07 Sep 2008

Opera from the Greek

Perhaps it will be enough to tell you that I wasn’t halfway through this book before I searched the web for a copy of Professor Ewans’s study of Wagner and Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and ordered it forthwith: It has to be good.

The other things he made me eager, even desperate, to find were recordings of Enesco’s Oedipe (yes, one exists!) and of Cherubini’s Médée (as opposed to the Italian revision — I’ve got that with Callas of course), for whose position among the supreme music-dramas Ewans makes a most convincing argument. My great regret is the number of masterpieces derived from classical drama that he does not deal with — such as Berlioz’s Les Troyens, or Handel’s Hercules, or Gluck’s Alceste, or Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (which Ewans considers and coldly dismisses), or Gnecchi’s Cassandra, or Chabrier’s Briséis, or Taneyev’s Oresteia, or Xenakis’s, or the Latouche-Moross musical The Golden Apple (a spoof of Homer).

Besides the Enesco and Cherubini operas mentioned above, the works he does analyze in detail, from Greek epic or dramatic source through stage tradition to libretto to composed opera, are Monteverdi’s Il ritorno di Ulisse, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, Strauss’s Elektra, Tippett’s King Priam, Henze’s Bassariden, and Turnage’s Greek.

Ewans’s take on these operas and their literary “lineage” is enlightening, in the literal sense of throwing light where obscurity reigns, and his two passions are classical drama (mostly Greek, but also Roman) and its position in classical society, and the operas derived from classical drama and the lessons opera’s creators (librettists as well as composers) have tried to convey. His field of study as a professor of classics has included both epics and plays (his translations of many Greek tragedies are standard), but here he discusses the context in which these works were produced, the intentions of the authors, the themes under discussion: the nature of the gods, the degree to which they interfere in human destiny, the rivalry of revenge and justice in the structure of society, the position of women in men’s worlds. This exploration produces a unique take on the interpretation consciously (or unconsciously) imposed on each text two thousand years later by the librettist and composer who transformed it into an opera — and these matters are seldom discussed in such depth when the operas in question are examined, much less when they are staged.

It is a truism that any myth worth its salt can and will be made use of in different ways, with often widely divergent meanings, by different cultures that fall heir to it. Consider, just by way of example, the interpretations of the apple tree myth from Genesis in Hebrew tradition, in Augustine’s invention of a theology for Satan, on Michelangelo’s ceiling, in Bock and Harnick’s musical The Apple Tree (derived from a Mark Twain satire).

Ewans, less satirically, compares Homer’s wily Odysseus to the Ulisse Monteverdi’s librettist, Badoaro, presented to a Christian audience: his obedience to the gods more formal, more unquestioning, more conscious of “sin” (not a concept in Homer’s Greek); his Penelope more aware of herself as a sensual being capable of imagining more choices for herself. Then there is Medea, as Euripides presented her: a woman trying to live by the standards of heroic male society (adopting the blow-for-blow ethics called for from males rather than females), channeled through Seneca’s Roman play in which she became a malevolent demigoddess, passing through Corneille and other writers who capitalized on the witchcraft aspect, to Cherubini and his librettist, Hoffman, who, wishing to return her to her original human predicament, created a far more genuinely tragic figure than the wicked witch she had by then become for most audiences.

Another revelation — or at least a hell of a good argument — comes in Ewans’s chapter on Strauss’s Elektra, a musico-dramatic synopsis of the opera, with notes about the orchestration and the arrangement of the leitmotifs to underline the drama — but he also takes a few pages to explain Sophocles’s political motives in presenting the story the way he did (in contrast to the very different treatments we possess by Aeschylus and Euripides), and the way brand new Freudian theory helped transform Sophocles’s play into Hofmannsthal’s, all as background to the achievement of Strauss. One does not understand one work of art — one understands three, with a glance at still others. We do not delve into one era of opera-creating history and the concerns of its audience and its geniuses, we are guided through several. One of Ewans’s themes, here and elsewhere, is how composers and librettists at honestly opposed purposes can underline or undermine each other’s “take” on the story.

In the section on Tippett’s Priam, we are given background notes to understanding the mastery (and occasional failures) of a highly intellectual not very popular British composer who wrote in “Jungian” style, then gave it up to create a more immediate “epic” drama here. In the section on Henze’s Bassariden, we are given not merely an account of Euripides’ most mystifying play, Bacchae, and the aspects of it about which commentators still do not agree, then how those themes mutated through the Christian outlook of Auden and Kallman to create the libretto, then how those themes were challenged, expanded or contraried by the communist outlook of the composer — illustrated from the argumentative correspondence between composer and librettists, as well as the work of published commentators on Henze’s oeuvre.

Opera from the Greek is a pithy (200-page) tour of music-drama. The number of ideas introduced in this brief book, and the degree to which Ewans explores so many so deeply will startle and excite anyone interested in opera, even operas quite different from those discussed here.

John Yohalem