The Corner

Night At The Opera

Jay: Thanks for the mention of our opera outing, which I enjoyed

tremendously. I confess to having nursed a faint hope that you would quote me again in your review. As we left the Met I remarked that: “It doesn’t get any more buffo than that,” which I thought summed up a performance that seemed to me absolutely perfect. I admit that wasn’t as quotable as “He kicked a**” though.

A reader asked me why I like bel canto (= early-19th-century Italian opera, with plot, orchestral music, and pretty much everything else sacrificed to very challenging SINGING) so much. Easy: for the same reason I like 1950s science fiction, early rock’n’roll, Hank Williams and The Pickwick Papers.

It’s the freshness and spontaneity of these operas, and a quality of

naivety. You don’t have to like that: a lot of people — including,

notoriously, a lot of conductors — don’t like bel canto. There is of

course a case to be made for more labored, sophisticated art forms, and enjoyment of the one by no means precludes enjoyment of the other–Jay seems to enjoy any kind of music that is well-performed, though I admit that I myself would much rather sit through an opera by Rossini than one by

Wagner. (Rossini, by the way, was of the same mind.)

Those things I listed were all popular art forms, their works produced at high speed by people whose main interest was to make a bit of money for themselves without too much fuss — no fuss at all, in most cases–about stylistic niceties or innovatory technique. For me, that gives them all great charm and appeal.

Here is a bit of the flavor of bel canto, as originally performed. I’m

copying this from Berlioz’s Memoirs, Chapter 43:

“When I reached Milan, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore was being played at the Cannobiana, and to satisfy my conscience I went to see it. I found the theatre full of people talking at the top of their voices, with their backs to the stage; the singers all the time gesticulating and shouting in eager rivalry. So at least I judged by seeing their huge open mouths, for the people made so much noise that it was impossible to hear a sound beyond the big drum. In the boxes some were gambling and some were having supper. I therefore retired, since it was no use hoping to hear the smallest fraction of the music…”

That particular opera of Donizetti’s, by the way, was written, words and music both, in two weeks from a standing start. Musicologists are still arguing about how many operas Donizetti wrote altogether–Grove lists 66, not counting rewrites and revised versions, but others disagree.

That’s bel canto, fizzing with vitality and spontaneous, overflowing creativity. The production of “The Italian Girl” that Jay and I saw on Friday caught that precisely, and that is why it was a great, wonderful production.


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