Posts Tagged ‘Mozart’

Strauss on my mind

I’ve had Strauss on the mind lately. Richard Strauss, that is, not Johann the Waltz King – although, to judge from the waltz in Der Rosenkavalier, Richard could have gone in that direction had he so wanted.

It all started a few weeks ago, when I found out that I would be working for a couple of weeks in offices in central London. So, naturally, I looked to see what was on in London in the evenings during those two weeks. And I found, to my delight, that the renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under their Principal Conductor Riccardo Chailly, was giving over a few days a series of three concerts of Strauss and Mozart. So I booked myself for all three of them. I mean, it would have been churlish not to.

Strauss has a bit of an odd reputation. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that it was Mahler, Strauss’ contemporary, who was the true genius, pouring out his tortured soul in works of emotional profundity and spiritual intensity, while Strauss was merely a showman, who cared more for effect rather than for substance, who often strayed into the crude and the vulgar – a sort of musical Barnum and Bailey. While I have no doubt at all about the stature of Mahler, I have never been at all happy with such an appraisal of Strauss. Yes, he was a showman, he could be crude and vulgar, and, yes, there are many works of his in which showmanship takes precedence over substance. But this is by no means the whole story. In the first place, showmanship need not preclude depth, or even artistic integrity; and in the second place, the composer of Elektra and of Metamorphosen deserves to be taken seriously – every bit as seriously, to my mind, as the unremittingly serious Mahler.

The three concerts included what Chailly has described as Strauss’ “core” tone poems, plus the late work Metamorphosen. Interestingly, Chailly does not include Don Quixote among this “core”, insisting that it was conceived as a set of orchestral variations rather than as a tone poem. And neither does he include the Alpine Symphony, a work which probably does lend credence to Strauss’ reputation of being a showman rather than a serious artist. Even some of the “core” works don’t quite, perhaps, dispel that notion – but the boundary between artistry and craftsmanship seems to me a very blurred one at best. And anyone who says something such as Ein Heldenleben is not a supremely beautiful and moving piece of music is a bounder and a cad, and can meet me afterwards in the car park outside.

Ein HeldenlebenA Hero’s Life – formed the second half of the first of the three concerts. In the first half, we had one of Strauss’ earliest masterpieces – the gloriously ardent and swaggering Don Juan. The orchestra played superbly: the sound was mellow, but deceptively so, as, at the dramatic climaxes, it packed a tremendous punch; but even at its most dramatic, the sound never lost its refinement, never became harsh. And no matter how thick the orchestral texture may be, the sound was never congested: there was always a sense of space around the various strands of the music.

Sibelius had once commented that Strauss provided his listeners with rich and exotic cocktails, whereas he gave the listener pure spring water. We need spring water as well, of course: going straight from one rich and exotic cocktail to another can become a bit too much. Here, the spring water was provided not by Sibelius, but by Mozart, a composer who was very close to Strauss’ heart. Between Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, the Gewandhaus Orchestra accompanied Maria João Pires in a performance of Mozart’s 27th piano concerto. It is a work often described as being a late Mozart work, and indeed it is – although we should keep in mind that Mozart was only 35 when he composed it, and that the works Strauss had composed at that age are regarded as his early works. It is a work of ethereal beauty: there seems something quite other-worldly about it. Gone is the exuberance and the drama of Mozart’s earlier piano concertos: where, previously, the second group of themes had contrasted dramatically with the first, here, they seem to complement each other. The music does indeed dance along gracefully, but the brilliance of Mozart’s dancing in his earlier works seems to have vanished, leaving behind a ghost of its former self. Huxley had once commented that Mozart’s music is saddest when it seems to be happy, but never has the happy surface been quite so transparent as it is here, revealing the depths below. It is a work that smiles, and yet breaks the heart, and I don’t think I could hope to hear it performed better than I did here. There is a passage in the first movement development section that is particularly close to my heart: the key changes come so frequently and so quickly, that it seems to give an impression of drifting between keys: I know of no other music quite like this.

After the interval, we were in a different world entirely: Ein HeldenlebenA Hero’s Life. In many respects, it’s a work of utter megalomania: in the section labelled “The Hero’s Works of Peace”, Strauss gives us a collage of themes from his own earlier pieces, leaving us in no doubt as to who the hero of the title is. But I think that to criticise the work on this ground is to miss the humour: whenever I hear this piece, I seem to see a twinkle in Strauss’ eye, a wink and a nudge. Similarly in the second section of the work, which depicts the hero’s enemies: it’s a glorious cacophony of winds, suggesting to absolute perfection a band of snivelling idiots. One may ask what is so very heroic about defeating such a miserable bunch, but once again, this is to miss the humour of the thing. Speaking for myself, I can’t help but break into a broad grin when I hear this.
And then, there is the love scene. The hero’s companion is depicted by a solo violin, and the hero, in the form of the orchestra, woos her ardently; but she is no doormat merely to do the hero’s bidding. Time after time, the violin solo seems to be responding to the hero’s amorous overtures, merely to go off into intricate cadenzas and arabesques: this is a companion who is very much her own person, and with her own mind, who will respond to the hero as and when she wants to, in her own time, and in her own way. And when she finally does, we have a love scene like no other in music: Strauss gives us sounds so gorgeous, and so opulent and sensual, that it’s almost indecent.

Then comes the battle scene, in which the hero defeats his enemies. This is a section that could come over as overblown – but in this performance, it was genuinely thrilling. The orchestra of about a hundred or so players, including five percussionists (yes, five – I counted ‘em!) went at it hammer and tongs, and yet, somehow, they never compromised the beauty of tone. It was magnificent. And afterwards, the enemies vanquished, we move into the hero’s works of peace – a glorious collage of themes of Strauss’ earlier works. In Don Juan, there had been a thrilling moment when a swaggering horn fanfare had sounded over the massed orchestra: we had heard this only earlier that evening; well, since that moment was so wonderful, Strauss thought he would repeat it again in Ein Heldenleben: and no, it doesn’t suffer from the repetition – it remained just as thrilling.

How does one finish a work such as this? Strauss decided not to pile Pelion on Ossa (or is that the other way round?) – after all the thrills and spills, he opts for a quiet ending, as the hero, having achieved all that could be achieved, renounces worldly things. The music is extraordinarily moving and beautiful. Showmanship? Perhaps. Who cares?

The second concert was not really in the class of the first: this was nothing to do with the playing or the conducting, but because the programme wasn’t as good. It started with Strauss’ early tone poem Macbeth, and interesting though it was to hear this played live, it isn’t a patch on Don Juan, the opening piece in the first concert. The Mozart piece was the 3rd violin concerto, and, lovely though it is, and beautifully played as it was by Christian Tetzlaff, it is not in the same league as Mozart’s last piano concerto. After the interval, we had Also Sprach Zarathustra, and again, I couldn’t help wondering just how seriously we are supposed to take this: isn’t the very idea of setting Nietzsche’s philosophy to music a bit of a joke? Once again, I couldn’t help seeing a twinkle in Strauss’ eye. And similarly with the section in which the Übermensch dances: what sort of music would an Übermensch dance to? Strauss makes him dance to a Viennese waltz, and, although the rest of the audience didn’t seem to find this particularly funny, I thought it was hilarious. The piece also has the very famous opening, of course; and the ending too is very beautiful. But for all this, it seems to me somewhat incoherent: despite all the lovely moments and beautiful passages, there is much that seemed to me a bit dull and uninspired. It was all great fun, I suppose, but whereas Ein Heldenleben had been more than just fun, this, I don’t think, was. Once again, this is not a comment on the performance, but on the music itself: there is no doubt in my mind that Strauss was a very great composer … but it’s fair to say, I think, that he was not always great.

For the third and last concert, there can be no doubt at all: it was, from beginning to end, utterly magnificent. It started with the magnificent Tod und VerklärungDeath and Transfiguration; the final section of this work, representing the transfiguration of the soul after death (or some such), is a gloriously opulent passage even by Strauss’ standards; my expectations were high, and the orchestra did not disappoint. After that came another of Mozart’s late masterpieces – the clarinet concerto. I must admit that, immediately after the ending of Tod und Verklärung, my ears took a bit of time to adjust to Mozart’s very different sound world, but once they did, it was utterly irresistible. The soloist, Martin Fröst, shaped and coloured each phrase exquisitely, and as we moved into the interval we were left wondering how anything could possibly come after this and not seem an anti-climax.

What came afterwards was Metamorphosen, one of my personal favourite works by any composer. It is a piece for 23 strings, an unbroken span of some half hour or so; it was composed by Strauss in his eighties in the years after the end of the Second World War, and it is a lament for the depths into which the culture had sunk in which Strauss had been steeped. Now, Strauss’ relationship with Nazism remains controversial: from what I can work out, he was, personally, a very decent and generous man, without any hint at all of racism or of anti-Semitism; but the unfortunate fact remains that, in his admittedly old age, Strauss did allow himself to be wheeled on by the Nazis as the great representative of the German Musical Culture. It was naïveté on Strauss’ part rather than anything else, and while such naïveté cannot be anything other than reprehensible, to label Strauss a Nazi, as some have done, does seem grossly unfair. But, be that as it may, Metamoprphosen is a great masterpiece. I went through a phase in my early twenties – not, for various reasons, the most cheerful years of my life – when I used to listen almost obsessively to Mozart’s D minor piano concerto, and to this: its deep gloom and desolation, rising to uninhibited passion before subsiding once again, has long resonated with me, and listening to it live, and played and shaped so beautifully, was for me a particularly fulfilling experience.

The concert could have ended here, but they obviously wanted to end with a bang: so, to finish off, we had the hugely witty and exuberant Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss’ musical depiction of the prankster from Germanic folklore. It is a tremendous orchestral scherzo, and it was played with great verve and gusto: it brought the house down.

So, after all that … was Strauss a great musical genius, or just a showman? I incline towards the first option – how could the composer of Metamorphosen be anything but a genius? – but frankly, I don’t know that I care much. Genius or showman, this is music that I love, and I wouldn’t be without it. And that’s all that really matters.

Anthony Burgess on Mozart

Anthony Burgess once confided to me many years ago that Stanley Kubrick had misinterpreted his novel A Clockwork Orange.

Ha! There’s nothing like a bit of name-dropping to get things going, is there? But at least the name-dropping on this occasion made for, I hope, an engaging opening sentence. And, it so happens, it told nothing less than the literal truth: the lie is not in what is stated, but in what is implied – that I had known Anthony Burgess personally, and even, perhaps, that he had been in the habit of confiding in me. Sadly, no. I had attended a lecture he had given in what was then the McLennan Galleries on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, and, in the book-signing session that followed, had queued up with many others with an inevitable copy of A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess dutifully signed my copy – I have the signed copy still – but didn’t frankly seem too happy with my choice. In retrospect, I think I can understand why: A Clockwork Orange, as a novel, is really no better and no worse than a great many other novels he had written, but its reputation far outstrips the others purely because it had famously, or infamously, been filmed by Stanley Kubrick; and Burgess’ authorial pride was very understandably hurt by being merely an adjunct to someone else’s work, to a mere film. And to make it worse, he did not seem to think too highly of that film to which his name was by then indissolubly attached. When I took up to his desk a Penguin copy of the novel, he waved at the picture on the cover featuring a bowler hat and a single eyelash, and said: “All this is Mr Kubrick’s invention, not mine.” And then, he added – and I use inverted commas as these were, I distinctly remember, his precise words – “sadly, Mr Kubrick misinterpreted my novel.”

I could, of course, have argued that Kubrick was creating his own work, using the novel as no more than a starting point, and, as such, was under no obligation to remain close either to the letter or to the spirit. But I didn’t, partly because I wouldn’t have had the nerve to engage in debate with so eminent a figure, and also because there was a long queue behind me of people waiting to get their Clockwork Oranges signed, Kubrick’s invention and all.

Anthony Burgess had been a very strong presence for me as I was growing up, and, without doubt, he helped shape my literary tastes and perceptions. I used to look forward to his book reviews in the Observer every Sunday (this was back in the days when Terence Kilmartin, translator of Proust, was their literary editor, and serious literature was taken seriously). These reviews were, as I remember, wonderful little essays, and I relished Burgess’ wit, his delight in putting together words in a manner that engaged and delighted, and the elegance and sparkle of it all. I enjoyed also, I admit, his rather grumpy and dyspeptic literary persona. I was then but a teenager, and, to be frank, I did not personally know anyone who shared my growing interest in literature sufficiently to discuss literary matters with me; and I most certainly did not know anyone sufficiently knowledgeable about literature to guide me. My literary conversation with Anthony Burgess was, admittedly, something of a one-way conversation, but it made its mark. There were times when I did find myself disappointed that Burgess did not always share my own taste: his strictures on Dostoyevsky, for instance, I remember finding particularly distressing, as Dostoyevsky was then – and remains still, albeit with grave reservations – something of a hero of mine. But I remember that his admiration for Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote had me going straight to the bookshop to place an order on it. And his boundless enthusiasm for Shakespeare and for Joyce – his two great literary heroes – was infectious. His biography of Shakespeare is both serious and unfailingly witty: I think I still see Shakespeare from the perspective presented in that book. And his book on Joyce I’d still recommend as the best introduction to this often intimidating writer. Indeed, when I wrote my own paean to Ulysses on this blog a few years ago, I had to be careful not to plagiarise. (Not consciously, at least: the unconscious echoes I don’t think I can be held responsible for.)

And there were the television appearances. Once again, although this was only some thirty or forty or so years ago, we are talking about very different times from our own: then it was considered quite acceptable to invite academics and scientists and opera singers and writers on to popular chat shows, rather than restrict the guest list only to showbiz celebrities. Anthony Burgess loved to appear on those shows, and he was a marvellous conversationalist, often eliciting more laughs from the audience than the professional comedians invited alongside him. It seemed almost a sort of revelation to me that one could write seriously about Shakespeare and Joyce, and still get huge laughs on the Wogan Show.

And he wrote also about music. Now, if literature was an area in which I could not engage in discussion with anyone I personally knew, classical music was way beyond the pale: neither my family nor my friends, nor, indeed, anyone else I knew, had the faintest idea about or interest in Western classical music. Burgess was not, admittedly, the first writer I’d turn to on the subject, but the very fact that he was knowledgeable about it, and could discourse on it with his characteristic wit and eloquence, and, above all, enthusiasm, made me warm to him. At the very least, it made me feel somewhat less strange for being so passionate about something that was greeted by all around me merely with a bewildered indifference.

I read some of Burgess’ novels as well. He wrote prolifically, and it would be foolish to claim that all his writings were on the same exalted level. And even considering him at his best – Earthly Powers, say – I’d hesitate to rank him amongst the foremost English novelists. But he was certainly at the head of the second division, and, to my mind, well ahead of many others who nowadays seem to enjoy a far higher reputation. And, whatever he wrote, he was unfailingly entertaining. He saw himself as a performer: the act of writing was, for him, putting on a performance for the reader. And they are wonderful performances – erudite, urbane, and sparkling. Brendan Behan once famously referred to Wodehouse as the “performing flea” of literature: Wodehouse was so delighted by this intended invective, that he used it as the title of his autobiography. But the term is better applied, I think, to Burgess, and I think he’d have taken it as a compliment also.

So when, recently, I found in a second-hand bookshop a book Burgess had written in 1991 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Mozart, I had to buy it. For if Anthony Burgess had been, in effect, my mentor in literary matters back in those days when my tastes were beginning to take shape, Mozart was the composer whose music I found myself turning to most often, and whose pre-eminence within my personal canon has never really been challenged.

I had not known about this book: Burgess wrote so many, that it’s easy for one or two to slip under the radar, as it were. It’s entitled On Mozart: A Paean for Wolfgang. But that’s only on the dust jacket. The title page gives a somewhat fuller version:

On Mozart: A Paean for Wolfgang

Being a  celestial colloquy, an opera libretto, a film script, a schizophrenic dialogue, a bewildered rumination, a Stendhalian transcription, and a heartfelt homage upon the bicentenary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

And Burgess is as good as his word. We start off with a scene in heaven, featuring Beethoven and Mendelssohn, who are soon joined by Sergei Prokofiev and by Arthur Bliss, both of whom are celebrating their own centenaries, and, later, by Wagner. Their conversation, as they discuss how things stand in heaven and in earth, and how best to celebrate Mozart, is worthy of Shaw. Then we get an opera libretto: the opera is about Mozart, but the libretto, with its dazzling rhythms and unlikely rhymes, seems more designed for musical comedy than for opera. Between the acts, we are treated to heavenly conversations featuring Stendhal, Berlioz, Rossini, Schoenberg, Gershwin, etc. Even Henry James makes a surprise appearance for reasons that now escape me.

There follows the “Standhalian transcription”, although it seems more Joycean than Stendhalian to me: it is an attempt to tell a story using a musical structure – specifically, the structure of Mozart’s 40th symphony. I only know that it uses the structure of the 40th symphony because Burgess, very considerately, tells us so: there’s no way I’d have guessed otherwise. And the model seems to me not Stendhal at all, but Joyce – specifically, the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, in which quasi-musical effects are produced with words. However, I must admit to finding this passage tiresome: it’s the only tiresome passage in the entire book, but, thankfully, it’s only a few pages. Later, Burgess admits to its failure:

…things have occasionally to be done to show that they cannot be done.

Sorry, Anthony, but that’s pretty lame; but given how royally he entertained me the rest of the time, I’ll let that pass.

There follows the schizophrenic dialogue between two characters called Anthony and Burgess, which is interrupted by a few pages of a film-script – the subject of the film being, of course, Mozart. And then, after another brief scene in heaven with Beethoven and Mendelssohn, Burgess finishes off with his two selves put back together again, and, this time, speaking directly to the reader on the miracle that was Mozart.

Through all these fireworks, a great many themes are touched upon: the abstract nature of music; the definition of sentimentality and of vulgarity; the opposition between music as diversion, and – as Mozart puts it in the film-script – as “that language that reaches higher than the language of prayer, that tenuous golden chain that links the human soul to the divine essence”;  art as an extension of craftsmanship, and as a legitimate product of professionalism; the characteristics in the various arts of Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modernist, and the relationship of these styles, even in the most abstract forms, to the societies in which they are created; the perception, or misperception, amongst many of a certain blandness in the music of Mozart; the breakdown of tonality; the significance of dance; and so on, and so forth. Perhaps, it may be said, Burgess does not delve into any of these themes deeply – but this book is not a thesis: it is, rather, an entertainment, and a very civilised entertainment it is too. Burgess, as ever, puts on a great performance.

This is not the greatest work I will read this year, nor the most profound. But for sheer fun, it’s hard to beat. It has been a long time since I last enjoyed Burgess’ company: reading this book was a bit like meeting up after a long separation with an old friend.

A short visit to Vienna

As regular readers of this blog may have noticed – and I flatter myself there are a few regular readers – I haven’t been around much lately: I’ve been enjoying a few days in Vienna. And no – I won’t put up my holiday snaps: they aren’t, frankly, very good, and if you really want a flavor of what Vienna looks like, a quick browse through Google Images will give you a far better impression than any snaps taken with my cheap digital camera.

Oh, very well then – I admit it: I forgot to pack my camera. But really, there’s no harm done. Enjoyment of a place is by no means enhanced merely by pointing a camera and snapping. Indeed, one may argue – as I certainly did, very vehemently, when my wife reprimanded for not having packed the camera – that enjoyment of a moment is intensified rather than otherwise by our awareness of its transience; and that, as Louis MacNeice put it,

We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold

Not even, MacNeice may have added, with a cheap digital camera.

In many ways, Vienna is an endless celebration of kitsch. One knew that right away as the plane landed at Vienna Airport with the Blue Danube waltz piping out to the passengers. It’s all Viennese waltzes and Viennese whirls, chocolate cakes and apple strudels. And, like any major European city, tacky souvenir shops.

I have a fascination with tackiness: I love browsing through cheap and tasteless souvenirs. The souvenir shops in Vienna are dominated by Mozart: Mozart coffee mugs, Mozart fridge magnets, Mozart mouse-mats, Mozart t-shirts, Mozart ties and scarves – anything at all you may care to imagine, but with a picture of Mozart on it. Why this unremitting focus on Mozart I wonder? After all, Beethoven was equally a resident of Vienna, and was no lesser a composer. There are also Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, and many, many others. Had any of these other composers been immortalised in tacky souvenirs, I would have been tempted: if I had seen, say, a Gustav Mahler coffee mug, or an Alban Berg baseball cap, I’d have had my wallet out right away. But these, I admit, I viewed and passed on.

Of course, I had to make a pilgrimage to the Big Ferris Wheel at the Prater. I may not look or sound like Orson Welles, but I’ve seen The Third Man so many times over the years that I know Harry Lime’s dialogue by heart. I was going to recite the Cuckoo Clock speech at the foot of the big wheel, but at the last moment, decided I’d look something of a fool if I did, and chickened out. Perhaps I should have gone ahead with it: a few minutes of looking a fool is, after all, a fair price to pay for having been Harry Lime – if only for just those few minutes.

And then, there was the Wiener Staatsoper, where I had cheapish seats for Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. I was never was much of a ballet fan, to be honest, but I do love Tchaikovsky’s score, and, as far as I was concerned, hearing this music played so beautifully was worth the admission price on its own. So the restricted view didn’t really bother me much. However, when I stood up (I was at the back of a box with no-one behind me), I did get a pretty good view of them all prancing round to the music. And pretty damn good they were too.

And then, the art galleries. Vienna’s most famous artist, Gustav KlimtI have never really liked: I have no idea how to define “kitsch” or “schmaltz”, but whatever they mean, that’s what I see in Klimt. And seeing his works face to face did not, I’m afraid, change my perception. Egon Schiele I found far more interesting. But – cultural conservative that I no doubt am – the greatest pleasure was a whole day spent at the Kunsthistorischesmuseum, which has one of the most wonderful collections of any gallery –  Bruegel, Dürer, Holbein, Titian, Velazquez, etc. etc. And three splendid late Rembrandt self-portraits. And Vermeer’s extraordinary The Art of Painting. And some paintings by Caravaggio – most notably the Madonna of the Rosary – that fair took my breath away: I had seen this in reproduction before, but nothing quite prepares you for the experience of seeing this monumental work in the flesh, as it were.

Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

And speaking of flesh, there was Rubens. Lots and lots of Rubens. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – he who is tired of large naked ladies in fur wraps is tired of life itself.

So I’ll leave you with one of the old boy’s most seductive works. (And hopefully, I’ll be back soon to writing about books.)

"The Fur Wrap" by Rubens, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

“The Fur Wrap” by Rubens, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

A retraction, and a memory

The mere few minutes that so often separate writing from publication on a blog can be a source both of pleasure, and of embarrassment. For now, as I look back on my previous post, I find myself profoundly embarrassed by the following line:

Throughout the nineteenth century, Don Giovanni was seen a romantic character, searching eternally for an ideal love.

How I wish now I had thought a bit harder about this before publishing! For, of course, the nineteenth century was no more monolithic in thought than is our own, and to dismiss the interpretations of an entire century with a throwaway and unreferenced comment is extremely foolish, to say the least. True, I have read some writings from that era that do indeed view the character of Don Giovanni in such a romanticised light, but the problem is I can’t reference these writings because I do not remember where I had read them. I should therefore have done the sensible thing and not have made any reference at all to these romanticised interpretations; or, perhaps, I could have restricted myself to something  bit more vague, such as: “Certain romantic interpretations have seen Don Giovanni as someone searching eternally for an ideal love …” or something of that nature. But it’s too late now: the damn thing is up there, and has been read. So the best I can offer now, I suppose, is a retraction of that part of my post, before someone picks me up on it.

But enough of that. Once we start retracting bits we have come to think better of, there is no end to the matter: very little of this blog would, I suspect, remain unretracted. But if past posts on this blog are regarded as articulations of what I thought at the time then rather than of what I think now, I suppose there is no harm done. What I really wanted in this post, other than retracting the bit from the last one that made no sense, was to share – given my continuing preoccupation with Don Giovanni – a memory I curiously retain of that opera from my student days, some 35 or so years ago.

Let me set the background. Having seen on television a broadcast of Don Giovanni from Glyndebourne (it was this one), I had saved up my pennies, and bought myself this recording on LP. The problem was I did not have a record player, and could only listen to it when back in my parents’ house. And, this being in the Dark Days before Spotify or even the internet, I remember that music going endlessly round my head, and wishing I could just listen to it somewhere. There was one bit in particular that haunted me. Don Giovanni has taken a fancy to the maidservant of his abandoned wife; and so, to get his abandoned wife out of the way, he sings to her from under her window, pretending to be penitent. And when she comes down, seduced once again by his honeyed tones, his servant, dressed as the master and his face hidden in the dark of the night, is to lead this abandoned wife away, leaving Don Giovanni free to add to his list of conquests. It is, of course, a scene of extraordinary cruelty. And the trio Mozart provides at this point is nothing short of miraculous. The servant, Leporello, is enjoying the adventure, while at the same time feeling sorry for Donna Elvira, his master’s deserted wife; at the same time, Donna Elvira’s surprise and incredulity gives way all too easily to a resurgence of hope, and an outpouring of a passion that had never left her. Meanwhile, Don Giovanni himself sings the most heartfelt and seductive of music, which is all the more disturbing for being so utterly cynical and insincere. And all of this and more is depicted simultaneously, in music of the most perfect beauty.

And there was one phrase from that trio that kept circling my mind ceaselessly. After Donna Elvira’s initial lament for her lost love, master and servant exchange a few words to each other, and then Don Giovanni sings, twice, “Elvira, idol mio”. She is startled. Is that the “ingrato”? And Don Giovanni replies in two glorious phrases:

Sì, vita mia, son’io,
e chiedo carità.

And for whatever reason, it was those two phrases that kept whirling around my mind. I still have such a vivid memory of walking back one evening from the university back to my student lodgings, through Sauchiehall Street in Central Glasgow, with those phrases circling incessantly in my head. And how I wished I could hear the thing!

Well, that’s all this post is about, really. The memory of a memory. Of no particular interest to anyone, perhaps, other than to myself. At least, I trust there is nothing here I would wish to retract once I’ve hit the “post” button.

Some reflections on Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

I’ve been going through a bit of a Don Giovanni phase of late. But of course, when have I not been in a Don Giovanni phase? I discovered it in my student days, when I was making my first tentative forays into this strange, unknown thing called “classical music”, and on discovering this opera, I was instantly transfixed. As with the other two Mozart-da Ponte operas – which I acquainted myself with soon afterwards – Don Giovanni became a permanent fixture in my mind, one of those things I am constantly aware of even when I am not consciously thinking about them. But these last few days, I have been consciously thinking about it. Last Wednesday, we braved the local floods to go to the cinema to attend a live broadcast of the opera from Covent Garden: the production was an interesting one, though not, to my mind, entirely successful (but more of that later); and musically, despite superb playing from the orchestra, it struck me as being merely mediocre. Not bad as such – “mediocre” doesn’t mean “bad”, although it is often taken to – but nothing too memorable either. However, I am not qualified to provide a musical criticism, so I’ll steer clear of that: even a mediocre performance of Don Giovanni is, for me, a bit special, and, since viewing it, I have barely been able to think of anything else.  And so, this evening, still under the spell of the work, I put on the DVD we have of a Glyndebourne Festival production from the mid-1990s of  Don Giovanni. Both in terms of performance and of production, I found the Glyndebourne version far more satisfying than the Covent Garden version we saw on Wednesday; however, even in the best productions, the drama, I think, remains elusive: of the three Mozart-da Ponte operas, this is, dramatically, the most problematic.

The dramatic problems are caused in part – though not wholly – by conflation. As with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, or with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear, there are two distinct versions of this work: in this case, there’s one Mozart had composed for the Prague première, and a somewhat different version for Vienna; and conflating the two creates certain dramatic weaknesses that don’t exist in either of the originals. In the conflated version, the dramatic momentum comes virtually to a standstill in the middle of the second act, as various arias intended for different versions are performed one after the other. In Boris Godunov, Hamlet, and King Lear, moving away from the conflated version and using one or other of the originals tightens the drama considerably. However, in Don Giovanni, what is gained dramatically by moving away from the conflated version seems to me slight, and nowhere near enough to compensate for the loss of some of the most extraordinary operatic music ever conceived: for even in the two different versions, there are, I think, dramatic problems.

The main problem – whether one uses the version premiered in Prague, or the version premiered in Vienna, or some conflation of the two – is that the resolution of the drama, that overwhelming climactic scene in which Don Giovanni is dragged down to Hell, has little to do with most of what we have seen in the rest of the opera. None of the interactions Don Giovanni has with any of the other characters, or, indeed, the interactions of these other characters with each other, fascinating though they all are, has any bearing on this resolution. So what exactly does this resolution resolve? Why present us with all these complex characters and all these complex interactions if, in the end, none of it actually leads to anything? I don’t think I have ever encountered a production that has satisfactorily addressed this problem.

In the Covent Garden production I saw on Wednesday, director Kasper Holten kept the focus firmly on Don Giovanni, making him appear on stage even in scenes where he is not usually present: so, for instance, as Don Ottavio sings privately of his feelings for Donna Anna (“Dalla sua pace”), we see behind him Donna Anna disappearing into a bedroom with Don Giovanni: we cannot be sure whether Donna Anna really is having an affair with Don Giovanni behind Ottavio’s back, or whether, as is more likely, this is a projection of Donna Anna’s desires; but the effect of staging such as this is to keep Don Giovanni constantly in the picture, throughout the entire work. So, when the climactic scene occurs near the end, it doesn’t really matter so much all those other characters in the opera have no part in it: the spotlight throughout has been very much on Don Giovanni, so there is no problem with his dominating the finale. In keeping with this focus on the principal character, the sextet that normally follows this climactic scene, in which the other characters tell us what they intend doing afterwards, is cut: by this stage, these other characters are of no interest. Bypassing the sextet, we cut directly to the final passage of the opera, in which we hear sung a rather trite-sounding moral (“This is the fate of miscreants: evildoers always come to an equally evil end”). And even here, we have a directorial twist: this passage is sung not by the characters on stage, as da Ponte’s libretto specifies, but seemingly by disembodied voices off-stage. This moral is presented as humanity’s judgement on Don Giovanni, not the judgement of specific characters, who have, by now, more or less ceased to matter. Meantime, we see Don Giovanni alone on stage: this is the greatest Hell someone like Don Giovanni can be made to suffer – an eternity of solitude. Whether this is a real Hell, or a symbolic or psychological Hell, it is up to us to decide. (It’s probably symbolic and psychological: we don’t really go for real hells in our enlightened times.)

This focus on Don Giovanni, this attempt to get inside Don Giovanni’s mind (as director Kasper Holten says is his intention), is, however, fraught with dangers. For Mozart does not, I think, give us any sort of clue at all as to what really is going on inside Don Giovanni’s mind. Despite being the opera’s principal character, despite his tremendous personality dominating the opera, he doesn’t have a formal aria: he has three short solo pieces, none of which tells us much about him. In the first of these pieces, he is commanding and energetic, giving orders to prepare a party: it is a short piece of tremendous vitality, but doesn’t really tell us anything about him that we do not already know. In his second solo piece, he is singing a serenade, and it is utterly gorgeous and seductive: however, he had used a variation of this tune a bit earlier when he was trying, with utmost cynicism, to draw Donna Elvira away from the scene so he could have a go at her maidservant: beautiful though the serenade is, it is but a formula he uses as and when he needs to: it is utterly insincere. And in his third solo, he is pretending to be his servant Leporello: once again, the real Don Giovanni eludes us.

And this is the problem: how does one get inside Don Giovanni’s head when there appears to be no path in? And yet, one feels one needs to: after all, even without Kasper Holten’s directorial decisions, his personality dominates this work; he is a character of tremendous vitality and charisma, and none of the other characters can match him in these stakes. He dominates this work as surely as Hamlet dominates Shakespeare’s play; and, like Hamlet, he is endlessly fascinating. But where Shakespeare’s play is almost overloaded with material exploring the state of Hamlet’s mind, there seems to me here to be nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate what is going on in Don Giovanni’s.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Don Giovanni was seen a romantic character, searching eternally for an ideal love. Nowadays, we may find such ideas soppy: as enlightened modern people, we know, as our misty-eyed and rather stupid ancestors did not, that what we mean by love is really nothing more than sexual desire. So Don Giovanni must be given some other grand purpose. In an interview broadcast during the interval of the live broadcast, director Kasper Holten says that Don Giovanni is a man attempting to escape from his mortality. Fair enough, I suppose: certainly less soppy than looking for an eternal love. Except that I can see nothing either in the libretto or in the music to support this contention. In the scene where Don Giovanni forces the frightened Leporello to invite the dead Commendatore to dinner, and the dead Commendatore sings the single word “si”, we see Don Giovanni clutching his head in mental and spiritual agony at this intimation of mortality: but there is nothing in the libretto to indicate any such agony, and the music continues merely to depict Leporello’s terror, and Don Giovanni’s amusement. This idea that Don Giovanni desires to escape from his mortality is, like the nineteenth century idea that he is searching for a perfect love, merely a projection on to the Don of our own preoccupations. As to what is going on in Don Giovanni’s mind, we do not know.

My own suspicion, strengthened each time I approach his work, is that there is precisely nothing going on in his mind – that there really is no more to him than the surface that we see. The surface is so extraordinarily fascinating, we may feel that there must be something of substance underneath it: but I don’t think there is. Other than a constant, never-ending desire for sexual gratification, and, at times, a certain coarse and cruel sense of humour, there really is nothing. Even his seeming heroism when faced with the statue of the dead Commendatore may not be as impressive as it seems at first sight: it is the overcoming of fear that may be described as “courage”, but Don Giovanni does not seem even to have the capacity to be afraid in the first place, any more than he had the capacity earlier in the opera to feel guilt after killing a man. His insatiable sexual desire really is all there is of him: and beyond that – nothing.

It is hard to see what other conclusion one can come to. Every attempt to find some substance in this character seems to me to be imposing on him something that just isn’t there. For over two centuries now, the character of Don Giovanni has resisted all attempts at interpretation. It is not, as with Hamlet, that there are too many possibilities: quite the opposite – there is none. And it is precisely this – this hollowness where there should be substance – that seems to me so disturbing. All this charisma, this energy, this vitality – could it all really be for nothing?

Throughout the course of the opera, Don Giovanni is involved in four distinct dramatic strands, some of them overlapping. In each, there is a potential for a human relationship; but in each, Don Giovanni remains curiously and utterly detached. The first is his relationship with his servant, Leporello. Leporello has ambivalent feelings about his master: he clearly takes a vicarious delight in his master’s conquests, and generally finds his escapades amusing; but he retains, nonetheless, sufficient moral compass to feel at times sorry for his victims, and to recognise that his master is leading the life of a scoundrel (“briccone”). But how does Don Giovanni feel about his servant? He certainly takes a delight in seeing Leporello uncomfortable – as in the supper scene where he perceives that Leporello is secretly eating some of the food intended for his master, and mischievously orders him to whistle; and it amuses him to see Leporello frightened, as in the graveyard scene. But beyond this, there is absolutely nothing about Don Giovanni’s feelings for Leoprello, and anything we may suggest on that score is, once again, projections of our own ideas on to Don Giovanni. I rather suspect that Don Giovanni feels nothing at all for his servant: he is not capable of feeling.

The second relationship is with his wife, Donna Elvira, whom he has abandoned. This is, in effect, the situation we see with the Count and Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, but pushed to an almost grotesque extreme.  In the earlier opera, the Count is philandering, and is serially unfaithful to his wife; and she, with what in Mozart’s time was regarded as a tragic dignity but which in our own time is possibly more often regarded as stupidity, continues to love him, laments what is lost, and wishes to redeem him. Here, Donna Elvira also, despite knowing the sort of person her husband is, and despite perhaps knowing that she is doomed to failure, persists in her love, and tries to reclaim him. She retains the tragic dignity of the Countess (“Che aspetto nobile, che dolce maesta”), but she is driven almost demented by her husband’s utter indifference. Even Leporello can feel sorry for her, but such feelings are beyond Don Giovanni. It is not even hatred that he feels for her: he feels, once again, nothing at all.

The third relationship is with Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, and here, matters are complex indeed. At the start of the opera, as the curtain rises, we see Leporello keeping guard while his master is on seduction duty; and then, suddenly, the music explodes. Don Giovanni and Donna Anna burst out of the house, she trying to hold him back, and he trying to escape before the household is awakened. And ironically, perhaps, it is she who, at this point, is the dominant character: it is she who introduces the melodic material, and Don Giovanni is reduced merely to echoing her. It would seem that his attempt at seduction has failed. But has it? Is it possible that she has turned on him after a successful attempt on her honour? Is it even possible that she was not an unwilling partner? Mozart and da Ponte don’t tell us, and, as a consequence of our not knowing, the scenes involving these characters have about them a tremendously powerful edge of uncertainty. However, our modern age, it seems, cannot take too seriously the idea of a chaste woman protecting her virtue: the recent Covent Garden production is by no means the first I have seen that insists that Don Giovanni and Donna Anna have indeed been having it off, and that she was, as they say, “gagging for it”.

I really cannot see what is gained by removing the ambiguity: I can see that much is lost. For one thing, if it is really the case that Donna Anna was a willing sexual partner; and, further, that she knows that it was Don Giovanni who had killed her father; then her violent outburst in the passage leading up to her aria “Or sai chi l’onore”, and the passion of the aria itself, would all be mere simulation: the whole thing would be a long and elaborate lie. And it is not entirely clear what motive she should have to spin such a lie. In the Covent Garden production, it is implied that she spins this story because she is infuriated on discovering the relationship between Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira, but I can’t say I am convinced: even granted that she is infuriated for this reason, what could she hope to gain by telling this elaborate lie – to Don Ottavio, of all people, who has not the slightest chance of imposing himself against Don Giovanni?

By the end, in her final aria “Non mi dir”, she pledges her love to Don Ottavio – although the coloratura passage at the end of the aria may indicate something other than pure tenderness on her part. Kasper Holten interprets this scene as Donna Anna finally deciding that Don Giovanni is not really for her, and that it is Don Ottavio whom she really loves. Fair enough: but if it is indeed the case that Donna Anna develops as a character, then surely there should be some indication in the drama of why she develops in this manner, and how. And I certainly can’t see any indication at all. Once again, it seems to me, an interpretation is being imposed that has no grounding in either the libretto or in the music.

Of course, the relationship between Donna Anna and Don Ottavio is complex, and there are no easy answers. I’d guess that Donna Anna was certainly no willing partner at the start of the opera; and, further, that she probably did manage to hold off Don Giovanni while raising the alarm; but that, nonetheless, she is attracted to him: which lady isn’t, after all? But she feels tremendous guilt as a consequence of this attraction: Don Giovanni is the man, after all, who has killed her father. I accept this is all conjecture – albeit conjecture that is not inconsistent with the libretto and with what the music tells us. But whatever the truth of the matter, we are in deep psychological waters here, and presenting Donna Anna as Giovanni’s consensual partner who lies her head off for the rest of the opera does seem to me not only unwarranted, but an ironing out of complexities and ambiguities that Mozart and da Ponte had deliberately put there.

But what does Don Giovanni feel about Donna Anna and Don Ottavio? It seems to me that, once again, whatever Donna Anna and Don Ottavio may feel for each other or for Don Giovanni, he, as ever, feels nothing at all. Every time we try to figure out what Don Giovanni feels, we run into a complete blank.

And similarly with the last set of relationships involving Don Giovanni – that with the peasant couple Zerlina and Masetto. It is, once again, a sort of reprise of what we had seen in Le Nozze di Figaro, except that here it is pushed, once again, to extremes: an aristocrat tries to take away a woman from a lower social class from the man she is to marry, and isn’t concerned about what either of them may feel. But while there is some similarity between Masetto and Figaro, and between Don Giovanni and the Count, there is none between Zerlina and Susanna: Zerlina is either naïve, or manipulative, or possibly a bit of both: Susanna is neither, and remains throughout unswervingly loyal to her betrothed. The emotional climates of the two operas are very different. The Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, despite being corrupted by the power he wields, is still capable of feeling: Don Giovanni isn’t. Beyond his sexual desire for Zerlina, he, once again, feels nothing at all for her. And neither does he give a second thought to Masetto.

So how can one convincingly present on stage a character of tremendous charm and appeal, of irresistible charisma and vitality, but who is so utterly hollow underneath? Someone who is incapable of forming any sort of human relationship with anyone because there really is nothing more to him than the need for constant sexual gratification? Kasper Holten’s attempt to get into Don Giovanni’s mind is an interesting one, but I think it fails; and I think it fails because Holten is searching for something that simply doesn’t exist. What goes on in Don Giovanni’s mind? Apart from lust – nothing. What humanity there is in the opera may be found in the complex of emotions of the characters around Don Giovanni, but not in Don Giovanni himself.

Holten’s presentation of the drama probably works better seen in the opera house than it did on screen. It involved a rotating maze of doors and stairs, with various electronic projections against the walls and the characters. In the cinema broadcast, with close-ups and cuts between different camera angles, it often seemed fussy, over-intricate, and even confused. I’d guess it works better seen on stage. But I think, on the whole, that the bare stripped-down presentation that director Deborah Warner and designer Hildegard Bechtler give us in the Glyndebourne DVD is a more effective way of  presenting the opera, in which the drama is already so tangled that any further intricacy serves but to confuse rather than to clarify. But not having seen Holten’s production on stage, I wouldn’t be too insistent on that point.

I do, however, find it fascinating that we continue to try to find depths in the character of Don Giovanni where, it seems to me, there are no depths at all. Why is nothingness in this person so difficult to accept, I wonder? What is it that makes us feel that there must be something more to him than there really is? I’m afraid I still do not know: the idea that there really is nothing behind the surface disturbs me also, for reasons I cannot quite grasp.

***

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Staging the classics: the radical, and the unintelligent

As You Like It ends with multiple marriages, and the god of marriage, Hymen himself, comes down to officiate. It is an ending permeated with joy. Now, let us imagine that in a production of this play under the auspices of a respected body – such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, say – the director decides that marriage, far from being joyful and something worth celebrating, is essentially dark and tragic; and, because Shakespeare does not depict it as such in this play, he interpolates at this point some of the darkest passages from Othello.

It doesn’t really work, does it? I don’t mean the interpolation of lines from Othello into As You Like It (although I don’t think that works either): I mean my rather ham-fisted attempt at parody in the opening paragraph above. For to parody something, you have to exaggerate, and sadly, what I am attempting to parody cannot be exaggerated. For in the current production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio at the English National Opera, director Calixto Bieito, believing that the reunion between Leonore and Florestan should not be joyful (although Beethoven’s music at this point unambiguously tells us that is is), has interpolated at this point ten or so minutes from the slow movement of Beethoven’s A minor string quartet. And I am left racking my brains trying to think of a parody that could exaggerate the sheer stupidity of this.

However, in talking about “sheer stupidity”, I am going very much against the grain: to object to a production such as this is to brand oneself a hopeless conservative who wants mere cosiness rather than a drama that challenges and stimulates. In this context, any argument beginning with “I’m no conservative, but…” is self-defeating: nothing one says afterwards is likely to be taken seriously. Now, I don’t think I’m particularly conservative in these matters: if I may be so immodest as to quote myself from my previous post:

When a work of art becomes very familiar, there is a danger that it becomes too comfortable, too cosy – that it loses its edge. Or, rather, our perceptions are so dulled that we can no longer feel its edge. Instead of exciting, or provoking, or disturbing, it merely relaxes, and becomes merely a sedative.

Other than the clumsy repetition of “merely” (one only notices these things once one has hit the “post” button!), I stand by that. I went on later in that post to say that what matters is not so much whether a staging is “conservative” or “radical”, but, rather, whether it is intelligent. And interpolating a passage from the slow movement of a late quartet – a passage that communicates a profound introspection and inwardness – at the very point where the music (composed by Ludwig himself specifically for this point) communicates boundless joy, strikes me as supremely unintelligent.

However, the production has been receiving good reviews: here is a typical one. In the course of this review, we are directed to an interview with Bieito in which, we are told, he “gives his reasons”. Except that he doesn’t give his reasons. He doesn’t explain why the reunion between Leonore and Florestan is not presented as joyful when Beethoven composed music at this point that very definitely expresses joy.

There are many other idiocies also in that interview – a lot of stuff about office buildings of glass and mirrors, Borgesian labyrinths, questioning who is really making decisions in our society, and so on – all tremendously fascinating, no doubt; but, sadly, there’s not a single word explaining what any of this has to do with Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Of course, it can be said, quite rightly, that it is foolish, and, indeed, somewhat glib, to speak of the “true meaning” of any major work of art: meanings of major works of art are rarely obvious, and good productions, both conservative and radical, can bring to light elements of the work that one had previously not considered. I agree enthusiastically. But if an alleged insight cannot be related to any part of the text of the original – and also, in the case of opera, to any part of the music – then I can’t for the life of me see how such an insight can be considered an insight into the work. If that makes me a hidebound conservative, then I’m afraid I have no option but to accept the title, albeit unwillingly: for I do agree with Pierre Boulez (in a quote so famous that I can’t seem to find it on Google Search!) that when one sets oneself to be the guardian of a pure tradition, one ends up as a guardian merely of a mausoleum.

However, it will be objected that I am criticising a production I haven’t seen. This is true. Neither have I seen Calixto Bieito’s earlier production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, which opened with a lot of people sitting on toilets having a crap. Neither, indeed, have I seen a great many other instances of similar “re-interpretation”, where the very fact of people taking exception is seen as evidence of success. I don’t, as it happens, fully subscribe to the contention that one must experience something before one is entitled to criticise it, if only because one does not need to eat a turd to know it tastes like shit; but nonetheless, let me focus now on a production by Bieito that I have actually seen: Don Giovanni at the English National Opera, some twelve years ago.

Here, the drama of Mozart and of da Ponte was presented as a bunch of lads and laddettes having a wild night out. Donna Elvira is here a drunken floozie, staggering around a bar, gulping down all the unfinished drinks she can find – not, perhaps, what we might expect given how she is perceived by Donna Anna and by Don Ottavio (“Cieli! Che aspetto nobile! Che dolce maesta!”) She, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio, are, like Don Giovanni, mere lads and laddettes on a wild night out, thus eliminating any moral distinction that might have existed in Mozart’s opera.

As for the plot itself, there are some significant changes: as in Mozart’s version, Don Giovanni kills Dona Anna’s father in the opening scene; but, as not in Mozart’s version, he first rogers the not unwilling Donna Anna; and at the end of the opera, where, in Mozart’s version, the dead spirit of the murdered man appears as a statue to drag Don Giovanni into Hell, here, the dead man appears merely as a drug-induced hallucination: Don Giovanni’s downfall comes afterwards, as the other characters tie him to a chair and, in the manner of Murder on the Orient Express,  queue up in orderly fashion to stab him to death. New insight into the opera? Admirers of this production, and there are many, say so. But once again, I can’t see what there is either in da Ponte’s libretto or in Mozart’s music that can justify any of this. In the opera (as opposed to Bieito’s production), we are never sure whether or not Don Giovanni has had his way with Donna Anna before killing her father, and neither are we sure, assuming he had, whether she had a been willing partner; this ambiguity gives the drama an uncertain edge, and I really can’t see what is gained by removing this ambiguity – although I can see that much is lost. In the course of the opera (once again, as opposed to the production), various people try, with singular lack of success, to revenge themselves on Don Giovanni, but it is eventually only a supernatural force that achieves what mere mortals can’t. There are many legitimate ways of interpreting this, but changing it to its opposite so there is nothing to interpret surely isn’t amongst them.

One may, of course, have one’s own opinion on the quality of Bieito’s re-writing: my opinion happens to be that it is trite and unimaginative: a lot of bad boys and girls boozing and copulating and tripping on drugs is not in itself likely material for compelling drama. But that’s just my opinion: I don’t insist upon it. But whatever one’s opinion on the quality of Bieito’s re-write, why anyone should go to see a work advertised as being by Mozart and da Ponte, and see instead something entirely different, I really can’t imagine.

And what does Bieto himself have to say about all this? He talks about it here:

That Don Giovanni, he says, illustrated “what happens every Friday night” among young people across Europe…

Yes, I know, I know. But once again, he is remarkably quiet on how these typical Friday night happenings relate to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Lads and laddettes having a wild time of it on a Friday night really is pretty boring stuff: Don Giovanni isn’t.

So why does Bieito do this? Here he explains, in his own words:

And this is all done to provoke my audience, to make them think.

So now, thanks to Bieito, I’ve thunk. And, having thunk, I find I have no problem with Bieito taking a radical approach to these great works: I really have no desire to see safe, conventional stagings that put these works reverentially behind glass, as if they were museum pieces. No – I’m fine with radical reinterpretations. But I do, I must admit, have a problem with radical re-writing, and, especially, with Bieito (and other directors of similar inclination) re-writing these works in such a dull, trite, and supremely unintelligent manner: that seems to me unforgivable. Whatever Bieito’s vision may be, when I pay good money to see operas by Mozart or by Beethoven, or, indeed, by anyone else, it is not Bieito’s vision I’m interested in.

All is but toys

We live in godless times. I don’t mean the mess the BBC made of the sublime Blandings stories, although I am sure that this too can be put into the balance with all the other evidence. No – I mean our refusal to concede that life is, at heart, a rather serious matter, and that gravitas, or even reverence, is not necessarily indicative either of pomposity or of pretentiousness. And even if it were, even the pompous and the pretentious may be right: failings of character are not, after all, refutations of points of view.

On my Facebook page recently, I have had posted two items from Decca, the once respected classical label that boasts in its back catalogue, amongst other riches, recordings of Benjamin Britten performing his own works, and the first studio recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. But the album they were advertising on my Facebook page was called “Sleep”. “Want to get a great night’s sleep?” the posting asked. “Here are some great classical tracks to help you unwind, relax, and prepare for bedtime…” Well, one gets used to the constant trivialisation of that which is precious; one even learns not to mind too much: it’s only Facebook, after all. Facebook is a good way of keeping in touch with people one might otherwise lose touch with, but it’s foolish taking it too seriously. So I let it go. But today, those awfully nice marketing people at Decca were back with this: “Are you finding the frantic pace of modern life getting you down? Take a break with 101 of the greatest pieces of music ever written.” And in between these two, another unsolicited post on Facebook informed me “’Liking’ Mozart on Facebook makes you clever”. Well, I never! And the music of Mozart should, apparently, be played to babies: people actually take music of this stature, and, instead of listening to it, play it to their babies because some idiot somewhere reckons it will make the babies more intelligent? What is the matter with people?

Yes, yes, I know, it’s all commerce, it all advertising-speak. Mustn’t take it seriously, and all that. But advertisers would not promote this sort of piss-a-bed gibberish were there not a large section of the public prepared to respond to it. And no matter how hard I try not to take this seriously, it is hard not to be irked when centuries of so profound and so enriching a musical tradition are reduced merely to sounds to fall asleep to. Must everything be reduced thus? Can we not accept an essential seriousness in anything?

The Hell where nothing really matters very much: it is a sort of Hell that even Dante had not envisaged in his survey of the various types of damnation that humans engineer for themselves. Shakespeare, though, knew of this Hell: this is the Hell into which Macbeth damns himself.

After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth go their own separate ways to their damnation. Lady Macbeth soon realises that:

‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

Not that she dwells in any kind of joy, doubtful or otherwise. She is crushed by a burden of guilt so terrible, that her mind soon buckles under the strain. Even sleep brings no respite, as she re-lives, over and over and over again, that fatal night when she lost her soul for ever.

But Macbeth’s route to damnation is different. Shortly after the murder, he realises that the only way he can live with the knowledge of what he has done is to convince himself that it doesn’t matter. And if even this doesn’t matter, then nothing matters:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There ‘s nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys

But a life in which all is but toys, in which nothing matters because there is nothing serious in mortality, is also a Hell. And in this Hell, Macbeth might as well carry on – because it makes not a blind bit of difference what he does:

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er

Whether he kills more or whether he kills no more, it’s all the same, it’s all equally tedious. Life itself is merely “a tale told by an idiot”: it’s all mere sound and fury, and it signifies nothing. Trying to avoid the Hell of Guilt to which his wife is damned, Macbeth backs instead into a rather different but equally potent Hell – the Hell of Tedium.

Of course, one cannot miss what one does not acknowledge. But there is a part of Macbeth’s soul that does acknowledge, that does understand what it is that he has lost: he has lost all sense of seriousness. All that matters most, all that is most serious, “honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,” he cannot hope to have. And that is his tragedy. Not his death, but the meaningless, trivial rigmarole his life has become.

Well, at least Macbeth had his reasons for forcing himself to believe that all is but toys. But what possible reason can the rest of us have, I wonder? What excuse can we have for reducing the music of Mozart or of Debussy to the level of aural valium? How can we justify the insistence that even Tolstoy’s War and Peace is but a soap opera? The Hell of Triviality is, rather paradoxically, as serious a form of damnation as any other.

The late greats

Liszt’s famous summary of Beethoven’s career – “L’adolescent, l’homme, le dieu” – accords well with what we perhaps feel ought to describe the career of any great artist: for surely, the more an artist experiences of life, the more profound and wise their vision of it must be; and the closer they are to death the more clearly they must see beyond. Even though a moment’s reflection reveals such thoughts to be sentimental drivel, we find it difficult to escape that vague notion that there is, that there must be, something special about the late works of an artist. We almost imagine that closeness to death confers upon a great artist the ability to glimpse beyond, and we look in those late works for a greater awareness of mortality; a sort of transfigured farewell, of sense of the ethereal, of the other-worldly.

For those readers who have read the paragraph above thinking “Speak for yourself, mate!” I suppose I should offer an apology: it is possibly not “we” at all who look for other-worldly wisdom in late works – it is “I”. But it is not unusual to substitute the first person plural for the first person singular as a means of pretending that one’s personal concerns are of more general interest, and I certainly am not above such a cheap trick. So “we”, I think, remains. We look for transcendent wisdom in late works; and what we look for, not unsurprisingly, we often find.

Take late Shakespeare, for instance: leaving aside those inconsequential late collaborations – Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen – Shakespeare finished his dramatic career with three plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – that look beyond the tragic towards a state of almost mystical reconciliation in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. Surely there’s something a bit other-worldly about that, no? Or late Beethoven, when he had entered his dieu stage, according to Liszt’s formulation: who has ever listened to Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, or those late string quartets, without hearing sounds that seem to come from some other world? There’s Mozart as well – writing music of transcendent serenity in his clarinet quintet, his last piano concerto, his clarinet concerto, and meditating on death as only a dying man could in his unfinished Requiem Mass. There’s Schubert, who composed a string of masterpieces in his last year when he must have known he was dying, each of these masterpieces haunted by the shadow of death. There’s Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde and 9th Symphony seem almost to depict a passage from this world to the next. Ibsen’s late plays, too, seem increasingly to move away from the realism he had himself pioneered into a world where all solidities seem to melt away. Or there’s Tagore, whose very spare, almost minimalist final poems, written in extreme old age on what he must have realised was to be his death-bed, express a spiritual turmoil and an anguish that render them almost too painful to read. All of these artists reacted to death in different ways – but can it be doubted that they were all, in these late works, meditating on their mortality? Similar observations can no doubt be made in the visual arts: could Titian’s Pietà, for instance,have been painted by anyone other than by a man of genius on the point of his own death?

We must, of course, be careful here. Any artist who practises his or her art over a long period of time undergoes changes in style, in approach, and even in themes: this is because we all change over time, we all have new concerns, new perspectives. That an artist’s style in old age is different from that of his younger self is nothing too surprising. Artists renew their art: those who cannot inevitably decline in their artistry, and are eventually remembered primarily or even solely for their earlier work (Wordsworth is a very obvious example of this). And yes, artists may – as, no doubt, we all may – consider death more intently as they closer they come to it, but it is sentimental to imagine that mere proximity to death can give one greater insights into its nature. Yes, it is true that the works of Schubert’s last year, written in the shadow of death, were haunted by it: but then again, so is his D minor string quartet (“Death and the Maiden”) which was written some five or so years before his death when he was still in his mid-twenties. It should really not be surprising that people who think profoundly about life should think profoundly about death also, and that closeness to death is not a necessary condition for the latter. For instance, I cannot think of any novel that more closely concerns itself with death than does Anna Karenina: and yet, it was written in Tolstoy’s vigorous middle age, in his late 40s, when he was in his prime of health and still had another thirty and more years to live.

There are so many other examples one can think of. Beethoven’s late works were written in his 50s, and, as far as I know, there’s nothing to indicate that Beethoven was aware of his approaching death at the time. Indeed, the great slow movement of his late A minor string quartet explicitly celebrates his recovery from illness. (In the score, the movement is headed “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” – A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). Neither is there any evidence to indicate that Mozart, aged only 35, was aware of his impending death when composing what we now think of as his late works. And if Mahler’s final works are about death, it is hard to think of any of his works, even his very first symphony, that isn’t. That his late style was different from his earlier style does not necessarily make it more profound: great though that 9th symphony is, is his magnificent 2nd symphony any lesser a work of art simply because it was composed earlier?

But despite all that, we – all right, if you insist, I – cannot help but look for that extra wisdom and profundity that we – I – feel ought to be present in late works. Hell, I even listen to Wagner’s Parsifal once in a while to see if this final masterpiece (for masterpiece it clearly is) makes sense this time round. I listened to it again lately: but once again, it eluded me. Obviously the old bore meant something by it all, but I can’t get anything more out of it than a series of extraordinarily beautiful sounds. I tried reading up on it a bit this time: I found buried away in that cluttered little room I call my library Lucy Beckett’s much acclaimed Cambridge University Handbook on Wagner’s Parsifal; and I also came across this very interesting website on the opera. But I must admit, I am none the wiser. Somewhat better informed, perhaps, but none the wiser. (Nonetheless, I do recommend both book and website to those who are more receptive to this strange work than I appear to be.)

But what can one say about a late work, written by an artist approaching his eighties and who knew that this work was to be his last, but which, far from wandering awe-struck into the ethereal shades of the other world, rejoices all the more firmly in the solidity of this one? Of a work written by a man who has known personal grief and tragedy, but who, on leaving life, could only express for it his unreserved love? Who meditates not on what may or may not come, but looks instead to what is, and celebrates it with all the vigour and vitality and exuberance and unshadowed joy that one more usually, though perhaps erroneously, associates with youth? Yes, I am thinking about Verdi’s Falstaff. And I am thinking also that I must write a post on this miracle some day – if only I knew where to begin…

“Sull’aria”

The situation is straight out of farce. The Count is chasing after a maidservant who is engaged to another and wants none of him; and this maidservant gets together with the Countess to set the Count up as the fall guy in an elaborate scheme. The maidservant is to pretend to agree to meet the Count for an assignation that night, and … well, it’s all too complicated. I’ve been listening to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro now for well over thirty or so years, and have even read the play by Beaumarchais on which this opera is based, but damned if I can remember the details of this over-elaborate farcical plot. So, to cut to the chase, here we have the Countess, dictating to the maidservant the letter she should write to the Count setting up this phoney assignation. Any composer would have given us a duet full of mischief and high jinks. But Mozart gives us this:

Kiri te Kanawa as the Countess and Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir John Pritchard, from the DVD of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro released by Arthaus Musik

This duet achieved some measure of popularity after it was featured in the film The Shawshank Redemption. There, we had heard Morgan Freeman’s sonorous tones speaking the words:  “I’d like to think [they] were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it.” The irony of this has been pointed out often enough: they were not singing of anything beautiful at all – they were singing about their plans to entrap a somewhat unpleasant man who is neglecting his wife and sexually harassing another young woman who, given the social structure in which this drama is set, is in no poition to resist him openly. Far from being beautiful, it is all most unpleasant, and unsavoury.

But if there is irony here, it is because Mozart has consciously introduced it.  Why does he give us at this point something so beatiful that it makes your heart ache?

In opera, one should always trust the music, for, as has been pointed out (not least in response to one of my earlier posts), it is the music that creates the drama in opera. And if Mozart has chosen to create here a drama not of high spirits nor even of unpleasantness, but of heartache, we must ask ourselves why. And it is surely because, despite the unsavoury nature of the situation, despite the farcical aspects of the plot, it is heartbreaking. The maidservant Susanna is looking forward to a happiness she fears she might not have; and the Countess is looking back to a happiness she fears is now for ever lost.

                  We look before and after,
                       And pine for what is not:
                  Our sincerest laughter
                       With some pain is fraught;
            Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
                          – From “To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  
And so, Mozart gives us the sweetest of songs, and tells the saddest of thoughts. And it is a song of such unearthly beauty, that it does indeed make your heart ache.

Opera as drama

–         You like opera? 

It’s almost as if I’d been discovered to be an aficionado of hardcore pornography.

 –         Well, yes… I mutter apologetically.

–         Really? Opera? Isn’t it a bit … er … a bit… well, you know …

 Yes, I know. Indeed, it’s a bit. I try to explain myself. A bit. One can’t like all operas, I say, any more than one can like all films, or all novels. There are many operas I’m quite indifferent to, and can take or leave; some about which I have ambivalent feelings; some with which I have yet to come adequately to terms; and some I actively dislike. But then again, there are a great many I do like, and a handful that have been life-changing experiences. 

–         I suppose you just have to ignore the silly plots and listen to the music. I never could stand the sound of it myself.

I try to move the conversation on at this point. It would take too long to explain that, for me, opera is drama. Yes, it is music as well, but the music in opera serves, or, at least, should serve, the drama.

This needs to be qualified, obviously. After all, as everyone knows, the plots of opera are silly.

But are they? Is everyone right in knowing this? The plot of Peter Grimes, say, isn’t silly. Or Wozzeck. Or Elektra. Or Kátya Kabanová. These are all powerful dramas, and are often based on plays that are acknowledged dramatic masterpieces. Well, fair enough, not opera of the 20th century, perhaps, but if we go back earlier – don’t we have all that stuff with magic love potions and gypsy ladies throwing the wrong baby into the fire, and all that sort of thing?

Well, yes. You’ve got me there. Throwing the wrong baby into the fire certainly takes some explaining. But even here, I’d argue, the music serves a dramatic purpose, and loses much of its point if the dramatic context is ignored. As with blank verse drama, opera is a very stylised art form, and can, as a consequence, take much artifice. In other words, opera is not compelled to conform to the conventions (and they are merely conventions) of realism, any more than, say, Shakespearean drama is. After all, by the conventions if modern realism, even such imperishable dramatic masterpieces as King Lear or The Winter’s Tale are likely to appear a bit silly.

Stephen Sondheim, when asked what the difference is between operas and musicals, famously replied “expectation”. This is certainly true up to a point, but I don’t believe for one minute that Sondheim  really thinks there is no real difference between the two forms. The difference, surely, is the use to which the music is put. Put crudely, the music in musicals serves a decorative purpose: a musical without the musical numbers is not likely to be particularly interesting, but it can still make sense as drama. A South Pacific or a My Fair Lady without the music can still be playable. But this is not so with opera, because, here, the music conveys the drama. Of course, things are rarely so clear-cut: one can easily point to passages in some musicals where the music does serve a dramatic purpose; and one can also point to music from even the finest of operas that are little more than decorative. But if we regard these alternatives not as a clear-cut dichotomy but as poles of a spectrum, it may reasonably be argued, I think, that operas and musicals tend to occupy different halves of that range. In musicals, the music decorates the drama; in opera, the music depicts it.

Take, for instance, the opening duet of Le Nozze di Figaro. Figaro is taking measurements of the room: his music, to begin with at least, is in broken phrases. However, when Susanna sings, she seems not to have heard those broken phrases: she offers us, instead, a couple of long-breathed melodic lines. This is because she is not concerned with Figaro’s measuring: she is trying out her new hat, and wants Figaro to look at it. Figaro resists for a while, continuing with his broken phrases, but, as Susanna shows no inclination to sing his music, he begins to sing hers. Those broken phrases of his are now forgotten, and the two end the duet singing in unison: needless to say, the tune they are singing is Susanna’s tune. The entire structure of this duet is a reflection of how these two characters react to each other.

 Or consider the big sextet in Act Two of Don Giovanni – “sola, sola in buio loco”. Donna Elvira starts it off, with a melody bespeaking nobility and tragic dignity. Leporello then takes up this melody, but it is now subtly transformed to appear comic. This, once again, reflects what is happening dramatically: both are lost in the dark, but where Donna Elvira’s emotional vulnerability is being abused, Leporello merely wants to find his way out of a scrape. Then, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio enter, to expand what had been a duet to a quartet. And, as they enter, the music undergoes a tortuous change of tonality, as E flat gives way to D. There may be a musical reason for this: I am not enough of a musician to know about that. But there is certainly a dramatic reason: Donna Anna and Don Ottavio are not going to accommodate themselves to the music: rather, the music has to change, no matter how awkwardly, to accommodate itself to them. And even here, Mozart isn’t finished: Don Ottavio sings a mellifluous melody of consolation in D major, but Donna Anna, refusing to be consoled, changes immediately to D minor, and modifies Don Ottavio’s melodic line to incorporate rising intervals (which someone who can read scores better than I can will no doubt be able to identify) of heartbreaking intensity. No-one doubts the musical quality of any of this – we’re talking here about Mozart, after all! – but the point surely is that the music is in service of the drama.

One cannot make general rules, of course: operas come in so many shapes and sizes that it is pointless trying to define rules that will cover everything. The drama presented in an opera may be good, bad, or indifferent; it may even be silly. But it is drama, all the same, and the music communicates that drama. The music may even find dramatic depth where none exists in the libretto, but, whatever the quality of the drama it communicates, unless that music is dramatic in nature, it is not, almost by definition, operatic music. The drama of an opera can encompass the subtleties and complexities of a Cosi fan Tutte, or the passionate fervour of Fidelio; the sad intimacy of a La Traviata, or the epic myth-making of the Ring Cycle; the dream-like trance of Pelléas and Mélisande, or the thud and blunder theatricality of Tosca; the nostalgic charm of Der Rosenkavalier, or the harsh realism of From the House of the Dead. There is no end to the variety in opera, any more than there is to the variety of plays, or of novels. And this variety is essentially dramatic, I’d argue; and it is the music that communicates the drama.

Let us end by considering that quite extraordinary final act of Rigoletto. Verdi was never really bothered by the plot: it could be as improbable as one wants – the plot is hardly the point. The mechanism of the plot in this case – the mere matter of what happens – is negligible. What matters is the significance of what happens. Rigoletto lives in a heartless society in which he, a hunchback, is merely a figure of fun. The only way he can respond to this is to become part of the cruelty and heartlessness that  surrounds him, to become himself a very agent of the evil that oppresses him. But one part of his life he has had to keep apart from this: he has tried to keep his beloved daughter protected her from the evil that surrounds her, and in a state of artificial innocence. It cannot be, of course: inevitably, her very innocence is her downfall. But in that final act, surrounded as we are by utter darkness, both literal and metaphorical, we find a kind of drama that only opera can achieve. The evil but utterly charming Duke enters with his famous solo – “La donna è mobile”. Famous though it is, there is not much to commend it in musical terms: it is slight, trivial, and even, perhaps, vulgar. But in terms of pure theatre, it is stunning. For this trivial little ditty not merely depicts the character of this swaggering, shallow and unthinking Duke, it provides also a contrast so striking to the enfolding darkness that it startles. It may not be possible to defend “La donna è mobile” in purely musical terms: but in dramatic terms, it is dynamite. (We shall hear a reprise of this trivial tune later, but in such a context that even after years of repeated listening, it still strikes terror in the heart) And then, there follows the quartet: an unthinking delight in the passing moment;  rage and love; charm that we know to be rotten even as we are seduced by it; hope shattered and bitterness vindicated; cruelty and tenderness, pity and terror … it’s all there, and it’s all there at the same time, taking the listener’s ear and heart simultaneously in countless different directions. Only opera can achieve this. And what it achieves is dramatic.