Poetry & Opera

Last week my wife and I ignored the flooding to travel to Cardiff for the opening night of WNO’s La Traviata – a revival of David McVicar’s 2008/2009 staging as part of the 2014 Fallen Women season. It’s a powerful production: late 19th century realism playing out across Violetta’s fallen tombstone (enlarged to a scale that’s not so much memento mori as a reduction of everything else on stage to fleeting memento vivere). The revival is wonderful, with strength-in-depth in the chorus and fine performances from Alan Opie as Germont senior and Linda Richardson as Violetta (especially in Act 3, striking a difficult but poignant balance between credibility and melodrama).

For a poet, the essence of La Traviata is the (roughly) 40 seconds in Act 2 beginning “così alla misera”. Recognizing the hopelessness of her situation and the enormity of the sacrifice demanded of her, Violetta breaks off her exchange with Germont père in an aside accompanied by a heartbreaking musical phrase:

Così alla misera ~ ch’è un dì caduta,
di più risorgere ~ speranza è muta!…
se pur benefice ~ le indulga iddio,
l’uomo implacabile ~ per lei sarà…

(So for the wretched woman who has fallen once
the hope of rising again is gone…
though god should forgive her
man will be unsparing)

Dramatically, this is the pivot of the whole work. Up until this point Violetta has been struggling against the inevitable (against love in Act 1, and against renouncing it in Act 2 – though both are essentially a struggle against her own mortality); immediately afterwards she embraces it (not in the sense of wanting it, as she is clearly distraught at losing Alfredo, but in the sense of actively inhabiting her decision – shaping events rather than sinking into passive acceptance). In between come these four lines: a flat lament on the page that’s elevated to something transcendent in the music.

Each of the three (treasured) recordings I have at home tackles this moment differently. Anna Netrebko (2005) is perhaps the most dramatically convincing, putting the agon back into agony as Violetta is torn between the impossible and the inevitable. Maria Callas (1958) seems to abandon dramatic realism at the beginning of così alla misera, the vocal equivalent of piercing the fourth wall as Violetta the suffering human being becomes Violetta the transcendent archetype. Angela Gheorghiu (1995) somehow does both at once, and for me comes closest to the ideal così alla misera (speaking as a poet rather than any kind of musician, and interested primarily in its poetic significance – of which more below).

For the record, Linda Richardson’s rendition last Tuesday was one of the best I’ve heard in a live performance: poignant, chilling and exhilarating all at once.

Why obsess so much over less than a minute from over two and a half hours of music? Because for a poet this is the essence – the distillation – of the whole opera, not only the pivotal moment in the drama but (emotionally) the entire drama in miniature. And because it’s such a perfect example of the power and danger of opera to those whose artistic medium is language. The words of così alla misera are unremarkable; combined with the music they are beautiful, terrible, sublime. No amount of poetic skill can achieve the same effect with words alone, and yet the effect is (in a sense) precisely what we strive for in writing poems – something that moves us beyond the mere sense or meaning of the words.

This is dangerous magic: there’s a credible argument that prolonged immersion in the world of opera ruined Auden as a poet, persuading him that poetry could never equal the fusion of words, music and drama in the best opera.

Of course (we might protest) successful poems are doing something different from successful operas, and comparing the two is misguided; of course the direct-to-the-nervous-system magic of così alla misera can only work with relatively simple language whereas poetry can exploit the whole range of diction, tone and syntax (imagine trying to set MacDiarmid’s “On a Raised Beach” to music if you have any doubts); of course getting too close to any other art form can expose the limitations of one’s own. And yet, and yet…

That said, Auden was an extreme case. Many poets fruitfully engage with opera (either as librettists or by writing ekphrastic poems) without losing faith in their own medium. Agenda magazine’s recent “Poetry & Opera” double issue explores this from all angles, and is easily the best single-themed issue of a poetry magazine I’ve read in years (being slightly flexible with the definition of “single-themed”, since it would be silly to take issue with the Heaney tributes added at the front). There’s a wealth of material here, and the essays in particular stand out. Essays on poet-librettists, by poet-librettists; on the experience of writing opera, on opera itself; on the art of the libretto (“few people refer to Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni“, David Harsent writes in “Words for Music”).

Here’s Michael McCarthy in an essay titled “Poetry & Opera”: “[the text] needs to give rise to the musical expression so that the drama itself can take flight and reach into the unspeakable depths we aspire great art to take us.” Set this alongside the (posited) Auden effect and you have, in compressed paradox, the croce e delizia that opera can represent for a modern poet.

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