What can’t be said

The Wiener Staatsoper, from the stage.

I have been slightly revising some earlier posts about opera, and in the process came across the below observation from Kenneth Clark. (My own opera posts can be found here — feel free to scroll down that page to skip this one.)

What on earth has given opera its prestige in western civilisation — a prestige that has outlasted so many different fashions and ways of thought? Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word and of which they very seldom know the plot? Why do quite small towns all over Germany and Italy still devote a large portion of their budgets to this irrational entertainment? Partly, of course, because it is a display of skill, like a football match. But chiefly, I think, because it is irrational. “What is too silly to be said may be sung” — well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious — these things can also be sung and can only be sung.

— Kenneth Clark
Civilisation (1969)

Opera as high (and low) drama

From the 2023 Metropolitan Opera production of Giordano’s Fedora.

A few Saturdays ago, I found myself in the unusual position of having three full hours at home alone, family temporarily scattered around Manhattan, and I took the opportunity to do something I hadn’t done in years: listen to the live Metropolitan Opera broadcast on WQXR. Turning up the volume on the stereo, I sat back to enjoy Umberto Giordano’s 1898 Fedora, which hadn’t been produced at the Met since 1996 but was recently revived at its New Year’s Eve gala.

Some things never change. Though this performance lacked the usual intermission “Opera Quiz,” there was the usual chirpy back and forth between the hosts and interviews with the lead singers during the act break. A part of this chirping was the reading of a synopsis of the opera, and as my Italian is non-existent, I closed my eyes as the opera ran and found that it took no real effort to follow the plot through the singing and the music once I had the broad outlines in mind; both singers and orchestra were lush and lovely, even though in the broad scheme of things Fedora is little more than a torrid potboiler typical of its verismo period. Its geographical range is broad too, reaching from a St. Petersburg salon in Act I through Paris in Act II to the Swiss Alps in Act III. Susan Youens’ program notes argue for a much more profound interpretation of the opera, to wit:

The Savoy region of France was a bone of contention in 1860 between Napoleon III’s France and the recent republic of Switzerland, whose peace and prosperity stood in contrast to many other countries. Russia and France had a history of fraught relations, with the War of 1812 not long past, but formed an alliance in the 1890s driven by shared fear of Germany’s growing ambitions. Poland had no independent existence from 1795 to 1918, being split between Prussia, the Habsburg Empire, and Russia, and Russia was increasingly riven by Tsarist and anti-Tsarist forces throughout the fin de siècle. Ultimately, love and laughter are put to an end at the close of Fedora by exile and repression, execution and tyranny — just as they too often have been in the real world.

To which I could only respond: “Nice try” — it was a potboiler and a pretty substandard murder mystery to boot. But it was fun.

In the first, 1956 edition of his Opera as Drama, still a noted critical work in operatic circles, Joseph Kerman called Tosca, another opera of the verismo period, a “shabby little shocker,” a characterization that still raises hackles among Puccini enthusiasts, and it’s not a far stretch to characterize Fedora with the same words. But Fedora once and Tosca now-and-forever-more held substantial attraction for opera houses, and I do wonder if had I watched Giordano’s opera at the Met (or on the screen as part of the Met’s live-in-movie-theatres simulcasts) my response may have been more sympathetic. For opera, like theatre, is a performance, an expensive, often luxurious display of not only vocal and musical but also visual splendor. (It is also, unlike a radio broadcast, expensive, and I would have needed many more free hours to get up to Lincoln Center to see it.)

But listening to an opera and watching it in live performance is a difference in kind, not in degree. A sensitive listener can picture to themselves a stage action, as well as characters, scenery, and lighting effects, as they experience the vocal and instrumental music aurally; the same holds true for the reader of a play, who puts in their mind’s eye, through imagination, the activity that it describes, and may even “hear” the words they read as if the words were spoken. (Indeed, those with the training to “read” music may also “hear” the music as they peruse the score.) The experience of an opera recording is not inferior to the experience of watching an opera performance — it is different, and it has its own virtues, virtues unique to the experience.

I came to Fedora after revisiting a few of Wagner’s operas in the landmark Solti recording, and I recently re-read King Lear. Though I did both in the privacy of my own home, I discovered new qualities in these works I hadn’t recognized before, perhaps as the result of my own increasing age and more mature (for want of a better word) experiences. I’m encouraged to further explorations — maybe re-explorations is also a better word — but thankful to Giordano’s shabby little shocker for this new encouragement, whether or not it gets me out of the house on a regular basis. As it happens, Kerman goes on to cite passages from two of his contemporaries, Eric Bentley and Francis Fergusson, who focused on poetic rather than operatic drama, which then sent me back to their books. So, perhaps more here, as the days go on.

The Golden Ring

The 1964 BBC documentary The Golden Ring gathers together many of my enthusiasms into one 87-minute film: Wagner, Vienna, analog recording, and whatever pleasures all of these entail. Nearly sixty years later, it’s now a historical document of a particular moment in time, art, and technology, a portrait of one of the greatest recordings ever made of one of the great artistic achievements of the nineteenth century and, indeed, all of Western music: The Solti Ring cycle.

The Golden Ring covers the recording of the final Ring opera, Götterdämmerung; Das Rheingold had been released in in 1958 and Siegfried in 1962, with the second opera, Die Walküre, to come in 1965. All of them were recorded in Vienna’s Sofiensaal, originally built in 1826 but which was almost totally destroyed by fire in 2001 (it was finally rebuilt and renovated in 2013 and re-opened as an event space). The documentary is a rare behind-the-scenes look at a classical music recording, most notable perhaps for the ability to eavesdrop on conductor Solti and producer John Culshaw as they negotiate the daily difficulties of the project.

It’s a pleasure to watch, especially if, like me, you have the records on hand, and I must admit I’ve got them all now except, ironically, Götterdämmerung. I’ve purchased used versions of all of them from Discogs, and must say been delighted with their condition. They sound great, even now, sixty years after their release, and I’ve gotten near-mint-condition vinyl at bargain-basement prices, far less than I would have paid when I first listened to the Solti Ring in the early 1980s. I can only assume that this is because (1) they were very well taken care of, and (2) there’s little market for them. Capitalism works for me.

Ring resounding

Sir Georg Solti (left) with John Culshaw.

I spent several pleasant hours this holiday weekend with Putting the Record Straight, a 1981 memoir by John Culshaw, the legendary Decca Records producer who oversaw many of the great postwar opera recordings. His autobiography begins with his years as a soldier in World War II and takes him through his career as the manager of the Decca Record Company’s classical division from 1956 through 1967; after this, he was the director of musical programming at the BBC through 1976. Culshaw had written about just before the end of his career at Decca before he died prematurely in 1980 at the age of 55, leaving Putting the Record Straight unfinished. Fortunately the manuscript was nearly complete, and Culshaw’s colleague Erik Smith was able to bring it to publication.

Culshaw, who was awarded an OBE in 1976, had very little musical talent of his own and far-from-perfect pitch; the early chapters of the book focus on his own self-education in classical music as he flew wartime missions over the continent. After he wrote an early study of Rachmaninov, he joined Decca, and like most opera memoirs there are delightful stories of Georg Solti, Birgit Nilsson, Herbert von Karajan, and others through the post-war years, not to mention the birth of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the recording of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Unlike many opera memoirs, however, Culshaw focuses on the business and technical end of the classical music industry, describing the debut of the LP and stereo recording techniques with considerable good humor and fascination, providing an entertaining answer to the question, “Just what is it that classical music producers do, anyway?”

Of course, Culshaw may be best known for producing the great Solti Ring cycle in the 1950s and 1960s, the first in stereo and still a landmark in recorded sound. (Culshaw described this experience at length in his memoir Ring Resounding.) When I purchased a starter audiophile setup a few years ago, the first recording I purchased was the first pressing of Das Rheingold. It doesn’t begin to compare with digital remasterings of the recording which rob it of its warmth somehow; the difference is evident from the first bars of the opera, which even at a relatively low volume set my floor vibrating, unlike its digital siblings. The cycle hasn’t been out of print since its release, but it’s only been remastered for CD and streaming.

Until now, that is. As I was preparing this post, I came across news that Decca was remastering the original tapes of the project for vinyl once again. Described as a “high-definition transfer of the original master tapes” in something called Dolby Atmos, the Decca Classics release follows a restoration of these tapes. The vinyl albums are being published piecemeal, the first being Das Rheingold, which was released earlier this month, the others to follow in the new year. At these prices, I’m not sure I’ll be giving up my used copies quite yet, but once I hit the lottery I think I’ll have to get my pre-orders in.