This post is simulcast from my blog “The Annals of Opera”.
To the one person still reading this, welcome to the sixth instalment of my Annals of Opera, in which I list my favourite operas from 1600 to the present day, and hopefully stumble upon enlightenment upon the way.
Last time, we reached the 1920s, where Romantic music gave way begrudingly to modernism, although a few composers said, “why bother?” It was a strange time in all artforms and, sadly but understandably, a time when artists’ desire to challenge tradition and accepted systems led them to create works that were important rather than artistically whole. It’s the era of Brecht, where it wasn’t just enough to evolve and subvert existing ways of telling stories. No, you had to completely dismantle the system. I sound bitter, although I’m not, because it ultimately led to the rich, explorative world we live in today. But it’s a shame to see that so many of the operas (and other works of art) produced in the ’20s, ’30s, and even ’40s are ultimately works of their time, and just don’t translate in the way that the great works of previous decades had achieved. Of course, populist opera was still being created – the Metropolitan Opera commissioned or premiered a lot of new works during these years – but, almost without exception, they’ve faded from view without so much as a single commercially-available recording. At the same time, the Great Depression and the subsequent political turmoil that led to World War II had a major effect.
Still, we’ve reached an important point. If you were to look at the average opera season – particularly in an English-speaking country – you could be forgiven for thinking opera ends here. Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Puccini’s Il Trittico had been the last works to enter the standard repertory. Puccini would follow it up posthumously with Turandot in the ’20s, and we looked last week at Korngold’s box office success with Die tote Stadt but, well, things were different. Audiences gradually became conservative but, at least for now, the vogue seems to have shifted to operetta and “light” opera, which – like mainstream movies – were prone to grow outdated very quickly. So, we’ll be moving through the ’20s and ’30s at a fairly brisk pace, with a more multicultural cast of characters. Shall we begin?