Wine and Opera

No form of entertainment pays tribute to wine like opera, in which characters swill, toast and praise its virtues

WINE IS THE LIFEBLOOD of nineteenth-century opera.

Wine lubricates librettos, lovers, plot devices and much of the social intercourse that occurs on the operatic stage.

And, as one would suspect, Italian opera is the most wine-drenched. There is even an Italian word to describe a song that exhorts people to drink or to toast: brindisi.

Giuseppe Verdi’s operas are full of brindisis. In the first act of Otello, Iago raises his glass to the Moor and his wife, Desdemona, and proceeds to press the reluctant Cassio to drink. Iago, Cassio, Roderigo and the chorus sing “Inaffia l’ugola!” (“Wet your throat!”).

In Act III of Verdi’s Falstaff, Shakespeare’s fat knight, rising drenched from the River Thames, sits outside his favourite tavern, the Garter Inn. Wet and dejected, he calls for a pitcher of mulled sherry. He then proceeds to sing a paean of praise to the beverage:

For wine is warmer than the glow of sunshine.

Full of summer!

Feel it smoothly sweeping away the dust of gloom and vexation.

See how it lights up the eye, revives and kindles the brain,

There slyly instilling tremors tiny but thrilling, The inner trilling of sweet intoxication.

Verdi’s La Traviata includes that much-loved duet with chorus, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (“Let’s drink from the joyful cups”). Then  there’s the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore: “Fill up the goblets! New strength and courage flow from lusty wine to soul and body.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart loved his wine, too. He must have been pleased that his librettist for Don Giovanni, Lorenzo Da Ponte, created an enduring advertisement for an obscure red wine from Trentino called Marzemino. In the story, the licentious Don Giovanni orders his servant Leporello to pour the wine: “Versa il vino! Eccellente Marzemino!”

Earlier in the opera, Leoporello signals his appreciation for “lusty peasant lasses” and expresses his desire to amuse them until night comes. In response to this admission, Don Giovanni delivers an aria that begins, “So that the wine may set their heads whirling/go and prepare a wonderful party.”

Then there’s the tipsy song, “Ah! Quel dîner” from Offenbach’s La Périchole, a song with which sopranos have a lot of fun, along with the darker, more serious drinking song from Varlaam’s Boris Godunov.

In Act II of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, the hero, Pedrillo, plans to free his fellow travelers from captivity by getting Osmin, the Turkish pasha’s right-hand man, drunk on two bottles of wine. The pair sing an amusing duet, “Vivat Bacchus!”

PEDRILLO: Vivat Bacchus, Longlive Bacchus, Bacchus was a fine fellow. OSMIN: Shall I chance it? Shall I drink it? Can Allah see me? PEDRILLO: What’s the use of wavering? Down with it, down with it! Don’t delay any longer! OSMIN (drinks): Now the deed is done, Now I havedowned it; I do declare, that’s brave!

Donizetti’s ever-popular opera L’elisir d’amore is replete with wine references. The elixir of love itself, sold to the gullible Nemorino by the quack Dr. Dulcamara, turns out to be a cheap claret.

A humorous scene in Act III of Strausss gender-bending Der Rosenkavalier finds the young hero, Count Octavian Rofrano (played by a mezzo-soprano), dressed as the Princess Marie Thérèse von Werdenberg’s maid, pretending to have an assignation with the princess’s coarse and lecherous cousin, Baron Ochs. (Opera plots are as convoluted and fantastical as French farces.) At one point, while the Baron tries to ply her with alcohol, she sings, “No, no, I don’t drink wine.”

And, of course, champagne plays a substantial role as a plot enhancer in numerous operas. In Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Turiddu’s mother, Lucia, owns a wine shop. In a brindisi, Turiddu extols the virtues of bubbly:

Hurrah for the sparkling wine Bubbling in the glass,

Bringing happiness Like a lover’s smile!

Hurrah for friendly wine That livens every thought

And banishes melancholy

In cheerful drinking!

And naturally Verdi, the master, jumped aboard the champagne bandwagon. Don Giovanni sings an aria to wine that’s come to be known known as the Champagne Aria, although the word champagne is never used.

The Champagne Aria is not to be confused with the Champagne Song from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (“Im Feuerstrom der Reben” – “In the fire stream of the grape”), which is sung by Gabriel von Eisenstein, his wife, Rosalinde, and the entire ensemble as they celebrate the midnight passage to a new year and a new century.

EISENSTEIN: Rosalinde, forgive your

faithful Gabriel!

You see, the champagne was to blame for it all!
ROSALINDE: Champagne was to blame, tralalalala,
For what we have endured today, tralalalala!

Still, it also gave me the truth

And shows in full clarity

My husband’s fidelity to me

And has guided him to repentance.

Join in! Join in

And unite in homage

To the king of all wines,

To the king of all wines!

ALL: Join in! Join in! Join in!

ROSALINDE: His majesty is acknowledged,

Acknowledged throughout the land;

He is jubilantly crowned

Champagne the First!

Tony Aspler is the author of 17 books on wine, including his latest, Canadian Wineries.