Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’

Akutagawa’s visions of Hell

“Rashomon” and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Jay Rubin, published by Penguin Classics


There’s more than a whiff of the demonic about Akutagawa. His visions of life, whether set in ancient days or in contemporary times, seem to be set in a moral darkness, and depict various types of agony, both physical and spiritual. In the very first story, “Rashomon” (1917), which gave the title and the setting (though not the storyline) to Kurosawa’s film, takes us into the upper storey of Rashomon Gate, where bodies of those killed in those lawless times have been deposited, and where, amidst the hideous stench of physical corruption, an old woman is plucking the hair from the corpses in order to make wigs: she has to live, after all. But in the world that Akutagawa presents, there doesn’t seem much reason to want to live. Akutagawa himself, whose mother had died in an asylum, and who was haunted by the fear that his mother’s mental illness may be hereditary, committed suicide in 1927, aged only 35. The autobiographical stories grouped in the final section of this collection do not give the impression of a particularly happy or contented life.

His most famous story, thanks to Kurosawa using it as the basis of his film “Rashomon”, is “In a Bamboo Grove” (“Yabu no naka”, 1927). A woman has been raped, and a man has been killed; the story consists of the various narratives given in evidence by the people involved in the matter – including one from the dead man himself, speaking through a medium. These stories all give contradictory accounts accounts of what really happened, each participant in the affair putting his or her self in a good light, and the others in a bad. That there is a truth out there somewhere, an absolute truth, is not questioned: what is questioned is our ability to get to that truth, given that all we have to go by are our fallible perceptions, and given also our ability, indeed, our propensity, to deceive – to deceive both other people and ourselves, to deceive both deliberately and unwittingly, such that, beyond a point, we can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy.

Distinguishing between reality and fantasy is not, after all, an easy thing to do. In one of the stories, a monk invents a myth about a dragon. He knows it to be a myth: it’s his own invention, after all. But when everyone starts believing in it, he curiously starts believing in his own fantasy, and at the climactic point of the story, he too glimpses, along with the vast throng of the faithful, the mythical dragon, his own invention, rising into the sky. Akutagawa did not seem to have much time for religion: the human imagination may indeed be a thing of wonder, and can create its own reality, but, for Akutagawa, that’s where Heaven resides – in our imagination, and in our imagination only.

Hell, however, is all too real, and nowhere more so than in the story “Hell Screen” (“Jigokuhen”, 1918). But Akutagawa’s Hell is not of the other world: it is right here, on earth. We are, once again, in ancient times, and the lord, the local potentate, is an evil and cruel man. The narrator, though, is very obviously a foolish man, who cannot see his master’s evil. The court painter, Yoshihide, however, can, and when the lord graciously makes Yoshihide’s daughter a lady-in-waiting, Yoshihide knows exactly what that means, although the narrator doesn’t. He tries his best to rescue his daughter, but he cannot.

The situation is similar to the one we find in Verdi’s Rigoletto (which was based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi S’Amuse, an English version of which I have been trying for years to track down, though without much success): in that opera, Rigoletto, the hump-backed court jester despised by all, and his innocent daughter Gilda, find themselves victims of an evil and lascivious ruler; but the terrible irony is that Rigoletto himself is very much part of the moral corruption to which he and his daughter eventually become victims. Similarly here: Yoshihide is very much part of the evil and the cruelty of the society he inhabits, and which claims both his daughter, and, eventually, himself. But dark and pitiless though the entire story is, I must admit to being taken by surprise, and, hardened reader though I think myself to be, genuinely shocked by the ending, where all the horrors of Hell itself seem to irrupt with the utmost force and violence. Why look for a hell in the other world when it is right here, under our very noses?

Akutagawa is renowned in Japan as a great stylist, and, assuming translator Jay Rubin’s English version reproduces at least something of Akutagawa’s writing style, one can see why. The prose is spare and precise, with all excess fat trimmed off. It is not without humour, but the humour is invariably grim, and dripping with irony. Gogol sometimes comes to mind – not least because that both he and Akutagawa seem to have an obsession with noses, and both have actually written a story called “The Nose”; but Akutagawa has none of Gogol’s whimsy, and there’s no hint here of Gogol’s eccentric and highly idiosyncratic digressions, which seem so often to displace the principal story itself as the major focus of interest. Akutagawa always has a story to tell, and he tells it directly. The images he chooses are clear-cut, and to the point: they never take a life of their own, as Gogol’s frequently do. And yet, despite the precision of the writing and the orderliness such precision suggests, the world depicted is one that is most disordered, bordering on the Hellish, and sometimes, indeed, crossing over the border into some Hell right here in this world. It is the Hell-on-earth depicted by Kurosawa in his cinematic masterpiece Ran (which, I am told, means “chaos”): we all know that this film was Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s King Lear, but I cannot help wondering to what extent Kurosawa’s demonic vision was informed by Akutagawa’s. At the start of the unforgettable battle sequence in the film, a dying soldier informs us that we are indeed in Hell; and what follows is a vision of Hell that seems at least as close to the world of Akutagawa as it is to the storm-swept heath of Shakespeare’s play.

Hell is particularly apparent in the last few stories in this collection. Akutagawa never wrote an autobiography, but some of his stories are so clearly autobiographical, that, grouped together as they are at the end of this collection, they serve as an autobiography of sorts. The last two stories he did not publish: they were found amongst his papers after his death. One of them, “The Life of a Stupid Man” (“Aru aho no issho”), is startling: rather than a continuous narrative, we are presented with a series of vignettes and passing thoughts and seemingly random ruminations – some as short as a mere couple of sentences or so –all of which come together as in a mosaic to form a whole. And in the last story in this collection, “Spinning Gears”, the pretence, flimsy to start with, that this is really a work of fiction, is quickly dropped: the narrator is depicting his own disintegrating mind, and, as he mentions by name some of his earlier work, there can be no doubt that he is no fictional character: the narrator here is Ryunosuke Akutagawa himself. And here again, we have a depiction of a Hell right here on earth, as he realises that he can no longer exert any control over his own mind. But no matter how febrile the content, no matter how little control he seems to have over the workings of his own mind, the writing throughout remains firmly focussed and controlled. The disorder of his mind is expressed with the most exemplary literary order, and feeling for form.

In “The Life of a Stupid Man”, he had described – writing about himself in the third person – an unsuccessful attempt at suicide:

Taking advantage of his sleeping alone, he had tried to hang himself with a sash tied over the window lattice. When he slipped his head into the sash, however, he suddenly became afraid of death. Not that he feared the suffering he would have to experience at the moment of dying. He decided to try to again, using his pocket watch to see how long it would take. This time, everything began to cloud ever after a short interval of pain. He was sure that once he got past that, he would enter death. Checking the hands of his watch, he discovered that the pain lasted one minute and twenty-some seconds. It was pitch dark outside the lattices, but the wild clucking of the chickens echoed in the darkness.

It is hard to figure out just what state of turmoil his mind must have been in while writing something like this, but that mind could still pick out the “wild clucking of chickens”, and place it with absolute precision.

The final story, “Spinning Gears”, ends with this:

– I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?

This is followed only by translator Jay Rubin’s laconic note in parentheses:

(1927: Posthumous manuscript)

“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.


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.

A night at the opera: “La Traviata” at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The best presents to give are those that one can enjoy oneself. So when my wife had a somewhat significant birthday recently, I had little problem choosing what to get her: tickets for an evening at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, of course. That’s tickets, in the plural, as, quite naturally, she wouldn’t want to go on her own now, would she?

And the show was Verdi’s La Traviata. Her favourite opera, Verdi’s Don Carlos, would I suppose have been even better, but one can’t very well expect Royal Opera to schedule their season just to please us: La Traviata was playing at the time, and that was more than good enough.

Ailyn Pérez and Simon Keenlyside as Violetta and Giogio Germont in La Traviata (picture courtesy Royal Opera, Covent Garden)

Ailyn Pérez and Simon Keenlyside as Violetta and Giogio Germont in La Traviata (picture courtesy Royal Opera, Covent Garden)

It’s one of those works known as a “warhorse” – i.e. a very popular work that has possibly been revived more often than is good for it – often at the expense of less popular works that deserve a greater exposure to the public. This has, perhaps understandably, incurred the wrath of many seasoned opera-lovers: not another tired old revival, they moan, when we could have been seeing …. or …. instead! (Opera lovers can easily fill in those blanks, I’m sure.) I sympathise. I agree also that putting on the same piece so frequently often results in performances that are stale, routine, and tired. However, we are far from regular visitors to Covent Garden: it’s not that it’s prohibitively expensive, as is often claimed – usually by those who spend much more going to rock concerts or to West End musicals – but it’s expensive enough to make a night at the opera a rare treat rather than a regular occurrence. So no, we haven’t been over-exposed to the work, and neither are we jaded. And what’s more, we both like Verdi.

I suppose admitting to liking Verdi places one in many people’s books as a diehard musical conservative; as someone whose idea of good music is no more than a nice, comfortable tune to hum along to; as someone who dislikes all that horrible tuneless cacophony that passes for music these days; and so on, and so forth. I plead “not guilty” to all such charges. But I still love Verdi. Oh, I can recognise weaknesses: it’s not blind idolatry on my part (I reserve my blind idolatry only for Shakespeare). But these weaknesses are like the character flaws of a good friend: even if they annoy you from time to time, you’re prepared to put up with them because … well, because you’re friends. And Verdi has been like a good friend to me for several decades now. Even in many of his weaker works, he makes me feel certain things that I don’t feel with any other composer. And yes, I know, he has his detractors – some of whom are so learned in matters of music that I wouldn’t even think of entering into dispute with them. But he has, and has had, many great admirers also: Stravinsky, for instance, and Britten. So if my love of Verdi is indeed a lapse of taste on my part, I am at least in supremely good company.

I haven’t read the novel – La Dame aux Camelias by Dumas fils – on which the opera is based, although, if the Royal Opera programme notes are to be trusted, Verdi’s opera is very, very different from Dumas’ somewhat misogynistic novel. I suppose modern audiences can no longer feel the shock that Verdi’s first audiences must have felt on seeing as protagonist a courtesan – effectively, a prostitute – and, further, seeing her endowed with a tragic and even with a moral dignity. But the shock effect is not central to our appreciation of the work, so not much is lost on that score. The charge of sentimentality is more difficult to answer, but then again, that charge is always difficult to answer, since there appears to be no commonly agreed definition of the term. Generally, the term is applied to works that we feel we are intended to find emotionally moving, but don’t. But since I find La Traviata very moving indeed, I obviously cannot see it as “sentimental” – although it is not possible to argue against those who do.

At the heart of this work is one of Verdi’s finest scenes: the soprano-baritone duet, between Violetta and Giorgio Germont. Violetta, formerly a prostitute in the Parisian demi-monde, has, unexpectedly, found happiness with the young Alfredo. However, while frequenting the demi-monde is not particularly frowned upon, setting up a relationship with someone from that half-world is. And as a consequence, Alfredo’s family is viewed as tainted, and his younger sister is unable to marry. Of course, by our modern moral standards (in the Western world, at least), this is bizarre: but it usually doesn’t, I feel, require too great a leap of the imagination to imagine ourselves living in societies with very different moral codes: if it did, it would have been unlikely for so many people to be able to engage so readily with this work.

So now, Alfredo’s father enters the scene: he has come not to plead with Violetta, but to order her, to leave her son alone. He is, after all, a respectable citizen and she is a prostitute: he has every right to issue orders. But what happens when they meet is unexpected, and Verdi’s music – to my sensibilities, both beautiful and dramatically convincing – captures unerringly every facet of what passes between ex-prostitute and respectable citizen. First of all, she refuses to be browbeaten by him; and he, almost immediately, recognises in her a dignity of bearing that he had not expected. So instead of ordering her, he tries persuasion. He tells her of his beloved daughter, whose society marriage cannot go ahead because of her brother’s unfortunate attachment. Violetta’s immediate reaction is horror at the suggestion that she should leave Alfredo; but eventually, in music of the utmost poignancy, she agrees. I know that many see this as psychologically improbable: to me, however, it seems all too probable. She agrees to leave Alfredo not, I think, because Alfredo’s father convinces her: rather, it is because she convinces herself. He says nothing to her to add weight to his initial request: she, however, knowing what she has been, and, possibly, hating herself for having been so, feels increasingly unworthy to stand in the way of someone else’s happiness. Even without the music, this does not strike me either as improbable, or – as has also been claimed – as corny: and with that music, it is heart-rending. Does that make me a sentimental old sap? Fair enough – sentimental old sap I am.

The production, an old one directed by Richard Eyre, was traditional, but effective. I do not want to review the musical aspect, since I am not qualified to do so, but I could not wish it done better. Conductor Paul Wynne Jones paced the drama finely; and the supporting cast, including Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Simon Keenlyside as his father, was splendid. But this is really a soprano’s opera: it all stands or falls on the her performance. As Violetta, Ailyn Pérez was stunning. She looks the part, which always helps I suppose: she has movie star looks and a fine stage presence; and her singing and acting on the night left nothing to be desired. No doubt those who know this work more intimately than I do, and have seen and heard it in different performances, may find certain things to carp at: I can only say I didn’t. And neither did my wife, which, I suppose, is just as well: the tickets were a birthday treat, after all – even though I enjoyed her present every bit as much as she did. Just as well we both love Verdi!

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.

A night in at the opera: Verdi’s “Rigoletto” from the Met

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.

Verdi’s operas seem to me to fall quite frequently in this category. Take Rigoletto, for instance – it’s among the best-loved of all operas, and full of the most hummable tunes. But if we stop seeing it merely as a medley of great tunes and consider what the opera is actually about, should we love this work?

Both in this opera, and in La Traviata, Verdi presents a world in which gratification is seen as the only end worth striving for – a world in which mere pleasure is mistaken for joy; and he dramatises the fate in such a world of human emotion – of true human emotion, whose end is other than that of mere self-gratification. In both operas, the outcome is tragic. In La Traviata, however, human emotion is affirmed despite the outcome: as Orwell famously said of tragedy, we are left with the feeling that humanity is greater than the forces that destroy it. But in Rigoletto, we don’t even get this: there is no affirmation, and the darkness that falls upon the scene by the final curtain is absolute. A work such as this should inspire us with terror and with awe: but instead, it is seen all too often as a safe work, as something merely to tap our feet to as we relax in our armchairs at the end of a hard day. And I can’t help feeling that something, somewhere, has seriously gone wrong.

The plot of Rigoletto, taken from a play by Victor Hugo, is simple enough. The Duke of Mantua is charming and charismatic, but sees sensual pleasure as the sole purpose of living; and to this end, he doesn’t care whom he hurts or even destroys. He has around him a sycophantic court that appears to share his cheerful amorality. And in this court is the jester, the hump-backed Rigoletto, cruelly taunting everyone around him – even the Duke’s victims – and hated by all. Rigoletto appears, indeed to be the very personification of the moral degradation of the court.

But then, Verdi digs deeper. An outcast and an outsider, Rigoletto has forced himself into this role as a means of survival, and, recognising his own hatefulness, he hates himself for being what he is. It seems at times that he makes himself all the more hateful to justify his intense self-hatred. But there is one part of himself that he tries to keep pure from this corruption, and the living embodiment of this part of himself is his daughter. The more he hates the corruption both within and without his own self, the more he loves the purity that is his daughter; and the more insistently does he try to keep her isolated from the evil that he knows is all around. But, of course, as he knows full well, he is himself part of this evil. The mechanics of the plot are perhaps not so important here: what matters is that Rigoletto cannot keep the corruption at bay, and that the evil from which he tries to protect his daughter, but of which he is himself a part, claims her. She is abducted (with his unwitting participation), and is raped. And when he seeks justice by hiring a hit-man to assassinate the Duke, his daughter, who has been kept innocent of the ways of the world and is now confused in the extreme, heroically sacrifices her life to save the man not worth saving. Never has a sacrifice been simultaneously so heroic, and yet so pointless. As she expires, mouthing pious but meaningless platitudes, Rigoletto knows what the real score is: from now on, he will have to live completely alone in a world that is not worth living in. He won’t possess even that part of himself that he had tried to keep clean and pure: even that has been casually violated, and then just as casually destroyed. In most tragedies, the tragedy is that the protagonist dies; here, the tragedy is that the protagonist has to go on living. I cannot think of any other opera, except perhaps Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, that is so utterly bleak and despairing.

I am afraid I have seen too many productions of this piece that are, though well sung, merely jolly romps. Last weekend, I watched on DVD the recent production from the Metropolitan Opera of this work, and, to be frank, I watched expecting the worst: while musically, the Metropolitan Opera of New York is among the best opera houses in the world, its productions have frequently been ultra-conservative. Yes, it is true that one can misrepresent a work with wilful and daft productions – the sort of thing known across the Atlantic as “Eurotrash” (this year’s Ring Cycle at Bayreuth, complete with copulating crocodiles – no, seriously! – is a case in point); but it seems to me that presenting Rigoletto essentially as a cosy, comfortable work, without communicating the profound darkness at its heart, is equally a misrepresentation. The question shouldn’t be whether the production is “conventional” or “radical”: I have seen good and bad examples of both. The question should be: Is the production intelligent?

This production places Rigoletto in Las Vegas some time in the 60s. Although this has displeased some of the more conservative reviewers on the Amazon page, this seems to me quite reasonable: after all, where better than Las Vegas to represent a world in which pleasure is mistaken for joy? And on the whole, it seems to me rather well done. But it is not without its problems. The Duke here is transformed into a night-club singer, and that is surely wrong: the whole point of the opera is that the Duke is a man who commands immense power. He is a man who can have Monterone sentenced to death simply because Monterone had accused him in his own court of having “seduced” his daughter (although, as we see with Gilda, “seduction” in this context often covered what we’d now more accurately describe as “rape”). In this production, we see Monterone (here an Arab sheikh) led away to his death not by the Duke’s soldiers, but by professional hitmen. And the question arises: why? We can understand that the Duke would not tolerate being denounced in his own court, but it’s hard to see why a singer, even assuming that he has powerful underworld connections, should put hitmen on to this chap.

It would certainly have made more sense to have turned the Duke into a gangland boss, as Jonathan Miller had done in his celebrated ENO production, but  even this has its problems: in the opera, there is the great irony that the Duke, ostensibly the lawmaker, and the professional assassin, who lives outside the law, are morally equivalent; but if they are both depicted as living outside the law, then this irony is lost. But at least the drama made sense in Jonathan Miller’s production. Here, presenting the Duke merely as a singer doesn’t really make much sense at all.

Neither is it clear what position Rigoletto occupies in relation to the Duke. In the opera, he is court jester; in Jonathan Miller’s production, he is a barman, with a penchant for cruel mockery. But what exactly is he here? It’s hard to say.

And removing the hump – or, at least, making it so small as to be unnoticeable – also seems counter-productive. It is his physical disfigurement that has made Rigoletto an outsider in society: he is seen merely as a circus freak for people to laugh at. But what reason is there here for his alienation, and for his bitterness? I don’t have a problem with the action moved to Las Vegas, but it does seem to me that the implications of this move have not been fully thought out.

And neither, in terms of the action, has been that notorious scene where Rigoletto unwittingly helps the Duke’s men abduct his own daughter. For the drama to hold together thematically, Rigoletto must be complicit, however unwittingly, in the violation of his beloved daughter: his unwitting involvement in this particular piece of action reflects his greater involvement in his daughter’s downfall. But the plot mechanism used by Verdi (and, presumably, by Hugo, although I am only guessing here, as I don’t know the play) is clumsy in the extreme. Verdi’s audiences possibly wouldn’t have minded, but, to a modern audience, it can’t appear as anything other than silly. This piece of silliness wouldn’t have mattered in an opera in which the entire dramatic action is a bit silly (Il Trovatore, say, or Parsifal), but in a work in which the rest of the drama is compelling, and, indeed, frighteningly believable, this passage sticks out badly. In this production, the silliness is avoided, but Rigoletto has no involvement, unwitting or otherwise, in the abduction of his daughter; Rigoletto’s part in the violation of his daughter is lost, and the drama, as a consequence, diminished.

For all the shortcomings of the production, something of the power of this bleak and uncompromising drama did come through. This is due to a great extent to the music, which, as it should in any opera, depicts the drama rather than being merely decorative. I do not want to comment on the musical aspects of it, except to say that to my admittedly untrained ears, the performance sounded good, though not, perhaps, exceptional. But then again, having heard on recordings some of the very greatest singers of the last 60 or so years in these roles – Leonard Warren, Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas, Carlo Bergonzi – I may be a bit spoilt. Be that as it may, the performance here of the orchestra, the conductor, and of the singers, did communicate very powerfully the tragic power of this very great masterpiece. Even decades of familiarity cannot, and should not, dull the effect of something such as this.

The reluctant Wagnerian

This Saturday, I shall be in a nearby cinema to see and hear a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera New York of Wagner’s Parsifal. I was persuaded to get tickets for this by our lad, who, despite all the love and affection that his doting parents have lavished upon him over the years, has turned out a diehard Wagnerian. I do not doubt that this particular production is very fine; I do not doubt that it features some of the best singers of today: names such as Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape are hard to argue against, after all. Neither do I doubt that the orchestral playing, the choral singing, the conducting (Daniele Gatti will be in the pit), etc., will all be top notch.  Indeed, I have put myself through this opera before, having listened often to recordings of the full work, and also having heard it live on no less than three occasions. I confess also that at times, the effect of the music has been so overwhelming, that I have found myself completely drawn into it – to such an extent that I had become unaware of anything but the music, unaware even of those hours passing by. But nonetheless, I feel strangely apprehensive about this Saturday.

I know that I am by no means the first who has felt himself both drawn to and repelled by Wagner, but let me state right away that the repulsion has nothing to do with Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Not that I doubt that he was grotesquely anti-Semitic, even by the standards of his own times; and I am, further, prepared to accept the possibility that his racism did, as has been alleged, indeed find its way into his works. This does, admittedly, remain a controversial point, and emotions often run high when it is raised; and I am not myself sufficiently knowledgeable in this area to offer my own opinion on the matter. But I am prepared, at least, to accept the possibility that his racist ideology did indeed seep into his work, and even, as some claim, form its ideological basis. But if it did so, then it did so in a coded form, since at no point in any of his works is either race in general or Jewry in particular explicitly mentioned. This means that those of us blissfully unaware of whatever code Wagner may or may not have used can appreciate his work without the slightest thought of whatever psychopathic unpleasantness may or may not underlie it. No: whatever uneasiness I feel about Wagner’s operas, it is not on ideological grounds. It is something else.

But when I try to specify what that something else is, I find myself on uncertain ground. That his work has a powerful effect on me cannot be denied: I remember in particular a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the English National Opera a number of years ago that held me effectively hypnotised: I really had lost all sense of my surroundings, all sense of time passing. And, during the Edinburgh Festival of 2006, I attended an outstanding concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, featuring a then relatively unknown Jonas Kaufmann in quite resplendent voice as Walther. (I doubt we could afford to go and see Jonas Kaufmann now, given his current superstar status in the opera world!) So good was this performance, that even after five hours and more, I actually found myself thinking it was too short! So yes, I have indeed been under Wagner’s spell – many, many times.

But perhaps that is the point. Do I like being under his spell? Do I like getting to the state where I forget my surroundings, where I forget the passage of time? Do I like being drawn in to quite such an extent? And the answer to that, I think, is no, I don’t. There is something – for want of a better word – unhealthy, I find, about all this, something sickly. I cannot define it: but there is something intangible about Wagner’s work that is not to my taste, and I find myself resisting; although I do know that once that music starts, any resistance on my part will very soon melt away.

Even with Parsifal, the last and, in many ways, the most problematic of Wagner’s operas. It’s an odd hotchpotch of Christianity, Buddhism, mysticism, medieval myth, and – so I’m told – the philosophy of Schopenhauer. It is also, according to some, the most overt expression of Wagner’s racist ideology, although its racist aspect, should it exist, remains as obscure to me as any other aspect of the work. The whole thing may indeed be very profound, as is claimed, but, although I have known it for some thirty or so years, and although I have indeed made some effort to understand it better (Lucy Beckett’s book on this opera is justly renowned), I have never been able to make much sense of it. Now, I have given up trying: whatever its depths, its concerns are not, I think, mine. Debussy seems to me to have hit the nail on the head: after an entire essay ridiculing the opera and attacking it in no uncertain terms, he ended by declaring it to be “one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music”. That’s good enough for me. The whole strikes me as utterly incomprehensible – or, at least, not comprehensible to a mind such as mine – but I am all for lovely monuments of sound.


This year is, of course, the bicentenary of those two great giants of the opera, those mighty opposites Wagner and Verdi. And inevitably, there have been discussions of which of the two we prefer; or, even, who was the greater. I’ll politely pass on the latter question, but the former is an interesting one, as our personal preference between the two defines so much of our aesthetic values. Music journalist Jessica Duchen thinks it is no contest: for her, it’s Wagner. Peter Conrad, on the other hand, has written an entire book to demonstrate the superiority of Verdi. As for me, while I am looking forward, albeit apprehensively, to Parsifal, I can’t help wishing that our dear boy had sided with Verdi instead, and that, instead of Parsifal, we could go off together to see something like, say, Don Carlos. For there is to Verdi a generosity of spirit and a healthy, forthright humanism that, for me at least, leave the twilight murk of Wagner’s world far behind.

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…