Are you trying to tell me something?

Article by Rodney Milnes

Many years ago – 23 to be precise – there was a new production of The Magic Flute at Covent Garden. This was in the early days of private patronage, and there was a page in the programme for a message from our sponsors, a big Viennese bank. It ended: “we wish you most sincerely a pleasant evening” (with the last words in German, lest we forget this was an international house). I remember in my quaint, old-fashioned way wondering if Mozart really sweated his guts out writing all those dots to a deadline if all he wanted was to provide people with “a pleasant evening”, and writing something rude along lose lines in my notice (“the strange noise you hear is the shade of Mozart rattling its chains”).

Now that I have grown up (a bit) I’m still wondering if composers go through agonies of creation just to provide audiences with “a pleasant evening”. Mozart certainly didn’t think so, and wrote angrily about people in those first audiences who weren’t listening to the Flute properly. Of course composers aren’t in the business of giving audiences an unpleasant evening – though I sometimes wonder in the course of the première of some uncompromising new opera, which as often as not turns out to be the dernière as well –  but if they go to all that effort, they must surely be trying to tell us something.

One of the most interesting aspects of this is the balance between pleasantness and messages, which shouldn’t, if I may take issue with the immortal Sam Goldwyn, be confined to Western Union. Is there any opera in the standard repertory that is entertainment pure and simple? The Barber of Seville, I hear you say. Just look at it for a moment: the leading characters are a viper (for so Rosina describes herself), a dirty old man and/or fortune hunter (take your pick), a pimp who enjoys his work and an aristocrat who pulls rank and resolves the plot by putting a gun to a man’s head. But they are all dressed up in music of such charm and wit that we in the audience don’t notice the mirror being held up in front of us. Or Fledermaus, which tells us that respectable middle classes are hypocritical about sex on an epic scale, and the only rule is not get caught. The serial adulterer Eisenstein does get caught, his equally guilty wife doesn’t, quite, but jolly nearly. And the aristocracy is represented by a eunuch. Entertainment, like Oscar Wilde’s truth, is rarely pure and never simple.

I am only joking, of course. But seriously, just look at the variety of messages that the Western Union Composers has tried to deliver. Handel and the librettists of opera seria telling us how absolute rulers ought, or ought not, to behave. Or Handel and Congreve telling us in Semele that little bits of skirt shouldn’t get ideas about their station, but Handel loving them to bits even while they’re doing just that. Or Mozart telling us very seriously through the comedy of Così fan tutte that “lurve” is not as interesting or as vital as trust, and in Figaro that unthinking lechery can undermine trust in even the most devoted couple. Or, in the Flute, that there are such things as eternal truths that are recognised by children if not by adults (puberty should be banned), and that women are worthy to lead men through the trials of life. “Mozart as Feminist” – there’s a title for an essay.

That’s just comedy. Look at Wagner, telling us in the Ring about the past, present and future of all human endeavour political (read George Bernard Shaw), psychological (read Robert Donington) and indeed every which way and I say “future” because I reckon we have only progressed about as far as Act Two of Götterdammerung. Or look at Mussorgsky and Verdi telling us about the impossibility of combing political power with any shred of humanity. And Verdi time and again pessimistically pointing to the sheer hopelessness of the human condition, especially if people made the basic mistake of trying to do the “right thing”, like all those poor people in La forza del destino. One of Verdi’s rare optimistic effusions comes in Stiffelio, in which God (if she exists) recommends that a man forgive his wife for adultery, and in public. No wonder the opera failed in a Mediterranean country. Compare and contrast with that other mid-19th century opera about upper-middle-class adultery Tristan and Isolde, all gloom and doom and morbidity. “Love equals death” – oh no it doesn’t. But then Wagner devoted rather too much of his operatic output to telling us how frightfully difficult it was to be Richard Wagner. I could go on, with Janáĉek assuring us – and I believe him – that the human spirit will survive death, disaster, suicide and even the Gulag, and in Makropoulos Case telling people of pensionable age something rather comforting about death. Or Strauss advising us on how to organise our sex lives, with the Marschallin a rather more encouraging example than Salome. Or Puccini, both reminding us of the thoughtless everyday cruelty of homo sapiens and with Turandot creating an action that, like the Ring, is not finished yet, any more than the score was. Poor Alfano was on a hiding to nothing trying to complete something that still hasn’t ended. In short, whenever you go to the opera you are being told something, and since music is an abstract means of communication, you are being told something different each time, even in the same production of the same opera. If you are being “entertained” at the same time, so much the better.

The other interesting thing is just how do composers tell us these things? Value judgements are awfully unfashionable just now, a time when everything is as good as everything else (see Chris Smith on Keats and Bob Dylan), but even the most unfashionable amongst us might admit that there are good composers and less good composers. Or put it another way, there’s a difference between genius and craftsmanship. Mozart, genius; Haydn, operatically speaking, craftsman. Puccini, genius; Massenet, craftsman, but an exceptionally good one. Verdi genius; Ponchielli, craftsman. Which set me off musing about Holland Park’s repertory this summer: what are these composers trying to tell us, how do they go about it and do they succeed?

The Pearl Fishers is another matter. Bizet was only 25 when he wrote it, and it is crammed with moments of blazing genius. If it has faults, they are to do with the word, and the hack librettists later confessed that if they had known what a great composer this young man was, they wouldn’t have burdened him with such an ours infame (“infamous bear”).

What is it telling us? That tenors can be absolute rates, of course, but there’s also a slightly wonky eternal triangle that remains oddly undefined, mainly because it couldn’t be, also because the librettists couldn’t be bothered, even if they knew what it was. But if the love duet for Leïla and the aptly named Nadir were not as powerful as it is – the moment the melody slips from minor key into the major is one of those moments of genius – then the ‘Temple Duet’ would be the defining moment of the opera, and for many it still is. And it’s a love duet for two chaps.

Thereby hangs a tale; the corniness of the libretto in the third act almost defeated Bizet, where you could argue that there are passages where he is craftsman rather than genius, and after his death it was rewritten by other well-meaning hacks. They also re-wrote the Temple Duet, bringing back the “big tune” to end it which, however great a tune it is, makes dramaturgical nonsense. In Holland Park we will hear what Bizet wrote, a perfectly good new tune in three-four, for the first time in the theatre in my experience. (It is on the EMI recording conducted by Michel Plasson, only as an appendix.) A great moment for Holland Park.

Leoncavallo wasn’t a genius, but Pagliacci is a work from which the word genius cannot be withheld. Its treatment of reality versus theatrical illusion may be pretty blatant, but simply as the manifesto of the verismo movement it earns its place in the repertory. More important, it is a piece of perfect theatrical machinery: as has been remarked, even if it were performed by the late lamented Typhoo Tea Chimpanzees, it would still make a pole-axing theatrical effect. It simply can’t fail, and that requires genius of a sort.

Puccini was beyond dispute a genius, even if he did his best to disguise the fact by writing music that appealed so much to the general public that “serious” people like critics and musicologists assumed that it wasn’t worth analysing his scores. Now that this is happening, the extent of his genius is at last being recognised, to complement his well-deserved popularity. One aspect of his work has yet to be probed. He was, like it or not, a profoundly religious composer – he couldn’t be anything else given his background. Tosca and Fanciulla del West, in particular, are profoundly Christian operas. But he was not, on the surface, a religious man, certainly not in any orthodox sense. Look at Suor Angelica. Suicide is one of the deadliest of mortal sins, yet Angelica’s suicide is condoned, if not rewarded, by none other than the Virgin Mary. Unless of course, you believe that Angelica is hallucinating at the end. I don’t. Subversive, or what? Like manipulating audiences into siding with another serious sinner, Gianni Schicchi. What an old devil Puccini was.

The pure in mind may find many unattractive aspects to Puccini’s personality, including his well-exercised (and satisfied) lechery, and his laziness, but someone who must have been educated by Jesuits once told me that if you fail to do something, then you shouldn’t be attempting to do it in the first place. I have long lived by this rule, to the despair of assorted editors. And it is hard to counter accusations of cynicism when it comes to La Rondine Puccini accepted the commission for an operetta simply for the money – lots of it, even by his standards – which may have been cynical, but he then took it rather seriously, badgering all and sundry, including the ever-patient Giuseppe Adami, into fashioning an acceptable libretto from the dross originally submitted.

The result, a fairly shameless pass-off of Traviata, Fledermaus and parts of Manon, may be acceptable, but it is little more than that. It could have been answered by merely craftsman-like music, yet Puccini took more than usual care with the score, one that after decades of neglect is admired by other musicians almost as much as Carmen. Rondine is most carefully, inventively and beautifully composed by Puccini was not satisfied with it after the premiere in 1917. He revised it twice; recordings have been of the first version, or of a mixture of the first and second (Gheorghiu and Alagna opt for the latter). The third – and we must assume final – version of 1921 was never published, and the orchestral parts were destroyed in World War II. It has been reconstructed, and was performed in Turin and Leeds in 1994. In it Puccini and Adami beefed up the final scene. In the original, Magda gives up Ruggero, her unworldly lover, after reading a letter from his highly respectable mother, sweetly sending him on his way. She knows it would never work. In the final revision, Magda’s protector appears with much needed money (even true love cannot live on air) and Ruggero receives an anonymous letter detailing Magda’s past. He hurls abuse at her, and storms out. As one commentator has somewhat disapprovingly pointed out, “despite this total rearrangements of events, the music remains essential the same”. Puccini just arranged the vocal lines to accommodate the new words.

Laziness? Cynicism? Either way, I secretly admire him for it. After all, Rondine isn’t telling us anything earth-shattering, but it is doing so with boundless charm, carried almost solely by the music. Holland Park is performing the original, unadorned, which may turn out to be the wisest choice.

Cilea wrote two arias that are in every recitalist’s repertoire, and always will be: “E la solita storia” from L’arlesiana, and “lo son l’umile ancella” from Adriana Lecouvreur. The latter understandably is a great favourite with sopranos who like to think of themselves as humble handmaids of their art, even those who don’t put this into practice. And it’s a jolly good tune. But Adriana’s great strength is that it contains a cracking good role for prima donnas. The third-act finale, when the great actress humiliates her rival by reciting a tirade from Racine’s Phèdre – like Pagliacci – really can’t fail. And the role is so cleverly written that prima donnas can sing it when no longer in the first flush. Magda Olivero, Cilea’s own favourite in the role, was performing it to great acclaim well into her 60s and Sutherland recorded it at 62.

Only the most toffee-nose pseudo-intellectual might jib at the melodramatic mechanics of the Sardou-based plot, set firmly in George Bernard Shaw’s deadly realm of Sardoodledom. The poisonous Machineel tree seemed pretty unlikely as a deus ex machina in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine in 1864, and Adriana’s poisoned violets are even more unlikely over 40 years later. There are those who can’t believe in Maurice de Saxe, who can appear to be just a tenor, but I remember visiting the Château de Chambord years ago when that magnificent building was empty of any furniture save for the marble slab on which the historical Maréchal de Saxe was embalmed. That memory will keep me coming back to Adriana. Oh, and Michonnet is another cracking good role for a baritone who can act. But up against a wall with a pistol to my head, I still couldn’t swear that the opera is telling us anything very important.

It would be impertinent to suggest what Don Giovanni has to tell us – just about everything – and, in matters of class, gender relationships, what it has to say changes between each performance. But, I must spring to the defence of Don Ottavio, one of those operatic characters who, like Micaёla, does the “right thing” and has been rewarded by being written off as one of opera’s great wimps. There is nothing in the least wimpish about the closing pages of “il mio Tesoro”, and the fact that in it he is inviting a peasant to go and keep company with his aristocratic fiancée shows how the man has changed. The opera is indeed as much about the effect of Giovanni as about Giovanni himself.

No the nub of the plot is that Ottavio cannot believe that a fellow-gentleman could be a murderer and a rapist, and class-solidarity is perhaps no less praiseworthy simply because the class concerned is upper. When it becomes plain that this is precisely what Giovanni is, Ottavio does the “right thing” – he calls the police. The stage directions state that in the finale he enters with “ministry di giudizia”, but I have only ever one seen this on stage. They’re too late of course. But that doesn’t make doing the “right thing” any less admirable.

I can’t wait to see what happens at Holland Park.