The 1994 American drama film The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favourite films, and ranks #1 among the “Top 250 list” of Internet Movie Database (IMDb). It has a great cast, an irresistible plot reminiscent at least in some respects of The Count of Monte Cristo in that a wrongly-accused protagonist is jailed for years in a prison from which escape seems quite impossible. But whereas the escape begins the story, setting off a spate of revenge in Monte Cristo, in Shawshank the whole film builds up inexorably but nevertheless surprisingly to a spectacular jail break by Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), and the most audacious settling of scores with his corrupt, unscrupulous warden.
One particularly memorable scene from the film captures the essence of the film, its message of inner freedom regardless of external circumstances.
Dufresne has been assigned to the prison library and receives a library donation of LPs (long-playing records) that includes a recording of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera buffa or comic opera ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ (The Marriage of Figaro). He plays an excerpt from it on the public address system, and is punished with two weeks of solitary confinement for his stunt.
The excerpt he plays is the Letter Duet or the Canzonetta Sull’aria for two sopranos. The music that is broadcast throughout the prison via the public address system lifts the spirits of the inmates. Dufresne’s friend Red (played magnificently by Morgan Freeman) is the narrator through the film, and describes the episode:
“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”
Freeman’s lines eloquently belie the notion that one needs to ‘understand’ opera and its libretto in order to savour it and enjoy it, something that keeps many people at bay from even giving opera a chance.
But what were “those two Italian ladies” singing about? The aria is a duettino (short duet) from the third act of the opera. Countess Rosina Almaviva dictates a letter to her maid Susanna (who is bride-to-be of Figaro, valet to the Count Almaviva). The philandering Count has his eye on young Susanna, and the two women set a trap for him, to expose his infidelity.
The letter invites the Count to a rendezvous that night with Susanna, “under the pines”. The title “Sull’aria…che soave zeffiretto” translates into “On the breeze..what a gentle little zephyr (wind).” The text of the dictated letter contains just three lines, and is suggestive: “What a gentle little Zephyr; This evening will sigh; Under the pines in the little grove.” The duo conclude their aria singing “And the rest he’ll understand.” “Susanna” will of course be the Countess disguised as her, and the Count will be caught red-handed.
The letter-writing lends itself perfectly to the structure of this beautiful aria, with the Countess first dictating a line, and Susanna repeating it as she writes it down. The strings have an undulating line, where they simply ‘open out’ the chord progression as ‘arpeggios’. A simple expedient, but in the hands of Mozart, it becomes sublime. The woodwinds almost become participants in the conversation, at first giving us a foretaste of the Countess’ opening line, and then ‘answering’ in a three-way dialogue.
There is some irony in the choice of this particular aria in the film. The aria revolves around exposing duplicity and infidelity, while Dufresne is framed for a murder resulting from his own wife’s extramarital affair.
The singers in the ravishing rendition you hear in The Shawshank Redemption are Gundula Janowitz (the Countess) and Edith Mathis (Susanna), with the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Karl Böhm,
recorded in 1968 and packaged onto a 4-LP box set. It is one such set that Dufresne blows the dust off, removes the record from its sleeve, and gently places in on the turntable and the stylus right at the beginning of the aria. It lets us, the viewer, know that Andy Dufresne is a pretty discerning classical music buff. He not only chooses this recording of the opera from among all the other records donated to the library, but is able to zero in on this precise aria.
The film helped renew interest in not just the opera or this aria, but also this particular recording. The Wikipedia entries for both the sopranos, Janowitz and Mathis mention their contribution to the Shawshank Redemption soundtrack. Edith Mathis is considered a true Mozartian singer, and this is one of her notable Mozart recordings of her career. Likewise, Janowitz is highly regarded for her role as the Countess Almaviva.
And cyberspace is full of accounts of people who describe the music at this point in the film as the most beautiful they ever heard in their lives, or who it made them weep for its sheer beauty.
Nearer home, Patricia Rozario and Joanne D’Mello sang it in Goa at their last public concert.
The opera (1786) has its libretto (text) written by the great librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (1739-1838) and is based on the play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799). Mozart loved exploring themes inspired by the spirit of the Enlightenment, reflecting the environment he was living in, where the man on the street was beginning to strike back against the institutionalised oppression of the aristocracy. The Marriage of Figaro has it all: servants who are smarter than and able to outwit their tyrannical, insolent masters. It predates the French Revolution by a mere 5 years, and Napoleon would later go on to observe that the Marriage of Figaro, both in the form of the play by Beaumarchais and Mozart’s opera, were the “Revolution in action”.
In the Beaumarchais play, the “letter episode” (tucked away in Act Four of the five-act play, which took four and a half hours when performed unedited) is over in a few sentences, perhaps under a minute. Trust the genius of Mozart to turn this little episode in the libretto into the most divine, achingly beautiful three and a half minutes of music ever written.
(An edited version of this article was published on 16 November 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
Just watched the Met Opera’s 1988 production of Le Nozze di Figaro today (5 May 2020), with Renee Fleming (Countess) and Cecilia Bartoli (Susanna)