The Huchback and the Ape

When Dr. Samuel Johnson defined opera as “an exotic and irrational entertainment” he surely didn’t have Hans Werner Henze and Alberto Ginastera in mind. Yet contemporary composers of opera are turning out products far more bizarre and unlikely than any the good doctor ever heard. Relatively far out artists are taking up opera in a big way, with the result that new life seems to have been infused into a form of music which was regarded not too long ago as hopelessly ailing. True, some people regard the cure as worse than the disease; nevertheless, operatic premieres are being held with increasing frequency these days, accompanied by a public anticipation and excitement that haven’t existed for years.

Two recent cases in point are Henze’s Der Junge Lord and Ginastera’s Bomarzo. Both have been widely acclaimed, The Young Lord having entered the repertory of a number of European houses since its premiere in West Berlin in 1965, and Bomarzo having created a sensation in the only two cities where it has so far been given, Washington, D.C., in May, 1967, and in New York this past March. Both operas have just been released in complete recordings. Both are the works of composers who, when it suits their purposes, adapt such devices as the twelve-tone system, serialism, microtonality, aleatory, or chance, music to their own ends. Finally, both deal with spectacularly weird subjects. The Young Lord is a black comedy that has as its hero an ape. Bomarzo’s central figure is a hunchbacked Renaissance prince who dabbles in black magic and lives amid hallucinations. It has been called a “topless” opera, and presumably because of its alleged eroticism, has been banned from its composer’s native city, Buenos Aires.

In a way, The Young Lord is the more surprising of the two works simply because it marks a backward turn in the composer’s style. Henze, who is forty-one, has written five symphonies, several stage works, and a prodigious number of other pieces, demonstrating a mastery of the most advanced musical idioms. Yet in The Young Lord he has deliberately abandoned atonal music because, he says, it does not “radiate cheerfulness” and is otherwise unsuited to comic opera. Henze’s reversion has earned him the reproaches of avantgardists, who argue that both Verdi and Wagner used their most advanced techniques in their comic masterpieces, Falstaff and Die Meistersinger, and that Henze has sold out. Nevertheless, Der Junge Lord has achieved a good deal of popularity in Europe and may win a wider audience here through its excellent new recording (Deutsche Grammophon 139257/59: three records).

Despite its avoidance of the more extreme new techniques, The Young Lord is anything but an old-fashioned bel canto opera. Modernity is written all over it — in the pointillism of its scoring, the terseness of its melodies, its jagged dissonances, its explorations of the upper register.

Its ironic story, too, is of a decidedly modern turn. A British nobleman takes up residence in a fine house in a small German town in the nineteenth century. The townsfolk, especially the high society, are agog over their new resident and look forward to a round of parties, receptions, and visits. Sir Edgar, however, turns out to be a recluse, and to the outrage of the townspeople, invites no one to his home except a small, shabby circus troupe which plays in the village square. Finally, he surprises the sulking villagers by inviting them all to a grand reception he is giving for his young nephew, Lord Barrat, just arrived from England. When the youth is presented to the guests, they eagerly imitate his foibles, which include dancing wildly about the ballroom floor and smashing champagne glasses after draining them. When the party is at its peak, Lord Barrat suddenly strips off his clothing, his wig, and his mask, and turns out to be the ape from the circus, who has been trained to imitate a human. He hops from one piece of furniture to another while the horrified guests cry “Ein Aff, ein Aff” — “An ape! An ape!” End of opera.

This curious plot gives Henze a wide latitude for musical expression. There are dance rhythms, march rhythms, circus rhythms — one of them lifted boldly from Mozart’s Abduction From the Seraglio. The music manages to be at once raucous and subtle, with Henze artfully depicting the pomposity and pretentiousness of small-town society. The ensemble writing is delightful, with the whole town first turning out to welcome Sir Edgar, and then clustering about his house in indignation. There’s a brassy circus sequence and a vivid ballroom scene, with the music becoming increasingly garish as the final disaster approaches. Over all hangs the torment of the ape himself, whose anguished cries as he is being beaten in preparation for his new role pervade the climactic scenes. Only a pair of lovers emerge as rather wooden figures, with a love duet whose conventionality is downright distressing. Perhaps Henze is better at setting human foibles to music than feelings.

The recording, which is by the cast of the original production by the Deutsche Oper of Berlin, is firstrate. Although the work is sung in German, a good many of the leading singers are American, as is attested by such names as Loren Driscoll, who performs the role of the ape; Barry McDaniel, who sings the part of Sir Edgar’s secretary (Sir Edgar himself is a mute role, and isn’t heard in the recording); and Vera Little, who plays Begonia, a Creole serving girl with piquant memories of days in Jamaica. Libretto and translation are provided, along with an elaborate brochure containing color photographs of the stage production.

The plot of Ginastera’s Bomarzo is even more bizarre, and its music is uncompromisingly exploratory throughout, going beyond his earlier Don Rodrigo in that respect. It is the work of a composer who has spent almost fifteen years experimenting with sonority and who, at the age of fifty-two, clearly intends to continue. Its spectrum of sound is astonishing. Dissonances abound; quarter tones produce strange and piercing colorations; sighs, moans, and mutterings, rather than words, are emitted by the chorus; percussive effects range from tinkling bells to dull thuds. These sounds are eminently suited to accompany a stage portraiture that includes grim skeleton dances; distorting mirrors that spring to life; astrological ceremonies; visions of devils and various monsters; and a good deal of orgiastic dancing.

Yet for all its range in tonal scope, Bomarzo provides its singers with plenty of strong vocal music, clear in line, lyric in feeling, expressive in nature. The work opens, after a dark, rumbling, edge-of-the-abyss kind of orchestral prelude, with a little pastoral song in which a shepherd announces that for all his poverty he would not change places with the wealthy but hunchbacked Duke. Two hours later, after the Duke has been tormented to death physically, spiritually, and morally, the opera closes with the shepherd lad singing the same simple song. It is a masterful stroke.

As original as are many of Ginastera’s concepts and methods, there are echoes of earlier composers, notably the Debussy of Pelléas et Mélisande. He is particularly resourceful in his use of the chorus, which produces some straightforward, intricately textured singing, but which also echoes the derisive or demonic cries of various personages in the action, and which in an orgy scene is called upon to provide some unmistakably amatory sounds.

With its vivid stage action and its extensive use of dance, Bomarzo is largely a visual opera. Yet the recording (CBS 32-31-0006: three records, with Spanish-English libretto) certainly conveys the dramatic strength and nightmarish quality of the work. It is performed by virtually the same cast that appeared at its world premiere in Washington and its recent performance by the New York City Opera Company under Julius Rudel: Salvador Novoa, tenor, as the Duke; Richard Torigi, baritone, as the astrologer; Isabel Penagos, soprano, as the Duke’s wife; Joanna Simon, mezzo-soprano, as a courtesan who tries to reassure the Duke concerning his manhood; and Claramae Turner as Diana Orsini, the Duke’s sympathetic grandmother — one of the most fully realized and beautifully sung roles in the recording.

Bomarzo has never been given in Argentina, being banned by the municipal authorities of Buenos Aires “because of its obsession with sex, violence, and hallucination,” according to the official decree. Oddly, the novel from which the story is taken, by the Argentine poet Manuel Mujica Láinez, is freely sold in Buenos Aires and has won several literary prizes there. It will soon be published in an English translation.

Both Mujica Lainez and Ginastera came to New York in March to attend the rehearsals and performances of their work at the State Theater in Lincoln Center. Both gave lectures and demonstrations about Bomarzo; few operas in recent seasons have had musical circles so stirred up.

Mujica Láinez says he found his inspiration on a visit to Bomarzo, near Viterbo in Italy, where an actual sixteenth-century duke built a garden full of grotesque stone monsters. To Ginastera, the story is a parable of modern man who, like the deformed Renaissance prince, is torn by his own doubts, fears, and subconscious instincts.

Ginastera, sober-looking, conservatively dressed, more of an Argentinian businessman than a composer in appearance, says he expects to go on writing even more advanced and adventurous music in the future. His third opera will be about another violent Italian family, the Cenci, which ought to provide a subject suitable to the most extreme musical techniques.

Ginastera believes that atonalism is becoming a kind of lingua franca of music, obliterating the distinctions between national styles—Italian, German, Russian, French — that marked nineteenth-century opera. “Distance is not measured in kilometers anymore, but in dollars,” he said as we talked in his hotel room during an interval in the Bomarzo rehearsals. “The important thing is not how far a place is, but how much it costs to get there. Humanity is drawing closer together, and we are living in an epoch of constant change. Our music keeps changing too. As a composer I want to be more like Beethoven, who kept on changing his style throughout his life, than like Mozart, who did not. But it is a matter of changing gradually and out of spiritual necessity, not just to be a la mode.”

Whether Beethoven’s achievement or Mozart’s represents a greater challenge to composers of today remains a debatable proposition; so, perhaps, does the contention that only atonalism offers a path toward the future. In Ginastera’s case, spiritual necessity has produced a Bomarzo, in Henze’s a Junge Lord. Both pertain to our own times, and both are flourishing on the operatic stage. For the moment, perhaps that is enough.