Baboon Metaphysics and Macbeth

By Smith, Alexander McCall | The Scotsman, January 8, 2020 | Go to article overview

Baboon Metaphysics and Macbeth


Smith, Alexander McCall, The Scotsman


I n the world of opera - and music in general - nobody pays much attention to librettists, which is understandable enough: what counts in opera is not the plot so much as the music.

Così fan tutte has an unlikely plot but the most sublime music. That spell-binding trio, Soave sia il vento, is exquisitely moving although it is sung against a background of deception and a silly scheme. The plot of Wagner's Ring is similarly absurd, and yet is elevated by the power of the music to something extraordinary. But who amongst us knows much about Lorenzo da Ponte, who was Mozart's librettist? I did not, until I chanced upon Anthony Holden's The Man Who Wrote Mozart, an account of the life of the librettist of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and, of course, Così. Few who see his name on the score of these operas will be aware of the fact that da Ponte ended up as a grocer in New York - amongst other things.

This is not to say that the librettist is unimportant - he or she may play a vital role in setting the emotional tone of the opera, or indeed inspiring it in the first place. Sometimes the spadework is done by a novelist - Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice would not have been written were it not for Thomas Mann's novella. Or the librettist may play an important role in establishing the basic argument of the piece: Nixon in China by John Adams was the product of discussions between composer, director and librettist, out of which the fundamental moral position of the piece was forged - one that treated Nixon's trip as a serious matter and not just a ploy.

On occasions, the libretto may assert itself as a work of literary significance in its own right, and not just as an adjunct to a musical composition. Auden's libretto for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress is worth reading as a self-standing work. The same goes for his libretto for Britten's Paul Bunyan.

I came to appreciate opera as a student. Like many, I benefited from the cheap tickets one could get for Scottish Opera's performances at the King's Theatre. My experience was broadened by the occasional treat elsewhere - including a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci in Rome, which I experienced, seated in the upper, upper circle next to an ancient musician - a retired conductor, perhaps - who had the score on his knee and vigorously conducted and hummed the music throughout.

I was too young to go with the flow and share his transport of delight. For most of us, tolerance is something that grows with age. Today I would revel in such an experience.

When, many years later, I devoted my time to writing, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to write material for musicians to set to music. …

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