April 7, 2018

The dangerous accessibility of Lucia di Lammermoor

Donizetti: social critic?
 I teach non-credit opera appreciation classes for a number of colleges and universities. They fall under the umbrella of "lifelong learning", with the student demographic being age 50 and above. The classes explore the productions of Virginia Opera. This past session, my lectures dealt with the two shows I've been blogging about: Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

While the musical sophistication and knowledge of the students varies from neophyte to aficionado, it is fair to say that, by and large, musical taste definitely skews in a conservative direction. These people strongly prefer the standard repertoire.

And they're big - very big - on melody. VERY big.

I've had folks come up to me after a lecture and confide, "You know, Glenn, your classes are very interesting when you go into all the history and psychology and motifs and stuff, but the truth is that when I go to the opera, I don't read the plot synopsis or look at the super-titles; I just sit back with my eyes closed and I just soak up all those beautiful tunes."

NOTE: if you ever meet me in person, please give me a break and don't tell me that. Thank you for your cooperation on that. <huge eye-roll>

But I get it: people enjoy music that isn't too abstract, that's tonal, that's predictable in a pleasing way, that doesn't require too much cerebral involvement. People want "ear candy".

So when I play excerpts from Lucia, I see them physically relax, an involuntary smile break out on most of the faces: There - THAT'S what opera is supposed to sound like.

And it's true: Donizetti's adaptation of Sir Walter Scott is to music what a farmer's market is to produce. One ripe, juicy singable tune after another. Easy to listen to, easy to process.

And that's dangerous. 

The danger lies in that music lovers ARE tempted to "sit back with eyes closed" and treat the opera as a concert. The music can be appreciated for its surface attractiveness alone. One can be ignorant of the theatrical element and erroneously believe they're not being short-changed.

Confession: when I was a nerdy teenager, I listened to my mom's recording of Lucia over and over on the family hi-fi. It was the version with Roberta Peters and Jan Peerce. I had only a sketchy idea of what was being said; a vague grasp of the story. And I loved every note.

Here's a big point: it's NOT just that blissfully ignorant listeners don't know what is being said or how the plot is unfolding: it's that, in many cases, vocal melodies are deliberately and insidiously ironic. Once one becomes aware of this phenomenon, it provides a level of enjoyment that lasts long after the melodies begin to pall.

I have a great example.

Immediately following the Enrico/Lucia duet in Act 2, scene i, the family minister Raimondo enters to counsel Lucia. After some dialogue, he has an aria: "Al ben de tuoi qual vittima". As this aria (indeed, this portion of Act 2) is often cut, I'll wager that many of you Dear Readers are not familiar with it.

So give it a listen in this recording by Nicolai Ghiaurov. As you listen, speculate on what Raimondo may be saying. The tune is undeniably merry and toe-tapping. As we hear it three times within the first few seconds, it practically becomes an instant ear-worm. You can be forgiven if you assume that the character is lifting Lucia's spirits with an optimistic message of cheer and hope.

But here's the truth: Donizetti is making caustic and critical commentary on religion, specifically the Christian church.

Surprised? Skeptical? Here's the translation:
For the good of your family Lucia,
offer yourself as a victim;
and so great a sacrifice will be written in heaven.
Though men's mercy may be denied you,
There is a God, who will wipe your tears.

Raimondo is using religion to urge a person without power to accept and endure an unhappy life on earth. This is what how the Church has kept the poor and powerless in check at various points in its history, whether serfs in the feudal system or African-American slaves in America. "Yes, your life on earth will be awful, but suck it up and stick it out because after you die, things will be great in heaven."

Now think back to the jolly, bouncy theme of that aria. In the context of Raimondo's attitude, doesn't it sound a bit smug? Doesn't it now strike us as obtusely emblematic of White Male Privilege? Only now can we fully understand the hopelessness of Lucia's situation and the futility of her resistance.

And isn't it THAT what makes it GREAT?

Yes it is. Donizetti, at his best, is not just a purveyor of "tunes"; he is a musical dramatist with an acute insight into human nature. He never proved it better than in Raimondo's solo.

And don't you feel sorry for all those well-intended people who sit back and close their eyes, content to tap their toes to a melody which otherwise lingers in the mind about as long as the flavor of a stick of gum?

And now allow me to throw some post-mortem shade at the late Austin Caswell, a musicologist on the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Prof. Caswell was my music history professor in my freshman year at IU in 1970. Like many music history profs, he was the type who would have gladly spent months on pre-Baroque music and maybe a week on the standard concert repertoire.

He saved his greatest scorn for opera, particularly Italian opera. When the class came to that "unit", he could not have been more dismissive. I'll never forget his description, quoted here verbatim: "Opera? It's just tunes - nothing but tunes. That's it." (He pronounced it "toons".)

He was an award-winning scholar, but he was dead wrong about opera. He would have profited from taking one of my life-long learning classes. Or maybe he'd have dismissed those as well....

Look, I'm not forbidding you to enjoy the "ear candy" that composers clearly serve up on a platter in our favorite operas; most of them wanted to create a box-office hit in addition to creating Art. But don't limit your appreciation to that element alone. An opera is not a Beach Boys concert - it's theater, with all the insight on the human condition that word implies.

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