Don’t Sing the High C

Roger Parker

  • Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera by Philip Gossett
    Chicago, 675 pp, £22.50, September 2006, ISBN 0 226 30482 5

Divas and, recently, divos are all around us. Late last year, the newspapers and opera websites had a feeding frenzy over the antics of the tenor Roberto Alagna, who had been singing Radames in Aida at La Scala. On the second night, booed after his entrance aria by the notoriously partisan loggionisti (an army of singer-obsessives who haunt the upper reaches of the theatre), Alagna simply walked offstage, leaving the mezzo Amneris, who had just entered to sing a duet with him, staring at her fingernails. The band played on. By chance (or so they say: Alagna later suspected a conspiracy), the understudy tenor was hanging around backstage. On he went, jeans and T-shirt notwithstanding: it wasn’t until later in the act that he was able to slip into something Egyptian and join a triumphal march or two. Alagna was banned from further performances, and bade the theatre a flamboyant public farewell, singing ‘Addio fiorito asil’ (from Madam Butterfly) in the Piazza della Scala; threats of lawsuits and further cancellations flew back and forth; parterre box, the ‘queer opera zine’, went into overdrive. Some old hands fondly recalled the time when the ur-diva Callas walked out of Norma when she was booed; but la divina waited until the end of the first act, which proves that singers aren’t what they used to be. (As if to remind us of this, a couple of months later Opera magazine gave subscribers four postcards with photos of Callas and others; they were packaged as ‘FREE vintage divas’.)

All this may sound fairly trivial (unless you happened to be singing Amneris), but the sustained furore it caused in the media shows once again how unstable, potent and alluring a mixture the words ‘Italian’, ‘opera’ and ‘singer’ can still be. Even people who might know better get caught up in the game. Here, for example, is the way Philip Gossett begins his long, passionate and often fascinating book:

Every summer Italians find themselves engaged in delicate negotiations on which the happiness of a family depends: should they spend their vacation at the seaside or in the mountains, mare o monti? Some believe in the virtues of clean air and brisk walks on carefully marked paths far above the heat and humidity of an Italian August. Some prefer sea breezes, swimming in the Mediterranean (less polluted than a decade ago), and quiet rest under an umbrella in one of the symmetrically arranged beach chairs that line Italy’s shores. If papa loves the mountain scenery, mamma looks forward to joining her friends at the sea; if 13-year-old Emma expects to hit the trail before daybreak, 18-year-old Massimo wants only to ogle the procession of teenage beauties in ever briefer bathing attire on their endless walks for his benefit, up and down the hot Adriatic sands.

The scene is set, then, amid a formidable collection of national clichés, even including Massimo, the ‘Latin lover’; and in spite of its seriousness of purpose, the book periodically returns to the idea of Italians generally, and their national opera and its executants in particular, as at base exotic. Of course, when an academic writes about ‘divas and scholars’ some clash of sensibilities may be inevitable. It’s strange, though, that the dice are so consistently loaded. For example, and as his lopsided title suggests, Gossett’s extended narrative is consistently gentle on scholars (hard-working, patient, unassuming truth-seekers), but peppered with extravagant images of aberrant singers. Although a few of them (Marilyn Horne above all) are praised with piercing cries, many more are lampooned or worse. Maria Malibran was ‘the very model of a capricious prima donna’; modern singers often cause difficulties because their ‘egos need constant stroking’; worst of all was 19th-century Italian opera, ‘where tempers are hotter and prima donnas more imperious’.

This is emphatically a scholar’s tale, and mostly it’s one of conquest: of the way in which, over the last forty or so years, the repertory of 19th-century Italian opera has been enriched and expanded (not always the same thing) by new editions of well-known titles, and by exhumations of works that had languished in the densest of dense obscurity. For all but the very earliest of those forty years, Gossett has been the leading figure in this movement, which means that he has been personally responsible for spreading quite significant amounts of musical pleasure around the globe. Before the 1960s, this corner of the operatic repertoire was mostly represented by a handful of works: the eight or so Verdi warhorses, a couple each by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Walk into the opera house these days and your choice is hugely expanded. The repertory has increased alarmingly, with literally hundreds of operas now available for performance; and in some cases even very famous titles have been transformed, through the efforts of humble ‘scholars’. Why and how did this expansion occur?

The ‘why’ bit is complicated; but the basic reasons are fairly obvious, and some might think rather gloomy. Early symptoms of our modern condition appeared in 1920s Germany, where there was a so-called ‘Verdi Renaissance’ during which several of his forgotten works were revived. This was in part a reaction against Wagner, traditionally Verdi’s antithesis; but it also reflected the fact that new operatic works, which had been the lifeblood of the industry since the 17th century, were drying up. People still wanted to go to the opera (in fact, radio and recordings were expanding the market), but they didn’t want to hear modern works any more. So the repertory renewed itself by digging into its past: first, with revivals of Verdi and Mozart (whose operas had been largely forgotten in the 19th century); then, spreading from Germany to elsewhere in Europe, with Verdi’s earlier contemporaries; and more recently still, with even earlier composers such as Handel. In this sense the story parallels the ‘early music’ movement generally: it was born of and is sustained by cultural pessimism – by the fact that, musically, we now enjoy novelty more when it comes from the past than when it comes from the present.

The ‘how’ has, for some, also been a less than welcome story. The phenomenon of Regieoper, the habit of aggressively updating the visual side of old works, arose at the same time as the Verdi Renaissance. This technology-fuelled movement, linked to the trend towards abstraction in the fine arts, seems to have started life as an attempt to make unfamiliar operas, in forgotten idioms, more immediately relevant to modern audiences. But it soon became, and has notoriously remained, a way of reinterpreting opera generally, of defamiliarising works otherwise thought too well known to communicate a sufficiently robust and contemporary message. Later came the idea of ‘historical performance’, which also attempted to make ancient musical objects newly meaningful, adding to them a patina of modernity which, although it claimed authority from the past, was in many senses similar in spirit to the efforts of those ‘radical’ stage directors.

Gossett writes about both modern directorial trends and ‘historical’ performers at some length, and extends a cautious welcome to both; but his principal focus remains what ‘scholars’ have contributed to this investigation of our operatic past. So far as Rossini is concerned, the gains have been spectacular. A long-term collaboration between Gossett and the Rossini Festival at Pesaro (a partnership that came to a rancorous end, with Gossett’s departure) launched a steady stream of re-edited or rediscovered works, several of which have taken on very considerable lives of their own. For example, the success of Il viaggio a Reims, whose discovery is recounted in detail, has been remarkable. Its 1984 premiere in Pesaro under Claudio Abbado was an important moment (Gossett, not one to undersell his achievements, tells us that the performance ‘is widely viewed as one of the great musical events in Italy of the past half century’): philological sleuthing gave us, in this case, a largely new work by the mature Rossini, an object worthy of separate aesthetic contemplation.

With later composers, the rewards of new editions are for the most part less striking. The famous exception (hardly mentioned by Gossett, possibly because he was not much involved) is Don Carlos, which is now routinely heard with whole swathes of music unknown to most of the 20th century. Elsewhere, Verdi’s desire to control the details of his musical text means that there are fewer surprises, but even a work as well known as Rigoletto can boast fresh configurations in its new, critical edition. For a century and more, the Duke of Mantua swaggered into Sparafucile’s tavern in Act III to demand ‘Due cose e tosto . . . una stanza e del vino’ (‘Two things straight away . . . a room and some wine’). Gossett and his editorial team, going back to Verdi’s autograph, saw that ‘una stanza’ was a non-authorial emendation, probably insisted on by the censor: Verdi and his librettist had followed Hugo’s original play and written ‘tua sorella e del vino’ (‘your sister and some wine’). Many opera directors will probably enjoy the opportunities this new reading presents.

There has, of course, been resistance in some quarters to this scholarly activity, just as there has been both to ‘historical’ performance and to the most determined or outrageous of modernising directors. There have also been accusations (surely exaggerated) to the effect that critical editions are simply a canny way for publishers to renew their copyright on works long in the public domain. These complaints may account for the combative, sometimes hectoring tone of the book. I’ve already mentioned Gossett’s often negative attitude to singers, who are at the sharp end of the process and are on occasion reluctant to learn new tricks, especially when they’ve been earning money from the old ones. Also under fire are conductors who continue to perform (and to defend as ‘traditional’) older texts, ones that may have cuts and other alterations. The lexicon Gossett uses to execrate these texts is remarkable: the music is ‘deformed’, ‘disfigured’, ‘dismembered’, ‘decimated’; one passage is ‘utterly void of any dramatic meaning’, another has had ‘its heart . . . ripped away’. He also makes clear that ‘tradition’ is usually traceable to the recent rather than distant past, and can be used as a fig leaf to cover an unwillingness to try new solutions, or even as a mask for laziness. Typically, though, he ups the ante by stating that ‘when a conductor makes a cut because it is “traditional” . . . he is acting without artistic integrity.’ This goes too far. There may be a kind of integrity in performing a work in the shape it held for preceding generations; continuity counts for something and has its own historical interest, even if what is being preserved might count as ‘error’.

Gossett’s greatest displeasure is reserved for the loggionisti, who tend to be deeply conservative: suspicious of music they don’t know; ready to boo the house down if they dislike a singer (Alagna knows all about this), or if they’re given a slightly unfamiliar version of an opera they have back home on disc. Such behaviour is particularly common in Italy (in Britain, it seems, we only ever boo the director), possibly because there’s felt to be more at stake in the birthplace of opera: a greater sense of national identity is bound up with the whole phenomenon. At the end of Act III of Il trovatore, Manrico’s aria ‘Di quella pira’ almost always closes with a ringing high C from the tenor, a note quite out of keeping with the rest of the role, which has long been known to be ‘traditional’ (no score near to the date of the first performance has a trace of it), but which is still the most famous utterance in the whole work. When Riccardo Muti, who is famous for adhering to the exact musical text, opened the 2000-1 La Scala season with Il trovatore, he instructed the tenor on no account to sing the offending high C; the tenor trembled and obeyed; the loggionisti went mad, cries of ‘vergogna’ (‘shame’) raining down on the stage. Why so much passion? One waggish critic had earlier tried to defend the note, suggesting that if it wasn’t by Verdi, then it was best thought of as a gift to Verdi from the Italian people. Gossett derides this as sentimentality, but it’s an interesting formulation, suggesting as it does the extent to which some in Italy feel that they own the operatic experience.

What does the future hold? Will Italian 19th-century opera keep going down the long slide, with more unknown works, and more new editions, appearing endlessly? Gossett hopes for a world in which ‘those of us who love this art form in all its complexity’ will ‘work diligently to raise the level of discourse’, and that seems modest enough: the operatic universe will continue to expand, with editions clearing away the errors and misconceptions of our recent past. That may happen, but there are signs of trouble ahead. In Italy, enormous public subsidies allowed houses such as La Scala to pay out substantial performing rights for new editions; these subsidies have now been savagely cut, which may result in reduced income for publishers, making their investment in new editions less attractive. What’s more, the main Italian publisher of critical editions, Ricordi, has seen its activity and influence much diminished since its takeover in 1994 by BMG (part of the Bertelsmann group). The future of the company became even more uncertain after Bertelsmann’s decision last year to sell BMG to Universal Music (part of Vivendi). These corporate moves have much to do with the earning power of musicians such as Christina Aguilera and Barry Manilow; they may not help Rossini and Verdi.

Added to this, the operatic caravan is moving on. While the success of John Adams gives hope to those who think that contemporary opera has a future, the cultural pessimists are going further back in time to renew the repertory. Perhaps the Italian 19th century has hit a peak, and those who today boo Alagna and lament the loss of Manrico’s high C will tomorrow be equally passionate about how the latest counter-tenor ornaments his da capo aria in Giulio Cesare. Certainly the extraordinary explosion of Handel opera performances in the last twenty years is likely to cause losses elsewhere, as will the increasing celebrity of international voices that can sing Handel superbly (and thus, almost by definition, not sing Verdi and his contemporaries). One thing, though, seems certain. In spite of the decline in public subsidies in Western Europe, and in spite of the still desperate lack of contemporary works joining the repertory, opera continues steadily to increase its international audience. This audience will sometimes find pleasure in new works (whether from the present or the past), as they will in new versions of old works. Divas and scholars will thus need to rejoin their battles from time to time, but at least for now the ground on which they enact the struggle looks firm.