A night at the opera, with vino

Does Bacchus live at The Met?

Beginning with a new production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore,” starring Anna Netrebko (Sept. 24), this year’s Metropolitan Opera repertoire will include at least six classic works featuring wine. It reminds us of the long-standing relationship between opera and the grape – not just the Champagne consumed by patrons at performances, but as an integral plot device in a number of masterpieces. It’s no surprise since wine has long been a beverage enjoyed by all social classes, and opera spans society’s flaws from the desperation of the lowly to the peccadilloes of the rich and royal.

“L’Elisir d’Amore” tells the story of a peasant, Nemorino – in love with the rich landowner Adina – who is seemingly duped by the unscrupulous traveling salesman Dulcamara into thinking that he has purchased “an elixir of love” that is in reality only wine. However, as opera buffs know, Donizetti was quite taken by the magical qualities of wine himself, writing a poem when he was barely 14, praising the power of the wine god, Bacchus, to allow the composer to write immortalizing music.

So, on another level, Donizetti is really extolling the aphrodisiac properties of wine, which have been confirmed now in numerous scientific studies. In fact, this aspect of alcohol has become so ingrained in our culture that in a recent study just the suggestion that a beverage contained alcohol was enough to cause arousal equal to that following actual moderate alcohol consumption.

Wine’s amorous quality cuts across all classes of society – which Donizetti alludes to in the closing scene in which Dulcamara offers “the potion” to the uppity Sgt. Belcore – Nemorino’s unsuccessful rival – for his future use.

Among the other classics featuring wine that The Met will present in the 2012-13 season are Bizet’s “Carmen,” Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Adès’ “The Tempest,” and Verdi’s “La Traviata” and “Otello.” Escamillo uses wine to toast the heroics of the bullfighting ring in “Carmen’s” famed Toreador aria (“Votre toast, je peux vous le render.”) While the setting is a tavern and beer would most likely be the beverage of choice, the purpose of the song is also to woo Carmen. Wine? Romantic. Beer? Not so much.

In “Don Giovanni,” the aphrodisiac properties of wine take center stage with the audience gaining insight into the lustful personality of the Don from the brief but telling “Champagne Aria,” in which he tells wingman Leporello to throw a wine-fueled party with all the women he can find, for the purpose of getting them so tipsy that Don G will be able to bed 10 of them that evening.

On the other hand, a major portion of “The Tempest” portrays the intoxicating effect of wine on three characters – the butler Stefano, the jester Trinculo and the savage Caliban – demonstrating once again the fermented fruit’s power over all.

There’s no lack of wine consumption in “La Traviata,” from the opening party scene on. But while the principal characters consume goblets of Champagne, we learn more about the nature of the heroine Violetta from what she doesn’t drink than from what she does in The Met’s current haunting production. When she tosses a glass of Champagne against a wall and smashes it, she signifies that she will not be tied to any man, no matter the rewards or consequences.

In “Otello,” Verdi again uses wine strategically in the guise of master manipulator Iago. It serves to advance his treacherous plan to bring down rival Cassio, who becomes so inebriated that he challenges Montano to a duel, thereby inflaming Otello’s ire.

So do the performers really drink wine during the productions? We know they sometimes have to appear to be nibbling a bit of chicken (“Don G”) or fruit (“L’Elisir”).

According to backstage staff, while it has undoubtedly happened, opera singers are loath to risk the effects of alcohol on their voices during a performance and choose either cranberry juice or water dyed to look like wine.

So as Verdi might say, “Libiamo,” Ocean Spray.

As for the real stuff…
As patrons of The Met know, the Grand Tier Restaurant inside the opera house features a wine list that is a class act in itself – with a carefully chosen range of reds, whites and bubbly at prices competitive with area establishments. The spectrum of Champagne runs the gamut from a zesty nonvintage Brut Piper Heidsieck ($95) to a fruity, fragrant nonvintage Billecart, from a Salmon Brut Rosé ($160), to a rich, memorable 2002 Louis Roederer “Cristal” ($450). Whites of note include a dry, herbal 2009 Grgich Hills Fumé Blanc ($70) and a refreshing 2008 Domaine Latour-Giraud Meursault ($115). And the selection of more than three-dozen reds contains gems like a smooth 2007 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Alexander Valley ($110), an earthy 2007 Nerojbleo Nero d’Avola from Sicily ($65) and an elegant 2006 Chateau Lynch-Bages from Bordeaux ($225). 

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