The Music Criticism of Hugo Wolf

By Hugo Wolf; Henry Pleasants | Go to book overview

50. Anton Rubinstein's Nero1

April 26, 1885

To call Nero a grand opera simply because of the pretty sets and, too, because there is singing shows how far one can go, taking the French opéra as a starting point, building on its least edifying aspects and thus heading for ruin. If in Meyerbeer's operas there were, at least, individuals so skilfully costumed that one could from time to time imagine them to be real persons, later fashioners of grand opera have concerned themselves solely with the costuming of supers, with luxurious pomp and ceremony, with conflagrations and voluptuous dances, leaving the principals to figure out how to spin the thread of the plot amid all this senseless hubbub and unholy spectacle.

In bringing a Nero to the stage one cannot proceed too cautiously. One cannot delve deeply enough into this character, nor adequately interpret it. Still, I do not find this material utterly unsuited to dramatic exploitation. The world about Nero is so corrupt that it gains thereby a certain definite physiognomy whose reflected image is concentrated in Nero's mad conduct. Everything is rotten, miasmatic, apathetic, bored, and going mad from boredom. In such an atmosphere, however, the spectator cannot survive for long. A cleansing contrast is needed. The librettist of the opera at hand has understood this very well, and has, as was to be expected, sought refuge in Christianity.

But Christianity cannot be embodied less effectively than in the person of the converted Chrysa, or less effectively as spectacle than in the cold astonishment of the Roman legions at a visible cross in the heavens at the close of the opera. What does Christianity do for Chrysa in face of the daily mounting horrors of Nero and his companions? Trembling and hesitant, she confesses to Vindex, a commander of the Gallic legions, that she is a Christian, and is mightily relieved to find the excellent Gaul so little disturbed by what was at that time a rather daring disclosure. The excellent Vindex, in love with Chrysa, finds in this case the religion of love preferable to that of renunciation, and replies: "I admire Him (in the admirable translation from the French it goes: "I Him admire") as a god of love whose mercy has granted me your love."

In the third act, when Nero courts Chrysa, the librettist had the opportunity to dramatize the superior power of Christianity -- as opposed to Nero‐ Dionysius, madly and vaingloriously asserting his divinity -- by giving the

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