Singing their hearts out

Article by Tom Sutcliffe

What’s the secret of opera?  The main driving force, the engine and the power in opera, is of course always music.  Beyond that basic fact (which they all share) the thing that makes operas memorable is the singing.  Yet not all operas are necessarily quite as much about singing as this year’s choice of six in Opera Holland Park’s 2005 season.  Half the Royal Borough operas this time are by the great bel canto masters, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi – written within 16 years of each other.  Five of the Holland Park six are by Italians, and being performed in that most singable of all operatic languages.  Two – Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904) and Giordano’s Andrea Cheniér (1897) – are masterpieces of Italian verismo, meaning they follow true-to-life highly emotive stories.  The Russian odd man out is Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (1879).  This deeply affecting work in seven scenes with a gap of years between the two halves of the story is an adaptation of Pushkin’s extraordinary narrative poem.  It, too, could scarcely be more tuneful and vocal if it tried.  Each one of this season’s operas is rich with tunes you won’t be able to get out of your brain.  Bellini’s Sonnambula (1831) shares a theme with Verdi’s Macbeth (1847).  Both Lady Macbeth and Amina, the girl at the centre of Bellini’s little rustic melodrama, are famously prone to sleep-walking.  But Lady Macbeth’s somnambulism has a dramatically different and serious purpose.  It reveals with devastating poignancy the psychological damage of the crimes she has engaged in, and her folly assuming that “a little water clears us of this deed”.

Macbeth is the most interesting and complex drama in the Holland Park programme – thanks, of course, to the great Shakespeare play on which it is based, but also to the remarkable way in which Verdi matches not just the atmosphere but the tragic scale of that original.  In one sense Verdi’s musical language in the 1840s lacked the psychological and dramatic colouring of Otello and Falstaff, 40 years later, but his lithe and always responsive tunefulness backed by subtle orchestral writing for winds, timpani and muted strings recreates perfectly the violent emotions, suspense and danger of the play.  The fate of the gruesome couple at the bleeding heart of this earliest sublime masterpiece by Verdi is always profoundly and fascinatingly affecting.  Fair enough, all opera is confessional: the point of the singing is to unbutton the emotions and reveal the nature of the character who is singing to us, giving us a close-up of their soul.  Verdi’s Macbeth is the apotheosis of bel canto, catchy, vocally demanding, sweeping through its horrors with compelling musical drive.  Bel canto means “beautiful song” and Macbeth needs a cast of consummate bel canto artists (beautiful singing was what composers around the 1830s were all about).  Yet Verdi’s desire to serve Shakespeare made him even more concerned with how it was acted.  His opera had to be extraordinary, unconventional, other-worldly, strange, nightmarish.  He gave the music a unique hysterical quality.  He even insisted the costumes be of wool, not silk as was the usual practice in the theatre of the day, and demanded a hugely extended rehearsal period to develop the theatricality.  He wanted his original singers, Varesi and Marianna Barbieri-Nini to sound “sotto voce” or “hollow tone” or “with mutes on”.  Shakespeare’s tragedy, he told his librettist Piave, “is one of the greatest of human creations!… If we can’t make something great of it, let’s at least try to make something uncommon”. Brevity and sublimity were primary objectives.  “Few words…  Few, few, but significant”. And he would much rather, he said, have a singer who sounded hoarse and stressed for Lady Macbeth than an immaculate vocal star, though he did not hesitate, when he reworked his Macbeth 18 years later in a French translation for Paris, to add a new great aria for Lady Macbeth “La luce langue” (“Light falls” – the text in Shakespeare’s memorable original continues “and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood”).  This number, in an undefinable way, carries the whole work on to a higher metaphysical plane.

Verdi was an agnostic.  But he saw the witches as more than mere devilish fantasy.  His protestant instincts made him warm to German critic Schlegel’s notion that they were inner demons, even if Italian opera in the 1840s demanded they be manifested as a chorus of whirling hags.  Being lower middle class himself he understood (as Shakespeare had) the Macbeths’ desperate social ambition.  These tyrants are arriviste, not remotely royal: they seek power to win the good life, disregard morality because that’s the price.  Macbeth, a successful general, a bit of a hero, was someone with an inner eye for the main chance.  That class aspect can be overlooked.  There are other crucial themes – the lack of a future, the absence of children.  The Macbeths’ unscrupulous self-indulgence resembles the self-serving delusion of Gloucester sex-murderers Fred and Rosemary West.  Macbeth in his greed degenerates into a serial killer.

Amina’s sleep-walking in La Sonnambula, by comparison with Lady Macbeth’s, leads to nothing more awkward than a misunderstanding.  Amina sleepwalks into the Count’s bedroom at the village inn.  Is her id trying to tell us something about her desire for upward mobility?  Not a bit of it.  In this innocent world sleepwalking is a mysterious plot device.  The fact that Amina’s rival Lisa finds her in the Count’s room and believes she has compromised herself blows the embers of an old love to life again.  But for us in the audience it’s an unfair accusation.  Amina’s devotion to Elvino is never in doubt.  Elvino is quick to find fault.  Amina’s happiness is at stake.  But her tendency to wander about while sleeping, which no doubt indicates some level of psychological anxiety, does not reveal anything significant about her.  Somnambulism is not within the village’s experience.  Indeed, the sightings are initially treated as ghostly.  But once the Count has enlightened everybody about the medical and unthreatening nature of the condition, Amina’s charmed innocence can be readily reaffirmed.  Her suitability as Elvino’s bride is entirely unaffected.  Bellini’s opera gives us simple passions expressed with florid abundance – but the village world is fundamentally naive.  There’s even a lovely chance for a convenient little educational demonstration.  Amina teeters across a chasm above the village (near the mill where she has been sleeping) and the walk is quite as dangerous as the social disaster which has been threatening her, and as the daring stratospheric vocalise that both tenor and soprano must deploy.  This example of sleep-walking witnessed by all convinces Elvino that his Amina is indeed subject to an inadvertent and entirely guiltless tendency.  The couple can be happy ever after.

Bellini’s Sonnambula and Donizetti’s adorable L’elisir d’amore (1832), also sometimes called The love potion, are all about misunderstandings and untrustworthy opportunism.  These two charmingly sentimental operas were unveiled within 12 months of each other, in different theatres in Milan.  Both libretti are adaptations by Felice Romani from original texts by Eugène Scribe.  They are not identical twins, however.  Instead they present reverse images of each other’s plot situation.  In the Bellini the love object is a man, and in the Donizetti a woman.  Bellini’s Amina is a passive figure who cannot apologise or explain or do a single thing to get back her Elvino, nor does she share her emotions about him or about her situation with the audience in the way Nemorino does in L’elisir – so unforgettably opening up in that irresistible hit song “Una furtiva lagrima”.  Sonnambula makes ambitious demands on the performers’. vocal art.  Where it defines characters by putting them through bel canto hoops, L’elisir is comedy rather than melodrama.  The Sonnambula story is less racy, less craftily comic, than L’elisir.  Yet the social territory of these two operas is very similar, though Donizetti anticipates an entirely bourgeois world, while Bellini is gently nostalgic for an 18th-century world where peasants know nothing except their place, and are pleased to be enlightened by a well-intentioned aristocrat.  Amina sleepwalks but couldn’t read a book to get to sleep.  Adina, Donizetti’s well off farm-owner, is addicted to romantic fiction.  Amina may be illiterate, while Adina has a touch of Jane Austen about her, including typical susceptibility to soldiers like Belcore.  The innocence of Sonnambula is wonderfully embodied in blithe uplifting arias.  Its people are childlike beings, the purity of whose emotions is revealed with delicate skill at the stratospheric tops of their voices.

Where Sonnambula is a simple tale, L’elisir presents a rich tapestry of social events.  The mountebank Dulcamara with his fake love potion, which is nothing more than disinhibiting alcohol, is a memorable larger-than life figure.  Actually, as Dulcamara’s trade suggests and as the opera naughtily implies, the real elixir of love is money.  Yet Nemorino’s passionate feelings for Adina seem completely authentic and unchallengeable.  Everything else in the story may be fake (except for the value of Adina’s land), but the love at its centre is the real thing.  Nemorino is genuinely vulnerable, and what enables him to win through is his sheer tenacity as much as the fact that finally he turns out to be less poor than he looks and feels – and in fact the unexpected beneficiary of a rich relative’s bequest.  Dulcamara and Belcore, the Captain who so quickly seduces Adina’s affection, are crucial figures – not just for their roles in the narrative panorama but because of the perspective that they respectively lend to the figure of the inadequate yet somehow more true lover.  But it is the vitality of the whole ensemble of human life against which Nemorino’s tale is placed that gives the work its distinction – Donizetti here created one of the greatest of all comic operas.  The music has a warmth and naturalness that are not just endearing but somehow unfadingly recognisable as realistic and contemporary.  In any case Donizetti shows himself in this comedy to have unerring dramatic skill.  The piece is on a par with Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  Irrepressibly good-humoured and honest, for all its playfulness, L’elisir is a work full of the love of life that always makes the world seem a better place.

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on the other hand speaks of a tragic world – though it shares with L’elisir the lover from the armed services who seems to be the answer to a girl’s prayers.  But there the resemblance between Adina and Cio-Cio-San stops.  The tragic heroine is an icon of betrayal in one of the most devastatingly political operas ever written.  Puccini introduces the story entirely from the point of view of Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton of the US Navy, eager to set up his love nest.  Yet the contract he enters into he has no intention of keeping, unlike the sentiment of “America for ever” toasted in whisky with the American consul Sharpless.  The trouble is that the more we believe in Pinkerton’s passion the more rotten he seems, and the higher the price Cio-Cio-San must pay for her delusion.  The contract is just a void where his heart should be, that well of feeling which Puccini makes seem believable through musical means.  The irony of the work lies in the passion that it so skilfully deploys, false passion that twists the knife.  The fact that this Japanese non-wife is as faithful as Penelope simply piles on further pain and revulsion.  The decision to return and remove the child, named Sorrow by his mother, adds insult to injury – and challenges our understanding of what we mean by “his” child, though Cio-Cio-San is dead when it happens.  Of course she should not have trusted her American lover.  The land of the free is made by Puccini to mean free of obligation.  The power of this remarkable opera lies in the way that Puccini’s music underscores the issues of trust and truth.  Madam Butterfly, after all, opts to be American and to trust an American’s word.  Yet David Belasco’s hit play on which the opera is based is a tale rooted in American criticism of American behaviour.  “Death with honour is better than life with dishonour,” is the motto: her suicide is a political comment on one American’s understanding of a contract and a romantic love.  It is almost impossible to witness a performance of this opera without weeping at the implicit loss of innocence on all sides: the American dream in its origin has such a purity and innocence about it, and the abandonment by Cio-Cio-San of her Japanese culture and adoption of American ways is also intensely innocent and uncalculating.  Those final cries “Butterfly… Butterfly..”. sung by Pinkerton are actually the voice of conscience inside his head.

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier are linked by the matter of poetry.  Chénier was a poet guillotined during the French revolution, aged 32.  In the story Onegin’s friend Lensky – whom he shoots dead in a duel – was a poet.  Tchaikovsky’s opera is based on the long narrative poem by Pushkin from which all Russian literature springs – and Pushkin was himself shot dead in a duel at the age of 38.  The text for Giordano’s opera was written by Luigi Illica, one of the two librettists of Butterfly (and of other Puccini operas).  Lensky in Eugene Onegin spins out an amazingly poetic and moving aria as he awaits Onegin’s arrival to fight their fatal duel.  Tatyana, like Amina in L’elisir, is the kind of girl who always has her head in a book.

Onegin is a loner – and the opera about him by Tchaikovsky does not really fit comfortably into any historical group.  Is Tchaikovsky a forerunner of the “young school” of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Puccini in Italy – the verismo masters?  Tchaikovsky’s opera has numbers and is not symphonic, though it does tell its story through a series of powerful melodic motifs.  It has perhaps more in common with Bizet than with anything in Italy.  And yet it is an extraordinarily truthful and observant opera, whose characters and situations display a credible lifelikeness that few operas in the repertoire can match.  It is in effect a veristic opera, yet the vitality of its ensembles is a bit old-fashioned and led off by simple foursquare melodies when compared with, say, the Café Momus scene in La Bohème, and the whole structure is a little pedestrian.  But at the same time the poignancy of the feelings being examined in a work that Tchaikovsky subtitled “lyric scenes” has a very special force.

Tchaikovsky creates such believable characters, relying on their earlier existence in the Pushkin poem, that they really seem like people one knows, and for the Russian audience (or for Dostoevsky, say) their predicaments have a universality.  They are models for a consideration of Russian life.  Tchaikovsky clearly identified with Onegin, who could well be torn by a comparable sexual ambivalence to that afflicting the composer himself.  Onegin does not win our admiration by “teaching Lensky a lesson” for being jealous – since the row between the friends leads to Lensky’s death, quite disproportionately and in a way that really cannot claim to have much to do with honour except according to some perverse code.  Onegin seems unable to stop himself behaving badly – he has very little insight about himself.  Tatyana on the other hand is superior in this respect almost from the word go.  The opera is about that “tide in the affairs of men” (as Shakespeare put it in Julius Caesar) “which taken at the flood leads on to fortune”.  Could or would Onegin and Tatyana have been happy?  Tchaikovsky shows us a woman who has grown into a mature phase, who has become more than she once was before she grew up – Prince Gremin’s aria (hymning his love for Tatyana while talking to Onegin at his grand ball) is enough to make anyone jealous.  Onegin’s sense of inadequacy is an entirely unique phenomenon in opera, and it stirs our pity in a way that is also unique, especially because he in a sense does not deserve our pity.  This pair meet and are doomed not to relate properly, though at the end Tatyana despite being torn by her duty utters the words “I love you still”, twisting the knife in Onegin’s back (though it isn’t revenge on her part, just involuntary nostalgia of which this opera has so much).  The might-have-beens and the must-bes are part of the innate fascination of opera and drama.  Tchaikovsky’s picture of these people is certainly less subtle than Pushkin’s, and more sharply defined by the music in which they are given life and distinctive individuality.  But the conundrum at the heart of Eugene Onegin is itself a profound truth about life.  If opera can do what Tchaikovsky makes it do here, it can do anything.

Giordano’s Chénier is a fabulous vehicle for a thrilling tenor with a voice like a golden blade.  The story is a bit like a schoolboy’s adventure yarn, and none the worse for being more or less true.  But Pushkin’s fiction, Eugene Onegin, is more interesting than historical fact.  The political situations in Giordano’s opera which was the one copper-bottomed hit of his career are coarsely outlined, treated without refinement, and the love interest between Maddalena di Coigny and the poet is very superficial despite her heroism at the end when she changes places with someone condemned and goes to her death in place of them in order to be near her beloved Chénier.  The disgruntled politically aware servant Gerard from the first act, bitter at the work he and his tired old father must do for the thoughtless aristocrats, is just a placard figure, not somebody genuine.

Beaumarchais’.Figaro has more to say for himself in the Mozart opera.  Illica, Giordano’s librettist, was frightened off making the text really engage with ideas because the 1890s were a time when the socialist party had been banned in Italy.  The terror is a bit cheap, when Chénier comes to trial.  In a sense the story works itself up, rather than being naturally impelled in an exciting way.  And yet this is of all the Holland Park operas this season the one with most memorable arias.  Everything the tenor hero sings is worth writing home about.  The piece may be a tad vulgar, but for the singer with what it takes it is a heaven-sent opportunity.  Vickers, Corelli, Domingo – and many others before them such as Gigli and Lauri-Volpi – have all shone in the role.  There’s nothing wrong with a good musical vehicle.  Giordano’s Chénier is utterly compelling.  While the tenor sings,  spinning out unbelievable shining top notes, you believe everything.