Portents are dire for attempts to turn Poe's work into opera

February 20, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

If history is any measure, the opera based on Edgar Allan Poe's macabre story "Ligeia" that receives its world premiere today at the Peabody Conservatory probably will be a failure.

This is not said out of prejudice against either Augusta Read Thomas or Leslie Dunton-Downer, "Ligeia's" composer and librettist. It comes simply from an awareness of the precarious chances of success for operas based on Poe, who died in Baltimore at age 40 in 1849.

The Thomas and Dunton-Downer "Ligeia" is at least the 35th operatic attempt at one of Poe's works. "Ligeia" has been tried twice before. At least seven operas have been based on "The Fall of the House of Usher," including one by minimalist Phillip Glass and another by Claude Debussy, who worked on it for nine years until his death in 1917.

So far Poe has defeated every opera composer who has taken him on.

There's little wonder about Poe's popularity among composers. This master of the macabre helped to invent American literature by creating the genres of the prose poem, science and detective fiction and imaginative hoaxes.

His literary work is memorable for its unifying images and sensitive sound effects; and among his literary tenets was his belief in music as the supreme art, which in its "indefinite conception" best embodies man's basic "poetic sentiment," enabling the "soul" to create "supernal beauty."

The difficulty of turning Poe into opera is part of the larger problem of transforming literature into opera. The number of great literary works that became great operas is quite small -- probably no more than a dozen or so.

Since four of those operas originated in Shakespeare plays -- Verdi's "Macbeth," "Otello" and "Falstaff" and Benjamin Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream" -- it's worth concentrating on that great writer whose plays, in their elevation, soaring poetry and sometimes fantastical plotting, are often called "operatic."

Remember first that drama -- especially poetic drama -- translates more easily than any other literary genre into musical drama. Next, remember the huge number of failures at turning Shakespeare into opera. There have been at least 25 abortive attempts at Shakespeare's most musical play, "The Tempest." Mendelssohn, for instance, worked with three librettists without producing anything.

The fact is literature and opera have very different needs. Opera -- whether the formal elaborations of opera seria, the gritty realities of verismo or the violence and grotesquerie of expressionism -- needs heightened moments of expressive crisis which musico-dramatic energy can be unleashed.

"For the opera the only suitable subjects are such as could not exist or reach complete expression without music," Ferrucio Busoni, the composer of "Doctor Faustus," once observed. This is something of an overstatement, but Shakespeare's "Othello" is rich in what can only be called "operatic moments" -- for instance, in the hero's despairing renunciation in Act III:

O now, forever

Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!

Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars

That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!

Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,

The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,

The royal banner, and all quality,

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

From this to Verdi's "Ora e per sempre addio" in "Otello's" Act II is but a small step, and in "trump," "drum" and "fife" the playwright even gives the composer hints for orchestration. Anyone fresh from seeing "Othello" on stage would not be surprised to hear Iago's drinking song or Desdemona's "Willow Song" used by Verdi. Yet despite "Otello's" reputation as an unusually faithful operatic version of a play, there are moments that have no equivalent in the play: the choral serenade addressed to Desdemona, the prayer to the Virgin into which the heroine launches after the "Willow Song" and, perhaps most famously, Iago's ferocious "Credo."

But certain writers are so intensely verbal -- one thinks of George Bernard Shaw, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne and Charles Dickens -- that it is almost impossible to conceive of their work as operas. What these authors share is a dependence on the power of language as a descriptive and analytical instrument rather than a lyrical and expressive one. Unoperatic literary works call for a theater of words in which the drama is syntactic; opera requires a theater of action, emotion, engagement, movement and spectacle.

A good librettist working from a literary text will shy away from passages of discursive complexity, vacillation or analysis; he or she will be attracted to passages which impel psychological or ++ physical action.

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