Singing in the shower this morning. “Il balen,” the baritone aria from Il Trovatore, a good exercise for breath support.
And as I sang, I suddenly heard the words I was singing:
Il balen del tuo sorriso
D’una stella vince il raggio
The light of your smile
Of a star outshines the rays
Stilted, no? I had to laugh. “Balen,” also, is a poetic or obsolete shortening of the current word, “baleno.” So how often, when we’re reading titles in the opera house, are Italian operas translated in their full archaic glory? Hardly ever, I’d think, maybe never. The translations are made smooth and modern.
But doesn’t that falsify the operas? When I was in college, I put on two evenings of excerpts from early Verdi operas (Ernani, I Lombardi, I due Foscari, and Attila; the last three pieces were almost never heard back then). One of my friends came, and brought his girlfriend, who was Italian. She kept laughing at the words.
So why do we falsify this experience? Why do we — in effect — pretend that these pieces are smoother and more modern than they are? Even the highly literate librettos of Otello and Falstaff pose translation problems. They’re filled with uncommon, highly literary language. How often are the titles in our opera houses written to reflect that?