The “comedization” of late-nineteenth-century opera was an unstoppable tide. The term should not be misunderstood. It does not necessarily have to do with humor, although the process it denotes did give humorous opera (among other things) a boost. It designates, rather, what is more often termed (or mistermed) “realism.” Comedization works better than realism in this context because it suggests something concrete about forms and styles (namely, their shrinkage and “popularization”) without making unwarranted claims about the nature of plots, which were often far from “realistic.”
As a case in point consider The Stone Guest (Kamennïy gost’) by the Russian composer Alexander Dargomïzhsky—another member of the class of 1813, if a minor one. Left almost completely composed in vocal score at the time of its author's death in 1869, its holes were plugged by César Cui, its orchestration supplied by Rimsky-Korsakov, and it was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1872. Its literary source was a “little tragedy” by Alexander Pushkin that was inspired by Mozart's Don Giovanni—with its walking, talking statue (the title character in the Pushkin/Dargomïzhsky version) not the most realistic of plots. What made Dargomïzhsky's version a landmark of realism nevertheless was the composer's decision to base his work directly on Pushkin's dramatic poem without any mediating libretto—a demonstratively anti-operatic decision taken very self-consciously in the name of “truth.”
Without a specially-fashioned libretto, there could be little or no provision for purely musical unfolding: no arias, no ensembles. There are two Spanish romances, interpolated by Dargomïzhsky where Pushkin merely indicated that a character sing a song. (The critic Hermann Laroche had fun with this, foreseeing a future when “truth” prevailed and composers would have to smuggle music into their operas by constantly having their characters invite one another to make some.)35 For the rest, Dargomïzhsky treated Pushkin's verse drama as if it were the text of a gigantic through-composed art song, setting it not as recitative but quite lyrically, yet without formalizing repetition of lines (though continuous accompaniment figures often gather musical stretches up into perceptual units).
The most aria-like moment comes when Don Juan, seducing Donna Anna, reacts heatedly to her insinuation that he is mad. Here Pushkin used repetition as a rhetorical device, thus giving Dargomïzhsky permission to follow suit (Ex. 11-14): “If I were a madman,” Don Juan remonstrates, in prose translation:
I would wish to remain among the living; I would nurture hope of touching your heart with tender love.
If I were a madman,
I would spend my nights at your balcony, troubling your sleep with serenades; I would not hide myself; on the contrary, I would try to be noticed by you everywhere.
If I were a madman,
I would not suffer in silence.
[To which Donna Anna retorts, “You call this silence?”]
The repeated line is treated musically as a refrain, and is transposed up a step with every appearance. Between these markers, however, there is only minimal musical “rounding,” chiefly a matter of short phrases set in sequence. And yet a minuscule “number” has been allowed to form in response to the structure of the text: a new application of the well-worn reformist plea (going all the way back to Monteverdi) that “poetry be the mistress of the music.”
Needless to say, Dargomïzhsky's “formlessness” was derided in its day as Wagnerian; but what his procedures really resembled—by anticipation rather than by imitation—were Verdi's in Otello and, especially, Falstaff. We have already seen how the elevated lyrical style of the Otello love duet was achieved: it was a matter of allowing occasional climactic phrases to coalesce into repetitive sequences or fleeting rounded periods within an overall through-composed design. The same is even more typical of Falstaff, in which (as in The Stone Guest) only one tiny “number” emerges from the incessant lyric flux and flow: “Quand'ero paggio” (“When I was a page”), the bulky title character's brief reminiscence of his limber youth in the retinue of the Duke of Norfolk (Ex. 11-15).
The similarity of style, in particular the strictly syllabic declamation on short note values normally employed in recitative, may not have been a coincidence. Verdi, who (as we know) had visited Russia, and who had run into Dargomïzhsky, a high-society dilettante, at various salons and social functions, knew about The Stone Guest before it was performed or published, professed a collegial admiration for it, and owned a copy of the vocal score. But whether or not a direct line is traced from the one work to the other, The Stone Guest and Falstaff both exemplified the process of comedization that cut the imposing formal blocks of traditional opera down to size.
(35) Hermann Laroche (German Larosh), review of The Stone Guest, in Vestnik Yevropï, no. 4 (1872), p. 895.
- Citation (MLA):
- Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011009.xml>.
- Citation (APA):
- Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 8 Feb. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011009.xml
- Citation (Chicago):
- Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II)." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 8 Feb. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011009.xml