Lyrical lessons from ‘Rosenkavalier’

Posted on Posted in My blog, Opera articles, The power of the libretto, Words

Sometimes I despair of the endless recitativo of modern opera, this fallacious idea that the music should underscore the words. These passages remind me of Kenneth Hince’s phrase: ‘acres and acres of interminable mudflat’, which he applied unfairly to Brahms, but which describes contemporary opera better. I think this ‘unending recitative’ (which is not what Wagner asked for; he asked for ‘unending melody’) comes from a mistaken belief that words are the primary element in drama. But what if they’re not? What if it’s the pyschological beat?
I believe that librettists can play their part to remedy this by creating events and situations that cannot fail but inspire melody, and instruct the composer not to follow the words, but to follow the metre, motivation and action.
I was intrigued by Der Rosenkavalier the other night because a lot of the vocal part is recitativo. Certainly Baron Ochs’s part is often parlando. And yet the impression is not that dreary sub-lyrical sensation of contemporary opera. Why not? Because there is the constant lilt of waltz-time underneath, a frequent rising to peaks of melody. Opera situations have to rise to melody, or why bother?

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