Tuesday 27 January 2009

Comic Opera

David Sawyer and Armando Ianucci’s new comic operetta, Skin Deep, seems to have been received with distinctly muted critical comment. This is not surprising; if producing new opera is a difficult business then producing new comic opera is even harder. You only have to look at the tally of 20th century comic operas which have made it into the repertoire.

Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is an obviously a comic masterpiece, but what else is there? Are Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen and The Voyages of Mr. Broucek comedies, perhaps; we’ll include them just in case. Then there is Shostakovich’s The Nose and Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges. Apart from operettas by Lehar and Straus, I can’t think of anything else from the pre-1950 period. Strauss and Hofmanstal thought of Der Rosenkavalier as a comedy, but its more of a serious opera with comic interludes. For the post-1950 period, all I can think of is Britten’s Albert Herring and, perhaps, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (again more of a serious opera with comic interludes); and neither of these is really laugh out loud funny. I’m sure I’ve missed one or two, but it is hardly a large haul for 100 years of opera composing.

It would perhaps be helpful if we looked back over the history of comic opera.

When early Italian opera moved from court to public opera house in Venice in the late 17th century, the purely serious plots gained an admixture of comedy. Essentially this developed into a genre where serious aristocrats were surrounded by comic servants. Eventually the developments of librettists like Metastasio purified serious opera and purged it of comic element. Instead serious operas would have comic interludes between the acts.

Of course, serious opera was never completely serious all the time. Salieri wrote an opera which sent up the whole genre of opera seria. And in his later opera, Handel played with the genre. He never wrote an out and out buffo opera, but such works like Serse and Partenope view opera seria with a distinctly satiric eye. In fact Serse is based on a libretto written for Cavalli, but purged of nearly all the comic servants. And Partenope is based on a libretto which Handel wanted to set earlier on in his career but his patrons would not let him.

Whilst some comedies work because they set comic situations to music, to understand Handel’s lighter works you have to understand the conventions of opera seria itself. This is something which we will come across again and again, that intention is all. The very nature of the operatic libretto means that it contains the possibility of comedy, if you stretch the genre slightly then you get an opera which is in some way comic. Handel doesn’t actually write comic music, he simply writes with comic intention. The problem is, of course, that to really appreciate the comedy you have to understand the genre (opera seria) which is being sent up.

In 18th century Italy, comic opera (opera buffa) developed out of the comic interludes performed in serious opera. But it is Galuppi with his librettist, playwright Goldoni, who developed one of the most influential forms of comedy in their operas for the Venetian commercial opera theatre. Here they mixed serious and comic characters in a comic plot; the serious characters were usually the aristocrats, sung generally by the soprano and the castrato, who were surrounded by comic servants. It is a development of the plots written for Cavalli, but rendered more thoroughgoing comic.

Galuppi also developed the multi-part finale, which was further developed by Mozart. In fact, to really understand Mozart and Da Ponte’s trilogy of comic operas you have to have experienced one of Galuppi and Goldoni’s pieces. Mozart and Da Ponte build on the conventions of the early generations and send them up. So that the serious character of Don Giovanni is certainly not the most likeable. In Le Nozze de Figaro the plot is ostensibly of the same type as one of Goldoni’s and Galuppi’s, but again Mozart distorts things by making Cherubino a sexually overcharged adolescent, and the servants run rings round the Count (who isn’t a castrato of course, but simply a baritone).

Mozart brings something else to his comedies as well, a sense of humanity. He breathes life into the highly structured plot by creating real feeling people. This has the effect of transforming a situational comedy into something far more subtle; there are fewer belly laughs and far more sighs of sympathy and empathy.

Again it comes back to intention, the difference between a comic opera and a serious one is often the intentions of the composer. There is a saying that the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is simply a happy ending.

This sense of a composer’s intention can be seen in Beethoven’s Fidelio. The opening scenes all have the feeling of a lightly comic singspiel; you could feel the work developing into a half serious/half comic situational piece. But instead, Beethoven lurches in another direction. It works because Beethoven’s music is the work of a genius, but it is hardly a prototype for how to write an opera.

When we move to early 19th century Italian opera, composers seem to develop an awareness that their style of music can be innately funny. Rossini uses music, particularly ensembles, for comic purposes. But again, intention is all. In Tancredi Rossini wrote a serious opera, but one which leads to a happy ending. Later on he wrote a tragic ending for the work, but though this is fine music, it somehow feels wrong. The opera seems to be leading to the lighter ending, after all just consider the best known number from the opera, Tancredi’s Di tanti palpiti.

For Rosina’s opening aria in Il Barbiere di Sivigila Rossini re-cycled the opening section of an aria from Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra, most definitely not a comic opera. But Rossini’s transferral of the piece to its new setting works, because his music for all his operas is so closely related; the comic ones differ from the serious ones only in detail and intention.

Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore is a prime example of an opera whose plot could easily form that of a tragic one, with only a little tweaking. Just consider Dulcanamara’s entrance, written slightly differently and he would be scary rather then funny. Conversely, it is fatally easy to imagine some of Donizetti’s serious operas done as comedy such is the absurdity of the plots. It is this fundamental absurdity which provided Gilbert and Sullivan with a source of so many of their ideas. Similarly it would be fatally easy to turn Norma into a comic plot, after all a virgin priestess who managed to have two children without anyone knowing is ripe for comic development.

The reason why such operas as Il Barbiere di Sivigila and L’Elisir d’Amore managed to survive in the repertoire was that the composers not only created superb comic operas, but imbued them with humanity, creating characters with whom we can empathise rather than just stock situations.

But after this there is rather a desert when it comes to Italian comic opera. Verdi only essayed two, the first is not a great success and the second, Falstaff, is one of the most serious comedies in existence! We would have to look to operetta if we want to find comic works. Opera composers seem to have avoided writing much in the way of comedy, perhaps recognising the sheer difficulty of making it work.

The problem for a contemporary composer is that past masters of the comic opera have all shown a strong awareness of what their particular operatic genre was. The comedy within the operas is usually dependent on the composer knowingly stretching the operatic genre. This, of course, requires the composer to be confident their sense of what the operatic genre is. This is something which we have, by and large, lost. Few composers today have a confident view of what their own particular operatic genre is. A work like Thomas Ades’s Powder her Face works precisely because it uses the operatic genre itself to fuel the comedy. A comic opera will not full work if the composer simply sets a funny libretto. That is not to say that a contemporary comic opera is doomed to failure, but it certainly makes it very tricky to bring off. Still there is hope, after all Giorgio Battistelli has just produced a comic opera that is almost an opera buffo, based on the film Divorce Italian Style.

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