What the world needs now, I hope you will agree, is a brand new Verdi opera, and the principal reason we don’t have one is that Verdi died in 1901. But the secondary reason (I feel) is that there has not been a libretto worthy of Verdi’s steel for even longer than that. And as I riffle through dramatic properties of the last few generations, certain screenplays leap out at me and say: THIS would be a great Verdi opera! Vertigo is one. Forbidden Planet is another. But the overwhelming cinch for first place, and I have taken the liberty of “opera-izing” it, is:
Come il tempo passa, ossia la Casablanca
Libretto in two acts
The curtain rises on Rick’s, the snazziest nightclub-casino in French Morocco. It is 1941. The Americans aren’t in the war yet, but Rick [baritone – Simon Keenlyside, who does tormented so well] is an American. His constant companion and best draw is pianist Sam [tenor – Anthony Dean Griffey for colorblind casting].
Chorus: Tutto il mondo viene a Rick. (Everybody comes to Rick's)
Ugarte [baritone – Richard Paul Fink], a European of doubtful reputation, sneaks up to the crazy Russian bartender, Sasha [baritone – Mariusz Kwiecien], hoping to see Rick. Sasha is vague as to Rick’s whereabouts, and Ugarte slinks off. Sasha flirts with Yvonne [mezzo - Denyce Graves], a chanteuse, but she sneers at him.
Enter Louis Renault, Casablanca’s corrupt police chief. [alto – I see this as a trouser role – Alice Coote or Beth Clayton – but it could also be sung by David Daniels.] Louis is showing the new German “military observer” around the local hotspots. The Germans have no authority in Morocco, but the French have to be cautious around the masters of Vichy. [Major Strasser, tenor – Kurt Streit.] He asks about Rick, whose anti-fascist history he knows; Louis remarks “If I were a woman, I would be very much in love with Rick.” But he’s ogling a refugee’s young wife even as he sings.
Rick joins Strasser and Louis for dialogue sung over riffs from Sam’s piano. “Perche vieni a Casablanca?” “Pelle acque.” “Ma, Casablanca acque non ha! E deserto!” “Ho misinformato.” He excuses himself when he spots Ugarte in the shadows, and while Sam leads a rousing jazz number, learns that Ugarte has murdered a German spy and stolen two letters of transit, good for anyone who carries them to flee the country. He begs Rick to hold onto them while he packs. Rick reluctantly agrees.
While Rick is out hiding the papers, Major Strasser begins to chat up Yvonne. To Sasha’s chagrin, she flirts with Strasser. Quartet (with Louis’s cynical comments).
Enter Laszlo (bass – Rene Pape) and his lovely companion, Ilsa (soprano – Renee Fleming would kill for this role, but Anna Netrebko would project sensuality). While he chats with like-minded exiles, Ilsa turns to Sam. “Giocale, Sam.” “Non capisco che voi parlante, madamigella.” “Gioca ‘Come il tempo passa.’ Dee-di-de-di-de-di….” Relucantly, Sam plays the tune … only to be interrupted by a furious Rick. “Lo dici giammai giocale quell’ canzone, Sam!” “Dessa la riquiesta.” “Chi?” He turns. “Salute, Rick,” Ilsa says. (Orchestra plays minor key version – ominously,) She introduces him to Laszlo.
Their brittle trio is interrupted by gunshots and screams: a man has been slain just outside the door of the casino. Louis hurries out … and returns with the news that Ugarte has been shot fleeing from cops because he has violated curfew. Strasser triumphantly proclaims that Ugarte was a refugee – and that he’d stolen two letters of transit. His entourage (a barbershop quartet of Axis officers) usurp Sam’s piano and sing the Horst Wessel Song. In response, Laszlo leads the band, Sasha and even Yvonne in the Marseillaise. They drown out the Germans and Yvonne falls into Sasha’s arms. (Comic duettino if there's time.)
Strasser, in recit, commands Louis to close Rick’s. He’s no happier to learn that Ugarte did not have the letters of transit on his body. Louis closes Rick’s on the grounds that gambling takes place on the premises, commencing (“Son stupefatto, stupefatto”) a stretta in which all the characters comment on the precarious situation. The curtain falls.
Act II, scene 1
Rick, in his room, drinks and broods on Ilsa’s betrayal (Aria: “Abbiamo avere Parigi”). Louis comes in, hoping to learn if he has the letters of transit, warning that Major Strasser will be furious if Laszlo gets away. Then Ilsa arrives. She explains she secretly married Laszlo before she met Rick, that he escaped from a concentration camp but refuses to flee without her. Extradition by the Nazis is only days, maybe hours, away. She offers herself to Rick if he’ll give her the letters of transit – they’ll trick Laszlo into getting on the plane to Lisbon alone.
Grand duet (over an ever more chromaticized As Time Goes By):
“Hai scordatemi, Rick …?”
“Scordarti? Tu? Parigi? Giammai. Tu (wore) blu … i tedeschi (wore) gray …”
“Son con Laszlo … il grande guerrier della liberta. Devi noi aita …”
“No. Mi partiti; in tempo, tu lo partirai.”
He resists, denounces her treachery, refuses to believe her – but does believe her. She falls into his arms as the curtain descends.
Act II, scene 2
At the airport, Laszlo (with a chorus of pilots) sings a brindisi about being drunk on libertá. When Ilsa shows up, she says Rick will bring the letters of transit, and the two of them sing of the future they fly to – while Ilsa, aside, wonders what’s taking Rick so long.
Rick comes in with the papers – but Louis has followed him. Rick pulls a gun on him, urging Laszlo to catch the plane as quickly as possible. “E mia moglie?” “Anch’ella.” “Ma Rick –?” she whispers, as Laszlo turns toward the runway. Rick snarls: “Le probleme di tre piccoli uomini n’accontono a una colline di fagioli,” launching a trio in waltz time (with Laszlo) that becomes a quartet (with Louis).
Laszlo and Ilsa begin a slow march towards the plane; tension builds as the propellers rev (depicted by drum rolls). A jeep drives up, Strasser at the wheel. “Laszlo dov'é?” he demands. Louis nods at Rick, who still has him covered. Strasser, furiously, seizes the phone and demands to be connected to the conning tower. Rick, after warning him to put it down, shoots him dead. (Crashing descending arpeggio from the strings.)
The plane takes off, just as Strasser’s German quartet drives up. “What has happened?” they demand. (Crashing arpeggio.)
Louis responds in cold, precise, official tones (over an ironic echo of Strasser’s leitmotif): “Il colonello e … assassinato … Ritrovate i sospetti usuali.”
As the Germans drive off in frustration, Rick gazes fondly at his new companion-in-arms: “Louis – penso ch’e la commincia d’una bellissima amicizia.”
Crashing arpeggio segues into “As Time Goes By,” concluding with a dash of Marseillaise.