January 24, 2016

Turning Shakespeare into opera: Queen Mab

Robin Williams: the ideal Mercutio?
(photo by Darsie, used with permission)
Since the time of Shakespeare, some 270 operas based on his plays have been written. Of these, about 3% are still performed today with any regularity. That short list includes Verdi's trio of Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, Rossini's Otello, Thomas Ad├Ęs' recent work The Tempest, and the piece I'm blogging about currently, Gounod's Romeo and Juliet.

That's a pretty dismal record of success. It demonstrates two big truths:
  1. Opera is a really difficult genre to master. The fact is that most operas fail. Also,
  2. The works of Shakespeare are an awkward fit for opera. 
Shakespearean theater is glorious, but messy. Too many scenes, too many characters, too much extraneous soybean meal filling out the red meat of the plot-line. It takes longer to sing words than to speak them, so composers and librettists have to take a pinking shears to the plays and pare them down to the bare essentials of the narrative. But the biggest problem is that much of what makes Shakespeare so memorable gets lost in translation.

Shakespeare's greatness is found in the flesh-and-blood complexity of his characters, from principal roles to minor parts, and in the scope of his amazing insight into human nature and the human condition. But there's another key to his immortality, one that is an unconquerable stumbling-block to opera composers: word-play.

Shakespeare's sheer virtuosity with words is overwhelming and dazzling. Said to have one of the largest English vocabularies in history, his word-play takes one's breath away. Dialogue is adorned with countless puns and plays on words. His characters express themselves in both street slang and the eloquent cadences of aristocracy with equal authenticity. Plots unfold with effortless iambic pentameter that creates its own expressive universe, and the profusion of rhymes makes Sondheim look like an apprentice.

Shakespeare is about words, but opera is about music! Talk about your square pegs and round holes...

The best example of Gounod's challenge in turning Romeo and Juliet into an opera is seen in Mercutio's famous Queen Mab speech. Mercutio, Romeo's BFF of long standing, is as mercurial a personality as his name would suggest. He's witty and charming, with a lightning-quick and highly imaginative mind. He's also sort of a motor-mouth; once he gets rolling, it's hard to shut him up. In my opinion, it's a shame that Robin Williams never had an opportunity to play this role. In many respects, Robin WAS Mercutio.

The Queen Mab speech displays all these qualities in a comedic rant that is funny but disturbing at the same time. Romeo is about to tell his buddy about a dream he had the previous night; that's the trigger for Mercutio to launch into a fantasy about Mab, the "fairies' midwife" who brings men their dreams as they sleep. Scarcely pausing for breath, he creates the image of a tiny spirit, darting about in a coach made of an empty hazelnut, grasshopper's wings and spider's legs, drawn by gnats.

At first, the speech appears to be sheer whimsy; as he speaks, a modern listener might picture Mab as a Disney-style animation like the three fairies in Discney's Sleeping Beauty. But as Mercutio's monologue gathers steam, the tone darkens and the imagery morphs from whimsy to the macabre. Sparing you some of his Elizabethan slang, I'll quote from a version updated into modern English:

"This is that very Mab
Who tangles the manes of horses in the night,
And plasters on bloody knots in the hair of sluttish women,
The untangling of which brings much misfortune;
This is the hag, who, when virgins lie on their backs,
Pushes on them and teaches them to stand the act of sex,
Making them able to bear the load of their husbands' bodies.

He would have gone on and on, we suspect, but at that point Romeo has had enough and cuts him off: "Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk'st of nothing."

How did we get from a delightful Tinkerbell to describing sex in such vulgar gutter-level talk? There are a couple of likely interpretations.

For one thing, Shakespeare is contrasting Romeo's idealized, chivalrous notion of Love with the other way in which men approach love: as something bestial and coarse, devoid of poetry or spirituality. Juliet's nurse also reflects an unromantic matter-of-fact point of view towards sexual relations. Men and women can elevate one another or debauch one another; it's their choice.

Another aspect of Mercutio's attitude may lie in his fear that his friendship with Romeo is being lost to a woman, this Rosalind who is the current object of Romeo's desire. Perhaps more enamored of Romeo than he might care to admit, Mercutio is frankly jealous, giving him a motive to depict male-female love in unappealing imagery.

Whatever the case, Mercutio's Mab speech reveals a certain cynicism and anger underneath the surface laughter.

Charles Gounod turns Mercutio's speech into a baritone aria. As heard in this excellent version by the great Gerard Souzay, it's splendid in many respects, but does only half the job of capturing the brilliance of Shakespeare's original. Unlike Verdi, who was elderly and wealthy when creating Falstaff and thus had only cursory interest in its box-office success, Gounod's objective was to turn Romeo and Juliet into an audience-pleasing 19th-century Romantic opera; one that would suit the tastes of a public accustomed to certain conventions in lyric drama.

So Mercutio's operatic Mab speech gets sanitized, keeping only the tone of whimsy. To Gounod's credit, he absolutely nails the tone of Mercutio's opening lines. Mendelssohn in all his pixies-and-fairies glory could not have conjured up the will-o-the-wisp, lighter-than-air atmosphere of the grasshopper wings and spiders' legs any better than in this piece.

But Shakespeare's Mab speech is a torrent of stream-of-consciousness. It's an improvised riff, the product of a mind almost out of control. The operatic Mercutio, on the other hand, neatly molds his speech into the three-part form of a standard opera aria of that period of history. It has an A section, a contrasting B section with a suavely lyrical vocal line, and then.... a recapitulation to A, repeating the music and words of the beginning. Even worse (for Shakespearean purists), it stops neatly with a "button" in the orchestra - two final cadential chords to signal the audience that the aria has ended. Romeo has no reason to cut him off.

The cynicism is gone; the hints of homo-erotic jealousy are gone; the expression of sexuality as something foul and dirty is gone; the effect of a terminal motor-mouth is missing. Mercutio, in this opera, has become something less than he was; a conventional comic supporting role.

BUT! We have to place this transformation into context. It's not a bad aria; it's a wonderful aria in its own right, on its own terms. We have a wonderfully evocative display piece for a lyric baritone; the baritone repertoire would be poorer without it. It's a fine foil for the stickiness of the four duets for the famous lovers. This aria was a deliberate compromise on the part of the librettists and composer; a gesture towards retaining as much of Shakespeare as possible without introducing an element distasteful to a bourgeois public.

It seems to me that Gounod's compromises have brought several tons of critical dismissal and scorn upon him, whereas the compromises made by Bernstein and Sondheim in West Side Story generally get a pass. Why are theirs okay, but Gounod's an unforgiveable betrayal of the Bard of Avon?

My advice: appreciate the aria, and the opera as a whole, for what it is, rather than trashing it for what it isn't. 

No comments:

Post a Comment