Last week Mark Adamo took John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, currently in its Met premiere run, to task:
But as written, Doctor Atomic is approximate where it should be precise, airily literary where it should be riskily personal: for musical characterization it substitutes remembered manners, and for political confrontation it offers chocolate cake…. How disappointing, then, that the first American opera on so complex and incendiary a subject should prove so obvious, so evasive, and thus—of all things—so safe.
This is not a post about Doctor Atomic, of which I have not heard enough yet to form a responsible opinion; this is a post about Giuseppe Verdi. But Adamo’s ideas, whether you buy his assessment or not, make for a good serendipitous frame—because I think one of Verdi’s greatest achievements is something that Adamo seems to be hinting at: an impeccable skill for distinguishing between the most obvious way to musicalize a scene and the most direct way.
A few weeks back, my lovely wife and I hit the theater for the Met’s high-def simulcast of their opening gala—an act each of La Traviata, Manon, and Capriccio. Verdi—as he is wont to do—ended up making the other two composers seem a little self-indulgent and amateurish, for all the pleasure they provide (and I bow to no one in my gleeful wallowing in late Strauss). And it’s all because of knowing this difference between obvious and direct.
Traviata is actually a great example of this, because given the plot—passionate, melodramatic, full of sharp interactions between characters—the obvious treatment, letting the music magnify and amplify the characters’ inner emotional lives throughout, would probably work just fine. But at crucial points throughout the opera, Verdi doesn’t do this.
Take that ball scene in Act II, the most emotionally fraught point in the piece. Germont père has convinced Violetta to leave Alfredo—to preserve the family honor—so she writes a “Dear Alfredo” letter that falsely claims her ardor for him has cooled, so Alfredo rushes off to Paris in a rage to confront her at said ball. What always strikes me about this scene is how long Verdi sticks with the party music, even as the emotional water boils. But what he’s doing is setting up the climax—Alfredo calling out Violetta in public, for which Germont scolds his son. But note exactly how he scolds him: he doesn’t say stop being cruel, or even you don’t know the real story—the secret remains safe with him, at least for the time being. What he does say is this: That is not how a gentleman behaves. And that’s the key to the whole scene—Verdi has been musically showing us how a gentleman does behave, lulling us into a sense of the social milieu Alfredo, Violetta, and Germont are navigating. And the climax makes us realize how restrictively shallow and repressed it is—Alfredo’s breach of decorum is made startling and shocking enough to drive home what the lovers’ relationship is up against.
Instead of telegraphing the characters’ emotions, Verdi is focusing like a laser on the central conflict of the plot, the societal restrictions that prevent Alfredo and Violetta from their own happiness. What Verdi knows—and, in retrospect, what he makes us realize—is that the real linchpin isn’t Violetta’s giving up of Alfredo, it’s that she agrees to do it. The heartbreak is that she’s trapped in a world where Germont’s argument actually makes sense—once she sees his point, and once we see that she sees his point, doom settles over the whole story with far more devastation than if Verdi had solely focused on the individual emotional turmoil. Because the most important dramatic engine, the most powerful one, is not between the characters themselves, but between the characters and their social standing. The tragedy is not the loss—it’s the inevitability.
Verdi could expertly let the characters take the lead when that was the most direct route—witness Falstaff, after all—but it’s his ruthless rejection of the diluted obvious that makes him such an expert at delineating plots about people who are trapped, existential no-exit nightmares. Macbeth, Don Carlos, Aida—no one cuts to the characters’ helpless quick like Verdi. For him, tragedy isn’t something that sneaks up, or hangs in the background—it’s a smart bomb, aimed directly at human illusions of happiness and control, with the music guiding it to the dead center of the target.