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Thread: Music Embodying Drama

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    Default Music Embodying Drama

    That's what opera's all about, right? Well, not always. But it's what it should be about. I'm thinking of examples in which the music truly embodies the story told in the libretto, and enriches it too. I just wanted to give two of my favorite examples and invite others to give theirs or comment on these.

    1. The love duet in Act II of La fanciulla del west
    This is one of the great scenes in opera to me. The music embodies the dramatic situation, and enriches the characters and themes of the opera at the same time. It's really wonderful.
    So how does it do so? I would like to make a few comments, using this wonderful recording as reference:

    I'm not going to deal with the wonderful arietta for Minnie at the beginning of the clip. Suffice to say it's a lovely moment of repose and reflection, with a marvelous orchestral effect (hard to hear here) of violin harmonics. Her aria "Oh se sapeste" is also a favorite of mine, with lots of tone painting going on (the pizzicato effect on the line about knocking on the door of heaven (5:21) - what orchestration!), but it's the duet that begins directly after that that elevates this scene to true greatness, and gives it literary quality, imo.

    At 6:14-20, we get the whole tone sequence that represents the "problem" for the opera musically, this music occurring whenever the need for and prospect of redemption is introduced. The dialogue becomes mundane for a moment, but this isn't a fault in the libretto, it's character writing. The dialogue about "Would you like a biscuit?" is a cover, as the characters are essentially becoming aroused (in a sweet way) and trying to sound casual. The amorous and gorgeous melody in the orchestra underneath tells us everything we need to know about their feelings. While they are still repressing, the vocal lines are mere comments over top the orchestral melody (6:45-7:15), but when the conversation turns to love, and Minnie describes her view that love is eternal, her vocal line falls in sync with the orchestra (7:23). Her outer expression now matches her inner life. Note that this is a subtle development of the verismo staple of having the vocal line doubled by strings. Compare this with Puccini's earlier uses of this device to see how much he has grown as an artist.

    Minnie says that love is infinite, and that she doesn't understand how one could love someone for just one hour. Johnson replies that he gets that, and that there are some women you want to love only for an hour, then you die (implying Nina Micheltorena, the anti-Minnie). Remember the music to which he sings this philosophy: (7:41-7:58). This whole passage will repeat later.

    Minnie replies cleverly (she is sometimes unfairly represented as a bible thumper or a simple girl in the literature on Puccini), "How many times have you died?" The next important moment is the kiss, which is followed by many variations on the "redemption melody" (9:59). Johnson, reflecting on his own baseness, says he has to leave, but Minnie convinces him to stay, and the melody from the beginning of this scene recurs full force, sung to the words "Io non ti lascio piu", I will not leave you again. The music to which Johnson had declared that love is finite, even lasting only one hour (7:41-7:58), now recurs to the text "Make me, love, worthy of you/I want you to be mine forever" sung in unison on the word "eternamente" (12:52-13:20). They had begun their covnersation as two, in disagreement of the nature of love, but transformed and united through the redemption music, they have become one forever. Sublime. That's music drama if I've ever heard it.

    2. Un di felice eterea from La traviata
    To be honest, I often don't get Verdi. He has many nice arias and some interesting orchestral interludes, but I just don't get why his works are considered great dramas. I don't find the characters very compelling or interesting, and to me amount of good music ultimately makes up for that. There are two big exceptions: I recurringly find brilliant and moving La traviata, the horribly annoying (even if on purpose) party music excepted, and Otello. This is one of my favorite moments from traviata, because of how the music perfectly brings the two characters together.


    Un di felice begins at 5:36. This lovely melody is wonderfully expressive of the halting but amorous nature of Alfredo's confession of love, and leads into the "love is the soul of the world" melody. Violetta's response (7:02) is a perfect tone painting of mocking laughter. But even as she sings the word "dimenticarmi", she lapses into lovely harmony with Alfredo (7:42). The climax sounds like Alfredo is sighing and Violetta is trying to laugh it off, but can't, and the ending is a lovely musical coming together that tells us that no matter what she says now, she will love him forever. It's really wonderful writing by Verdi, and one of my favorite examples of music embodying drama and character.

    What are your favorite such examples? I'm sure there are many from Wagner that could be mentioned.

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    Surprised that you didn't include the stupendous Poker Scene from "Fanciulla" with that marriage of both the intense music along with the couple's reactions were absolutely mind boggling.

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    Welcome to the forum! You clearly know your Puccini. I enjoyed your analysis, and agree completely that that scene is great music drama. I think Fanciulla has sometimes been underestimated among his works - I find it more subtle and interesting than the usual suspects - and it's been for some time my favorite.

    Regarding Verdi, I'm not aware that most of his operas are spoken of as "great dramas," although a goodly number of them are widely considered, and surely are, great operas. The function of music in opera, its relation to and balance with words and actions, is a rather old conversation by now - approximately, oh, 400 years old! Verdi's work spans an extraordinary evolution in that conversation, from the "numbers" opera of the 18th and early 19th centuries to the "through-composed" manner that no one could escape after Wagner. Puccini was an ardent Wagnerian, and his way of illuminating dialogue in that scene from Fanciulla is thoroughly Wagnerian in method. Verdi, in the end, got there too, but in looking at his earlier work we have to take its dramatic effect in terms of the conventions he was working within (and, it must be emphasized, pushing the limits of throughout a long career). Opera is a hybrid form that presents difficult problems permitting of a number of structural approaches. Have you read Joseph Kerman's old classic, Opera as Drama?

    I would say that there are not many scenes in pre-Wagnerian opera which exhibit the kind of moment-to-moment illumination of text and action seen in Fanciulla, and that that's a consequence of the then-common structure of opera as a musical form. If we're going to find that kind of opera yielding real subtleties anywhere, we might look first at Mozart - but, not being a Mozart aficionado, I'll have to leave that job to someone else. As far as Verdi is concerned, one of our members here, Tsaraslondon, knows Verdi like the back of his hand and could no doubt address the matter expertly.

    Wagner? There's so much subtle drama-in-music in his works that you could almost dip at random into the mature music dramas starting with the Ring. But a favorite example for me would be the tense, awkward, evasive, ironic, cryptic exchange between Tristan and Isolde culminating in the drinking of the love potion and the pair's confession of love. The layers of conflicting, repressed emotions heard in both the dialogue and the orchestral commentary, and the buildup of tension leading to its release in the lovers' confession of their true feelings, are brilliantly realized, and I can't think of another scene in opera quite like it. Wagner, I think, exceeds all other composers in being able consistently to convey such complex inner drama in moments when no one appears to be doing much of anything, and I think that people who complain that his operas are static are simply missing the real action taking place in the souls of his characters. A scene like this gives us dramatic music at its highest potential, and Puccini, a close student of Tristan and Parsifal, learned his lessons well.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Jun-25-2019 at 07:09.

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    I think my favorite example of this is "This Is Prophetic!", from Nixon in China. Maybe just because it was one of the first operas I really fell in love with, and this aria in particular, but I can't think of a better way for the opera to get to this point and express this emotion without that music. The soundscape for that opera in general is terrific - it sounds like C-SPAN, carpets, and jewels - and it would've been too easy for Pat's aria to become a longueur, but instead the music perfectly marries the strange passage of text, turning it into, essentially, a piece of modern American witchcraft. It's such a brilliant intersection of reality and unreality, and it gives Pat Nixon, who was, and is, percieved as an example of almost comical domesticity, a depth of feeling and earnestness. The music glimmers and floats, constantly rising like a mist, always a moment behind Pat, who seems to be conjuring it with her thoughts (as written by Alice Goodman) before climaxing with marital bliss, reflecting the wedding of the two dominant global forces:

    "The sirens wail
    As bride and groom
    Kiss through the veil"

    I don't know enough about musical theory to analyze it, but I do know that it makes every neuron in my body light up.

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