Article by Tom Sutcliffe
Just 95 years separate the premieres of Beethoven’s Fidelio and Puccini’s Tosca – which in that sense form the bookends for this year’s Opera Holland Park season. In fact, every single one of this year’s operas at Holland Park is a tale of domestic love, though four out of the six operas end in disaster, a proportion similar to the number of modern marriages that end in divorce. The devotion of Leonore to Florestan in many ways parallels Tosca’s jealous affection for Cavaradossi. Massenet’s Werther and Cilea’s Federico in L’Arlesiana are both helpless to free themselves from their definitive passion for an unobtainable beloved – and each one commits suicide as their only escape. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is forced by her brother, with appalling consequences, to abandon Edgardo the man she loves and instead form a dynastic alliance with Lord Arturo: after her murderous insanity and death, Edgardo too kills himself. Verdi’s Stiffelio, a protestant pastor brought face to face with the consequences of his wife’s adultery, is spared having to take violent revenge (contrary to his Christian convictions and humane feeling) only by the fact that his father-in-law kills the treacherous seducer first on his behalf, after which the pastor learns – with the help of the Bible – to accept that his wife’s apparent guilt is less culpable than initially appears.
The awkward and challenging contours of loving relationships, if not of marriage, have been the predominant stuff of opera ever since The Marriage of Figaro. We joke about the typical structure of most “romantic era” operas in which tenor and baritone struggle, usually with blood flowing, to possess the soprano. Despite all the changes over the centuries in the style of musical discourse and song, opera continues to be a devastatingly convincing way of bringing audiences to the heart of the matter, and of plumbing the depths of individual feeling. When operatic characters explain their passions, the sheer physical intensity of their sung statements leaves no room for doubt about what they really feel. Love and passion are at the centre of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas and of almost every masterpiece of the genre since. Yet actually most operas written in the 200 years of operatic history that preceded Fidelio were not about domestic arrangements between a beloved and his or her most special other, but about classical heroes or despotic rulers or ancient Greek myths or historical figures engaged in complicated liaisons with important dynastic or political consequences. 18th century composers and audiences were obsessed with the fact that neither worldly nor magic power by any means guaranteed control over the human heart. But, ever since The Marriage of Figaro, operatic love has been close-up and personal, and most opera composers have been obsessed with supplying ordinary, realistic, believable stories of romance and personal relationships – still the prevailing business of the cinema and television soaps. Fidelity is the theme that all this year’s Holland Park operas share with Eastenders – the burdens and rewards of love, true and false.
Fidelio, of course, is one of the most high-minded of all operas. Its subject is liberation in every sense, liberation of all those being oppressed by abusive prison governor Pizarro, liberation specifically for Florestan the political prisoner whose wife has disguised herself as a man to take jobs in a succession of prisons in order to discover his whereabouts and rescue him, liberation also for that wife Leonore from her self-appointed dangerous and miraculous task. No longer need she call herself Fidelio or adopt male clothes to carry out her heroic project. Fidelio presents us with a world out of joint and in need of remedy, and after the arrival of Don Fernando and Leonore’s extraordinary symbolic action – when she interrupts Pizarro’s illicit “execution” of her husband by threatening him with a gun – we see and hear in the short last act of the work a heartening process of healing. Beethoven in Fidelio presents us with ordinary people achieving epic status by standing up and being counted.
One of the most remarkable and prophetic aspects of the work is the fact that it defines the archetype of that major problem of the 20th century – the servant who (like Eichmann) claims he’s merely doing what he’s told. Beethoven’s opera is based on a French story, but the character of Rocco the prison warder is quintessentially German, a jovial presence whose inability to exercise moral discernment until the very last moment could actually have rendered Leonore’s epic gesture futile. Fidelio is Beethoven’s tribute to the principles of the French revolution, principles which he felt had already been abandoned and replaced by a new tyranny when he started to write his opera. Beethoven is more than just a great composer. He stands for the true man of honour in the creative world, a suffering genius whose profound thoughts are now universally recognised as having shifted the aspirational quality of European culture into a genuinely higher gear. It is, after all, one of the great ironies of the modern age that Germany, land of Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven, committed the greatest crimes of ethnic cleansing and imagined eugenic improvement in known history. Fidelio has its epic moments, yet at the same time it brings us a story rooted in the everyday. It’s not just about momentous decisions, and moral certainty.
In fact, its comedy is painful because it displays a significant blindness to the reality that it is presenting. When Marzelline rejects the love of Jaquino in favour of her hopes for a marriage with Fidelio, a woman disguised as a man, she displays an inability to see the truth about Leonore’s gender that is highly indicative, sad, absurd, and far more telling than perhaps may occur to the audience. Marzelline’s romantic desire to fabricate, her inability to perceive a basic fact about her world, is profoundly symbolic. Beethoven’s need to portray that fundamental blindness goes hand in hand with his feeling about the betrayal of revolution which motivated both this opera and various other important works of his. He deploys a strangely ambiguous, painful, yet in a way affectionately humourous irony. It is all part of the glorious humanity of this arresting yet also far from perfectly articulated opera. Fidelio is a great work, yet it’s not a well-accomplished or perfect opera. There is more than a little of the laboursome about it, and it needed three difficult rewrites to get it even as good as it is. Beethoven, of course, was a bit of a peasant as a person, socially rough and creatively handicapped not least by his increasing deafness. His private life was not blessed by such normal comforts as marriage and children. All these facts, I think, add to the deep respect in which the man himself is and should be held by all.
Tosca, on the other hand, has been execrated by many critics and is especially despised by Professor Joseph Kerman in his thoughtful provocative book Opera as Drama as a “shabby little shocker”. Puccini personally is not widely respected, even if his music is more loved by the public, more certain of selling tickets, than almost any other operatic composer’s except Wagner. Puccini was and still is commercial. His life had all the comforts. He was a successful philanderer with women. He died of a typical modern disease, throat cancer brought on by his cigarette addiction. Unlike Beethoven, Puccini was of course a professional opera composer. One cannot but admire his skill as a dramatist, his exploitation of the musical language of his day – including the “unending melody” of Wagner (listen to how much of Tristan und Isolde there is in Madama Butterfly), his understanding of orchestral colour, his flair for melody, his astonishing articulateness.
Yet one could reasonably insist that Tosca herself is in fact more heroic than Fidelio. She actually kills the torturer of her beloved, risking all, indeed paying with her life. The era of Tosca is identical with the era of Fidelio, though the former is set in Rome and the latter Spain. Both works demonstrate the abuse of power in highly emotive, disturbingly effective ways. But the evil of Scarpia somehow comes across as very different from the evil of Pizarro. In Fidelio the soldiers are allowed to grumble. Pizarro is a political animal of some (if dubious) integrity, and not just an unworthy manipulator motivated by lechery. In most ways Puccini’s monster is much more unpleasant. Scarpia enjoys the discomfort that he causes Tosca with his passionate advances. He seems almost a sadist, very probably a serial rapist, and indubitably a hypocrite with his repellent conformist Catholicism. Her revenge is proportional to the degree of rage and horror that he has generated in her. Puccini’s genius can instantly assemble these emotional forces. He unerringly creates the colour of the scene and the indomitable distastefulness of the whole abusive society on the rampage around Scarpia. It’s almost pornographic the studied effectiveness with which each unpleasant detail is etched. Yet, the unqualified wickedness is tinpot in its moral simplicity. That may be why Puccini, however successful his portrayal of evil here, is not really liked for it. It is brilliant but almost indecent. Puccini is not the Beethoven of his age. He wants us to thrill to the suspense and delusional romance in Tosca. But however wonderful its assurance we cannot take Tosca as seriously as we take Fidelio, and that’s not just a question of the difference between German humanistic seriousness and slick calculating Italian flashiness. Puccini’s Tosca is not off any kind of conveyor belt of commercial works. But it is a melodramatic thrill, however highly charged and tension-filled.
Werther, L’Arlesiana, and Lucia di Lammermoor – the season’s operas which end in suicide – inhabit very different worlds. The first is based on Goethe’s highly romantic but gloomy novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, the second on Alphone Daudet’s play about a provençal lad who has lost his heart to an unnamed but unforgettable woman from Arles, and the third on Scott’s enormously influential novel The Bride of Lammermoor. (I suppose Tosca might be considered a suicide opera too – except that Tosca’s final leap from the top of the Castello Sant’ Angelo is a triumphant escape into eternity rather than any sort of depressive gesture.) In an age when it is becoming less and less common for couples to bind themselves together with vows, marriage remains a powerful and evocative topic in every form of popular drama. In all three operas, and in Verdi’s unusual Stiffelio, marriage and fidelity are the central issue.
The interesting question in all these operas is whether it is society that causes the problems or whether it is the women with their indecision who are to be blamed. Charlotte after all does finally confess to Werther that she loves him and that she has always loved him. His problem is that she stuck by convention and went through with the marriage to Albert because Werther was late on the scene and was unable at the right time to make her admit the true state of her feelings. One could not accuse Charlotte of fickleness – she is far too stolid and truthful a character for that. And it is not as if Werther, a poet, lacked the power to express his emotions in an attractive or at least highly distinctive manner. The fascination of Massenet’s opera is the accuracy with which he portrays society as a whole, and the attractiveness with which he endows his central characters. The irony with which he laces a story that is a continuing celebration of marriage turns the iron in the soul of Werther, who cannot conceive of finding happiness with any other woman than Charlotte. Werther is in many ways very close to Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Charlotte’s appealing domesticity is more clearly marked out, and the parallel sentiment for Werther felt by her sister Sophie makes him all the more credible as an icon of romance. Werther, unlike Onegin, behaves well and does not delude himself at any point –though the dynamics of his third-act love scene with Charlotte are very close to the denouement of Onegin. The question raised in the audience’s mind should be – what was really meant to happen? Were Charlotte and Werther naturally made for each other? Or was she, in practice and rather dishonourably, wooed by him with a tempestuous flood of messages and poems to the point where she bows under the pressure? The story is full of unexplained light and shade, a picture of ambivalent emotions, and it demonstrates how very subtly and effectively opera can deal with such unresolvable matters. It is, quite simply, very true to life – even if Werther’s obsession and his inability to find a remedy for his futile emotions is not commonplace.
In Cilea’s opera we never actually encounter the woman from Arles to whom Federico has conceded his heart. As a result it’s hard not to feel that Federico’s fundamental flaw as a human being is that he is in the grip of a kind of obsessive dream. Does the invisible woman even exist, really? Perhaps what matters about her is that she symbolises his dissatisfaction with village life as he finds it. Whatever it is about this unseen female, she is a form of the other woman syndrome that is typically beyond resolution. How can anyone handle that, let alone poor Vivetta who is so ready to give herself to Federico in marriage? The situation is a touching example of verismo without the laminated suspense and politics that make Tosca (written just a year or two later) a bit too much like thrilling entertainment in the style of the film director Hitchcock. The situation of L’Arlesiana partly resembles that of Janacek’s Jenufa, since Vivetta is the foster-daughter of Rosa Mamai who owns the farm where the opera takes place, and who is the mother of Federico and his simple younger brother. Vivetta loves Federico and Rosa Mamai would much rather have her as a daughter-in-law than this unknown female who has bewitched Federico. First reports about the girl from Arles by Federico’s uncle indicate that her family is respectable. But then it turns out that she and the drover Metifio have already had an affair. Metifio is as keen on her, still, as Federico – and he tells the old shepherd that he’s going to elope with her. Federico overhears and it’s the realisation that he has been seen off definitively, that the girl from Arles is permanently beyond his reach, that leads to his killing himself.
Neither Federico nor Don Jose is particularly appealing. The reason for the greater power and appeal of Carmen as a work is the sheer dynamism of the Carmen herself, an original in operatic terms who has the strong will of a man and proves that she’s the one wearing the trousers. All these operas are reports from fresh battlefields in the war of the sexes, a war fought more ferociously in operatic terms than in any other narrative form.
Lucia di Lammermoor and Stiffelio, the final pair of operas in this closely matched season, date from much earlier in the 19th century – Donizetti’s tragic masterpiece preceding Verdi’s highly unusual drama by just 15 years. Lucia, a more perfectly accomplished work than any in the season except perhaps Tosca, is a sublimely melodic feast. But what makes the ebbing and flowing tensions of its arias, cavatinas, cabalettas, duets, and famous sextet impressive is the brilliantly fresh characterisation of which Donizetti was capable – stirred by Cammarano’s excellent libretto adaptation of Walter Scott. The title role is one of the greatest for a bel canto soprano ever written (she has to be more than expert at coloratura). But the opera is not just a canary-fancier’s delight. The famous and breath-taking mad scene is matched by an equally profound and moving conclusion for Edgardo, Lucia’s beloved. As with Fidelio and Tosca, revolutionary politics dominate the backdrop, though the era of Lucia the opera is a century earlier than in its source, Sir Walter Scott’s hugely influential novel. Scott’s ethnic and period romance takes place in the aftermath of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. In Scotland, then, the presbyterian ascendancy was still to an extent challengeable. Edgardo in Scott’s original is an Episcopalian. Lucia’s mother (omitted by Cammarano along with many of the novel’s striking and sometimes endearing characters) is “a Whig and a friend of old Sall of Marlborough”. The iconography of the opera has always been early Stuart, not late. No periwigs or fancy coats.
In Lucia church politics provide just a factional backdrop like the tribal feuds in Romeo and Juliet. Edgardo is the wrong man in the wrong place. Cammarano carefully and very effectively adjusted the narrative to achieve the tragic conclusion best suited to the lyric stage. The ominous vision that Lucia describes in her first scene is actually, in the book, experienced by Edgar. Lucy does not actually quite kill Bucklaw in their bedchamber, nor does she make any striking appearance in a bloodied wedding-robe. Edgar does not stab himself but rides his horse into quicksand and is swallowed up. The events of the opera are distilled from the last third of the book, and the responsibility for forcing Lucy away from Edgar is given to her brother Henry rather than to her mother and father. But, in every scene of the opera, Cammarano’s concentration of the narrative works superbly. Lucia is a wonderfully pure and innocent victim – more than a little reminiscent of Luise Miller in Schiller’s play, Kabale und Liebe. Donizetti’s opera is a cautionary tale about the inner feeling and delicacy of women, and as such provides potent argument for not ignoring the reasons of the heart. Music confirms the truthful and elevated values of the romance. The insane bravery of Edgardo in interrupting the engagement ceremony between Arturo and Lucia creates a sense of rushing towards doom which is chillingly confirmed by Lucia’s magnificent and deeply felt terminal scena, which has guaranteed the opera’s fame. Music supplies many apt echoes which illustrate the pathological reminiscence with which the psychology of its tale is laced. The shape and unerring balance in the opera’s narrative structure reinforce its emotional breadth and power. Edgardo’s despair and suicide and Lucia’s mad scene are an irresistible double whammy.
Stiffelio is the rarest piece in the Holland Park season, and the most unusual story in operatic terms. It was unsuccessful on its initial outing and, despite rewrites and adaptations, Verdi eventually gave up on it. However, since copyists’ scores, rediscovered 40 years ago in the Naples Conservatory, have enabled its reconstruction, the distinctive character of its story, and the in some ways atypical music Verdi provided for it, have given this opera a special role in the great man’s output. It was unpopular with its audiences because it was contemporary – a try-out in this respect for Traviata. But it drew Verdi’s interest because the title role was a protestant pastor (though the original censors actually refused to let Stiffelio be described as a non-conformist minister). The composer was naturally drawn to a story that tested the true nature of Christian conviction – and that challenged the assumptions of the Catholic church. The Salzburg location caused problems with the censors. Yet this was no melodramatic piece, but realistic – turning on a genuine conscientious difficulty, whether or not the Pastor should take revenge for the misdeed committed by his wife.
The original plot of the French play on which Stiffelio is based was really rather too subtle and complex for opera. The reasons for the infidelity of Lina, Stiffelio’s wife, properly detailed in the play, are skated over in the opera. If Piave’s adaptation had been as skilled as Cammarano’s Lucia text was for Donizetti, Stiffelio might really have challenged Rigoletto rather than seeming more like a flawed try-out for the later masterpiece which was already starting to dominate Verdi’s thoughts while he was composing the earlier piece. Stiffelio proposes to divorce Lina, but she doesn’t want to lose him since her feelings for him are unchanged, despite the unfortunate episode with the philandering nobleman Raffaele. This anticipates the scene in Ballo in Maschera where Ankarstroem berates Amelia back at home, after she has been unmasked. It’s a world where Verdi’s own experience with his well-loved mistress and eventual second wife Giuseppina Strepponi, whose presence in his house encountered tiresome gossip and scandal locally, was a potent influence. Verdi was uninterested in bolstering religion. But he was concerned with the truth about relationships – and Stiffelio confronts the issue of honour, and its conflict with love. In the final analysis, things are indeed what they seem. Morality and traditional Christian teaching come fascinatingly face to face. There’s a severity and melodic simplicity in Stiffelio quite different from most other Verdi operas. It is not much like Lucia, but it touches very similar ground. It remains relevant to and realistic about life even today – a kind of Figaro in reverse in which a husband must learn to forgive his wife, always a tough assignment.
It may not be quite accurate to say all human life is there, in Opera Holland Park’s three pairs of operas. But the realism and concern for personal values which all six share forms a lively diet. These works are created through music which defines the characters and lets them thrive in their operatic tales. The common and recurring theme of female heroism and suffering, with which all these works are concerned, was undoubtedly one of the powerful engines in the advancement of the rights of women to make their own choices, and play a full role in society. Opera made people think, without their realising quite how manipulative and subversive its magic could be.