Piotr Beczata and Aigul Akhmetshina in Carmen at Covent Garden

Bedlam bingo

Sex, death, sado-masochism and blasphemy in a heady cocktail

On Opera

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Amongst the various horrors of the recent Carmen at Covent Garden, one of the more commonplace was observing the alphabetti spaghetti of international singers (Bashkir, Polish, Russian, Congolese … ) bellowing out approximate French phonemes at the blank-faced English audience.

This baffling set-up is considered quite the thing in opera; and there was even more fun to be had back in the 19th century, when they translated everything, including Wagner, into la bella lingua di Dante for performance in London and elsewhere. That’s right! L’anello del Nibelungo, Sigfrido, horrid gnomi, you name it, with extra mozzarella.

Actually, by the 1870s Italian opera itself was looking like a busted flush, consisting only of Verdi — who dried up for 16 years after Aida of 1871. Other places had their own models: in France, the decorated brothel music of Auber, Meyerbeer and Gounod was giving way to something a bit less meretricious with Massenet and Bizet; the Germans had uncle Richard, whilst the poor idiot English had humbugged themselves into a ghastly corner where they furiously pretended to believe music was morally elevating, and knelt around listening to pious oratorios all the time.

As the story goes, Puccini popped up in the 1890s to rescue Italian opera, which then conked out with him in 1924. Actually there was a bit more to it, and those 30-odd years produced an amusingly seamy Silver Age, histrionic attempts to respond to (or, to be accurate, ignore) the issues raised by Wagner and the collapse of the old musical language.

Languishing in Puccini’s Neronian shadow, his contemporaries fought like cats to produce something sensational enough to get noticed, and their forgotten names occasionally still flare through this vivid crepuscolo degli Dei to divert us once again.

They are always grouped under the wildly inappropriate label “verismo”, though they took considerable pains to outrage even sketchy operatic standards of realism. Whilst Puccini’s atrocities — jumping off buildings, torture, ritual suicide and the rest — might seem pretty operatic to any normal person, these lads insisted they were nowhere near operatic enough, hence our great luck in getting the actress expiring after sniffing “poisoned violets” sent by a love rival (Adriana Lecouvreur, 1902), the risible “stage poison” of Andrea Chénier (on now at Covent Garden) and the garish semi-pornographic melodramas that finally brought the flaming curtain down, like the frenzied perving over the trinkets on a statue of the Virgin Mary in I gioielli della Madonna (Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, 1911).

This is quite a step even from the vajazzled “realism” of La bohème and Cav and Pag from the early Nineties, and actually this gaudy kitsch stemmed less from Émile Zola than the “decadent” writings of Octave Mirbeau and Joris-Karl Huysmans (and Oscar Wilde in Salomé mode).

Sex, death, sado-masochism and blasphemy in a heady cocktail produced works begging for operatic treatment, notably after Puccini had kicked that particular door down in his Tosca of 1900.

There must have been a secret bingo-sheet of grotesque, improbable happenings doled out to Italian opera composers at the start of their careers, the challenge being to include as many as possible.

Francesca da Rimini (Francesco Zandonai, 1914)

The grandaddy was probably Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, from 1876, which obliterates every box: Venice, a rapist secret policeman, an old blind mother (plus her attempted lynching when accused of witchcraft), roistering minstrels, mistaken identity, a hot political exile skulking in disguise, adultery, poison, suicide …

Andrea Chénier is from the same mould. At first sight it looks like a misery of clichés: no one can mention God without a choir of woodwind; poems (of which there are many) awaken harp and flutes; the showtunes have voices yelling in octaves doubled by the entire orchestra; shimmery strings presage the paradise towards which our crazed heroes are hastening, and so on.

And yet, done right, it is some kind of miracle. Umberto Giordano’s catchy pre-film music gels into an impassioned, even transcendent experience. This depends a good deal on the hero — the French poet who rubs Robespierre up the wrong way and ends up trundling off to the guillotine — being sung by a proper heroic tenor (the great Jonas Kaufmann here).

The final conflagration of Italian opera owed plenty to the colourful Gabriele d’Annunzio, luridly good writer, proto-fascist voluptuary and daredevil fighter pilot, who gleefully imported the perversions of decadent literature to Italy.

Gabriele’s exalted opinion of himself was matched for a while across a Europe which saw in him the reincarnated spirit of pre-Renaissance Italy. It was his death-and-sex mediaeval fantasies that inspired the most characteristic of these end-time works — Francesca da Rimini (Francesco Zandonai, 1914), “a poem of blood and lust”, and the mayhem of L’amore dei tre re (Italo Montemezzi, 1913) by d’Annunzio’s disciple Sem Benelli.

Watching this stuff, you might wonder what became of the glorious 600-year Italian humanist tradition. How did a beautiful, idealistic art turn into this revelling in diseased imagination and spiritual sickness, which holds titillation amongst its very highest aims?

But I guess someone had to prepare our souls for the edifying marvels of cinema and the American century …

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