Opera's Great Upheaval, Part II

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 03:14 PM

Yesterday, Olivia Giovetti surveyed operas written between 1910 and 1913, in keeping with the timeline for the Guggenheim's modern art exhibition, "The Great Upheaval." Today she picks up with the start of World War I and moves through to its 1918 finale, further examining the parallels between opera and the visual arts and the early–20th–Century zeitgeist.

1914
Richard Taruskin notes that Stravinsky wrote the second and third acts to The Nightingale at a time when “he was hostile to opera as a genre.” The hostility shows in his 1914 opera, though in eschewing major arias and a fluid vocal progression Stravinsky also pushed the potential of opera into a beguiling brave new world. Stravinsky merged St. Petersburg style, most notably that of Rimsky-Korsakov (who died in 1908, the year in which Stravinsky began work on the opera) and the Parisian avant-garde embodied by Diaghilev. Stravinsky hesitated writing an opera after 1913’s Rite of Spring, however Stravinsky’s uproarious exhibition of colors and phrasings (reminiscent of Albert Gleizes’s lushly hued but cubistically jagged paintings) still gives the score a balletic idiom: Whether choreographed by Diaghilev in 1913 or staged by Robert Lepage in a pool of water, the music continually propels forward under its own expert choreography.

Hard to top that, but even Stravinsky can’t constitute all of the colors in the crayon box. Zandonai returns with his most enduring work, Francesca da Riminia meeting of sorts between Puccini’s verismo and Strauss’s modernism replete with eclectic and impressionistic musical brush strokes. Meanwhile in England, Rutland Boughton was turning to Wagner’s and Dvorak’s thematic and musical for The Immortal Hour which, like Humperdinck’s Königskinder, is rooted in a mythical fairy-tale.

Of course, 1914 also signals the breakout of World War I, which took many of the 20th Century’s finest artists and composers to the frontlines of battle. Stravinsky neatly avoided entering into the fray by staying in Switzerland (where his tubercular wife was convalescing in a sanatorium). Kandinsky returned to Russia to aid his countrymen and Franz Marc joined the army, seeking an escape but meeting his death in the process. As Alex Ross notes in The Rest is Noise, “many artists were exhilarated when the Great War began; it was as if their gaudiest fantasies of violence and destruction had come to life.” The war proved destructive for many, however for artists World War I also signaled an eschewal of traditional values, from the Victorian era in Britain to the Belle Époque of France. Both positive and negative outcomes of the war would cast a shadow on creatives both during and after the battles.

1915
In the summer of 1915, Italian artist Gino Severini (who, by 1906, was living it up in Paris with Braque and Picasso) incorporated cubist themes from his adoptive country into the futurist art trends of his compatriots in Red Cross Train Passing a Village, a marriage between fractal elements and vivid, virile colors. There’s an inherent conflict between the two movements—“the Futurists’ interest in depicting motion, use of bright expressive color, and politically inspired dedication to bridging the gap between art and life departed decisively from Cubist aesthetic practice, which focused on the rarefied world of the studio," investigating formal issues through often-somber portraits and still lifes,” writes the Guggenheim’s Jennifer Blessing—however here in Severini the formal and political cohabitate harmoniously.

There’s a similar marriage in Max von Schilling’s Mona Lisa, a Florentine tragedy delving into the life and times of da Vinci’s enigmatically grinning heroine. A prologue and epilogue in the present day jump back into the late 15th Century and the scenario makes use of double casting to an eerie effect in a story that trades expertly in Straussian themes and a Wolf-Ferrari–esque plot. Mona Lisa contains very little of the political, but its vivid arias, especially for its eponymous heroine, balance nicely with the form and function behind one of painting’s historic landmarks.

1916
The Metropolitan Opera inherited the world premiere of Enrique Granados’s Goyescas after the Paris Opéra was forced to abandon the production in the midst of World War I, which also made Goyescas Met’s first Spanish-language opera. Goyescas is unique among operas for being based on a piano suite written by the composer. Though Granados was heavily involved with the Catalan modernist movement, as reflected in his 1911 opera Liliana, the composer returned to traditional Hispanic tradition for this, ironically his most popular work.

Like Granados, Eugen d’Albert drew inspiration from Wagner (via Debussy) for his Die Toten Augen, which premiered in Dresden. Compared by many to Wagner’s Parsifal, d’Albert’s Palm Sunday–set work was weighted down by its heavy-handed mix of religious symbolism. A mystic alternative was Gustav Holst’s first opera Sāvitri. Premiered in London in the same year as Die Toten Augen, Holst bases his chamber drama in Hindu culture with a polytonal score redolent of both India and Great Britain. All told, it’s about as far from Wagner as Die Toten Augen is close to Wagner, and signals the shifting musical tides that typified mid- and post-War musical culture (one that helped in part to ease Erich Wolfgang Kongold, whose Violanta also premiered in this year, into Hollywood where lush romanticism was still in demand). Yet, as seen in the following year, composers such as the one-time experimentalist Hans Pfitzner would still advocate a return to Wagner’s old-time religion.

1917
While Nicholas II was busy abdicating and the Bolsheviks were preparing for their storm on the Winter Palace and the World War reigned in blood over Europe, several composers kept calm and carried on. Taking a page out of Strauss’s book, Alexander Zemlinsky adopted a story of Oscar Wilde’s—A Florentine Tragedy—for the operatic stage. Its premiere in Stuttgart was criticized for its finale, though on the whole the score—with clear nods to Schreker, Schilling and Korngold—won fans in the likes of Schoenberg, who must have seen the parallels between the opera’s central love triangle and his own wife’s extramarital affair. Here, like Matisse in his series of paintings of Italian model Laurette (including 1916’s The Italian Woman) there is—in the artist’s words—the nods to “a state of condensation of sensations,” between the highly-textured, symphonic orchestrations, a heady and decidedly non-Romantic libretto and morally ambiguous characters. One can see subtle hints of Berg’s Wozzeck (begun in 1917 and perhaps the ultimate post-World War I opera) hidden in Zemlinksy’s thousand layers.

Feruccio Busoni moved even further from the stock Romantic libretti of the fin-de-siècle, presenting a double-bill in 1917 of his commedia dell’arte opera Arlecchino and the Gozzi-based (and Puccini precursor) Turandot. Busoni was, in his words, “reproached” for the latter “because it is considered scornful and inhuman,” however Antony Beaumont notes that the composer saw the work as a sympathetic nod to mankind, perhaps in abdication of the horrors of war—horrors which the Italian-born but Berlin expat Busoni avoided by settling, like Stravinsky, in Switzerland. Likewise, Busoni’s Turandot retains the commedia spirit of Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 play, operating as a frenetic amalgam of spoken dialogue, intimate orchestrations and choral numbers and free-flowing melodic lines.

1918
By the time the Armistice was signed in France and the Weimar Republic was formed in Germany, a new wave of 20th Century modernism eclipsed music in general. Responding to a request from Zemlinsky to create a libretto depicting the “tragedy of an ugly man,” Schreker conceived Die Gezeichneten (“The Stigmatized”) and quickly decided to write the music in addition to the libretto. The literal disfigurement of the main character, a mirror on the distortion and abstraction favored by artists at the time, was an apt metaphor for a Europe that had become mutilated from the ravages of war. Though 1912’s Der Ferne Klang was no shan-gri-la, its music is far less bleak than this latest work, which touched on love, art, murder and politics but also features an orgy to make any Romantic composer blush.

The psychoanalysis continues in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, a comparatively familiar tale seen through the prismatic lens of a modern composer disillusioned by war and the lasting effects it had on his Hungarian homeland and penchant for folk music. Yet Bartók found a way to preserve some of the latter in this richly recondite score. That both Schreker and Bartók explore the theme of isolation is no coincidence for the times. As the Guggenheim notes, solitude is often part and parcel with any artist’s life, and this feeling was only amplified following such a multi-continental at large-scale annihilation.

The Puccini Paradigm
Giacamo Puccini is often cited as the last torch-bearer for the golden age of Italian opera, and with his death (leaving the composer’s own version of Turandot unfinished) died the era that began with Rossini. Yet it’s hard at times—though certainly there are obvious overlaps—to reconcile this predominantly 20th-century composer with his 19th–century brethren. Unlike Massenet (who was 16 years his senior), Puccini flourished with the turn of the century, cementing his style and genius in 1893 with Manon Lescaut and moving beyond a hard-and-fast verismo identity. The poetics of his works and characters from all classes—think of the contrasts between the artist figures in La bohème and Tosca—combined with a symphonic abstract expressionism mirrored the composer’s creative and social era under guises that ranged from the American West and the shores of Nagasaki to the salons of Paris and death-beds of Florence.

1910’s La Fanciulla del West offers an abundance of characters in the opening scene, crowding the stage and score before giving way to the entrance of the opera’s nearly sole female character. Like Kandinsky, dozens of individualized shapes, colors and strokes blend to form a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts—a formula that can also be seen in the seemingly disparate one-acts of Il Trittico.

Beloved by many for lush and romantic scores on the one hand, Puccini also indicates his reverence for the modernists, such as in 1917’s La Rondine, which contains a subtle reference to Strauss’s Salome in the first act and—in the more popular ending to the opera—eschews predictable melodrama for a realistic ending that, like Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, sets bitter isolation against pastry-sweet Viennese waltz.  1917’s Il Trittico has a similar practicality and irony and, when played in its completion, concludes with Gianni Schicchi breaking the fourth wall—and the lovers’ duet—to deliver a spoken epilogue. They may not be endemic to the era’s representational, Austro-Germanic compositional style, these three Puccini works illustrate the ideals and history of early 20th-century opera—and art—in one neat package.

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Comments [1]

Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

I'm sure a printer's error belied the author's knowledge that "La Rondine" was first produced in 1917. I felt that Puccini's use of bitonality would have been commented upon. I've always been fascinated by his use of C-sharp major against d minor starting in the 5th bar of "Turandot" and the almost identical use in the first bar of Act II of "La Fanciulla del West". I intend using "Opera's Great Upheaval", Parts I and II as a reference for years to come. What a comprehensive and thought-provoking essay!

Jun. 03 2011 11:31 AM

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