Verisimilitude and the Operatic Set Piece

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Verdi and Wagner appeared, in my student days, to be a pair of giants on opposite banks of a river, glowering at one another across the operatic stream in a confusing paradox. The paradox was that while every book I read about opera gave all the gold stars to Wagner, every work I heard drew me to Verdi.

Opera began, of course, as continuous action, as monody—drama per musica. What Agazzari had called "the confusion and babel of words"1 in learned polyphony yielded to a beautifully simple melos that was very much like a lute song in its directness and in its unity of text, but diametrically opposite in its physical presence. A Dowland or a Campian sang and played: song and instrument one mind and one body; but the singer of monody was alone on a stage, separated both physically and psychologically from the accompanying instruments. That tension was there to stay, waxing and waning, and perhaps now and then striking a balance. Other tensions soon arose: by 1626 Domenico Mazzochi could write of "the tedium of the recitative"2 unrelieved by song. The aria was the answer, and it was immensely successful—so much so that before long critics were complaining that Italian opera was nothing but "a bundle of arias,"3 and another tension was in full cry. Still another soon entered the lists: that brought about by the peacock singer who saw the aria as a medium for personal display.

Gluck's famous preface to Alceste, in 1769, complained not about the aria but the abuse of the aria, stifled by a superfluity of ornamentation like a live oak smothered in Spanish moss. Dramatic and musical purity alike got lost in the thickets of virtuoso digressions that at their best were stunningly theatrical and at their worst were overlong and tawdry. Abuse, however, is not germane: those who go from dislike of abuse to dislike of the aria are guilty of overkill: I can hate the Spanish moss without hating the live oak. In fact, there is not much that we are in favor of that cannot be made grotesque by inappropriate and excessive ornamentation.

The issue presented to me as a student, however, was of verisimilitude, the supposed true-to-lifeness of continuous-action music drama versus the interruptive nature of operatic structure based on the set piece, particularly the da capo aria. Critics and scholars presented the two sides unequally, even deviously. The traditional operatic structure was accused of not being true to life; we do not, it was asserted, take time out on a Monday afternoon to have an aria. Wagner set out to dispense with such nonsense—as Crocker put it, "to make opera less artificial, more natural, more truly dramatic."4 In dispensing with the artificiality of the set piece, nineteenth-century German music drama thus served as a corrective, an operatic reform; it was presented to me—and is still being presented to students—as a structure not only more true to life, but more logical, and, by implication, superior.

Lang, for example, in Music in Western Civilization, gives Wagner 21 pages and Verdi 7—and mentions Wagner 18 times in the section on Verdi—Verdi only once in the section on Wagner. He presents them as two equals, but speaks of the set forms as suited only to "minor composers"5 and calls Wagner the most moving musician since Orpheus and "the hero incarnate."6

Grout is about the same. In his Short History of Opera he presents Verdi and Wagner as incorporating "the old struggle between Latin and German, . . . the singer against the orchestra, melody against polyphony, simplicity against complexity;"7 and although the two composers are said to have "represented the two operatic ideals in all their irreconcilable perfection," the dice were already loaded against Verdi by the equation of melody with simplicity. Then Verdi is given ten pages at the end of a single chapter on Italian opera; the parallel material on German opera gets two chapters, Wagner enjoying a 33-page chapter to himself. Verdi is introduced as "an Italian of the Italians." Certainly Wagner was a German of the Germans! But no—he is said to sum up "the achievement of a whole epoch."8

Einstein would seem at first glance to disagree with Grout's pejorative view of simplicity, for he praises Verdi for "sincerity," "integrity," and the "consciousness that simplicity spells strength."9

But he gives Verdi two pages and Wagner twelve (in his Short History of Music) and says that Wagner's use of a myth of love's redemptive power "remains one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect."10

The issue which this article joins (that is, verisimilitude) is dealt with obliquely by most writers. Verdi's style is characterized by Grout as having "a certain primitive directness, an uninhibited vigor. . . . This results often in melodies of apparent triviality, but which are nevertheless patently sincere and almost invariably appropriate to the dramatic situation." All praise of Verdi is qualified, and is immediately followed by an announcement of what is lacking: "the Verdi orchestra never has the symphonic significance or the polyphonic texture of Wagner's."11 Ah, but we are never told in the Wagner chapter that Wagner's melody lacks the authentic lyricism of Verdi's, or that a symphonic orchestra in a theater pit is at best a house divided.

Wagner's music, on the other hand, was, by implication, civilized and intellectual; like most writers, Grout concentrates on the non-musical considerations of music drama, but the musical discussion presents the style as a culmination of the anti-set-piece operatic ideal. Wagner achieved a musical continuity "not formally divided into recitatives, arias, and other set numbers."12 The Leitmotif is described and its virtues extolled: association, the potential of thematic repetition (likened to that in symphonic structure), with an evidently automatic accumulation of significance through repetition (pace Ravel's Boléro), and of course the possibilities of combining motive. Grout calls Leitmotive "the essential musical substance" of Wagner's work.13

* * *

It surprises me that nobody has stepped forward to give the counterblow to the serene assumptions of Wagnerian pronouncers, for indeed these assumptions can be answered. I am not setting out to make Wagner wrong; I am setting out to make Verdi right. In art all premises are without logical merit, and none is required of them, since their only function is to spark the creative imagination and to engender exciting results. Nor do fruitful results validate the premises, which may be right, wrong, or ridiculous. Anyone with an ounce of perception can inform you that a string struck with a hammer will produce a percussive impetus and a quick decay and cannot possibly sing; yet generations of pianists have sought and produced a singing tone—without a qualm and without an apology.

One of the glories of the arts is precisely this disconnection of logic in the premise from success in the result. Wagner was right because his theories worked for him, but that has no bearing on any other theories; Verdi was also right because his theories worked for him.

It is not true, of course, that melody is uncomplicated; in the world's music melody presents a spectrum of great breadth from the bone simple to the intensely intricate. But melody is inaccessible to traditional analysis, which has proved comfortable with layers and puzzles but is uneasy with simple texture and discursive structures, however complex. Musicologist Hans Keller has written that Gershwin's "The Man I Love" is more complex than a work of equal length by Webern, and that it requires a longer analysis if we would search it out.14 And to claim that an oceanic orchestra inundating the theatrical experience from off-stage is ipso facto superior to a pit orchestra of pungent colors and lively textures simply makes no sense, yet Grout takes only Verdi to task. It would be fun to counter-carp, but that alley I will forego, simply because proving Wagner wrong would not take one step in showing Verdi to be right. That must be done by looking at the structural principles of the set piece.

The central issue is verisimilitude. It is my thesis that operatic structure based on set pieces is more true to life than continuous action; that life in fact is not continuous, but sporadic; that we spend a good deal of our time vamping until ready; that in fact I do take time out on a Monday afternoon to have an aria. As a matter of fact, I had an aria when I learned that this article had been accepted for publication: after recitativing myself to the mailbox and taking in the contents of the letter, I took time out to enjoy the news and to be happy about it. It was parenthetical, lyrical, and it comprised a break in the continuous action of a busy day.

Life is full of set pieces: going to a play or a concert or a party, to church or a scholarly meeting; having a chat with a friend, or making love, or attending a family reunion. Parades, weddings, funerals, ball games, and faculty meetings are as much set pieces in life as they would be on a stage. All take place within brackets, and the tenor of our lives stops for them; they are not only in brackets, but they are essentially different in form and substance from the hustle and the bustle, the nitty and the gritty of the daily round.

But these are external parentheses. They are for the most part chorus scenes and dance interludes, operatically speaking. Internal parentheses, which are, operatically speaking, arias, are just as real—and they are more important. "The essence of life," says a renowned teacher in the theater, "is love, joy, tragedy, change."15 All are interior—that is, love and joy and tragedy have no meaning in my life unless and until I recognize that I love or am happy, or in a tragic predicament. To recognize these states is to exercise human faculty, and recognition requires time to probe, to feel, to ramify and to acknowledge them. One runs through recognition in a parenthesis of self-realization, defining essential human states in time. Such parentheses form the essence of our lives as human beings. The fourth essence, change, involves recognition of a current state, motivation through a process of imagining alternative states, and the decision to attempt or reject a new direction. Merely to show action is to omit exactly the human dimension, for a leaf in the wind changes direction, and the pea in the peashooter, yet the reaction and the recognition of change, the fear or the exhilaration, are entirely moot in regard to the leaf and the pea. Change, as human essence, depends upon successive processes of recognition and imagination which can be said to define the nature of humanity. And these processes are arias.

Not only are they arias, they tend to be da capo arias. A job offer, for example, sends me into a typical self-examination decision-making aria:

Oh boy! An offer from Eureka U!
  What I have always wanted! 
But oh Lord, I'd have to move again; can I 
  face the packing and the uprooting of 
    Gertrude and the children?
But oh boy! An offer from Eureka U! 
  What I have always wanted!
				 

Now I do not mean to imply that life is a succession of arias. I do not fall in love, or get married, or hear terrible news, or have an article accepted for publication, or receive an offer from Eureka U every day. Of course there are plenty of days when I get up in the morning, stagger through breakfast, get dressed, go to work, give an exam, have a humdrum lunch in the middle of some equally humdrum committee meeting, come home to a left-over dinner, study or get ready for the next day's classes, and go to bed, without a glimmer of a melody. Such a day is certainly one of continuous action, but it would make a terrible opera. A theater piece naturally seeks out moments of significance; a dramatic enterprise brings focus to bear not upon the tedium of the daily grind, at the most a carapace for significance, but upon self-realization (of love, joy, and tragedy), upon decision, change, and denouement.

* * *

I have described the aria as stopping the action with a parenthetical rumination. But we must not confuse action with drama. Stopping the action is not stopping the motion of the drama, which can be both exterior and interior, and of which action is only a part. As an example, consider the completed third scene of Mozart's Singspiel Zaïde, left unfinished in 1780. In the spoken monologue, Zaïde, favorite slave of the Sultan Soliman, comes upon fellow slave Gomatz, who has just fallen asleep. She observes him: "Never have I seen him close. Harsh fate that has brought him to captivity," and so forth. She decides not to awaken him, but to leave him a miniature of herself "to brighten the darkness of his slavery." Then she sings to him the aria Ruhe sanft ("Rest softly").16 In this marvelous aria, Zaïde realizes that she loves him. The music presents this awakening recognition in a fabric of surpassing loveliness: the voice soars above the orchestra, separated both by register and by the slower pulse of the melodic line, the pumping instrumental back-beats suggesting an internal turbulence. The outward serenity is betrayed only by the poignant upward octave leap—a parabola of the heart.

The recognition of love is not push-pull/click-click; only at the end of the aria is Zaïde's love established: we have heard her falling in love in front of our very ears. It may not be action, but it is drama.

Joy and sorrow are probably the easiest of the essences to incorporate in musical theater. Change is doubtless the most difficult.

Verdi's opera La Traviata (1853) deals with change of character in a substantive manner, particularly with the heroine, created as La Dame aux Camélias by Dumas Fils and called Violetta in Piave's libretto. She is a Paris courtesan of the 1840s, devoted to the pleasures of the demimonde. But these pleasures are interrupted, then shattered, by Alfredo, who offers her a personal devotion. At first she refuses, then yields, but eventually, realizing that she can bring Alfredo nothing but sorrow, she transcends her initial selfishness and sacrifices her own happiness for his.

Violetta's first conversation with Alfredo alone occurs in the first scene, a party at which Violetta is hostess. After the other guests go into the next room to dance, Violetta catches sight of herself in the mirror, and—the gay music in the next room behind her—comments upon her own pallor. She sees that Alfredo has remained behind, and they talk; Alfredo declares his love for her, Violetta putting him off because she cannot believe he is serious. This hint that she shall distance herself from frivolity is incorporated in the remarkable fabric: her life as a courtesan is in the background for this dialogue, which is superimposed upon it as Alfredo wishes to superimpose his love upon her fast life. The music is quick, twirling, gossipy, lightsome—it is a waltz at a time when the waltz was still risqué; it has been her world, but by the end of the scene she calls it "arid nonsense."

At this point Alfredo tells how he fell in love with her in an aria that persuades Violetta of the genuineness of his feeling. Finally Alfredo leaves, and Violetta sings two recitative-arias, pairs that comprise a summing up of the processes of change.

The first recitative acknowledges that Alfredo has touched her more deeply than she had imagined possible, and this opens the possibility of love for her. The aria, "Ah, fors'e lui," admits the recognition of love as a mystery, a tumult; as noble and ecstatic—all expansions of Violetta's emotional range.

Then, after a brief pause, she sings the second recitative, her recognition that such love is impossible for a woman of her kind. "It is vain and mad delirium," she says, even to think about it; she is trapped "in the crowded desert called Paris." As coloratura in the first recitative was used to symbolize her expanding emotional quick, it is used in the second to suggest a forced, suddenly empty gaiety. The second aria, "Sempre libera" ("forever free"), uses the term "free" in a wry, even ominous sense, suggesting rootlessness, the "freedom" to circle about now meaningless pleasures. The contrasting section uses recitative once more, this time to suggest Violetta's restiveness. In the background she hears phrases of Alfredo's declaration—perhaps out the window as he leaves, perhaps in her heart as she renounces his love. A remarkable pair of arias: the first saying "maybe, . . . if only," the second saying "no, it is too late for me; I am condemned not to love but to be trapped in the busy swirl of my empty pleasures."

How different a woman is Violetta in Act III. The pallor of the opening scene foreshadowed the consumption that carries her off at the end of the opera; she is physically weaker but emotionally and spiritually stronger. Violetta's aria "Addio del passato" ("goodbye to the past") is preceded by a recitative in which she yields to the final sacrifice of love and to her approaching death. The extensive range and active rhythm of the earlier recitative has been constricted, along with dynamic range and harmonic scope. These constrictions also characterize the aria, which is slow, quiet, harmonically and rhythmically staid. Only as Violetta turns to God do the vocal range and harmonic life break out of the constriction. The coda, "now all is finished," rises to the same high a that had appeared on the word "God," equating strength of faith with courage in the face of loss and death.

Each of Violetta's arias incorporates an important interior development vital to dramatic flow. The music of music drama basically accompanies and at its best clarifies action, but the music of set-piece opera probes and at its best reveals the inner depths of character, sharing and at times even becoming the essential content. That is its chief strength, along with the fact that the musical focus is on stage, at one with the theatrical focus.

La Traviata is so intensely interior that assigning Leitmotive to all hands, to the letter from Germont, to the life of pleasure, and so forth, would only dissipate the integrity of the work; continuous action might show what Violetta did, and clarify what happened to her, but it could not allow us to share what happened within her. Siegfried, on the other hand, deals with mythic figures who act out heroic and highly symbolic fates; time out for a quick delve into Siegfried's possible ambivalence toward his heroic status would snarl the action and create a theatrical traffic jam. Violetta is so transformed that, by Act III, no music can be repeated from Act I save in memory: Alfredo's declaration of love forms an eerie background to the recitative of Act III, in which Violetta reads a letter from his father, Germont; but the declaration is no longer in Alfredo's voice; it is disembodied in solo violin, as a layer over harmonies belonging elsewhere—it is off-kilter, beautifully askew. This musical reference, on paper so cognate with Wagnerian technique, achieves the opposite dramatic effect: the reference is not for us, it is not Alfredo's Leitmotif; it is one layer within Violetta's complex emotional turmoil. She hears the reverberation of the past as part of her renunciation of it, and we hear her hear it.

A set-piece concept is natural for a performer, for it brings the single role, one strand of the drama, into focus; the singer preparing the role of Violetta sees the character in a context of other characters, but also as an unfolding of the inner life of one personality. Her aria "Sempre libera" might be taken, in a continuous action analysis, as scherzo section within a symphonic design; the overall balance of sections and movements would be perfectly satisfactory and the aria would provide a lively virtuoso interlude. The vocal line would be seen as superimposed upon the orchestral matrix and the primary contrast would lie in the relation of the aria to what precedes and what follows it, for action is a concatenation of exterior events and in music drama everything must serve that concatenation. In a set-piece analysis, the primary contrast would lie between this aria and Violetta's other arias, defining it as the fulcrum of her unfolding, as that central point in which she realizes completely what she has been, just at the moment when she is pulled to be something else. Other characters close to her are also changing: Alfredo certainly; but even more, his father Germont, who was the most adamantly opposed to Violetta at the start and whose recognition of her change thus stamps it as valid and heightens its dramatic thrust.

Music drama presents large events of mythic significance, speaking, as Lang put it,17 to the "collective religious imagination of the multitude;" the dramatic focus is upon those events and the key word is action. Set-piece opera presents events large or trivial but in either case serving to elicit responses in the actors; the dramatic focus is upon those responses and the key word is reaction. The director of music drama must work to move well from event to event and to underline the significance of plot development; the director of set-piece opera must work to orchestrate the concurrent unfolding of several personalities and to underline the significance of character development.

Thus whereas music drama is a theater of action, set-piece opera is a theater of character. Both are valid concerns of drama. My quarrel with the Wagnerites is that they use the word drama when it is the word action that they mean, and that they are not content with establishing the validity of their own aesthetic stance, but must proceed to the non-sequitur of invalidating all other aesthetic stances. Crocker wrote that Verdi's musical position had "no stylistic future and a debatable position in the present,"18 a statement which is, like the premature report of the death of Mark Twain, highly exaggerated. Lang, obviously flummoxed, dutifully extolled Wagner's position, and said of Verdi that his music somehow "overcame these oppressive conventions and superficial taste."19 Such a statement goads me to reply that Wagner's music somehow overcame his overstuffed orchestra and his Leitmotif-by-number methodology, and to note with some glee that the programs at Bayreuth, for some strange reason, list the names of the singers more prominently than the names of the orchestral personnel: Siegfried is the singer, not the horn player.

But I shall not be goaded. Action and character are indeed both valid dramatic elements, and I have no desire to get caught in a cross-fire between the action-centered Hatfields and the character-centered McCoys. It is not the purpose of this discussion to prove continuous action "wrong," but only to demonstrate that set-piece operatic structure is "right" and to grant this fruitful premise the equal status which it so clearly deserves.


1Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1950), p. 430.

2Curt Sachs, Our Musical Heritage (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1948), p. 224.

3Ibid., p. 242.

4Richard L. Crocker, History of Musical Style (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 457.

5Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton, 1941), p. 890.

6Ibid., p. 878.

7Donald Jay Grout, Short History of Opera (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), p. 344.

8Ibid., p. 344 (both quotes).

9Alfred Einstein, A Short History of Music (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954), p. 211.

10Ibid., p. 233.

11Grout, Short History of Opera, p. 348 (both quotes).

12Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (New York: W.W. Norton, 1960), p. 564.

13Ibid., p. 564.

14Times Literary Supplement, London, September 13, 1974, p. 970.

15Marcel Marceau, at National Press Club Interview, on National Public Radio, October 1, 1980.

16Philips 6700 097 comprises a reconstruction of the work according to the plan put forth by Alfred Einstein. Edith Mathis sings the title role.

17Lang, p. 848.

18Crocker, p. 473.

19Lang, p. 837.

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