OPERA / Something rich and strange: Jan Smaczny on a forgotten form of opera-without-singing that foreshadowed today's music for TV and film

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
For most people, opera is irrational enough as an entertainment. Dressing up and shelling out large sums of money to hear frequently overweight virtuosi proclaiming their emotions in graphic fashion to musical accompaniment has become, amazingly enough, a commonplace of our cultural life. What would happen, though, if you took the singing away?

For a moment, just imagine a Mozart opera in which you had an overture, all the trappings of accompaniment - shock orchestral chords, melting phrases and exquisite melodies - without anyone singing a note. Instead, as the overture fades into silence, you are presented with a mere actor enunciating the progress of the drama. Orchestral music flows in, fore and aft, to amplify and modify the mood, but no one bursts into song.

It's hard to imagine that such a strange confection could come about at all, let alone become one of the most successful musical-dramatic forms of an era, and yet that is just what melodrama was. No less a stage animal than Mozart waxed lyrical about the delights of melodrama, writing with delighted enthusiasm to his father: 'You know, of course, that there is no singing, just declamation - and the music is a kind of obbligato recitative accompaniment. Sometimes the music goes on underneath the words, and this produces a splendid effect.'

Mozart's reaction to Ariadne and Medea, the melodramas of the expatriate Bohemian composer Georg Benda - works which Mozart enjoyed so much he carried them about with him - was not a passing fancy. He himself intended to compose a full-length melodrama, but in the end all we have are a couple of examples from the unfinished opera Zaide (though they knock much of the rest of the music off the stage). Yet if Mozart never delivered, plenty of other composers did. Parodies, a sure sign of success, of the Benda melodramas appeared in Vienna, and not a single composer of significance in the first half of the 19th century failed to compose at least one if not more examples of the genre.

Melodrama became an accepted part of opera. Indeed, some of the most dramatic parts of Beethoven's Fidelio - the grave-digging scene - and of Weber's Der Freischutz - the conjuration in the Wolf's Glen - are carried out in melodrama. For the Czech composer Zdenek Fibich, who revived the Benda works in Prague in 1875, melodrama was the ultimate end of the quest for the Wagnerian 'complete art work'; after all, with poetry declaimed over music, the orchestra could carry the emotional and symbolic weight while not a word of the drama would be lost.

Fibich's monumental three-nighter, Hippodamie, is one of 19th-century music's most magnificent white elephants. Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Dvorak, Strauss, Schoenberg, Stravinsky - the list seems endless - at some stage in their careers tried their hand at melodrama. What could be more appealing to the post-Freudian composer than the chance to echo emotion and action in music of expressive, not to say expressionist, power? So why has the genre apparently disappeared from view?

Well, the truth is that it hasn't. The cinema and television have taken over an art form which is as instinctive as it is seductive. Our entire audio-visual culture is shot through with the style that so impressed Mozart. From Jaws to Alien, Jurassic Park to Howards End, melodrama holds sway, injecting life into an artificial medium which would, without the magical combination of speech and mood music, be dramatically and emotionally dead. How unimpressive the sight of flailing legs seen from under water would be without the accompaniment of a pregnant musical phrase. And where would all those passionate railway station farewells be without the surging phrases of an invisible orchestra buoying up the lovers?

Melodrama is alive and kicking the film industry into life with its benevolent, expressive presence.

A chance to sample the delights of melodrama in its original form will occur in the South Bank's Czech Festival later this month when the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performs the second of Benda's efforts in the form, Medea. While Benda did not invent the genre, his way with it is remarkable. His model was Anton Schweitzer's setting of Rousseau's Pygmalion, which came to the court of Gotha, where he was working, in 1774 (Goethe had seen it at Weimar two years earlier and much approved).

The story of the wronged Medea's return to the house of the unfaithful Jason and her spectacular vengeance was perfect for melodramatic treatment. Both of Benda's first two melodramas were written for powerful actresses. Ariadne was written for Charlotte Brandes and her success in the title role led directly to Medea being written for a rival thespian, Sophie Seyler.

Of the two, Medea is the finer. Benda seized on the entire armoury of late 18th-century expressive symbolism, creating a superbly effective marriage of convention and originality. With music of astonishing power and directness he captures the conflicting emotions of Medea and builds a dramatic climax of nearly overwhelming force. At every stage in this short work - it lasts only about half an hour - the seriousness of Benda's intentions are clear; not a note is wasted. Interestingly, there is even an example of the recurring motif, the musical-dramatic device beloved of the romantic composers, in the impressive rhetorical phrase which starts the overture; it returns later in the drama as a symbol of Medea's betrayal and ultimately of her vengeance.

Throughout the work, Benda manages to turn the short-breathed gestures of accompanied recitative, the chords, roulades and points of punctuation familiar from opera, into broad and effective musical units. Every changing emotion - and, with Medea in dangerously volatile mood throughout, these come thick and fast - has its musical equivalent: the enchantress's rages are portrayed as effectively as her poignant contemplation (complete with violin solo) of the fate of her children. The violent conclusion is among the most impressive dramatic paragraphs, outside a mature Mozart opera, that the late 18th century has to offer. A study in theatrical rage - it begins with a conjuration scene and Medea's murder of the children, and ends with the death of Jason - its impact never falters.

Quite why music-theatre of this power and imagination is not part of the normal repertoire is something of a mystery. Short musical stage works have not done terribly well in recent years, double- and triple-billing being an expensive business. But there have to be other reasons for melodrama's absence from our stages. It could well be in part the lack of actors willing to come forward and risk their reputations by attempting dramatic co-ordination with mere musicians.

The Czechs, who made something of a speciality of melodrama, had a special school in Prague until the 1950s designed to train actors in the particular skills of the genre, but even this has disappeared - it would be hard to imagine the present National Theatre in Prague reviving Fibich's Hippodamie as it did at the end of the 1970s.

It looks as if each generation will have to rediscover melodrama for itself and with luck it might just catch on. The chance to experience one of the richest and strangest experiences 18th-century theatre has to offer does not often come along, and it is worth seizing with both hands.

Benda's 'Medea': 22 Oct, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre SE1 (071-928 8800)