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Reading Opera

Literature as Opera

by Gary Schmidgall
Oxford University Press, 431 pp., $15.95

Romantic Opera and Literary Form is the most provocative (and provoking) book on opera to appear in a long time. One is first struck by its brilliance and then astonished that such a sophisticated critical structure can rest on such simplistic foundations. The polemical thesis which runs through the chapters is that opera is not a form of drama, as Wagner and others have maintained, but a form of the novel.

Drama is limited to the exterior life of action, and romanticism increasingly deprecates both the tedious willfulness of action and the limits of the form which transcribes it. The novel, in contrast, can explore the interior life of motive and desire and is naturally musical because mental. It traces the motions of thought, of which music is an image. Opera is more musical novel than musical drama

because “music can probe states of mind but not advance action.” Peter Conrad traces this view of the novel to unimpeachable romantic sources, Schopenhauer and Hofmannsthal, and his view of music also stems if not from Schopenhauer at least from the pervasive nineteenth-century philosophy of music for which Schopenhauer was a principal spokesman.

In fact music can do a good deal more in opera than probe states of mind. This became clear particularly in the nineteenth century, when the expansion of music’s power went hand in hand with the development of romantic opera. Music, with its special unifying capacities, can, first of all, assert a unique mood over an entire train of action, can as it were define a field in which a certain range of action and cognate feeling, and only that range, is possible. Verdi strove to achieve a special tinta or colorito in every one of his works. Each of the Mozart operas—even each of the Italian comedies done with da Ponte—has its own quite distinct atmosphere determined by the music; the psychology and agency of Susanna or Zerlina are not possibilities in the world of Così fan tutte. Works like Tristan und Isolde, Carmen, Pelléas et Mélisande, and Die Dreigroschenoper exist in private worlds created by their music as a whole, apart from anyone’s state of mind at any particular moment.

Second, music can indeed “advance an action” in the sense of interpreting action or conveying the characters’ apprehension of it. Otello’s fit and Iago’s ascendancy at the end of Act III of Otello, Wotan’s renunciation in the scene with Erda in Siegfried, Wozzeck stabbing Marie, the Abramo Lincoln steaming into Nagasaki harbor—the quality of these actions is unforgettably portrayed by music. As romantic composers became more and more skillful in probing states of mind, defining unique settings for action, thought, and feeling in general, and portraying the quality of actions in particular, music grew into a more and more effective medium for drama.

But drama, too, is conceived by Conrad in a very narrow sense. Disingenuously, perhaps, he does not formulate as sharp a concept of drama as of music or the novel, and he does not rely so heavily on any particular critic (though again Hofmannsthal is in the background). He finds his concept of drama implicit in the romantic attitude toward Shakespeare, which is expressed as much in various romantic recyclings of the plays and characters as in criticism.

…the plays are treated either as lyrical monologues, in which case the corresponding [musical] form is the symphonic poem, or else as frustrated novels…. Hamlet longs to escape from the busy routine of revenge drama into the inactive privacy of the dramatic monologue; Macbeth is traduced by the drama, which presents him as a murderous fiend, whereas in the solitude of his lyrical meditations he reveals a lucid, entranced detachment from the crimes the drama alleges he commits. The symphonic poem satisfies the yearning of these characters to exchange the compromises of dramatic action for solitary pensiveness.

The suggestion that Hamlet and Macbeth find their true rest in the symphonic poem—“a species of musical novel, since in its submergence of plot in atmosphere it snubs the drama and prefers to record, like the novel, the meditative life of motive and self-examination”—is bizarre indeed. But not more so than the implication that drama is solely a matter of plots, routines, events, and actions. Drama has always dealt with actions and “meditations,” in order to get at the relation between them, the relation between doing and feeling. Else drama would never have formed an alliance with poetry, let alone music.

Conrad may perhaps be laboring under a genuine misapprehension about music, but this really cannot be the case with drama. Some way into Romantic Opera and Literary Form one begins to understand that his critical strategy is very deliberate. He forges a tool for dealing with romantic art by pushing romantic theory to its most provocative, dogmatic, paradoxical extreme. The result is a brittle instrument which will shatter at the first critical pressure, whether from within the book or without; but it does throw up some good sparks when held up against the grindstone of modern literary criticism. Sparks rather than hard flames or slow fires come to mind as one considers Conrad’s criticism. His work proceeds by repetition, by the multiplication of epigrams in a process of evolving variation, rather than by the logical development of argument.

In fact Conrad says some of his most illuminating things when he is not talking about drama or music at all. In the chapter on “Operatic Shakespeare,” for example, he discusses elegantly how a famous passage from The Merchant of Venice—the “duet” of Lorenzo and Jessica—is used in The Trojans. He observes justly that Berlioz takes Shakespeare as a sentimental artist in Schiller’s sense, while Verdi takes him as a naïve one.

For Berlioz, Shakespeare is the kind of artist Schiller called sentimental: ironic, self-interrogating, delighting in irregular forms and quizzical, conceited verbal wit….

For Verdi, Shakespeare is the kind of artist Schiller called naïve: self-effacing, a force of calm and natural order rather than disruptive, self-exhibiting intelligence. Whereas Berlioz becomes impatient with Shakespeare’s characters and, as in Béatrice et Bénédict, dismisses them in order to write musical journalism against his enemies, Verdi, like Shakespeare himself, rests in astonished contemplation of characters whose mysterious objectivity he respects.

On the other hand, Conrad’s interesting suggestion that the political motif running through so many Verdi operas should be viewed in light of the Shakespeare history-play cycles is made no more and no less convincing by the comparison of these operas to a historical novel. The same could be said of his chapter on “Operatic Epic and Romance,” with its powerful and powerfully elaborated juxtaposition of The Trojans and The Ring, “epics of the two contrasted kingdoms of romantic imagination, the lyricism and lucidity of the Mediterranean and the visionary dreariness of the dark, fearful North.” One of Conrad’s feats is to interpret The Ring as a backward demonstration of the history of literary genres from epic (Götterdämmerung) to romance (Siegfried) to novel (Die Walküre) to thesis-play of the Ibsen-Shaw variety (Das Rheingold). This splendid lit-crit tour de force would lose none of its élan if Götterdämmerung were categorized as and “epic drama,” Walküre as a “psychological drama,” etc. Moreover it is an argument quite independent of any philosophy of music, or indeed any substantial reference to music.

In Shakespeare, Hofmannsthal says, the music alone matters”; so should not the critic concentrate on the music—which is to say, the poetry? That would mean close reading of the text, and Conrad is simply not interested in close reading, whether literary or musical, even apart from the question of his musical competence. Unexpectedly, his most detailed bits of criticism are applied to some pictures of Salome by Beardsley, Klimt, and Munch in his final chapter. What he does concentrate on is character, abstracted—he would say liberated—from the action which he regards as a mere embarrassment to opera. It makes little difference whether a character is in Act I or Act III, or for that matter whether he is in this play or that. In romantic criticism characters had an imaginary life of their own outside the drama; for Conrad they have a life outside the text in other texts.

His characters are constantly in motion. Hamlet longs to escape from revenge tragedy into inactive privacy, Salome unfurls into an array of images, Papageno is rescued or released by allegory. For Conrad works of art and criticism are also on the move: those which get star billing in one chapter of his book inevitably put in spot appearances in others. Like Ingmar Bergman’s Sarastro who studies his Parsifal score during the intermission, Conrad’s Falstaff wanders from chapter to chapter and from genre to genre, equally present at Eastcheap, in the Hostess’s report, in Verdi’s orchestra, and in a letter from Eleanora Duse.

In the discussion of Verdi’s Falstaff, then, he makes much of the importation of speeches from Henry IV into a libretto based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. But he deals only with Sir John himself, never Nannetta or Fenton—creatures of no character whatsoever, to be sure, who nonetheless constitute the essential counterforce in Verdi’s total dramatic action. Conrad is so oblivious of this and of them that he attributes to Falstaff music’s “own form of heroism, which consists in setting a solitary individual to sing against and dominate the mass of an ensemble,” forgetting that in the Act II finale it is not Falstaff who does this—he is in the laundry basket—but Nannetta and Fenton, singing in octaves.

Conrad’s chapter on “The Operatic Novel” begins arrestingly:

When the Rostovs visit the opera in War and Peace, Natasha coldly notes the grotesque unreality of the scene, ashamed at the imposture but sardonic as well at the expense of the shabby artifice of cardboard and glue, the semaphoric arm-waving, the attitudinizing and courting of applause…. The supposed lovers ignore one another to bow to the public, the distracted maiden has the self-possession to manage several changes of costume, a devil sings and gesticulates until suddenly a trap-door opens and he plunges beneath the stage. Drama has become an image of cynical deception and bad faith, and it is exposed as such by the small alarms of novelistic spontaneity which crowd the “entr’actes”—the appearance of Pierre, sad but stouter, Kuragin’s gaze, Natasha’s blush, and Anatole’s pressure on her arm. Drama is shamed by these starts of unpremeditated feeling, which are the prerogative of the novel.

At best, however, this is only a tangential way of getting at the theme of opera’s escape from drama to the novel, and the chapter turns instead to an account of the decay of the operatic idea in Ariadne auf Naxos and Capriccio. The fact is, of course, that while novels are often turned into operas, operas that turn into novels are exceedingly rare. The single interesting case is Die Frau ohne Schatten, written by Hofmannsthal in two versions around the same time: an opera libretto for Richard Strauss and a 150-page “novel” or Erzählung. It would be whimsical to say that the novel is a more authentic work of art than the opera, though perhaps even more whimsical to fuss very much about the issue one way or the other. Things are clearer with the transformation of La Dame aux Camélias into La Traviata. Proust said Verdi’s opera raised Dumas’s novel to the level of true art and most people would agree with him.

And, by the way, Hamlet never really escaped to Tchaikovsky’s dreadful symphonic poem, but remains in Shakespeare’s play, where his meditative, inactive tendencies were dealt with altogether adequately by that author. Most people have been quite happy to leave him there—even most people in the nineteenth century.

For all his ingenious play with genres Conrad sees opera as a typically openended romantic continuum, in which chords and characters, ideas and sentiments, works of art and of criticism are blurred and blended together. Into the blend he introduces (with some justifiable satisfaction, it seems) what he gratingly describes as “para-operatic” works, texts in a twilight zone between art and criticism. He certainly makes them all seem very interesting. A chapter on “Operatic Allegory” treats Mozart’s Magic Flute and its sequels in Goethe’s fragment Der Zauberflöte zweiter Theil, the two versions of Die Frau ohne Schatten, and the translation (or rather version) of the Mozart opera by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman—with a bow to Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror, which is both a poem and a critique of The Tempest. Conrad’s book itself crosses from criticism to art as it gradually changes from an analysis of romantic opera employing literary categories to a rumination on “the larger romantic disquiet about form, to which opera, being a problematic union of the arts, is central.” The subject matter escapes from literature as it follows Salome into the arts of painting and the dance. Conrad’s writing escapes from critical discourse—albeit highly charged discourse—to a kind of enthusiastic prose poem. The book is at once a disquisition on artistic form and an example, a new posthumous text to add to the romantic continuum.

The deflection of an essay on opera which starts with the romantic philosophy of music to other purposes, and particularly to literary purposes, is characteristic enough. For literature was also the main beneficiary of that philosophy, which valued music above language because of its direct communion with the basic, ineffable springs of life and feeling. Poets and philosophers from Novalis to Mallarmé nurtured the philosophy for their own ends—mainly, it seems, as a stick to beat language with. But musicians had no quarrel with language. In music itself romantic philosophy such as Schopenhauer’s stood at best in a dialectic relation to the practice of nineteenth-century composers, who from the first displayed a regrettably unphilosophical tendency to represent the ineffable. “Words and music are united by antagonism,” exclaims Conrad, voicing a persistent complaint of romantic aesthetics. But his favorite composer Richard Strauss turned away from “absolute music” and symphonic poems to Lieder and operas, linking his music first with programs and then with lyric poems, libretti, and even, in Salome, with a pre-existing stage play.

The deflection is also rather cold-blooded, for one’s final impression is of a self-indulgent criticism absorbed by its own constructions and its own brilliance at the expense of the works addressed. It is a bad sign when a critic ascribes equal values to works of art and to criticism—as though Goethe’s fragment and Auden’s version have the same independent status as Mozart’s Magic Flute. None of Conrad’s texts, I believe, is confronted in its integrity; he picks and chooses from them what he can use and turns it to his own ends. To take what is perhaps the least important case, his partial treatment diminishes Auden’s Magic Flute. Fascinated as always by character, Conrad considers only the light poems which are appended to the translation proper, poems which comment amusingly on the dramatis personae in a contemporary milieu. Nothing is said of the explicit criticism of the opera in Auden’s preface or of the major modifications he made in the plot and dialogue—even though these extend to the insertion of a speech parodied from Prospero in The Tempest, a work very much to Conrad’s purpose. The case is unimportant in itself but indicative, and interesting because it concerns a text for which Conrad seems to show genuine affection.

Affection is not a quality lacking in Gary Schmidgall’s Literature as Opera. Unlike Conrad this critic sets out to “do” works of art in their fullness: he treats twelve operas in nine chapters, covering the history of opera from Handel to Benjamin Britten. While Conrad’s operatic Valhalla is inhabited by Strauss, Wagner, and such long-standing honorary Aryans as Berlioz and late Verdi, Schmidgall’s is not: the only representatives of the dark, fearful North are Salome and Wozzeck. Mozart, too, is seen from his Mediterranean side in The Marriage of Figaro. The complete absence of Wagner and the presence of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini rather than The Trojans, Macbeth rather than Don Carlos, and Eugene Onegin rather than Boris Godunov suggests that Schmidgall is not inclined to tackle the most monumental operas in the canon.

Schmidgall brings forward a number of arguments for his choice of operas. They do not persuade, but it does not matter much, for while the book has a method it has no theme or thesis. The method is to select operas derived from works of literature—from epic, autobiography, drama, and the novel—and discuss them in conjunction with their sources. It is never clear what sort of insight the juxtaposition is supposed to provide. In fact it is not clear that Schmidgall claims to be providing any fresh insight at all, so diffident is his critical position, so dutiful his rehearsal of literary clichés, so literally self-effacing his compulsion to quote from opera pundits and writers of every other kind. The general conclusion seems to be that Mozart found much in common with Beaumarchais, Berlioz with Cellini, Berg with Büchner, and so on.

None of this is exactly news—good news seldom is—and Schmidgall does not seem to know what to do with a real scandal when he stumbles onto one. A case in point is the notorious misreading of Pushkin in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. “As a faithful translation of literature it is a catastrophe, but it is nevertheless an operatic success”—because the opera adheres to the composer’s own aesthetic of simple emotional immediacy, is imbued with brilliant Russian color, and recalls Tchaikovsky the symphonist at his best. “If this does not convince as a kind of apologia for Eugene Onegin, little more can be said.” Saying this, however, will scarcely satisfy those who feel that the opera’s insufficiencies lie in the limitations of Tchaikovsky’s music. And it will not satisfy Tchaikovsky’s admirers either, at least those among them who are looking for something more than the confirmation of their own tastes.

It is a pity Schmidgall cannot find a better approach than this to convey his affection for Onegin and the other operas he has chosen. He really likes the operas (which is why he chose them, of course, rather than others) and he could try telling us why and how. This might seem like an unfashionable thing to do, but hardly more so than assembling conscientious literary “backgrounds” for operas which are not really analyzed in their own terms. His chapter on Salome covers some of the same ground as Conrad’s, using a good many of the same secondary texts—and while Conrad makes them all sparkle, Schmidgall somehow manages to do the reverse. But it is Schmidgall who gets closer to the opera’s actual texture. A sense of commitment is his best suit as a critic, and he might just as well try to capitalize on it.

Irving Singer’s Mozart and Beethoven consists merely of a fifty-page essay on Don Giovanni and a thirty-four-page essay on Fidelio, preceded by a general essay on the nature of opera and linked by a relatively swift run-through of the other famous Mozart pieces. In an earlier book Singer, who is a professor of philosophy, developed a theory of the erotic imagination, which he distinguishes into “sensuous” and “passionate” sides. He now views the operas in question from the standpoint of the theory. Naturally Don Giovanni is the linchpin of this particular system.

The results are predictable of writing where the critic’s thesis obscures the work itself. The Don Giovanni chapter contains hardly anything on the opera’s first and last scenes, though it would seem obvious that in any drama the first and last scenes in which a major character plays a major part cannot help having a major impact and hence a major influence on the total dramatic trajectory. The first scene shows Don Giovanni struggling to break free of a strong-minded woman whom he may or may not have tricked or assaulted but who is now battling him and slanging him on even terms. It shows his dry, unthinking assent to the duel with the Commendatore and shows his extraordinary response in music to the outcome of that action. The last scene shows how he faces a frightening death. Show me a critic who writes convincingly about these scenes, and you can have any number of others who go on about the life force, daemonic sexuality, and the like.

There is much talk in Singer’s opening chapter about opera being a mixed art form which cannot be understood by musical analysis or musical response alone. This is true, and in addressing opera enthusiasts of a certain type the point may be important to make. But here the important point to make is this: that from Singer’s proposition it does not follow that opera can be understood by neglecting music. Can anyone doubt which of the arts in opera is the decisive one? Singer’s fifty pages on Don Giovanni include scarcely enough lines of comment on the music to fill a single page, even including pap like “He and the music are always on the go,” “before long the entire orchestra is rollicking with laughter,” “there is something female about the beauty of sensuous music,” “Don Ottavio sings with all the sweetness of a troubadour,” and so on. Peter Conrad, too, who makes the priceless observation at one point that for Hofmannsthal music was “more literary paradox than sonic actuality,” says not much that can be squared with sonic actuality in his book, rich as it may be in references to music as a paradoxical idea. Alone among the three critics discussed here, Schmidgall at least tries to achieve some sort of balance between his literary and musical perceptions.

Discussing Mozart without considering tonality, rhythm, phraseology, and form is a little like discussing Bergman without considering the camera, or Shakespeare without considering verse. “Given a few / Incomplete objects and a nice warm day / What a lot a little music can do,” the sarcastic Antonio says of Sarastro’s arrangements in The Sea and the Mirror. An opera critic who cannot get past that level is going to produce very limited work. Whether or not he has technical training in music is not important, so long as he is able to pay continuous, sensitive attention to what the composer is doing. He ought to be in a position to respond with more than average susceptibility to the many shades of music’s articulation of mood, character, and action. Music criticism is, in fact, a real skill, like typesetting, coloratura singing, philosophy, and literary criticism, not learned overnight, not even learned over many enjoyable evenings at the opera.


Words & Music April 20, 1978

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