1. “As I am not the first to observe,”
he observed, during the second intermission of Magnard’s
Guercoeur, “an opera in which the characters are
constantly losing things has its problems, as might, for
example, an opera in which the heroine repeatedly falls
I myself have been known to nod during Melisande’s
somewhat, it seems to me, over-prolonged expiration,
but, if we wish to know why, in the first act, she is lost,
and terrified, and weeping, and why a crown lies
at the bottom of the well into which she is weeping,
we must refer to Dukas, from whom we learn that she
is the escaped wife of Duke Bluebeard. But what names
they all have, each one a necklace or a flower,—
Melisande, Selysette, Ygraine, Bellangère, Alladine,
and the noble Ariane for whom the moonlight pours down
on the varnished road that leads to liberty.
But, my dears, the curtain rises! Soyez heureuses …
Forget the dampness, like a crypt, that confined you,
and comb the shards of dull, green glass from your long hair.”
2. It was between the acts
of Zemlinsky’s Kleider Machen Leute,
in the perfect Met production of 1992
that Guglielmo Ratcliffe first glimpsed
his Amico Fritz,—
a vision of perfect blondness and pallor, leaning against
a wall in the miniature smokers’ corral with a tall glass
of very bad champagne in his surprisingly strong hand.
Their meeting was the quietest prelude
for violas, cellos, weeping figs and weak coffee, but,
later, they threw themselves about in storms of public grief
together in the last acts of both Manons.
3. Then God spoke from a banker’s box:
“There is too much multiplication in the world.
Two Manon‘s, or three if you count Henze’s,
is more than I planned. Servants
can’t be trusted these days. Angels
are forgetful, and, besides, have few (if any)
good parts in operas. Choruses,
yes. But really terrific solos? Forget it. All this
whining about individualism and arias
is beginning to get to me. No one’s paying attention.
I turn around for a couple of years or centuries,
and suddenly there’s two Bohèmes, two
Clemenza di Titos, two Salammbôs (one of them
incomplete), at least five Fausts,
and half a dozen Romeo and Juliets (not
including ballets), four Pelleas et Melisandes
(only one of them, admittedly, an opera).
My servants are lining up at divas’ doors,
and the devil enters on the highest C in history,
but heaven, believe me, is an opera no one will repeat.”
4. Lully in Phrygia,
Donizetti in Liverpool,
Szymanowski in Palermo,
Korngold in Bruges …
Opera is the only realism,
the only history worth hearing,
and it cannot lie, even when the heroine
throws herself into a sewer in mid-aria,
or the hero goes mad and devours his first-born
while the grotto explodes, embedding splinters
in the soft flesh of audiences,
who all, in unison, die for a moment.
Lulu, for example, is a monster
conceived by a misogynist,
but when she cries FREEDOM,
and throws away her crutches on the terrible staircase
to which she is condemned, all hearts bleed.
She is beautiful, she is hideous.
The music adores her and understanding begins.
5. In the next century the revolution
will be an opera (as it always was)
and we will know how to stage it,—
with simplicity and grandeur, with pure colours,
and lighting more splendid than
the sunset on 42nd Street.
She will find him, or he will lose her, or
kill her brother with a knife, as singers pass
with lutes on the endless, dead canal, and
however inadequate our words about love or death,
or the other ultimate questions might be,
the music will build a city out of them,
and we will all walk freely
on those romantic boulevards where
no heroine is solitary,—or not tragically so,
unless she wishes it,—and no one dies
without a chorus that consoles. So
a marvelous light falls through leaves
onto sidewalks that glitter with a hopeful intent.