Music: Mindless Masters

Listening to certain operas of the late nineteenth century, one is sometimes tempted to echo the remark of Miss Harriet Herriton in E. M. Forster’s novel Where Angels Fear to Tread. Miss Herriton, it may be remembered, was a rather prim English lady who, taken to the opera in a provincial Italian town, observed with horror the way the audience swayed with the melodies, cheered the entrance of the singers, and almost drowned out the high notes with shrieks of approbation. Finally, unable to stand it longer, she stalked out crying: “Call this classical! It’s not even respectable!”
Miss Herriton’s objection was essentially to the audience, but there are a number of cases in which it seems applicable to the music as well. There exists a whole shadowland of nineteenth-century Italian operas, apart from Verdi’s and Puccini’s, whose durability has always been a bit mystifying. For the most part, their plots are sentimental, their melodies saccharine, their harmonies soggy. Distressing as these infirmities are, they apparently are not fatal to operatic life, for in one way or another, the works manage to survive.
A case in point is that of an opera called Adriana Lecouvreur by one Francesco Cilèa. Adriana Lecouvreur was resuscitated after years of almost total neglect in 1963 by the Metropolitan Opera, which put it on for no other earthly reason than that Renata Tebaldi made it a condition of her return to the company. Curiously, thanks to Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, and several other participants, the public began to develop a certain tolerance for Adriana. In fact, when Rudolf Bing decided to present it again in the 1968-1969 season, he felt himself able to schedule it no fewer than thirteen times, as compared with four for Wozzeck and seven for Peter Grim es.
However, the last refuge of a second-rate opera is not the opera house but the record album. Thanks to the enterprise, it that is the word, of several record companies, it now is possible to enjoy or endure, depending upon the inclinations of the listener, such hitherto undisturbed products of the past as Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, Leoncavallo’s La Bohème, and Catalani’s La Wally. Ordinarily, an operagoer might pass a lifetime without witnessing any of these works and count himself none the poorer; still, it is true that L’Amico Fritz was praised extravagantly by Gustav Mahler, that Leoncavallo’s Boherne gave Puccini’s a fair run for its money, and that La Wally was a favorite of Toscanini, who actually named a daughter in its honor. All three operas are relics of the 1890s. People once paid good money to hear them, and, one imagines, there wasn’t an empty seat or a dry eye in the house.
Of the three, the likeliest candidate for revival would seem to be L’Amico Fritz. Mascagni, like Leoncavallo, has gone down in history as a one-opera composer; Cavalleria Rusticana, while no favorite of the cognoscenti, still makes music at the box office, which is the only kind most impresarios have ears for. L’Amico Fritz was first produced in Italy in 1891, a year after Cavalleria. Bernard Shaw, who heard it in London in 1892 (contemporary opera really got around in those days), thought it “an opera which will pass the evening pleasantly enough for you, but which you need not regret missing if you happen to have business elsewhere.”
It’s an appraisal which still seems reasonably valid, for L’Amico Fritz in contrast with the blood-andthunder Cavalleria is an almost idyllic kind of work, all about the romance between a rich Alsatian landowner (the “friendly Fritz” of the title) and a poor farm girl. One of the characters, curiously, is a middle-aged rabbi named David, who is a friend to everybody and a kind of village matchmaker. L’Amico Fritz has managed to hold the stage in Italy, though when it was given there during the years of Mussolini’s close collaboration with Hitler, it was found advisable to change the rabbi’s part to that of a doctor.
L’Amico Fritz is rather a short opera; among other advantages, its melodies, sugary as some of them are, don’t really have time to cloy. As a matter of fact, it gives an overall impression of rather wistful charm. One scene, in which the rabbi and the girl together gently recall the biblical tale of Rebecca at the well, is particularly fresh and striking: a duet set to a choralelike melody that one feels impelled to go back and play again. There also is a number called the “Cherry Duet,” which has its attractions. It L’Amico Fritz had a little dramatic variety and tension, perhaps it too might aspire to thirteen performances a season at the Metropolitan Opera. In any event, it has been smoothly recorded by a cast headed by Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti, with Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting the Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus (Angel SBL-3737: two records).
Leoncavallo’s La Bohème was also written shortly after his most celebrated work, Pagliacci; even more important to its eventual fate, it came out just after Puccini’s La Bohème. Although it never had much chance against its famous rival, it did manage to win its own performances and audiences for a time, before it eventually vanished from sight. Now Everest has given it a recording in a performance made in San Remo, Italy, by Antonietta Medici, Guido Mazzini, and Nedda Casei, with Alberto Zedda conducting (S-462/3: three records). With more humor than most record companies display about their wares, Everest has even labeled the album “The Other La Bohème.”
Much of the interest in this recording stems from a comparison with the Puccini version. The story, the musical line, even the voices, all undergo significant changes. In Puccini, Rodolfo, the poet, is a tenor; here he’s a baritone. In Puccini, Musetta is a subsidiary character, existing mainly to sing her famous waltz; in Leoncavallo, she is almost the dominant female character (aided no end in the recording by a strong performance by the American soprano Nedda Casei). Most spectacular perhaps is the elevation of Schaunard to a position of prominence. In Puccini s opera, he’s the low man among the quartet of Bohemians, but Leoncavallo turns him into a spokesman for the group with a couple of arias of his own. Many a Puccini Schaunard, locked in his second-baritone obscurity, must cast an envious eye on the Leoncavallo score.
There’s no doubt that, as a piece of musical theater, Leoncavallo’s La Bohème is vastly inferior to Puccini’s. Its plot is sprawling and lacking in climaxes; and its music, for all its occasional strength, is an odd mixture of styles and influences. It’s startling, for example, to hear a reminiscence of the Windsor forest scene of Verdi’s Falstaff (written five years earlier) suddenly appear amidst the Bohemian revelry. At times the world of Viennese operetta suddenly takes over; at others (more welcome, on the whole) there is a throwback to Pagliacci itself.
In releasing Leoncavallo’s Bohème on records, Everest obviously had its problems in assembling the requisite textual material to accompany it. There’s an Italian libretto, but no English translation, and although an English synopsis is given, it turns out upon examination to be the story not of the Leoncavallo opera, but of the Puccini. The idea seems to be that this is an opera best listened to in complete confusion.
But how best to listen to Catalani’s La Wally is even more of a puzzlement. Of the many dreary works already enshrined in the Schwann LP catalogue this is assuredly among the most lugubrious. Catalani was that musical anomaly, an Italian Wagnerite, and his opera has a Germanic ponderousness both in plot and music that all but submerges it. For sheer preposterousness of libretto, La Wally can hold its own against any opera: Wally, a young Swiss heiress, beautiful but independent in mind, is humiliated by a young man named Hagenbach. Infuriated, she suggests to another lover that he kill Hagenbach, which he promptly attempts to do, only to botch the job. Injured but not dead, Hagenbach eventually finds his way back to Wally and they are joyously reunited. But at that moment an avalanche sweeps down on them (remember, it’s Switzerland), and Hagenbach is crushed to death. Wally promptly leaps off the nearest precipice, presumably sending everyone home happy.
With such a story, it’s astonishing that Catalani found as many opportunities as he did for a touch of vocal lyricism, particularly for his badgirl heroine. He also attempted to lighten the mood with bits of village revelry, Tyrolean dances, drinking songs, and the like. But for the most part there is a tedium and vapidity about the score which make one wonder how even those audiences of the 1890s, who apparently were more stoical about opera than their modern counterparts, managed to last through a whole evening of it.
Why, then, a recording? In a way, this is where we came in. For the reason becomes obvious when one consults the names of the participants in this London release (OSA1392: three records). The title role is taken by none other than Renata Tebaldi, who apparently cherishes the part among her favorites, just as she does Adriana Lecouvreur. The rest of the cast is able enough (save for Mario del Monaco, whose tenor has become frayed and frazzled with the years), but there patently was no reason for recording La Wally nowadays except that La Tebaldi wanted to do it. And, having done it on records, why not—so someone may wonder—do it also on the stage of the Metropolitan? The prospect is enough to make even Mr. Bing head for the hills.