The adoration of the divas

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