Archive for the ‘opera’ Category

Boris and the Vixen

I hope I’m not disappointing anyone, but this post is going to be about opera.

More specifically, about two of my personal favourite operas – Mussorgsky’s  Boris Godunov, and Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – performances of which I had the privilege of attending over the last week.

Other than their both originating from Eastern Europe (one is Russian, the other Czech), and apart from their both being among my personal favourite works, they have little in common. Except, perhaps, that, each in its own way, they’re both quite unusual operas. Mussorgsky’s opera, based on  Pushkin’s sprawling epic play, is itself a sprawling epic opera, but seems rather strangely structured: the central character Boris appears in only four of its seven scenes (in four of its nine scenes in the later 1873 version); and there are long scenes, taking up substantial parts of the opera, that seem at best only tangentially related to the central plot, making one wonder just what they are doing there. This was perhaps inevitable given that Mussorgsky (who was librettist as well as composer) had to radically cut down the text of Pushkin’s play, reducing twenty-five scenes merely to seven: this inevitably results in some narrative discontinuities, where the audience has to fill in the gaps for themselves, and also in a few threads that don’t appear to lead anywhere. It’s a work that seems to want to expand further than what can reasonably be accommodated in a single evening’s performance.

Janáček’s opera is even stranger: it is based not on a play or even a novel, but on a comic strip in a newspaper; it is virtually plotless (a summary of the incidents that occur don’t really amount to what most of us would recognise as a plot); and it tells of the interactions between humans and animals in a woodland setting. Hardly the stuff of traditional opera.

But we shouldn’t wonder at their strangeness: all works of genius are strange to some extent or other. Boris Godunov, like Mussorgsky’s later opera Khovanschina (which was left unfinished), takes us to a turbulent period of Russian history. (Although we may wonder whether there has ever been a time in Russian history that wasn’t turbulent.) The period is the late 16th century: Boris is asked by the populace to accept the crown, to prevent further civil warfare and bloodshed. He agrees, but his very first words set the tone: “My soul is heavy”. Yes, soul: this is a very Russian opera after all.

The version I saw last week performed by the Royal Opera was the earlier, and more compact, 1869 version. It is not a version I am familiar with: the recording I have (and through which I know the piece), conducted by Claudio Abbado, appears to use the longer later version from 1873, but includes also a scene from the earlier version that Mussorgsky had taken out. The differences between the 1869 and the 1879 are fascinating, but it would take a greater Mussorgsky scholar than myself to write a proper analysis of it. As for as I can see, Mussorgsky, for his later version, stripped out a brief scene in which Boris encounters the Holy Fool (who is about as archetypal a Russian figure as may be imagined); adds two long scenes involving various political and romantic machinations in Poland, where Dmitri, the Pretender, is manipulated by the Polish Princess Marina, and who is herself manipulated by the Jesuit priest Rangoni; and added also an extra scene after Boris’ death, in which we witness an attempted lynching, and where, at the end, we see the armies of the Pretender march through the land, as the Holy Fool laments the fate of the Russian people: whoever is in power, it is the people who continue to suffer. In addition to this, Mussorgsky had significantly expanded at least two other scenes. (There are most probably further changes if one were to study the scores in detail – something I am not, alas, qualified to do.)

I did, I must confess, miss those extra scenes, and the extra passages Mussorgsky had composed for the later version; but even this more compact version seemed sprawling. I do not mean that as a criticism: I love the sprawl. Between the famous coronation scene at the opening, and perhaps the even more famous death scene at the end, we find ourselves in the gloom of a monastery cell, where the monk Pimen is chronicling the history of Russia (this scene is primarily expository, though not wholly so: we see also the young schismatic monk Grigory, who will later claim to be Dmitri, heir to the crown). Then, we have what seems to be a quite irrelevant scene set in a tavern, where we encounter the striking figure of the drunken monk Varlaam. True,  it does relate to the main action  in that we also see Grigory, now escaped from the monastery, and trying to make his way across the border into Lithuania; but the focus of this scene falls on Varlaam (sung with some gusto in this production by John Tomlinson): quite apart from anything else, he is given what must be the best “drunk” music ever composed: here was a composer who knew well what it was like to be drunk, and reproduced it unerringly in music. (In this earlier version, we do not see Varlaam again after this tavern scene: in the later version, we see him again in the final scene, attempting to lynch and hang a Catholic.)

Only after all this – some half way through the opera in its earlier version – do we encounter Boris again (after his brief appearance in the opening coronation scenes), and, perhaps to our surprise, we encounter him as a gentle and tender man, loving and solicitous of his children. But his soul is heavy: Prince Dmitri – the real prince Dmitri, not the one who later pretends to be him – had been murdered: he was a mere child. According to Pimen’s narration, it was Boris who had ordered the murder. We never quite get to know the truth of this. But in the terrifying final moments of this particular scene, we see Boris tortured with guilt, and hallucinating: he sees the murdered child appearing to him, and he cries out in terror, disclaiming his guilt. The music Mussorgsky provides for this really does make my hair stand on end: I really know nothing in any other opera to match this for sheer terror.

BorisGodunov

Bryn Terfel as the tortured Boris Godunov. Or, perhaps, me after a rough night. Take your pick. (Picture courtesy Royal Opera)

Some day, I’d love to see the later, more expanded version, but I can’t complain: this was every bit as majestic and as imposing and as dark and terrifying as I have always imagined this opera to be. Bryn Terfel as Boris was simply extraordinary, projecting both the tender side of the character, and also the tortured and demonic side, with equal conviction. I am not really qualified to comment on the musical aspects of the performance, but Marc Albrecht’s conducting, and the orchestra’s playing – and also, in this of all operas, the singing of the chorus: it can be argued that the people are the real protagonists here – left, as far as I was concerned, at least, absolutely nothing to be desired.

(I have now seen Bryn Terfel live on three occasions – as Hans Sachs, as Falstaff, and now, as Boris Godunov. Not a bad threesome!)

With The Cunning Little Vixen, we enter a very different world. We are no longer dealing with kings and pretenders and marching armies – we are in a forest, and the first orchestral sounds we hear seem to evoke the wind rustling the leaves, and the chirping of insects. A forester takes a nap, and a frog lands on his nose. On waking, he finds a fox cub, and takes her home to be a sort of pet for the children. The forester, and all the animals – the fox, the frog, the various birds, the mosquitoes – all sing.

The music is certainly very beautiful but at this stage, one is entitled to ask – What is Janáček playing at? The English title suggests a cute, Disneyfied view of the animal world, but the English title is misleading: the original Czech title is Příhody lišky Bystroušky, which, roughly translated, means (I’m told) “The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-ears“. Somewhat less Disneyesque than the English title perhaps, but it still doesn’t help us much. A summary of the plot, such as it is, doesn’t tell us much either: the fox cub grows up into a vixen, wards off the advances of the dog and kills all the chickens (no Disneyesque cuteness here!), runs off back into the forest, drives out the badger and takes over his home, falls in love and marries a fox (to ecstatic singing from all the other woodland animals), has many fox cubs of her own, and is then, all of a sudden and quite out of the blue, shot by a poacher. And the vixen’s death isn’t even the climactic point of the opera: the orchestra is given a few bars of sad, reflective music on the vixen’s death, and then we move on. In contrast to Boris Godunov, where death seems an earth-shattering event, here, death is presented merely as something that happens every day: it’s no big deal really.

Alongside this, we get the world of the humans: we see the forester at home with his wife; later, we see him in a tavern with a priest and a schoolmaster (Janáček’s drunk music is very different from Mussorgsky’s); the schoolmaster is pining for someone named Terynka, but his love is unrequited; while the priest, returning home tipsy, reflects on the time he had been falsely accused of a sexual misdemeanour. Later, we find that Terynka (still unseen), is to marry someone called Harašta, who is also a poacher: the schoolmaster’s love is fated to remain unrequited. The priest, meanwhile, has left: we are told briefly that he is lonely and homesick. And so on. A lot of incidents, yes, but they refuse to gel into anything resembling a coherent narrative line. Everything just seems to happen – with nothing much leading up to them, and nothing much resulting from them. Even the death of the principal character, the vixen. These things just happen – and that’s all. Even death.

To get some idea what Janáček was “playing at”, we must look to the music.

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union…

It is “Nature’s social union” that Burns speaks of that Janáček here depicts in his music. On Saturday night, the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle, performed all three acts without an interval, and the whole thing emerged like a vast orchestral tone poem with voices, an all-embracing paean to nature, and to its eternal cycles of self-renewal. But of course, the fact that Nature renews herself regularly is scant consolation to us poor sods who face inevitable extinction: and this is acknowledged. The climactic point of the opera comes not with the death of the vixen, but with the Forester’s rueful monologue, in which he reflects sadly, though not bitterly, on the passage of time, and, by implication, on his own inevitable extinction. The music here is almost unbearably poignant: Simon Rattle says in his programme notes that the ending of the opera leaves him in tears, and Janáček himself had asked for this music to be played at his own funeral. I myself find it very hard to listen to this monologue without thinking of Wordsworth’s line “that there hath passed away a glory from the earth”. And yet, this is not quite the last word. Once again, the forester falls asleep, as he had done at the start of the opera, and once again, a frog jumps on to his nose, but it’s not the same frog as at the beginning: it is that’s frog’s grandchild. And in the final bars, the music itself seems to expand to fill the void with sounds of what I can only describe as ecstasy.

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Lucy Crowe as the Vixen, and Gerard Finley as the forester, in “The Cunning Little Vixen”. (Picture courtesy London Symphony Orchestra)

It’s not a long opera: it’s only about 90 or so minutes – shorter than some of Wagner’s single acts. But in that 90 minutes, we find music that is, by turns, gentle, nostalgic, boisterous, exuberant, calm and nocturnal, joyous and celebratory … and even, at times, dark and tragic: the music that opens the third act, say, speaks of death as surely as does any funeral march in a Mahler symphony. This opera, for me, is Janáček’s Lied von der Erde, but how different his focus is from Mahler’s! In both works, I suppose, the sadness and the angst are, as it were, sublimated into a sort of ecstasy, but where, in Mahler, the longing fades away at the end, serenely into silence, here, we seem overwhelmed by the sheer plenitude of Life itself.

Of the performance, there is not really anything I can say other than it held me spellbound throughout. The London Symphony Orchestra produced the most extraordinary sounds and it’s hard to imagine this cast – led by Lucy Crowe as the Vixen and Gerard Finley as the forester (with a telling cameos from Hanno Muller-Brachman as the poacher Harašta, and Sophia Burgos as the Fox) – being bettered. I am not entirely sure what, if anything, Peter Sellers’ semi-staging added to the proceedings, but the way I felt on leaving the Barbican, I was in no frame of mind to complain.

Well, I suppose I’ve probably spent my entire annual opera allowance over just a few days. But it was worth it. I wouldn’t have missed these for anything.

A sense of longing

The internet is so full of banalities attributed to various luminaries – some of these banalities so simple-minded and so poorly articulated as to be thoroughly embarrassing – that I try never to introduce a quote into this blog without mentioning its source. However, try as I might, I cannot find a source for the following quote that is widely attributed to Vladimir Nabokov:

No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.

Maybe Nabokov never said this – who knows? But I’m quoting it nonetheless because, at the very least, it isn’t banal; and, further, it is so well articulated that one could easily believe that Nabokov had actually said it; and, most importantly, the state of mind it describes – “a longing with nothing to long for” – is one I find fascinating.

There is, it seems, a similar word in Portuguse – saudade. And its import is rather well described by singer-songwriter Nick Cave (and in this instance, I can pinpoint the source, as a friend of mine, who is a fan of Nick Cave, pointed this quote out to me):

‘The love song is the sound of our endeavours to become God-like, to rise up and above the earth-bound and the mediocre. I believe the love song to be a sad song. It is the noise of sorrow itself.

We all experience within us what the Portuguese call saudade, an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world. ‘

  • Nick Cave, “The Secret Life of the Love Song”

Once again, the longing is “inexplicable” – inexplicable because, as with toska, it is a longing with nothing to long for.

In doing a Google search on saudade, I find that it is believed by some to be characteristic of the Portuguese and Brazilian people. I am not sure about that. For while it is certainly curious that some languages have a word for this and others don’t, this vague sense of an intense longing for that which cannot even be named seems to me common to all people, of all times. At least, I know of no culture that hasn’t, somewhere along the line, expressed what I understand to be toska, or saudade. This inexplicable yearning seems almost the hallmark of Romanticism, but the Romantics did not invent it. How can one not find it in, say, the songs of John Dowland? Or, say, in Twelfth Night (which, sadly, is too often presented on stage as little more than a knockabout comedy), in a passage such as this?

OLIVIA

Why, what would you?

VIOLA

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!

For whom is Viola longing? Not Olivia: neither in her real person, nor in her assumed role, does Viola love Olivia. Perhaps it’s an expression of her love for Orsino, whom she secretly loves, but this seems unlikely: although Viola has indeed fallen in love with Orsino (“Even so quickly may one catch the plague?”), he is too self-absorbed and too insignificant a figure to be a worthy object of such ardent lyrical pining. No – this yearning has no object that is nameable: it is indeed the “unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul”.

In ages more religious than ours, this longing was often (though not always) identified as longing for union with God, and, indeed, presented as such. But we found, much to our surprise, that even when belief in God declined, this longing didn’t. Generally, this longing had to be tied to some identifiable object for it to make some semblance of narrative sense, and that object, usually, is one’s beloved; or, more usually, one’s lost beloved. That seemed to make sense. But the whole point of this longing is that it doesn’t make sense. Thus, all too often, we come across longing the intensity of which far transcends its ostensible object. Is the protagonist of Schubert’s Winterreise, or of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, longing merely for the girl who rejected him? Would the longing of Tristan and Isolde be stilled if they were to get together, marry, and settle down as Mr Tristan and Mrs Isolde? The very idea seems absurd. But if their longing seems to be for more than merely union with their beloved, what precisely are they longing for?

This is a mystery at the heart of things that the Romantics, far from smoothing over, actively embraced. The popular conception is that they embraced this mystery in reaction to the rationalists of the 18th century who had rejected the very concept of mystery, but nothing ever is so simple as such broad-brush summaries may suggest: each age is so multi-faceted that any such sweeping statement can very easily be demonstrated as absurd.

However, there is good reason for the 18th century to be thought of as the “Age of Reason”: more than ever before, and, perhaps, more than ever since, the universe was seen as perfectly ordered, and all effects traceable to causes. What could be more ordered than, say, a Bach fugue? Or a Haydn string quartet – even those of his Sturm und Drang period? But it will never do to constrict great artists by such pat formulae: even in the Age of Reason, there were artists subverting it. In Gulliver’s Travels, say, Swift presents us with a society ruled entirely by reason – the land of the Houyhnhnms – but which is, for that very reason, a monstrosity: as Orwell commented, it is a state of totalitarianism so advanced that the Thought Police isn’t even required; and this perfection of reason, paradoxically, drives Gulliver mad, and fills him with a genocidal rage.

And then, there’s Mozart. It escapes me how anyone could fail to find that quality of saudade in his music, but they have done, and, in many cases, still do.  In Cosi fan Tutte, he and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte took on what was essentially a trivial and rather misogynist little anecdote: two young men, to prove that their beloved young ladies were faithful to them, woo each other’s girls in disguise; and the girls, being but women, and hence, fickle, fall for it. Cue crude, knockabout comedy, cynical guffaws, and all the rest. But, as Shakespeare had done in Twelfth Night, Mozart takes this unpromising framework of a story, and, alongside the comedy (which he does not ignore), imbues it with such profound melancholy, such ineffable longing – such pain at the absence of something that these four young people desire beyond anything else in the world, but which they cannot name – that the base metal of this rather objectionable little anecdote is miraculously transformed into the pure gold of a great work of art that seems to express the inexpressible.

The Romantics, somehow, didn’t get it: they thought it trivialised feelings which should be sacred. Beethoven thought the opera was a slander of Eternal Womanhood, and was immoral. Wagner went further: even the music, he thought, wasn’t up to standard, and Mozart had failed to provide good music for this precisely because he knew the dramatic content was poor. Only in the twentieth century did the opera come back into the standard repertoire, but, just as it was dismissed in the previous century because it was deemed too slight and artificial, it was those very decorative qualities that seemed to appeal to even perceptive commentators: Sir Thomas Beecham, an eminent Mozartian, praised it as “a long summer day spent in a cloudless land by a southern sea”.

In our own time, perceptions about this work have changed yet again. We seem to sense that, bursting out of the seemingly ordered framework, there is a tangle of human emotions that no purely rational view of humankind could ever accommodate. And at the centre of this tangle is that anguished longing for something that is not. Mozart, that archetypal Classicist, knew about this agonised longing at least as well as any of the Romantics did. Why should he not? It has, after all, always been with us. Like Viola, we are still calling upon our “soul within the house”.

Aida on the M6

We hadn’t been looking forward to the long drive south down the M6 motorway on New Year’s Day. To relieve the tedium, we decided to put Verdi’s Aida – a favourite opera of us both – on the car stereo, but it wasn’t a good idea. I’m not really sure how people manage to listen to music in the car: the quieter passages are all but inaudible, and the lower register is inevitably drowned out by the rumble of the engine. The soft opening strains of Aida were virtually inaudible, but we kept it on anyway, listening to what we could, our musical memory filling in what we couldn’t. We had heard it often enough, after all, over the years.

I remember that when I first encountered it – many decades ago now – I was a bit puzzled. I was puzzled why Verdi, having created dramas of great complexity, should choose for a subject so simple – one may even say “simple-minded” – and so conventional a story. I was puzzled why, having created in his previous operas characters of such intricacy and detailed nuance, he should now settle for characters that were, once again, simple and straightforward. Verdi had, I knew, intended this to be his last opera, so I put it all down at the time to his wanting to bow out with a big popular hit; the simple-minded nature of the drama was something that had to be put up with, I felt, for the sake of the beauties of the score. But really, that won’t do. First of all, whatever one may think of the quality of Verdi’s art (and he has many detractors, I know), the seriousness of his artistic intent is surely not in any doubt. And Verdi had searched far and wide for a plot for his opera before settling on this one; he had also given extremely detailed and precise instructions to his librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, so there can be little doubt that the final libretto is precisely what he had wanted. And in any case, given his stature at the time – no-one had greater claims than he of being a living legend – anything he cared to compose would have been a box office hit. If Aida does not present us with a complex drama or with complex characters, it is not because such things were beyond Verdi, or because he made do with whatever was available, or because he had lowered his artistic standards: it is because dramatic complexity was not what he wanted here. To point to all the conventional elements of this piece as evidence of Verdi’s lack of artistic ambition is fail to address what Verdi actually did achieve.

And yesterday, despite the inadequacy of listening in the car, it struck me – somewhere around M6-M5 interchange north of Birmingham, I think – just how profoundly anti-nationalist the work is. This in itself is surprising. For, while I am sure that Aida cannot be the only major work of nineteenth century art that is anti-nationalist, I found it difficult to think of others. Amongst composers, Chopin was a fervent Polish nationalist; Smetana and Dvořák were Czech nationalists; Mussorgsky, Balakirev and co. (the group known as “The Five”) looked to create a specifically Russian music; Wagner’s strident Germanic nationalism is notorious; Brahms kept a portrait of Bismarck above his desk. In literature, things were hardly any better: Dostoyevsky was extremely nationalist, and even Tolstoy in War and Peace could barely restrain his pride that it was the Russians who gave Napoleon his come-uppance. Of course, there are exceptions – Turgenev is an obvious one – and it’s best not to make any hasty generalisations (as I fear I am prone to do): but it’s safe to say, I think, that nationalism was a fairly widespread phenomenon in nineteenth century Europe. And it is fair to say also, I think, that it would have been no surprise had Verdi been a fervent Italian nationalist, especially given that by the time he composed Aida, he was, in effect, the living representative of the entire nation’s culture. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from his early opera Nabucco, had been enthusiastically taken up as an anthem of Italian patriotism; Verdi himself had fully supported Garibaldi’s campaign, and had celebrated joyously the emergence of Italy as a new, unified nation (in 1848, when the occupying Austrians had temporarily been forced to retreat from Milan, Verdi had actually written in a letter “Italy will yet become the first nation of the world … I am drunk with joy! Imagine that there are no more Germans here!!”); after unification, Verdi had supported Cavour; had been elected to the Parliament, and later, appointed to the Senate (although, despite his patriotic fervour, he preferred to keep a distance from political activity); and so on. In short, Verdi was a very unlikely candidate for the composer of an anti-nationalist work. And yet, that is what Aida seems to me to be. It seemed to me so obvious yesterday, driving through the rain and the winter murk, that I wondered why this had not struck me before.

The story is of lovers from across a divide, and thus, looks back very obviously to Romeo and Juliet. Which, in turn, looks back to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and, no doubt, that too looks back on something from even earlier. It’s a time-honoured story. But here, the divide is not between feuding families, but, quite explicitly, between nations – nations furiously raging together. Aida is an Ethiopian slave girl in Egypt, captured in war; but what the Egyptians do not know is that she is actually the Ethiopian royal princess. She is in love with the young Egyptian soldier Radames, and he loves her too. But Radames is also loved by the Egyptian princess, Amneris, and so, the two princesses (one still a slave girl) find themselves unequal rivals. Things get really complicated when Radames is chosen to lead the Egyptian army against their old enemies, the Ethiopians – against Aida’s people. And so on. It’s all fairly standard stuff, unlikely to be of any interest to anyone nowadays were it not accompanied by Verdi’s music. Even at the time of writing (in the 1870s), it was probably already old hat.

But this tired old plot nonetheless encapsulated Verdi’s theme – individual human love set against the hatred of nation unto nation. Of course, individual love doesn’t stand a chance, and is crushed. But in that ineffably beautiful final scene, we do not hear the tread of doom: we hear, instead, the most ecstatic outpourings of the human soul, as Aida and Radames expire in each other’s arms as only characters in opera can do, discovering in their defeat a nobility and an exaltation that the irrational armies clashing my night could never even envisage. And as these two sing of waking into Eternal Day, they are joined by the grieving voice of Amneris, nominally the villain of the piece, but who too had loved, and had lost: Verdi’s generosity of spirit does not leave her out.

And how far all this is from the crude and violent shouts of war (“Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!”) we had heard in the opening scene. The soldiers are ultimately the victors, of course. That is inevitable. And they will go on fighting. In Romeo and Juliet, the warring factions are reconciled by the deaths of the lovers, but things had moved on from Shakespeare’s time: in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (written only a few years after Aida), there’s a parody of Romeo and Juliet, but here, the lovers from two feuding families do not bring the warring factions together: once they elope, their respective families, far from being reconciled, merely slaughter each other. In Aida, too, there is no hope of reconciliation: the ignorant armies will continue to clash by night, urged on by equally ignorant cries of “Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!” But in the defeat of Aida and of Radames, a defeat they both willingly accept in preference to anything the outside world may consider victory, Verdi gives us a different music. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, they make Death proud to take them.

The villain of this opera turns out not really to be Amneris, although she may seem, superficially at least, to fit that role: for she too is driven by love. The villains here are collective. They are the theocrats – the priests who urge the war; they are the Egyptian empire, the war machine. And among the villains is also the defeated Ethiopian king, Amonasro, Aida’s father. For he too is a man of War. It is he who insists that his daughter must betray her personal loyalty and embrace instead the collective identity that has been pre-determined for her: she is, above all, an Ethiopian. In our modern world, with people from very different cultural backgrounds living cheek by jowl with each other to a far greater extent than ever before, the Amonasros have not disappeared: quite the contrary, they have multiplied. But their clamour and their stridence must not be allowed to drown out the very different music that Verdi gives us – a music that is both fragile, and also of a surpassing radiance.

This opera no doubt lacks the complexity of character and the intricacy of drama that we may find in various other operas by Verdi, but it gives us, I think, a vision of something else – something that is important for us to hold on to. We may take the easy way out and dismiss it all as merely “sentimental” or “naïve”, but I think we would be wrong to do so. Verdi, too, in his time, had been a patriot, a nationalist: possibly, he remained so even to his death. But he knew there is also that within us that can surpass and transcend such matters, and in Aida, he gives this its fullest artistic expression. And not even the rumble of the engine and the roar of the motorway could quite drown that out.

 

Confessions of a culture-vulture

It was Cosi Fan Tutte last night.

Every November, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera give a few performances in nearby Woking, and, almost invariably, they perform a Mozart opera. Which, obviously, is fine by us. Last year, it was Don Giovanni (I reported on that briefly here). I was recovering then from serious illness, and, in my weakened state, was afraid I might fall asleep during the performance; but, in the event, it turned out to be a first step back, as it were, to life: by the end of that performance, I felt less of an invalid, less weighed down by my troubles and worries – in brief, less of a miserable old sod. Those three Mozart-da Ponte operas have that effect on me: no matter how serious the aspects of our humanity they probe into, they elate, they exhilarate.

Take last night’s Cosi Fan Tutte. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about this opera, and I dwelt at some length on how deeply troubling the whole thing was. I cannot think of any other work, in any other artistic medium, that is so exquisitely beautiful, and yet so profoundly troubling. And last night, I felt the full force of this paradox all over again: the music is so perfectly beautiful, that the sense aches at it; and yet it presents a view of ourselves, of us all, that perturbs, and leaves one uneasy. I have read many accounts of this work, and even writers with far greater command than myself of the English language clearly find themselves struggling in trying to describe its effect. It remains elusive: just when you think you have found the key to it, some new detail occurs to you, and the entire edifice you have built for yourself suddenly comes tumbling down. It is hard indeed to account for a work that so entrances with its beauty, and yet so troubles you to your very depths; and which, even despite this troublesome nature, leaves you, somehow, elated by the end.

In other words, it’s a right bugger to blog about. So let’s move on.

One full year on from when I was feeling so sorry for myself and so comfortably self-pitying, I find myself in the midst of a spree of nights out. Last night, as I said, it was Cosi Fan Tutte; last week, it was Handel’s Rodelinda at the English National Opera. This was unplanned: a friend of a friend had an extra ticket which he was willing to see off at a ridiculously low price, and it seemed rude to turn it down. I must confess, though, that I am not really convinced by Baroque opera. Not dramatically, I mean. As I understand it, opera audiences of Handel’s time went to hear fine singing from star singers; and they went for spectacle; but they didn’t really go for what we would nowadays consider drama. So Handel operas tend to consist of a long sequence of solo arias – each very beautiful, and each very expressive, but each rather static, designed as they were for the singers simply to stand-and-deliver. Modern stagings invent various piece of stage business – some ingenious, others (to my mind) a bit pointless, and even a bit silly – to prevent it all becoming a merely a long sequence of dramatically static arias; but I rarely find myself convinced. The ENO production did as good a job as can be imagined, but I don’t think I’d have lost much if it had all been done simply as a concert performance. Certainly, in musical terms, and in terms of their expressive power, the arias themselves are top-drawer stuff, and they were quite beautifully performed; but I still can’t quite see this as drama. However, this is just a personal reaction: aficionados of Baroque opera may well disagree.

And I am also attending a series of concerts given at the Wigmore Hall by the Spanish quartet Cuarteto Casals, covering all of Beethoven’s mighty string quartets. I’ve been to two already, and there is a third concert in early December. We are also going to a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers in two weeks’ time, in which a friend of ours is singing in the chorus. (To clarify on this point, when I say “I”, I mean I am going on my own; when I say “we”, I am going with my wife. We share some tastes – we both love Mozart and Verdi, for instance – but not all, and we see little point dragging each other off to events we may not enjoy.)

I will not be writing here about any of these concerts, since I am not really qualified to pass my layman’s opinions on musical matters. But when it comes to dramatic matters … well, truth to tell, I’m not really qualified to write about these matters either; but if I were to keep quiet about everything I am not qualified to comment on, this blog would never even get started. (And in any case, remaining silent when you have nothing much of interest to say would be going very much against the spirit of our times.)

And there’s theatre, of course. The Royal Shakespeare Company will be in London this winter, and they are bringing down from Stratford-on-Avon all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Titus Andronicus has never been amongst my favourite plays, although, given I have never seen it on stage before, I may well go along to have a look come January. More surprisingly, perhaps, I have never seen Julius Caesar or Coriolanus on stage either, and have tickets for both between now and Christmas. And also between now and Christmas, I’ll be seeing Antony and Cleopatra, which I often name as my single favourite Shakespeare play: I find it a hard play to keep away from.

(And speaking of which, the National Theatre promises us an Antony and Cleopatra next year with Ralph Fiennes. It also promises us also Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. At the same time the Royal Shakespeare Company is also promising us Macbeth, this time with Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack. Which one will be better? Well, there’s only one way to find out, as Harry Hill might say…)

And if all this weren’t enough, one Sunday in early December, the British Film Institute promises us screenings of all three films comprising Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (which I often regard as possibly cinema’s finest artistic achievement) in newly restored prints. I used to be a very keen film-goer in my student days, but I must admit that this is something that has long fallen by the wayside. However, I have never seen these masterpieces before on the big screen, and this really is very tempting.

So much to see, so little money in the bank…

Dressing up, dressing down

For the apparel oft proclaims the man

It has long struck me that this is one of the very few pieces of sensible advice that that pompous windbag Polonius gives to his son. For, shallow and superficial though it may be, we do judge people by their appearance. But what Polonius does not seem to realise is that it is not just the question of what one wears. Or, if you prefer, it ain’t what you wear, it’s the way that you wear it. Take me, for instance. I could be dressed up to the nines – the smartest suit, the most dignified silk tie, matching handkerchief peeping discreetly out of my breast pocket – and still look like a sack of potatoes. ’Twas ever thus. It was this innate inability to make the best of my clothes that nipped in the bud what may otherwise have been a promising career as a male fashion model.

Here, as evidence, is a picture taken from our holiday in Sicily some three years ago. There I was, not wearing the shorts and tee shirt that I believe are generally considered de rigueur on such holidays, but sporting instead a jacket, a shirt with collar and buttons, and a pair of trousers made of some material other than denim. And yet, far from looking smart, I look as dilapidated as the ruins behind me, and considerably less dignified.

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“Were you not hot and uncomfortable?” I am asked. Well, no. Although it was bright and sunny, this picture was taken in October, and the weather was mild. Also, it’s a very light jacket: I certainly found it, and find it still (much to the despair of my wife), very comfortable to wear. It’s what is termed “leisurewear”, or even “comfort wear”, that I find uncomfortable. I find jeans heavy and awkward, and the texture of denim unpleasantly rough and abrasive; and shirts without buttons are rarely flattering to a middle-age paunch. After all, even a sack of potatoes, I feel, is entitled at least to some remaining vestiges of vanity. And quite apart from the aesthetics of it all, there are the practicalities: I never know where to put the various things I have always to carry around with me – keys, wallet, phone, comb, a paperback to read while waiting for the bus – if I am not wearing a jacket. (A recent advert on television for some credit card featured, for reasons that now escape me, a nude man running down the street, and I could not help wondering – albeit momentarily – where exactly he kept his credit card.) The tie, in keeping with the tenor of our times, I have reluctantly forgone, but this does leave me not knowing what to wipe my glasses with.

Another advantage of wearing a jacket and a shirt with collar is that for those occasions where one does need to dress up, one need make no extra effort. Perhaps change one’s usual jacket for a nicer one, and put on a tie – but that’s about it. After all, why make that extra effort when you know you’re going to end up looking like that sack of potatoes no matter what you do? Nonetheless, when I go to the opera, say, I do wear a jacket and tie. Or a decent jacket, at least. I realise that this is very stuffy and elitist of me: when one goes to the opera, especially when one goes to the opera, one really should wear “comfort wear”, if only to demonstrate how unstuffy and un-elitist one is. One should wear “comfort wear” even if one happens, as I do, not to find it very comfortable. Those who do not go to the opera, and imagine the auditorium to be populated by ladies in tiaras and gentlemen in tuxedos, are likely to be somewhat surprised were they actually to go and see for themselves.

However, formal wear has not gone completely out of fashion. If, at work, I am to meet with customers, I am still expected to wear a smart jacket and tie. Or, preferrably, a suit. Everyone will dress smartly when going for a job interview, say; and prospective employers still tend to favour those applicants who have taken the trouble to dress formally rather than those sporting “leisurewear”. Irrational, I know, but, in our perceptions at least, apparel still proclaims the man. We will all wear our best clothes – and for men, that means jacket and tie – to a wedding, say, or to friends’ silver wedding anniversary at some swanky hotel: we would feel it disrespectful to go to such events in jeans and tee shirt. It is only when it comes to theatre and opera that we feel the need to exhibit how “unstuffy” we really are.

I can’t help thinking that this is because those of us who love opera have become overly sensitive to the allegations of “elitism” and “stuffiness” that are incessantly levelled at us. And that’s hardly any wonder. If we are constantly attacked and ridiculed simply for loving that which is dear to us, extreme sensitivity is only to be expected. The prices for classical music, we are told, are unaffordable. No matter how often you point out that a quick browse around the net indicates classical concerts to be no more expensive on average than rock concerts, and often considerably cheaper, these same allegation will resurface – over and bloody over again. Operas, admittedly, can be expensive, but then, so are West End musicals, which are never described as “elitist” or “stuffy”. And when I am told that opera is unaffordable by people who, almost in the next breath, tell me how much they paid for, say, a Beyoncé concert – some price I would never consider spending for a single night out, not even at Covent Garden – I cannot help feeling that it’s not the price that’s the point. When something one loves is constantly denigrated, and no evidence you adduce taken on board, one can’t help feeling a bit resentful about it all.

And if it’s not about prices, it’s about dress codes. Or alleged dress codes. Once again, no evidence one puts forward is ever taken on board. We who go to opera, and, what’s more, we who enjoy going to opera, are, we are told, dressed in tiaras and tuxedos, and anyone dressed in “leisurewear” stands out like that proverbial sore thumb, and is stared at. They may even, apparently, be asked to leave. No amount of evidence to the contrary can alter this current of opinion, and so, naturally, we all become more than somewhat sensitive to the whole issue. (Actually, if this is indeed the criterion of stuffiness, rock concerts must count as very stuffy, as anyone dressed in a jacket and tie at a rock concert will certainly stick out like that sore thumb, and will certainly be stared at.)

Perhaps it is this sensitivity surrounding these matters that explains the astonishing vitriol that has been aimed at a recent piece by Howard Jacobson, in which he laments the decline of formal wear at the opera. The piece itself struck me as comic in tone, often tongue-in-cheek, and, like most comedy, indulging in exaggeration and in hyperbole for comic effect. When Jacobson, at the end of the piece, references the sex-strike in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, I must admit I laughed. Not, maybe, as uninhibitedly as I do when watching Marx Brothers films, but I definitely emitted a few audible chuckles. And yet the vitriol, from opera lovers, from performers, from music writers, is unrelenting, both in the below-the-line comments, and also, inevitably, in social media. It’s as if all the good work that has so laboriously been performed in trying to convince people that opera isn’t elitist and stuffy is here undone.

I suppose I am going against the grain here in not objecting to Jacobson’s article. People who think badly of opera and of opera-lovers on account of their alleged “stuffiness” aren’t going to change their minds: they haven’t so far. How much longer must we keep insisting to them that we really are normal people? Yes, of course people are entitled to wear whatever they damn well want. And of course it’s how you respond to the opera that matters, and not what you’re wearing. I doubt Jacobson himself would disagree with any of that. But his point, dressed up as it admittedly is in comic hyperbole, seems to me to be that not only is there nothing wrong in dressing up specially to mark a special occasion, it may even, given we are social animals, and given further that a night out, whether at an opera or at a rock concert, is a social as well as an aesthetic event, be a Good Thing. Such a point I find entirely unexceptionable.

But of course, in my case, given that I look like a sack of potatoes no matter how I dress, it probably doesn’t really matter very much. So let me finish off by offering another picture from our Sicilian holiday of three years ago. Here I am in a Greek theatre in Syracuse, wearing my jacket and buttoned-up shirt in honour of Aeschylus, who is reputed to have performed here.

(And please – no gags about the Popular Front of Judaea: that one has been done to death!)

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Look back in joy: Verdi’s “Falstaff”

Now that autumn is upon us, our thoughts turn inevitably to matters autumnal.

Now, that was a crap sentence, wasn’t it? I did consult the thesaurus for an alternative to “autumnal”, but nothing quite expressed what I wanted to express – autumnal, relating to autumn, approaching the end of the natural cycle, looking back upon the spring and summer of our lives and preparing for the chill on oncoming winter, and so on. Better inelegant than imprecise, I thought, so “autumnal” it remains.

We tend to see as special the works created by great artists in the autumnal phase of their careers. We note the valedictory quality, say, in the late works of Mozart, and the visionary quality of those of Beethoven, as if a full life to look back on had given them the fullest understanding of what that life meant, and a closeness to death mystical insights into what may lie beyond. In most cases, we are mistaken: Mozart died at only 35, after all, and Beethoven at 58, and it is doubtful whether either knew themselves to be in their autumnal phase. And this is not even to mention those great artists whose creativity had burnt out long before they had approached the autumns of their lives (Wordsworth is perhaps the most egregious example of this).

But sometimes, there are indeed cases where the artists know themselves to be in the autumn of their lives, and produce works to which, for want of a vocabulary adequate to the purpose, we apply such vague terms as “mystical” or “spiritual”; or they look back upon the life that they know they must shortly leave, and produce works that are a sort of summing up.

One such work is Verdi’s opera Falstaff, a piece that has recently been much on my mind and on my CD player. Premiered in 1893, it was, Verdi must have known, finally and most definitely his last work. True, he had announced his retirement before on several occasions, and had made more comebacks even than Frank Sinatra, but Verdi was in his eightieth year by the time of Falstaff’s premiere: no more encores – this was the final final curtain.

The story of how the aged Verdi came in touch with the brilliant young poet Arrigo Boito (and who was no mean composer himself); how Verdi’s initial caginess gave way to admiration, and, eventually, to love; and how the two collaborated on the two great crowning glories of Verdi’s career, the Shakespearean operas Otello and Falstaff; is too well-known for me to relate. (Although that didn’t stop me relating just that in an earlier post.) When they started work on Otello, the story that Verdi was coming out of retirement to compose a new opera, and one that was based on an undisputedly great play by Verdi’s idol Shakespeare, was, in Italy, national news. The opera was a triumph – taking Shakespeare’s play as a starting point for something startlingly new, and matching, to my mind, the greatness of its inspiration.

Verdi was then 73. Surely, now, it was time to retire. But no Boito had other ideas. Verdi had, after all, never written a comic opera. His very first opera, yes, but that was decades ago, it had flopped, and, despite the celebrity status Verdi had attained since, it had never even been revived. No, that doesn’t count. Even Wagner had written a great comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: do we really want posterity to say that Wagner had composed a great comic work, and that Verdi hadn’t? Or, worse, couldn’t?

I personally think that it was only when Verdi saw the quality of the libretto Boito was producing that he fully committed himself to the project. The main plot was taken from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, with (inevitably given this was opera rather than a straight drama) many of the plot complications ironed out; but it was enriched with passages derived from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, and also with elements from Boito’s and Verdi’s own native Italian culture (for instance, the solo Fenton sings in the final scene, with the final line completed by Nanetta, is a perfect Petrarchan sonnet). Add to all that Boito’s own genius. Libretti are, traditionally, not meant to be anything much more than something for the composer to work on, but such was the delight Boito took in his own language, and such was his skill in making that language obey his call (a skill that I, a non-Italian speaker, can appreciate only second hand when I read analyses of it), that the libretto, even without the music, is utterly exquisite. Verdi knew that if the work was to be known as a Verdi-Boito collaboration rather than a masterpiece by Boito with some music by Verdi, he would, tired and aged as he was, have to be at his very best. It was a challenge he was glad to take up. Before he met with Boito, Verdi was constantly giving his librettists detailed instructions on how he wanted to libretto to go, even down to details as to what the rhythms should be, what words were to be used, and so on: and now, in his old age, he found himself working with libretti that were works of art in their own right.

Unlike Othello, the previous Shakespeare play Verdi and Boito had tackled, The Merry Wives of Windsor isn’t usually regarded amongst Shakespeare’s finest plays. Many even find it rather disappointing. Shakespeare had taken Falstaff, one of his greatest creations, from the Henry IV plays, and had stripped from him everything that had made him so memorable: here, he is nothing more than a comic buffoon. The plot, such as it is, is no more than a rumbustious situation comedy – at times, a farce. All this is true enough, but it seems to me that if we stop expecting it to be something it never set out to be, and accept it as the riotous farce it is, it is all very enjoyable. Boito added depth to the text partly by additions from other sources (mainly the Henry IV plays), and partly by his own linguistic exuberance. And Verdi, of course, set it to music. And what music!

And yet, Falstaff occupies a rather uneasy position within the Verdi canon. There are many otherwise dedicated Verdians who love Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida, who find themselves transfixed by Simon Boccanegra or by Don Carlos, but who, often by their own admission, don’t quite “get” Falstaff. Some go as far as to say they dislike it. And, conversely, there are also those who generally disparage Verdi, but who hold up the two operas he created with Boito (along with, sometimes, the Requiem Mass) as works where, unlike the inferior stuff he had produced earlier, Verdi really did achieve great heights. (This latter group sometimes rubs it in by claiming that these late works of Verdi achieve heights that the earlier works hadn’t because Verdi had, by that stage, learnt from Wagner.) Needless to say, I don’t accept either position. But it is true to say, I think, that these last two operas do indeed stand apart somewhat from Verdi’s earlier work, and not merely by virtue of having superior libretti.

To try to understand why Falstaff often fails to capture the hearts and minds of so many fans of Verdi, I think back to when I first heard this opera – nearly forty years ago now – and, largely innocent of musical sophistication, found myself confused. Where are the tunes? I wondered. No sooner does any semblance of a tune get started, it disappears. Where is the continuity? In the second act, the two young lovers, Fenton and Nanetta, sing a gorgeous love song, but, goddammit Giuseppe, why don’t we get to hear this properly? Why overlay this lovely romantic song with a whole lot of other tuneless voices going about their allegedly comic business?

Something such as Aida, say, with its spectacles and its glorious array of tunes, I could hear through and enjoy, but this took some time. It was some time before I realised that the fast, mercurial nature of the piece – each little wisp of a tune giving way to the next one before it is allowed time to settle – is the essence of the whole thing. It is almost as if Verdi had so many musical ideas teeming inside his head, he had to get them all out in this single work which, whatever ideas Boito may have for even further collaboration, would be, finally and definitely, his last. And as for that gorgeous romantic tune of the young lovers getting overlaid with the allegedly comic business, it is that overlaying itself that is funny. All that used to frustrate me now makes me smile. And laugh.

And that orchestra! In Luisa Miller or Il Trovatore – great works both: don’t listen to what the anti-Verdi camp tells you! – the orchestra was there primarily to support the singers. Here, the orchestral writing is far more sophisticated: the colour of the orchestral sound is constantly changing, from moment to moment, commenting on the action, counterpointing the singers with their own little scraps of melody that disappear almost as soon as they’re heard, forever giving way to new musical ideas; and it laughs and chatters away, constantly delighting the ear with its vitality and energy and wit, and its seemingly infinite variety and invention.

In case you haven’t got the idea yet, I love this opera. It is very dear to me. Every time I hear it, or every time that music plays in my inner ear, I find a smile spreading across my face. For, from this opera, all darkness is banished. It is reasonable to wonder, I think, to what extent a comic work can afford to banish the darkness in our lives, and claim still to depict our lives truthfully. I think the answer is that no single work of art, no matter how profound or how wide its scope, could hope to address all aspects of our existence, and that it is perfectly legitimate, therefore, to focus on the joys of living rather than on the sorrows. It is not, after all, that Verdi has not known the sorrows: his own life had certainly not been free from grief and personal tragedy. In his past works, he has expressed, sometimes with a searing intensity, the pain of loss, of parting, of loneliness. Indeed, the anguish expressed in his previous opera, Otello, is so searing that often it is difficult to listen to. Verdi knew about all that. But that kind of thing is not his focus here.

There is, though, one point where the music comes close to the tragic. Ford wrongly suspects his wife of infidelity, and is given a monologue that comes dangerously close to Otello territory. Of course, the jealousy is unfounded, but the jealousy in Otello, too, was unfounded. Verdi could easily have presented this scene ironically, but he doesn’t: he allows us to feel Ford’s torment. The only reason it doesn’t unbalance the work is that this passage is placed in the context of comedy, and we know, therefore, that there cannot be to this drama an Otello-like ending. But Ford’s torment is real enough, and Verdi knows better than to mock it: he gives it its full weight. However, at the end of Ford’s monologue, something wonderful happens: Falstaff, on his way (as he thinks) to an assignment with Ford’s wife, enters wearing his gladrags, and the orchestra, that had been as grave and as solemn as it had ever been in any of Verdi’s earlier operas, bursts all of sudden into the broadest of grins. The tragic potential is not dismissed: it is, instead, placed into a comic context – a context that reminds us just how damn silly we all are, really. As the ensemble at the very end of the work (composed in the form of that most academic of musical forms – a fugue) reminds us, “Tutto nel mondo è burla” – the whole world’s a joke! Best not take ourselves too seriously.

For me, Falstaff ranks with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as the greatest of all comic operas. Or even, perhaps, insofar as the concept of “greatest” is at all meaningful in this context, the greatest of all operas. Some might suggest Rossini – Il Barbiere di Siviglia, say; or Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. I’m not really much in sympathy with either, but far be it from me to rain – as the toned-down version has it – on anyone’s parade. Let’s just say they’re not really my thing, and leave it there. Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier is also a strong contender, but, for all its glories, it does have its longueurs. For me, when it comes to comic opera, it’s Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Verdi’s Falstaff that rule supreme.

Mozart’s opera takes us to a feudal estate, where the Count, though not a bad man, has been corrupted by the power he wields; and he uses that power tyrannically, subduing both his servants, and also his wife. Not, perhaps, the most obvious scenario for comedy, but there’s comic business a -plenty; and it all ends with a glimpse of Heaven. Not the Heaven promised us in the other world – comedy isn’t generally very interested in the other world – but in this one, proceeding as it does not from divine forgiveness, but from human.

In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Hans Sachs, middle-aged, a widower, and lonely, comes to the understanding that it is not for him to stand in the way of youth, and that he must renounce his own desires to ease their way. It is not an easy understanding to come to terms with: indeed, it is painful; but in this wisdom, painful though it may be, lies joy.

Falstaff is the only one of these three composed in the autumnal years of the composer’s life, and yes, it is a sort of “summing up”: Verdi here is looking back on life. But he looks back with no hint of anger or of bitterness, no angst, nor even sorrow or regret: rather than look back on spring and summer through melancholy autumnal mists, he re-creates, with a quite miraculous immediacy, the youthful exuberance of spring, the joy of summer. The next world? Pah! No time for that sort of thing here. There’s enough to delight in in this world. And Verdi expresses his delight in this world, in this life, and his gratitude for having been allowed to be part of it, without the slightest hint of sanctimony or of false piety. Falstaff is the least autumnal of all autumnal works.

“The power of the black earth”: Mussorgsky’s “Khovanschina”

It’s a fairly uncontroversial contention that Verdi and Wagner were the two towering opera composers of the nineteenth century – especially in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Even those allergic to either of these composers (and there are many who deeply dislike one or the other, or even both) will concede their importance. I certainly don’t dispute this, but there are times when I think the greatest operas of that era were neither by Verdi nor by Wagner, but by a Russian civil servant with no formal training in music – Modest Mussorgsky. And last night’s concert performance at the Proms of Khovanschina was as memorable an operatic evening as I think I have ever experienced.

Both Mussorgsky’s two major operas are problematic. Boris Godunov exists in two very different versions, which are usually conflated: this practice of conflation is understandable, as fixing on one or other of these versions necessitates the omission of some of the finest scenes in all opera; but a conflation is not what Mussorgsky himself ever envisaged, and it certainly weakens the drama. As for Khovanschina, it was left in a sadly unfinished state when, in 1881, Mussorgsky died aged only 42, as a consequence of severe alcoholism. The textual issues surrounding this opera are immense, and I am certainly no expert, but, from what I understand, Mussorgsky had orchestrated a few parts, left piano versions of most of the rest, but had left the endings of the second and fifth acts uncomposed.

After Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov prepared his own version on Khovanschina, and re-orchestrated the whole of Boris Godunov, to make Mussorgsky’s own highly idiosyncratic orchestrations more palatable. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestrations are brilliant, and it is perhaps to be regretted that, in our authenticity-fixated times, they are going out of fashion. However, there is no doubt that these orchestrations, brilliant though they are, are not what Mussorgsky had himself intended; and, given that our ears have now become so accustomed to strange sounds and harmonies that Mussorgsky’s sound-world no longer seems particularly odd, there is no reason not to return to his original intentions in Boris Godunov. This leaves the problem of Khovanschina, which was left in such an incomplete state that we do not often know what Mussorgsky’s original intentions were. Now that Rimsky-Korsakov’s re-imagining of Mussorgsky no longer seems acceptable, what do we use?

Most performances nowadays use the version prepared in the late 1950s by Dmitri Shostakovich, with whatever modification the conductor in question may see fit. And, it has to be said, Shostakovich’s version is quite splendid. However, this is not always the best solution either. Shostakovich was working in the era of Soviet Communism, after all, and belief in progress was not merely taken for granted, but routinely extolled. And, in this most political of operas, that puts a slant on matters that Mussorgsky himself would most likely not have gone along with. In a recording made of a live performance from the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Claudio Abbado (to my mind, one of the greatest recordings ever made of any music), Shostakovich’s version (judiciously edited) is used for the main part, but, for the final chorus, it is Stravinsky’s version that is preferred. Stravinsky’s quiet ending, which can be seen as imparting a mood either of serenity or, as Simon Morrison’s programme notes of last night’s Proms performance puts it, of “quiet desperation”, is very different from the thrilling blaze of sound that Shostakovich provides; and, maybe because I am so used to hearing Abbado’s recording, it is Stravinsky’s ending that seems to me just right. But Shostakovich’s ending is worth hearing as well: there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

The problem with Khovanschina is not merely textual: there is the matter of the content also. Heaven knows how many times I have heard this opera (mainly in recordings, and, last night, for the first time ever, also live in concert) – I still cannot follow the damn thing. If anyone were to ask me to summarise the plot, I’d be all over the place. This is not because the plot is “silly” – as opera plots are supposed to be, according to a not-very-accurate cliché – but because it is so complex. Various characters seem to move in and out of the action, and it’s hard to say what exactly lies at the centre: indeed, it seems at times that there is no centre. It’s not really about a principal character, or even a group of principal characters: it is about an entire nation in the throes of upheaval – social, political, religious. The scale is as vast as can be imagined: epics don’t really come much more epic than this. Even Wagner’s Götterdämmerung only ends with the end of the world.

The historical upheavals depicted in this opera took place in the late 17th century, when the young Czar Peter, later known as “Peter the Great”, ruthlessly consolidated his power. The political landscape of the time was hugely convoluted, with various factions fighting each other for power with untrammelled brutality. There were various factions of the aristocracy – princes and boyars; there were the modernisers, who looked towards the West; there were the Old Believers, the faction of the Russian Orthodox Church who bitterly opposed the church reforms of the mid-17th century, and maintained their adherence to the old rituals and practices. There were, nominally, two Czars – the young Peter, and his half-brother Ivan, who appeared to have had what, in modern parlance, we’d describe as “learning difficulties”. Since both were essentially children, Ivan’s sister, Sophia, acted as Regent. With the various factions contending against each other, and, sometimes, amongst themselves, the nation was in utter turmoil: violence and brutality were everyday things, hardly worthy to be commented upon. It was out of this turmoil that Peter, the liberal reformer, emerged with absolute power, and created what in Mussorgsky’s time would have been recognised as “modern Russia”. A triumph of Enlightenment, some may say. And, indeed, that is the impression one might get from the famous prelude, depicting dawn over the River Moscow – the emergence of light to banish the darkness.

But if only things were that simple. Mussorgsky, unlike Vladimir Stasov (who had helped him put together the libretto from historical sources), did not believe in progress. The liberal progressive, Peter the Great, who had dragged feudal Russia kicking and screaming into modern times, had, after all, used the most ruthless and cruel of means to achieve his ends: his liberalism had cost the nation uncountable lives and immense suffering. In the earlier Boris Godunov, the Fool – the Holy Fool – had famously lamented that whoever rules, whoever has power, the people go on suffering: mere dumb, animal suffering, and nothing more. And this seems to have been Mussorgsky’s view also, although, given the unfinished state of Khovanschina, it’s hard to pinpoint precisely what Mussorgsky himself thought of these matters.

But we have a guide, I think, in a letter Mussorgsky wrote to Stasov while putting the libretto together. This letter is quoted in just about every piece of writing I have come across on Khovanschina, so I might as well quote it too:

The power of the black earth will manifest itself when you plough it to the very bottom. It is possible to plough the black earth with tools wrought of alien materials. And at the end of the 17th century they ploughed Mother Russia with just such tools, so that she did not immediately realise what they were ploughing with, and, like the black earth, she opened up and began to breathe. And she, our beloved, received the various state bureaucrats, who never gave her, the long-suffering one, time to collect herself and to think, “Where are you pushing me?” The ignorant and confused were executed: force! … But the times are out of joint: the state bureaucrats are not letting the black earth breathe.

“We’ve gone forward” – you lie! We haven’t moved! Paper, books have gone forward! – we haven’t moved. So long as the people cannot verify with their own eyes what is being cooked out of them – until then, we haven’t moved! Public benefactors of every kind will seek to glorify themselves, with buttress their glory with documents, but people groan and, so as not to groan, they drink like the devil, and groan worse than ever: we haven’t moved!

 

  • (I have quoted this from the programme notes from last night’s concert. Since no translator is credited, I assume that the writer of the notes, Prof. Simon Morrison, has translated this himself.)

 

Mussorgsky’s image is perhaps a bit laboured, and his articulation clumsy, but what he is saying seems clear enough: Russia has its own deeply rooted traditions (symbolised by the “black earth”), and foreign ideas (“tools wrought of foreign materials”) implemented by force will not better the people’s lot: whatever happens, the people, as predicted by the Holy Fool in Boris Godunov, will go on suffering.

This is far from Stasov’s faith in progress. And indeed, this is a hard and bitter pill to swallow for someone like myself, believing firmly as I do that certain principles – human rights, freedom, democracy, and so on – are of universal value. But can these values that we may consider “universal” be imposed upon a recalcitrant people, emotionally wedded to their own traditions? Can it be done without “force”? And even more pressing perhaps than the question “Can it be done” is “Should it be done?” If works of art pose difficult and troubling questions, I know of none that is more difficult and more troubling than this.

Mussorgsky, like Conrad, seemed to have had no faith in any political solution. In Nostromo, Conrad rejected one by one all possible political solutions: all are found wanting; all are corrupt, or become corrupted; and those that become corrupted do so because corruption lies latent in the very foundations. So where are we to turn? In Under Western Eyes, written some eight years after Nostromo, Conrad faces precisely this question. There, the protagonist, Razumov, becomes embroiled in political and moral complications despite his best efforts to keep aloof from it all; and he declares to Privy Councillor Mikulin his intention to “retire”. Privy Councillor Mikulin’s response is as simple as it is unanswerable:

“Where to?” asked Councillor Mikulin softly.

One has to stand somewhere. But where?

Mussorgsky’s opera ends spectacularly with the Old Believers declaring quite unambiguously where they stand: they immolate themselves en masse. This was no invention on Mussorgsky’s part: many Old Believers, in shockingly large numbers, had done just this after their sect had been proscribed. From our enlightened liberal viewpoint, we may look on this with horror, as we do on any mass suicide of religious cults (e.g. the horrific incident of mass-suicide in Jonestown). And indeed, it is horrific: it cannot be anything other than horrific. But this is the Old Believers’ answer to Mikulin’s seemingly innocent question: “Where to?” The Old Believers choose eternity rather than the corrupted here-and-now, and, unlike enlightened liberals like ourselves, they had the strength of their faith to embrace their choice.

I find it frankly difficult to know what to make of this ending. Wagner’s Götterdämmerung – which received its first performance while Mussorgsky was still busy at work on Khovanschina – had also ended with an act of self-immolation: there, Brünnhilde threw herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre, and this act of sacrifice destroyed the entire world, and brought down heaven itself;  and then,  after the destruction of this inevitably corrupt and irredeemably compromised world, the work ended with a radiant reprise of a theme we had heard in Die Walküre, an earlier work in the Ring Cycle – a beautiful theme representing hope that a new world, free from the corruption both of humans and of gods, may be able to rise again from the ashes. But the libretto Mussorgsky left behind offers no comparable cosmic vision: he is dealing with history, not creating mythology, as Wagner had done. And it isn’t easy to figure out how Mussorgsky would have finished it. Shostakovich’s ending offers us splendid spectacle (this is the ending conductor Semyon Bychkov used in the Proms concert last night, although he stripped out the Dawn theme from the start of the opera that Shostakovich brought back at the very end); and, undeniably thrilling though this ending is, I remain unconvinced that it offers an adequate resolution to what had gone before. In Stravinsky’s ending, the chants of the Old Believers merely fade away into silence, and we are left to make of that what we will.

Whatever text we use, whatever pick’n’mix approach we may take regarding the various orchestrations, Khovanschina, vast and unwieldy though it is, is a masterpiece. This, and Boris Godunov, are, for me at least, among the highest of peaks in the operatic repertoire. Music criticism is not my line, and proper reviews by proper music critics can, I am sure, be found at the touch of a search engine, but the performance I heard last night, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra hugely expanded, with no less than three different choirs joining forces (the people, as represented by these choirs, are perhaps the most important protagonists of all in this opera), and a cast of soloists one really can’t imagine being improved upon, offered a musical and dramatic experience of exceptional quality.  If you are reading this post within 29 days of my posting it, and have some four and a half hours to spare, I can warmly recommend hearing the broadcast of the performance on the BBC website.

Repin-portrait-of-the-composer-modest-mussorgsky-1881

Portrait of Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin, courtesy State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Mussorgsky himself, of course, died untimely, with Khovanschina in a sadly incomplete state. A few days before he died, Ilya Repin painted a famous portrait of him. It is a striking image. At one level, we may think of it as comic: with that madly unkempt hair and beard, and the glazed expression of the eyes, it is hard to imagine anyone looking more drunk, and drunks are always good for a laugh. But it is also a deeply tragic portrait: it is the portrait of a visionary, a dramatist and a composer of genius, but sunk to a state that he could not help sinking to. The portrait itself, I think, is a masterpiece: it is painted with a realism and unsentimentality that is almost brutal, but also with an immense compassion.

That we can hear at all Mussorgsky’s great uncompleted work is something of a miracle. We owe an immense debt of thanks, first of all to Rimsky-Korsakov for helping keep Khovanschina in the repertoire for so many decades, and to Stravinsky and to Shostakovich for presenting to us at least something of what Mussorgsky himself might have gone on to achieve.