VENUS IN FURS: AN OPERA – Here at Balladeer’s Blog I love sharing my enthusiasms. My blog posts where I provide contemporary slants to Ancient Greek Comedies to make them more accessible have been big hits over the years, so I’ve begun trying that approach with operas, too.
Previously I presented how I would handle opera versions of the 1930 science fiction novel Gladiator and of the original 1966 Spaghetti Western Django. This time I’ll deal with Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s erotic 1870 novel Venus In Furs in opera format.
VENUS IN FURS
SINGERS: A Tenor, a Baritone, a Soprano, 3 Mezzo-Sopranos and 2 Basses
I would present Venus In Furs as a two-act opera. I originally pondered a one-act format but that would have run into the same problem as the Richard Strauss opera Capriccio with the length pretty much dictating an intermission at some point.
Obviously what was daringly explicit in 1870 is just a bit titillating – even silly – here in 2020. I would not treat the story as outright comedy but like a more serious version of battle-of-the-sexes tales like The Taming of the Shrew with elements of Gothic Horror and dark comedy thrown in.
That fluctuation between opera seria and opera buffa would reflect a bit of the approach used in the 1786 opera Prima La Musica E Poi Le Parole. Act One would be a bit light in tone with the real darkness coming in Act Two.
ACT ONE: A POSH HEALTH RESORT IN THE CARPATHIANS, 1870.
I would reject the opening dream sequence from the novel and would move the wrap-around conversation between SEVERIN VON KUSIEMSKI and his visitor to the very end of the story when he receives the title painting from WANDA VON DUNAJEW.
Severin, a reasonably prosperous Continental man is bored at the health resort his physician has prescribed for him. He feels he has diagnosed the reasons behind his recent torpor better than his doctor: he is a dilettante filled with passion for the arts but can never get much beyond an opening stanza of a poem or the start of a portrait before his short passion span (as opposed to attention span) wildly spurs him on to another project … which will likewise go uncompleted.
Von Kusiemski feels he needs a firm hand to focus his scattered energies and hopes to find that firm hand through a woman he can love so thoroughly as to overtly worship her. In his eagerness he confuses romantic adoration with fetishism and at first fixates on a beautiful sculpture of Venus in a grove near the health resort.
In an allegorical touch that resonates to this very day, Severin’s fevered imagination bestows on the unliving, unfeeling statue the personality traits of his ideal woman. In an eerie song it could be presented in the same quasi-creepy manner as the end of Fellini’s Casanova, but with Severin as a would-be victim rather than a would-be conqueror.
Soon he transfers his fixation to other artistic representations of Venus, including a miniature reproduction of Titian’s painting Venus with the Mirror. On the back of the reproduction Severin pens some fetishistic lines about wanting to be utterly controlled and used by such a woman.
He writes of his envy of figures like the Knight of Toggenburg or the Chevalier from Manon l’Escault or Samson or even Holofernes and other legendary victims of iconic Wicked Women. He conceals the miniature with his written poems inside one of the books he brought with him to the health resort.
One day Wanda Von Dunajew, a wealthy and beautiful 24 year old widow who is visiting the spa asks the man – through their hostess – to borrow some of his books and he absent-mindedly includes the book with his feverish scribblings in it.
Severin is worried at the thought of being embarrassed if Wanda finds and reads his fetishistic confessions. It turns out she has and, amused by the passion and zeal of the erotic writing visits our protagonist to learn more about him and his unusual desires. This “accidental” discovery of a man’s submissive desires is still a staple element in modern fem-dom fiction.
Wanda, dressed in the furs of the title, is even more amused when the intense man is so awestruck by her beauty on this first meeting that he mistakenly thinks she is the grove’s statue of Venus come to life. Like so many beautiful women in so many time periods, the young widow feels a bit flattered at the ardor of her male admirer while at the same time finding his over-the-top expression of it more than a little silly.
That first meeting sets the tone for Severin and Wanda’s relationship. He outright worships her and wants to be ruled by her like a peasant by his Queen. In return Wanda finds him reasonably attractive and very stimulating intellectually but tries to discourage his lovesick gibbering, which she finds unmanly.
This unusual parody of a typical courtship continues and Wanda even takes Severin into her bed eventually, hoping to calm his seemingly disturbed urges by consummating their love affair. However, not even this act of sexual “conquest” satisfies Von Kusiemski’s desire to surrender to her completely.
Now, with even the traditional sex act behind them, Severin and Wanda’s odd courtship continues. His object was not mere love-making but remains total and absolute submission to her. He repeatedly states his wish to be used by her like a slave while she runs hot and cold on the idea.
It’s obvious the woman doesn’t want to risk their current relationship, but Severin’s pleas are clearly awakening certain repressed fantasies within her. Again and again she makes it clear to him that she will lose respect for him if he becomes her slave but he naively feels that this new arrangement will make their relationship permanent.
No matter how many times Wanda makes it clear to Severin that he may regret the dominance and cruelty that he is bringing out in her, he refuses to relent. At last she bids farewell to him as a lover and takes him on as her slave.
A sign of Wanda’s own emerging kinkiness arises as she insists that Von Kusiemski sign a legally binding contract with her. She, far wealthier than Severin, wants to travel in countries where forced servitude – even if it is not explicitly stated to be slavery – is still legal.
Our protagonist signs all the papers willingly. (Long before the much-ridiculed “contract negotiations” of Fifty Shades of Grey came Wanda and Severin’s legal dealings.) Act One comes to a close with Von Dunajew ominously pointing out to her new slave that the contract even permits her to KILL HIM if she wants to, hence her desire to travel only in certain countries where the contract will keep her beyond the reach of the law.
ACT TWO: ASSORTED LOCATIONS IN FLORENCE, ITALY
To accommodate the stage I am combining all the story elements from Wanda and Severin’s travels through Vienna, Austria and Florence, Italy into JUST Florence.
Wanda shows Severin glimpses of her posh lifestyle, but of course he only receives a servant’s-eye view of it. She treats him as a despised servant in public and subjects him to whippings and humiliations in the privacy of their rooms.
He must sleep in chilly, cramped servant’s quarters and sometimes serve dinner to Wanda and any guests she has invited that night. Though his “owner” is interested more in the servitude aspect of their agreement rather than other considerations she does intermittently reward Severin by letting him kiss her feet or lie on the floor beside her.
The woman grows more disdainful toward our protagonist the more abuse he takes from her. To humiliate him further she begins inviting other people into the arrangement, testing his limits for her own amusement.
Wanda hires three black women as maids and permits them to whip, dominate and enslave Severin as well. They may be paid servants but HE is an unpaid slave. Even in Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel he was not unaware of the particular dynamics at play in such scenarios, another way that this story would still titillate or bother audiences.
Next Wanda’s beauty mesmerizes a young artist whom she brings into her orbit as well. Like Severin he clearly fetishizes Wanda and slavishly obeys her, arousing jealousy AND uncomfortable self-awareness in the slave.
He even begins to understand Von Dunajew’s disdain for he himself as he watches the submissive artist worshipfully refuse even to accept payment from Wanda for the days he spent painting a portrait of her in the fur-trimmed outfit that Severin adores.
Next, while riding in a carriage through the streets of Florence, Wanda makes sure Severin sees her ogling a hunky blonde Greek man. As further abuse, she makes Von Kusiemski go and find out the man’s name and extend an invitation to visit her. Boiling inside, Severin submits even to this treatment.
The Greek man who caught Wanda’s eye is named Alexis Papadopolis. He is incredibly wealthy and distinguished himself in military campaigns against the Greeks’ bitter enemies: the Ottoman Muslim Turks. All of this combined with his staggering good looks cause Wanda to fall for him very hard.
Even the heartsick Severin must admit to himself that the man is “beautiful.” We learn that assorted gay men have pursued Alexis, much to his cruel amusement. One of them even threatened to kill himself in front of Papadopolis if he didn’t return his romantic interest. Alexis told him he would have to, since he wasn’t interested in men.
At various theatrical performances, balls at the Greek Ambassador’s residence and other High Society affairs, Severin must serve Wanda AND the haughty Alexis, who at length becomes her new lover.
Our protagonist STILL cannot bring himself to leave his revered Wanda, however, causing her to despise him even more. When he FINALLY threatens to leave she tosses money on the floor and tells him to go ahead. When he threatens suicide she imitates her new idol Papadopolis and dismissively shrugs her shoulders over the threat.
Unable to go through with killing himself, Severin returns to Von Dunajew and passionately threatens her with violence. Wanda tells him that finally he is acting like a man and says she is taking him back.
The next day the Venus in Furs even treats Von Kusiemski to a kinky bit of business by ordering him to let her tie him up. Of course, he does so, because even after all this he still wants to give her unquestioning obedience.
When Severin is tied to a support pole in the bedroom, Wanda has Alexis emerge from hiding to join her in mocking and whipping Von Kusiemski. Her claim that she was taking our main character back was just a cruel setup for this moment.
She reminds him how many times she warned him away from pursuing this type of relationship. She loved him but he wouldn’t settle for anything other than being her slave.
The widow and her Greek lover leave Severin there to be found and untied by the jeering black maids while they ride off together in their carriage.
I would now use the wraparound bit from the novel as the brief final scene of the opera. Severin is back in his homeland, where he has renounced his formerly submissive ways and has bitterly assumed the role of the heartbreaker rather than the one whose heart is broken.
One of his conquests is his lovesick female servant, whom he sadly notes grows more devoted to him the harsher he treats her.
A package arrives for him. It is the Venus in Furs portrait of Wanda using Severin as a footrest, the painting done by the lovesick artist. Wanda has included the torn-up slave contract and wrote a note to him offering the piece of artwork as a memento from “a woman who loved him until his degrading submission to her killed that love.”
Von Kusiemski’s closing song would encapsulate the sad lessons that our protagonist has drawn from this experience. To quote Severin from the book:
“That woman, as nature has created her, and man at present is educating her, is man’s enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work.”
COMMENT: The various ways that Venus In Furs could be applied metaphorically to the battle of the sexes even to this day is pretty obvious. It applies even to the old adage about how women say they want “nice” men but often lose respect for such men.
Some lines sung by Wanda in this opera would, of course, be her most famous lines from the novel – “Man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman’s entire but decisive advantage.” As I wrote above, though this tale is barely titillating by today’s standards some of the dialogue still resonates.
In a way it’s odd that Sacher-Masoch became eponymous with masochism, since at the end of the story the main character has lost all desire to be submissive and has sadly embraced the conventional “callous male” attitude toward the women in his life.
Severin even says the moral of his story is “Whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped.”
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