Two operas, virtually three centuries apart, each a masterwork in its own right: what do they tell us about the development of music drama and about the perennial power of music in every age to plumb the depths of human experience? Purcell worked within an idiom of serene classical forms; Bartok is one of the supreme masters of the modernism that emerged from war and the brokenness of the 20th century. There is no need to look for exact parallels between these two works, aside from two tales of lost love. It is their differences that are so fascinating, the contrasting music that makes them such an admirable pair.
Dido and Aeneas
For most of us, opera is largely a 19th century enterprise with a strong Italian accent, even if we happily embrace the prior glories of Mozart and welcome the irresistible power of Wagner at the end of the period. Purcell’s musical style demands that we contemplate a very different world, a world of simple elegance and formal style. For Gerard Manley Hopkins there was “so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell” that his sonnet dedicated to the composer fills him with wonder at his achievement.
For us to have a similar reaction to Purcell’s music we need to lay aside our usual expectations of opera as “grand” in the sense of big, overpowering, breathtaking. This music may seem to us understated, even paltry; but as a listening experience, coupled with attention to the finesse of the text, Dido is a true operatic event. Purcell was fortunate in having a fine poet, Nahum Tate, as his librettist. Excoriated later for re-writing Shakespeare’s King Lear with a happy ending, Tate deserves nothing but praise for providing Purcell with a text that is sensitive to the Virgilian origins of the story and eminently apt for setting to music. Unlike Berlioz who would try to encompass the epic proportions of the Aeneid, the Purcell/Tate opera concentrates on the one episode of the doomed love of the protagonists. The brevity of the setting in no way detracts from the musical and dramatic power of the work. It rather assures that the intensity of the experience will be paramount: less is more.
The historical framework of the opera is important for fully appreciating it. The 17th century begins with the apogee of Shakespeare’s output and ends with the ascent of William and Mary, which insured that no Roman Catholic would ever again sit on the English throne. Purcell expresses this in the joyous strains of the chorus in Act 1:
When monarchs unite, how happy their state;
They triumph at once o’er their foes and their fate.
At the same time music was entering the high point of the Baroque: Bach was born only a few years before the Glorious Revolution. What would become common musical coin was already in use in Purcell’s treatment of the Dido story, e.g. the pointed use of strings to enshrine the words of a character, as is done for Jesus in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Thus the importance of recitative in the opera of the time. Purcell makes these passages come alive by his careful and loving treatment of his native tongue; in the 20th century Benjamin Britten would prove a worthy successor of the earlier master.
What finally matters is the imagination and mastery of Purcell’s musical treatment of the text. From the beginning, Dido expresses her premonition of trouble in her love for the adventurer Aeneas. Her confidante Belinda tries to fend off these concerns with a rosy picture of the union Dido will enjoy with the Trojan guest. Belinda’s bouncy coloratura is seconded by the full-throated strains of the chorus. Dido’s reply, already full of foreboding, is accompanied by a soulful cello solo. This single example shows the composer’s skillful use of both instrumentation and vocal expression in the service of the unfolding drama. Purcell is clearly no tyro but a fully endowed master of the operatic art.
Dido is convinced and the lovers are united as the first part ends. The second part is given over to Aeneas’s call to leave and fulfill his destiny as the founder of Rome. Here Tate departs from Virgil by introducing a sorceress and her witch companions, who act as the heralds of Jove’s command; in the Aeneid the hero is personally confronted with the divine. The witches and their echo chorus are a clever musical device to indicate a more earthly and thus immediate source of the hero’s defection.
Aeneas claims sorrow over his departure but Dido is not deceived. In the third part of the opera she voices a modern-sounding image to indicate her clear-eyed rejection of his excuse: his “crocodile tears” and claim of divine command are the hypocrisy of a faithless lover. Her music here first reverts to her earlier premonition of a dangerous encounter, with a reprise of that mournful cello accompaniment. Then as Dido reveals her bitterness at Aeneas’s betrayal the music takes on the furious urgency of a truly royal personage.
All is now prepared for the tragic finale. Dido calls on the faithful Belinda to be her support and launches into the best known and most beloved piece in the opera: “When I am laid in earth.” This is music of both profound sorrow and pulsing lyricism accompanied once more by the ever-faithful cello. It needs no grand vocal gesture; it is simple but powerful. The singer raises her voice only on the words, “Remember me.” The closing chorus, “soft and gentle as her heart,” is followed by an orchestral postlude that fades into silence.
Bartok’s opera begins with a spoken prologue—a very important beginning, an invitation to enter the mystery of what is to follow. The speaker asks a series of questions. What are we to make of this strange story? What does it mean? Is it outside us or within us? One thing is certain, says this hollow, disembodied voice: the world’s armies do not determine our fate. We must open the inner eyes of our minds and hearts to understand what transpires here.
Then, after a profound silence the music begins, deep and solemn in the lower strings with a piercing woodwind cry. Out of the darkness onstage two figures appear: Bluebeard and his new wife, Judith. Throughout they will engage in a dialogue marked by different qualities; the man is tender but firm and somewhat aloof, the woman initially full of a warm protestation of love and a sense of security and clarity about her husband. She thinks she knows all she needs to give herself unconditionally to him, but gradually, as Bluebeard reveals himself to her, she realizes how little she knows and how her ignorance will lead to her destruction.
And so, following the lead of the speaker in the prologue, we may ask if this is an attempt to understand the human striving for possession of mystery beyond ourselves. Is it a search for certainty about the ascent to truth, which once found results in disaster? Our eyes must be opened by our own journey through Bluebeard’s castle.
The action of the opera is structured around the opening of seven doors, each of which reveals an aspect of Bluebeard that enlightens Judith. He tries to dissuade her: perhaps she would be happier in her father’s house which is full of light rather than this dark, gloomy castle. But she insists: throw open all the doors, I will bring the light of my love for you. Bluebeard gives her the keys to the doors, one by one. He continually asks her, why do you want to do this, and she answers, because I love you. Even as she witnesses tears and moaning at the first door the conviction of her love moves her constantly onward.
She opens the doors of Bluebeard’s military might, of his immense wealth, of a lovely flower garden. Her delight in these is tempered by the presence of blood everywhere—on the weapons, the gold and jewels, the beautiful flowers. Yes, she says, the blood makes me afraid but my love will conquer anyway. The music that accompanies each of these revelations is what we call today “counterintuitive.” The cache of weapons, at first resounding with martial strains, gives way to an alluring caress of strings; the enormous treasury opens to shimmering slashes of brass and then gives way to a gentle horn solo. The flower garden is depicted at first by a harp glissando and then the rich chromatic sound of the full orchestra—the wonder of nature’s fullness.
Judith is deterred by the sight of blood but now Bluebeard urges her to open the fifth door. This is the dramatic and musical highlight of this wondrous score: when this door opens Judith lets out an astonished cry and the orchestra gives out a mighty, incomparable fortissimo. A landscape of incomparable beauty is revealed and Bluebeard proclaims: this is my kingdom. Not only Judith but the audience is overwhelmed by a flood of immensely rich music. Here at last, says Bluebeard, your love finds a home, you have at last let sunshine illumine my gloomy castle and it shall be ours forever.
But the promise will remain unfulfilled. Even here Judith sees a faint reddish glow in the lovely clouds, and she recalls the blood that stained all the rest of Bluebeard’s castle. The final reckoning is at hand. The keys to two more doors remain; Bluebeard begs Judith not to take them from him, but she is adamant; her lust to know sets aside every appeal to calm and restraint. He hands her the keys.
Musically the opening of the fifth door reached a climax that can only lead to a diminuendo that will continue until the final bars of the opera. Judith opens the sixth door to find there a lake of tears, and for the last time Bluebeard implores her to end her search and find release in his kiss and his love. But now she has guessed what lies behind the final door and she opens it to find Bluebeard’s wives. There are three, and Bluebeard explains that he found them through the hours of the day; Judith, the last, has come to him at midnight. The music has become gradually more muted after the fifth door was opened and now, as Judith enters and takes her place behind the seventh door there is one more orchestral climax and then the stage becomes darker and the music more remote until it returns to the silence with which the opera began.
As the speaker in the prologue suggested, we are invited to draw our own conclusions about what we have seen. The richness of the score is punctuated by silences that together weave a tapestry that may reflect the times and ages common to all lives or may belong to the experience of a single existence: choose for yourself. What Bartok has done in his marvelous music is to clothe a symbolic picture with throbbing, pulsating life that speaks to every human heart and mind as the secure accompaniment of the journey, the search.
So we have two operas, different in style, coming from widely separated historical eras, yet each the product of superior artistic achievement. Their music could not be more different: one uses minimal forces to accompany the voices and respects a conventional compositional framework, while the other comes from a tradition of massive orchestral sound that has its own role to play in the drama, which itself is unique in its mysterious psychological power. Purcell’s music, while slight in weight, is admirably precise in its description of the drama; Bartok’s large orchestral palette never overwhelms the drama but enhances it with subtle coloration. Music developed in many ways in the course of centuries but it remained constant as the vehicle of emotional expression in the grand art we call opera.
Basil De Pinto writes frequently for LA Opera, and has also written for the opera companies of Washington, D.C., Seattle, Atlanta and Fort Worth.