Dramatic irony is one of those storytelling techniques we all learn about in high school, and I haven’t thought about it much since then – except to enjoy it, when it’s used effectively, and even then, I don’t sit there and think, “This is a really great example of dramatic irony.”
But I’ve been thinking a lot about dramatic irony this week. This afternoon, on CBC Radio 2‘s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, I’ll be presenting Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti. It’s a paragon when it comes to the tension and emotional impact that dramatic irony can confer. Especially when the incredible Edita Gruberová is in the title role.
For it’s the music which amps up the power of Donizetti’s plot line (which he adapted from a play by Victor Hugo, which in turn describes a fictional episode in the life of the real historical figure, Lucrezia Borgia.)
Usually, when the audience is in on something (as is always the case with dramatic irony) it has been well and duly tipped off: for example, in Romeo and Juliet, we all know Juliet’s not dead; she’s merely taken a sleeping potion, even if the rest of the characters (save the friar) are unawares.
But in the Prologue of Lucrezia Borgia, it’s never revealed to the audience that Gennaro’s long-lost mother is in fact Lucrezia. Sure, it’s blatantly obvious, if you’re paying attention. It may as well have been written into the script. But it wasn’t, and this creates an opportunity for Donizetti to tell you with the music. When Lucrezia first spots Gennaro asleep by the side of the canal in Venice, the tenderness with which she sings is unmistakable. It’s unconditional, maternal love. Donizetti captures her restraint, too, in the music: she can’t tell Gennaro when he wakes and tells her about his long-lost mother. And Donizetti captures her anguish too.
A mere reading of the plot doesn’t impart the effectiveness of this particular example of dramatic irony. The story itself isn’t what impresses. Here, it’s all about the music. A kind of musical irony – shall we call it operatic irony? (Or, perhaps better – melodramatic irony.)
In Gruberová’s voice, it’s all the more heartrending. If you’ve the opportunity to watch it, I highly recommend the documentary “The Art of Bel Canto”, all about the ageless Gruberová, and the amazing operatic career that has already spanned four decades. Towards the end of the above clip from this doc, there’s an example of just how powerful the end of Lucrezia Borgia can be in her hands.