Why opera? Chapter 2

[This chapter may seem prosaic to some, but from now on, it will be all systems go.]


Sources and courses

Would you be surprised to hear that the Greeks were toying with what might be called a version of opera centuries before the birth of Christ?  Aristotle had something to say about everything.  He commented on the Greek use of music in drama:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of some action that is important, entire and of a proper magnitude – by language rendered pleasurable… language that has the embellishments of rhythm, melody and meter… In some parts, meter alone is employed, in others, melody.

About two thousand years later, Greek scholars had fled west after the fall of Istanbul in 1453.  They sought to recreate Greek drama and they worked on this in the late 1500s.  A group of these scholars in Florence looked closely at the use of music and drama.  So, we have people in Italy, and indeed especially in Florence, going back to the ancients to see how an art form might be revived – in other words, we have an example of the Italian Renaissance in action, and one that is not often noticed.

During the period of what we call the Renaissance – about, say 1400 to 1600 – we can see two strands in western music – the glorification of God, and the celebration of the harmony of the spheres.  During the period that we describe as the Baroque – about, say, 1600 to 1750 – we see the emergence and development of opera.  The actual birthplace was Venice.

The progress involved both the sacred and the profane.  Music was vital to the Mediaeval and Renaissance church.  Music had spilled out of the church into the town or village square, but then the church banned biblical representations from musical exposition.  One source of opera was removed, but there was among the profane in Europe a very strong tradition of commedia dell’arte, a stage presentation of stock figures like Harlequin and Columbine ad-libing a kind of farce, and there was a strong tradition of masques in England and of ballet in France that provided sources for the development of music drama in those countries.  (My tutorial notes for Harlequin read ‘twisted wit and the cunning of an amoral child.’)

What we now know as opera first appeared in Venice at the end of the 16th century.  A piece called Dafne was performed there before Orfeo by Monteverdi was staged at Padua in 1607.  That opera is still performed and recorded.

People also began to write oratorios after the church had taken biblical themes from the stage.  The movement crossed the channel, and in about 1689 Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell was performed in England.  The French continued to be more influenced by the dance, while in Germany Bach wrote countless cantatas and two of the great monuments of Western civilisation, the St Matthew Passion and the St John Passion.  His work for piano, The Well-Tempered Clavier, liberated the keyboard.

In Italy, they were discovering what it was for material to be musicabile – with experience, they found that for material to be capable of being set to music, they needed three things: a certain ambience, striking characters, and strong scenes.  In very broad terms, music went from moving feelings to expressing them, and in what we call the classical phase, we get orchestral colouring and the contrasts of chiaroscuro.

Now we get our first composer who is still celebrated in the opera house and the concert house, Handel, the German who settled in England.  Handel was undoubtedly a great composer, and he wrote many operas, but those operas have not commanded the same following and respect as his oratorios and orchestral works.  Mozart would free up the structure, but the profligate Handel has left us some of our most beautiful songs.

Throughout his career, Handel borrowed freely from himself.  Before the opening of the opera Rinaldo, his first London opera, Handel and his backers let it out that he had composed it in only fourteen days.  The opening at the Haymarket in 1711 was a sensation.  The Spectator said: ‘The opera of Rinaldo is filled with Thunder and Lightning, Illuminations and Fireworks.’  The composer was, as many of them had to be back then, something of an impresario.

Haydn wrote some opera, but it is hardly heard of.

Until now, the role of the singer was just to sing, with perhaps a gesture or two – acting was not yet part of the deal.  The structures of the arias and the recitative were formal and observed.  It was more like watching tableaux of gods or heroes.  Mozart would change all that, and would give us the emotions of real people.  Gluck provided a bridge, and his Alceste and Orpheus and Eurydice are still played.  Some say that Gluck’s emphasis on emotional truth could be compared to Rousseau’s view of naturalness.  Nature was coming into its own then in poetry and painting.

The Australian Opera went through a purple patch in the 1990s.  Their production of Orpheus and Eurydice in 1993 (David Hobson and Miriam Gormley) and Handel’s Julius Caesar in 1994 (Graham Pushee and Yvonne Kenny) were huge hits, and justifiably so.  The National Library holds videos of each of them.  The sets and the ballets are adventurous but wonderfully entertaining.  And you can get to see David Hobson suspended over a dancing horde climbing up a wall and Yvonne Kenny as Cleopatra taking a bath in milk.  It is hard to imagine a better night out at the theatre than either of these great AO productions.

Well, if you go to Orfeo by Monteverdi, and start at the beginning with the Toccata, you will hear the music that Kenneth Clark used for at least one episode of Civilisation.  Then in the Ritornello you get a kind of chorus called ‘Music’ who acts as a kind of prologue to set the opera up.  The music is the sound of the Renaissance.  It is tightly disciplined.

The Saint Matthew Passion is not an opera, but it is like an opera performed in concert.  As a music drama, it has never been surpassed for either drama or music.  The Evangelist acts as a kind of MC, or, if you prefer, he fulfils the role played by Joel Grey as the MC in Cabaret.  Some people will recognise tunes of Lutheran hymns, but there is absolutely no religious test for this masterpiece, which is one of the title deeds of our civilisation.  If you want to feel the awful power of a choir in music drama get the famous Chorus ‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden’.  It is an eruption of outrage at the arrest of Christ.  ‘Have lightning, has thunder vanished in clouds?’  In his magisterial work Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, the conductor and musicologist John Eliot Gardiner agrees with the proposition that this is ‘one of the most violent and grandiose descriptions of unloosed passion produced in the Baroque era.’

You may feel the passion if you see Nicholas Harnoncourt conduct this work in rehearsal.’  You may compare it to the previous Chorus with Duet, ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’ ‘So is my Jesus captured now.’  It is very hard to imagine more intense moments in music drama.  Then go to near the end of the work for a recitative with Chorus ‘Nun ist der Herr zur Rach Gebracht/ Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!’ ‘Now the Lord is brought to rest. /My Jesus, good night!’  Try the Herreweghe version (which I have) and then go to the final chorus.  It’s like a Negro spiritual.

Now try ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo.  Try Cecilia Bartoli.  (The castrato sings it in Farinelli, but that makes some of us nervous.   I forget whether the film shows the audience shouting ‘Long live the blade!’)

Handel’s Xerxes (or Serses) is famous for the aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ which comes early in the opera and is known as ‘Handel’s Largo.’  The Caruso recording is scratchy, but this song is one of the most popular in the repertoire, and Caruso is said by many to have been the greatest tenor ever.  And you can compare him head to head on this with Bjorling.  You might also try Franco Corelli, if only to see the film star good looks.  There are buckets of choice.

Finally, try ‘Che faro senza Eurydice’ from Orpheus and Eurydice.  You can choose between two great mezzos, Janet Baker from England or Marilyn Horne from America, or you can hear Callas sing it in French.  And don’t forget the terrific AO production.

Well, there are the stately and ordered songs of the baroque.  We now move to when that world is exploded, like a planet being hit by a shooting star.

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