Reflections on Opera
What Opera Means: Categories and Case-Studies, Christopher Wintle, edited by Kate Hopkins, Boydell & Brewer, 2018, 288 pp, pb., £15.99, reviewed by STODDARD MARTIN
Books on opera abound. Books on Wagner, alone, are said to be as numerous as those on Napoleon, perhaps more so. Those on Mozart rank not far behind. Verdi joined Wagner in celebration of a bicentenary in 2013, and a plethora of publications to mark that occasion included the piquant Verdi and/or Wagner by Peter Conrad, reviewed on these pages. Both figures stride like colossi through Christopher Wintle’s What Opera Means, a collection of reviews, programme essays and lectures from his distinguished career as commentator on the genre, notably at The TLS, where for a period in the early 1980s this writer was his predecessor.
Recurrent appearance of the 2013 bi-centenarians in Wintle’s book reflects their ubiquity on the boards over subsequent decades. At Covent Garden, several cycles of The Ring of the Nibelungen have been mounted, as well as a ‘festival’ to stage all of Verdi. Wintle came to write programme notes in this epoch, and the programme note – a genre of its own – is key to his style: descriptive, informative, learned. Critic gives way to guide for most of his book, conducting audiences towards a work rather than rating or slating its execution. The approach is charming, veering toward the judgemental rarely, such as when flagging admonitions about Wagner made de rigueur after World War II by the likes of Auden and Adorno. Wintle’s accommodative tone shifts in an extended last section formed of critical pieces. Several reveal a caustic awareness of the contemporary problem of ‘dogmatic’ directors or, to a lesser degree, recent composers.
For a house such as the Royal Opera, programme notes are neither as superficial as in Los Angeles nor as academic as at Bayreuth. (I mean both of these adjectives in their positive sense, denoting attentions to surface or to depth characteristic of these respective venues.) Writing for the ROH, Wintle eschews neither and generally attempts to achieve something like a golden mean. He gives histories of conception, execution and reception alongside analyses of textual structure and musical forms. We plumb the minds of composers and the psychology of their works but never venture far from the requirements of taste in a time and place, costs of production, capacity of singers and audiences and/or practical demands for revision or more extensive reformulation – Tannhäuser at Paris, Don Carlo in Italy, the Boito-revised Simon Boccanegra etc.
Opera is theatre and theatre a collective enterprise, given to constant updating. The occasional origins of Wintle’s pieces convey a lively sense of this. Where they go beyond the twinned icons of the latter half of the 19th century, they illuminate mainly moderns – Strauss and Britten prominently, but also en passant Brecht & Weill as well as less household names such as Goehr, Adès, Benjamin, Birtwhistle and Weir. Those interested in earlier epochs must satisfy themselves with small turns devoted to Handel, Rameau and Mozart. There is no Gluck, though he is referred to, likewise none of the Italian precursors to whom Verdi owed so much– Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Pre-Wagnerian Germans – Weber, Spohr, Marschner – are also no-shows.
This is not criticism, except perhaps of the book’s title, which may evoke expectations of a more comprehensive view. Apart from those noted, the post Verdi/Wagner era is represented by equally small sections devoted to Massenet, Debussy, Messiaen, Janàček and Stravinsky. No other Russians or Czechs feature, let alone figures further flung. Among those near to Wintle’s great pair, Berlioz might have made an entry; and Puccini seems a lamentable absence – no modern Italians. But let’s not cavil. Wintle’s book is what his career has enabled him to focus on, and its focus has a geniality un-compromised by an overt show of genius, making it a comfortable companion. You can pick it up and read a chapter at leisure or pursue the path set out at a deliberative jog.
Organization is key in a gallimaufry of this kind, and both author and editor have managed to slot what might seem random into a simulacrum of order. Each provides a preface; Wintle adds an introduction. The first sets out the book’s pattern, the second defines its operative word. Thence proceed sections entitled Sources, Genre, Style, Revision, Beginning & End, Invention, Psychology and Performance. Each category is loose enough to accommodate a number of chapters, around five per section except for that extended last one. Juxtapositions are rarely strained; at best, chapters counterpoint one other or constitute variations on given theme. The book need not have been shaped in this way – a chronological approach based on period of subject or time of writing might have worked too, and Wintle reverts to the former for his concluding potpourri. But the choice facilitates the author’s chief innovation: adding introductory glosses to each inclusion which, being ex post facto to its original writing, indicate its significance to the subject overall.
Quite a bit of allusion to Aristotelean, Freudian and other compositional theory is involved here, as in a never-before-published piece on ‘repression’ in Rigoletto, deriving from a talk to the British Psychoanalytical Society and citing the late Jungian writer on opera, Robert Donington. More typically, as said, Wintle wears his scholarship informally enough that one feels enlightened rather than weighed down. The same goes for the gentle touch by which he sprinkles his texts with terminology – cavatina, concertato, cabaletta, stretta, scena and the like, so essential when dissecting the conventions and later anti-conventions of Verdi. Snatches of scores are used rarely but with brilliance, such as in a piece on the finale of Götterdämmerung where Wintle shows how contrasting musical figures associated with Wotan and with Siegfried are harmonised by Brünnhilde as she incites the pyre of the latter to ignite the haven of the former. Tempi, key change and orchestral colouration here may suggest meanings embedded deep in the music which more strictly literary admirers from Baudelaire to this writer have been inclined to miss as they swirl down into what Thomas Mann once described as ‘our earliest picture dreamings’.
The mythic, legendary and religious undercurrents of what is arguably the greatest art-form mankind has as yet produced are not neglected by Wintle, but he writes for the age he lives in and fails to afflate with what a present-day reader might regard as the pretension of great-grandfather’s generation. His pieces characteristically tend to a positive final flourish – one does not read a programme to be put off by what the curtain is about to rise on – but what precedes is usually as more memorable to it as Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell is to the wittering of those who survive. Opera involves conventions even when they are being flouted. So does writing about it.
Critic and publisher Stoddard Martin’s first book was Wagner to The Waste Land, Macmillan, 1982. He has written extensively on this and related subjects in the intervening years
Authors should not respond to reviews, but there is always the exception to prove the rule. I hereby make it! Stoddard Martin’s is a decent – considered, judicious, ample, nicely penned – piece on my book, which, as the cover says, is but a selection from, and not the totality of my work in the field (hence one or two composer-omissions, grievous from my point of view, notably of Tchaikovsky and Puccini). So I am grateful to him – and any other reviewer – who puts in time, thought and effort of this calibre. Do I have any comebacks? Yes, one or two: there are in fact several references to Verdi’s pre-cursors, as the index shows, and ‘Birtwistle’ (Harrison) is spelt without an ‘h’, unlike Birtwhistle (John) the librettist! But these are nits I hardly have to pick. So thank you to The Quarterly Review for the space. CW
Ah. Thanks for correction on Birtwhistle, which the eye missed. On the point of Verdi’s precursors – references to, yes; chapters upon, not. Overall – sympathies for the fact that no one book can do all. But this one did a great deal. SM