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Shock of the new

People are terrified of modernity’s great gift: the sudden freedom to make appalling noise, says Robert Thicknesse

On Opera

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The world of human entertainment is gratifyingly broad, embracing everything from Bananarama with Fun Boy Three to the DIY sort detailed in the “Spanner Case” (R v Brown [1993]), where those chaps made their own by merrily nailing their bits to planks.

Of them all, opera surely makes the toughest, most Spanneresque demands on its adepts: you need a resolve of steel to sit for hours while those fat little Italians sob and wave their arms around, to convince yourself it’s not risible and demeaning and that you are actually having the time of your life. Naturally, we’ve developed coping strategies like sleeping, being drunk, and perving the chorus, but it’s no place for pussies.

For most, the opera charabanc went off a cliff in the 1920s when Puccini died

I only mention this because it inspires hope that the casual operagoer should have the gumption to return if our opera houses ever care to bestir themselves again: presumably in due course those rackety old Romantic costume-dramas that keep the wedding-anniversary gang rolling through will kick off again.

It’s amazing, though, that this is what audiences still reckon they want. For most, the opera charabanc went off a cliff in the 1920s when Puccini died, shedding a couple of late escapees by Richard Strauss as it did so — pieces with their soul firmly stuck in the nineteenth century sent out into a world that (except in lucky places with dictators) had rather moved on from the social set-up which required them.

Yet a whole new kind of opera was appearing at precisely the same moment, a miracle that has in some mysterious way not filtered through sufficiently to the faithful. Here’s the thing — Puccini’s old-skool Turandot (premiered 1926) is even now performed a zillion times more than better works written at the same time (and that we still laughably call “modernist”): Janáček’s Katya Kabanova and Cunning Little Vixen, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Berg’s Wozzeck, Szymanowski’s King Roger, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Sure, those diacritics and consonant clusters are a bit scary, and there’s a perfectly understandable fear of platoons of East European grannies eating kasha and herring on stage, but Puccini’s overblown melodrama, about which everyone agrees you have to wait a long time for “Nessun dorma” (about its only memorable event), does look pretty silly beside them.

These pieces, when it suits their purposes, are all fantastically lyrical

It’s no big secret why people avoid them: they are terrified of modernity’s great gift, the sudden freedom to make appalling noises. In fact, the most effective twentieth-century operas shun the nastier aspects of atonality, gambolling about instead in music’s traditional sensual pleasure-dome just as much as Handel or Wagner ever did: yes, you can now make horrible noises, but you don’t have to make them all the time.

These pieces, when it suits their purposes, are all fantastically lyrical — and apparelled in a wizard’s cloak of orchestral sounds light-years away from that tiresome old “big guitar” of Italian opera.

While romantic opera (with a few exceptions, no need to write in) with wanton glee made a dog’s breakfast of decent books (see Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet à la mode: “Sacre bleu, Prince Omelette! C’est le spectre de ton père!”) or fetishised the retarded maunderings of Walter Scott and Co, finally music got serious about literature.

Opera, previously good only for the erotic squawkings of hormonal sopranos and tenors, finally had the proper tools to examine other bits of the human experience. And no massive surprise that in the century of carnage and tyranny, minds turned to imprisonment, isolation, alienation: between 1918 and 1960ish a sort of thematic unity emerged, expressed via the potpourri of musical idioms now happily available.

It’s not so much the unfreedom they’re concerned with as what we can muster against it, the joys of living found even in appalling circumstances and the face of death: human fellowship, sympathy (this was before Twitter was invented to destroy these), belief, hope, love. In Janáček’s House of the Dead, taken from Dostoyevsky’s prison-camp memoirs, and Britten’s Billy Budd, from Melville’s shipboard novella of the Napoleonic war, men find themselves enchained for unknown crimes, “lost for ever on the endless sea”; obscure glimpses of light and meaning do battle with brutality, hatred and envy, and the music seeks out “the spark of God” in each hardened lag and gnarly tar.

The music of Bluebeard mines in brain-jangling detail the interstices of sadness and loneliness

Poulenc’s nuns in Dialogues of the Carmelites, awaiting the Revolution’s guillotine, calmly discuss, to music of supernatural clarity, the place of martyrdom in the divine plan. The music of Bluebeard mines in brain-jangling detail the interstices of sadness and loneliness, and the dark beauty to be found there.

There could be no more suitable fare for our festive new Britain, where A.P. Herbert’s 1920s squib has finally come true:

Come to Britain and lead the gay life!

As a rule it’s illegal to bathe with your wife…

You mustn’t buy chocolate, you mustn’t buy ale

But come to Britain and see our new jail!

And when they get round to putting it back on stage, you’ll find tickets for this stuff cost about half what you have to fork out for old Turandot, too.

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