‘Opera Adaptations’ as a title is somewhat misleading for this collection. They are not so much adaptations as embellishments, or ornamentations, of the archetypal, epic, mythic, biblical and historical tales that also happen to have formed the libretti for so many famous operas.
Opera as an artform is, oftentimes, already an adaptation of something else, anyway. Here is Pelléas and Melisande taken from Maeterlink’s play. Here is Salome from Oscar Wilde. Here is Cavalleria Rusticana re-written by Russell and his collaborators as a kind of homage to Coppola’s Godfather series. It’‘s the opera played during The Godfather, Part 3 after all. P. Craig Russell’s passion for and understanding of great dramatic, musical and literary works fuels his illustrative vision and blends together the stamp of composers, performers, librettists, playwrights and directors.
What Russell also manages to do with these works is to advance the narratives, offering a supremely dramatic graphic rendering, yet still enabling the ‘music’ to come through. By that, I mean, he uses the frames and structure of the text and visuals to make space for the sound of the libretto, melodies and accompaniment in the reader’s head. The beats, pauses and breaths between passages happen from frame to frame, so that you can detect the pace of the recitative for example and then enjoy the anticipation and culmination of a grand aria, solo, duet scene or finalé. Tamino’s experience of the trials in the Temple, towards the climax of The Magic Flute is a beautifully paced, perfectly framed reiteration of the story.
That is some achievement. I approach this, personally, as not principally offering a critique of a set of graphic novel adaptations but as someone who looks for the satisfaction that the total theatricality of opera can offer me as an audience member. Russell maintains this in my view, throughout the majority of these works. The busy art nouveau style of his versions of Mozart complement the composer’s ornamentations and complex harmonies – there is so much action and layering in each frame it is like a synaesthetic echo of the operatic performance. The more modern works, such as 19th century pieces by Wagner (Parsifal), and songs by Mahler, range in style from the decorative to the sparse in their rendering. Again, this naturally complements the musical style of the chosen form.
In addition to this is Russell’s grasp of the scale of things. He creates a world that manages to generate a sense of vastness in The Magic Flute especially. The Temple and mystical woodlands, mountains and cataracts have a quality of threat to them as well as a fantastical beauty. When the evil Monostatos is banished from the Temple by Sarastro, he pleads: ‘But you know I can’t survive out there!’ Beyond the boundaries of the enlightened realm is danger and chaos – a many-textured meta-theatrical wilderness. Exciting and bewildering. Opera needs to feel ambiguous and tormented where necessary; it’s not comfortable musical theatre or romantic comedy. The graphic novel, in its robustness and variety, is the perfect setting for opera’s troubled universe.