I noted last month that I had been listening to a set of Robert Greenberg‘s lectures on Beethoven from The Teaching Company. Having finished those, I have borrowed Greenberg’s lectures on the history of opera, and am enjoying them tremendously. They cover the history of opera from its beginnings in early seventeenth-century Venice until the early twentieth-century (the final work to be discussed in the series will be Puccini’s Tosca of 1900).
The first work Greenberg discusses in detail is Monteverdi’s Orfeo. It was first performed in the year 1607, and though productions of the work are rare today it is generally considered the first operatic masterwork. Renaissance composers invented opera in an attempt to revive Greek music-drama. Of course, they had no access to actual Greek music, and so were guided only by the ideal that the drama should be sung in such a way as to heighten the emotional resonance of the words. Orfeo was Monteverdi’s first attempt at such a fusion of words and music.
As it happens, I have a recording of Orfeo in my collection, so I sat down to listen to it again. A few things occurred to me as I did so. First, I’m tempted to believe that I can hear the striving after the Greek ideal: the music has a formal, otherworldly quality to it, beautiful but distant. It reminded me of nothing so much as Byzantium, as though a gold-encrusted mosaic had become animated and begun to sing; that Byzantium would have been the closest Greek-speaking culture to Monteverdi might be more than an accident. Certainly it doesn’t sound like Western medieval music, and it is only at the entrance of the Chorus, singing in Italian madrigal style, that familiar Renaissance sounds are heard.
Second, the opera was written before the concept of an aria had been invented. The singing consists, therefore, of long passages of recicative, or sung text, often given to a single voice for many minutes. The tempos are generally slow and stately. It all reminded me very much of Wagner’s operas, which might seem an odd connection, but consider: Wagner too wrote long, uninterrupted passages for single voices, and avoided arias, all in the pursuit of a unified music-drama. Of course, Monteverdi’s orchestration is much simpler than Wagner’s, and he doesn’t use the orchestra to animate the drama the way Wagner does, but even so I was surprised by the similarities between the two.
The next opera in the lecture series was Mozart’s Idomeneo. Written when he was just 24 years old, it is not one of Mozart’s greatest masterworks, but it is considered one of the best operas in the genre opera seria, or “serious opera”. By Mozart’s day, a full 150 years after Monteverdi, certain operatic conventions and genres had evolved, and opera seria was that genre which dealt with mythological subjects and whose action was dominated by dignified acts and sentiments. Structurally an opera seria consisted of a series of arias connected by simple recicative.
Opera seria was wildly popular in its day, but has fallen out of favour in our own time. I myself have seen two opere serie in concert (Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Alcina), and can easily explain why they are unpopular: they are dead dull. In Mozart’s day the opera was a social occasion: during the performance people chatted, played cards, and ate dinner, much as we might do at a baseball game, and when a particularly lovely aria came up they would pause and listen a few minutes before returning to their conversation. In our own time, when we dress up, turn off our phones and pagers, and sit quietly and attentively, we give the opera attention it cannot bear. The plots move glacially, the recicative goes on and on, and there’s not much to love. At the last performance I attended a gentleman behind me found it advantageous to catch up on his sleep during the second act.
Having said that, Idomeneo is worth hearing a few times. Mozart wrote some lovely arias for it, and his music, as always, is graceful and elegant. At over three hours in length, however, I admit it wearied me. That fault does not afflict his great comic operas, and perhaps I’ll get to those next month.
This month I also received, as a gift, an excellent disc of classical guitar music. I don’t have much of this repertoire in my collection, so it was much appreciated. The centerpiece of the disc is Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, for guitar and orchestra. This is a tricky combination of forces, for the guitar is not a loud instrument, and it takes great skill on the composer’s part to manage the balance between soloist and orchestra. It’s a beautiful piece, with those zesty harmonies one often hears in Spanish music. (Here’s a live performance played by Narciso Yepes, the same soloist as on my recording.) This disc is rounded out with shorter works for solo guitar by Albeniz, Mudarra, and Granados. All of it has been new to me, and I’ve enjoyed it very much.
I’ve also had Van Morrison in high rotation these past weeks. The reason for that will be evident soon enough…