"Sorrow issues from joy, and gaiety itself produces grief." - Beaumarchais, in a note to Gustav III of Sweden, accompanying a copy of Le Mariage de Figaro
Thinking about opera this morning. Maybe a dozen operas, if that, are equally interesting as music and drama, but those few are the proof. Or Mozart is, because Le nozze di Figaro is the earliest and perhaps the most dramatically convincing opera in the repertoire, for me. Bach’s cantatas and passions are metaphysical stage plays: the drama is stationary, and not of people on the move, changing and shifting between the acts, undergoing a thousand trials of love, and a thousand more disappointments, but instead they’re situated and dimensional worlds, in which no thought is the expression of a thought in some worldly wandering character but the thing itself, to which by some miraculous and Promethean descent we have sudden and permanent access. Bach’s passions are summas of passion. Handel, on the other hand, I don’t really understand (that goes for baroque opera in general). I think of him more as a sort of Dryden in opera, capable of rightly expressing every mood ever felt, someone whose art was easy and refined, in a way that no composer since Beethoven has really understood. But I don’t really understand how Julius Caesar, Tamerlane or Ariodante can work as drama — I come closer to understanding the oratorios, the Congreve or Jennens set to song.
It’s in Mozart post-Figaro where everything I value in opera begins. There are signs elsewhere — and in the early 1770s the Augsburg dramatic critic Daniel Schubart, on hearing La finta giardiniera, pinpointed the exact passages we all love most today, and said of the opera as a whole: “Flashes flicker here and there, but it is not yet the quiet, serene altar fire that rises to heaven in clouds of incense. If Mozart is not a plant forced in a greenhouse, then he is certain to become one of the greatest musicians who have ever lived.” Those flashes, for him, were in two of Sandrina-Violante’s arias (‘The mourning turtledove,’ and the scene in the wilderness, ‘Cruel men, stop!’ and ‘Oh, for weeping, grieving’), the one scena with the strangest of timbral and harmonic effects and refinements, and the second recitative-cavatina, marked allegro agitato, with its foreign despair, and transition from C to A minor. What happens after this scene shows exactly where this opera fails: after Sandrina wanders behind a rocky outcrop, the rest of the party come in, lose each other in the darkness, each mistaking one for another, and then sing out in the confusion, strepitosissimo, tutti against the Count and Sandrina (who think they’re Alcides and Medusa), something that reminds me of one of Rossini’s early confusion-finales, exuberant celebrations of stupidity. Though in even his teenage years it’s harder to see what Mozart feels about these finales than Rossini, whose face we see constantly, behind all of his works, either he lets us see him working the strings, or he can’t help it, he’s almost sadistically involved in his characters’ fates.
Those couple handfuls of perfect operas include four from Mozart, four from Wagner, two from Verdi, and one from Strauss. Beyond that, in the 20th century, I see only Debussy’s one (which fascinates me, partly because Maeterlinck is one of the dullest of good writers, and partly because it’s the anti of almost everything good drama should be, and yet it’s something), Britten’s two, and Berg’s one. Musical theater pieces are something different, medleys of catching and clashing tunes more than cohesive pieces. Show Boat or Oklahoma or South Pacific I understand just as well if I start at the end or in the middle. But opera is different — it’s aged more or less contemporaneously with the novel, but in the last four hundred years there might be a hundred true masterpieces in the one, and a handful in the other, with maybe five or six rare, undisputed masters. Part of this is the libretto: poetry for music drama must be written in an entirely different way. As Vivaldi said to Goldoni, It’s possible for a poet to write a perfect epic and tragedy, and yet not be able to write a single musical quatrain. The best opera-composers have either had perfect poetic collaborators, whose every line was subordinate to the music, subject to whatever change the composer needed — Da Ponte, Romani, Boito, Hofmannsthal, even E.M. Forster knew their roles here — or they wrote it themselves (I can’t judge verismo stuff, and for me Wagner’s the only success-story) — or they adapted it near-verbatim, like Debussy. And then there’s the lighting, the stagecraft, the directing, the acting, the singing, the mimetic force of the music itself.
What is opera, though? It’s world-time as tempo, ordered and controlled by a change of musical moods, time not accessible to direct observation except through the changing of these moods, “l’adagio, l’allegro, l’andante, l’amabile, l’armonioso, lo strepitoso, l’arcistrepitoso, lo strepitosissimo,” sadness from happiness, grief from joy, the harmonious from the intimate, like the change in hours, and so on, where time pivots neatly and naturally, as in the second act finale of Figaro, from stroke to stroke and point to point, as the Count and Countess argue, as Susanna enters, and then Figaro (bringing the garden inside with him, and his confusing presence) — I still gape every time I hear the quartet before Antonio comes in Ah! signor, signor! earthy and crabby about his crushed flowers — and then finally the entrance of Marcellina, sweeping along in her robes the rest of the palace’s toadies and hangers-on, with her marriage-proposal to her son. And, as Da Ponte says, then — “noise, noise, noise, for the finale always closes in an uproar.”
As for what lighting effects can add to musical transitions, or time suspended or sped over weeks or days in a single aria, Louis Hartmann on Belasco’s wonderful scene changes in Madama Butterfly: “The several colors of silk were in long strips. These strips were attached to tin rollers; the rollers were set into bearings fastened to a wooden frame that slid into the color groove of the lamp. The turning of the rollers passed the colors in front of the light and they were projected on the windows in a series of soft blends. As the orange deepened into blue, floor lanterns were brought on the scene and lighted; as the pink of the morning light was seen the lanterns flickered out one by one. The light changes were accompanied by special music. Music and lights were perfectly timed and the entire change consumed less than three minutes. By the manipulation of lights and music David Belasco made it convincing to an audience that a period of twelve hours had passed.” What could be done to illustrate the third act prelude in Siegfried? So on.