November 8, 2016

Diagetic music in Barber of Seville and other operas

I just learned a new music term, and I have The Godfather to thank for it. And it's a term that is very useful in opera as well as film!
Opera Appreciation via The Godfather

I was watching Francis Ford Coppola's Mafia epic this afternoon. As always, I marveled at the soundtrack heard in the climactic scene of the baptism; the scene in which Michael Corleone stands as godfather to his sister Connie's baby while, simultaneously, hit men carry out executions of rival crime-family heads in a bloody montage.

Music plays a key role in this masterfully conceived and (no pun intended) executed section. We are in the sanctuary of an immense cathedral somewhere in the outskirts of New York. As a priest intones the baptism ritual in Latin, organ music sets the scene. (It happens to be, for the most part, Bach's Passacaglia & Fugue in C Minor.) The music continues without interruption even when the church scene is intercut with shots of mayhem and murder. That's helpful to the audience, as it clarifies that the executions are happening at the same moment as the church service. It provides a bit of order to the chaos. The music also darkens and becomes more chromatic as the scope of Michael's revenge is revealed. This is GREAT filmmaking.

The important thing to observe here is that the underscoring is (here's the fancy new term) diegetic. That is to say, the music is meant to be understood as occurring naturally in the fictional world of the drama, rather than traditional composed underscoring. We're in a church, a service is in progress, so naturally, an organist is providing music. No fancy leit-motifs; just the actual sounds the characters themselves would be hearing.  (Note: I encountered the term on a website called The Cine' Files.)

Another typical example of diagetic music from the world of cinema would be the the piano music played in saloons in countless Westerns.

Bottom line: diagetic music means that the characters themselves hear the music. Got the concept? I knew you would - you're quick like that! So now that we're all glorying in the acquisition of a cool vocabulary word, let's see how it works in opera.

It gets tricky in this context since, obviously, operas contain music throughout; the scoring is continuous other than in exceptions such as operetta and opera comique. Nevertheless, diagetic music is more common than you might realize unless you stop and think about it.

I've stopped and thought about it. Rossini's Barber of Seville (Virginia Opera's current production) employs it no less than three times. Let's examine those, and then (just for fun) compile a list of other great diagetic moments in opera history. From the Barber:

  • "Ecco ridente" This is Almaviva's first serenade to Rosina at the top of Act 1. Expanding on Beaumarchais, the Count has sprung for a small orchestra to accompany him. As he warbles his coloratura, the onstage banda mimes the bowing and tooting of strings and winds actually being produced in the orchestra pit below. But the point is: this is an opera character, and while we expect that everyone in an opera will sing, the Count knows he is singing, as opposed to, say, carrying on a conversation with someone in which only the audience perceives that he's singing.
  • "Se il mio nome" A second song; a second serenade. Extra points to the artist playing the Count if he can manage to play the guitar will enough to provide his own accompaniment.
  • Rosina's lesson scene. In Act 2, the Count arrives at Bartolo's home in disguise as Alonso, Rosina's "substitute voice tutor". So when she sings a solo, it's another moment of diagetic music. The Count sits at a spinet, making a show of playing along with her. Odd, since we in the audience hear an orchestra, not a piano, but let it pass... let it pass...In contrast, when Rosina sang "Una voce poco fa" in Act 1, she was not performing music, she was simply delivering a soliloquy about her interest in "Lindoro".
Here are some other moments we can all now take pride in (yes, ostentatiously) classifying as diagetic:

TOSCA. In Act 2, Baron Scarpia is interrogating Tosca's lover Cavaradossi when suddenly he is distracted by vocal music coming through the open window of his quarters at the Palazzo Farnese. It's Tosca herself, making a living as a celebrated soprano. The music consists of a cantata with chorus she's performing that evening. Scarpia closes the window and resumes his cross-examination.

DIE FLEDERMAUS 1 No surprise that diagetic music would occur throughout Act 2 - after all, it's a party. But the outstanding example is Rosalinde's Czardas, the vocal equivalent of a Hungarian Rhapsody complete with slow lassan and lively friska. The supposed "Hungarian Countess" is graciously performing for Orlovsky's guests.

DIE FLEDERMAUS 2 In the final act, Adele, under the impression that the jailer Frank the "Chevalier Chagrin", a French theatrical impressario, auditions for him with the hope that he will advance her ambitions in the theater. 

DON GIOVANNI 1 Serenades are the most obvious scenario in which to insert diagetic music into an opera, though not the only way. In Act 2, Giovanni sings "Deh vieni alla finestra" to Donna Elvira's chambermaid.

DON GIOVANNI 2 A particularly brilliant example of diagetic music that is purely instrumental occurs in the ballroom scene concluding Act 1. With astonishing contrapuntal dexterity, Mozart employs no fewer than three onstage bands, each representing the different social classes present at the Don's palace. Characters sing while the dance music is being played, but their singing is not diagetic; they are simply interacting in the normal manner of opera music. In this case, it's the closest example to the Godfather baptism scene; a diagetic passage of instrumental music underscoring dialogue.

DON GIOVANNI 3 I'm pretty sure Mozart really enjoyed putting together the dinner music heard in the opera's final scene as Giovanni dines alone, moments before being interrupted by Elvira and then a certain ghostly statue. There are plenty of in-jokes here, ending with the band playing a tune from The Marriage of Figaro, prompting Leporello to make a snide remark.

Dinner music in an opera - I guess, technically, that would be "digestively diagetic"?

Yeah, that was pretty lame...


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