Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

In the Beginning Was the Word: Aspects of the Libretto

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

In the Beginning Was the Word: Aspects of the Libretto

Article excerpt

"Libretto": The very form and provenance of the word - the diminutive of "libro," or "book," from the Italian vernacular - bespeaks the slightness of the thing it names. Whereas "opera" - technically the plural of "opus," or "work," thus a learned term from the Latin - bespeaks a majesty, a gravitas.

Professional or amateur, lifelong fanatic or casual attendee, anyone who wants to sound smart about an opera takes a crack at the librettist. True, in tandem with specific composers, three librettists are always treated as sacrosanct: Lorenzo Da Ponte with Mozart, Arrigo Boito with the aged Verdi, Hugo von Hofmannsthal with Richard Strauss. A fourth, Richard Wagner, epitomizing the hyphenated case of the librettist-composer, hardly preempts criticism but effectively quashes it. Those four aside, a librettist in the spodight is a librettist under fire. Antonio Ghislanzoni's scenario for Aidai Hackneyed. Emanuel Schikaneder's for Die Zauberflötei A muddle. And for the record, even the great Da Ponte lived to see himself publicly reviled; in a vicious satire the fictionalized figures of Mozart and Antonio Salieri bore witness to his "tasteless, clumsy, and incoherent texts." This was in 1791, around the time of Da Ponte's dismissal as poet of die court theater of Vienna, consequent upon the death of his patron, Emperor Joseph II. Count on the wags to kick you when you're down.

For a composer embarking on an opera, nothing matters more than procuring the right libretto, and what makes it right comes down to a single imponderable attribute: its power to kindle the composer's creative flame. Without music, a libretto is merely a matrix of possibilities. From the page or a synopsis, a reader may form a poor opinion of its language, characters, or plot, but composers have been known to nullify such doubts, just as they have transmuted apparent gold into dross. Set to music, a libretto no longer exists but as the grain of sand within the pearl, as mulberry leaves metabolized into silk, as die bed through which the river runs. There is no such thing as a great opera with a weak libretto or a mediocre opera with a great one.

The libretti of accepted masterpieces take coundess forms. The kaleidoscopic, Shakespearean dynamism of Monteverdi's libretti for 77 Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria and L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Orfeo being an entirely different affair) have only the Italian language in common with the studied, formulaic architecture of the libretti set by Handel. None of these has anything whatsoever to do with libretti like those of Pelléas et Mélisande or Wozzeck, one an eccentric, the other a fragmentary straight play, both set essentially verbatim. As a rule, language combines with music best when it is simple, syntactically as well as lexically, and brevity is a virtue. Hofmannsthal's ostentatiously literary libretti fly in the face of such truisms. So do the libretti of Puccini's operas, many of them hammered into shape by multiple scribes working together or at cross purposes under the fiercely critical direction of the composer.

Film buffs will remember how theoreticians of the 1950s spoke of the director as an auteur, ultimately responsible for every detail within every frame. By the same token, the composer of an opera must own every word, every inflection of the text. And in that sense, the composer of an opera is the true author of the libretto, regardless of credit and other contractual niceties. The buck stops in the score.

So have we argued the librettist out of existence? Not quite. While the properties of a libretto - its adherence to or purposeful departures from time-tested convention - never actually dictate how an opera will turn out, they shape it in virtually every particular; the librettist lays the track that a composer consents to travel. In the pages that follow, I will look at librettists old and modern (but mostly modern), hoping to show how the maps they draw affect the journeys that composers take us on. …

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