I’ve long been familiar with the Russian palindrome а роза упала на лапу Азора [a roza upala na lapu Azora] ‘and a/the rose fell onto the paw of Azor’—I don’t know if it’s the most famous, but it’s the example given in the first paragraph of the Russian Wikipedia article on palindromes—but I had no idea it had any real-world meaning. Now I learn from yesterday’s gilliland post that there’s a whole backstory, which I am going to share.
When we think of late-eighteenth-century opera, we think of Mozart and maybe Gluck, but the leading composer of comic opera (which I’m guessing was more popular at the time) was André Grétry, and one of his best-known works was Zémire et Azor, which premiered in Paris in 1771 and was staged in Saint Petersburg in 1774. (Berlioz thought highly of it in the 1830s: “ces chants si vrais, si expressifs.”) It was based on the story of Beauty and the Beast, first published in 1740, and Azor was the prince who had been turned into a monstrous beast-like creature by enchantment; Zémire, of course, was the merchant’s youngest daughter who eventually changed him back with her tears of love, and as gilliland points out, the rose falling on his paw is an excellent symbol of that second transformation. He adds all sorts of further material about various rulers of the day and their joint attendance at a performance of the opera, but since he admits to tossing in some ringers (for instance, he says “they had all read Аленький цветочек [The Scarlet Flower],” but he knows as well as I do that Aksakov’s Russian version of the story wasn’t published until 1858), I’ll let people who read Russian go to the link to get his version. Me, I’ll add some interesting information I turned up about the names:
The names Zemire and Azor link Oriental to American slavery in French theatrical history. They derive directly from a 1742 comedy Amour pour Amour, which takes place near Baghdad, featuring Azor as a genie…. But these names, in turn, refer to and invert those of Zamor and Alzire, the heroes of Voltaire’s Alzire, ou les Américains, which appeared six years earlier and is set in Peru.
–Carolyn Vellenga Berman, Creole Crossings: Domestic Fiction And the Reform of Colonial Slavery, pp. 94-95.
I love these hidden threads running back through forgotten history.