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.