Monday, March 30, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: 3 Characters in Search of ...Vengeance? ...Justice? ...Love? ...Sex?

It has often been commented that in Don Giovanni, while the work is ostensibly focused on the title character (the obsessive seducer, violent libertine, seducer, rapist, and unrepentant sinner), Mozart pours his most powerful, dramatic, and psychologically perceptive insights into the personae and music of the three ladies that the Don encounters over the course of the evening's trajectory.

On Wednesday, April 1, BLO is presenting a 6:00pm discussion on this topic in conjunction with the Boston Public Library (at the library...and free!), titled Feminine Vengeance: Opera's Unforgettable Leading Ladies. Some of the opera's leading ladies (sung by Chelsea Basler, Heather Gallagher, and Meredith Hansen) will join guests from the New England Foundation for Psychoanalysis for musical analysis and, I guess, a little therapy.

Here follows some uninhibited clinical testimony from the ladies themselves.

Subject # 1: Donna Elvira (erotomania?)

Subject # 2: Donna Anna (frigidity?)

Subject # 3: Zerlina (masochism?)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Get to Know Don Giovanni

Background on Don Giovanni by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor


Don Juan and the statue of the Commander, Fragonard
oil on canvas, circa 1830-1835

The Archetype
“The archetypal character wants to go everywhere, and to become everyone … to explore an infinitude of possibilities. Europe has three such tireless recurrent seekers—Faust, the man of the mind who wants to know everything; Robinson Caruso … who wants to own everything; and Don Juan, the man of the senses who intends to both know and own everything, and whose mode of doing so is to make love. Since their ambitions are global, the careers of these characters last for centuries.”
—Peter Conrad, “The Libertine’s Progress”

The Sources
Perhaps the first appearance of the mythic and iconic figure of Don Juan is in a rather rough and ready street play from 1616 attributed to Tirso de Molina, El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra [The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest]. This unrepentant “mocker” burlesques religion and is duly punished by heaven. But by the time Molière wrote his Don Juan in 1664, the “jesting apostate” had become a philosopher driven by a rational curiosity, “prising [sic] open the fissure between moral presence and carnal truth.” (Conrad)

Don Giovanni Playbill Vienna Premiere 1788
Public Domain
The Title
Mozart’s title was originally Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, an opera buffa in two acts, which translates literally to The Libertine Punished, or Don Giovanni. Each word (even the “or”) in this has been endlessly parsed, analyzed, debated … and, indeed, they do bear thinking about. Why did the more generalized description of “the libertine” originally come before the specific character’s name? Is “libertine” a good translation? Would “rake" be better? What does “libertine” actually mean? Is it connected to “liberty” (remember the Don's provocative toast, “Viva la Liberta”)? What is the “punishment”? And who (or what) delivers it? Is it deserved? And… “opera buffa”? Is Don Giovanni meant to be a comedy? The fact that these questions—and characters such as Don Juan—still resonate today reveals why this opera remains such an audience favorite.

The Libretto
The commission followed the triumphant premiere of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in Prague (December 1786). The impresario Guardasoni probably asked the librettist Da Ponte to expand Bertati's one-act opera of the same title (set to music by Gazzaniga for Venice in 1787) but, in his memoirs, Da Ponte plays down any connection. In any case, he greatly improved the text, drawing on other sources, notably Molière’s Don Juan and versions from popular theater. About half of the libretto is entirely original.

The First Performance
"Don Giovanni, Act 2, set design, Prague 1790s"
by Leopold Peuckert, designer,
the earliest known set design for the opera
Don Giovanni premiered at the Teatro di Praga (now called the Estates Theatre), on October 29, 1787. The legend that Mozart composed the overture the night before the premiere (or even on the day of) has been challenged. Was the whole piece actually composed in three weeks, as claimed by some? In any case, it was a triumphant success. Another intriguing legend (or fact?)—Casanova himself was among the opening night audience.

The Vienna Performance
That success was not repeated in Vienna at its premiere in May of 1788 at the Burgtheater, although Giovanni received more performances there than Figaro had in 1786. Mozart made several changes to the score, cutting a short aria for Leporello, and adding a wonderful additional scena for Elvira (“Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata”), a replacement aria for Ottavio, and an undistinguished buffo duet for Zerlina and Leporello, which is rarely performed today. The final ensemble may have been cut.

The Afterlife
Don Giovanni was given in Warsaw in 1789 and made rapid progress in Germany (performed in German), becoming, after The Abduction from the Seraglio, the Mozart opera most often performed during his lifetime. Amsterdam (1793) and St. Petersburg (1797) followed. It became popular in France in both French and Italian adaptations. The premiere in Italy was in 1811. In 1817 in London, it appeared at His Majesty's Theater Haymarket in Italian, and a few months later at Covent Garden in English.

The American Don
The American premiere occurred on November 7, 1817, in Philadelphia under the title The Libertine. In 1825, the famous tenor Manuel García brought his troupe (consisting in large part of his talented family—including his daughter who later, under the name of Maria Malibran, became one of the most celebrated 19th-century divas) to the Park Theater in New York. They performed Rossini (five operas), two of García’s own operas, and Don Giovanni. Da Ponte, who had emigrated to America in 1805 to escape debt and bankruptcy, and, after running first a grocery and then a bookstore, had become the first professor of Italian at King’s College (now Columbia University), was in attendance.

The Cultural Context—1787
 • Premiere of Don Giovanni in Prague
 • Catherine the Great of Russia visits the Crimea and tours the infamous “Potemkin Village,” ornate facades with nothing behind them
 • Goethe’s final verse version of Iphigenie auf Tauris is published
 • Schiller’s play Don Carlos premieres
 • Edmund Kean, the celebrated Shakespearean actor, is born (d. 1833)
 • Christoph Willibald Gluck dies (b. 1714)
 • U.S. Constitution is signed in Philadelphia
 • Settlement founded in Sierra Leone for freed slaves

The Other Giovannis
Only a few highlights from the prodigious literary and artistic life of the Don: 
1736 Carlo Goldoni’s play Don Giovanni Tenorio premieres
1761 Gluck’s ballet Don Juan debuts
1813 E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella Don Juan is first published
1819 The first two cantos of Byron’s epic poem Don Juan are published
1830 Pushkin’s play The Stone Guest is written
1834 Prosper Mérimée’s novella Les Âmes du Purgatoire is published
1872 Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s opera The Stone Guest (based on Pushkin) premieres
1889 Richard Strauss’ symphonic tone poem Don Juan receives its first performance
1903 George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman is written (Act 3 is often performed separately as Don Juan in Hell)
1911 Guillaume Apollinaire’s novel Les Exploits d’un Jeune Don Juan is published
1934 The Private Life of Don Juan, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s last film, is released
1936 Ödön von Horváth completes his play Don Juan Kommt aus dem Krieg [Don Juan comes back from the war]
1970 The Stoned Guest, a half-act opera by P.D.Q. Bach, is released by Vanguard Records
1994 Don Juan DeMarco, a film starring Johnny Depp, is released
2014 Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq, a play by Paula Vogel, premieres

Thursday, March 19, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: BLO's 2015/16 Season — “We will always have Paris”

BLO's 15/16 Season will feature Kelly Kaduce as Mimì
BLO has announced its season for next year, and as usual, it's an intriguing collection of works familiar (but creatively rethought) and rare items to challenge and excite. The three Shubert shows have a decidedly Parisian aura. I talked with my colleague, John Conklin, about them (he is delighted to be designing all three). "Of course, Bohème and Widow are already set in Paris," John said, "and to complete a kind of Paris triptych, we are placing the very French Werther in an outlying arrondissement of that great and endlessly evocative city."

John is a great film buff, and he described the approach to me in film terms: "Perhaps one could say that Bohème is a Godard movie, Werther a Jean Renoir movie, and Widow an Ernst Lubitsch movie." Following that train of thought, perhaps the Season's Opera Annex offering, In the Penal Colony, is an Antonioni or Alain Resnais film. It all looks quite special.

We will certainly be delving more deeply into these operas next year as they near performance, but here's a quick and very eclectic glance at the four.

First up, an excerpt from Bohème sung by one of my favorite singers, Conchita Supervia. She is a unique performer, tart, spicy, with infectious flair. She was born in Spain and made her debut at the age of 15 at the Teatro Colón. Carmen (her signature role) followed two years later. She made her American debut in Chicago in 1915, as Charlotte in Werther. She was acclaimed for her witty and crisply agile Rossini (check out some of her unrivaled performances on YouTube). She died in 1936 in London, following complications from childbirth.

Here she is in Musetta's waltz (from a film obviously dealing with the usual operatic backstage traumas):

Philip Glass has dealt with an extraordinarily wide range of subjects, from literature (In the Penal Colony, for instance, is based on a short story by Kafka) to incisive studies of historical figures from Akhnaten to Einstein. YouTube does not offer many selections from Penal Colony, so instead, to give you a taste of Glass, here is an unusual and rather terrifying encounter from his opera, The Perfect American. Walt Disney meets his (animatronic) Abraham Lincoln:

Massenet's Werther is an insightful and moving examination of a fatally misguided love affair, cloaked in ravishing melody:

The Merry Widow is one of the most famous and tuneful of operettas, but it is perhaps a piece of greater depth and emotional validity than it is usually granted. Interestingly, the piece premiered in the same year as Salome (1905). In its own way, we can see with the benefit of hindsight that it prefigures the coming cataclysm of WWI, while presenting a beautiful  world of glamor waltzing on the edge.

Its most well-known (and eternally enticing) melody is the "waltz," here sung by the wonderful Eleanor Steber. She has a strong Boston connection, having studied at the New England Conservatory and having made her operatic debut with the WPA-sponsored Commonwealth Opera in 1936 as Senta. Indeed, she was famously one of the first American singers to achieve international stardom (she sang at Bayreuth) based on entirely American training.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Kátya Kabanová: A Conversation with Michael Beckerman, Professor of Music at New York University

Prof. Michael Beckerman
Magda Romanska, BLO Dramaturg and Associate Professor of Dramaturgy at Emerson College, talks to Prof. Michael Beckerman, a world-renowned musicologist, specializing in Czech and Eastern European music and the works of Janáček, Dvořák, and Martinu. Prof. Beckerman is a recipient of the Janáček Medal from the Czech Republic and a Laureate of the Czech Music Council. He is the author of  New Worlds of Dvořák (2004), Janáček and His World (2003), Janáček and Czech Music (1995), and Janáček As Theorist (1994). He recently received an honorary doctorate from Palacky University in the Czech Republic.

MR: What is the place of Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová in the repertoire of world opera?  In the repertoire of Central and Eastern European opera? 
MB: Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová is without doubt one of the world’s great operas. But to honestly answer your question, we have to acknowledge that over half the operas produced in the last five years were by only four composers: Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, and Wagner, in that order.* So Janáček never has been, and never will be, in that company in popularity or number of productions. But when we consider Kátya alongside other comparable 20th-century operas, such as those by Britten, Strauss, Shostakovich, Berg, and Schoenberg, it has a firm and important place in the repertoire. While Jenůfa continues to be Janáček’s most often-performed opera, almost every season sees a new production of Kátya, and audiences and critics are almost always stunned by its power. The end of Act 2, which juxtaposes pairs of lovers, is one of the most brilliant moments in any opera, and Kátya’s final aria combines the lyricism of Butterfly and the passion of Elektra with the breathtakingly “lost” quality of Shakespeare’s Ophelia.

MR: Janáček and his collaborator František Bartoš collected a large number of Moravian folk songs, and even edited a volume of the music they collected together.  What folk music can we detect in Kátya Kabanová
MB: Kátya uses Janáček’s experience with folk music in at least four different ways. The first is the most general and most widely known. Based on his ethnographic studies, Janáček developed a set of ideas—known widely as the “speech melody theory”—that concerned the relationship between the intonational patterns of human speech and the inner life of the speaker. Although there is no evidence that he actually incorporated snippets of “authentic” human speech into his operas, he often tried to craft musical lines that, in their free rhythms and pitch arrangements, alluded to this idea. Of course, like most composers, he adjusted the vocal lines in a way not bound by any theory in order to make them more effective. The second relationship is also somewhat general, and this involves the way the composer used the components of Moravian folk music—everything from rhythmic and scale patterns, to harmonic details and sonorities. The opera is filled with moments that recall Moravian song: we can hear local scales in Kátya’s opening aria about the birds, and also in the off-stage chorus which Janáček called, “the waves of the Volga.” A third way folk song appears is more literally in the onstage folk songs played by Vanya Kudrjasch with and without the balalaika [a Russian stringed musical instrument with three strings and a triangular body] at the end of Act 2. Finally, folk music has a potent symbolic function in the opera. While the lovers Kátya and Boris sing Tristanesque passages—the most erotic ones are sung off-stage—Varvara and Kudrjasch declare their love on stage in folk intonations. Janáček’s power rests, at least in part, on the fact that he never favors one duo or the other; the “healthy/uncomplicated” and the “doomed/complex” exist in a kind of tenuous but arresting balance. Although you asked about Moravian folk music, there is one more comment to be made. It does seem that in the overture, Janáček offers a stylized interpretation of Russian music, in the theme with the sleigh bells.

MR: Janáček’s instrumentation in Kátya Kabanová involves the viola d’amore, “viola of love,” an obscure instrument that dates back to 1600 and which was a metaphor for love. Can you tell us a little bit more about instrumentation? Anything else that’s unique or unusual in Janáček’s style, to which we should pay close attention, while listening to the opera?
MB: Janáček’s use of the viola d’amore is eccentric, artistically powerful, and endlessly fascinating. He probably encountered the instrument several times before he started using it, in his studies and later through his encounters with Rudolf Reissig, a highly-regarded violin teacher in Brno who made a specialty of the instrument. He may also either have heard, or known about, the instrument from its use in Charpentier’s Louise. His first intended use of the instrument was in association with his opera Fate in 1903, though he changed the final version to “normal” violas. Then he used it extensively in Kátya. Many questions about his use of the instrument remain. Was it really meant to be audible, or, as John Tyrrell suggests, something more symbolic? Did he ever really intend for the instrument to be used? Was it meant to suggest something erotic, especially his relationship to Kamila Stösslová, who served as something like a model for Kátya? Or did its mysterious, archaic sound, with its eerie sympathetic strings, “resonate” for him in ways that we still do not understand? For those with an interest in Janáček and the viola d’amore, I would recommend John Tyrrell’s essay, “Janáček and the viola d’amore” in the Cambridge Opera Handbook for the opera, and a listen to the opening of Janáček’s second quartet with the viola d’amore:

MR: What is the production history of this opera? What were some of the most memorable stagings of the opera?
MB: The opera was first performed in Brno on November 23, 1921 with František Neumann conducting and Marie Vesela singing Kátya. The first Prague performance was a year later, and the first international performance was in 1922 when Otto Klemperer conducted the opera in Cologne with Rose Pauly in the title role. Performances in Berlin (1926) and Aachen took place before the war, and it was only after the war that the opera was once again performed internationally. A notable performance took place on April 10, 1951, when Charles Mackerras conducted with Amy Shuard singing Kátya. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between Mackerras and Kátya. He conducted dozens of performances at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, English National Opera, and throughout the world, and was perhaps its leading interpreter. The first American performance took place in Cleveland in 1957, but information about it is scarce. The Juilliard Opera presented it on May 1, 1964 with Frederic Waldman conducting, Lorna Haywood in the title role, and designs by Ming Cho Lee and Patton Campbell. The opera was not premiered at the Met until 1991, when a wonderful production with Charles Mackerras conducting and Gabriela Beňačková singing Kátya was directed by Jonathan Miller. The upcoming performance with the Boston Lyric Opera is the first staged Boston production of the opera. 

MR: The story is based on Ostrovsky’s 1859 play, The Storm. What are some of the major differences between Janáček’s and Ostrovsky’s stories?
MB: In almost all cases, opera libretti are condensations of the original source (even the libretto Ostrovsky wrote for his own opera telescoped the play). Janáček’s libretto is no exception, and he does two major things. First, he eliminates several characters and some scenes designed to give a sense of the local color of 19th-century Russian life. But the real difference is Janáček’s focus, his tight and ongoing focus, on classic confrontations. By this time in his creative life, Janáček is the author of his own libretti, and he knows what he wants. Whether in his adaptation of Karel Čapek’s Věc Makropulos, Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, or Ostrovsky’s The Storm, Janáček drastically pares things down to a series of dramatic confrontations that animate the story and create dramatic frisson. Whether it is the antagonism between Kátya and her horrible mother-in-law, her deteriorating relationship with her husband, or her agonizing decision to give in to her feelings for Boris, Janáček is always searching for the tightest shot, to put it in film terms, the most compressed possible version of the conflict. We find this also in the heartbreaking conclusion of the opera as well. Janáček’s focus is on creating a set of extraordinary moments, not so much on limning the nature of local conditions and making social commentary, as in the play. 

*According to Operabase, the four most popular opera composers worldwide for the five seasons 2009/10 to 2013/14 were Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, and Wagner (in that order). Learn more at the Operabase Statistics Page.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kátya Kabanová — A Sneak Peek!

At Wednesday's final dress rehearsal of Kátya Kabanová, BLO artists brought Janáček's soaring, passionate score to life. Here's a special rehearsal sneak peek before tonight's opening—this is a Boston premiere that you won't want to miss!

Kátya Kabanová
March 13–22, 2015 | Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre
Conductor: David Angus
Stage Director: Tim Albery
Set & Costume Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford

Kátya's only ally in the Kabanov household, Varvara (right, Sandra Piques Eddy) tempts Kátya (Elaine Alvarez, left) with a key to the garden and the promise of a fateful meeting with Boris, the object of Kátya's desire.

Kabanicha (Elizabeth Byrne), Kátya's domineering mother-in-law, engages in a private exchange with Dikoy (James Demler), a successful but mean-spirited merchant in the town.

Kátya longs for freedom in one of the opera's most transcendent moments.

Photos by Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2015

Monday, March 9, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: It Just Keeps Rolling Along

BLO's production of Janáček's passionate and compelling opera Kátya Kabanová  is preparing to open; the first night is March 13. I strongly recommend this as a quite rare (certainly in Boston) opportunity to see this masterpiece of 20th-century opera and an unforgettable emotional experience.

The Volga River
"Волга у Жигулей осенью" by Eternal Sledopyt.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Common
As I was reacquainting myself with the piece by listening to the unrivaled Söderström/Mackerras recording, I thought about the ever-present force in the opera of the river Volga. The first scene is set "in a park above the steep Volga bank," and the very first words are a discussion of the great river: "Marvelous sight, fantastic sight... the beauty of it makes your very soul rejoice." The very last sound of the opera is a wordless chorus representing the river itself, while Kátya finds both salvation and oblivion as she throws herself into its depth.

That led me, inevitably, to a consideration of that river's most famous evocation in "The Song of the Volga Boatmen." It is a very familiar piece, a traditional folk song first collected and published by the composer Mily Balakirev in 1866 and made famous by Feodor Chaliapin. Here are some examples of various interpretations of this song of "unremitting toil...devotion to duty...portentous doom...despair."

First, the iconic interpretation by the Red Army Chorus:

A less well-known version by Nelson Eddy:

A slight change of pace:

Another (oddly ominous) version:

Another unusual version:

"Twist," anyone?

Another quite captivating dance version. This, by Glenn Miller, was a huge hit in 1941:

A famous rendition by Paul Robeson, illustrated in this video by the most famous artistic evocation of the brutal life of the boatmen, painted in 1870 by Ilya Repin. He sings it, in English and Russian, with his usual eloquence and deep passion:

Of course, any mention of Robeson conjures up "Old Man River," which seems to echo the "Volga Boat Song" in many ways: its apparent musical "monotony;" its despairing eloquence; its calling up of man's eternal work and suffering, in the face of nature's calm indifference. "Yo, heave ho... once more, once more... still once more."

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A View from the Rehearsal Room with Sandra Piques Eddy!

Sandra Piques Eddy is an acclaimed mezzo-soprano and a Boston native. She is singing the role of Varvara in the upcoming BLO production of Kátya Kabanová, and we caught up with her this week to get her perspective on the rehearsal process, coming home to Boston, and more!

We are in full swing with Kátya Kabanová rehearsals at Boston Lyric Opera. We had our "Stagger-Through" yesterday (basically same as a "Run-Through," but it sounds less daunting for all of us who are jumping into the Janáček pool for the first time!), and I daresay we are ready for our "Final Room Run" tonight. I'm excited to hear the chorus this week, the orchestra tomorrow, and see lots of familiar faces. As a native Bostonian, I'm always thrilled to sing at home among friends on stage, in the pit, in the wings, behind the scenes, and for friends and family in the audience. There's nothing else like it!

Here I am, "stuck" at my last gig with Portland Opera,
working on
Kátya. My flight to Boston was canceled, so I
missed the first couple days of our rehearsal process!
Another great aspect of coming back home is knowing what is expected of us even before rehearsals begin. I've been so fortunate to work with the wonderful Maestro David Angus on many concerts and four operas now. Our last opera together was here in Boston, the recent Così Fan Tutte at BLO, in English. I've also been so fortunate to work with our fantastic director, Tim Albery, a few times, most recently last fall at Opera North (UK) in his and Maestro Laurence Cummings' own translation of The Coronation of Poppea. We even opted out of supertitles for that production! Brave, huh? And it worked!! I knew coming into this rehearsal process for Kátya that diction and clearly communicating our story were paramount! We are singing this beautiful opera in English, and we all feel strongly about telling this story as clearly as possible. 

Wishful thinking at Endicott station,
commuting into Boston for
Kátya rehearsal!
Ok. Now, I have a confession. Ready? It was only just recently, as I started to explain this plot to my mom (a big supporter of me, but not an operagoer unless I'm in a production), that I realized that Kátya is a fantastic introduction to opera. I was struck by how QUICKLY the opera flies by when we were in the middle of the Stagger-Through yesterday. The drama is swiftly executed, and there are moments of levity among the tragedy. The music is rip-your-heart-out-gorgeous. I have been haunted by these gorgeous melodies while trying to stay positive over the last few weeks, commuting in on the unreliable MBTA! I feel so lucky to be right in the middle of this and with such a ridiculously talented team working together. It should always be this good...Am I right?

So, I am here to encourage you to introduce a friend to opera with this moving production of Kátya Kabanová. When your friend asks about the plot, simply tell him or her that it is a story of forbidden love and the worst mother-in-law imaginable. Oh and bring tissues! No spoilers but... Wow... That last scene!!!

Fun with hats and coats and bags in rehearsal with Elaine Alvarez,
who is singing the role of Kátya in our production!
P.S. Are you a "friend of Sandy"? Use code SANDY46 to get $46.50, no-fee tickets at or 866.348.9738 – but hurry, this offer expires Monday, March 9!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Drowned Woman: The Cult of L'Inconnue

A note before we begin... What is a death mask?
A death mask  is a wax or plaster cast made of a deceased person's face. While certainly unusual today, death masks were a common and important method of commemorating the deaths of important figures throughout history. For instance, you can see the death mask of Beethoven on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here in Boston, or meet Napoleon Bonaparte face-to-face by viewing his death mask on display at London's British Museum.

Death masks have caught the imaginations of writers and thinkers for generations, even through the present day. For example, in the recent novel Inferno, the theft of Dante's death mask sets off an exciting chain of events that sends Dan Brown's familiar hero, Robert Langdon, running for his life.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, death masks were also used to record the faces of unidentified bodies. In this blog post, Magda Romanska explores the fascinating intersection of this cultural practice and the art it inspired.

* * * * *

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

Kátya Kabanová’s death, by drowning, was a typical suicidal ending for many literary and dramatic heroines of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. The craze around drowned women that eventually came to dominate the European aesthetics of the era is illustrated by the popularity of L’Inconnue de la Seine, an unknown young woman fished out of the Seine near the Louvre in the early 1880s (Vautrain 550). The combination of her beauty and anonymity unleashed endless speculations about her life and death. Her body was reportedly taken to the Paris Morgue and displayed for identification. It was customary at that time to exhibit unidentified bodies in public in an attempt to identify them.

The Paris Morgue was a popular visiting place, and thousands of people passed by each day to see the displayed corpses. In the case of L’Inconnue, as Vanessa Schwartz noted, “the allegedly serious business of identifying anonymous corpses [became] a spectacle … —in the French double sense of theatre and grand display” (47, 59). It was also an erotic spectacle, in which L’Inconnue’s body fuelled the “fantasy of the exquisite corpse,” to use a phrase from Torok (107). A medical assistant, touched by L’Inconnue’s vulnerability, took her death mask; commercially copied, it quickly became a cult object.

In France, the white cast of the death mask, with its “smile of sublime satisfaction” (Phillips 321), was soon sold on Paris streets as a souvenir, “adorning the rooms of countless young women” (Bronfen 206). In 1890, Sarah Bernhardt styled herself, in a bronze bas-relief of Ophelia, as L’Inconnue. In Germany, “every student of sensibility had a plaster-cast of L’Inconnue’s death-mask … and a whole generation of German girls modeled their looks on her” (Alvarez 156). By the 1920s and 1930s, L’Inconnue’s death mask became “the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s” (Alvarez 156). Hans Hesse suggests that some German actresses, among them Elisabeth Berger, used the death mask of L’Inconnue as the blueprint for their own image, until she “was finally displaced as a paradigm by Greta Garbo” (Alvarez 156).

The poet Supervielle owned a copy of L’Inconnue’s death mask, as did Blanchot, Céline, and Camus, who reportedly loved to show off to his friends “a cast of the touching face of L’Inconnue de la Seine, with the smile of drowned Mona Lisa” (Boddaert 137). In 1902, Rodin incorporated L’Inconnue’s mask in his sculpture, The Last Vision (also known as The Last Thought), Man Ray attempted a failed photographic reconstruction of her image, and a number of writers used her as a heroine of their novels. The British writer le Gallienne was the first to publish a short story about L’Inconnue. Titled “The Worshipper of the Image,” the story follows the affection of young Antony, who marvels at the image of her face: “How beautiful! It must be wonderful to die like that” (Phillips 322).

Supervielle’s short story (“L’Inconnue de la Seine,” 1931) is written from the point of view of the dead girl; the narrator of Rilke’s autobiography (The Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Bridge) passes the mask of L’Inconnue, smiling enigmatically “as if she knew,” every day displayed in the window of the milliner’s shop. Goll and Anaïs Nin included the death mask in their stories as well. The most successful of these literary attempts, Muschler’s The Unknown, a fictional account of the tragic love that caused her to drown herself, became an international bestseller (Phillips 324). Johnson suggests that the novel was an inspiration for Nabokov’s poem “L’Inconnue de la Seine,” written in 1934, two months after the publication of Muschler’s book (232).

The fascination with L’Inconnue continued throughout the 1930s and extended into the 1940s, finally becoming the image of “the absolute” in Aragon’s 1947 novel, Aurélien. As a model for all of the other drowned girls, L’Inconnue was a symbol of the turn of the century, an epoch’s “psychogram,” in which the reality of her corpse, art, and literature converged, creating an archetypical image of fatal femininity. In a sense, in the popular and literary imagination of the time, L’Inconnue became the embodied aftertaste of the 19th-century cult of Ophelia, a corpus delicti of Ophelia’s tragic death, washed ashore as the last word of Shakespeare’s most famous story.

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