|NINO CASTELNUOVO AND CATHERINE DENEUVE IN THE MOVIE THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG|
In the interview with the late Jon Vickers to which I linked a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned how one of the main differences between opera and musical comedy is that "entertainment, for the most part, deals with the superficialities of life, and works usually become extremely dated because they relate to a certain society and a certain framework that has developed in a certain society." Musical comedy, in Vickers' opinion, qualifies as "entertainment," and "If opera degenerates into entertainment, I would far sooner go and watch a good production of My Fair Lady or Brigadoon because I think it's much better entertainment than opera is." In other words, you have to be very careful mixing the two genres, and Vickers felt that a true American opera would never develop out of the Broadway musical.
This is all appropriate, because in today's AV Club there's an example of the one musical that I think might be the exception to the rule, the piece that I'd have no trouble staging in the opera house: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, written by Michel Legrand and brought to the cinema by Jacques Denny. I'll let you read A.A. Dowd's article to get the full flavor of Umbrellas, but two things have always stood out in my mind as justifications for staging this as an opera: its true-to-life subject matter recalls the verismo school of opera, and there is no spoken dialog - everything is sung as "a series of recitative song conversations." To my mind, that alone puts it far ahead of the My Fair Ladys and Guys & Dolls's of the world.*
*You're probably wondering where that leaves something like singspiel; well, to tell you the truth, I think both The Merry Widow and Die Zauberflöte would profit from having their significant amounts of dialog converted to recitative. As for Carmen, I've always preferred the version in which recitative replaced spoken dialog. But then, that's just me.
I have seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg included in the occasional opera season, but not often enough. You've heard me complain frequently about the habit of commissioning new operas (many of which are never heard from again after their initial productions) when there are plenty of underperformed ones lying around; the same goes here. If you've got The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, why bother with The Sound of Music? This is not to criticize the great musicals which the American theater has given us, merely to point out there's a place for everything, and the opera stage is not the place for most of them. No, the bigger question is this: am I making an exception for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or is that where it belonged all along?
You may not think you recognize any of it's music, but I'll bet you do: here's the justifiably famous theme, "I Will Wait for You."