Power of the Word

Librettos, seen ‘cold’ on the page, can appear preposterous; but, Michael Oliver demonstrates, the librettist’s craft is as great as any playwright’s.

What makes a good libretto? A cynic might reply with the old maxim that if anything’s too stupid to be spoken then let it be sung, no doubt adding that quite a few marvellous operas have appalling libretti. Take Il Trovatore, for example: two rivals in love, unaware that they’re brothers; a crazed all gypsy woman who throws the wrong baby on the fire! Preposterous!

In fact, the libretto of Il Trovatore is perfectly suited to its purpose, a superbly crafted machine for bringing irreconcilable emotions into violent conflict: a machine for manufacturing pretexts for arias. Just what Verdi wanted and needed. A good libretto is one that inspires a composer to produce his finest music. It’s incomplete without the music, and to criticise a libretto without taking account of the music is like condemning a recipe without tasting the dish.

Most libretti are based on an existing plot: from history, myth, a play or a novel. If you want to write an opera based on Shakespeare or Dickens, the first thing you’ll need to do is to throw most of it away. In the case of a play at least half, probably two thirds: words take much longer to sing than to speak. Yet nobody would complain that Verdi’s Otello or Falstaff are dwarfish abbreviations of Shakespeare. Verdi’s Otello is surely the equal of Shakespeare’s, despite leaving out much of his plot and most of his poetry, while Falstaff not only distils the very essence of The Merry Wives of Windsor, but aspects of Henry IV and even A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well.

Verdi was a genius, of course, but he wouldn’t have written either opera without the shrewd and selfless inspiration of a great librettist, Arrigo Boito (selfless because, a composer himself, he gave Verdi time that otherwise he could have devoted to his own operas). Boito’s libretti for Otello and Falstaff, by the way, often use most un-Shakespearian language: Iago’s drinking song in Act 1 of Otello begins, literally translated, ‘Besprinkle your uvula!, and the second verse with ‘He who has bitten the bait of the dithyramb’. But Verdi obviously loved these high flown phrases, and when set to music they sound magnificent. The sound of a libretto is sometimes as important as its sense.

Plodding, short-breathed – but perfect
And so is its rhythm. Normal speech proceeds in irregular rhythms; as a rule music, at least until this century, hasn’t. So the great majority of libretti are in verse. Composers need metres that are carefully tailored to suit their purposes. In Italian libretti one of the most frequently used is the quinario, a line of only five syllables, with the fifth syllable omitted either in every other line or in every fourth line. It sounds impossibly plodding and short-breathed, but Cherubino’s ‘Voi che sapete’ in Mozart’s Figaro and Manrico’s ‘Di quella pira’ in Il Trovatore are just two examples from hundreds of the use that composers can make of it. A librettist must write words but think music.

In fact a librettist must deliberately write something incomplete, unfinished, leaving space for those things that music can do better than words. And he mustn’t supply words so perfect that music can add nothing to them. Libretti that can be read with pleasure as self-contained works of literature are rare. Not many great poets or dramatists have written libretti. But that doesn’t mean that librettists are hacks who’ve failed at ‘proper’ poetry or playwriting. Verdi’s favourite librettists, like Francesco Maria Piave, were superbly professional men of the theatre (stage management and production were part of their job), virtuosos of the special metres and special vocabulary needed for libretti.

This ‘libretto-ese’ is very easy to mock. ‘The fatal bronze! Reach me your right or bear the iron!’ sounds a contrived way of saying ‘The hour has struck. Either swear friendship or draw your sword’, but it was a language of conventional symbols, emotionally direct and readily comprehensible when sung. A librettist of Piave’s calibre wrote such phrases so that the music would fuse with them into a single, vivid gesture. Piave was versatile enough to prepare a version of Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse that both retains its powerful drama and satisfied the touchy Italian censors of the day (most of them, anyway) in Rigoletto, and almost simultaneously produce a realistic drama of modern life also from a French source, unprecedented in Italian opera for its shocking topicality, La Traviata.

W H Auden – ‘the finest librettist’
So when W H Auden, at the time perhaps the finest poet writing in English, was asked by Stravinsky to write a libretto based on Hogarth’s series of paintings The Rake’s Progress, he didn’t regard the task as too humble. He told Stravinsky that it was the greatest honour he had ever received. Stravinsky described the text that Auden and his friend Chester Kallman provided as the finest since Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretti for Mozart’s three great comedies.

Auden and Kallman observed all the rules for a good libretto, but added another element specifically devised to suit Stravinsky, now nearing the end of his so-called neo-classical phase and a master at the art of alluding to the music of the past without ever imitating it or descending to mere pastiche. His librettists studded their text with ingenious promptings to refer to Purcell, Mozart, Rossini or Verdi, all the composers which Stravinsky loved and had filled him with an ambition to write an opera at last. To austere critics, Stravinsky was wilfully denying the present and refusing to contemplate the future. In fact he was enjoying himself hugely, playing decidedly modern if not post-modern games in an imaginary museum of his own devising. But he couldn’t have done it without a libretto of genius.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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