If Music be, among the arts, 'Heaven's youngest-teemed star', the latest of the art-forms she herself has brought forth is unquestionably Opera. Three hundred years does not at first seem a very short time, but it is not long when it covers the whole period of the inception, development, and what certainly looks like the decadence, of an important branch of man's artistic industry. The art of painting has taken at least twice as long to develop; yet the three centuries from Monteverde to Debussy cover as great a distance as that which separates Cimabue from Degas. In operatic history, revolutions, which in other arts have not been accomplished in several generations, have got themselves completed, and indeed almost forgotten, in the course of a few years. Twenty-five years ago, for example, Wagner's maturer works were regarded, by the more charitable of those who did not admire them, as intelligible only to the few enthusiasts who had devoted years of study to the unravelling of their mysteries; the world in general looked askance at the 'Wagnerians', as they were called, and professed to consider the shyly-confessed admiration of the amateurs as a mere affectation. In that time we have seen the tables turned, and now there is no more certain way for a manager to secure a full house than by announcing one of these very works. An even shorter period covers the latest Italian renaissance of music, the feverish excitement into which the public was thrown by one of its most blatant productions, and the collapse of a set of composers who were at one time hailed as regenerators of their country's art.
But though artistic conditions in opera change quickly and continually, though reputations are made and lost in a few years, and the real reformers of music themselves alter their style and methods so radically that the earlier compositions of a Gluck, a Wagner, or a Verdi present scarcely any point of resemblance to those later masterpieces by which each of these is immortalised, yet the attitude of audiences towards opera in general changes curiously little from century to century; and plenty of modern parallels might be found, in London and elsewhere, to the story which tells of the delay in producing 'Don Giovanni' on account of the extraordinary vogue of Martini's 'Una Cosa Rara', a work which only survives because a certain tune from it is brought into the supper-scene in Mozart's opera.
There is a good deal of fascination, and some truth, in the theory that different nations enjoy opera in different ways. According to this, the Italians consider it solely in relation to their sensuous emotions; the French, as producing a titillating sensation more or less akin to the pleasures of the table; the Spaniards, mainly as a vehicle for dancing; the Germans, as an intellectual pleasure; and the English, as an expensive but not unprofitable way of demonstrating financial prosperity. The Italian might be said to hear through what is euphemistically called his heart, the Frenchman through his palate, the Spaniard through his toes, the German through his brain, and the Englishman through his purse. But in truth this does not represent the case at all fairly. For, to take only modern instances, Italy, on whose congenial soil 'Cavalleria Rusticana' and the productions it suggested met with such extraordinary success, saw also in 'Falstaff' the wittiest and most brilliant musical comedy since 'Die Meistersinger', and in 'Madama Butterfly' a lyric of infinite delicacy, free from any suggestion of unworthy emotion. Among recent French operas, works of tragic import, treated with all the intricacy of the most advanced modern schools, have been received with far greater favour than have been shown to works of the lighter class which we associate with the genius of the French nation; and of late years the vogue of such works as 'Louise' or 'Pelléas et Mélisande' shows that the taste for music without any special form has conquered the very nation in which form has generally ranked highest. In Germany, on the other hand, some of the greatest successes with the public at large have been won by productions which seem to touch the lowest imaginable point of artistic imbecility; and the ever-increasing interest in musical drama that is manifested year after year by London audiences shows that higher motives than those referred to weigh even with Englishmen.
The theory above mentioned will not hold water, for there are, as a matter of fact, only two ways of looking at opera: either as a means, whether expensive or not, of passing an evening with a very little intellectual trouble, some social éclat, and a certain amount of pleasure, or as a form of art, making serious and justifiable claims on the attention of rational people. These claims of opera are perhaps more widely recognised in England than they were some years ago; but there are still a certain number of persons, and among them not a few musical people, who hesitate to give opera a place beside what is usually called 'abstract' music. Music's highest dignity is, no doubt, reached when it is self-sufficient, when its powers are exerted upon its own creations, entirely without dependence upon predetermined emotions calling for illustration, and when the interest of the composition as well as the material is conveyed exclusively in terms of music. But the function of music in expressing those sides of human emotion which lie too deep for verbal utterance, a function of which the gradual recognition led on to the invention of opera, is one that cannot be slighted or ignored; in it lies a power of appeal to feeling that no words can reach, and a very wonderful definiteness in conveying exact shades of emotional sensation. Not that it can of itself suggest the direction in which the emotions are to be worked upon; but this direction once given from outside, whether by a 'programme' read by the listener or by the action and accessories of the stage, the force of feeling can be conveyed with overwhelming power, and the whole gamut of emotion, from the subtlest hint or foreshadowing to the fury of inevitable passion, is at the command of him who knows how to wield the means by which expression is carried to the hearer's mind. And in this fact—for a fact it is—lies the completest justification of opera as an art-form. The old-fashioned criticism of opera as such, based on the indisputable fact that, however excited people may be, they do not in real life express themselves in song, but in unmodulated speech, is not now very often heard. With the revival in England of the dramatic instinct, the conventions of stage declamation are readily accepted, and if it be conceded that the characters in a drama may be allowed to speak blank verse, it is hardly more than a step further to permit the action to be carried on by means of vocal utterance in music. Until latterly, however, English people, though taking pleasure in the opera, went to it rather to hear particular singers than to enjoy the work as a whole, or with any consideration for its dramatic significance. We should not expect a stern and uncompromising nature like Carlyle's to regard the opera as anything more than a trivial amusement, and that such was his attitude towards it appears from his letters; but it is curious to see that a man of such strongly pronounced dramatic tastes as Edward FitzGerald, though devoted to the opera in his own way, yet took what can only be called a superficial view of its possibilities.
The Englishman who said of the opera, 'At the first act I was enchanted; the second I could just bear; and at the third I ran away', is a fair illustration of an attitude common in the eighteenth century; and in France things were not much better, even in days when stage magnificence reached a point hardly surpassed in history. La Bruyère's 'Je ne sais comment l'opéra avec une musique si parfaite, et une dépense toute royale, a pu réussir à m'ennuyer', shows how little he had realised the fatiguing effect of theatrical splendour too persistently displayed. St. Evrémond finds juster cause for his bored state of mind in the triviality of the subject-matter of operas, and his words are worth quoting at some length: 'La langueur ordinaire où je tombe aux opéras, vient de ce que je n'en ai jamais vu qui ne m'ait paru méprisable dans la disposition du sujet, et dans les vers. Or, c'est vainement que l'oreille est flattée, et que les yeux sont charmés, si l'esprit ne se trouve pas satisfait; mon âme d'intelligence avec mon esprit plus qu'avec mes sens, forme une résistance aux impressions qu'elle peut recevoir, ou pour le moins elle manque d'y prêter un consentement agréable, sans lequel les objets les plus voluptueux même ne sauraient me donner un grand plaisir. Une sottise chargée de musique, de danses, de machines, de décorations, est une sottise magnifique; c'est un vilain fonds sous de beaux dehors, où je pénètre avec beaucoup de désagrément.'
The cant phrase in use in FitzGerald's days, 'the lyric stage', might have conveyed a hint of the truth to a man who cared for the forms of literature as well as its essence. For, in its highest development, opera is most nearly akin to lyrical utterances in poetry, and the most important musical revolution of the present century has been in the direction of increasing, not diminishing, the lyrical quality of operatic work. The Elizabethan writers—not only the dramatists, but the authors of romances—interspersed their blank verse or their prose narration with short lyrical poems, just as in the days of Mozart the airs and concerted pieces in an opera were connected by wastes of recitative that were most aptly called 'dry'; and as it was left to a modern poet to tell, in a series of lyrics succeeding one another without interval, a dramatic story such as that of Maud, so was it a modern composer who carried to completion, in 'Tristan und Isolde', the dramatic expression of passion at the highest point of lyrical utterance. It is no more unnatural for the raptures of Wagner's lovers, or the swan-song of ecstasy, to be sung, than for the young man whose character Tennyson assumes, to utter himself in measured verse, sometimes of highly complex structure. The two works differ not in kind, but in degree of intensity, and to those whose ears are open to the appeal of music, the power of expression in such a case as this is greater beyond all comparison than that of poetry, whether declaimed or merely read. That so many people recognise the rational nature of opera in the present day is in great measure due to Wagner, since whose reforms the conventional and often idiotic libretti of former times have entirely disappeared. In spite of the sneers of the professed anti-Wagnerians, which were based as often as not upon some ineptitude on the part of the translator, not upon any inherent defect in the original, the plots invented by Wagner have won for themselves an acceptance that may be called world-wide. And whatever be the verdict on his own plots, there can be no question as to the superiority of the average libretto since his day. No composer dare face the public of the present day with one of the pointless, vapid sets of rhymes, strung together with intervals of bald recitative, that pleased our forefathers, and equally inconceivable is the re-setting of libretti that have served before, in the manner of the eighteenth century composers, a prodigious number of whom employed one specially admired 'book' by Metastasio.
Unfortunately those who take an intelligent interest in opera do not even yet form a working majority of the operatic audience in any country. While the supporters of orchestral, choral, or chamber music consist wholly of persons, who, whatever their degree of musical culture, take a serious view of the art so far as they can appreciate it, and therefore are unhampered by the necessity of considering the wishes of those who care nothing whatever about the music they perform. In connection with every operatic enterprise the question arises of how to cater for a great class who attend operatic performances for any other reason rather than that of musical enjoyment, yet without whose pecuniary support the undertaking must needs fail at once. Nor is it only in England that the position is difficult. In countries where the opera enjoys a Government subsidy, the influences that make against true art are as many and as strong as they are elsewhere. The taste of the Intendant in a German town, or that of the ladies of his family, may be on such a level that the public of the town, over the operatic arrangement of which he presides, may very well be compelled to hear endless repetitions of flashy operas that have long passed out of every respectable repertory; and in other countries the Government official within whose jurisdiction the opera falls may, and very often does, enforce the engagement of some musically incompetent prima donna in whom he, or some scheming friend, takes a particular interest.
The moral conditions of the operatic stage are no doubt far more satisfactory than they were, and in England the general deodorisation of the theatre has not been unfelt in opera; but even without the unworthy motives which too often drew the bucks and the dandies of a past day to the opera-house, the influence of the unintelligent part of the audience upon the performers is far from good in an artistic sense. It is this which fosters that mental condition with which all who are acquainted with the operatic world are only too familiar. Now, just as in the days when Marcello wrote his Teatro alla moda, there is scarcely a singer who does not hold, and extremely few who do not express, the opinion that all the rest of the profession is in league against them; and by this supposition, as well as by many other circumstances, an atmosphere is created which is wholly antagonistic to the attainment of artistic perfection. All honour is due to the purely artistic singers who have reached their position without intrigue, and whose influence on their colleagues is the best stimulus to wholesome endeavour. It is beyond question that the greater the proportion of intelligent hearers in any audience or set of subscribers, the higher will the standard be, not only in vocalisation, but in that combination which makes the artist as distinguished from the mere singer. For every reason, too, it is desirable that opera should be given, as a general rule, in the language of the country in which the performance takes place, and although the system of giving each work with its own original words is an ideally perfect one for trained hearers, yet the difficulties in the way of its realisation, and the absurdities that result from such expedients as a mixture of two or more languages in the same piece, render it practically inexpedient for ordinary operatic undertakings. The recognition of English as a possible medium of vocal expression may be slow, but it is certainly making progress, and in the last seasons at Covent Garden it was occasionally employed even before the fashionable subscribers, who may be presumed to have tolerated it, since they did not manifest any disapproval of its use. Since the first edition of this book was published, the Utopian idea, as it then seemed, of a national opera for London has advanced considerably towards realisation, and it is certain that when it is set on foot, the English language alone will be employed.
While opera is habitually performed in a foreign language, or, if in English, by those who have not the art of making their words intelligible, there will always be a demand for books that tell the story more clearly than is to be found in the doggerel translations of the libretti, unless audiences return with one accord to the attitude of the amateurs of former days, who paid not the slightest attention to the plot of the piece, provided only that their favourite singers were taking part. Very often in that classic period the performers themselves knew nothing and cared less about the dramatic meaning of the works in which they appeared, and a venerable anecdote is current concerning a certain supper party, the guests at which had all identified themselves with one or other of the principal parts in 'Il Trovatore'. A question being asked as to the plot of the then popular piece, it was found that not one of the company had the vaguest notion what it was all about. The old lady who, during the church scene in 'Faust', asked her grand-daughter, in a spirit of humble inquiry, what the relationship was between the two persons on the stage, is no figment of a diseased imagination; the thing actually happened not long ago, and one is left to wonder what impression the preceding scenes had made upon the hearer.
Of books that profess to tell the stories of the most popular operas there is no lack, but, as a rule, the plots are related in a 'bald and unconvincing' style, that leaves much to be desired, and sometimes in a confused way that necessitates a visit to the opera itself in order to clear up the explanation. There are useful dictionaries, too, notably the excellent 'Opern-Handbuch' of Dr Riemann, which gives the names and dates of production of every opera of any note; but the German scientist does not always condescend to the detailed narration of the stories, though he gives the sources from which they may have been derived. Mr Streatfeild has hit upon the happy idea of combining the mere story-telling part of his task with a survey of the history of opera from its beginning early in the seventeenth century to the present day. In the course of this historical narrative, the plots of all operas that made a great mark in the past, or that have any chance of being revived in the present, are related clearly and succinctly, and with a rare and delightful absence of prejudice. The author finds much to praise in every school; he is neither impatient of old opera nor intolerant of new developments which have yet to prove their value; and he makes us feel that he is not only an enthusiastic lover of opera as a whole, but a cultivated musician. The historical plan adopted, in contradistinction to the arrangement by which the operas are grouped under their titles in alphabetical order, involves perhaps a little extra trouble to the casual reader; but by the aid of the index, any opera concerning which the casual reader desires to be informed can be found in its proper place, and the chief facts regarding its origin and production are given there as well as the story of its action.
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