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Reading Opera

Reading Opera

by Arthur Groos

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"Libretto-bashing has a distinguished tradition in the blood sport of opera," writes Arthur Groos in the introduction to this broad survey of critical approaches to that much-maligned genre. To examine, and to challenge, the long-standing prejudice against libretti and the scholarly tradition that has, until recently, reiterated it, Groos and Roger Parker have


"Libretto-bashing has a distinguished tradition in the blood sport of opera," writes Arthur Groos in the introduction to this broad survey of critical approaches to that much-maligned genre. To examine, and to challenge, the long-standing prejudice against libretti and the scholarly tradition that has, until recently, reiterated it, Groos and Roger Parker have commissioned thirteen stimulating essays by musicologists, literary critics, and historians. Taken as a whole, the volume demonstrates that libretti are now very much within the purview of contemporary humanistic scholarship. Libretti pose questions of intertextuality, transposition of genre, and reception history. They invite a broad spectrum of contemporary reading strategies ranging from the formalistic to the feminist. And as texts for music they raise issues in the relation between the two mediums and their respective traditions. Reading Opera will be of value to anyone with a serious interest in opera and contemporary opera criticism. The essays cover the period from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, with a particular focus on works of the later nineteenth century. The contributors are Carolyn Abbate, William Ashbrook, Katherine Bergeron, Caryl Emerson, Nelly Furman, Sander L. Gilman, Arthur Groos, James A. Hepokoski, Jurgen Maehder, Roger Parker, Paul Robinson, Christopher Wintle, and Susan Youens.

Originally published in 1988.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Studies in Opera Series
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Reading Opera

By Arthur Groos, Roger Parker


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09132-7


Appropriation in Wagner's Tristan Libretto


Opera libretti traditionally have a more uncertain status than conventional literary texts, in part because their genesis as well as their reception involve them in a different complex of considerations. Literary critics and musicologists frequently isolate two different relationships in discussing nineteenth-century libretti: that between the literary source and the libretto, and that between the libretto and its music. The relative emphasis within and between these relationships has of course changed during the history of opera, but for our purposes it might be formulated in the following terms: the increasing importance of "literary" sources in libretto production lends the source-libretto relationship an important role in the genesis of late nineteenth-century operas. Nonetheless, the finished libretto is then subsumed in its reception by the libretto-music relationship, a status suggested by the fact that the libretto usually appears in print for the first time in conjunction with the premiere of an opera and — unless the librettist achieves the independent literary status of a Metastasio or a Scribe — is reissued only in conjunction with subsequent revivals of the opera.

The libretti of Wagner's maturity require a more differentiated examination, with respect both to their music and to their sources. Whereas the title pages of first editions through Lohengrin (1850) identify the libretto as part of a larger musical work by designating it as an "Oper," the title pages of his subsequent libretti avoid any such limitation. Indeed, their publishing history provides them with an independent status well before the first performance of the operas, the most famous example being the Ring, a version of whose libretto appeared twenty-three years before the first performance of the entire cycle at Bayreuth. The text of the Ring first appears anonymously in a private Zurich edition of fifty copies in 1853, then in Leipzig (1863 and 1873), and finally in Mainz (1874). One could view these editions as an extreme case of traditional pre-performance publication, anticipating and advertising the first Bayreuth Ring in 1876. But the appearance of the Ring libretto in the 1871 Leipzig edition of Wagner's Schriften und Dichtungen and the appearance of the entire cycle as well as individual works in two separate editions before performances, one for the book trade and one for the performance, suggest a dual existence for Wagner's libretti, one independent of and one dependent on their musical realization. Unlike Berlioz, Musorgsky, and Boito (to take the most prominent examples of contemporary composer-librettists outside Germany), whose libretti generally first appear in conjunction with their operas, Wagner demands to be considered not only as a composer but also as a poet — a demand to which contemporary readers responded. The new conception of his double calling is emphasized throughout the Mitteilung an meine Freunde:

My career as poet begins at the point where I abandoned that of making opera libretti [...] With the Flying Dutchman I took up a new career, becoming myself the poet of a subject that previously existed only in simple, rough outline in popular tradition. (Sämtliche Schriften, III, 266 and 316)

This situation obtains also for Tristan. The libretto first appears in Leipzig in January 1859 without any indication of its future musical status ("Tristan und Isolde von Richard Wagner"), a year before the publication of the score and six years before the edition for the Munich premiere. Other evidence, such as Wagner's letter of 15 April 1859 to Mathilde Wesendonck wondering whether it was wise to publish the Tristan libretto separately, also suggests the dual status of his libretti. Wagner's general comparison "between a poem that is entirely intended for music and a purely poetic stage play" reveals the limits of a libretto vis-à-vis a play and thus the ultimate unity of the text and its setting, the libretto being "completed and perfected [vollendet] through the music." The larger context of the letter, however, Wagner's reading of Tasso, also documents the alternative reception of both Goethe's work and Tristan as Lesedramen independent of their intended performance media. As we shall see, Wagner's comparison of his libretto with a play by Goethe is not accidental.

But Wagner's Tristan differs from libretti by other composers not only in a relative independence from musical realization; it also differs in an unusual relationship to the source. The majority of later nineteenth-century libretti derive from works of recent or contemporary literature and usually reflect a relationship with those works, either celebrating the source by keeping it more or less intact, or celebrating its revision or transposition to another medium. In either case, the inherent intertextual relationship with "literature" serves to enhance the more tenuous status of the libretto, legitimizing the opera text by means of its source.

One is tempted to say that Wagner, in contrast to this tendency, legitimizes his sources by means of his operas, reflecting a negative, albeit widespread, contemporary opinion of medieval literature. The paucity of references to Gottfried von Strassburg among the hundreds of allusions to the opera Tristan in Wagner's essays, letters, and diaries implies a value judgment that the letter of 29–30 May 1859 to Mathilde Wesendonck states in no uncertain terms. Leafing through San-Marte's Parzival translation causes him "to be immediately repelled by the incompetence of the poet. (This already happened to me with Gottfried v. Strafiburg in regard to Tristan)." Not surprisingly, Cosima's diaries record discussions of the medieval Tristan on only three occasions. The sole entry (14 March 1870) that documents its having been read, stimulated by her reminiscence of a quote, ends with another version of Gottfried-bashing: "In the evening read Tr[istan] und I[solde], which makes me realize ever more clearly how great and unique R.'s conception of it is."

It is important to emphasize, as Germanists have recently done, that this attitude was shared by contemporary opinion, which followed aesthetic criteria developed during the age of Goethe and exerted a strong influence on the reception of earlier literature through literary histories such as that of Gervinus. Tristan suffers from the inability of nineteenth-century readers, schooled in standards of taste based on the works of Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller, to conceive of medieval romances as unified and consistent wholes, and bears the additional onus of its French origin and "salacious" content. Although basing an opera on a medieval text considered deficient by contemporary standards runs counter to the trend toward setting more recent and more respected literary texts, it provides Wagner's libretto with the same unusual degree of independence vis-à-vis his source that it has with respect to its musical realization. As we shall see, this independence has far-reaching consequences.

Wagner's few references to his treatment of Gottfried's romance seem at first glance to suggest that he subjects that work to drastic reduction and transposition. The comparison in Mein Leben of Karl Ritter's plan for a dramatization of Tristan with Wagner's different conception of the material is brief but explicit:

At the time I had pulled no punches in pointing out to my young friend where the defects of his draft lay. He had confined himself to the adventurous incidents of the romance, while I had been immediately struck by its innate tragedy and was determined to cut away all the inessentials from this central theme. Returning from a walk one day, I jotted down the contents of the three acts in which I envisaged concentrating the material when I came to work it out at some future date.

This broaches the fundamental issue, transposition of genre (and ultimately of medium), which requires the reduction of a multiplicity of episodes and adventures to three acts, i.e. a shift from defective breadth to effective depth, from romance to drama.

As part of this transposition of genre, Wagner's libretti also undergo a shift of viewpoint from objective to subjective, a shift that is based upon his consistent preference for drama over the novel. Oper und Drama, his principal theoretical writing, emphasizes the relative merits of the two genres with a series of antitheses. Whereas the novel proceeds "from without inward [...] from complex surroundings intelligible only with difficulty [...] and sinks exhausted before a portrait of the individual," drama proceeds "from within outward [...] from a simple, universally intelligible surrounding to an ever richer unfolding of individuality." As we shall see, the preference for the subjective over the objective, for character over milieu, is crucial to an understanding of Tristan. For the moment, we need only emphasize that this bias underlies Wagner's proclivity to present extended "narrative" matter from the perspective of individual characters. The most spectacular example of this process in Tristan transposes the medieval narrative to dramatic form by shifting the description of events prior to the love potion (some 11,000 lines of Gottfried's romance) to Tristan's and Isolde's reminiscences during the course of Act I.

Although it would thus not be incorrect to consider the Tristan libretto as a "transposition" that "reduces" narrative to drama, such a designation ultimately proves inadequate. In a normal transposition, a literary source and its libretto adaptation differ primarily in a generic sense; the transposition itself does not necessarily alter our estimate of their relative merits. But Wagner's comments about his source, as we have seen, do not concede it any value beyond that of a preliminary stimulus in the genesis of his own works. References in the letter of 29–30 May 1859 to Mathilde Wesendonck, for example, which assert that medieval narratives are immature ("unreif") or incomplete ("nicht fertig"), deficient products of their distant age, imply their true "fruition" or "completion" only in Wagner's modern transformation. We might therefore consider the Tristan libretto not as a simple transposition, but rather — owing to the underlying teleological conception of the source-libretto relationship — as a work that appropriates the medieval romance into Wagner's "definitive" modern dramatization.

Given this implied teleology, it should not seem strange that the abovecited comments by Wagner on his condensation of Gottfried's Tristan echo a major historical thesis of Oper und Drama: that modern drama evolved out of medieval romance by reducing episodic narrative to an internal unity grounded in the individuality of the poet and his characters. We perceive in this development, Wagner states, the dramatist's striving

to master the varied subject matter from within outwards, to give his formation a firm center, and to derive this center as the axis of the art work from his own view of life. [...] From the vast mass of external appearances, which previously could not be too manifold and variegated to suit the poet, the related component parts are sorted out, the multiplicity of moments condensed to a particular illustration of the participants' characters. (Sämtliche Schriften, IV, 8)

On the basis of the correspondences between this general statement and those describing his adaptation of Tristan, we might say that Wagner's libretto appropriation also attempts to reproduce the general development he posits for the transformation of medieval romance into modern drama.

This implicit unity of conception between Wagner's main theoretical treatise and his libretti — a unity not always conceded by scholars — raises a musical issue that should be mentioned before discussing the Tristan libretto itself. As we have seen, Wagner demands to be considered as a dramatic poet, publishing his libretti for the book trade before as well as independently of their operatic performance, a tactic that isolates the libretto and celebrates its realization of a source. At the same time, however, separate publication also reminds us of the imperfect status of any libretto per se, a tactic that — paradoxically — also draws attention to the musical means by which it ultimately transcends conventional literary texts: through its realization as music-drama.

The libretto's involvement in two sets of relationships, first as the dramatic appropriation of a narrative source and then as a text that is appropriated in turn by its musical realization, is implied in an alternately self-congratulatory and obsequious letter by Wagner to Ludwig II during the first performance run of Tristan. The fact that Gottfried's romance remained incomplete and also that August Wilhelm Schlegel, Friedrich Ruckert, August von Platen, and Karl Immermann — not to mention Robert Schumann — had all attempted to write Tristans during Wagner's lifetime, but left them "unfinished," posed an enticing cumulative challenge to posterity. Although it begins with the triumph of meeting this challenge, the letter proceeds to celebrate much more. Through repetition of words based on the ambiguous verb vollenden (to complete or to perfect), Wagner first emphasizes his "completion" of Gottfried's romance by its transposition to drama, but gradually moves to the true "completion," indeed, the unique "perfection" of its realization as a music-drama:

This singular Tristan is — completed. You know that whoever else wrote a Tristan left it incomplete, from Gottfried von Strassburg on. It almost seemed as if the ancient curse would extend to my work: for it was completed only if it came to life before us completely and truly, as [performed] drama, and spoke directly to heart and mind. This has been attained. The ancient love poem lives and speaks loudly to the people, who inform me of their emotion in moving testimony. What we — my noble beloved — have accomplished with this completion, you will understand at some future date. I proclaim it boldly: nothing similar of this kind can be compared with our Tristan, as it will reverberate and resound today.

Not surprisingly, the letter bears two dates, a conventional one of 13 June 1865 and another referring to the new era, "the second day of Tristan."


Even if we conceive of Wagner's later libretti in general as appropriations, the strategy itself is not always immediately obvious from a reading of the texts themselves, owing to the drastically reduced congruence with the narrative source that results from its transposition to drama. In Tristan, however, Wagner discreetly calls attention to his appropriation at the climactic moments of Acts I and II, the drinking of the potion and the conclusion of the Liebesnacht, which recall the equivalent scenes in the medieval source (Act III is based on material found not in Gottfried's fragment but in his sources). Both scenes are central to the structure of each work, presenting, as it were, the beginning and the end of Tristan's and Isolde's physical relationship, and thus lending particular emphasis to any self-conscious intertextual reminiscences. In accordance with the distinctive style of Gottfried's romance, Wagner draws attention to his appropriation through rhetorical patterns, particularly chiasmus, a characteristic feature of both works.

The first instance of this technique occurs immediately after the drinking of the love potion in Act I, scene 5. Gottfried uses oxymoron to suggest the unexpected, external compulsion of the potion, followed by an extended allegorical psychomachia narrating the lovers' struggle against it. Wagner's libretto, in accordance with his emphasis on grounding events in the subjective responses of characters, uses verbal and visual chiasmus to express the release of their mutual longing in a spontaneous exchange of names and embraces, dramatizing the internal process whereby the lovers become aware of their long-repressed attraction to each other:

Isolde: Tristan!

Tristan: Isolde!

Isolde (an seine Brust sinkend): Treuloser Holder!

Tristan (mit Gluth sie umfassend): Seligste Frau!

(Sie verbleiben in stumnter Umarmung.)

(Isolde: Tristan! / Tristan: Isolde! / Isolde [sinking upon his breast]: Faithless beloved! / Tristan [ardently embracing her]: Most blessed lady! / [They remain in a silent embrace.])

A second dramatic chiasmus in the ensuing passage emphasizes the growing affinity between Tristan and Isolde:

Tristan: Isolde!

Isolde: Tristan!

Tristan: Süsseste Maid!

Isolde: Trautester Mann! (VII, 28; Balling, 115f)


Excerpted from Reading Opera by Arthur Groos, Roger Parker. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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