OF OPERA IN MINIATURE
suppose I view opera as a kind of sea with many tributaries. A challenging exercise
is to pick, let's say, a dozen composers for a series that sums up the many different
ways in which these different tributaries have played their part in shaping the
history of opera.
is its chief tributary, but even music has tributaries of its own, and first and
foremost among those individual tributaries is the human voice. Music for the
voice is front and center in opera, and arguably the first true genius among those
early opera composers who centered their creativity on vocal derring-do above
all was Handel. Handel is a seminal figure in his own right who placed the voice
front and center before either Mozart or Donizetti came along. The other advantage
to admitting Handel in the "circle" is the profound understanding of
human feeling that he brings to the Baroque world and the Baroque style.
most comprehensive master of music in all its many forms would be Mozart. He is
remarkable in that he is generally acknowledged as having excelled in whatever
genre he tackled -- a master in all the forms of music available to composers
at the time. His versatility and universal facility at all levels remains unique,
IMO, not just for sheer melodic invention and universal harmonic adeptness in
all idioms and genres, but for infinite variety of expression as a born communicator
as well. Here is one who fused unerring craftsmanship with strong instincts for
character and theater. Yet Mozart voiced the objection that the true opera genius
would have to encompass proficiency in dramatic verse some day, not just music.
He regretted that he had no ability to be his own librettist.
is in concentration of expression, if not necessarily variety, that a similarly
versatile "musicker" may trump even Mozart: a rather obvious choice,
Beethoven, but an essential one. His range of expression may not be as mercurial,
but Fidelio is as completely vivid and "gritty" in a "slice-of-life"
way as it is possible to be within the context of strict classical form (and sometimes
Beethoven is not all that strict!), and it emerges from a master whose mastery
of musical forms is total.
many contrasts in vocal style throughout the 1700s parallel the contrasts in varied
musical and vocal genres of that time. But such contrasts get more and more blurred
by the early 1800s. These vocal styles are frequently juxtaposed within one and
the same work.
a happy accident, the culmination of this heady mixture of vocal contrasts typical
of this period coincides with the culmination of one composer's most distinctive
style, Donizetti's. His Roberto Devereux and Poliuto, to librettos
by Salvatore Cammarano, crown his creative work at Naples (the 1830s), an opera
center especially distinguished for its tradition of vocal derring-do, where,
inspired by superstars like Giuseppina Ronzi-De Begnis, for whom he wrote the
part of Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux, and Adolf Nourrit, for whom he
wrote the title role in the original Poliuto intended for Naples, Donizetti
pushes the vocal envelope almost as far as it can go. He expects his interpreters
to combine an elegance of musical manners reminiscent of Gluck or Mozart with
a newfangled vocal strength, characteristically vehement and energetic, that recalls
Weber or Beethoven. With all this, the additional precision of an intricate, florid
vocal line requires the performer to combine the sheer agility of a Mozartean
with a brute vocal strength.
composers, like Verdi or Wagner, may well trump the vehemence and energy in Donizetti;
a Gounod, a Delibes or a Thomas, later in the century, may sometimes match Donizetti's
vocal agility; but in the fusion of these and other conflicting demands, Donizetti
remains especially challenging.
composers of arguably greater genius may use deliberately contrasting vocal styles
in a more dazzling way (syntheses like the gallery of unforgettable character
portraits in Wagner's Die Meistersinger, where each character has
its distinct vocal style), but only Donizetti tests the outer limits of such contrasts
within one and the same role, and in not just one work or for one singer. Cherubini,
Rossini and Bellini are trailblazers in fashioning an occasional isolated such
role under specific circumstances, and Rossini had even anticipated and exceeded
the Poliuto requirements in two tenor roles designed for the superhuman Andrea
Nozzari (Agorante in Ricciardo e Zoroaide and Antenore in Zelmira,
both of these not coincidentally premiered at Naples as well), but it took Donizetti
to test more habitually the potential of such brinkmanship in both tenor and soprano
hear that most vividly in the second Act of Roberto Devereux, in the vocal
writing for Elisabetta, and in Act II, Scene 2 of the original Poliuto,
in the tenor writing given the title role.
is also that most mercurial and heroic baritone role of them all: Chevreuse in
Donizetti's Maria di Rohan. Here is one role that, IMO, requires every
bit as much power, as much abundance of varied expression, as much sheer range,
as does Rigoletto, as does Nabucco, as does the elder of the two Foscari, as does
the Verdi Macbeth -- you name it. Nothing, IMO, separates the vocal and interpretive
difficulties of this towering Donizetti role from the baritone roles in Verdi
(save that Chevreuse may require even more flexibility!).
the baritone Giorgio Ronconi, who also created the Verdi Nabucco in 1842, created
this Donizetti role in 1843.
the Devereux Elisabetta and the original Poliuto constitute Donizetti landmarks
for the prima donna and the primo uomo (or "divo";-), then Chevreuse
is just as much at a Donizetti crossroads for the baritone. The vocal envelope
is tested just as severely.
it a coincidence that this work too is set to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano?
He and Donizetti really appear to have had a true affinity.
I had to pick the one scene that seems to pull together the most disparate elements
in Chevreuse's role, it would be his entire last scene in the third act. This
closing sequence is the third pillar of a mighty threesome that also encompasses
the second-act finales of Roberto Devereux and Poliuto.
It was only many years after I first responded to Donizetti's searing emotional
effects, strictly through the vocal line, that I learned that Donizetti himself
was a manic depressive, thus as storm-tossed psychologically as any of his most
volatile characters. He does not just adopt mere formulas related to characters
in extremis. He virtually inhabits them! The highly emotional and vocally
intricate results are every casting director's nightmare. I don't honestly believe
I will ever hear every vocal nook and cranny of a Devereux Elisabetta or
a Poliuto delivered with the utmost naturalness. It may not be humanly possible.
And in the sheer effort Donizetti himself pours into the vocal line (mirrored
in the uniquely staggering effort required of his performers), other elements
can remain sketchy, very much unlike the craftsmanship of a Mozart or a Beethoven.
Perhaps, emotional energy like Donizetti's can only be allocated to one element
at a time. If so, the trade-off in Donizetti is sui generis, IMO, and entirely
may have been the first to introduce the vexed question of words versus music
on to the stage. Whatever, words and poetry together constitute the other great
tributary alongside music. In one of his letters, Mozart expresses the hope that
a Phoenix may some day arise who will be a dab hand at both dramatic poetry and
musical composition. Arguably, the 19th century saw that happen. Both Berlioz
and Wagner have as sure a grasp, IMO, of musical structure and orchestral fabric
as either Mozart or Beethoven, while being accomplished literary talents at the
same time. No, neither of them is an Aeschylus, a Shakspeare, a Chekhov! But they
are at least respectable in what they write, IMO, proficient enough to provide
what is needed: a scaffolding for acute psychological exploration in music --
where they do strike me as towering geniuses in every respect. Here, while neither
expands the vocal line to the extremes of virtuosity found in Donizetti (who also
occasionally wrote out the text for his libretti but hardly as regularly as Berlioz/Wagner),
the vocal line brilliantly highlights the words to provide three-dimensional characterization
where a great singer can shine, both vocally and dramatically. Sensitivity to
the word -- and the emotional world summoned up by the word -- transfigures almost
every bar these twin masters set down. Perhaps, Mozart was right: adeptness in
certain fundamentals of literary form may help enhance in a hundred little ways
a musical response to poetry, down to the smallest detail in the most elaborate
orchestral fabric, let alone the shape of the basic vocal line.
between Berlioz and Wagner yields a contrast of sorts: Berlioz, like Mozart and
Beethoven, consciously grappled with a variety of musical idioms and excelled
in many. His versatility in these musical forms enhances his dramatic works in
ways that Wagner's can't quite match. However, while Wagner grappled with fewer
of these, he had, unlike Berlioz, a more practical experience of the stage under
his belt -- which, in contrast to Berlioz, shows in many of his works (though
not all, for I sometimes think of Parsifal, arguably his masterpiece in
certain ways, as nevertheless more a pageant than a drama). Berlioz had less patience
than Wagner with the Italian bel canto, Wagner's experience of Schroeder-Devrient's
Bellini (Romeo in Capuleti) having heightened his understanding of what
the vocal line could do dramatically. With Berlioz, musical versatility and virtuosity
as an end in itself gains more prominence in a towering masterpiece like Les
Troyens, relatively speaking. So these two Titans complement each other in
the end. What they share is a precious gift at rendering the intimate with heartbreaking
immediacy, while always retaining a sense of profound context through it all.
This rare sense of intimate context throughout, however profound, together with
their unique mastery over all facets of musical and poetic writing, places them
as the twin pinnacles of the lyric stage, IMO, unlikely to be surpassed.
I find it regrettable that few critics, of any persuasion and of any period, seem
taken with, or even aware of, Berlioz's (IMO) clear fascination with exploring
new byways of expression for the human voice. Yes, it's true that some couple
him with Wagner partly because of his occasional conception of much of what he
does, including in opera, as a path to discovery rather than strictly entertainment.
when Wagner shows fascination with the human voice, as in a virtual celebration
of all song like Die Meistersinger, he recalls prior vocal styles, including
those of a Bellini or a Donizetti. His more advanced vocal style beyond these
models seems more exclusively geared to expressing an abundance of personal feelings
outside of exploration of the human singing voice as such, although such passages
can also sound quite beautiful and authentically musical when sung easily and
OTOH, shows somewhat less interest in his maturity than Wagner does in the vocal
derring-do of prior models, but at the same time, when it's Berlioz's turn to
explore newer styles of vocal expression, I'm personally far more aware of a double
function in these more advanced passages: both the expression of abundant personal
feeling as such and also a far keener mechanical fascination than Wagner's in
what it is that can wrap itself the most virtuosically around a voice. He really
is still conceiving of vocal writing, even at his most advanced, as a chance for
a voice to shine technically in addition to a voice's serving as a conduit for
abundant human feeling.
not sure whether anyone else hears these two composers' later styles in this way.
Perhaps, some even hear this difference in emphasis in precisely the opposite
way instead(?): Wagner seeming to retain more of a fascination in vocal mechanics
than does Berlioz! But I don't hear it that way myself, and above and beyond that,
I still feel there's an important distinction all the same between their respective
uses, in their maturity, of the singing voice. And mine is simply a rough-and-ready
way that I've attempted here -- an inchoate one -- to articulate that distinction.
to the word is not restricted only to such literary adepts as Berlioz and Wagner
-- although, IMO, such adepts may _sometimes_ have the advantage. Having a grasp
of a larger picture but, perhaps, without -- quite so consistently, IMO -- the
steady sensitivity to the word of a Berlioz, the pioneers of French Grand Opera
portrayed whole societies on stage. And the music coming from a Meyerbeer, a mature
Rossini, a Halevy, could have amazing impact and variety. Hans Von Bulow once
made the wisecrack that Wagner's youthful Rienzi was "Meyerbeer's
finest opera". No, IMHO, Wagner could not mirror the Shakspearean objectivity
of the Grand Opera canvases at their best. (Nor could Berlioz; and in neither
case is that a fault. They were simply intensely personal composers.) Instead,
if there's such a thing as "Meyerbeer's best opera", I now feel that
would have to be Verdi's Don Carlos. It was inevitable that it was Verdi
who would produce the most successful Shakspeare operas -- deservedly recognized
as such. Yet, there are times when I feel that, superb as Otello and Falstaff
are, Don Carlos may be Verdi's absolute summit after all, as well as "Meyerbeer's"
(to use Von-Bulow-speak). Don Carlos may also be, though based on Schiller,
the most Shakspearean in a way. The full dimensions of Verdi's genius can only
flower in a canvas of these dimensions, in contrast to a Donizetti, say, for whom
the expansive forms of French Grand Opera serve to hem in his unique genius at
vocal characterization rather than enhance it (a minority view of mine, perhaps).
Verdi vindicates what Meyerbeer is doing, and French Grand Opera is where the
individual eccentricities of even the younger Verdi of his "galley years"
can finally achieve their fullest potential. There is a clear point to everything
Verdi is striving for all his life, but I feel that not until Don Carlos
is all of that made manifest. Viva V.E.R.D.I. indeed!
Russian genius who can mirror the Shakspearean outlook almost as well as a Verdi
is Musorgsky. A born poet, IMO (and I wish I knew Russian so I could really know
what I'm talking about;-), Musorgsky allows no character to be merely sketched
in, there to fill out the scenery. Instead, the _scenery_ almost becomes a three-dimensional
character itself! One thinks of the opening measures of his Khovanshchina,
for example. His best works have seized listeners' imaginations for generations,
and the greatness of the Russian school cannot be fully grasped without experiencing
at least one of his operas.
there is Tchaikovsky. Unlike Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky does not poetically conceive
every nuance of his dramatic works from stem to stern. He usually has the help
of some librettist. But in Eugen Onegin and Mazeppa, he writes out
the lion's share of the libretto himself -- and it shows, IMO. I find Mazeppa
as inspired as anything he ever wrote; and there's a magnificent scene for tenor
in the last act, lyrical, heartfelt, memorable -- and high-lying. But all of his
operas from Onegin on have something in them at some point that is riveting,
deeply personal, almost as poetically responsive as any of the finest scenes from
the literary adepts like Berlioz or Wagner -- all IMO, of course. And unlike either
Musorgsky or Wagner, Tchaikovsky recalls the versatility of a Mozart or a Berlioz
in his mastery of varied musical forms. All the tributaries I've referred to are
all in full play in Tchaikovsky's dramatic works. A universal genius perhaps undervalued
by some because of too much popularity (?just a thought?).
may also be as much a burden as an asset when it comes to Puccini, the undoubted
master of the visceral verismo school that emerged in Italy during the
1890s. Recently, I found myself concurring with another writer that the extent
of Puccini's engagement with certain of his characters can occasionally strike
one as more intense and internalized than Verdi's! This may be a minority view,
I concede that. And this is not to say that Verdi isn't internalized and heartfelt
as well! But there's a painful intimacy to much of Puccini that recalls an Onegin
or a Tristan. And Puccini's specificity of mood and feeling in his orchestra
grounds this to a remarkable degree, IMO. Small wonder that Puccini apparently
put his librettists through living hell. Every word apparently had to resonate
with his inmost soul. Expecting that of any other human being's words may seem
wildly unfair. But it was plainly what Puccini wanted. (Shades of Bellini metaphorically
shaking the oblivious Pepoli's shoulders in his correspondence with the hapless
Pepoli, who made a botch of the libretto of Bellini's swan song, Puritani!)
As with Tchaikovsky, the thought occurs that it could be Puccini's popularity
that unconsciously works against greater appreciation of Puccini -- particularly,
appreciation of Puccini's sometimes brilliant (IMO) characterization, all within
a vocal line that is as much a gold mine for a great singer as a great interpreter.
proceeding further, I'm going to be a lazy borrower for the next candidate (mea
culpa) and simply lift from something that I wrote a while back:
I've been relistening to a whole slew of his stuff on CD. I'm starting to find
him as consistently individual in the way he uses vocal line for idiosyncratic
distinctive characterization as a Tchaikovsky, a Strauss, a Donizetti -- you name
it. Really acute -- and always with just that touch needed for bringing out an
expressively beautiful voice. Distinctive and enticing at the same time. Quite
a discovery. He's not a one-opera composer (i.e., Jenufa). The distinctive
color of each opera's emotional world is always amazing. I feel now he's one of
is now the way I feel about Janacek. I have fallen utterly under his spell. Now
it's true that I started this entire exercise with a view toward letting listeners
appreciate the diverse tributaries that feed into opera -- a goal somewhat separate
and apart from merely revelling in one's favorites. But I honestly feel that Janacek
fulfills both functions: that of summing up the best that had preceded him and
that of appealing to me personally as one of the most insightful characterizers
in music I've yet heard. In finding the dignity of the human spirit in the most
mundane surroundings, I feel he helps to sum up the entire past century in a way.
As with the Italian verismo school (though even more consistently, IMO),
Janacek helps remind us that, as he remarked once, a spark of the transcendent
is in each of us. And he himself wrote all the librettos for his greatest operas,
transfiguring the seemingly sordid or just plain banal through heightened drama
and music that is as individual in its characterization and human understanding
as it is grateful to the finest singers. And his sense of dramatic structure is
tauter, by and large, than either that of Berlioz or Wagner. An accomplished dramatist,
IMO, he also excelled in almost as many additional musical idioms as a Tchaikovsky
or a Berlioz. And I feel these many different facets of his talent are reflected
in operas as total in their impact as any masterpieces ever conceived in the last
hundred years. I find him now the greatest opera composer of the twentieth century,
and his Katya Kabanova and Cunning Little Vixen arguably the finest
when it comes to tributaries, it's impossible not to view Richard Strauss as a
figure who sums up more in a single lifetime than any other master. I may not
find him as consistently intense and psychologically candid as Janacek, but in
his mastery of many different idioms he seems inexhaustible. From the Symphony
to the Tone Poem to the Song Cycle, we find his individual stamp on just about
everything he tackled. And yet that individual stamp remains recognizable through
works as diverse as his serene final instrumental pieces or his relatively early
Elektra with its stormy dissonance. Has any other composer run the gamut
from anticipating Berg to recalling Mozart and yet retained his individuality
throughout? Staggering. He is always recognizable, yet always different. And he
too tried his hand at penning a few of his own libretti, including the underrated
(IMO) Intermezzo and his autumnal Capriccio (though the latter was
a literary collaboration with Clemens Krauss, granted). In fact, Capriccio
might be taken not only as a summation of this marvelous chameleon's achievement,
but as a summation of opera's own history as well.
only these twelve composers is excruciating enough.
there are at least thirty other exceptional composers at the least (IM fervent
O) that merit almost equal attention in such an exercise! Gluck (where would opera
be today without Iphigenie en Tauride!), Bellini, Monteverdi (none of us
would be opera fans without him!), Purcell, Rameau, Pergolesi, Haydn, Cherubini,
Spontini, Rossini, Schubert, Weber, Meyerbeer, Halevy, Auber, Gounod, Offenbach,
Bizet, Smetana, Boito (whose operas fuse a remarkable poetic talent with a vivid
musical persona, sadly underappreciated, IMO), Massenet, Mascagni, Leoncavallo,
Alfano, Debussy, Zemlinsky, Pfitzner, Martin, Martinu, Britten, and -- yes --
Poulenc (almost every one of whose works I find tantalizing in some way or other,
from Tiresias to the Gloria to Carmelites to Voix
-- an authentic genius) -- the list goes on and on and on............... It isn't
deserving a distinguished place in this chronicle are names like Lully, Pacini,
Mercadante, J. Strauss, Sullivan, Giordano, Cilea, Zandonai, G. Charpentier, Dukas,
Lehar, Bartok, Berg, Weill, Rota and so on.
CALLAS (1923 - 1977) -- HER BEST RECORDINGS IN GOOD SOUND
-- FROM COMEDY TO TRAGEDY
CARUSO (1873 - 1921) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION
CORELLI (1921 - 2003) -- RECOLLECTIONS AND REFLECTIONS
CARLOS -- RANDOM JOTTINGS
TENOR AND RICHARD WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES
ROBERT MERRILL (1917 - 2004)
ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES
TAUBER (1891 - 1948) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION
IN LA TRAVIATA
OVERVIEW OF TRISTAN ON CD
TROVATORE ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES