The pastness of the past (3)

Lucia di Lammermoor at opening night of the Metropolitan Opera — a perfect example of a piece that ought to feel more like the era it comes from. And would be more exciting if it did.

The performance, by the way, was dreary, up until the stretta at the end of the second act. Then all at once it heated up, and the third act, especially the last two scenes, had some emotional punch. But don’t believe what you read in some of the reviews! For most of the first two acts, the orchestra sounded like it was sleepwalking. The director clearly hadn’t worked much with the singers. Reliable gossip said that she hadn’t, and what happened on stage suggested that the gossip was right. Two entire scenes — the Lucia-Enrico scene at the start of the second act, and the Wolf’s Crag scene at the start of the third — were incoherent. Community theater. (More on that later.) The baritone yelled; he does it well, and he’s lively, in a crude way, but he yells. The bass sounded like a computer simulation — like the result of some process that somehow took the mathematical average of every more famous bass who’s recorded the role. I couldn’t sense any feeling from him, or any personal involvement. The two leads, Lucia and Edgardo, sang like B grade singers — oh, don’t get me started. I’m hardly alone in thinking this. One particularly annoyed music writer — not my wife — said in the press room during the second intermission that the performance was “amateur night.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I can’t think that Natalie Dessay, for all of her virtues, is anything like a major Lucia. For one thing, she can’t turn a bel canto phrase in a way that’s going to touch anyone’s heart. Her acting, in her role, seemed mostly physical; not much of it came from her singing. Just compare her to Lucias of the past (Callas, Sutherland, Sills, Renata Scotto, AnnaMoffo, to name some who recorded the role).

But there were some good things, too, and the final two scenes really did pack some punch. So I came away from the evening grateful at least for that. I love this opera, and at least some of it, even in this performance, got to me. All I ask is for a little more of it to do that!

And now for the pastness of it. Lucia of course is a 19th century opera, written and performed at a time when Italian opera houses were noisy places, full of active conversation during performances, and lots of excited noise whenever the audience heard something it loved or hated.

(Fabulous story: in 1872, Verdi’s Aida was premiered in Parma. In the third act, when Amonasro, during his duet with Aida, sings “Riverdrai le foresteimbalsamate,” the audience went crazy. They loved the music so much that they started screaming. They wanted Verdi to take a bow. Immediately! Not at the end of the duet, but immediately. They wanted the baritone to repeat the phrase. And Verdi loved this! He said, toward the end of his life, that he didn’t like the German practice, which was new in the 19th century, of listening to operas in silence. He liked an Italian audience, which would participate in the performance, and show how it felt. Note, by the way, that this phrase of Amonasro’s is a quiet moment in the music. So the audience could launch itself into a noisy passion when it heard something subtle, not just when the music itself was loud and explosive. Many thanks, by the way, to the Karadar classical music website, where I could second-guess my memory, and make sure that I really knew what Amonsaro sings at that spot. I did. But how fabulous to have a site where — among many other things — I can read the libretti, in Italian, of all Verdi’s operas.)

Back to Lucia. Our idea of artistic opera performance — which comes from our idea of classical music as serious art — says that operas should be serious drama. So they should be staged that way, with an emphasis on meaning, emotion, and character. We don’t want moments when people are merely carried away with excitement onstage. Which then leads to a contradiction.

There are parts of Lucia — and parts of any bel canto opera, or anything Verdi wrote in the first half of his career — where the 19th century comes screaming through loud and clear. In excited moments, just for instance, the timpani, bass drum, and cymbals often play on every beat. (Look, for example, at the interlude between the two statements of the baritone’s cabaletta in the first scene, or the coda; or at the last few pages of the stretta in the second act finale; or the opening chorus of the mad scene.) This is noisy. Or certainly it was in the 19th century. Opera orchestras were smaller then, so the percussion would have cut through more strongly. There wasn’t any way to hide the percussion in a smoothly blended orchestral sound, because the instruments of the time didn’t make a sound that easily blended, and in any case there weren’t enough rehearsals to achieve any kind of smooth orchestral blend. And, finally, the percussion players were excitable Italians. Besides, why would Donizetti write anything that obviously noisy, if he didn’t want it to be heard?

But the racket this percussion makes would today seem too crude for classical music. So you almost never hear it. Our orchestras can blend their sound very smoothly, and conductors bury the percussion in the orchestral mix. In fact, it’s actually hard to make that not happen. Once, when I was hosting a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony, I tried to get the percussionists to really play out during a Rossini orchestra, and even when they thought they were doing that, they were still pretty restrained. It just went against all their training to crash out their sound as shamelessly as 19th century opera seems to demand.

So that contradiction — between what’s written in a 19th century Italian opera score, and our ideas of how classical music ought to sound — can in fact be resolved, simply by keeping the percussion quiet. But another contradiction is harder to hide. At the end of every dramatic episode comes a cabaletta (called a stretta in larger ensembles), or in another words a piece of loud, fast music, often with a simple, highly rhythmic melody, designed to bring the scene to a close with maximum excitement. You can try, if you want, to stage Lucia is serious, brooding drama, and in some parts of the opera, that’ll work just fine. But then comes a cabaletta, and everything serious just gets blown away.

How can a serious modern performance deal with that? A generation or so ago, the cabalettas were shortened. One of their features is a repeat of the big tune, so for much of the 20th century these repeats were cut. At least then the cabalettas were shorter, even if they weren’t very decorous. And I suppose you can perform them very artistically, mining them for whatever subtleties they might hide in the middle of all their excitement. And sometimes those subtleties really are there. You can force the singers — if you’re a powerful conductor, or at least if you’re Riccardo Muti — to suppress the loud high notes they usually sing when the cabaletta ends, since those aren’t actually written in the score. (19th century singers, or at least singers in the first half of the 19th century, didn’t sing loud high notes, and seem to have ended cabalettas with a burst of flashy ornamentation.)

Or you can simply stage the end of every scene very seriously, as if the cabalettas weren’t happening. But this will always be unsatisfactory. The cabalettas still are there, and in current performances their repeats may not be cut. And their music wants to break loose. That was its purpose! If you don’t acknowledge this, somehow, in your staging, you’ll have dampened the musical flow of the opera, which means that you’ll dampen the rhythm of its drama (which keeps shifting, in each scene, from emotional introspection, when the music is slow, to impulsive excitement, when the cabaletta inevitably appears).

So — in my opinion, at least — you’re stuck. You want to take these operas seriously, but their inner nature jumps up to bite you. The answer? Give in! Play and sing the cabalettas for everything they’re worth, or more precisely for everything the 19th century thought they were worth. Make the percussion as noisy as possible. Do this even when the music of the cabaletta seems to completely contradict the drama on stage, as it does, for instance, at the end of the first act of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, where the tenor is poisoned, and the soprano first has to tell him that, and then feed him the antidote. All this goes on during a cabaletta, and the music surges out heedlessly, with a dance rhythm, in a happy major key. The moment when the tenor gets the antidote doesn’t even register in the music, and all that tells you this is life and death drama are some fabulous horror-movie chords that come up out of nowhere to surprise you in the middle of the headlong rush. (Well, horror-movie chords of a 19th century kind. I’ve read some 19th century comments on opera that show how people reacted to chords like these. Harmonic shifts that might not impress us very much could actually, back in the day, strike terror into peoples’ hearts.) My suggestion for performing this cabaletta: Bring out the horror-movie chords, make them really noticeable, and, for the rest, understand that physical verve, for Italians in the 19th century, was all by itself dramatic, that the precise kind of physical verve we hear in this Donizetti piece was something new at the time, and that this by itself was enough to create all the excitement a poisoning should need.

This isn’t the kind of drama we take seriously. But if we mined these 19th century operas for it (that’s the wrong expression; we don’t have to mine anything; the cabalettas and percussion sit right on the surface, plainly in view), the works will come alive. They’ll jump off the stage, and make, I’d think, a much more vivid impression than they do when we take them seriously.

And they’ll also seem more contemporary. Remember that we’re very used to stylized things, in our time, and that we’re also (as a culture) very comfortable with excess. (Heavy metal. MegachurchesThomas Pynchon novels.) So there’s the paradox — by looking for the purely 19th century traits in these pieces, we’ll actually tie them into powerful traits in our own cultural life, and bring them surging into the present day. (Though of course these might not be cultural traits of classical music. But that’s classical music’s problem.)

I’ll say some more about the Lucia performance in my next post.

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  1. says

    This post shows how much you idealize the past of music,and your

    knee-jerk tendency to

    dismiss and belittle

    modern performances.

    I was not there on

    opening night,and possibly the performance

    was lacklustre.But

    later performances might

    improve greatly when

    to production gells.

    But weren’t there

    lousy perfromances of

    Lucia and other bel

    canto operas in Doni-

    zetti’s day? Of course there were.

    Robert is as dependable as sunrise, or the seasons. Whenever I write about something from the past, he can be depended on to say what he’s saying here. It’s strangely reassuring. The world seems orderly, operating in familiar, comfortable ways. I wish the New York Mets had been half so dependable!

  2. ariel says

    Pons was Pons ,she chirpped away to the delight of the crowd- at least there was no pretension(as is to-day) of being a great dramatic singing actress with flawless vocal technique.You are absolutely right -there were some horrific nights at the old house but those singers lasted only

    a season if that -unlike

    the present ,when they don’t

    ever seem to go away .Again you are correct in the level of performance

    being better.Their singing had to be better

    they had a better audience .except on Pons

    nights. Pons was up against Korjus who could

    knock any coloratura aria

    right out of the ball park.We used to call Korjus the Heifetz of

    singers ..then came the yodelling of Sutherland

    and a new audience – there are of course some great singers about,but not at the Met-one great

    one comes to mind-

    “Podles ” not since my

    Ferrier concerts have I heard such a consummate artist as Podles .enough! When I wrote you

    provoke -it was only in the best sense ,in that your comments cause one

    to think deeper .

    Thanks for the clarification about provoking. I think I’m sensitive because of things others have said.

    Podles! Exactly right! She’s the real deal, and such an individual that she seems almost weird in the current climate. But that’s a great loss for people who call her weird, and can’t see any further. She’s also the only singer I’ve heard who ornaments a da capo repeat in Handel with as much ornamentation as Handel’s singers did. I always play that recording for my Juilliard students, to show them how ornamentation might be done.