A(nother) Big Bang

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Sun, 2006-12-10 21:38

Reposted from SOLOHQ due to the popularity of Daniel's recent thread.

I spent this last week in some of the world’s great Opera Houses.

I made it to the Met, moseyed around Mantua, cavorted over to Covent Garden, blitzed through Bayreuth and then sashayed across to Stuttgart’s Staatsoper[1]. What a week! Such a wonderful experience -- and all without jet-lag, and not once having my belongings inspected by customs!

How did I do it? I’ll tell you: I’ve discovered the very best way to enjoy opera. No more playing records or CDs while wrestling with a large libretto to work out what the hell they’re all in such a lather about; no more attending lack-lustre local performances of otherwise fabulous music (oh, okay, I’ll probably still do both, I confess) – for I have discovered opera on DVD!

What a great leap forward is DVD! What a wonder! One can listen to the music in CD-quality sound through one’s stereo while watching the whole drama unfold and (if you want to, mind) with subtitles turned on to find out what the hell they’re singing about. (Or, if it’s Joan Sutherland, to find out what she’s meant to be singing.) And, what’s more, an opera on DVD is generally cheaper than its counterpart on CD! What could be better than that?

Now, with the advent of opera-on-DVD, anyone can be introduced to the one of the finest of human creations: opera as she is supposed to be experienced. And you can even drink a beer while you’re about it!

Why is this such a revolution? Let me explain. When any decent composer writes an opera he sees and hears the work as a unit, with theatre, poetry, drama, dance and music all working together as an organic whole. That’s certainly what Claudio Monteverdi had in mind when he wrote Orfeo back in 1607 and so brought opera into being, and it’s been that way ever since. Not for him wrenching music away from the spectacle to have ‘bleeding chunks’[2] of it offered up away and apart from its original theatrical setting; for the opera composer the music and theatrical experience are an indivisible unit.

There had always been music that depicted things (battle-scene pieces for organ, love songs for lute and voice, choral motets expressing the sorrow and pain of the Crucifixion, and so on), but in Orfeo the whole work conspired to tell a story, to make a point, to convince an audience of its meaning … It is music about something, music with an attitude and an argument. It is as if it has liberated itself from the purely musical bounds of its previous existence.[3]

But ‘bleeding chunks’ of opera tend to divorce the music from its meaning, particularly when it’s sung in a language foreign, or with diction poor – and that wasn’t what was intended.

From the outset, Monteverdi insisted that this was a drama through music. In other words, every event, thought, emotion, action or dialogue should as far as possible be expressed through the singing and playing; the songs shouldn’t just be an opportunity for the singers to show off.[4]

Hah! Tell that to the many preening cock-feathers of singing and recording history.

You see, the development of sound-recording spurred on the show-offs, and stunted the story. It started with concert performances of arias and choruses divorced from their original setting, and then with the arrival of recording technology ‘bleeding chunks’ of opera were suddenly everywhere. All of a sudden Caruso was pouring forth from every phonograph. Now, this is by no means a bad thing, as my own record collection will attest, but it wasn’t what opera composers had intended. Furthermore, the process that started out showcasing the tremendous talents of such as Caruso and Callas has now ended up showcasing talentless bores such as Bocelli and Watson.

The integration of music with the drama that is so crucial to the operatic experience was being lost; we’d lost the whole reason that opera had first been invented:

Until now. DVD has brought opera back to its roots, and for the first time made it easy for us to have the full experience of opera in our own home, and whenever we want! Wow!

Now, be warned however. Not all performances available on DVD are yet world class (although there are already some tremendous performances available) and not every director knows yet how to film opera successfully (although the name of Brian Large seems to loom … well … large among the more visually successful). With the arrival of this new technology however we might well expect a flood of product, amongst which there are bound to be enough gems to delight even the most po-faced of purists. And me.

And who knows? We might yet get to see Placido Domingo perform Siegfried even if he is too old for the part on stage -- and we could savour the performance every night if we wanted to!

[1] For the interested, or merely curious, what I watched at each venue was, respectively Gotterdammerung, Rigoletto, Falstaff, Die Walkure and Siegfried. Marks for each would be, in order: pass; highly commended; must try harder; splendid; and please-leave-and-don’t-come-back.
[2] Wagner it was who famously bemoaned this phenomenon and who gave the experience the memorable phrase ‘bleeding chunks’, but many others including Mozart and Verdi would also decry it. Indeed, in arias such as Gilda’s Caro Nome from Rigoletto, Verdi intentionally segued the singing with that of the piece immediately following it in order to make it difficult for the soprano to perform it outside its original setting. He was to be disappointed in this legerdemain: the sopranos still managed.
[3] Big Bangs: The Story of Five Discoveries that Changed Musical History, Howard Goodall; Vintage, 2001.
[4] Goodall again. You really should see his TV series Big Bangs, after which the book was written. I believe it too is available on DVD.

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