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- A Second Book Of Operas - 4/31 -


century or more by the authors of sacra azione, written to take the place of secular operas in Lent. The stories of Jephtha and his daughter, Hezekiah, Belshazzar, Abraham and Isaac, Jonah, Job, the Judgment of Solomon, and the Last Judgment became the staple of opera composers in Italy and Germany for more than a century. Alessandro Scarlatti, whose name looms large in the history of opera, also composed oratorios; and Mr. E. J. Dent, his biographer, has pointed out that "except that the operas are in three acts and the oratorios in two, the only difference is in the absence of professedly comic characters and of the formal statement in which the author protests that the words fata, dio, dieta, etc., are only scherzi poetici and imply nothing contrary to the Catholic faith." Zeno and Metastasio wrote texts for sacred operas as well as profane, with Tobias, Absalom, Joseph, David, Daniel, and Sisera as subjects.

Presently I shall attempt a discussion of the gigantic attempt made by Rubinstein to enrich the stage with an art-form to which he gave a distinctive name, but which was little else than, an inflated type of the old sacra azione, employing the larger apparatus which modern invention and enterprise have placed at the command of the playwright, stage manager, and composer. I am compelled to see in his project chiefly a jealous ambition to rival the great and triumphant accomplishment of Richard Wagner, but it is possible that he had a prescient eye on a coming time. The desire to combine pictures with oratorio has survived the practice which prevailed down to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Handel used scenes and costumes when he produced his "Esther," as well as his "Acis and Galatea," in London. Dittersdorf has left for us a description of the stage decorations prepared for his oratorios when they were performed in the palace of the Bishop of Groswardein. Of late years there have been a number of theatrical representations of Mendelssohn's "Elijah." I have witnessed as well as heard a performance of "Acis and Galatea" and been entertained with the spectacle of Polyphemus crushing the head of presumptuous Acis with a stave like another Fafner while singing "Fly, thou massy ruin, fly" to the bludgeon which was playing understudy for the fatal rock.

This diverting incident brings me to a consideration of one of the difficulties which stand in the way of effective stage pictures combined with action in the case of some of the most admired of the subjects for oratorios or sacred opera. It was not the Lord Chamberlain who stood in the way of Saint-Saens's "Samson et Dalila" in the United States for many years, but the worldly wisdom of opera managers who shrank from attempting to stage the spectacle of the falling Temple of Dagon, and found in the work itself a plentiful lack of that dramatic movement which is to-day considered more essential to success than beautiful and inspiriting music. "Samson et Dalila" was well known in its concert form when the management of the Metropolitan Opera House first attempted to introduce it as an opera. It had a single performance in the season of 1894-1895 and then sought seclusion from the stage lamps for twenty years. It was, perhaps, fortunate for the work that no attempt was made to repeat it, for, though well sung and satisfactorily acted, the toppling of the pillars of the temple, discreetly supported by too visible wires, at the conclusion made a stronger appeal to the popular sense of the ridiculous than even Saint-Saens's music could withstand. It is easy to inveigh against the notion frivolous fribbles and trumpery trappings receive more attention than the fine music which ought to be recognized as the soul of the work, the vital spark which irradiates an inconsequential material body; but human nature has not yet freed itself sufficiently from gross clogs to attain so ideal an attitude.

It is to a danger similar to that which threatened the original New York "Samson" that the world owes the most popular melody in Rossini's "Mose." The story is old and familiar to the students of operatic history, but will bear retelling. The plague of darkness opens the opera, the passage of the Red Sea concludes it. Rossini's stage manager had no difficulty with the former, which demanded nothing more than the lowering of the stage lights. But he could evolve no device which could save the final miracle from laughter. A hilarious ending to so solemn a work disturbed the management and the librettist, Totola, who, just before a projected revival in Naples, a year or two after the first production, came to the composer with a project for saving the third act. Rossini was in bed, as usual, and the poet showed him the text of the prayer, "Dal tuo stellato," which he said he had written in an hour. "I will get up and write the music," said Rossini; "you shall have it in a quarter of an hour." And he kept his word, whether literally or not in respect of time does not matter. When the opera was again performed it contained the chorus with its melody which provided Paganini with material for one of his sensational performances on the G-string.

[figure: a musical score excerpt]

Carpani tells the story and describes the effect upon the audience which heard it for the first time. Laughter was just beginning in the pit when the public was surprised to note that Moses was about to sing. The people stopped laughing and prepared to listen. They were awed by the beauty of the minor strain which was echoed by Aaron and then by the chorus of Israelites. The host marched across the mimic sea and fell on its knees, and the music burst forth again, but now in the major mode. And now the audience joined in the jubilation. The people in the boxes, says Carpani, stood up; they leaned over the railings; applauded; they shouted: "Bello! bello! O che bello!" Carpani adds: "I am almost in tears when I think of this prayer." An impressionable folk, those Italians of less than a century ago. "Among other things that can be said in praise of our hero," remarked a physician to Carpani, amidst the enthusiasm caused by the revamped opera, "do not forget that he is an assassin. I can cite to you more than forty attacks of nervous fever or violent convulsions on the part of young women, fond to excess of music, which have no other origin than the prayer of the Hebrews in the third act with its superb change of key!"

Thus music saved the scene in Naples. When the opera was rewritten for London and made to tell a story about Peter the Hermit, the corresponding scene had to be elided after the first performance. Ebers tells the story: "A body of troops was supposed to pass over a bridge which, breaking, was to precipitate them into the water. The troops being made of basketwork and pulled over the bridge by ropes, unfortunately became refractory on their passage, and very sensibly refused, when the bridge was about to give way, to proceed any further; consequently when the downfall of the arches took place the basket men remained very quietly on that part of the bridge which was left standing, and instead of being consigned to the waves had nearly been set on fire. The audience, not giving the troops due credit for their prudence, found no little fault with their compliance with the law of self-preservation. In the following representations of the opera the bridge and basket men which, en passant (or en restant rather), had cost fifty pounds, were omitted." [Footnote: Op. cit., p. 160] When "Moise" was prepared in Paris 45,000 francs were sunk in the Red Sea.

I shall recur in a moment to the famous preghiera but, having Ebers' book before me, I see an anecdote so delightfully illustrative of the proverbial spirit of the lyric theatre that I cannot resist the temptation to repeat it. In the revised "Moses" made for Paris there occurs a quartet beginning "Mi manca la voce" ("I lack voice") which Chorley describes as "a delicious round." Camporese had to utter the words first and no sooner had she done so than Ronzi di Begnis, in a whisper, loud enough to be heard by her companion, made the comment "E vero!" ("True!")--"a remark," says Mr. Ebers, "which produced a retort courteous somewhat more than verging on the limit of decorum, though not proceeding to the extremity asserted by rumor, which would have been as inconsistent with propriety as with the habitual dignity and self-possession of Camporese's demeanor."

Somebody, I cannot recall who, has said that the success of "Dal tuo stellato" set the fashion of introducing prayers into operas. Whether this be true or not, it is a fact that a prayer occurs in four of the operas which Rossini composed for the Paris Grand Opera and that the formula is become so common that it may be set down as an operatic convention, a convention, moreover, which even the iconoclast Wagner left undisturbed. One might think that the propriety of prayer in a religious drama would have been enforced upon the mind of a classicist like Goethe by his admiration for the antique, but it was the fact that Rossini's opera showed the Israelites upon their knees in supplication to God that set the great German poet against "Mose." In a conversation recorded by Eckermann as taking place in 1828, we hear him uttering his objection to the work: "I do not understand how you can separate and enjoy separately the subject and the music. You pretend here that the subject is worthless, but you are consoled for it by a feast of excellent music. I wonder that your nature is thus organized that your ear can listen to charming sounds while your sight, the most perfect of your senses, is tormented by absurd objects. You will not deny that your 'Moses' is in effect very absurd. The curtain is raised and people are praying. This is all wrong. The Bible says that when you pray you should go into your chamber and close the door. Therefore, there should be no praying in the theatre. As for me, I should have arranged a wholly different 'Moses.' At first I should have shown the children of Israel bowed down by countless odious burdens and suffering from the tyranny of the Egyptian rulers. Then you would have appreciated more easily what Moses deserved from his race, which he had delivered from a shameful oppression." "Then," says Mr. Philip Hale, who directed my attention to this interesting passage, "Goethe went on to reconstruct the whole opera. He introduced, for instance, a dance of the Egyptians after the plague of darkness was dispelled."

May not one criticise Goethe? If he so greatly reverenced prayer, according to its institution under the New Dispensation, why did he not show regard also for the Old and respect the verities of history sufficiently to reserve his ballet till after the passage of the Red Sea, when Moses celebrated the miracle with a song and "Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances"?

CHAPTER II

BIBLE STORIES IN OPERA AND ORATORIO

It was the fond belief of Dr. Chrysander, born of his deep devotion to Handel, in whose works he lived aud moved and had his being, that the heroic histories of the Jews offered no fit material for dramatic representation. In his view the Jews never created dramatic poetry, partly because of the Mosaic prohibition against plastic delineation of their Deity, partly because the tragic


A Second Book Of Operas - 4/31

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