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Intimations of Italian Opera

Whether pleasure of the first experience is more truly pleasure than that which comes rich in associations from pleasures of the past is a doubt that no hedonistic philosopher seems to have solved yet. We should, in fact, be sorry if any had, for in that case we should be without such small occasion as we now have to suggest it in the forefront of a paper which will not finally pass beyond the suggestion. When the reader has arrived at our last word we can safely promise him he will still have the misgiving we set out with, and will be confirmed in it by the reflection that no pleasure, either of the earliest or the latest experience, can be unmixed with pain. One will be fresher than the other; that is all; but it is not certain that the surprise will have less of disappointment in it than the unsurprise. In the one case, the case of youth, say, there will be the racial disappointment to count with, and in the other, the case of age, there will be the personal disappointment, which is probably a lighter thing. The racial disappointment is expressed in what used to be called, somewhat untranslatably, Weltschmerz. This was peculiarly the appanage of youth, being the anticipative melancholy, the pensive foreboding, distilled from the blighted hopes of former generations of youth. Mixed with the effervescent blood of the young heart, it acted like a subtle poison, and eventuated in more or less rhythmical deliriums, in cynical excesses of sentiment, in extravagances of behavior, in effects which commonly passed when the subject himself became ancestor, and transmitted his inherited burden of Weltschmerz to his posterity. The old are sometimes sad, on account of the sins and follies they have personally committed and know they will commit again, but for pure gloom—gloom positive, absolute, all but palpable—you must go to youth. That is not merely the time of disappointment, it is in itself disappointment; it is not what it expected to be; and it finds nothing which confronts it quite, if at all, responsive to the inward vision. The greatest, the loveliest things in the world lose their iridescence or dwindle before it. The old come to things measurably prepared to see them as they are, take them for what they are worth; but the young are the prey of impassioned prepossessions which can never be the true measures.


The disadvantage of an opening like this is that it holds the same quality, if not quantity, of disappointment as those other sublime things, and we earnestly entreat the reader to guard himself against expecting anything considerable from it. Probably the inexperienced reader has imagined from our weighty prologue something of signal importance to follow; but the reader who has been our reader through thick and thin for many years will have known from the first that we were not going to deal with anything more vital, say, than a few emotions and memories, prompted, one night of the other winter, by hearing one of the old-fashioned Italian operas which a more than commonly inspired management had been purveying to an over-Wagnered public. In fact, we had a sense that this sort of reader was there with us the night we saw "L'Elisir d'Amore," and that it was in his personality we felt and remembered many things which we could have fancied personal only to ourselves.

He began to take the affair out of our keeping from the first moment, when, after passing through the crowd arriving from the snowy street, we found our way through the distracted vestibule of the opera-house into the concentred auditorium and hushed ourselves in the presence of the glowing spectacle of the stage. "Ah, this is the real thing," he whispered, and he would not let us, at any moment when we could have done so without molesting our neighbors, censure the introduction of Alpine architecture in the entourage of an Italian village piazza. "It is a village at the foot of the Alps probably," he said, "and if not, no matter. It is as really the thing as all the rest: as the chorus of peasants and soldiers, of men and women who impartially accompany the orchestra in the differing sentiments of the occasion; as the rivals who vie with one another in recitative and aria; as the heroine who holds them both in a passion of suspense while she weaves the enchantment of her trills and runs about them; as the whole circumstance of the divinely impossible thing which defies nature and triumphs over prostrate probability. What does a little Swiss Gothic matter? The thing is always opera, and it is always Italy. I was thinking, as we crowded in there from the outside, with our lives in our hands, through all those trolleys and autos and carriages and cabs and sidewalk ticket-brokers, of the first time I saw this piece. It was in Venice, forty-odd years ago, and I arrived at the theatre in a gondola, slipping to the water-gate with a waft of the gondolier's oar that was both impulse and arrest, and I was helped up the sea-weedy, slippery steps by a beggar whom age and sorrow had bowed to just the right angle for supporting my hand on the shoulder he lent it. The blackness of the tide was pierced with the red plunge of a few lamps, and it gurgled and chuckled as my gondola lurched off and gave way to another; and when I got to my box—a box was two florins, but I could afford it—I looked down on just this scene, over a pit full of Austrian officers and soldiers, and round on a few Venetians darkling in the other boxes and half-heartedly enjoying the music. It was the most hopeless hour of the Austrian occupation, and the air was heavy with its oppression and tobacco, for the officers smoked between the acts. It was only the more intensely Italian for that; but it was not more Italian than this; and when I see those impossible people on the stage, and hear them sing, I breathe an atmosphere that is like the ether beyond the pull of our planet, and is as far from all its laws and limitations."


Our friend continued to talk pretty well through the whole interval between the first and second acts; and we were careful not to interrupt him, for from the literary quality of his diction we fancied him talking for publication, and we wished to take note of every turn of his phrase.

"It's astonishing," he said, "how little art needs in order to give the effect of life. A touch here and there is enough; but art is so conditioned that it has to work against time and space, and is obliged to fill up and round out its own body with much stuff that gives no sense of life. The realists," he went on, "were only half right."

"Isn't it better to be half right than wrong altogether?" we interposed.

"I'm not sure. What I wanted to express is that every now and then I find in very defective art of all kinds that mere look of the real thing which suffices. A few words of poetry glance from the prose body of verse and make us forget the prose. A moment of dramatic motive carries hours of heavy comic or tragic performance. Is any piece of sculpture or painting altogether good? Or isn't the spectator held in the same glamour which involved the artist before he began the work, and which it is his supreme achievement to impart, so that it shall hide all defects? When I read what you wrote the other month, or the other year, about the vaudeville shows—?

"Hush!" we entreated. "Don't bring those low associations into this high presence."

"Why not? It is all the same thing. There is no inequality in the region of art; and I have seen things on the vaudeville stage which were graced with touches of truth so exquisite, so ideally fine, that I might have believed I was getting them at first hand and pure from the street-corner. Of course, the poor fellows who had caught them from life had done their worst to imprison them in false terms, to labor them out of shape, and build them up in acts where anything less precious would have been lost; but they survived all that and gladdened the soul. I realized that I should have been making a mistake if I had required any 'stunt' which embodied them to be altogether composed of touches of truth, of moments of life. We can stand only a very little radium; the captured sunshine burns with the fires that heat the summers of the farthest planets; and we cannot handle the miraculous substance as if it were mere mineral. A touch of truth is perhaps not only all we need, but all we can endure in any one example of art."

"You are lucky if you get so much," we said, "even at a vaudeville show."

"Or at an opera," he returned, and then the curtain rose on the second act. When it fell again, he resumed, as if he had been interrupted in the middle of a sentence. "What should you say was the supreme moment of this thing, or was the radioactive property, the very soul? Of course, it is there where Nemorino drinks the elixir and finds himself freed from Adina; when he bursts into the joyous song of liberation and gives that delightful caper


'Which signifies indifference, indifference,

Which signifies indifference,'


and which not uncommonly results from a philter composed entirely of claret. When Adina advances in the midst of his indifference and breaks into the lyrical lament


'Neppur mi guarda!'


she expresses the mystery of the sex which can be best provoked to love by the sense of loss, and the vital spark of the opera is kindled. The rest is mere incorporative material. It has to be. In other conditions the soul may be disembodied, and we may have knowledge of it without the interposition of anything material; but if there are spiritual bodies as there are material bodies, still the soul may wrap itself from other souls and emit itself only in gleams. But putting all that aside, I should like to bet that the germ, the vital spark of the opera, felt itself life, felt itself flame, first of all in that exquisite moment of release which Nemorino's caper conveys. Till then it must have been rather blind groping, with nothing better in hand than that old, worn-out notion of a love-philter. What will you bet?"

"We never bet," we virtuously replied. "We are principled against it in all cases where we feel sure of losing; though in this case we could never settle it, for both composer and librettist are dead."

"Yes, isn't it sad that spirits so gay should be gone from a world that needs gayety so much? That is probably the worst of death; it is so indiscriminate," the reader thoughtfully observed.

"But aren't you," we asked, "getting rather far away from the question whether the pleasure of experience isn't greater than the pleasure of inexperience—whether later operas don't give more joy than the first?"

"Was that the question?" he returned. "I thought it was whether Italian opera was not as much at home in exile as in its native land."

"Well, make it that," we responded, tolerantly.

"Oh no," he met us half-way. "But it naturalizes itself everywhere. They have it in St. Petersburg and in Irkutsk, for all I know, and certainly in Calcutta and Australia, the same as in Milan and Venice and Naples, or as here in New York, where everything is so much at home, or so little. It's the most universal form of art."

"Is it? Why more so than sculpture or painting or architecture?"

Our demand gave the reader pause. Then he said: "I think it is more immediately universal than the other forms of art. These all want time to denationalize themselves. It is their nationality which first authorizes them to be; but it takes decades, centuries sometimes, for them to begin their universal life. It seems different with operas. 'Cavalleria Rusticana' was as much at home with us in its first year as 'L'Elisir d'Amore' is now in its sixtieth or seventieth."

"But it isn't," we protested, "denationalized. What can be more intensely Italian than an Italian opera is anywhere?"

"You're right," the reader owned, as the reader always must, if honest, in dealing with the writer. "It is the operatic audience, not the opera, which is denationalized when the opera becomes universal. We are all Italians here to-night. I only wish we were in our native land, listening to this musical peal of ghostly laughter from the past."


The reader was silent a moment while the vast house buzzed and murmured and babbled from floor to roof. Perhaps the general note of the conversation, if it could have been tested, would have been found voluntary rather than spontaneous; but the sound was gay, and there could be no question of the splendor of the sight. We may decry our own almost as much as we please, but there is a point where we must cease to depreciate ourselves; even for the sake of evincing our superiority to our possessions, we must not undervalue some of them. One of these is the Metropolitan Opera House, where the pride of wealth, the vanity of fashion, the beauty of youth, and the taste and love of music fill its mighty cup to the brim in the proportions that they bear to one another in the community. Wherever else we fail of our ideal, there we surely realize it on terms peculiarly our own. Subjectively the scene is intensely responsive to the New York spirit, and objectively it is most expressive of the American character in that certain surface effect of thin brilliancy which remains with the spectator the most memorable expression of its physiognomy.

No doubt something like this was in the reader's mind when he resumed, with a sigh: "It's rather pathetic how much more magnificently Italian opera has always been circumstanced in exile than at home. It had to emigrate in order to better its fortunes; it could soon be better seen if not heard outside of Italy than in its native country. It was only where it could be purely conventional as well as ideal that it could achieve its greatest triumphs. It had to make a hard fight for its primacy among the amusements that flatter the pride as well as charm the sense. You remember how the correspondents of Mr. Spectator wrote to him in scorn of the affected taste of 'the town' when the town in London first began to forsake the theatre and to go to the opera?"

"Yes, they were very severe on the town for pretending to a pleasure imparted in a language it could not understand a word of. They had all the reason on their side, and they needed it; but the opera is independent of reason, and the town felt that for its own part it could dispense with reason, too. The town can always do that. It would not go seriously or constantly to English opera, though ever so much invited to do so, for all the reasons, especially the patriotic reasons. Isn't it strange, by-the-way, how English opera is a fashion, while Italian opera remains a passion? We had it at its best, didn't we, in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which were the most charming things in the world; but they charmed only for a while, and it may be doubted whether they ever greatly charmed the town. The manager of the Metropolitan replaces German with Italian opera, and finds his account in it, but could he find his account in it if he put on 'The Mikado' instead of 'L'Elisir d'Amore'? If he did so, the town would not be here. Why?"

The reader did not try to answer at once. He seemed to be thinking, but perhaps he was not; other readers may judge from his reply, which, when it came, was this: "There seems to be something eternally as well as universally pleasing in Italian opera; but what the thing is, or how much of a thing it is, I wouldn't undertake to say. Possibly the fault of English opera is its actuality. It seizes upon a contemporaneous mood or fad, and satirizes it; but the Italian opera at its lightest deals with a principle of human nature, and it is never satirical; it needn't be, for it is as independent of the morals as of the reasons. It isn't obliged, by the terms of its existence, to teach, any more than it is obliged to convince. It's the most absolute thing in the world; and from its unnatural height it can stoop at will in moments of enrapturing naturalness without ever losing poise. Wasn't that delightful where Caruso hesitated about his encore, and then, with a shrug and a waft of his left hand to the house, went off in order to come back and give his aria with more effect? That was a touch of naturalness not in the scheme of the opera."

"Yes, but it was more racial, more personal, than natural. It was delicious, but we are not sure we approved of it."

"Ah, in Italian opera you're not asked to approve; you're only desired to enjoy!"

"Well, then that bit of racial personality was of the effect of actuality, and it jarred."

"Perhaps you're right," the reader sighed, but he added: "It was charming; yes, it made itself part of the piece. Nemorino would have done just as Caruso did."

At the last fall of the curtain the reader and the writer rose in unison, a drop of that full tide of life which ebbed by many channels out of the vast auditorium, and in two or three minutes left it dry. They stayed in their duplex personality to glance at the silken evanescences from the boxes, and then, being in the mood for the best society, they joined the shining presences in the vestibule where these waited for their carriages and automobiles. Of this company the interlocutors felt themselves so inseparably part that they could with difficulty externate themselves so far as to observe that it was of the quality of "the town" which had gone to Italian opera from the first.

In Mr. Spectator's time the town would have been lighted by the smoky torches of linkboys to its chairs; now it was called to its electric autos in the blaze of a hundred incandescent bulbs; but the difference was not enough to break the tradition. There was something in the aspect of that patrician throng, as it waited the turn of each, which struck the reader and writer jointly as a novel effect from any American crowd, but which the writer scarcely dares intimate to the general reader, for the general reader is much more than generally a woman, and she may not like it. Perhaps we can keep it from offending by supposing that the fact can be true only of the most elect socially, but in any case the fact seemed to be that the men were handsomer than the women. They were not only handsomer, but they were sweller (if we may use a comparative hitherto unachieved) in look, and even in dress.

How this could have happened in a civilization so peculiarly devoted as ours to the evolution of female beauty and style is a question which must be referred to scientific inquiry. It does not affect the vast average of woman's loveliness and taste among us in ranks below the very highest; this remains unquestioned and unquestionable; and perhaps, in the given instance, it was an appearance and not a fact, or perhaps the joint spectator was deceived as to the supreme social value of those rapidly dwindling and dissolving groups.

The reader and the writer were some time in finding their true level, when they issued into the common life of the street, and they walked home as much like driving home as they could. On the way the reader, who was so remotely lost in thought that the writer could scarcely find him, made himself heard in a musing suspiration: "There was something missing. Can you think what it was?"

"Yes, certainly; there was no ballet."

"Ah, to be sure: no ballet! And there used always to be a ballet! You remember," the reader said, "how beatific it always was to have the minor coryphees subside in nebulous ranks on either side of the stage, and have the great planetary splendor of the prima ballerina come swiftly floating down the centre to the very footlights, beaming right and left? Ah, there's nothing in life now like that radiant moment! But even that was eclipsed when she rose on tiptoe and stubbed it down the scene on the points of her slippers, with the soles of her feet showing vertical in the act. Why couldn't we have had that to-night? Yes, we have been cruelly wronged."

"But you don't give the true measure of our injury. You forget that supreme instant when the master-spirit of the ballet comes skipping suddenly forward, and leaping into the air with calves that exchange a shimmer of kisses, and catches the prima ballerina at the waist, and tosses her aloft, and when she comes down supports her as she bends this way and that way, and all at once stiffens for her bow to the house. Think of our having been defrauded of that!"

"Yes, we have been wickedly defrauded." The reader was silent for a while, and then he said: "I wonder if anybody except the choreographic composer ever knew what the story of any ballet was? Were you ever able to follow it?"

"Certainly not. It is bad enough following the opera. All that one wishes to do in one case is to look, just as in the other case all one wishes to do is to listen. We would as lief try to think out the full meaning of a Browning poem in the pleasure it gave us, as to mix our joy in the opera or the ballet with any severe question of their purport."


     
William Dean Howells