The poetic needs of a libretto can be reduced to very few. The words assist the music and are absorbed into it. Music must bolster up the more pedestrian passages but needs effective words to support dramatic action and vivid characterizations.
Reviewed by Bob Williams
by Dana Gioia
2001, ISBN 1-55597-319-1, $12.95, 85 pages
Nosferatu is a specialized project, the libretto to an opera. Alva Henderson wrote the music – not, unfortunately, yet available in a recorded version. The book has three parts: a foreword by Anne Williams, the libretto itself and an afterword by Gioia. The foreword examines the history of the vampire literature with emphasis on Byron as a personification of some at least of the vampire characteristics. To the facts that Williams and Gioia cover may be added the hidden vampiric theme that some scholars allege to find as a hidden substructure in the works of James Joyce.
In Gioia’s consideration of operas in general and the role of the librettists, he produces some interesting data. For example, of the many operas in today’s repertoire most of the librettos are by five poets: Felice Romani, Salvatore Cammarano, Francesco Maria Piave, Arrigo Boito and Luigi Illica. The obscurity that these names have for us emphasizes how relatively more important the music is than the libretto. The relative fewness of librettists suggests that the libretto is a difficult and misunderstood art form. Gioia specifically considers opera in English with the realization that one serious problem is the reluctance to accept new operas in the standard repertoire. Missing from his consideration is Stravinsky although W. H. Auden – whom he does mention – wrote the libretto to The Rake’s Progress. Possibly he may feel, as I do, that Stravinsky is not truly at home with setting English to music.
He faces but does not entirely resolve the problem of the inherent silliness of many if not most opera libretti. You would need to hunt for a very long time before you found anything as ridiculous as Verdi’s The Force of Destiny (libretto by Francesco Maria Piave). This is not limited to operas from the classical period. John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles has a libretto that is eye-bulgingly stupid.
Gioia’s Nosferatu has no such problems. It is spare and clean and (within the conventions of the 1922 F. W. Murnau horror movie on which it is based) completely believable and consistent. The bass-baritone Nosferatu aka Count Orlick seems to be presentable in so far as such a term can be used of a vampire. At least the libretto does not suggest Murnau’s monster – bug-eyed, hunched and equipped with nails several inches long. This more photogenic vampire seems more in the Count Dracula tradition, all of whose filmic incarnations have been good-looking fellows.
The poetic needs of a libretto can be reduced to very few. The words assist the music and are absorbed into it. Music must bolster up the more pedestrian passages but needs effective words to support dramatic action and vivid characterizations. Since an audience is likely to loose a third of the text even when it hears an opera in its own language, the simpler the libretto the better.
Gioia is certainly correct in his arresting statement that opera has become the natural home of lyric tragedy. It must provide matter of meditation to any thoughtful opera-lover to consider the state of opera’s health. There are many excellent contemporary operas but their chance for frequent performance does not exist and few of them are commercially recorded. Everyone agrees that opera, so well loved by so many, will not die but there seems no great concern to let it thrive.
In Nosferatu the heroine is left to her own resources to vanquish the vampire, Here is, as an example of Gioia’s style, the opening of her first act aria, one of premonition and dread:
I came to a table set for a feast,
Decked with silver and delicate lace.
The crystal shimmered in candlelight.
A long-stemmed rose adorned each lace.
But the lace was torn and stained with rust,
The roses broken and bent askew.
The plates were empty. The room was cold,
And the only guest was you.
There is much in this short book to please the general reader although it is something of a curiosity. For the reader with an interest in opera Nosferatu is indispensable.
For more information visit: Nosferatu
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teto.com/service/Persons_Places