Wednesday, May 26, 2010

As Good As It Gets

In the past week, chaperoning a young supernumary, I've heard a rehearsals and two performances of Don Carlo, which has been ample reminder that, in the 19th century, opera was the principal genre for innovation in orchestration and that, among opera composers, Verdi was an orchestrator with only one major competitor, Berlioz.  (Yeah, Berlioz, I've been wanting to add Les Troyens to my list of landmarks for long, long time but have been more than a little frightened by the prospect of writing something, even something very brief, about the grandest of the grand operas; the piece, as a whole, and in so many details, is more than remarkable.)

In any case: Verdi, orchestration. Pay attention to these things: the economy of his ensemble writing, allowing for the most potent use of the entire range of scoring patterns, from solo instrument (in Don Carlo, exquisite writing for clarinet and cello in particular) to chamber-scale groupings all the way up to full orchestra, choir and soloists, a combination that registers more on the memory than actually appears in a score, then his usage of the on-stage bands to achieve very subtle spatial distinctions, and his reserve with the use of the full string section, with the weight of winds, particularly solo winds, but also the horn and trombone (agile, originally for valved instruments) sections, used as sharp points of contrast. To some extent, these are features of orchestration that we have more or less internalized as a standard of good practice, but the degree to which Verdi is responsible for that practice is either overlooked or taken for granted.

The 20th century started out blockbusters for opera orchestration, between Debussy and the two Strauss Einackters. Why then, with the exceptions of radically different pit bands for Glass or Ashley, so late in the century, did opera so lamentably stop being a genre for instrumental innovation? I suspect that the "too big to fail" scale and status of opera houses and orchestras as institutions played a major role, with considerable inertia in the composition and usage of the pit orchestra. In any case, the failure to innovate has come at a large cost to the genre as both a wider public attraction and a musical/intellectual playground.


Joe Shelby said...

Well, there is also the place that Opera had within the larger context of musical development at the time.

Consider the reactions of the public (especially in Paris) to works like Debussy's Prelude, Stravinsky's Le Sacre, and Satie's Parade. Such a reaction as Le Sacre got at the time might bankrupt an opera company.

Then there's the musical direction itself. While Strauss's Elektra was certainly a key work at the time, he himself never went into that direction again, falling back on "safer" Romantic patterns. With both Elektra and the later Wozzeck, the audiences at the time were still having difficulty accepting the musical structures, nevermind the intensity of the subject matter.

There was perhaps some development in Opera as a leading edge form in Britten's Peter Grimes. Too, Shostakovich's Lady MacBeth is something of a direction-setter, only we know what happened there. Such politics, as well as the post-war depressions (and the war's impact on the population at large), likely played a role in the "safety" of Opera in Germany and Italy at the time.

One of the other changes is that the Americans were now finding a different identity and footing in the mid 20th century. They weren't making operas, but rather they were inventing the American Musical.

sfmike said...

Even though it doesn't really have an ending, which in its own way is sort of cool, Verdi's "Don Carlo/Don Carlos" is the great 19th century opera, period. Musically and dramatically, it's stuffed with richness but as economically as can be. The only other 19th century operatic works that I love as much are those other behemoths, Rossini's "Guillaume Tell" and Berlioz's "Les Troyens." I was a supernumerary a couple of times for "Don Carlo," dragging tenors and baritones off the stage, and it couldn't have been more fun. Enjoy your backstage babysitting with Verdi, who really was god.

Daniel Wolf said...

Mike --

The non-ending of Don Carlo(s) — reflecting both the story itself and Verdi's own sense of striving despite pessimism — makes it more of a late 20th century, proto-existentialist work, than a mid-19th century work, don't you think? I wonder if that affected its performance history even more than the fact that the second-tier figures have the real crowd pleasing arias and ensembles (Posa, Eboli, King, Grand Inquisator).

I tentatively with agree with you about this trio of works, with my edge probably going to Les Troyens. Sadly, I've never seen Guillaume Tell on stage, but the score is wonderful. (BTW, I envy your Don Carlo work: I can imagine no greater kick that getting to supernumer in all three, a veritable grand slam of opera walkonandoffs.) But before I commit to this list, I still need to know Falstaff and Oberon (yes, Oberon, and in English) better.

A second BTW: The end of the Frankfurt season features The Damnation of Faust and it's been very interesting to see how exotic the French repertoire in general, and Berlioz in particular, remains to a German public. I hope to write about this soon.