The adoration of the divas

BLIND SPOTS Stephen Johnson struggles with his distaste for the virtuosity of Rossini, Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini

Ten years ago this would have been easy. At that time there was one big, clearly-defined Blind Spot: 19th-century Italian Opera. Anything earlier was fine, and Puccini, standing as he does on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, had a habit o f sneaking under the wire when I relaxed my guard. But Rossini, Verdi, and worst of all Donizetti and Bellini - I could hardly pronounce their names without grimacing.

But when you work regularly with musicians, musicologists, critics or plain enthusiasts, your prejudices are tried by fire. Soon I'd met so many intelligent, honest musical people who evidently loved this music, that I began to feel uncomfortable. Then came encounters with a splendidly gutsy L'Italiana in Algeri at the 1987 Schwetzingen Festival and the classic Serafin recording of Verdi's Otello, and I had to admit it - I could actually enjoy this stuff.

Still, that was only Rossini and Verdi. What about the other two? Even now, the resistance remains. The fact that there is no Donizetti or Bellini in my record or score libraries still gives me a twinge of perverse pleasure. So what is it that I'm resisting? After some thought, I think I can see it a little more clearly, even dispassionately. A lot of it has to do with my understanding of the word performance, and my deep dislike of the "star vehicle'', whether in music, theatre, cinema or whatever. Forme, a great musical performance is a relationship. The idea that one can ever play or sing a work purely as the composer intended is a naive illusion. The personality and experience of the performer will inevitably colour the picture, however humbly he or she tries to understand the intentions behind the notes. But it is the interaction, even friction, of the two persons - composer and performer - that gives the experience life. No, it is more than that. The audience is part of that equation too. An audience that listens attentively, creatively, gives something back to the performer which in turn influences the character of what they hear. Today one reads plenty of complaints about routine, boring performances. The musicians are usually blamed for this. But could audiences be as much to blame - do good performances need good listeners? I think so.

So let me get Donizetti and Bellini back in my sights again. Immediately something leaps into mind: a kind of parody virtuoso aria, all scales and arpeggios, roulades and fioriture, the orchestra vamping emptily in the background - who gives a damn aboutwhat they're doing anyway. All anyone is interested in, including the composer, is the Diva. Of course the music is uninteresting: its function is like that of the parallel bars on which the gymnast displays her fabulous acrobatics. And mean while, whatis the audience doing? Is it taking part in a creative exchange? No, it is worshipping. The Diva, the Goddess, celebrates the cult of herself. The worshippers prostrate themselves before her. They even do it when aged stars, long past their b est, return to wobble and stagger through roles in which they once excelled. All the Diva has to do is walk out on stage and half the auditorium is already transported. This isn't an aesthetic experience; it's pure, primitive religion.

Now I've got all that off my chest I ought to feel better, but I don't. It's a caricature for one thing, and it doesn't fit the facts as even I know them. Think of Maria Callas's recording of Donizetti's Anna Bolena. My one experience of seeing that opera live was the closest to Hell I've ever felt in the opera house. I wanted to rush home and soak in the purifying polyphony of a Bach fugue long before the curtain came down on Act 1. But with Callas, even though something in the sound of the voice sets my teeth on edge, there is dramatic and - yes, I have to admit it - musical truth.

You don't have to be a feminist to notice that my star targets in the paragraph before last were women. Do I particularly resent people prostrating themselves before goddesses, not gods? My memory tells me not: how angry I've felt with Liszt for letting himself get high on technical and emotional display when I know he's capable of better - look at that magnificent B minor Sonata. I think too of certain star tenors, holding their high Cs aloft like weight-lifters; and I remember Otto Klemperer, yelling furiously at a Budapest audience for clapping before the end of the "Champagne Aria" in Don Giovanni. I could have hugged him for that.

But what's wrong with display, star-worship, if that's what the music was written for? Perhaps the problem for me lies in that religious analogy I hit on earlier. Powerful, primal forces can be released in events like this. I recall the atmosphere after the recent London revival of Bernstein's On the Town. People were on their feet, almost on their seats, cheering - even crying. An American TV evangelist would pray for a response like that.

And for what? A flimsy story, cardboard characters and a score which, for all its brash vigour, falls a long way short of the flair and human understanding of West Side Story. I confess, I was disturbed. Re-reading my review, I still agree with most of what I wrote, but there could have been an element of self-protection there too. Having read Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power, I'm not altogether sure that's a bad thing, but the critical standards apparent in that review begin to look a little less objective, less purely artistic.

A feeling of discomfort lingers. There are things here I'm going to have to look at rather more intently. In the meantime, I'll prepare myself to do something which, for once, the late Hans Keller might have approved of. I'm going to stick to what I knowand value, to accept that, for now at least, Bellini, Donizetti and all manufacturers of star vehicles are not for me, and steer clear of them. Who knows, deeper understanding may be forthcoming. Whether I will ever allow myself to like them, though, isanother question entirely.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week