amadeus, Screamers
Setting: Seville, 17th century

Don Giovanni is a piece of work and serial rapist to boot. Fleeing his latest victim, Anna, he kills the Commendatore, her father. Anna and fiancé Ottavio swear vengeance against this unknown assailant. One of over 2000 (!!) abandoned conquests, Elvira is also looking for vengeance. When Giovanni tries to sex up bride Zerlina, Elvira reveals all and teams up with Anna and Ottavio. Sadly, this hapless trio lets Giovanni escape. But, never fear, the cold dish of revenge is served by the Commendatore, whose statue comes alive to attend a fabulous banquet where demons drag Giovanni down to hell. Well played.

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto”, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo”

Tune in next time for Germans, Germans, Germans. Also, a ring. And a dwarf. Or maybe it’s a hobbit. I don’t know, I get them confused.

For the next post in this series: Opera Plots in 101 Words or Less, Act III.

*If you are thinking of commenting that this should be “fewer” instead, please read this first.

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