Archive for the ‘opera’ Category

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 rigeur 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 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.

Art and morality: some reflections on a Twitter spat

As social media spats go, this one hardly registers on the Richter scale, but, largely because it refers to works rather close to my heart, it caught my attention.

It came in the wake of Royal Opera’s live cinecast of Verdi’s Otello. Both this opera, and the play by Shakespeare which sparked the imaginations of Verdi and of his librettist Boito, are very dear to me. I have spoken about these two works often enough on my blog (see note at foot of this post), so this time, I’ll give that a miss. I’ll also refrain from reviewing the performance: being entirely uneducated in musical matters, I make a rather poor music critic, I fear, although, for what it’s worth, I thought the whole thing quite magnificent. But I would like to comment on a series of exchanges that followed soon afterward on Twitter. Not having either the time, nor the energy, nor even the inclination to become involved in Twitter spats, I refrained from joining, but followed it all nonetheless with some interest.

It started with a lady putting up a series of tweets saying that this opera depicted domestic violence and honour killing (which it certainly does); that it glorifies these things (which I don’t think it does); and that, with these matters still distressingly very real, we should either not perform this work any more, or re-write the ending. Ether way, we should “move on”. She used the hashtag #haditsday.

I shall not argue against these contentions, since, I imagine, few would agree with her. (Certainly, no-one on Twitter came to her support.) And neither shall I link to these tweets, as it is not the purpose of this blog to name and shame private individuals. In any case, there were a fair number of dissenting responses to her tweets – some debating her points reasonably, others sarcastic and mocking. To her credit, she responded to her critics without resorting to the sort of personal abuse these social media tweets all too often descend into. But she stuck to her guns: whether it is Shakespeare’s Othello or Verdi’s Otello, either work has #haditsday.

While her conclusions may be wrong-headed, and her understanding of the nature of the arts, based, at least, on these tweets, questionable, her stance should not, I can’t help feeling, be dismissed out of hand. For her reaction to the work, the reaction which led to these conclusions, is authentic. She was shocked and disturbed by the opera. And that is correct: Otello is indeed shocking and disturbing, and it is quite right to be shocked and disturbed. It is those of us who have allowed years of familiarity to inure us to this sense of shock who should question our reactions.

And when she refers to Otello’s killing of Desdemona, one of the most earth-shattering scenes in all stage drama, as “domestic violence”, and an “honour killing”, she is absolutely right on both points. It’s those of us who habitually refer to Otello (or Othello) as “noble” who should be questioning ourselves. In real life, a man who does what Otello does will deserve no pity at all, no compassion, regardless of whatever back-story there may be. We would not consider any mitigating factor for a crime so horrendous, and we would be right not to do so. And yet, this is not what we feel when we experience Shakespeare’s play, or Verdi’s opera, and it is at least worthwhile asking “why?”. Why is it we endlessly debate and consider so deeply the state of Otello’s soul, or go so far as to refer to him as “noble”, when we would not even think of doing either for such a person in real life?

Some will say that art has nothing to do with morality, and that moral judgement plays no part in our appreciation of a work of art, but I don’t entirely buy that. If we see Othello or hear Otello, and fail to see Desdemona as good and Iago as evil, then we have rather missed the point. But the fact remains – and I find it a disquieting fact – that we can, up to a very significant point, suspend our moral judgement on Otello – or on the Macbeths, or on Raskolnikov, or on Humbert Humbert – when, in real life, we would have no hesitation whatever in passing moral judgement. And I am not sure why this is. I am not even sure that there exists a satisfactory answer to this.

So no, of course I do not think that either Othello or Otello has #haditsday, and that we should either stop performing them, or change the ending (although the latter option does involve some rather interesting possibilities!) But this lady’s tweets do bring to mind – well, to my mind at least – certain questions that I cannot really answer, but which strike me as rather intriguing. And, in an age when so many of us have become so blasé to art; when so many, indeed, see the arts but as a currency of lifestyle, or as an adjunct to an image of the self that one would like to project; I find it salutary to be reminded just how directly powerful and soul-shattering these works can still be.

 

NOTE: I have previously written about Shakespeare’s Othello here and here. I wrote a brief post here comparing Shakespeare’s play to Verdi’s opera. And I wrote a more detailed post here on what Verdi took from Shakespeare.

“Madama Butterfly” revisited

There are times when one should reconsider some point of view one had previously expressed with great confidence, and concede, much though it may pain one to do so, that one may, perhaps, have been a trifle over-hasty. To switch now to the first person, I have to admit I’ve been talking shite.

The last time I wrote about the operas of Puccini, I had characterised him as, essentially, a purveyor of schmaltz – a splendid craftsman who, far from hiding his craftsmanship, put it on display, and who knew better than anyone how to pull at the heartstrings. And while it is certainly very enjoyable stuff, it is not, I implied, to be taken too seriously. You have a good cry as you’re watching it, and afterwards, if not actually forget about it, smile at the thought of having been so affected at the time. It’s showmanship of a very high standard, admittedly, but showmanship all the same, and nothing more.

But now, a full week after seeing a live broadcast into the cinemas of Royal Opera’s superb performance of Madama Butterfly, and still unable to get it out of my head, I find myself questioning this. Even if it were all true; even if Puccini were a master showman, a craftsman of the highest order who knew full well how to get his audience crying; why should that imply that his works are not to be taken seriously? What is it, precisely, that should prevent me from seeing Madama Butterfly as a serious tragic drama?

The plotline is simple enough (and I guess that I should issue at this point a spoiler warning, for those who care about such things). A young Japanese girl, Cio Cio San, from a noble family now fallen upon bad times, and, aged only fifteen, very innocent and naïve about the ways of the world, enters into marriage with a young American sailor Pinkerton. She takes the marriage very seriously, going as far as to reject her religion for her future husband’s, thus earning her family’s disapproval. Pinkerton, on the other hand, does not take this “marriage” at all seriously: he is just in it for a night of sex with an attractive young Japanese girl, and he even jokes quite openly about later finding himself a “proper American wife”. After his night of passion, he sails away, and forgets all about this girl. It is not that he is a villain: he is just a thoughtless young man who is doing what he sees everyone else in his position doing. It doesn’t occur to him – or, indeed, to anyone else – that the “bride” might be taking this whole silly business seriously.

But she does. From that night of passion, she has a little boy. And she waits for Pinkerton to return, as he had said he would, and will not hear anything to the contrary. And when, after three years, he does return, he has his “proper American wife” with him. He is overcome by remorse, and he and his American wife speak of adopting the little boy from his former “marriage”. Cio Cio San, her entire life and soul now crushed, takes out of its scabbard the sword with which her father, on the Emperor’s command, had committed hara-kiri. She reads the inscription: “He who cannot live with honour must die with honour”. And she blindfolds the little by so he cannot see his mother’s final agony, both physical and spiritual.

That is the story, and, for all the talk we hear of operas having silly plots, this seems to me frighteningly realistic. But what is interesting is what Puccini makes of this story. For, as far as I can see, what he makes of it is more than just a finely crafted tear-jerker. It now seems to me that it is nothing less than a tragedy of immense proportions. Cio Cio San’s fate is every bit as tragic as that of Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová, or Berg’s Wozzeck. If we do not hesitate to describe those works as tragic (and I don’t think anyone seriously does), I really don’t see why we should withhold that status from this opera. Yes, Cio Cio San is tortured beyond human endurance, and Puccini is often criticised for what many regard as his streak of sadism, and of misogyny. But Káťa Kabanová and Wozzeck are equally tortured, and I’ve yet to hear Janáček criticised for misogyny on that score, or Berg of misandry. And neither is accused of sadism. It seems that these criticisms are made only of Puccini. Is it because he wears his heart so obviously on his sleeve, I wonder? What other reason can there be?

Also, sadism implies an enjoyment in inflicting pain. But I get no sense of that at all in Madama Butterfly. Puccini takes Cio Cio San’s sufferings very seriously. Indeed, he is perhaps the only one who does. Apart from the maidservant Suzuki, all other characters seem to see Cio Cio San as essentially disposable: she doesn’t matter, and neither do her feelings. In the first act, Pinkerton never pauses to ask himself whether Cio Cio San takes the marriage seriously, or as lightly as he obviously does. Even the American consul, Sharpless, though sympathetic, is merely uneasy at the marriage, and no more: he tells Pinkerton to be careful, but, crucially, doesn’t tell him not to proceed with his plans. Later, he expresses frustration that Cio Cio San insists on waiting for the man she still regards as her husband. In the final act, no-one questions that Pinkerton’s second marriage, with a “proper American woman”, is the one that really counts, and not his first. Pinkerton may be remorseful, and everyone may feel sorry for Cio Cio San, but no-one thinks anything of taking her child away from her. The American Mrs Pinkerton promises to Cio Cio San that she will look after the child as if he were her own: she actually thinks this is a kind thing to say. And we can all guess what will happen once the curtain drops on the dead woman and the blindfolded child: the child will be taken away, his mother never more mentioned, and, in time, she will be forgotten. A disposable person well disposed of. Move on – nothing to see here.

The only person to understand the full extent of this tragedy, to understand its earth-shaking nature, is Puccini himself. And to see this merely as a master showman pulling strings to get his audience crying does not strike me as an adequate way to view this – as it seems to me now – extraordinary work. It wrings the heart with terror and with pity, and neither is there just for theatrical effect.

The Royal Opera production, and the performances, were top notch. Conductor Antonio Pappano shapes and paces the drama to perfection, and Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is absolutely sensational as Cio Cio San, both in terms of singing and of acting. A full week after the show, neither my wife nor I can get this opera out of our heads. The other characters on stage may no doubt see Cio Cio San as essentially a disposable human being; but Puccini has ensured that we see her as something considerably more than that. Madama Butterfly is among the great works of tragic drama.

The Makropoulos Thingummy

The title of Leoš Janáček’s penultimate opera, Věc Makropulos, has proved a bit difficult to translate. It literally means The Makropulos Thing, but, rather understandably, that hasn’t quite caught on, while alternatives such as The Makropulos Affair or The Makropulos Case aren’t entirely satisfactory either. Perhaps it’s best just to retain the original Czech title: those who are interested will soon figure out what it means, and for those who aren’t particularly interested, I guess it doesn’t matter. But, whatever one chooses to call it, it’s a wonderful work, albeit not quite as well-known as it should be:  it is rarely performed, and, of the major operas by Janáček, this is the one I am least acquainted with. So when I saw a concert performance scheduled in the current BBC Proms season, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, and featuring Karita Mattila, one of the great singers of our time, in the central role, it was hard to resist.

The trajectory of Janáček’s artistic career is a strange one. Had he died around 1920, say, when in his mid-60s, I suspect he’d have been remembered as a one-hit wonder – that one hit being Jenůfa, one of the most gut-wrenching of all stage works, and a towering masterpiece. He had composed as well some other works of note – some lovely piano pieces, and a couple more operas that are well worth hearing (Osud and The Excursions of Mr Broucek) – but nothing approaching the quality of Jenůfa. And then, in the last seven or eight years of his life, in his late sixties and early seventies, when most artists’ creativity tend to wind down, something strange happened: he produced a string of masterpieces – two string quartets of startling originality, the Sinfonietta, the mind-blowing Glagolitic Mass, and four operas that rank with the finest – Káťa Kabanová, Příhody lišky Bystroušky  (rather unfortunately – and inaccurately – rendered in English as The Cunning Little Vixen), Věc Makropulos, and, finally, The House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel set in Siberian labour camps.

What strikes one about these works – quite apart, of course, from their obvious quality – is their dissimilarity from each other in terms of theme; and, Káťa Kabanová apart, their seemingly unoperatic subject matter. Káťa Kabanová, based on the play The Storm by Russian dramatist Alexandr Ostrovsky, has a plotline that virtually cries out for operatic treatment; but the Vixen opera is based on a cartoon strip in a newspaper, is virtually plotless, and features as its characters both humans and forest animals; while his last opera, based on Dostoyevsky, depicts day-to-day life in a labour camp, and is punctuated by long monologues in which various convicts relate the events that had brought them to the dead-house. And the subject of Věc Makropulos, based on a play by Karel Čapek, seems the least operatic of them all. The libretto – adapted by Janáček himself from Čapek’s play – does not read like something intended for an opera house: it is all dialogue, in prose, with little scope for arias or for monologues, or for ensembles: it seems like a conversation piece more than anything else. And the subject appears to be a complex legal case, concerning a disputed inheritance, that has been dragging on for some hundred years – a sort of Czech version of Dedlock vs Dedlock. There is indeed quite a long scene in the first act where the details of this case are spelled out. It’s hard to imagine material less likely for operatic treatment.

Janáček had, no doubt, condensed Čapek’s play – since singing a line takes longer than speaking it, opera libretti must necessarily be shorter than plays – but even after the condensing, it reads like a play rather than as a libretto. And it’s all in prose: no rhymes, no regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – merely spoken dialogue.  Janáček was, apparently, fascinated by speech rhythms and intonations, had developed his own notation of recording them, and had incorporated his expertise in these matters into his music; but I fear this aspect of his work is lost on a non-Czech speaker such as myself: what emerges, for me, at least, is something decidedly prosaic. For much of the opera, what we hear are very brief musical motifs that refuse to combine – either in the vocal lines or in the orchestral parts – to create melody, or even recognisable melodic fragments. It makes Strauss’ Elektra – that uncompromisingly jagged piece of modernism I heard at the same venue a couple of years ago – seem almost like a feast of melody.

I mean this as an observation rather than as a criticism: I do not necessarily look for melody, and am not disappointed when I don’t find it. And in any case, Janáček was at the top of his game at the time of writing this, and what he produced was, quite clearly, what he intended to produce, no matter how much it may puzzle. For there’s no denying that by the time we reach the final act, it is mesmeric. And this final act is not merely stuck on to the first two: it is an integral part of the dramatic arc. In other words, no matter how much the earlier parts of the opera may puzzle with its seemingly un-operatic material, and, some might say, its equally un-operatic musical style (in the sense that there are no long musical lines that both singers and listeners so often delight in), it leads inexorably to a finale that is like no other I have experienced.

I do not know how this is achieved: I am not qualified to comment on the musical side of it. Dramatically, the libretto is not without its faults. In the first scene, Vitek, a lawyer’s clerk and a political radical, recites from a speech by Danton to himself when he thinks no-one is hearing. Presumably, this is taken from Čapek’s play, and leads to something there, but in the opera, it seems utterly gratuitous: indeed, Vitek himself, a minor character, virtually disappears from the action soon afterwards. If Janáček had indeed condensed the play, a bit more condensation may perhaps have not gone amiss.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down a translation of Čapek’s play, and am not even sure that a translation exists. In the notes in the booklet accompanying the recording conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Janáček expert and biographer John Tyrrell quotes Čapek biographer William Harkins:

… the intensity of Čapek ‘s ideas is never matched by a corresponding intensity of language.

and goes on to say that, in effect, Janáček had improved on the original material, providing a solemn tragic dimension to a comedy that, if not entirely light-hearted, was not too substantial either. That may be so, but I would love to read the play for myself, and would be grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of a good translation. Certainly the ideas that animate the drama, whether or not they are matched by a corresponding intensity of language, are immensely striking.

For what emerges through all the ordinary, prosaic stuff about legal cases and disputed wills is a quite extraordinary and, indeed, poetic story. It concerns Emilia Marty, a beautiful and gifted opera singer, who, for reasons not immediately divulged, takes an interest in this seemingly dull legal case, and appears, mysteriously, to know about the private affairs of various people who had been alive a hundred years ago. She refuses to answer any questions on how she came to know such things, and treats everyone and everything with a cold, undisguised contempt. What she is interested in is a certain document that, she knows, is in the same place as a will that is as yet unseen. It is this document that is, specifically, the “Makropulos Thing” of the title. To get her hands on this document, she agrees, with seeming indifference, without either desire or distaste, to spend a night with Baron Prus; but when they emerge from the hotel bedroom in the third act, the Baron describes the encounter as like “making love to a corpse”.

The secret finally emerges: Emilia Marty is 337 years old: her real name – that is, the name she had been born with – is Elina Makropulos. Her father, an alchemist of the sixteenth century, and created an elixir for eternal life, and had been ordered to test it first on his own daughter. She, having taken it, had fallen into a coma, and her father was imprisoned as a fraud. But he was no fraud: the daughter had emerged from the coma free from the shadow of death: she had, indeed, eternal life. And over the centuries, she had perfected her art as a singer, and had emerged under different names in different eras. Now, she needs her father’s formula – contained in the “Makropulos Thing” she so desperately wants to get her hands on – to renew her eternal youth.

But there is a price to be extracted for eternity:  life, for her, is empty. She had loved, but those she had loved – such as the man who had written the disputed will, and to whom she bore an illegitimate child – are now long dead; and now, even love has come to seem a pointless rigmarole.

In the prelude that opens the opera, the music turns and churns: brass motifs heard offstage seem to echo down from somewhere far distant in time itself. Once the action begins, we seem to be in a very ordinary world of lawyers’ offices, hotel rooms, backstage after performance; but through this ordinariness emerges the extraordinary. And by the end, without my realising quite how I got there, I found myself in the grips of one of the most mesmerising of all operatic tragedies, as Elina Makropulos concedes the sheer pointlessness of eternity.

I am not qualified to comment on the musical performance, except to say that, to my ears at least, it was magnificent. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played like the world class orchestra it is, and Karita Mattila projected not merely her undoubted vocal prowess, but all the charisma and personality such a role requires. To see so great a singer and actress, still in her artistic prime despite having been at the top of her career now for several decades, is in itself a privilege.

As for the opera itself, I came out of the Royal Albert Hall as shaken as I had been (albeit for different reasons) when I had come out having seen Strauss’ Elektra there some two years ago. The two operas, despite both being tragedies, are very different: with Elektra, one has no doubt from the very opening chords that one is in a mythic world darkened by blood and by a violence that is both mental and physical; but here, despite the foreboding music of the prelude, one seems very much in a world of the mundane, the ordinary. What is striking here is the emergence of the extraordinary from the ordinary, of the tragic from the mundane.

In many ways, I couldn’t help thinking, this opera is the diametric opposite of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner liked his operas long, and constructed them so that, when listening, we lose the sense of time passing, while Janáček preferred his operas short (between 90 and 120 minutes, at most), and here, made the passage of time his very theme; Wagner’s opera virtually strips out all external action, so that what we experience seems to be taking place somewhere deep within our unconscious, whereas Janáček sets his work with an almost dogged determination in a very real world; Wagner shows us a world in which human love is given meaning and significance by the presence of death, whereas Janáček shows us a world in which everything that is of value, even love itself, is rendered pointless by the absence of death. For, as Wagner and Janáček both knew – and, I’d imagine, Karel Čapek too – love is only possible between dying things. Eternity is not for the likes of us.

“Verdi’s Shakespeare” by Garry Wills

In this post, I shall be riding not just one of my hobbyhorses, but two.

Regular readers of this blog – and I flatter myself there are a few – will know that Shakespeare and Verdi are both great heroes of mine, and loom large within my cultural horizons. Indeed, these readers may well be wishing that I’d stop banging on about them for a while. But it can’t be helped. The very purpose of this blog, after all, is to bang on about things that are dear to me. So that means I will, I’m afraid, continue to bang on about both Shakespeare and Verdi, and, in particular, on the operas Verdi wrote based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Verdi’s three Shakespearean operas – the relatively early Macbeth, and Otello and Falstaff, the two masterpieces written in old age – aren’t adaptations, as such, of Shakespeare’s plays, or translations of those plays from one medium into another: they are, rather, entirely new works of art that take Shakespeare’s plays but as a starting point. Shakespeare himself, of course, did precisely the same thing: he took existing works and transformed them into something else. And the end-product is judged on its own terms: we do not, after all, judge Shakespeare’s Othello on how closely or otherwise it follows Giraldo Cinthio’s tale on which it was based; and, by the same token, neither should we judge Verdi’s Otello on how closely or otherwise it represents Shakespeare’s play: we must judge it on its own merits. However, for someone such as myself, a fan both of Shakespeare and of Verdi, it is fascinating to examine what Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito took from the original works, and how they transformed what they took to express their own artistic vision. So when, on a casual book-browsing session in the London bookshops, I came across a book on this very theme – Verdi’s Shakespeare by Garry Wills – I was frankly overjoyed. I couldn’t imagine why, given my interest in this subject, I had not known about this book before.

ShakespeareVerdi

The book is subtitled Men of the Theatre. Nowadays, most dramatists write their plays first, and only later, at the casting stage, are actors found suitable for the roles. But Shakespeare and Verdi both knew the actors or singers they were writing for, and would write with their strengths and weaknesses in mind. Verdi, when his opera was staged elsewhere or with a different cast, would be quite happy to make changes to suit the new singers. Of course, he was less inclined to do this as his artistic vision developed, but even for his late operas he would carefully consider the vocal strengths and weaknesses of the singers who were to sing in the premier. So, with this in mind, Wills considers the singers we know Verdi wrote for, and the actors Shakespeare is likely to have written for: what we can discern of their strengths and weaknesses can, after all, tell us much about how Shakespeare and Verdi conceived their creations.

Wills considers also doubling, and, quite often, tripling and quadrupling: given the size of Shakespeare’s troupe, and the number of characters in his plays, there would inevitably have been many cases of actors playing multiple roles; and, quite frequently, from the internal evidence of the plays, we can, at least, make intelligent guesses on some of this doubling. Quite apart from anything else, Shakespeare, as a Man of the Theatre, would have given his actors plenty of time to change costume before coming on stage as a different character, and the spacings between exits and entrances can give us important clues.

And sometimes, when the audience sees the same actor in different roles, the two roles become associated with each other in the audience’s mind. (Jane Howell made some very imaginative use of this in the superb productions of the three Henry VI plays and of Richard III she directed for BBC back in the early 80s.) On reading or watching Macbeth, we may think that Lady Macbeth’s mental breakdown comes upon us too suddenly, but Shakespeare’s own audiences would have seen the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth also playing Lady Macduff only a few scenes earlier; and in that earlier scene, they would have seen Lady Macduff witnessing the slaughter of her own child, before she herself is murdered. All this, Wills argues, would have prepared the audience psychologically for the sleepwalking scene: having seen Lady Macduff in a veritable hell, the audience is now prepared to see Lady Macbeth, played by the same actor, in her own hell – albeit, this time, a hell of her own making.

Similarly with Cordelia and the Fool: the Fool is not present in the opening scene in which Lear divides his kingdom, and disappears well before Cordelia re-appears: it seems a reasonable conjecture that the same boy actor is playing both parts. This conjecture is strengthened given their dramatic roles: while Cordelia is absent, the Fool is present to remind Lear (and us) of the absent Cordelia; the Fool is, in effect, standing in as a sort of proxy for the missing Cordelia. And when, at the end of the play, Lear howls over Cordelia’s body “And my poor fool is hanged!” we do not need to ask whether he is grieving for the Fool or for Cordelia: he is grieving for them both, because, in the audience’s mind, the two characters have, to a great extent, been fused into one.

The boy actor playing Lady Macbeth, and Cordelia, and the Fool, was, most likely, the boy actor John Rice, and, given the extraordinarily demanding roles Shakespeare wrote for him – as well as the parts mentioned, he would have played Cleopatra, and possibly Volumnia in Coriolanus – he must have been a remarkable talent. But if Rice indeed played these roles, what part would Robert Armin have played? Armin had replaced Will Kemp as the Clown in Shakespeare’s troupe, and was renowned as a more “intellectual” comic than his predecessor; he was also himself a writer of some distinction. Furthermore, he was a major player in the acting company, and it seems unlikely that he would have been fobbed off merely with minor roles. It seems inconceivable that his part in Othello, say, would have been restricted to the almost inconsequential scene featuring an almost inconsequential clown. Wills argues that Armin was well capable of taking on dramatic roles: if he did not play the Fool in King Lear, he may quite easily have taken on Edgar in King Lear – which, despite being a dramatic role, calls for a lot of clowning; and, intriguingly, he would have been likely to take on Iago in Othello. There seems to be no other role suitable for an actor of his stature.

Of course, there is much conjecture in all this: we can never know for certain who took which role. James Shapiro, in 1616 the Year of Lear, seems certain that Armin would have played the Fool in King Lear. That, too, is conjecture, of course. From my own understanding of the play, the same actor doubling Cordelia and the Fool makes a great deal of dramatic sense, and, for that reason alone, it is towards Wills’ conjecture rather than to Shapiro’s that I find myself leaning. But, fascinating though all this may be (to me, at least!) it may justifiably be argued that all of this is too insubstantial to base critical judgement on. With Verdi, we are on safer ground: here, we are not short of documentation. We know, for instance, precisely how Verdi had imagined his Macbeth and his Lady Macbeth:

He told both principal singers, “I want the performer to serve the poet better than they serve the composer” … He went so far as to say that his singers should not sing.

This, of course, has to be put into context of the times, when fine singing tended to take precedence over the demands of drama, but from the copious documentation we have, what emerges is Verdi trying to break free from the tradition where fine singing was an end in itself, and the drama no more than a convenient vehicle for beautiful singing. On the contrary, he insisted, the singing must serve the drama, and if the drama is best served by singing that actually sounds ugly – at least by the standards of the time – then so be it. The singers he settled on for the two main roles – Felice Varesi and Marianna Barbieri-Nini – were not, by Verdi’s own estimation, the best singers available. But, as Wills explains:

The reason Verdi did not want “fine singers” is that he doubted that he could prod such almost feral sounds from them, as he could from Varesi and Barbieri.

Although there are wonderful things in this opera that still, after multiple hearings, send shivers up my spine, it would be foolish to claim it’s among Verdi’s greatest masterpieces. What can be claimed, I think, is that Verdi was trying here to create a new kind of opera. However, when we come to Verdi’s other Shakespearean operas, Otello and Falstaff, we are in a different world. By this stage, Verdi had already created the kind of opera he had wanted in a string of masterpieces, and he was officially retired; but, for various reasons – most salient of which, one may guess, being that he never found a suitable libretto – he had not, after Macbeth, written an opera that takes his beloved Shakespeare as its source material. But now, in his 70s, the music publisher Ricordi introduced him to the accomplished young poet and composer, Arrigo Boito. It was an unlikely pairing: Verdi was the Grand Old man of Italian Arts, and, by that stage, the epitome of all that was conservative, while Boito came from a Bohemian background, and was openly rebellious, as young artists tend to be, against all that reeked of the establishment. Indeed, Boito had written some extremely indelicate verses condemning the established artistic monuments of his time, and Verdi, the most obvious establishment figure, had taken great personal exception to them. However, Boito, recognising genius even from, as it were, the enemy camp, jumped at the opportunity to work with Verdi, and Verdi himself, though cautious, must have seen something in the young Boito. First of all, Verdi asked Boito to tidy up the messy libretto of his earlier opera Simon Boccanegra. Boito did so brilliantly, prompting Verdi not merely to rewrite some of the music for that work, but to put something of his best into that re-writing. At last, Verdi had found a librettist of sufficient talent, and he knew what he wanted: he wanted to tackle Shakespeare again. This was, after all, a man who could not only read Shakespeare in the original English (as Verdi could not) – he knew Shakespeare well enough, and possessed sufficient poetic gifts himself, to have translated Antony and Cleopatra into Italian. Verdi had, at long last, found his ideal librettist.

The story of how these two very different men, from different generations, outlooks, and artistic backgrounds, overcame the various barriers between them to form what ended up as a close and affectionate friendship I find genuinely touching. The two ended up loving each other. Boito visited Verdi often, both before the passing of Verdi’s wife and after, and, shortly before his own death in 1919, wrote:

The voluntary servitude I consecrated to that just, most noble, and truly great man is the act of my life that gives me most satisfaction.

The transformation of Shakespeare’s play into the opera Otello is remarkable (I had previously written something about it here). Possibly the most striking difference is in Iago’s motivation: in Shakespeare’s play, this remains a matter of some contention (I have written my own thoughts on it here): to summarise, Iago gives us two possible motives – first, that he was passed over for promotion, and second, that he suspects his own wife with Othello; but the two motives seem to negate each other: it’s almost as if Iago can’t decide why he hates Othello so much. It’s not so much that his hatred has sprung from his motives, but, rather, that his hatred itself has been his starting point, and that he has to keep supplying himself with motives to justify that hatred. But in the opera, Boito gives Iago a monologue that has absolutely no equivalent at all in Shakespeare’s play. The opening lines of this monologue is a blasphemous parody of the Credo from the Latin mass:

Credo in un Dio crudel
che m’ha creato simile a sè
e che nell’ira io nomo.

I believe in a cruel God
who created me like himself
in anger of whom that I name.

(Translation by Aaron Green. See here for full text and translation of this monologue.)

Iago – or Jago, in Boito’s libretto – is not really a nihilist, as has often been claimed: he believes in a God all right. But the God he believes in is an evil God, a cruel God, as nothing else could explain why he, Jago, had been created in such a way. Jago, in pursuing evil, is but serving the God he believes in – the only God he can believe in.

It is a frightening picture, and Verdi clothes this monologue in the most terrifying music. For Verdi took Jago very seriously. He insisted repeatedly that Jago must not be a traditional mustachio-twirling villain. Sadly, in just about every performance I have heard, that is precisely what Jago ends up being. In every performance and recording I am acquainted with (bar only one) Jago ends his monologue with a villainous laugh. This laugh is not written in the score, and, as Wills rightly reminded us, Verdi had previously insisted that the tubercular heroine of La Traviata should not cough, and that the jovial Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera should not laugh, even at the point where he says he is laughing: these things are all communicated by the music. So how likely is it that Verdi would have approved of Jago laughing – especially when, with that laugh, he emerges as the pantomime villain that Verdi most certainly had not intended?

Towards the end of this monologue, Verdi inserts a few pauses in the music: this is not, as often appears to be the case in performance, because Jago is teasing the audience, delaying giving them answers that he already knows: quite the contrary – the pauses indicate that Jago is thinking. The conclusion he arrives at – that life is meaningless and heaven an old wives’ tale – is a difficult one, even for him, and it costs him a great effort of will to get there. When Verdi first saw this passage of Boito’s libretto, he was ecstatic, and described it as “Shakespearean”. It is a bit of a mystery why he did so: Verdi must surely have known that there was nothing like this in Shakespeare’s play. I’d hazard a guess that Verdi described this as Shakespearean because, as so often in Shakespeare’s plays, we see here a character in the process of thinking. He is not just expressing things that he has already thought out, and neither is he simply giving vent to his emotions: we see him actually in the process of formulating his thoughts. To diminish this to merely pantomime villainy seems to me frankly inexcusable.

Verdi’s conception of Otello is also remarkable. Looking around the net, I often find individual performances praised for communicating an animalist ferocity in Otello, or, conversely, criticized for not communicating an animalist ferocity, but from Verdi’s own recorded correspondence, animalistic ferocity was precisely what he didn’t want: not consistently, at least. He had grave doubts about engaging Francesco Tamagno for the role, worried that Tamagno always sang “with a full voice”, whereas the role, in Verdi’s opinion, required far greater subtlety and shading. This is not to rule out ferocity at certain points, but it does mean there is far more to this role than blasting off the roof beams with sheer volume and power. Victor Maurel, who sang Jago in the premier (and later also sang Falstaff) had similar reservations about the can belto approach to the role of Otello; he later wrote:

The ideal of vocal power necessary for Otello was provided with astonishing intensity by the creator of the role, Francesco Tamagno. But we think it dangerous to instil in the minds of Italian interpreters of Otello the idea that this kind of extraordinary vocal power is a condition sine qua non of a great interpretation.

Verdi, as usual, personally coached the singers himself very thoroughly, but sadly, the premier was too early for recordings, and what recordings we have of Tamagno singing passages from the opera were made many years afterwards, and, though spellbinding, they don’t necessarily reflect Verdi’s instructions. Those we can only conjecture from the documentary evidence we have.

Verdi had intended Otello to be his swan song: he had already officially retired once, was now well into his 70s, and had composed what was self-evidently a masterpiece. But presumably, working with Boito on another Shakespearean project proved too great a temptation. And this time, the opera was to be a comedy – his first comic opera since his very first work Un Giorno di Regno, which had flopped disastrously some fifty years earlier and had never since been revived. The source this time was The Merry Wives of Windsor, by common consent among Shakespeare’s lesser works, but which, if somewhat lacking in depth and in artistic vision, remains nonetheless, it seems to me, a charming and delightful work, full of laughs and good humour. Boito took this somewhat unwieldy comedy, thinned out the plot and the number of characters, enriched the concoction by adding some passages taken from the magnificent Henry IV plays, and created a witty and enchanting libretto that a composer of operas could only dream about.

If we leave out his first opera, Verdi had no experience of writing a comic work. But you wouldn’t think so from listening to this. The music conjured up by the aged Verdi, now approaching his 80s, is full of youthful zest, warm-heartedness, and a love of that life he knew he must leave sooner rather than later. It’s almost as if he had too many melodic ideas to fit into just one work, so he crammed in as many as he could: the result is that we hear not so much fully developed melodies, but, rather, scraps of melodies: almost before we have had the opportunity to take in any of the melodies fully, Verdi’s inexhaustible imagination has rushed off somewhere else, and is presenting us with some new scrap of tune. The orchestration, as witty as the libretto, is also constantly changing from moment to moment; the harmonies, too, are never allowed to settle. The headlong rush is irresistible. The counterpoint is extraordinarily intricate, and it is exhilarating – never more so than in the finale, a fugue which never seems fusty or academic, but is, instead, full of vigour and of the sheer joy of being alive. In Verdi’s long life, he had been no stranger to personal tragedy, but he left us at the end with the most joyous of love letters to life: there is no other work I can think of that is so full of the sheer unadulterated joy of just being alive. It is indeed a miracle. And once again, I don’t think there is anything quite like this in Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s joy was, all too often, soaked in the deepest melancholy. But here, although the note of autumnal melancholy does occasionally creep in, that is by no means the principal tonality. Once again, Boito and Verdi had taken Shakespeare as a starting point, and had transformed it into something entirely new.

Throughout the book, Gary Wills is a knowledgeable and reliable guide to these astonishing acts of artistic transformation. He is steeped in the worlds both of Shakespeare and of Verdi, and writes knowledgeably and with great insight on their respective creative imaginations. And he communicates, without gushing, his enthusiasm for these works. After reading this book, I found myself reaching once again for Shakespeare’s plays and – given that I can’t read the scores – recordings of the operas. And both the plays and the operas are self-renewing works: with each revisit, they appear as something new.

I don’t know how many readers have stayed with me to the end of what has turned out to be a very long post on matters that are, I know, only of minority interest, but in case one or two have, I would recommend this book without reservation. And then I would then recommend immersion in Shakespeare’s plays, and in those extraordinary operas Verdi and Boito fashioned from them. Even if you end up being an obsessive like me, there are, I’d contend, worse things to be obsessed with.