The art of not listening

Yesterday I sat for a while watching the Met Opera DVD of Rossini’s Armida, starring Renee Fleming (who mugs and gesticulates far more than she should, but I digress) 

This, I thought, was a perfect example of a piece written for — and suited for — a time when most of the audience didn’t listen attentively. Or at least not to most of the performance. Please don’t get me wrong — I love Rossini. But this isn’t top-drawer Rossini, or at least most of the first act isn’t. (And the first act was the part I watched. I’m perfectly open to watch the rest at some point, so please, no lectures in the comments on how I’ve undervalued a masterpiece.) 

And Rossini wrote simple music, so you can follow a lot of it without listening very hard. (A deliberate choice, by the way. Italian composers back then were thoroughly trained, and could write counterpoint almost as well as any German. But they had to lighten up when they wrote operas, which were designed as entertainment.) 

I imagined how I might have watched the first act if I’d been an aristocrat in Naples in 1817, the year Armida premiered. And if I were at least a little like the people Stendhal (yes, the inimitable French novelist) describes in his Life of Rossini. (A book whose inaccuracy, as a biography, is only matched by how much fun it is, and how much it tells us about the operatic life of the time. Here’s an excerpt, which I used to assign to my Juilliard course on the future of classical music). 

At the premiere, I’d very likely have listened to the entire piece. Not without talking to others in my box, of course, and not without walking around now and then to other boxes, to check in with friends. I’d want to know what they thought about the opera, and of course there would be gossip to catch up on. But the premiere would be the biggest event in town, and if the first few pieces pleased us, we’d happily listen to the rest.

But then, of course, I’d return. In fact, very likely I’d go to the opera every night. So now I’d know the piece, and i’d pick my shots. I think I’d skip the opening sinfonia (not quite an overture, and with no real momentum of its own), and the opening chorus. And the first aria. I watched the DVD with someone else, and we talked through these numbers. Of course, the aria would have been more fetching in Rossini’s time, when singers strutted much more personality on the opera stage, and sang with more — and more individual — ornaments. So we couldn’t get fine but stiffly generic performances like many on the DVD. 

I think I’d have come to the opera house for Fleming’s first aria — no, I mean Isabella Colbran’s, Colbran being the prima donna Rossini wrote the opera for. For one thing, this is the first piece in the score that sounded at all distinctive to me. But then also the prima donna was the main interest in most operas, not just musically, but as the focus of gossip. (As Stendhal explains in the excerpt from his Rossini bio that I assigned in my class.) 

So maybe, having — in my 1817 persona — heard the aria several times, I’d time my arrival so I showed up in the middle of it, planning mainly to catch the end, which was my favorite part. I might visit my friend the Countess’s box, so we could gossip. Stendhal says everyone wanted to know if the prima donna was sleeping with the impresario, the man who financed and booked the opera season, but maybe interest in Naples, in 1817, might have centered on Rossini, who later married Colbran. 

When the lead tenor makes his entrance (Lawrence Brownlee on the DVD, and quite a delight), the Countess, at least, would have stopped talking to me so she could hear the tenor’s duet with Armida, “Amor…possente nome!” the big-hit number from the show, music so erotic (in 1817) that women sometimes fainted. No way I could tear the Countess away from that! 

But then, through the pseudo-drama that follows, I doubt I’d pay much attention. Until, that is, the very end of the first act, the stretto (the concluding fast section, hurtling toward a climax) of the first ac finale, and for my money the one super-standout number in the score. Armida, Fleming’s character (sorry, I mean Colbran’s) is a sorceress; demons and ghosts figure in the story; and this stretto even in 2011 gave me a true (though slightly tongue in cheek) frisson of terror for me. Thanks, in part, to a Rossini crescendo (between the two repetitions of the main tune) that actually slows the music down into longer notes, making it more tense. And also in part to some 19th century horror-film harmonies toward the end. 

If it gave me a shiver, even tongue in cheek, in the 21st century, what would it have done in 1817? This was the audience, after all, that was overcome by the prayer in Rossini’s Mosé in Egitto, premiered in Naples just the next year. The restless oscillation in that piece between G minor and B flat major was just too much for them. 

When the act was over, I might have sighed, turned to the Countess, and said: “I must praise Maestro Rossini, who even after I have heard this opera for a week can still fill me with the most exquisite terror! 

“And now, my lady, I invite you, and [gesturing with great elegance to others in the box]  those dear to you — yes, even you, Monsignor [with a smile to a thoroughly disreputable priest in the Countess’s circle] — to join me in my own box. My servants have prepared a most excellent meal, and you would do me honor if you shared it during the ballet.” (Which was always performed between the acts of an opera.)

We’d have had such a good — and thoroughly disreputable — time that we’d barely notice when the second act of Armida began. 

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  1. says

    Rossini had a great business plan for his music career: Write some of the greatest operas of all time, but make all your money at gambling tables, enabling you to retire to Paris as a gourmand before your 40th birthday.