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HISTORY OF OPERA IN MINIATURE

--Geoffrey Riggs


I 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.

Music 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.

The 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.

It 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.

VOCALISM IN EXCELSIS

The 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.

By 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.

Other 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.

Later 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 writing.

We 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.

There 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!).

Incidentally, the baritone Giorgio Ronconi, who also created the Verdi Nabucco in 1842, created this Donizetti role in 1843.

If 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.

Is 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.

If 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 worthwhile.

TWIN PINNACLES

Salieri 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.

Distinguishing 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.

Personally, 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.

But 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 naturally.

Berlioz, 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.

I'm 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.

WORDS AND MUSIC

Sensitivity 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!

One 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.

But 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?).

Popularity 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.

Before 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:

"Oh, 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 the Titans."

This 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 twentieth-century operas.

Finally, 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.

CONCLUSION

Selecting only these twelve composers is excruciating enough.

And 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 easy.

Also 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.

 

--Geoffrey Riggs

 

MARIA CALLAS (1923 - 1977) -- HER BEST RECORDINGS IN GOOD SOUND

CARMEN -- FROM COMEDY TO TRAGEDY

ENRICO CARUSO (1873 - 1921) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

FRANCO CORELLI (1921 - 2003) -- RECOLLECTIONS AND REFLECTIONS

DON CARLOS -- RANDOM JOTTINGS

DONIZETTI AND BRINKMANSHIP

GREATEST SINGER?

THE TENOR AND RICHARD WAGNER (1813 - 1883)

MEISTERSINGER ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

RECALLING ROBERT MERRILL (1917 - 2004)

PARSIFAL ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

RICHARD TAUBER (1891 - 1948) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

VIOLETTA IN LA TRAVIATA

PARTIAL OVERVIEW OF TRISTAN ON CD

IL TROVATORE ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

UPCOMING SINGERS

 

 

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The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797 - 1847 NEW BOOK

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