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Plant Focus

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A guest post by Matt Candeias, host of the In Defense of Plants podcast and blog

Oaks in Opera

In March this year I received a message from IOS member Claudio Pedró that showed a still shot from what appeared to be a video of an opera with subtitles. It turned out to be a scene from Wagner's Tannhäuser that happened to include a reference to oaks. This is the sort of behavior one can expect from the oak-obsessed. Many of us must have focused on hobbies or pastimes to while away lockdown; for Claudio it was the operas streamed by Metropolitan Opera. Over the following weeks he sent me a number of other references to our favorite genus he'd spotted in the operas he watched. I became interested and researched a few more—including one mentioned in James Canton's recent book The Oak Papers (see "Heart of Oak", below). We've found nine references so far, listed here under the composer's name, with links to videos of the specific scenes where oaks are mentioned.

Falstaff © ken howard/MetropolitanOpera.
The final scene of Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012 © ken howard/Metropolitan Opera

Oaks in operas serve to reference some of the qualities traditionally associated with these trees: connections to deities or the supernatural (Norma, Giovanna D'Arco, Die Zauberflöte), fortitude and heroism (Tannhäuser, Harlequin's Invasion), a family's social standing and prosperity (Madama Butterfly). Perhaps more unusually, in La Bohème an oak is a symbol of male sexual prowess. And in Falstaff it is almost the opposite: the bare branches of an ancient oak in winter echo the stag horns on Falstaff's head, an ironic symbol of the cuckold's horns.

There are probably many more references that we have missed, so if any melomane quercophile out there knows of others, let me know and I will add them to the list. 

Bellini

Norma: Act II

Norma is a Celtic high priestess of the Sicambi tribe in ancient Gaul. The opera opens in a forest of oaks, where her father Oroveso leads the druids and warriors in a prayer for revenge against the conquering Romans.

OROVESO

Sì. Parlerà terribile
Da queste quercie antiche,
Sgombre farà le Gallie
Dall'aquile nemiche

OROVESO

Yes. God will speak in anger
From these ancient oaks,
He will free Gaul
Of the hated Roman eagles

 

Mozart

Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute): Act II, scene viii

Pamina hands Tamino a magic flute that will help them through the trials of initiation they must face to join Sarastro's community and vanquish the Queen of the Night and her cohorts. She tells him how her father made the flute, and what wood he used (yes, you guessed it!)

PAMINA

Es schnitt in einer Zauberstunde
mein Vater sie aus tiefstem Grunde
der tausendjähr'gen Eiche aus
bei Blitz und Donner, Sturm und Braus.

PAMINA

One enchanted hour it was carved
by my father out of the deepest heart
of the thousand-year-old oak,
amidst thunder and lightning, storm and tempest.

 

Verdi

Giovanna D'Arco: Prologue, scene i

Charles (the not-yet-crowned King of France) describes to his officers and the villagers his vision of the Virgin Mary at the foot of a giant oak tree, commanding him to surrender to the invading English army and lay down his weapons. 

CARLO

Sotto una quercia parvemi
Posar la fronte mesta;
Splendea dipinta vergine
In mezzo alla foresta...

CARLO

Under an oak tree it seemed to me
I was resting my sad brow;
A painted Virgin shone
In the middle of the forest...

 

Prologue, scene ii

By a giant oak tree, Giacomo prays for the safety of his daughter Giovanna.

GIACOMO

Non è questa forse la quercia sacra all'infernal convegno?

GIACOMO

Isn't this the infernal gathering's sacred oak?

 

Falstaff: Act III, scene ii

The climax of the opera revolves around the plan to ambush Falstaff at Herne’s Oak, a traditional Windsor landmark. There are therefore several mentions of "oak" in the opera. The final scene takes place in front of Herne's Oak. Falstaff appears on the stroke of midnight, hoping to meet Alice, who he believes is in love with him.

FALSTAFF

Questa è la quercia.
Numi, proteggetemi! Giove!
Tu per amor d'Europa
Ti trasformasti in bove, portasti corna.
I numi c'insegnan la modestia.
L'amore metamorfosa un uom in una bestia.

FALSTAFF

This is the oak.
Gods, protect me! Jupiter!
For the sake of Europe
You turned into ox, carried horns.
The gods teach us modesty.
Love metamorphoses a man into a beast.

 

Puccini

La Bohème: Act I

Four young students taunt their landlord, who has come to collect the rent. They get him drunk and urge him to tell of his flirtations, which involves comparing him to an oak as an ironic suggestion of his sexual prowess.

MARCELLO
L'altra sera al Mabil
l'han colto in peccato d'amor.

BENOIT
Io?

MARCELLO
Al Mabil l'altra sera l'han colto...
Neghi?

BENOIT
Un caso.

MARCELLO
Bella donna!

BENOIT
(mezzo brillo)
Ah! molto!

SCHAUNARD poi RODOLFO
Briccone!

COLLINE
Seduttore!
Una quercia...un cannone!

RODOLFO
L'uomo ha buon gusto.

MARCELLO
The other evening at Mabille
they caught him making love.

BENOIT
Me?

MARCELLO
They caught him at Mabille the other evening...
Deny it, then.

BENOIT
An accident.

MARCELLO
A lovely woman!

BENOIT
(half-drunk)
Ah! Very!

SCHAUNARD, then RODOLFO
You rascal!

COLLINE
Seducer!
He's an oak, a ball of fire!

RODOLFO
He's a man of taste.

 

Madama Butterfly: Act I

Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly) explains to Pinkerton, the U.S. Navy lieutenant she is about to marry, that her family was once prominent and wealthy. It later lost its position, so she has had to earn her living as a geisha. She compares her family's decline to that of sturdy oaks that are uprooted by a storm.

BUTTERFLY
Eppur conobbi la ricchezza.
Ma il turbine rovescia
le quercie più robuste
e abbiam fatto la ghescia per sostentarci.
(alle amiche)
Vero?

AMICHE
Vero!

BUTTERFLY
All the same, I have known riches.
But storms uproot
the sturdiest oaks...
and we became geishas
to support ourselves.
(to her friends)
That's so, isn't it?

GIRL FRIENDS
It is!

 

William Boyce

Harlequin's Invasion ("Heart of Oak")

This pantomime, written by David Garrick, celebrates British military and naval power. It included a song that would become the official march of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom and of the navies of several former colonies. The oak in the song's title refers to the wood from which British warships were generally made during the age of sail. The "heart of oak" is the strongest central wood of the tree. The music is hardly up to the standards of Wagner or Puccini, but perhaps can be included in the widest definition of opera.

CHORUS

Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men,
We always are ready;
Steady, boys, steady!
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.

 

Wagner

Tannhäuser: Act II, scene iv

Wolfram opens a song contest with a heartfelt tribute to idealized love. As he addresses his audience, he compares the men in the company to a forest of oaks:

WOLFRAM

So viel der Helden, tapfer, deutsch und weise,
Ein stolzer Eichwald, herrlich, frisch und grün

WOLFRAM

So many heroes, valiant, upright and judicious,
A forest of proud oaks, magnificent, fresh and green

 

Note: there might well have been many references to oaks in Wagner. His main work, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle), a series of four operas, is based on Norse mythology. In the original myths, an oak in Valhalla, the home of the gods, featured prominently. In his adaptation, the composer changed the Quercus to a Fraxinus. Wagner is controversial at the best of times, for various reasons, but for the quercophile this sin may be unforgivable. 

With thanks to photographer Ken Howard for permission to use his image of Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera. You can view more of his photos on his website: https://kenhowardphoto.com/