previous chapter
Chapter Eight— Hugo Sung and Unsung: Or Why We Put Up with Dumb Opera Plots
next chapter

Chapter Eight—
Hugo Sung and Unsung: Or Why We Put Up with Dumb Opera Plots

Whenever Verdi's Ernani comes around, music critics who pretend to know it well try to find nice things to say about it. It's pretty good "for early Verdi." It has some exciting arias, duets, and ensembles. It has its "occasional elegances."

But there's no getting away from the fact that nowadays it's generally regarded as distinctly lesser Verdi—one of those dark, Spanishy love-death-and-honor operas full of bouncy pop tunes sung by romantic caricatures in elaborate sixteenth-century costumes who have somehow to work their way through a nearly incomprehensible plot.

Over the last ten years, the opera has usually been performed in two or three places in the world every season, which puts it about twelfth in the list of Verdi's most frequently heard operas. But if Verdi's Ernani has declined in favor since the nineteenth century (when it was one of the repertory staples), it is still at least regularly performed, and by some of the most famous singers in the world. The once-notorious play on which it is based—Victor Hugo's Hernani, ou l'honneur Castilian —has virtually disappeared from the living stage, despite the determined "historic preservation" efforts of the Comédie-Française. "No modern play-going audience," writes William Weaver, "would sit through a straight-faced production of Hernani ."

This is not 100 percent true. A few modern versions of the play seem to have worked. I sat through a tolerable one in New York in 1974. But like many enduring nineteenth-century Italian operas, Ernani borrowed its characters and its plot from a once-popular play now far less well known than its lyric successor. Comparing the cases of Victor Hugo's plays and the music dramas they inspired may help us to understand what makes for longevity in opera, and why so many standards in today's opera repertory have been based on dramatic originals most of us would not tolerate on the spoken stage.

It is difficult today to conjure up the semilegendary reputation of Victor Hugo,


who dominated so much of the imagination of his century. He can be compared only to other nineteenth-century demigods like Goethe or Tolstoy—men who combined extraordinary creative powers with profound cultural influence, and received the kind of mass adulation that turned them into near-mythical figures while they were still alive. By the end of his long life (1802–1885), Hugo was nearly adored by millions of his fellow citizens, whose respect for him almost equaled his own self-esteem.

His rise to glory was sudden, but well planned. "Je veux être Chateaubriand ou rien," he had written in his journal at fourteen. He would be either the equal of the great early Romantic master, or nothing. He set out by entering (and winning) prestigious poetry competitions, and attracting high-placed support, with pompous proroyalist odes. The popularity of Walter Scott, and the visit to Paris of a troupe of English Shakespearean actors in 1827, led Hugo to try his hand at passion-filled, anticlassical verse dramas set in earlier times and un-French places. The first, based on Scott, was a one-night fiasco. The second, a wildly unhistorical romance called Cromwell , turned out to be unperformably long. The third, Marion Delorme , was banned by the state censors. The fourth, Hernani , was a hit.

It was a hit partly because Victor Hugo and his circle of would-be literary revolutionaries packed the house on opening night, and for thirty-eight nights thereafter, by distributing hundreds of free tickets to their friends, and to longhaired students and artists who could be depended on to make noise on their behalf. The ensuing bataille d'Hernani has become part of the Hugo myth, a colorful episode now entrenched in French literary history.

At first, the outrageous spectacle of these exuberant young dandies drowning out the hisses of their disgusted elders convinced people that a revolution of sorts had taken place, and that Victor Hugo's new liberal Romanticism had displaced for all time the tired decorums of the Classical theatre. Locked in a dark theatre for five hours before the opening night curtain, the Hugolians also led radical cheers, sung revolutionary songs, left sausage skins in the foyers, and urinated in the corridors. The play drew record crowds (who kept on hissing and cheering), was disliked by most of the actors and critics, and was written about by a great many of the people who attended. Théophile Gautier described the scene in his Histoire du romantisme:

It was enough to cast your eyes on the audience to realize that this was no ordinary performance. Two ways of life, two parties, two armies, even—I am not overstating—two civilizations were there, hating one another cordially (as one can only hate in literary quarrels), asking only for war, and ready to convert one into the other. The general attitude was hostile, elbows were getting sharp, the least contact would be enough to set off the battle; and it wasn't hard to see that this particular longhaired young man was soon going to find the well-barbered gentleman next to him an unspeakable cretin, and find himself unable to keep this opinion to himself.


Hugo went on to write three more, increasingly melodramatic plays for the Comédie-Française (he could turn out a play in three weeks; Verdi took at least three months for all opera) and three for the commercial, or "boulevard," theatres. In the same period (1830–1843), he fixed his reputation as the most popular French romantic author by publishing Notre-Dame de Paris and four new volumes of verse; befriended the Duchesse d'Orléans, wife of the heir-apparent; was elected (on his fifth try) to the Académie Française; established his lifelong liaison with Juliette Drouet, who had acted a small part in one of his plays; imagined himself somehow "saving" France; and grew immensely rich. By the end of this time, another young cultural/political revolutionary—Giuseppe Verdi, the composer of Nabucco —was being hailed in Italy as "the Victor Hugo of his party."

The dismal failure in 1843 of Les Burgraves , the last play Hugo wrote for the stage, marked the end of the short reign of high romantic drama as far as new Paris offerings were concerned. But for most of the next century, actors and actresses of the broad, grandiloquent style (like opera stars of today) insisted that these works be kept in the repertory as display pieces for their talents.

Mlle. Rachel, a stage goddess of the 1840s and 1850s, relished the juicy role of Tisbe in Victor Hugo's Angelo —the prototype of Ponchielli's opera La Gioconda . In 1867, Hernani was given a lavish revival for the Paris International Exposition, which nearly led to a second bataille because its author (like his hero) was then a political exile, sulking in the Channel Islands and hurling poetical insults at a government he despised. When the Second Empire collapsed in 1870, Hugo returned to Paris in triumph to witness the historic pairing of Sarah Bernhardt and Mounet-Sully in both Ruy Blas (1872) and Hernani (1877). The Divine Sarah used these two plays as sturdy vehicles for the rest of a long and fabulous career, helping to keep them alive in the United States as well as in Europe. She also undertook revivals of Hugo's even more melodramatic Angelo, Lucrèce Borgia , and Marion Delorme in 1905 and 1911, when she was in her sixties. Throughout her career, Bernhardt was praised as an "operatic" actress. She preferred works like Hugo's because of the opportunities they provided her for stage spectacles, passionate confrontations, great death scenes, and sublime solo "arias" for her silvery voice. "Avoiding any trace of interpretive nuance," remarked the critic Francisque Sarcey of one of her Hugo performances, "she presented a sustained caress of sound, the very monotony of which possessed indefinable delicacy and magnetism. All she needed to do was add the music of her voice to the music of the verse."

At Hugo's death in 1885, two million people watched his state funeral procession. His hearse was followed by eleven wagon loads of flowers to the Panthéon; streets were renamed in his honor. Beginning with the centennial of his birth in 1902, a spectacular revival of Les Burgraves was followed, night after night, by a worshipful ceremony of tribute on stage at which the two leading ladies recited his verses and crowned his bust with a laurel wreath.


By 1920, Hernani had been performed 734 times at the Comédie-Française—most frequently between 1877 and 1910, when it was given an average of fifteen times a year. (The total count for all of his plays at the French national theatre by 1920 was 1,694; by 1980, 2,748.) In 1927, the Comédie celebrated the centennial of the Romantic movement (which they dated from Hugo's 1827 "Preface to Cromwell ") by offering, among other things, glamorous new productions of Hernani and Ruy Blas . The Hernani centennial in 1930 brought a new Paris production and a flood of newspaper and magazine articles on the 1830 bataille . Colette thought a 1938 centenary revival of Ruy Blas by Paul Dux, with its stylized and witty decors, the theatrical event of the year.

Since then, Hugo—especially via Hernani and Ruy Bias , both by 1984 around the 1,000 mark—has been one of the ten "staples" of the Comédie-Française repertoire. This may, of course, be attributed to the conservative nature of the house and its audiences. Shifting tastes over the past two decades have led to fewer performances each year there of noncomic nineteenth-century works. For more than a century, many serious critics have persisted in regarding Hugo's stage works as hopeless.

Even so, at a time when the 300-year-old "Maison de Molière" was venturing into Arrabal, Beckett, Ionesco, and Brecht, there were notable new productions of Hugo's Ruy Blas in 1960 and 1979, and of Hernani in 1952, 1972, and 1974. Both have been filmed, recorded, and shown on French television. Some of the new regional and experimental theatres and maisons de culture in France, though they tend to be identified with avant-garde playwrights and directors, have also had a go at reinterpreting Victor Hugo.

But these occasional exhumations do not add up to anything like a Hugo revival, or a return to the "Hugolatry" of the nineteenth century. At each new production, critics have usually shown grudging respect for the two "museum-piece" classics (Hernani and Ruy Blas ), while dismissing the lesser plays as Manichean melodramas with comic-strip plots. On the whole, they save their praise for the daring of the producer and the skill of the actors, who have somehow managed to inflate these moribund works back into a semblance of life.

In non-French-speaking countries today, Hugo's reputation rests primarily on two novels, Notre-Dame de Paris (or, if you prefer, The Hunchback of Notre Dame ) and Les Misérables , and even more on the films and the stage musical they have inspired. It could be argued that so rapturously poetic a playwright (Hugo's better plays were written in rhymed verse, and are full of intricate sonic effects) was bound to suffer from translation. But for a good part of the nineteenth century, bad translations and atrocious rewritings of Hugo's plays held the stage in England and the United States, despite the fulminations of puritan critics at their tasteless French freedoms. (The French Romantic theatre, wrote the American actress Fanny Kemble in 1836, was the result of reckless experimenting on the part of "M.


Hugo and his fellow radicals—a disgrace to any Christian and civilized people.") In time, they gave way to even simpler crowd pleasers, like The Count of Monte Cristo and Cyrano de Bergerac —the only French nineteenth-century Romantic costume dramas still regularly performed in this country. Albert Takazaukas's off-off-Broadway production of Hernani in 1974 was the first revival of that play in New York in 103 years.

Since the Hugo boom ended, the point has been tiresomely often made that, however despised or ignored or forgotten he may have become as a playwright, his characters and plots have survived—thanks to the opera stage. "It is depressing to note," Eric Bentley wrote in 1948, "that French Romantic Drama is a portentous failure, that Hernani is a schoolmaster's classic far inferior to anything of Schiller's (not to compare it with Shakespeare, as Matthew Arnold did), and that the plays of the French Romantics succeeded best, when they succeeded at all, on the operatic stage for which God, if not always their authors, intended them." George Bernard Shaw put it even more succinctly, when reviewing a London production of Ernani in 1892: "The chief glory of Victor Hugo as a stage poet was to have provided libretti for Verdi."

That he did twice, for Ernani and Rigoletto (which is taken from his 1834 play Le Roi s'amuse ). Verdi also considered operatizing Cromwell and Ruy Blas . This world's-most-famous author, who had nothing but scorn for Italian opera and who twice went to court to keep musical adaptations of his works off the Paris stage, became, against his will, one of the most fruitful sources of plots for nineteenth-century composers. Unfortunately, these composers never sent the author a penny in royalties—which was the main reason for Hugo's scorn, and his litigiousness. Although a friend of many men of music (Berlioz, Liszt, Saint-Saëns), Victor Hugo did generally regard contemporary composers (especially Italians, and more especially Rossini) as woefully inferior to the earlier masters. "Music has brutalized Italy," he once wrote to Meyerbeer, explaining his refusal of another opera proposal, "and at this moment it is on its way to brutalizing France. I do not wish to participate in this work of devastation."

But even if, as a French critic once said, Victor Hugo didn't love music, music certainly loved Victor Hugo. Hostile critics today tend to call his plays "operatic." Friendly nineteenth-century composers agreed. The New, Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians credits him as the source of sixty-eight completed operas (including nineteen based on his novel Notre-Dame de Paris , the first five to his own libretto) as well as sketches or projects for other operas by Bellini, Bizet, D'Indy, Honneger, Massenet, and Mussorgsky. Hugo's texts and plots have also served the composers of ballets, overtures, serenades, film scores, Broadway musicals, symphonic poems, and incidental music. His poems (there are twenty volumes of Victor Hugo poems) have provided lyrics for songs by Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Fauré, Franck, Liszt, D'Indy, Lalo, Massenet, Rachmaninoff, Chabrier, Delibes, and


Gounod; even Wagner had a try. Hugo, naturally enough, preferred his own "verbal music" to theirs. He accepted incidental music in his play Lucrèce Borgia (he even helped to write it) on the condition that it not be so good that it would distract people's attention from his words.

Of these sixty-eight operas, only four survive in the world repertory today: Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Verdi's Ernani (1844) and Rigoletto (1851), and Ponchielli's La gioconda (1876). There are occasional performances of Saverio Mercadante's Il giuramento of 1837, which is based, like Ponchielli's opera, on Hugo's Angelo, tyran de Padoue . I'm not counting Boublil and Schoenberg's phenomenally popular musical Les Misérables of 1984, although both friendly and unfriendly critics—I tend toward the friendly—have called it an opera.

One explanation for Hugo's popularity with opera composers was offered by Francisque Sarcey, writing in Le Temps in the 1870s. He compared Hugo's methods, intentions, and effects to those of the librettist and composer of an opera, and concluded they were in many essential ways the same. Like a typical nineteenth-century opera composer, he wrote, Hugo stressed collisions of passions and spectacular tableaux, often at the expense of dramatic plausibility. He included pauses in the action where the "musician" in him could take over, with a poet's versions of arias, duets, trios, and choruses. He supported these scenes of verbal music with extreme and "operatic" gestures. (Doña Sol, the heroine of Hernani , is given eighty-seven acting directions in the script—falling to her knees, fainting, etc.) Sarcey's analysis of scenes from Hugo's plays shows them to be constructed precisely like operatic scenas , with cavatina-cabaletta arias preceded by recitatives, and love duets that are "pure verbal music." Doña Sol's wedding night "duet" with Hernani—

Pas un nuage au ciel; Tout, comme nous, repose.
Viens, respire avec moi l'air embaumé de rose!

—which only concludes with the lovers' death, was one of Sarah Bernhardt's triumphant moments. Her "vocal success with Victor Hugo's Spanish heroines," a biographer has written, "was that of a lyric soprano interpreting jeunes premières rôles in romantic verbal operas."

People at every level of sophistication enjoy making fun of Italian opera plots. The resident faculty of my Harvard house, pressed to come up with a silly skit for one Christmas entertainment, seriously considered doing a straight reading through (in English) of the libretto to Il trovatore . One popular television critic used to devote a whole column to retelling the plot of any opera being shown on TV, to amuse down-to-earth readers by his demonstrations of the stupidity of this upper-class art.


Ernani can seem, in the printed text, more than usually foolish, because of the extraordinary condensation of Hugo's story that Verdi's librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, had to perform. Singing words, except perhaps in Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs, takes a good deal longer than speaking them on stage. A play of 2,000 lines of French verse has to be reduced to an opera libretto of fewer than 1,000 lines of Italian. Carlo's famous soliloquy at the tomb of Charlemagne ("Costor sui sepolcrali marmi") contains 87 words. Hugo's original, one of the most celebrated spoken arias in all Romantic drama, contains 1,537.

Room also has to be left, in about the same overall viewing time, for orchestral overtures and interludes and the obligatory Italian opera choruses, which rarely do anything to further the action. The opening chorus of Ernani is a piece of totally gratuitous "local color." Critics have had harsh words for Victor Hugo's long speeches of transparent exposition ("Let me tell you all about your childhood, my daughter . . ."). But by pruning them all ruthlessly, Verdi and Piave leave us often totally bewildered as to why their characters are behaving so passionately and so strangely. It takes Hugo a full act to explain Elvira's (Hugo called her Doña Sol, but Elvira scans better in Italian) confusing personal relationships with her demon-lover Hernani and her protector Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. Piave gets it all over with in twelve lines and concludes, "Si rapisce"—"Let's abduct her." Ernani's colorful band of brigands immediately and jauntily agrees. Any audience following the script can be forgiven for finding the whole business highly unlikely.

A few lines later, Ernani makes a fleeting reference to "the sadness of his exile"—what exile? the viewer wonders; and exiled why?—a matter that Hugo had time to explain at exasperating length. Scene 2 has scarcely opened, with Elvira lamenting her enforced nuptials and her true love's absence, when the king, suitor number three, forces his way into her chamber, tries in a few lines to seduce her, fails, then tries to drag her off, when (surprise!) Ernani emerges from a secret door and stops him, and then Don Ruy Gomez enters through another door—shame, chaos, confusion, quartet with chorus, end of act.

One can relate similar confusions (or absurdities) resulting from condensation in the libretti of the other surviving "Victor Hugo" operas: Rigoletto, Lucrezia Borgia , and La Gioconda . In each case, whatever its own weaknesses, Hugo's original is both clearer and richer, with more complex and better-motivated characters; more interesting admixtures of the comic, the grotesque, and the political; more spectacular moments of theatre; and verbal outbursts and combats of far greater emotional intensity. Of course, these are precisely the elements that the composers tried to supply by music.

Changes in popular taste over time are no easier to explain than popular taste at any given time. Theatrical historians assert that the likes of Ibsen and Shaw displaced, and in time wiped out, the high-minded historical tragedies (and melodramas) of Schiller, Dumas, Hugo, and their successors—just as they were sup-


VERDI Rigoletto , Cornell MacNeil, San Francisco Opera, 1961.
Photograph by Carolyn Mason Jones.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.


posed, in their time, to have displaced the last tired wave of Neoclassicism. Exposure to more authentic forms of realism, to more persuasive and intelligently constructed plots, to characters, actions, and language closer to our own lives (so goes the argument) left a new generation of theatregoers embarrassed by the very plays their parents and grandparents had adored. The showy, poetic tirades, the pompous emotional pretenses, and the absurdly entangled intrigues of nineteenth-century "costume drama" came, in time, to be virtually banished from Western theatre stages—only to find themselves preserved in Western opera houses.

Why? Why are we still listening to Ernani, Rigoletto, La Gioconda, Lucrezia Borgia? Why should plots, characters, themes, speeches, and motivations we regard as intolerable on the spoken stage still be perfectly acceptable to us in opera—indeed, deserving of $50 and $100 tickets, bravos, and tossed bouquets?

Any "explanation" of a cultural phenomenon can be only speculation. You know why you go to such operas better than I do. But let me offer a few possible reasons for the survival of these dramatic dinosaurs.

1. Singers who can guarantee full houses (either because they sing well or because they're famous or both) still want to sing roles in these operas. So to fill up an opera house, the impresario lets them name the operas they want to perform. Why do they want to sing these roles? In part because of cultural lag (their idols and teachers sang them, they learned the parts long ago, they're part of the standard repertoire); and in part because, in the accepted manner of nineteenth-century Italian opera, these roles were written as display pieces designed to show off the beauty and skill of brilliant voices. The case is identical to Sarah Bernhardt's performing in Hugo's tragedies well into this century, because she (and her audiences) loved the opportunities they offered her to display her "operatic" talents.

2. In a similar way, opera impresarios (and to a lesser degree, conductors and musicologists), who know much more about music history than you and I do, have a personal stake in keeping alive these operas of the past. Like the singers, they have devoted much of their careers to studying them, and their taste to admiring them. (One may win points among one's professional peers for "rediscovering" forgotten old masterpieces.) Authentic audience taste, in the modern world of high-priced opera, has only a marginal effect on repertory choices in many cities. In the nineteenth century of Hugo and Verdi, plays and operas lived or died (like Broadway shows today) on the basis of popular appeal. Today, subsidies, season ticket sales, foreign language performances, and the somewhat sheepish behavior of opera audiences, trying hard to like what they're told they should like, greatly muffle the effect of popular appeal.

3. We, the audiences, actually do love the show-off arias and ensembles, however dramatically irrelevant or impossible they may be, and the jaunty (or luscious, or clever, or hummable) music of Donizetti or Verdi or Ponchielli. We love


it so much we don't care if it surrounds and supports a logically impossible, humanly incredible, or morally reprehensible drama. Let Lucrezia poison five enemies on a whim, and still insist that we admire her for her motherly love. Let a hunchbacked, foul-mouthed jester pay to have his lecherous boss murdered, and then find the body of his dying daughter (dressed as a boy) in the sack instead. Let La Gioconda keep forgiving her hated rival because the rival happens to be wearing a rosary (or a crucifix) that reminds La Gioconda of her own long-suffering mother. Let everybody keep pouring out poison and then antidotes for poison or make-believe Romeo-and-Juliet poison till we can't tell the dead and dying from the healthily napping. We don't care.

We don't care, as long as we get to hear Pavarotti singing "La donna è mobile," or Caballé singing "Ernani involami," or Domingo singing "Cielo e mar," or Sutherland singing "Corn'è bello," or any one of a hundred other worthy singers rendering other memorable tunes from these operas, and a good orchestra sweeping us through the interludes and bouncing us through the dances. We can't usually understand what these people are saying when they sing in opera anyway (almost never, in Verdi's "crossed-purpose" ensembles). Bewildered as we may be when we read the libretto (or the supertitles), we still tend to yield to voice, music, and spectacle in the opera house. "The public still goes to the opera to achieve that wordless transport effected through song," writes Charles Affron, in a book on Hugo and Musset. "Absurdities of plot and character . . . are forgotten because a singer makes beautiful sounds. . . . Disbelief is suspended because it cannot for a moment be engaged."

4. This argument may seem anti-intellectual and unfashionable, but there is also the possibility that our great-grandparents were right: whatever we may pretend, we secretly do like melodrama. And perhaps we should. No one I know has put the case for the seriousness of melodrama more powerfully than Eric Bentley—the wisest drama critic of this century, the same man who dismissed Hugo's Hernani as "a schoolmaster's classic":

Intensity of feeling justifies formal exaggeration in art, just as intensity of feeling creates the "exaggerated" forms of childhood fantasies and adult dreams. It is as children and dreamers—one might melodramatically add: as neurotics and savages too—that we enjoy melodrama. . . . Melodramatic acting, with its large gestures and grimaces and its declamatory style of speech, is not an exaggeration of our dreams but a duplication of them. In that respect, melodrama is the Naturalism of the dream life .

The melodramatic vision is in one sense simply normal. It corresponds to an important aspect of reality. . . . Melodrama is not a special and marginal kind of drama, let alone an eccentric or decadent one; it is drama in its elemental form; it is the quintessence of drama.


5. One can argue that the music of a good Italian romantic opera tells a story of its own, apart from and as if parallel to the story told by the libretto. In the best cases, this independent musical plot can be something coherent, logical, organically unified, and legitimately moving, even when the libretto and onstage action are not. I feel this to an impressive degree with Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia; not at all with Ponchielli's La gioconda .

6. And finally, there are cases where the music does illuminate, enhance, uplift, and ennoble these admittedly somewhat flimsy stories. By some peculiar alchemy, an inspired score seems able to render them almost mythical or sublime, and make their "unnatural" actions and emotions matter profoundly. As A. Richard Oliver writes in "Romanticism and Opera":

Hugo's drames in particular competed, over the author's objections, with Shakespeare's plays and Scott's novels as the most popular source of opera plots. Le Roi s'amuse is much better known to the theater world through its transformation into Rigoletto; Angelo into La Gioconda . The simple fact was that the drame romantique hungered for musical adornment. The unbelievable characters and the contrived plots it shared with the melodrame were admirably suited to musical enhancement, whereas plays offering air-tight, credible incident and psychological insight were not. Hugo, tone-deaf and anti-operatic though he was (he was amazed that Verdi could make four people speak at the same time in Rigoletto ), realized this too late, as his attempts to shore up his moribund drames with music amply testify. It is very likely that the greatest theatrical event of the 19th Century in Western Europe was the opera. It sucked the blood out of all the other forms of drama and left them lifeless.

I could argue such a case with no difficulty for Rigoletto , in which Verdi spun Hugo's poetic straw into musical gold. Hugo (who also came to admire Rigoletto , and was enraptured by the quartet) may have been correct, however, in regarding Verdi's version of Hernani as a crude and cheapened travesty of his play. It requires, at the very least, singers, a producer, a conductor—and an audience—who can somehow force themselves to take it all very seriously.



previous chapter
Chapter Eight— Hugo Sung and Unsung: Or Why We Put Up with Dumb Opera Plots
next chapter