I have bought a book, Opera as Drama by Joseph Kerman, and in the Epilogue he says, "Opera entails the revelation of the quality of human response to actions and events."
There is a conventional wisdom about opera. All the serious writers on opera as theater point to the same sources and reach the same conclusions. All look back to Sir Donald Tovey for their inspiration. All discuss the same small list of operas: Figaro, Don Giovanni, Otello, Die Meistersinger. George R. Marek in his book Opera as Theater adds Fidelio, Carmen, La Traviata, Tosca, Turandot and Der Rosenkavalier to this list. Joseph Kerman in Opera as Drama adds Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Gluck’s Orfeo and Pelleas and Melisande.
According to the conventional wisdom, the Italians rise to the level of mention only when they acquire the virtues of the Germans, as in Verdi’s Otello. Mozart and Wagner tower above all the others, casting them into deep shadow. The conventional wisdom requires us to endlessly praise the finales in Figaro and the effect of the leitmotiv in Wagner’s Ring. I have known people who only go to performances of Wagner’s final operas, considering them the only operas worthy of their notice. I am a bit on the other side and have never sat all the way through a performance of Tristan or Parsifal. In contrast my interest flagged in the equally lengthy Saint Francis only during the bird calls scene.
My experience of Wagner is that you are caught up in the spirit of what he is doing or you are not. Terry McEwan’s Ring cycle hooked me. James Morris and Eva Marton riveted my attention. Die Götterdämmerung was not a minute too long. For me Die Walküre is Wagner’s best opera, and I like Meistersinger more and more as the years pass. This kind of getting caught up hasn’t happened for me in Tristan, and I actively loathe Parsifal. I was caught up in the religious ecstasy of Saint Francis. I’ve warned before that I was a philistine.
Kerman describes Wagner’s main dramas as, “Opera as Symphonic Poem.” This is excellent. I was describing these works as the development sections of symphonies with all the exposition and recapitulation left out, but symphonic poem is better, more historically accurate. They descend from the ideas of Berlioz and Liszt, the inventor of the symphonic poem.
Kerman describes the Baroque, apart from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, as the Dark Ages. Associating opera with form is an interesting exercise. Opera in the early Baroque had not yet acquired its obsession with form and produced more dramatically effective opera-drama, especially in the operas of Monteverdi, not just Orfeo. Cavalli has also been revived recently. The interest in these operas stems from the fact that they are effective as theater.
As the Baroque progressed, the formal structure of the da capo aria dominated the requirements of theater. Opera became a series of set pieces with a cursory narrative between the long, showy arias. All of music, not merely opera arias, took on this formal, single affect per movement form. You will find it also in the Brandenberg Concertos or the Quattro Staggione. Why can we accept this in a concerto grosso but not in an opera?
Is Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice significantly more interesting than the more traditional La Clemenza di Tito? Or even the completely stereotypical opera seria Giulio Cesare in Egitto? If it is, why is it done so seldom? It doesn’t make my A or my B list.
My take on these writers is that they come to opera from somewhere else, from symphony, from instrumental music generally, and having thoroughly hashed over the symphony and decided what makes a great symphony, they are looking for those same virtues in operas. Great symphonic development doesn’t guarantee a great opera. They keep Wozzeck alive because they adore the fact that all the scenes are based on forms derived from instrumental music, as though this made it a better opera.
The test for a great opera is simple: does it engage the emotions? Do we connect emotionally to the people on the stage? Do their woes reflect our own? Do their joys touch us?
The drama is in the humans. I propose that this explains my conclusions that L'Amour de loin is a great opera while Doctor Atomic is a bad one, though both are directed and produced by Peter Sellars, and both are relatively static in terms of action.
In L'Amour the play is about human response. The entire drama is about human emotion and hardly a line of the dialog is not about emotion, longing, desire, love. Once it is decided how to display this visually, it's all downhill after that. It flows from passion to passion.
Atomic is just ordinary people talking about their ordinary lives. The security guard is a major character because Adams insists on using the actual words spoken by the actual people, except for the poem by John Donne we are told Oppenheimer read. The emotions of the characters are completely missing and replaced by a huge replica of the atomic bomb. The drama has to come from the people. Without Mr. Sellars' bomb there would be nothing.
Opera is about human emotion.