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Prima le Parole

by on 10 July 2021

Nectar but No Honey

Prima le Parole

Opera Live At Home, On-line from 29th June  

Review by Mark Aspen

Have you ever watched a bee zipping from bloom to bloom collecting nectar as he buzzes about his business totally engaged?   Our busy bee at Opera Live At Home seventh on-line production was Tama Matheson, who was introduced by the tireless Helen Astrid the programme’s founder and presenter, as an illustrious and prolific opera director, who has worked at the Sydney Opera House and Covent Garden, as well as across Europe. 

For his Prima le Parole, however, he was clearly his alter ego, a versatile drama practitioner, as actor and director.  He is Artistic Director of the Brisbane Shakespeare Festival, but nevertheless tonight he was fully engaged as the unfazed consummate actor.   Perhaps, as an actor, he was a little too trammelled by his script, for when he allowed himself off the leash, both his knowledge and his wit leapt out. 

Watched over by his “tutorial spirits” Beethoven, Mozart, ever present over his right shoulder as hirsute terracotta busts, Matheson took us on a whistle-stop tour of a selection of operas and their inspirational literary sources, in order to answer the age-old question, which came first, the libretto or the opera’s music.  It may be chicken-and-egg, but he rather let a spoiler out on his own views in the very title of his talk.  

So, music or words?   Prima le Parole or prima la musica?  These are the main ingredients of the art form we know as opera.  However, as Matheson pointed out, Homer, Sappho, Pindar, and other ancients before them, sang or rather incanted their verses.  Lyric poetry after all means poetry sung to the lyre.  Powerful words push us towards their being expressed in music, and he moots that sing-song monotones often heard in poetry and bible readings are an unfortunate by-product.  I might observe this to be true in poets reading their poems; (TS Eliot reading his poem The Hollow Men  is a notorious example).  However, I doubt whether he has been to church recently.  We are probably in a golden age of bible reading.  (In one local church, a West End actor can often be heard reading the lesson.)

However, emotion enhanced is certainly a mark of opera, an all-encompassing art form that Dr Johnson described as “an exotic and irrational entertainment”.  Pain, mystery and joy are examples of emotions that lend themselves to music.  Admitting that the chicken-and-egg question is complex, Matheson took some examples of operas that were clearly drawn from a stage play. 

Wagner’s early work, Das Liebesverbot, a “more or less comical” opera is based on Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s play that academics used to call “problem plays”  since it is in itself “more or less comical”.  Pointing out that the storyline, with its deceits, betrayals and seductions lends itself perfectly to opera, and adding that it has that grand conceit, the “impenetrable” disguise, an epitome of make-believe, Matheson argued that Wagner’s music adds its own fount of inspiration that is catalysed by the words.  Music is an extension of the words.  Matheson has developed a worldwide following for his “Lyric Dramas”, but here we heard two wonderfully acted speeches from Shakespeare, Vincentio’s deputising of his dukedom to the moralistic Angelo, and then Angelo’s agonising about his unwonted attraction to Isabella.  However, any comparison with Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot was left hanging as he moved on to another subject.

Monteverdi Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria Grange Festival 2017

Moving on to discuss the role of the Florentine Camerata in the naissance of opera as a distinct art form, which they initially called monodrama, Matheson explained (via an anecdote about and Vincenzo Galilei, the father of the astronomer Galileo Galilei) how Monteverdi, the preeminent opera pioneer, developed their ideas to conclude that “music must be subjugated to the words”.   However, Matheson posited the thesis that it is the dramatic idea, the theatrical notion that informs both music and the words, giving as example Verdi’s Falstaff, and his librettist Arrigo Boito’s adaption of The Merry Wives of Windsor as one of its Shakespearean sources.  Verdi music “leaps and bounds and capers … with an exuberance” that “creates a universe over and above the words which inspired it”, making it almost impossible to direct.  Falstaff’s “What is in that word honour?” speech from Henry VI Part 1, Boito’s other source, and skilfully acted out by Matheson, is compared with the Falstaff’s aria “L’Onore!  Ladri!  Voi state ligi all’onor vostro, voi! ”  And his conclusion? “Verdi’s music effectively eclipsed the words that inspired it”.   In this case prima la musica

However, when comparing Shakespeare’s Othello with Verdi’s Otello, a very different conclusion is reached.  It is described as “the greatest story of jealousy”.  Matheson brings all his considerable acting skills to bear on Othello’s speech of anguished remorse after he has smothered Desmona, in the last scene of the play: “Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!  O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!”.  The verdict is Prima le parole, without even hearing the opera.   Falstaff and, to a lesser extent, Otello are described as Verdi’s Spätlese works, since Verdi was almost eighty years old when he wrote Falstaff.  It had started out as a little exercise “to pass the time” and ended up as his only successful real comic opera (His earlier Un Giorno di Regno was a total flop.)  Verdi was nationalist, but he took a much more tramontane view when it came to Shakespeare, for he was a life-long Shakespeare nut. 

Falstaff Grange Festival; 2019

As the tie-breaker for Verdi, Matheson brings in I due Foscari, which is based on The Two Foscari by Lord Byron.  We are only giving a brief snatch of the Verdi, in which Jacopo Foscari, the son of the Doge of Venice recalls his vanished life from his prison cell where he has been wrongly accused of murder.  We were allowed only a few bars of the a cappella aria, it could be “Non maledirmi o prode”, Jacopo lamenting his fate, as Matheson says, “with profound longing and yeaning”.   He compares the aria with the father’s, the Doge’s, “darker view of the vanity of human wishes”, a full speech, then comes down narrowly of the side of the words, prima le parole.

Next, how does Gounod fare?  His Faust is compared with the source material from Goethe’s monumental work of the same name, which Matheson describes as “one of the seminal utterances of Western consciousness, perfect fare for opera, as “the darkness of the human soul converted to unhallowed longing”.  He reads Dr Faust’s speech, deciding to shortcut his erstwhile long academic search for knowledge by selling his soul to the Devil, concluding that we never learn from our mistakes.  But nothing is said about the opera, so we must infer no contest, as a clear win for the words and Goethe; prima le parole.


Edmond de Bergerac, Adam Blanshay Productions 2019

Hercule Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, he of the huge nose and huge charisma, enters the ring to battle out between his fictional romantic alter egos in Edmund Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac and Franco Alfano’s opera Cyrano de Bergerac, who by “accepting his own frailties he overtops his condition and becomes heroic”.  His love Roxanne is lost to the witless Christian, ironically via Cyrano’s own love letters.  Matheson acts out Cyrano’s revelation at the end of the play that the words of Christian were really Cyrano’s expression of his own feelings for her.     However, apart from the snippet that Franco Alfano is now largely known solely as the composer who completed the opera Turnadot, unfinished Puccini’s death.  Sadly tonight, Alfano misses out again, as nothing was said about his opera Cyrano de Bergerac, presumably another goal for le parole.

Would an anti-hero fare better?  Enter an ordinary man, the eponymous subject of

Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck (again incidentally an unfinished work), and the main protagonist in Alban Berg’s (misspelt) Wozzeck an opera about “humanity crushed under the tank-treads of the military-industrial complex”.  Matheson reads a grandmother’s austere fairytale to illustrate the bleakness and despair of the hapless anti-hero Woyzeck, presented as the direct inspiration for the opera.  He played “Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam! Eins nach dem Andern!“ the opening to the opera sung by der Hauptmann, the captain who constantly abuses Wozzeck, music that he described as “jagged anti-romantic music”.  I must admit that I could not tie in the captain’s words (which are only telling Wozzeck to get a move on) with the forlorn story of the grandmother (and who is the grandmother anyway?).  So let’s call this one a draw between le parole and la musica.   

Le Nozze di Figaro, Grange Festival 2019

Moving to safer, and more cheerful, ground the final exhibit was Beaumarchais play Le mariage de Figaro, the source of Mozart’s opera, Le Nozze di Figaro (and, although this wasn’t mentioned Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, its prequel in the play).  Matheson pointed out the paucity of Beaumarchais words compared to with two examples, well known arias of Figaro.  The play’s wordy but sardonic riposte by Figaro on rumbling the Count’s plans to seduce his soon-to-be wife becomes Mozart’s (and da Ponte’s) “Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino, il chitarrino, le suonerò …”.   When Figaro packs the libidinous Cherubino off to join the army, his pat-you-on-the-back cynicism finishes with the line, “March to glory … … if you’re not stopped by a bullet”.  Da da Ponte’s rewrite as “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso, notte e giorno d’intorno girando …”  becomes one of Mozart’s best known arias.

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Grange Festival, 2018

Taking score at this stage, we had been presented with nine operas.  For five, the verdict was prima le parole and only two for prima la musica, a further two being more or less a draw.  However, if this was a court of law, it was la musica that was on trial in a kangaroo court, for la musica didn’t have any witnesses for the defence in four cases, and in the others a few bars only.

The chicken-and-egg question asked, “prima le parole e poi prima la musica, o prima la musica e poi prima le parole?”  had really become “which has supremacy the words or the music?”  Matheson however, put it differently “What can opera do that ‘straight’ theatre can’t?” He allowed his answer to come from “Wolfie” Mozart as seen by Peter Shaffer in his play Amadeus (and Shaffer’s continuation of the Pushkin- Rimsky Korsakov libel against poor old Antonio Salieri).  He clearly enjoyed performing Mozart’s petulant yet passionate polemic about opera, in which he describes opera as more real than any play, because the dramatist can only put down one idea at a time, whereas the composer can superimpose them: this is how God sees the world. 

Amadeus, TTC, 2020

Matheson here rested his case on Mozart’s verdict.  Or did he duck the whole question?  Or did he just get carried away with his (what was in fact an) outstanding portrayal of Wolfie Mozart via Shaffer’s nimble text?  

One of the audience asked if he had ever played this role on stage.  (It is part of the Opera Live At Home experience to have the chance to chat with the featured guest after the presentation.)  Clearly he had, and at his own admission, loved it; and why not?  It is a great part and he knew exactly how to play it.  The question did however lead to an examination of Mozart’s scatological proclivities.

Back on piste, a questioner mentioned the pertinence of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio, the theme of which simply asks, “Which is the greater art, poetry or music?”, whereas another noted that the source dramas themselves had older sources (eg. Marlowe’s Dr Faustus) and that many arts as well as drama and music form the genre of opera.

The aforementioned poor old Salieri is the origin of the phrase prima la musica e poi le parole.  It was the title of an opera of his first performed in 1786.  Here Mozart and Salieri obviously agreed.  But did Matheson answer this question?  Whilst ostensibly ducking the answer, he couldn’t cover his preference, on balance, for the words.  He is a top-rate actor, and words are his milieu, so the drama came to the foreground, leaving less about the opera.

As such, this Opera Live At Home session was an interesting and informative drama presentation by an exceptional actor, who is also an obsessive opera lover.  His energy and busy-ness were palpable, but like that bee picking nectar, he gave us the full perfume and beauty of the source flower, as he went dipping for a moment in each bloom, but we never got back to the hive and missed the pot of honey.

Mark Aspen, July 2021

Photography by Bob Workman, Clive Barda, Graeme Braidwood, Simon Annand and Sarah J Carter

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