The underworld seems to have been a necessary element in the first operas. Plutos and devils conquered the stage amidst the apocalyptic blaring of trombones; the strident reed organ accompanied the sobs of souls lost in Tartarus; the Styx, dark, stinking river, marked the border between the world of the living and Kingdom of Darkness, between light and obscurity, between good and evil.
What was the after-life doing in opera?
Why did emerging opera need to speak about Hell? What attracted men, artists and composers towards the darkness?
The stage, from its beginnings, was considered one of the sites of self-knowledge. The theatre inherited this questioning of religion, of magic, and of Shamanism, and has ever taken its inspiration from this source. The invention of theatre was a kind of inherent reaction. Humanity, from its beginnings, soon needed a mechanism to distract itself, and to avoid thinking forever about the tragic reality of existence.
In the words of Davus (a character of Publius Terentius's Adria) :
"You cannot be happy for an hour by yourself, no doubt of it ; because darkness accompanies you, rubs against you, and chases you as you flee”
The only way for the human soul to free itself, is to dissociate itself from the body in order to observe its own existence from the outside. Because this dissociation is necessary, Man makes theatre. We use the word mimesis, a greek term meaning imitate, or reproduce. This involves not just imitating the appearance of things, but eliciting the reality hidden therein. Theatre is catharsis, exorcism. Aristotle maintains “that tragedy imitates man, and purges his emotions”. Theatre leads inevitably to Socratic interrogation, embodying the human drama in spoken actions, the special acoustic of the theatre, body movement and dance.
From this point of view, as are many of the great symbols and collective projections, the representation of Hell on stage is an excellent means to self-knowledge, like a mirroir of human nature. Hell, in the religious, and in the operatic context, evokes the ancestral fear of death which prevents access to a “happy life” (Epicurus). Transposing this fear into sung, spoken and recited words evacuates a phobia which “if we pay too much attention to it, we go mad” (Epicurus).
Our myths tell us of the psychological impact of the fear of hell. Hades is the Invisible One, the god of the dead. For fear of arousing his anger, no-one dares pronounce his name. He is therefore referred to as Pluto, horribly mocking on the one hand, and on the other a symbol of the mysterious forces which operate on the Earth, a place of metamorphoses, of the passage from death to life, of germination. A pitiless master, he never releases any of his subjects (the dead). Eternal suffering is concomitant with Hell, a lost, cold, and dark place, inhabited by monsters and demons, who torment the damned.
A mirror of the world, the theatre reminds every one of his own reality, punishes the intellectual arrogance of false knowledge, and helps us endure the weighty mystery of the after-life.
(1)Per me si va nella città dolente / Per me si va ne l'eterno dolore, / Per me si va tra la perduta gente [...] / Lasciate ogni speranza o voi ch'entate. (Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia Canto III)
All hope abandon, you who, enter here
Through Me Pass into the Painful City,
Through Me Pass into Eternal Grief,
Through Me Pass among the Lost People. [...]
All Hope Abandon, You Who Enter Here. (1)