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Words or Music


 Scene From Die Meistersinger., Digital ID 806114, New York Public LibraryIn the Metropolitan Opera House (1898)Words or music? Which is more important to opera? This is a question which intrigues opera lovers, such as me, as it is endlessly arguable without being finally answerable. Richard Strauss devoted an entire opera, Capriccio, to the debate. The opera culminates in a lengthy scene of ecstatic, mesmerizing musical intensity* which might seem to give the nod to music, if not for what the soprano is actually singing: that words and music are both indispensible, take one away and whatever is left will not be opera.

This season, the Metropolitan Opera has plastered every nook and cranny of the city with posters of Renée Fleming as Thaïs (just as, last year, you couldn’t turn around without spotting Natalie Dessay as the mad Lucia). If I’m any interpreter of expressions, this Thaïs, peeking knowingly through a loose lock of hair, is probably not thinking about her next trip to the library. But, music and words aside, the library is a good source for tracing the seed from which most operas are grown-- their original literary sources. Shakespeare had Holinshed, but the operas we now love typically sprang from works of popular fiction or drama, most of which have fallen out of fashion and are now known only through their later, musical incarnations. Of the few works I’ve selected to discuss, the library has multiple editions, but I’ve chosen the English translations (where applicable), and only those volumes which contain compelling illustrations. (Click on the picture for the catalog record.)

For example, the novel, Thaïs, by Anatole France, concerns a self-righteous monk who abandons his ascetic desert life in order to save a famous Alexandrian courtesan and actress (how often the two are synonymous) from a life of sin. The irony of both the novel and the opera is that, although he succeeds in converting Thaïs and she dies in a state of transcendence, it is the monk himself who ends up suffering a spiritual breakdown with the realization of his sensual love for Thaïs. Otherwise, Massenet’s opera only loosely follows the novel, understandably leaving out a lengthy symposium among Egyptian philosophers who spout profundities like: “It is true, Zenothemis, that the soul is nourished on ecstasy, as the cicada is nourished on dew.”

It is questionable how much of that could be endured, even if set to music. Interestingly enough, there is also little of the novel’s scorn for the monk in Massenet’s opera, where the combination of music and libretto portrays him as a rather human figure, struggling against his own passions. This 1926 edition features 23 drawings by Frank C. Papé, who at the time was commissioned to illustrate a uniform set of Anatole France’s most famous books, all of which were issued in the same black and gilt covers.

Since two of my favorite operas feature the character of Manon Lescaut (the French version by Massenet, the Italian by Puccini), I decided not long ago to read the original 1731 novel by the Abbé Prévost in order to understand what it is that makes her story so compelling. In both operas, Manon shows an unruly taste for money and luxury; her lover, the Chevalier Des Grieux, gets himself in a muddle trying to satisfy her materialistic impulses; and neither of them comes to a very good end. But the passion and sweep of the music engage the listener on such a deep emotional level that the flaws of the main characters can be overlooked.

Not so in the novel, where Manon and Des Grieux emerge as two of the most detestable characters in all fiction. The closest analogy I can come up with is an episode from my favorite crime show, Cracker, in which a crazed young couple go around killing people and then justifying their crimes because they’re so much in love. I’m afraid the novel has forever colored my appreciation of the operas. I recently saw a DVD of the Met’s newest Manon Lescaut and, at the end, with the dying Manon singing her heartbreaking aria “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” all I could think was that she deserved it.

Courtesans figure largely in opera, but the most famous of this infamous bunch is probably Violetta Valéry (Marguerite Gauthier in the fictional account) in Verdi’s La Traviata. Although I have not read the novel from which it was drawn, The Lady of the Camellias (La Dame aux Camélias), I have read the immensely successful play which Dumas fils adapted from it, seen the Garbo movie, watched and heard La Traviata innumerable times, and have never come away unmoved. This Folio Society edition, translated by Barbara Bray, looks very readable, and I’m once again quite tempted to plunge into the world of the Parisian demimonde. In a telling symmetry, the narrator buys, at an auction of Marguerite Gautier’s estate, a “finely bound volume, gilt-edged, entitled Manon Lescaut,” inscribed to Marguerite by her lover, Armand Duval (the opera’s Alfredo). The narrator reflects that Manon, “though she died in the desert, died in the arms of the man who loved her with all his soul,” while Marguerite, though “in the midst of the greatest luxury. . .died in the midst of that desert of the heart which is infinitely more arid and vast and pitiless than that in which Manon was buried.”

I’ve never read a word by Sir Walter Scott. Nor at this point of my life do I intend to. But I chose to include this novel because I have recently seen the Met’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor and was curious about its literary origins.

The production was gloriously sung, although the setting was changed for no reason apparent to me to the 19th century instead of the novel’s 1710. I suppose this was better than setting it in Fascist Italy, 1950s America, or, for that matter, outer space. Skipping around in the novel, I hunted up the famous mad scene, which even stripped of Donizetti’s music is quite appalling:

“Here they found the unfortunate girl, seated, or rather crouched like a hare upon its form—her head-gear disheveled, her night clothes torn and dabbled with blood, her eyes glazed, and her features convulsed into a wild paroxysm of insanity.”

If I were going to read Scott, this 1985 London Folio edition is probably the place I would start, as it is a very handsome, inviting book, easy to hold, printed on luxuriously heavy paper, and highlighted with a number of dramatic wood-engravings.

Among people who have a favorite opera, that opera is often La Bohéme, which is based on The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter (Scénes de la vie de Bohême), by Henri Murger. This chronicle of poor young Parisian artists was first published as a series of magazine sketches between 1845 and 1848 and then as a novel in 1849. It contains many more characters than the compact Puccini opera, and their lives are interwoven through a jumble of events that would not seem to yield the slightest thread of theatrical cohesion.

Still, despite a great deal of friction between Puccini and his librettists, Giacosa and Illica, they managed to carve out a straightforward narrative of the passing of love and youth which is now stamped so deeply into my subconscious that I can tap into it at will. No matter how often I see or hear the opera, it always travels the same inexorable path, from joyousness and romance to disillusionment and death. I’m frequently tempted to leave before the last act, wondering why I’m putting myself through this emotional wringer yet again, but I never actually do. You have to go along for the complete ride. So I was curious to see how the novel treated these torturous, wonderful final moments.

I don’t think I’ll be spoiling anything by telling you that instead of ending up in the garret surrounded by her friends and mourned by her lover, Mimi is stuck with the Sisters of Charity in a tuberculosis ward. Rodolphe arrives too late and finds her already loaded into “the vehicle in which the corpses that are unclaimed are taken to their pauper’s grave.” There is also a surprising final chapter titled “Youth is Fleeting” in which all the bohemians are shown, some time later, as comfortably settled members of the bourgeoisie. This post has been by no means a complete study of the literary sources of opera. We’ve just been roaming through the stacks, plucking books haphazardly from the shelves.

Since we’ve only been looking at operas which derive from popular fiction, we could also investigate those whose origins are in great literature, such as Les Troyens, which is based on Virgil; Prokofiev’s War and Peace; and especially Verdi’s treatments of Shakespeare, such as Macbeth, Othello, and (in a opera which some critics regard as an improvement on Shakespeare) Falstaff. Or we could look at the librettos of Hugo Von Hoffmansthal, such as Der Rosenkavalier, which are so good they can be read independent of their music. Or we could simply carry on in the same vein with our litany of operas about Women Who End Up Badly, like Carmen, Tosca, Madame Butterfly, and countless others. Maybe another day. . . [*You Tube: Capriccio]


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