Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mad Scenes: The Operatic Liberation Front

I have recently been writing about Greek myths, adaptations and parallels from Homer's day to ours. A recent post quoted Rita Dove's poem "Ludwig Van Beethoven's Return to Vienna:"

I am by nature a conflagration;
I would rather leap
than sit and be looked at.

Beethoven is likened to the titan Prometheus, a symbol of human (and artistic) ambition, creativity and desire. Such traits in excess lead to genius, madness, or both. The stanza just before the lines quoted above begins:

At first I raged. Then music raged in me,
rising so swiftly I could not write quickly enough
to ease the roiling.

A similar observation could be made about operatic heroines immortalized by the "mad scenes" which are the musical and dramatic raisons d'ĂȘtre of their characters. Last month I wrote about operatic adaptations like Thomas' Hamlet, whose Ophelia becomes unhinged in an extraordinary scene lasting a quarter of an hour. The alpha and omega of such mad scenes is from Donizetti's bel canto masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor.

I am writing from Roanoke, where my wife, Amy Cofield Williamson, is making her debut in that title role this weekend under the baton of Metropolitan Opera conductor Steven White (whose wife, Elizabeth Futral, is currently at Washington National Opera preparing her first Ophelia, under the baton of Placido Domingo).

Elizabeth's performance of Lucia at the Met several seasons ago inspired the following poem, which I have revisited for Amy's performances. The first line of my poem consists of Lucia's first words in the opera ("He has not yet come"), as she impatiently awaits the arrival of her lover, Edgardo.

‘Ancor non giunse...’
Again. This entrance
so solitary. So familiar.
My sister moon speaks
to me. Again. I am
well acquainted with
silence, the inexorable
pull of its embrace.
The shadows call
me theirs. The night
calls me out
and I wait for
it. Him. Ecstasy.
Death. Unafraid,
I face my implacable
guardians stuffed
with provinciality. They
are dwarfed by castles
that cannot contain me.
A boar’s head would
suffice mine there.
Do not protest,
ignorant companion.
Your propriety
blunts the viscera
that cages my desire. I will
consummate this wish.
In my quietus
lies your shame—
your prosaic,
pitiably tepid
existence. Do not
impose that upon me.
Again. Please.

I do not pretend to be a real poet, but as an amateur I have always been drawn to madness. A year ago I wrote a pair of essays on the peasant poet, John Clare, the "crazy crackbraind fellow" who spent the last decades of his life in an asylum. I can only imagine he would thrive if teleported into an operatic mad scene.

"I felt awkwardly situated and knew not which way to proceed.
I had a variety of minds about me and all of them unsettled."

The prodigious minds of such artists are not limited to their creative juices. Evidence of their critical faculties belies the notion such "crackbraind" poets were insane, regardless of other eccentricities:

"Wordsworth defies all art and in all the lunatic Enthuseism of nature
he negligently sets down his thoughts from the tongue of his inspirer."

The inspired tongues of characters like Lucia open up an expressive world, and like windows into the soul, allow visions of the beyond.

"DAREST thou now, O Soul,
Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region,
Where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow?"

So asks the visionary American bard, Walt Whitman, another lover of grand opera, and himself singer of mad poetic scenes. Last summer I wrote about the craziest ode ever written for an animal, by another mad romantic Brit, Christopher Smart. His hymn to his cat Jeoffry has been immortalized in Benjamin Britten's mad cantata, Rejoice in the Lamb:

"For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness."

And that is the sanest part of Smart's paean. Britten wrote one of the most famous mad scenes for tenor in his first opera, Peter Grimes. I referenced that scene in my last post about Bernstein's Mass, whose Celebrant goes mad in another 15' scene of enormous range--emotionally, musically, and dramatically--before collapsing. Ever the idealist, Bernstein's "hero" is the only mad singer that comes to mind whose scena does not end in death.

In Bernstein, madness is cathartic. In Smart and Clare, it is refuge and escape. In Donizetti, Thomas and Britten, it is flight, quietus, and release, ending in death.

T.S. Eliot wrote "the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates." Donizetti could relate, as his own life ended in an asylum. In the case of the scena delirante the artist and audience experience both genius and madness, however simulated, vicarious &/or symbolic.

The lines between dream and reality, this world and the next, and the boundaries between life and death are blurred in these highly wrought scenes of ecstatic vision and tragic undoing. Is it any wonder nature itself is evoked and invoked in such art?

"Of stranger witching notes was heard
As if it was a stranger bird:
"Wew-wew wew-wew chur-chur chur-chur
Woo-it woo-it"--could this be her?
"Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew
Chew-rit chew-rit"--and ever new--"

Clare's poem and Donizetti's music are both two centuries old, and both sound "ever new" still.

Even though just some two-dozen years old, the most affirmative "mad" poem I know is by another crazy peasant poet, Wendell Berry. "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" unfolds in bursts of creative originality and against-the-grain truth telling, and gives this essay its title.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die...

Berry is articulating the world which perverts creativity and causes "madness." But like the Psalmist turning on a dime from complaint to prophetic imagination, he changes key:

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it...

One of the common denominators in operatic mad scenes is the hysterical pitch reached by characters driven beyond their edges. The other side of that delirium may not be so far removed.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts...

Berry offers an energetic and regenerative alternative to the "final frontier" of death and destruction:

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade...
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

The Lucia's and Ophelia's of the artistic realm offer us windows to vicariously experience the tragic alternative so that we can "practice resurrection" every time we face the abyss of the maddening world.

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