If you wake up on a winter morning and find the air so crisp that it instantly fogs up the room upon contact with your relatively warm breath, check around for a magically deranged suitor. That is what happens to poor Emmeline, the blind daughter of the King of Cornwall in Act III of Henry Purcell’s 1691 opera, ‘King Arthur’. She was wooed by the magician Osmond, whose twisted idea of trying to impress her involved magicking the comfortably mild English forest of her surrounding into a frigid clime worthy of Thule (the mythical equivalent of the north pole). The aria, ‘What Power Art Thou,’ is best known to opera lovers and concert goers alike as the ‘Cold Song’ or the ‘Frost Scene’,
“What Power art thou, who from below,
Hast made me Rise, unwillingly, and slow,
From Beds of Everlasting Snow!
See’st thou not how stiff, and wondrous old,
Far unfit to bear the bitter Cold,
I can scarcely move, or draw my Breath;
Let me, let me, Freeze again to Death.”
The language is old, I know, it was furnished by the English poet John Dryden and superbly set to music by Purcell. If the rising musical line isn’t enough to send shivers down your spine by the shadow of its chromaticism, the brrr-y tremolo in the Cold Genius’ voice ought to send your knees quaking from sheer percussive effect. Needless to say, the lady wasn’t impressed in quite the same manner as Osmond had intended her to be, and the fair Emmeline’s hand was instead given to goodly King Arthur and his superior sense in how to please a woman without chilling her nose off.
Being exposed overly long to the cold winter air can also have strange effect on one’s psyche. In Richard Wagner’s ‘The Valkyrie’, handsome young Siegmund staggers into a strange forest hut after having spent much of the evening getting tossed around by the raging tempest. The brass roaring in thunder as the constantly shifting strings gust around the whirling chill, sending unwelcome bits of cold air through every seam in his fur layers. Being allowed inside even the draftiest of wooden huts is enough to make him look lovingly at any unsightly old nun let alone a pretty and strangely familiar looking Sieglinde, the unhappy wife of a boorish hunter. Now replenished from a stein of mead she served, he suddenly recognizes as his long lost twin sister and promptly declares his love for her and claiming her as his bride… even as her husband, Hunding, lies asleep in the next room.
You might not approve of his (and her, actually, this is quite a consensual relationship) incestuous compulsion, but the boy had just came in from the wind and his whim had been blown to a rather epic distortion – thanks largely to Wagner’s unapologetically romantic music. With a waft of the orchestral string the deepest freeze of winter effortlessly sloshes into the gentlest breath of spring where birds sing and love overcomes all boundaries and, apparently, morality.
“Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond,….. Winter storms give way to the merry moon,
in mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz; ……….. in the serene light arrives the spring;
auf linden Lüften leicht und lieblich, ………. on fragrant breeze light and lovely,
Wunder webend er sich wiegt; ………………… he weaves wonder as he passes;
durch Wald und Auen weht sein Atem,……… brushing the woods and meadows;
weit geöffnet lacht sein Aug’……………………. with his breath.”
But while the external cold draws the various different reactions from other operatic characters, freezing snow is the very physical essence of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Snegurotchka’ AKA ‘The Snow Maiden’. The product of the union of King Frost and the Fairy Spring, the 15 yrs old Snow Maiden chances upon the tuneful shepherd, Lel, whose singing stirs in her the longing for a less frozen life of fleshly mortals. Her freshly snowy nature is well manifested in her lilting melody from the beginning of the opera where she pleas with her frigidly temperate parents for their leave to go and live among the villagers where Lel lives. This being a Russian opera, you can safely bet that all wouldn’t turn out in Snegurotchka’s favor. The object of her lust does not return her affection, though the persistence of her admirer, Mizguir, eventually awakens in her the warmth of love that melts her being into a (literal) torrent of spring water. The distraught Mizguir drowns himself in a lake out of grief as the opera draws to a close while the grateful villagers sing their thanksgiving to the long awaited end to the 15 years of continuous winter.
Winter is often used as backdrop to tragic opera (Massenet’s ‘Werther’ and Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’ are prime example), though it also almost always serves as springboard to the welcoming hope for the approaching warmth of spring. There is always something to look forward to when you go to even the dreariest of operas!
– Micha Lindemans. Thule. Encyclopedia Mythica.
– Richard Barber. King Arthur in Music. DS Brewer 2002.
– The Metropolitan Opera International Radio Broadcast Information Center
– Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff & Frederick H Martens. The Snow Maiden Libretto. Rullman 1921.