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Words or Music, Part 4: Macbeth and Manon

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Vier ernste Gesänge fur Klavier allein (mit hinzugegügem text) von Max Reger., Digital ID 1641909, New York Public Library

I have spent a lifetime reading books and perhaps half a lifetime going to the opera. Each is a very real pleasure — neither can be done without — yet both offer different kinds of satisfaction. Words? Music? Which is more important? Fortunately, I am not in the position of having to choose. Books can sometimes lead to opera; opera can sometimes find its way back into books. Since the library specializes in both these worlds of artistic expression, it might be intriguing to look briefly at some of the places they intersect.

* * *

Theatrical tradition has it that calamity will befall anyone who dares to stage — or in fact even to mention — "The Scottish Play."

A few Saturday afternoons ago I attended the operatic version of the Scottish Play, and there are certainly enough degrees of separation between Verdi and Shakespeare that I can tell you, if you haven't already guessed, that I'm talking about Macbeth.

A good case can be made for Verdi as the greatest of opera composers, and I doubt if anyone will dispute Shakespeare as the greatest of all dramatists. Shakespeare has his language, Verdi has his music, and both of them will survive nearly any sort of directorial outrage. The only thing neither of them can quite do is substitute for the other.

Hodgson's New Theatrical Portraits. No 34.,Mr. Kean as Macbeth., Digital ID 1156934, New York Public Library

Although my Saturday Macbeth was gloriously sung and rousingly conducted, it was one of those odd, busy productions of which I've seen too many lately, the kind which makes me long for the old days when singers just stood there and sang. It was distractingly set during one of the European wars, probably the First (remember the Big Three: Lloyd George, the Kaiser — and the Thane of Cawdor?) The witches were a comical group of what might be called "bag ladies," who danced a sort of jitterbug to Verdi's choruses. Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene was performed while teetering precariously across a row of kitchen chairs. And it is unlikely that during an earlier age of opera Leonie Rysanek ever had to jump up on Leonard Warren and wrap her legs around him to show what the relationship between the Macbeths was all about. I like to think Shakespeare would have been amused, but I suspect Verdi might have registered a few complaints.

English to Italian, words to lyrics... librettos are necessary but problematic things. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, when Lady Macbeth first sets her mind on crime (regicide, back then the worst crime of all), she ponders her husband's wavering disposition:

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised; yet do I fear thy nature,
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou'dst have, great
Glamis,
That which cries, 'Thus thou must do' if thou have it;
And that which rather dost fear to do,
Than wishest should be undone. . . .

The equivalent scene in operatic Macbeth (from the libretto of the RCA Victor recording ) is translated as follows:

An ambitious spirit
is yours, Macbeth . . . You long for
greatness
but would you do wrong for it?
Full of misdeeds is the path
to power, and woe to him who sets
his foot upon it doubtfully and then
retreats!

Without doubt a poorer thing, but the spirit is in these words, the addition of music makes them compelling — and at the end of the day, even a bit of authentic Shakespeare comes shimmering through. (To listen for yourself, go to YouTube.)

Others might rage at what they see as the indecent coupling of Shakespeare with opera. I am not one of them. Opera needs dramatic scaffolding, and for that where better to turn than the Bard (who often borrowed the scaffolding of his own plays from others)? There have been countless Shakespearean musical adaptations, and Verdi stakes a claim to three of the best (Otello and Falstaff are even more sophisticated than Macbeth). To name only two of my other favorites, there are the Gounod Romeo et Juliette that I have enthused about in a previous post, and on a somewhat lower but even more curious level, Ambrose Thomas's Hamlet, which contains not only a jaunty drinking song but also a happy ending!

But those comic witches, provoking titters in the audience, continue to fester in my mind in a different way from the way they festered in Macbeth's. In the 1709 Rowe edition of Shakespeare, an engraving was created for each play that would depict a specific scene, often reflecting a contemporary stage setting. Even in this earliest of Macbeth illustrations, simple though it appears, the appearance of the witches in the foreground and the apparitions in the mouth of the cave behind, illuminated by the flickering light of the cauldron, indicate their serious purpose in the drama. They are the usurpers of religion, of society, and of nature itself. Is it the witches who have determined Macbeth's actions? Is Macbeth acting on his own evil initiative? Whatever the case, these witches are clearly no laughing matter.

* * *

Opera sometimes plunders the best for its source material, as in the case of Shakespeare, more often it has even greater success in translating the second-rate.

For instance, Massenet's operatic Manon has always struck me as superior and more subtle than the original novel.

I have written before about Abbe Prevost's The History of Manon Lescaut and of the Chevalier des Grieux, first published in France in 1731, but in terms of one of its later operatic incarnations (it has led many lives in opera and ballet) as Puccini's Manon Lescaut. The Benedictine Prevost, who is said to have based Manon Lescaut on certain sordid affairs in his own life, sounds like a fascinating character, and I suspect his biography might be more interesting than his fiction. Still, in a modern translation this novel can still be great fun to read, in a lurid sort of way. Scandalous then and still powerful today, the story follows the nobleman Des Grieux, who gives up name, reputation, and fortune to be with his lover, Manon, only to find that he must sink lower and lower (even to the point of murder) to gratify her ever-increasing taste for luxury.

In the novel, it is the monumentally unappealing principal characters who are a hurdle to any sympathetic response.

In Massenet's French operatic version, however, while Manon is just as ruthless and single-minded in her pursuit of the good life, the underlying musical themes offer a psychological complexity not to be found in the original. Maybe that's because music strikes more directly at the emotions. In the score, Manon's reflections as a young girl on her way to the convent (from which she will soon be deflected) show an innocent fragility. Her aria "Adieu notre petite table," sung with the knowledge that her betrayal of Des Grieux must lead to the end of her present happiness, is hauntingly poignant. And in her death scene, the various motifs mingle and merge to heartbreaking effect. Here Des Grieux's pain is also palpable and infinitely more touching than the novel's blunt and horrific conclusion, which finds the Chevalier alone with her corpse, where he "remained for twenty-four hours without taking my lips from the still beauteous countenance of my adored Manon."

In prose or music, Manon Lescaut is still the portrait of a woman as seen through a man's eyes, and it is an archetype you'll find repeated again and again in books and plays — in fact, many of the mercenary femme fatales in film noir have their roots in Manon. Although I find no redeeming qualities in Prevost's materialistic heroine, I can clearly see in her operatic equivalent the reasons for Des Grieux's obsession. When she is embodied by Anna Netrebko — what Chevalier wouldn't give up his good name?

Netrebko is magnificent in the role; but except for her radiant presence, the recent staging I saw was clunky and unsubtle. To give one notable example: in the novel, Des Grieux tries to forget Manon by turning to the religious life, where, in his words, "I now thought myself entirely safe from the dangers of love. I fancied that I could have preferred a single page of St. Augustine, or a quarter of an hour of Christian meditation, to every sensual gratification, not excepting any that I might have derived even from Manon's society." But Manon tracks down the new abbe in the chapel of Saint Sulpice, where he is plunged "again headlong into the gulf; and my ruin was the more irreparable, because, falling at once to the same depth from whence I had been before rescued, each of the new disorders into which I now lapsed carried me deeper and deeper still down the profound abyss of vice." In Massent's opera, Des Grieux's wavering resistance cannot hold out for long against Manon's provoking, insinuating, irresistible music. Everything you need to know about their relationship is in that music. On stage, however, in case you might otherwise have missed the point, the scene was played on a bed. A bed which had somehow found its way into the middle of the chapel! This seems a good example of distrusting both words and music.

For earlier reflections on books which were the source of opera, and operas which turned books into something else entirely, see earlier posts on July 8, 2010, March 31, 2009, and November 25, 2008.

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