Monday, May 20, 2013

800 Words: Keep Opera Dumb!

I went to see Verdi’s Rigoletto yesterday afternoon at the Baltimore Lyric Opera. My date and I agreed that it was, in most ways, a very good performance. The Rigoletto and the Duke had fantastic voices, the Baltimore Symphony was in the pit and featured some magnificent work - especially in the brass section, and the conductor generally kept things quite taut with extremely brisk but flexible tempos. But even so, it was a performance that was lacking. Gilda, like so many sopranos today, had a distractingly wide vibrato which no amount of intelligent singing could disguise. The chorus was simply haggard - half the time they didn’t seem to know the words, but they didn’t have much of a chance because the conductor set tempos so fast that the words would never register anyway. No singer not among the five principles could be heard over the orchestra. The sets and costumes were traditional in the extreme, and Verdi designed Rigoletto for a company precisely like the one we have in Baltimore, just as he did most all of his operas before 1860. If a company like the Baltimore Lyric Opera can’t capture the true spirit of Verdi’s Rigoletto, can anybody do it anymore?

One day, I’ll do a much more specific post about Verdi. But there are one or two points to make. Verdi’s operas, particularly his early and middle-period operas are not ‘operas’ in the classic sense of Monteverdi and Gluck - which try to revive the Greek ideal of a ‘total art work’, in which drama’s used to combine the most exquisite parts of every artform. Verdi is ‘popera’, which has far more in common with the Broadway musical than it ever did with high-fallutin’ attempts to revive classical antiquity. In this way, Verdi is a great dramatist in the tradition of Shakespeare, Moliere, and Mozart before him, or Puccini and Sondheim after him. All of these men were geniuses, but their genius was rooted not in creating the ideal drama in their head. They were all true theater professionals firstly, and because they understood theater, they used their knowledge of the theater to create extraordinary results. They thrived on the limitations of their performers, and were able to accommodate their works to the practical realities of producing an evening’s entertainment the way a tailor does a suit. Each singing part is written especially for the singer who premiered it, each orchestral part for the particular capabilities of the orchestra. Just as Shakespeare would never have written Antony and Cleopatra had he not had a great boy actor to play the Egyptian Queen, Mozart would never have written The Queen of the Night’s famous aria had he not had a soprano with a truly amazing coloratura (who happened to be his sister-in-law).

(“Wrong baby in the fire.” This scene from Il Trovatore should, by all rights, be perhaps the dumbest scene in all of opera. But Verdi’s music (starting 4 minutes in particularly) makes it so much more powerful than it should be. You almost believe it.)

Let’s face it, when it came to brainpower, Verdi’s drama was probably more lacking than any other great theatrical creator. But short of Shakespeare, no man of the theater has ever been greater at creating drama. It is absolutely astounding how often you can find yourself profoundly moved and shaken by Verdi, even as you’re laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.   

Verdi is a practical man of the theater, and like all practical playwrights, his plays were designed to play just as well - if not better - to provincial galleys as at the imperial theaters. There is something about a performance of early-to-middle Verdi at a great opera house that usually feels too smooth, too easy on the ears, too thoughtful to come to life. The music is simply too threadbare, too oom-pah-pah, too reminiscent of a village band, to be played with sheen. I want to see Aida at the Met, but I'd venture that Nabucco or Ernani would be more enjoyable in my back yard. The singing and playing has to be like Verdi's music, crude and red-blooded. It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to be effective. Verdi is popular music, and like the best of today’s popular culture, you can easily find yourself caught up in a drama which you know is ridiculous, and moved very easily by what you see and hear, even as you realize that it’s completely absurd. Later Verdi, like Otello and Falstaff, is written for the great houses, and requires the ministrations of a great conductor and orchestra. But even Rigoletto and Il Trovatore are practically conductor proof when the singers are great. Operas is the realm of the singer, and great opera singing can thrill as no other artform can. If the singing is no good, why are we listening?

There is a paradox in Verdi - a paradox which is true about all the great theater composers, but particularly so in Verdi’s case. You would think that Verdi lends himself well to a more theatrical experience in which every dramatic gesture is rethought for maximum coherence, but such an approach renders Verdi bloodless and endows him with a brain his operas don’t have. Because Verdi’s music is already so theatrical, he must be played as music first, theater second. No wonder opera's become so unpopular...

It’s commonly known that we opera-lovers live in the ‘Age of the Director’. People are no longer much thrilled by great opera singing, in no small part because singers today are simply not as thrilling. But it could never be any other way: we’re a visual culture, we’re more accustomed to movies than music, and even our pop music usually requires lyrics in order for people to listen. Opera, like everything else today, becomes more of a visual experience than an aural one, and the music often seems relegated to soundtrack status as it accompanies whatever goes onstage.

For 400 years, opera fundamentally existed with the barest trappings of theater. Yes, the great opera houses often had extremely lavish sets and costumes. But nobody insisted on a huge amount of coherence. Every attempt by composers to make opera more coherent, whether by Wagner, or by Gluck, or by Janacek, or even by Monteverdi at its founding, resulted not in greater naturalism but seeming still more mannered and even more ridiculous. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Opera is resistant to any effort to make it anything less dumb than it is. If you put too much thought into it, you simply neuter everything that’s great about opera. But when you let opera be opera, the effect is extraordinary - an effect which most of America and Europe used to understand quite well.

Through the scratchy recording horns, we can hear dim vestiges of Italian opera in something resembling its prime. It’s tough to be certain about what we’re hearing, but what we hear is sort of miraculous. What we hear is Verdi singers who have far more secure techniques - with far less warbling, far clearer diction, and far more security up and down their registers. We also hear singers who were far more free and passionate in their interpretations, and yet they also obeyed many markings far more often. They didn’t have directors instructing them about every nuance on the stage - if because if they were great singers, it didn’t matter how they looked, and they acted with their voices. They simply cared more and gave much more thought to what they sang than their later equivalents. There are many things which contemporary opera does better than in former generations - most significantly , we now have 400 years of repertoire rather than five composers (for fifty years, opera basically meant Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and Strauss). But it can’t be denied that in Verdi and Wagner, the very core of the operatic repertoire, today’s results are abysmal when compared to even half-a-century ago.

(Caruso, still the most popular tenor of the 20th century, singing the rabble-rouser Di Quella Pira - with laser-like intonation, pacing right on Verdi’s metronome mark, and amazing high notes. In our day, Caruso’s kind of singing is so impossible that even a great tenor like Placido Domingo can’t sing this in tune or tempo.)

And if we’re to believe accounts from a hundred years ago, the singers of the first recorded generation (Caruso, Ruffo, Ponselle et al) were mere shadows of those who came before them. Before the era of movies, opera singers were the movie stars of their eras - their social lives followed in newspapers in much the same way People Magazine follows Adele or Justin Bieber. It would appear that the greatest opera singers were so good that they inflamed their public to infatuation which even today’s most important entertainers would find hard to top. Today’s era calls opera an elitist artform, and it’s often wondered if it was always elitist, or is it as popular as people say it once was? The answer, of course, is ‘both.’

Opera, like film after it, can sometimes be an elitist artform, but it was also a popular form with much that appealed to lower classes. To be sure, there were composers throughout history like Wagner and Monteverdi and Lully who were discussed endlessly by contemporaries with intellectual aspirations - much as Bergman and Kubrick and Fellini were in the 20th century. There were also operatic songs by composers who had almost purely populist appeal like Paolo Tosti, which could perhaps be called the MTV music videos of their day because of their mass appeal and unavoidable presence in the lives of a certain era (or certain eras) in Italy. And just as many filmmakers - like Coppola, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford - found ways to appeal to both the masses and the intellectuals, there were many great opera and song composers who mastered the art of appealing to both connoisseur and mass - like Handel, Mozart (at least posthumously), Schubert (ditto), Schumann, Bizet (ditto), Dvorak, Faure, Richard Strauss, Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten....

There are an enormous number of similarities between opera and the Broadway Musical. Perhaps people will soon think of the Musical as the ‘new opera.’ But the difference between operas and musicals is that opera places its emphasis on music first, text second. In musicals, it’s the other way around. We live in an era that demands coherent plots, and you will not get such a thing from most of the great operas. Coherence is not the point of opera. The point of opera is to attach the deep feelings which one derives from a piece of music to specific situations. A composer and his ‘librettist’ (text writer) make those situations as specific as they can, but coherence must take a backseat to immediacy. Hopefully, those situations hit a nerve in you, and if it does, then the theatrical experience is almost unbearably moving. It was only in the 20th century that electronic amplification could guarantee that every word a singer sings could be heard. Opera singers used to do the best they could to make themselves understood while singing (and their diction was much better than today’s singers), but subtitles have obliterated the need to be understood at all, and so singers pay much less attention to diction than they once did. Everything in opera is now subservient to the visual experience and making opera as coherent a narrative as any movie. Our priorities are fully backwards, and the result is that opera is dumber than ever.

(From 1928. A Rigoletto with a bunch of Italian second string singers and a second string conductor, who bring much, much more character and good singing, better pacing, and more coherent enunciation than you can find anywhere today. In no way perfect, but made of a greatness we'll never hear live.)

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