What does this caption conjure up in your mind? If like me you also grew up on a diet of The Adventures of Tintin, the comic series by Belgian cartoonist Hergé, then it will have to be the opera diva, the “Milanese Nightingale”, Bianca Castafiore. Tintin nerds will know that she made her début appearance in King Ottokar’s Sceptre, and then in The Seven Crystal Balls, The Calculus Affair, The Castafiore Emerald, Tintin and the Picaros, and The Red Sea Sharks. She even appears ‘off-stage’ (on radio in Land of Black Gold and Tintin in Tibet, and in the imagination of Captain Haddock, who despises her, in Flight 714).
Interestingly, although she is touted in the comic series as one of the leading opera singers of her generation, the only thing Castafiore is ever ‘heard’ to sing is the first few lines or snatches of her signature aria, the Jewel Song from Charles Gounod’s opera Faust. And the aria is from a French opera, rather than a bel canto one by Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi or Puccini that one might expect from a star of La Scala.
But the choice of aria is a clever one, as it casts the self-absorbed diva Bianca Castafiore (whose name incidentally is Italian for “white chaste flower”) as Marguerite, taking child-like narcissistic pleasure in her own reflection. The context, briefly is this: By Act III Scene 6 of the opera, the title character Faust has made a pact with the Devil (Méphistophélès) and has been transformed into a young man who is madly in love with a beautiful woman Marguerite. She rejects his advances, so Faust asks Méphistophélès to find him a suitable gift to woo her. Méphistophélès conjures up an ornate box containing exquisite jewelry and a hand mirror and leaves it at her doorstep. Marguerite tries on the jewels and admires herself in the mirror, and sings the song. And so Faust wins the heart of (fickle, if you ask me) Marguerite.
Hergé in fact is believed to have disliked opera, which perhaps explains why he takes such delight in creating such a comical caricature of an opera singer. The running gag was the basis for the entire Hergé album “The Castafiore Emerald”, previously titled “The Castafiore Jewels”.
The Finnish newspaper Helsingen Sanomat suggested that Hergé modelled Castafiore from the real-life Finnish soprano Aino Ackté (1876-1944), to whom Jean Sibelius had dedicated his tone poem Luonnotar. More significantly, she had made her operatic début in 1897 at l’Opéra de Paris in the role of –you guessed it – Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. She was so successful in this role that she was signed on for six years after that as well. From here, she stormed the Metropolitan Opera New York and Covent Garden London. She premiered the title role of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome to such acclaim, that Strauss himself hailed her as the “one and only Salome”.
Other sources find more than a passing resemblance between Castafiore and the French soprano Emma Calvé (1858-1942), probably the most famous French female opera singer of the Belle Époque. Unsurprisingly, she too débuted in the role of Marguerite in Faust. Of interest to us in India, she had a deep respect for Swami Vivekananda, saying “he truly walked with God, a noble being, a saint, a philosopher and a true friend.” She even travelled the Orient with him in 1899-1900, visiting Belur Math in Calcutta, founded by Vivekananda in honour of his guru Ramakrishna Paramahansa. The admiration was mutual, and he wrote glowingly of her, commending her for scaling such great heights despite her humble origin.
Another point of interest is that the supposed text of the Jewel Song doesn’t quite translate into “Ah, my beauty past compare; These jewels bright I wear”. The French lyrics in fact translate to “Ah, I laugh to see myself so beautiful in this mirror; Is it you, Marguerite, is it you? Answer me! Respond, respond quickly!” and so on. The word “jewels” (bijoux) does not feature in the text at all. Instead, you have references to “Le bracelet et le collier!” (The bracelet and the necklace).
For some reason, when the 2011 Steven Spielberg- Peter Jackson-Steven Moffat film “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” was made, although Castafiore plays a pivotal role in shattering the glass of the bottle that holds the third model of the Unicorn and the crucial parchment scroll concealed within, the aria she sings (sung on the film soundtrack by Renée Fleming, no less!) is not the Jewel Song but an aria “Je veux vivre” from another Gounod opera, Romeo et Juliette. Why this is so is a mystery. Both arias require the soprano to hit a potentially glass-shattering top B, although the latter aria seems to be even more coloratura than the Jewel Song. Also rather bizarrely, the introduction (played by an invisible orchestra) is not even from this aria, but from yet another coloratura aira”Una voce poco fa” from Giachomo Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, or L’inutile precauzione (The Barber of Seville, or the Futile Precaution). The film is based upon three Hergé albums (The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham’s Treasure), none of which have Castafiore in them. Yet Jackson stated that she was written into the plot because she was an “iconic character” and because she would add a fun element to it.
Castafiore is not just a star in the Tintin comic series. She has been immortalised in the firmament as well. An asteroid discovered in 1950, has been named asteroid 1683 Castafiore, after her! You can run but you can’t hide from her, Haddock!
(An edited version of this article was published on 25 May 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)