Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Books of the opera


England has other boons to thank the Italians for, besides the allegorical “£ s. d.” which we place at the head of our accounts. Not only our monetary, but our musical system is theirs. If Italy has overrun us with organ-grinders, she has at least supplied us with singers, and those of the very best that could be obtained for love or money. The Italian opera is as much an English institution as the Bank, and the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is a kindly patron. The moneyed classes have a partiality for Italian opera, and think nothing of fifty or a hundred pounds for the farewell benefit of a Grisi. They are musical epicures, and take to Italian singing as the Romans of old took to nightingales’ tongues. Why is this? Is it because Englishmen understand Italian, and desire to improve in it? A better plea might be urged for the performance of operas in Latin. Is it because Italian is fashionable? German would carry the day at any first-class assembly. The reason lies in the prestige of Italian opera. Englishmen care little in what language it is performed, so they can have their favourite singers. It is music—it is a fine voice that the public flock to hear; and so the soprano’s notes soar clear and bird-like, and the tenor’s voice attains the perfection of a musical instrument, they can shrug their shoulders both at the sentiments and the phraseology. Insipid verses uttered in the fervour of operatic rapture by a Patti or a Piccolomini, are more palatable to the ear than the finest drama indifferently performed; and a Lablache has moved millions by libretto-twaddle, which, stripped of its music, would not have been tolerated at the lowest theatres.

But it must not be supposed that the libretto is without supporters. There are not wanting persons who consider it as essential to the proper enjoyment of an opera as the opera-glass itself. While Pope, Dryden, Goldsmith, and others lie in honourable retirement on the shelf (as far as the general public is concerned), the “Traviata” has been catering high and low for maintenance and applause—lying upon the piano of the innocent girl—taking a borrowed lustre from the fascinating music with which it is associated, and rivalling even the “Idylls of the King” in sale and reputation. Few works at Mudie’s have received more favour than this trashy and meretricious book. Few fashionable novels—happily defunct at the end of the season—have been more gladly welcomed, or more calmly tolerated; and the libretto-system has only escaped some very rough handling, out of consideration for the music with which it is eternally wedded.

We have heard of persons who maintain that a knowledge of Latin and French is equivalent to a knowledge of Italian, and that by their joint means an opera may be thoroughly mastered without the aid of a translation. We confess such a feat appears to us Herculean. We do not envy the student who attempts it. He will weave himself a web that will inevitably imprison his faculties during the whole performance of the opera, and go home minus the music. He will lose himself in a fable of his own invention, that will be at loggerheads with the stage-business—with the printed Italian—and with the authorised English translation. He will be placed in the position of the school-boy between two stools, and find neither of them available. Lion of the pit, and dandy of the amphitheatre! that book thou holdest to thy heart of hearts, in blissful reminiscence of thy opera-treats—that book thou porest over in thy solitude, calling to mind the voices that warbled to thee in the past, the dear incomprehensible ditties—that book, with all its English and Italian, is as great a sham as thou thyself art, if thou pretendest to learn aught from its perusal! The opera-book, quotha! It is a snare and an imposition. It is a fraudulent bankrupt’s ledger with faults on both sides. It is English in a fix, and Italian in a passion. It is a conglomeration of Alfred Bunnism and Italian sentimentality, which those who have an attachment for Italian opera had better leave in the hands of the publisher, or consign to the care of the housemaid for domestic purposes.

Witness these examples from the most brilliant of Verdi’s operas, the far-famed “Traviata.” It is amusing to see how complacently the translator of “Dumas diluted,” has blundered his way through the story of the “Dame aux Camélias,” and made nonsense of a very intelligible piece of immorality. Perhaps it is unfair in us to blame him for thus covering the impurity with so dense a garment. But where we do blame him, and when we feel we have a right to blame him, is in the utterly reckless manner with which he throws about sentences that have hardly any connection with the sentences they pretend to illustrate.

In the very first line of the “Traviata,” edited and “translated,” as we are rather pompously informed, by Manfredo Maggioni, we have the following error.

The chorus of guests assembled at Violetta’s house is made to sing:

Dell invito trascorsa è già l’ora;
Voi tardaste.”

(The hour of invitation has already passed;
You dallied.)

—two distinct assertions which the editor has thus translated:

Is this the hour appointed?
What causes this delay?”

a double interrogation by no means satisfactory.

Turn to scene 3rd in the same act, when the tenor and soprano are preparing for their celebrated duet.

Gaston breaks in upon them with the query, “Che diavol fate?” (What the devil are you doing?) mildly rendered into “What are you doing there?” and is assured by the lovers that they are merely “saying follies”—a miserable translation of “si follegiava” (we were fooling)—which causes the intruder to exclaim:

Ah! ah! stà ben;—restate.”
(Ah! ah! tis well;—remain.)

A sentence thus atrociously rendered:

Ah! ah! very well;—go on.”

—a contradiction as well as an absurdity, and sufficient of itself to condemn the book.

It is pitiable to see the manner in which such operas as the “Huguenots,” the “Barber of Seville,” the “Sonnambula,” and others are drugged for the English market. Scarcely an opera but has some fault or other in every paragraph, and certainly no opera, whether translated from the French, German, or Italian, or translated three-deep from all of them, but has some absurdity in every page. The worst translated operas are those of Verdi; the best the five-act tragedies of Meyerbeer. We have less fault to find with the “literature” of Bellini than with that of any of the other masters; and the translations of Rossini’s operas are better than those of Donizetti. With regard to Mozart, his story has often to pass through four hands, and “Don Giovanni,” after being translated from the French to the German (for the convenience of the composer), and again from the German to the Italian, by a different hand, for the convenience of the Italian, has to undergo the process of being translated from that language into English for the benefit of a London audience. Judge then of the beauties of a so-called Italian opera, when four foreigners have had their fingers in the pie, and scooped away everything but the crust!

But it would be unjust in us to give all the blame of the absurdity to the translator, and our space, even if so inclined, would prevent us from indulging in too close an examination of his defects. The work of comparison may be pursued by others. We have now to do with the original librettisti. Much as the translator may err in grammar, synonyms, and common sense—or rather in the absence of all these—he is no worse than his associates, the self-dubbed “laureates” of the playhouse. We have a very large crow indeed to pluck with those gentlemen of the quill who flippantly style themselves poets, and invariably remind us of the assertion that the wild-goose flies higher than the eagle, falling down lead-like with a “squeak” from the confines of the eagle’s nest. We know them by their drivelling sentiments and their screaming attempts at passion, as well as by the reckless manner with which they throw about queries and notes of admiration for the bewilderment of the incautious. Filled with insane ambition to excel their retiring brothers—the true poets—as impertinently as the goose endeavours to outfly the eagle, the Italian poetasters attempt everything for a short-lived popularity. Collaborateurs of Verdi and Meyerbeer, they turn out on inspection to be little better than serving-men of the goddess of music. Valets du Parnase, they are no foes to such beverages as beer and wine, but are absolutely ignorant of the divine fire that enlivens the poet’s soliloquy. They are book-makers to the bone, and are more thankful for a pair of scissors than for the lyre of PhœbusApollo. With the exception of Scribe and Romane, the librettisti are the mere purveyors of information for the composers—smugglers of trite expressions, borrowed plots and threadbare sentiments that have done their duty a thousand and one times.

A few words explicative of Italian opera may not be deemed unnecessary.

The libretto may be divided into three classes: the tragic, the comic, and the mezzo-serio. The first includes such operas as the “Huguenots,” the “Trovatore,” and “Lucrezia Borgia;” the second such works as the “Barber of Seville,” “L’Eilsir d’Amore,” and “Don Pasquale;” and the third all operas that have no death in the last act.

Operas of the Italian school, whether tragedies, comedies, or farces, have invariably the same ingredients. They are all provided with a lover, a heroine, a rival, a tyrant (or a dotard), and an all-pervading and insinuating chorus. These are the pieces of glass in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope which the manager can shake at his will and alter to the desired patterns. By a strange fatality the lot of the heroine almost invariably devolves on the soprano, and by a similar caprice of fortune the tenor invariably takes the part of the hero. We are at a loss to imagine why the chorus should make free with other people’s apartments and why the baritone should always pick a quarrel with the tenor. Query, why is the villain of the piece always a baritone?

Perhaps it is this sameness of material that in some measure detracts from the merit of the libretto. It is always excessively amusing—even in the most serious operas—to see that jealous, wilful, mal-à-propos sort of suitor, the baritone, always coming between the two innammorati. The tenor loathes him (in not a few of the operas), but somehow or other, like the hero of “Waverley,” he is always more famous for manners than for manliness. We find him in the “Trovatore,” tamely submitting to the worst insults, and finally losing his lady, his liberty, and his life, at the hands of one from whom he expected better things, and whose sole reason for acting as he did appears to be his possession of a baritone throat and his extraordinary love of soliloquy. In “Ernani” it is the baritone who gets to the soft side of the tenor by persuading him that it is quite chivalrous on the eve of his marriage to give up his claims to matrimony and to existence—on the blowing of the baritone’s horn. But here we have to do with Victor Hugo; and the libretto-writer has merely discovered the point where the sublime and the ridiculous meet, and scratched it out with his pen. How many instances we could give of this nature from the libretti of the Italian opera need not be enumerated; suffice it to say, that we could employ clerks, à la Dumas, for a fortnight, and yet not have done with our citations.

Perhaps, in the whole course of Italian opera, there are not ten examples of a heroine falling in love with the baritone. This gentleman may fume and soliloquise, waylay, terrify, and trepan; but the heroine will have nothing to do with him. She may be friendly to him, as in the “Barbiere”—courteous to him, as in the “Sonnambula,”—self-denying to him, as in the “Traviata”; but love him she will not; and she tells him so; and the aversion she feels for his presence finds vent in some of the most pleasing melodies that ever fell from the lips of a soprano.

Not always, however, does the baritone exercise an evil influence over the characters of the drama. He is sometimes a very sprightly fellow. Some of the operas of Rossini and Donizetti introduce him in a very fascinating light. Who could be nobler, for instance, than the baritone of “William Tell,” when he shot the apple off his son’s head? Who more amiable than Figaro? Who more amusing than Leporello? But these instances are rare; and the operas of Verdi, for instance, scarcely ever allow the baritone a chance of displaying his social virtues.

“Rigoletto,” where the baritone is a jesting fellow, fond of his Duke, and fond of procuring him ladies to be fond of—laughs, as we know, on the other side of his mouth, before the end of the opera. Germont, the elder, in his tête-à-tête with the Traviata, hurries the courtesan to an untimely fate, and breaks the heart of his favourite son into the bargain. All this is very proper, and we have nothing to say against it; but is it not singular that the baritone should always be chosen for these ungrateful tasks? Others of the “amiable” baritones of the same composer commit actions equally disastrous, and invariably turn their ditty into a dirge before the fall of the curtain. If some remedy be not adopted, we shall soon lose sight of the “merry” baritone altogether, and find nothing in his place but a stereotyped stage-villain, angry and full of solos, with a singular habit of falling in love with other people’s wives, and running away with them. Is it not curious that no attempt should have been made to introduce Sir Creswell Creswell upon the stage (in the shape of a sturdy basso), and thus put an end to the atrocity? Tenors and baritones have been at loggerheads long enough, and it is high time that a separate lady should be provided for them. They should be made to shake hands. Toujours perdrix is a sickly dish; and no amount of skill on the part of the composer can atone for this perpetual recurrence of the same scenes.

Here are a few instances from some of the most popular operas of the Italian school.

Enter the baritone of the “Puritani,” one Sir Richard North, holding converse with his friend Brown (Bruno), on the miseries of unrequited affection.

“Where shall I fly to?” says the baritone, “where shall I hide my frightful torments? These rejoicings come to my heart like the sound of some funeral dirge. Oh, Elvira! amiable object of my sighs, without hope or love, what remains to me in this world?”

Bruno replies (rather sententiously), “Thy country and Heaven!”

“What voice?” cries Sir Richard. “What dost thou say? Ah! it is true.”

At which the other exclaims:

“Unbosom thyself to friendship. Thou wilt there find consolation.”

“It will be vain,” cries Sir Richard. “However, I will satisfy thee.”

And he forthwith tells him that the father of Elvira had promised him the hand of that young lady, and that, at an advanced hour of the night, he flew to him full of delightful ideas.

“What did he say?” roars Bruno.

“Elvira sighs for another!” cries the baritone, “sighs for the Cavalier Talbot, and a father’s love cannot command the heart.”

“Be calm, my friend,” thunders the other.

“My sorrow can only be calmed by the tomb,” exclaims the mourner, and forthwith sings in a very lusty manner the celebrated cavatina: “Ah! per sempre io ti perdei.”

The reader need not be informed that the persons referred to in this dialogue are the tenor and soprano; who, after their usual fashion, have fallen in love with each other, and thereby incurred the eternal odium of the baritone.

The customary dénoument takes place.

“You ought to save your rival,” says an old Puritan Captain (Signor Giorgio, a basso profondo), “and you can.”

“I cannot,” cries the baritone.

“Say, you will not,” shouts the other.

“No!” repeats the baritone.

“Thou must save him,” exclaims the other, in a tenderer key.

“He shall perish!”

And perish he does. Nothing can keep him alive in such a dilemma, and the infatuated prima donna kills herself by taking a dose of poison.

In “Lucrezia Borgia” it is the same old story.

The heroine is alone with her husband in the Ducal palace. Gennaro, ignorantly in love with his own mother (Lucrezia), and fancying himself loved by her in return, has been taken away by the guards. The baritone thus addresses the soprano:

“You love him” (referring to the tenor).

“What do I hear?” cries Lucrezia.

“Yes,” repeats the Duke, “you love him;—you have followed him from Venice.”

“Great Heaven!”

“Even now, in your countenance I read your guilty love.”

“Duke Alfonso!”

“Be calmed,” cries Alfonso.

“I swear!” cries Lucrezia.

Do not stain yourself with a fresh perjury.”

“Duke Alfonso!”

“It is time,” cries Alfonso, “for me to take a dreadful revenge.”

“Mercy, Alfonso!”

“The worthless man shall die!”

And he dies accordingly, and the soprano with him, and the baritone has the gratification at the end of the opera of knowing that he has once more triumphed over his old enemy, the primo tenore.

But Verdi’s baritones go a step further. The baritone of Donizetti in the opera just quoted had a reasonable motive for his proceedings, and the baritone of Bellini has the excuse of being a Puritan captain, while his rival (the hated tenor) was a Royalist leader. Let us see how Verdi has conducted the “old story.”

The tenor and soprano of the “Trovatore” have just sung their opening songs, and the invidious baritone has detected their attachment.

Count di Luna (the baritone), to Manrico (the tenor):

“Thy last hour is nearer perhaps than thou thinkest! Villain, draw thy sword.”

“Count!” cries the soprano.

“To my rage the victim—here will I destroy him,” exclaims the boastful Count.

“Heaven,” cries Leonora, “pray stay him!”

“Follow me,” says the baritone.

“I will,” says the tenor.

“What shall I do?” says Leonora. “Pray hear me!”

“No,” cries the Count. “The fury of a despised love rages within my breast! Thy blood, unhappy man (to the tenor), can alone quench it.”

And after some bantering, the rivals retire with their drawn swords, the lady falling senseless on the ground.

The dénoument is precisely what might have been expected. The soprano poisons herself, the tenor is brought in chains before the baritone, and the baritone exclaims in an exultant voice:

“She has deceived me then, and for him chosen to die; let him be taken to the block!”

The scene closes, the curtain falls, and the baritone is left to his triumph. Were we not right in saying that the baritone is the cause of all the tragedy that can happen now-a-days in an Italian opera?

But we have done. The quotations we have made will serve to show the absurdity of the “libretto,” and awaken commiseration for the composer, that he should be compelled to link his music with such intolerable trash. New music ought to demand new words—new musical pieces new dramas. It is unpardonable that so much exquisite music should be dressed in so mean a garb, and the whole splendour of Italian opera be depreciated by a set of scribblers who know so little of the rudiments of letters. It is time that some change should be effected. It is time that musicians should remember (for we cannot bring ourselves to believe that they are altogether blameless in the matter) that music and poetry are twin sisters, always pining for each other’s society, and never more happy than when they are interchanging sentiments. The poets of olden time were musicians in their own right. In days more especially noted for a division of labour, we cannot perhaps in justice expect these things. But surely there can be no just reason why composers should select the worst authors for their associates, and link their music for ever with doggerel of the worst class, calculated to plunge it into untimely oblivion and bring discredit upon themselves for being associated with triflers.

Critics and the public at large are getting tired of this perpetual wrangling between the tenor and baritone. They want a change in the dramatis personæ. They want a few more “Masaniellos” with a few more Scribes to write them, and a great deal less of poisoning, duelling, and seduction. Can they not have it? Surely there must be some available talent somewhere to which the genius of the composer might ally itself. It were folly to suppose that the country that produced an Alfieri cannot produce a dramatist. It would doubtless cost a good deal to harness a young Pegasus; and Apollo would not play for the wages of an organ-grinder. But the accession of beauty would bring with it an accession of fame; and the accession of fame an almost inevitable accession of fortune. Pegasus would pay for his keep and Italian opera would be represented by a series of well-written libretti calculated to raise it still higher in the public estimation.

George Eric Mackay.