23 JUNE 1939, Page 17


The Time-Factor

IT was a strange experience to spend one evening in Mr. Christie's theatre at Glyndebourne listening to Don Giovanni

and the next a thousand miles away in the Zurich opera-house at a performance of Tristan und Isolde—the transit between the two having occupied rather less time than either of these operas take to play. This is not to recommend the adoption of long-distance opera-going as a habit. Restful though the pas- sage may be, with no distractions of porters or boats or meals in the rocking train or smuts in the eye, the hum of two powerful engines for three and a half hours does tire the ears, and after another hour or two of high-powered tenor-soprano- and-orchestra, they begin to take the natural remedy against abuse and refuse to listen any more. I found it more than usually impossible to attend to Tristan's ravings in the final act. But from this there grows a greater admiration for those gallant ladies and gentlemen who, to get Covent Garden out of a difficulty, take aeroplane to Croydon and step out of it into their costumes without visibly turning a hair.

Such an experience calls attention, by suggesting compari- sons of length, to the time-factor in opera. It will, perhaps, be surprising to those who have not timed it, that Die Meister- singer should be one of the two longest—yet its last act takes fully two hours. It does not seem so long as Gotterdittnmerung, because its mood is lighter and its movement, both musical and dramatic, swifter and more varied. The tragedy goes at a statelier pace. But it would be a mistake to suppose, as is often done, that what differentiates Wagner's works from those of other composers is their length. The grand operas produced in Paris during the last century, from Guillaume Tell to Les Huguenots and Don Carlos, run them close in the actual length of their performance.

It is, indeed, their very length, coupled with the fact that they are written in a convention that is out of favour, that keeps these works out of Covent Garden, together with others like Simon Boccanegra and La Forge del Destino. Some of them are, indeed, occasionally performed, but in a truncated form that, even when as in the case of Don Carlos it has the composer's sanction, does them less than justice.

Wagner's works seem the longer because they are so packed with meat, that one must be, so to speak, chewing hard all the time. And it was, I think, a part of Wagner's intention to make them seem long in order that they might appear the more impressively great. For that reason he inserted certain scenes, like Wotan's long narration in the second act of Die Waiktire and King Mark's sorrowful indignation in Tristan, which would deliberately hold up the action and give it a feeling of immense spaciousness. Those scenes do not really take so very long by the clock—King Mark's monologue is much shorter than the love-duet, though it seems much longer because it makes time stand still. But we cannot comfortably withdraw our attention from these scenes—and it is that impossibility that makes those who do not like them, call them " boring "—as we can from the less exciting passages of Italian opera, where the musical texture is less close and the dramatic, not to say philosophical, ideas are less profound.

Sheer length had been a characteristic of opera at least from Handel's days. Of course the eighteenth-century audience only paid attention to the airs sung by their favourite singers and cared little or nothing for the stiff movements of the dramatic action through which the heroic figures solemnly went. But as time became more valuable, operatic composers tended to compress the action within more manageable limits, until Strauss devised a one-act form occupying under two hours, into which he managed to cram the utmost expression of passion. Salome and Elektra and Friedenstag are long enough for an evening's entertainment, if that's the word, because we could not really endure a moment more of them. Penthesilea, Othmar Schoeck's opera which has been revived at the Zurich Festival is in the same class. It is the kind of opera on which the curtain rises after two big bangs from the orchestra and which then proceeds at high pressure for One hour and twenty minutes. During that period of time I failed to detect in it any musical ideas that might interest or enchant the listener. Yet it is not without a certain per- verse dramatic power, which held the attention despite the harsh outrage of its actual sounds. DYNELEY HUSSEY.