Angela Cockburn introduces a new series on librettists

Starting in January and running through to June, in the first week of the month Treasures of the Voice will feature a series about the librettists – the wordsmiths that create the stories and the dialogue that keeps an opera or a musical moving right along while still being singable for the performers.

We started with the poet Metastasio, whose libretti, created with an ear for the virtuoso castrato or temperamental soprano, were intended more as a production resource rather than aimed at any particular production, and as a result were set repeatedly by many different composers. The focus was not, as you can guess, on deeply psychological character driven plots; instead, they tended to be heavy on distressed princesses and usurpers taking over exotic kingdoms.

Next up was Da Ponte, who differentiates characters very clearly by the way they speak in his highly detailed scripts. Any production of Don Giovanni that thinks Don Ottavio is a wimp, and that his relationship with Donna Anna is purely platonic, hasn’t paid attention to the script. As for some modern directors’ take on Zerlina-as-victim … try reading what she says (and look at the cut scene – let’s just torture Leporello for a little light comedy). There was music from his libretti for Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, and Cosi fan Tutti, for two operas by Salieri, and for two less
familiar composers.

Boito is the focus in March, a man who had the advantage of help from Shakespeare for Falstaff and Otello, and who made some very interesting decisions about reordering the tragedy for maximum operatic impact. We move on in April to co-writers Meilhac and Halévy who created witty libretti for Offenbach, and highly dramatic ones for Bizet’s Carmen and Massenet’s Manon,
among others.

May’s program features W. S. Gilbert, the librettist who could rhyme three syllables of English when pushed to it: the Major General’s song from Pirates of Penzance being the supreme example, with three syllable rhymes to every line, even if the Major General must think quite hard to find
them all.

Gilbert also expected impeccable diction from his cast, especially in such moments as the patter trio from Ruddigore:

This particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn’t generally heard, and if it is,
it doesn’t matter matter matter matter matter matter matter matter!

We finish in June with Stephen Sondheim, who found inspiration variously in the world of fairy tales, ancient Greek comedy, and in ordinary American lives, with thanks, once again, to Shakespeare. His ability to create the deprived and violent street gangs of New York’s West Side through what they say and sing (OK, and how they dance), arguably betters Shakespeare’s more sophisticated brawlers.

Treasures of the Voice, 1:00 pm on the first Saturday of the month.