Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What Makes a Good Opera?

What makes a good opera? Most of my non-classical friends would dispute that there's any such thing, but we'll let that pass.

The question arose yesterday when I revisited a work I hadn't listened to in a while: Franz Joseph Haydn's opera Il Mondo della Luna. Most people don't think of Haydn as an opera composer, but he wrote thirteen of them -- most for private performance at the Esterhazy estate.

While most people aren't even aware of Haydn's operatic output, those that are tend to dismiss it. The general opinion is that, compared to those of his younger contemporary and friend, Mozart, Haydn's works simply don't measure up. Some might say they're not even on par with those of Gluck, who was writing similar type works for larger audiences in Vienna (some of which have entered the repertoire).

I thought about all of that as I listened to Il mondo della luna. The first time I played the recording, I dutifully followed along with the libretto, and I can see the validity of the criticism. Like most of Haydn's operas, Il mondo della luna is basically a series of set pieces. There's an aria, then a duo, then a chorus, then another aria, etc. What's missing is any kind of dramatic impetus that drives the story along. That lack of drama keeps the opera from feeling organic.

In an Mozart opera (or others considered first-rate), there's a dramatic reason why the heroine sings an aria here, and then a chorus responds there. The audience is pulled along, carried by not only the beauty of the music, but the motion of the story as it unfolds.

So am I wasting my time listening to Haydn's operas? Hardly. While it may not work as a dramatic piece, it's still music by Haydn. So it's witty, charming, sophisticated, and well-crafted (as I believe these YouTube videos illustrate).

Yesterday I had to spend a lot of time concentrating on a big project, and Il mondo della luna made a nice accompaniment to my work. I don't speak Italian, so I couldn't hear how absurd/lame the libretto actually was. All I heard was one lovely melody after another.

And really, is that so bad?

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