Article by James Naughtie

Three small prints run up the wall in one corner of our kitchen. They are coloured but dark, and you know at once that they’re sinister. Each has a character dressed for carnival, one of them wearing a mask that’s almost a death’s head, and together they make a picture of a city cloaked in mystery. Above these dark characters swathed in the folds of their cloaks, slinking through the byways of Venice, there is always a moon – sometimes full and sometimes only the shaving of a crescent, but always pale and menacing. Why have a picture of the sparkling lagoon when you can have these?

They are a useful image for Opera Holland Park’s Rigoletto this year because the producer Kate Brown is suggesting Venice in her setting – though she keeps the politics of Mantua intact – to catch precisely that mood of a city in disguise. In doing so, she is touching on a seam in opera that feeds us all – the sense of darkness even in the corner of a sunny scene, the knowledge that in the stage world of tragedy and betrayal nothing can ever be what it seems.

Like many opera goers, I have sometimes wriggled furiously in my seat when faced with a production that seems to proceed almost entirely in the dark. Figures slip out from the darkened doorways and disappear behind tree trunks and you are none the wiser. You’re reminded of the old Joyce Grenfell line from an end-of-performance conversation “You see, they were nuns!” I confess that Schaff’s last cycle of the Mozart/da Ponte operas at Covent Garden sometimes had that effect on me, the Don Giovanni seeming unremitting in its gloom. But what nonsense! Isn’t it just about the gloomiest, darkest opera you can imagine? And in Rigoletto how can the discovery that a curse on you fulfilled in the death of your own daughter be anything other than the bleakest of moments, drained of colour?

The trick, of course, is in the understanding that darkness and light have to be companions. Even many operas which don’t turn on confusions and betrayals get their energy from the sense of a works in which mirrors can be everywhere, catching and distorting the light, and from time turning everyone into someone else. You see it in Figaro, of course in the very thread of the plot from the bedroom to garden – and although the Count’s home is a light and airy place – it is suffused with cruelty and revenge. A Figaro will fail when the count is not menacing enough: the glow of the young love has to be stained by the darkness of his character if the opera is to work. Just as Jonathan Miller in his last Così fan Tutte made the “reconciled” couple race off the stage in four different directions at the end, you always have to know there is no way of expunging the dark for ever, even when the ends of a plot seem to have been tied tidily together.

The experience of opera, after all, is an encounter with a world that obeys none of the rules of our own but does catch some of the parts of it that we often prefer to forget. That is surely a truth that will always destroy any librettist who tried to cobble together a “good news” opera or a composer who resorts to cheap firm-score tricks. The point about opera is that, by its very artificiality, it can tell truths that could never be literally displayed.

After opera seria had run its course, more or less, and the romantic movement had taken a grip on the whole business of telling stage stories in music, the doom laden themes of betrayal and death began to take on the same kind of bloodstained character that had produced such a hungry audience for gothic literature and indeed for more substantial stuff that drew on the same kinds of emotions.

In the early nineteenth century, Italians were gobbling up Sit Walter Scott, rather more eagerly than we do today, because the sagas of brave deeds and treachery set in romantic landscapes fed an enthusiasm that was part of the spirit of the age. The classical task of holding a mirror up to nature had become instead the business of holding a lamp to illuminate the real emotions, the real people who have the world its richness. And in doing so, these characters became larger than life. Of course there are those who find much nineteenth-century Italian opera formulaic and unimaginative, as some of it certainly is, but you only have to listen to Donizetti in Lucia di Lammermoor – or almost anything in the later output of Rossini after he left opera buffa behind – to realise how profound the inspiration had become from the romantic imaginations of that age.

Verdi, of course, could take this musical inheritance and with this understanding of the character – fed by his love for Shakespeare – transform it into something much greater. Rigoletto has the distinction of being an opera of evergreen popularity and simultaneously a profound work. There are many operas of which that can not be said. It is done by the portrayal – the explanation, really – of loss of identity and, in the case of the Duke, any moral principle, and that brings us back to Mantua and Venice.

Opera’s power through the fusion of drama and music depends on the potency of the dramatic moment. You can argue that there are works which succeed because they present some kind of intellectual argument that is teased out through a story set to music, but we all know what we mean when we describe a theatrical moment that we know will last. I don’t mean some click piece of legerdemain by a producer, though they are always welcome, but more a moment that is transformed from pathos into something more solid and worthwhile.

A bad Bohème is easily managed. Some grey rats on strings, plenty frost on the windows, rags and cold porridge everywhere, a few doors that slam in the wind and you are expected to imagine that you are in a garret. Of course you don’t. Similarly, a tear-jerking Rodolfo can’t succeed simply by tossing off his top notes with a nice ping. We know before we go that we want something more. We think, often, about darkness. I won’t say that only tragic opera works, because that would be silly and easily disproved, but I will say that one of the main reasons why the rather odd business of opera survived, with all its artificial inventions and its demands on the imaginations, is that it has managed to give us glimpses of the darkness that is just around the next corner.

Verdi was the master at creating atmospheres in his scores. Everywhere there are memorable phrases that spring from the pit and somehow fix a sense or an exclamation in your mind; the drama moves in a dramatic way. Rigoletto was popular on the day after it opened and it has never slipped, because the power of a melodrama has been transformed into something that may seem impossibly grotesque but is rescued from the crudity by music. And that is part of what opera is.

I’m struck by how this year’s Opera Holland Park programme seems to fit this strange but loveable theatre. It has a rambling gothic character to it after all, even when the peacocks aren’t rutting in the trees and we aren’t putting the rugs over our knees. When the light fades and the ramparts seem to loom over the pit, you can sense in an instant that particular thrill of the opera that is going to go about its business in the dingy places, where everything that orders our little lives can be turned inside out at the crash of a chord.

And this year’s modern piece, Menotti’s The Consul, first seen in 1950, uses one of the great operatic themes, imprisonment and escape, in this case from a police state. These are the dark byways which we hope never to travel but which we know, all the time, are there.

One of the more depressing arguments that you hear around the place is that opera is bound to die away because it is pickled in a nineteenth-century bottle and, in the end, fit only for a museum. I’m surprised how often it’s still proposed, usually after some new opera has been excoriated for being tuneless or incomprehensible. My response to such an opera is quite the opposite: I take comfort in the way that the past has not slipped away. The great romantic pieces from Italy and later Germany are not becoming less relevant to us, but are reminding us all the time what peaks these composer ascended. No wonder it is difficult to write an opera today that will last, when you know what we have.

The reason why melodrama of the sort that drives Rigoletto has survived is that it has been shaped into something quite different from the story that we see and learn about through the action. Every scene is shot through with drama from the score. From the chords that announce Monterone’s curse there’s a tension in the music that is much more powerful than anything that could be produced by the story alone. And how inadequate that word “story” seems. It says so little about what an opera is.

Atmosphere itself cannot produce good opera, even if the notes are right, because the musical disciplines must always make their own huge demands, but without its depth of colour the music-drama will turn into an exercise set in a display case. That certainly could produce opera that deserved to be consigned to a museum, and we have all seen productions that we would quite happily leave to that fate. The real thing is quite different. Music and setting, movements and the gentle revelations of the character must produce something that is transformed from one-dimensional to an opera of depth. The darkness through the door has to be irresistible; it must be something you want to experience, despite everything.

People have written about opera for centuries now, arguing about what it is that gives it that special grip. In our times we talk about which kinds of modern production are genuinely innovative and creative and which are sterile, about which singers can be characters as well as canaries, about which contemporary composers can produce opera to last – yet we should still talk most of all about what it is that inspires audiences in opera. The theatrical experience is the thing, not the intellectual contemplations of it, and we get that experience in the most unexpected ways – from a voice that moves, an actor who is transformed on stage, a score that won’t let you go. It’s maybe that quality of surprise that is the most important of all, because the mixture of elements in any operatic performance is always a deliciously uncertain brew.

That is why the darkened corner of a stage, the cloaked figure of a conspirator on the prowl, seems to me to say something important about opera. Sometimes we want to dive into the shadows, and opera lets us do it.

James Naughtie is the presented of Radio 4s Today programme and a regular presenter of opera on BBC radio and television.