The Swedish car company Volvo must have thought it was being real cultural and high-toned when it decided to use a famous opera aria as the soundtrack for its new television commercial.
Its idea, plainly, is to make a connection between the luxuriousness of its XC90 SUV and the classiness of grand opera. “Can you design an SUV for an aria?” asks the commercial, which is in frequent rotation on broadcast and cable TV. The camera wanders lovingly over the vehicle’s soft leather upholstery and its high-tech sound system while the aria sounds sweetly in the background. The ad’s tagline is: “Our idea of luxury.”
Opera fans watching this commercial must cringe, if they’re not guffawing. That’s because the music on the soundtrack is no paean to grace and lovingkindness, but the homicidal signature aria of one of the most monstrous characters in the canon.
Death and despair flame about me.
She’s the Queen of the Night, the supreme villainess of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and she’s one vicious specimen. Think Cruella de Vil times 1 million.
Volvo isn’t the first advertiser to strike a discordant note in a TV commercial. Examples are legion of multinational companies committing cultural solecisms by overlooking vernacular translations of their slogans that turn innocent words in one country into insults or profanities in another.
Then there are just plain misfires. In 2017, Pepsi produced an ad featuring famous-for-being-famous model Kendall Jenner solving America’s racial discord by handing a can of soda to a policeman at a demonstration. An uproar on social media hounded the company into pulling the ad.
In this case, Volvo plainly is counting on consumers’ ignorance of the true import and cultural context of its soundtrack. It sounds comforting as background music, after all, and it’s sung sweetly enough.
So let’s fill in the blanks.
The aria itself, which is heard in the opera’s second act, opens with the words “Der Holle Rache,” or “The vengeance of hell,” and gets only nastier from there: “Death and despair flame about me,” the Queen sings. “Hear, gods of revenge, Hear a mother’s oath!”
The aria is addressed to her daughter, Pamina, whom she is commanding to commit murder on pain of being “disowned, abandoned, destroyed...forever.”
The particular passage Volvo chose for the commercial is especially famous. It’s a warhorse for sopranos to show off, an astronomically long florid division that takes the soprano up to top F after a punishing string of high Cs. The division is based on the Queen’s warning to Pamina that if she doesn’t commit the murder she commands, “Then you will be my daughter nevermore.”
(The lyrics can be heard on the commercial soundtrack, but who understands German anymore, other than Germans?)
It’s worth noting that Volvo’s commercial producers placed their thumbs on the scale a bit. The Canadian soprano featured in the ad, Emily Cheung, is coached or recorded to give the music a gentle chirpiness — which happens to be the most common shortcoming of bad recordings of the number, committed by singers unable to summon what the critic William Mann called the “unrighteous wrath” of the Queen of the Night. The producers discarded Mozart’s thunderous arrangement (flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets, drums and strings) in favor of a wan sort of synthesizer pizzicato.
None of that means that Volvo might not be able to sell its luxury SUVs to buyers entranced by Mozart’s music without them knowing it’s an imprecation to violence. As for me, I’d be afraid that every time I got behind the wheel I’d start contemplating bloody murder, the target being whoever decided to reduce a work of art to a commercial jingle.