The libretto and Operatic Crises, Past and Present

  • Everett Helm


The scarcity of historical and critical studies on the libretto reflects the complicated, recalcitrant nature of the material and also, it would seem, the preference of musicologists for dealing with subjects, however esoteric, that seem to guarentee more concrete, specific results. This neglect of a major component of opera is regrettable, since a thorough work on the libretto would not only fill a gap in musicological literature but might also provide valuable guidelines for modern composers, for whom the libretto problem is a primary one. Crises in opera are almost as old as the mixed, »impure« form itself. Such crises are, it seems, inevitable, since no other musical genre is so exactly an expression of the fashions and mores of the period in which it was written and hence so vulnerable to changing tastes and aesthetics. The insistence that opera must also be viable theatre and that the libretto must have a certain literary quality distinguishes our present-day attitude from that of the 19th century as a whole. Yet recent experience has demonstrated that the high-grade »literary« libretto is not necessarily the answer. The past, moreover, seems to provide few hard and fast rules for constructing an »ideal« libretto. Since 1600 successful operas have been composed on good, mediocre and downright wretched librettos; on the other hand, many operas based on excellent »literary« librettos have been failures. And many librettos that in their own period were highly admired (for instance, those of Zeno and Metastasio in the 18th century) seem stiff and schematic today. Only in the rarest of instances (Da Ponte's Figaro and Don Giovanni remain supreme examples) has psychological credibility been achieved. Various reforms have been introduced from time to time but without lasting influence. After Gluck's reforms, the principles of which are as valid now as they were then, the 19th century produced a large crop of literary trash that sometimes provided the basis of successful operas, from Beethoven's »Fidelio« to Puccini's »Madame Butterfly«. But in the course of the 19th century, a gradual evolution towards a more »literary« libretto can be noted, from Berlioz' »Les Troyens« to Wagner's »Tristan«, Mussorgsky's »Boris« and Verdi's »Falstaff«, Particularly Wagner's texts, however fatuous apart from the music, make a return to the »free and easy« days of Donizetti and early Verdi unthinkable. In our own century the tendency to employ librettos of literary quality has become constantly stronger. Since World War II we have had such works – – some successful, some decidedly less so – – as Martin's »The Tempest« (Shakespeare), Klebe's »Die Räuber« (Schiller), Stravinsky's »The Rake's Progress« (Auden), Fort-ner's »Bluthochzeit« (Lorca), Egk's »Der Revisor« (Gogol), Henze's »König Hirsch« (Gozzi), Henze's »The Bassarids« (Auden) and many more. In some of these, literary 111 excellence has been a positive factor; in others it seems almost to have been a hindrance. The still unsolved mystery of the libretto poses problems that are as elusive for the scholar as they are perplexing to the composer. One is still waiting for the musician-scholar-historian-linguist-sociologist-critic who will finally produce the long overdue basic work, which can serve as a point of departure for further investigation of this fascinating enigma, which is in turn a primary ingredient of the Great Mystery of the Opera.


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How to Cite
HelmE. (1967). The libretto and Operatic Crises, Past and Present. Musicological Annual, 3(1), 105-112.