The cheerful awfulness of the Italian Singer
R. Strauss is very exciting and “PoMo” (for his time) but there’s a
hell of a lot to absorb when you (by which I mean someone without musical education) first start listening to his music; especially if you’re coming from the very clear and neatly structured Baroque end of the music spectrum. His music is like a wall of sound crashing down on you from all sides, many layers of intricate lines now converging, now juxtaposed, styles put in a blender set on high. You feel alone at sea (un mar turbato, of course), there are 3 hours until the happy ending and your brain is already that little boat smashing against the rocks of too-clever musical writing with which you have no hope of keeping up1.
Clueless (but sincere and eager) novice opera lover: I think I like it but hell if I could say why or indeed if I like it at all… but it’s kinda cool…
It’s very useful to develop a well rounded idea about his music and the libretti he used if you want to – eventually – get the most out of it. Unless you’re one of those
strange people who goes with their gut instead of over analysing everything (but then why are you reading blogs? 😉 ) before deciding if they like something.
This is the reason why though I like virtually all the R. Strauss stuff I’ve heard, I very rarely write anything about it. I have learned enough to appreciate most of his wit and in-jokes but I may never be comfortable enough to express myself intelligently about it all. The first paragraph of this post is the result of a few years’ listening with an open mind and much reading, because there are others who are knowledgeable enough to ‘splain it to all of us alarmed helmsmen and helmswomen2 😉
The Italian Singer
So, the Italian Singer, right – from Der Rosenkavalier. Imagine the Clueless novice opera lover first coming across this one’s sole aria.
Clueless novice (now very serious, because s/he wants to grasp as much as s/he can): So I’m listening to Post-Romantic opera from the 20th century which is set in the 1740s’ Vienna and is based on Mozart/DaPonte/Beaumarchais’ Le nozze di Figaro from the 1780s – did I get my references right? – when all of a sudden, among orphans and dog trainers – don’t ask, I’ve yet to digest those details -, this opera singer within the opera shows up and starts belting out… right? Right.
He sounds sort of belcanto but the lyrics are all about fighting love which is kinda Baroque – am I still on, reference-wise? – but what’s the point of it all because he’s, well, awful…? Am I allowed to say that? Lack of musical education and all – but that’s kinda how I hear it. No, don’t ask me to tell you what’s wrong, I just know something’s wrong .” (the little boat smashes against another jutting rock)
This is the point where Clueless novice needs to be referred to two – yes, not just one, two – further readings. One is about the Baroque Singer in All His/Her Glory and the other is about another R. Strauss opera – remember his PoMo-ness? Self referencing is so on – which, though written later, explains so much about the in-jokes in this one.
- In layman’s terms, the Baroque Singer in Excelsis is a bit ridiculous and thus easy to make fun of. He both genuinely loves to sing – loves music – and is in love with his own singing/high notes.
- From getting acquainted with Ariadne auf Naxos, Clueless novice learns that R. Strauss and buddy Hofmannsthal were fond of making fun of the music profession.
These are the kind of people who can distance themselves from it all and have a good laugh about it (though I don’t think it’s a mean laugh, but a laugh nonetheless) – unlike the Italian Singer (but he has a plight and they do support it a few years later when they revisit and expand on the subject).
Clueless novice also learns that Ariadne auf Naxos, like Le nozze di Figaro, was inspired by a French play3, though this one’s libretto does not follow the play per se. Instead it picks up a secondary thread and runs with it in a very original manner. But all that the Clueless novice wanting to understand the reason why R. Strauss gave us the Italian Singer needs to know is that the main characters in Ariadne auf Naxos are the equivalent of the Italian Singer. Yes, he and Hofmannsthal referenced a play then referenced themselves referencing Beaumarchais et all as well…
Maybe – but this is pure theory now – Strauss and Hofmannsthal were also hinting at the general reception and function of art in society, and this view is more depressing. – Lankin <- click me! The Italian Singer needs your attention
I fully subscribe to that theory! Following up Der Rosenkavalier with Ariadne confirms this. Anybody who’s been involved in the arts – especially the more commercial side of it – knows things haven’t changed much. Which is why Ariadne (and the Komponist) has a very special place in my heart.
So if you’re still with me after all this rambling I really did not realise I had in me 😉 I point you to above quoted Lankin’s brilliantly clear and detailed dissection of the Italian Singer via his very aria. You (the now much wiser
Clueless novice opera lover) will love R. Strauss that much more for his attention to detail.
- And some people still wonder if ha-ha-ha coloratura is ever warranted! Hells yea, when your character is inhaling mouthfuls of algae-infested seawater! ↩
- That’s my translation of a favourite Baroque image: ‘l nocchiero spaventato (from Griselda‘s Agitata da due venti or Tossed around by two twenties 😉 ). Strauss is clearly parodying this type of typical (Italian) Baroque aria, where love’s sudden and disturbing effect on one’s emotions is compared to a storm at sea. ↩
- Truly a great play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme. ↩
Posted on September 20, 2016, in 20th century, baroque, italian opera, richard strauss and tagged ariadne auf naxos, der rosenkavalier, hugo von hofmannsthal, italian baroque, richard strauss, tenors. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.