Review: ‘A Night at the Opera’ at the Library of Congress

Courtesy of Library of Congress - A set design by Italian art nouveau artist Galileo Chini (1873-1956) for the final scene of Puccini’s "Turandot” at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1926.

When you’re making an introductory video for an exhibition about opera, you can show clips of great singers in performance: Callas, Bjoerling, Corelli. Or you can show a clip of the Three Stooges lip-synching to the sextet from “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

The first might be a better representation of the greatness of opera. The second, though, may be a better reflection of most people’s frame of reference for opera — along with the Marx Brothers and, of course, Bugs Bunny.

(Library of Congress/Library of Congress) - Amelita Galli-Curci as Lucia (from "Lucia di Lammermoor" by Donizetti).

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And of course, it’s a better way to get people to come in and see your show.

“A Night at the Opera,” an exhibition that opened last week at the Library of Congress and will travel to Disney Hall in Los Angeles in 2014, represents a lot of goals packed into a single show of about 50 objects. This makes it a fitting tribute to an art form that involves several different art forms — visual arts and theater, dance and music — packed into a single performance. And like opera, the result is an imperfect reflection of a glorious set of unrealizable possibilities. The Library of Congress has vast archives: original scores and correspondence, photographs and set designs. But it’s always a challenge to try to evoke one of the most vivid and outsize art forms through the display of pieces of paper.

Opera buffs are as likely to feel as tantalized as fulfilled by glimpsing only individual items from the many archives and collections within the library’s holdings. A gouache-and-watercolor set design by the Italian art nouveau artist Galileo Chini for the last scene of the world-premiere production of Puccini’s “Turandot” in 1926, resplendent in gold and blue with Oriental statuary and a thicket of choristers — an image that could hold its own on any wall — becomes a mouthwatering tease when you learn that it is one of a set of four Chini images for this production in the library’s coffers, three of which you’re not getting to see.

Those who don’t care for opera, meanwhile, are a hard sell for a genre often mistakenly perceived as elitist and obscure — however much Bugs Bunny you play them at the entrance.

“A Night at the Opera” is meant at least in part as a nod to opera’s populist side. Rather than a show about opera in the Platonic sense, it’s conceived as a show about opera’s image, and the way people have experienced going to the opera, over the years. This, at least, is the intention of its curators, Raymond A. White and James E. Wintle, though they also wanted to make sure to touch on opera in every country (Germany and Austria and Italy, but also France, Russia and the United States). The latter goal is easier than the former, given that their scope is restricted to objects on paper: relics of opera rather than the living, breathing, rivers-of-sound-at-the-top-of-your-lungs art.

Opera of old

In the 18th and 19th centuries, before the advent of recording, if you wanted to hear an opera, you played it at home, on your keyboard, yourself. Piano-vocal scores (as opposed to the full orchestral score used by a conductor) were not the province of professional singers, but of the general audience. Thus the show’s inclusion of several such scores, such as the first edition of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” printed in 1787. For today’s general audience, not necessarily music readers and not able, in an exhibition, to turn the pages for themselves, the main focus of such scores is the illustration on the title page: in this early conception, the youthful Giovanni being collared by the Commendatore looks more like a naughty schoolboy than the Latin lover he later became in the minds of aficionados.

If you were going to the opera in the 19th or early 20th century, you might have bought a pocket-sized copy of the libretto at the theater so you could tell what was going on. And if you were an English speaker going to see “The Barber of Seville,” what you saw was quite probably not Rossini’s original, but a translation and adaptation prepared by the British composer Henry R. Bishop a few months after Rossini’s hit came out in 1818. Bishop’s version — represented in this show by a pocket libretto from a Philadelphia performance given some 10 years after it was created — drew on the libretti of both Paisiello’s and Rossini’s operas, as well as the original Beaumarchais play; among other embellishments, it beefed up the minor role of the servant Fiorello, evidently because the Almaviva in Bishop’s original production couldn’t sing.

The show ranges from the mass market to the rare and unique. At one end of the spectrum lies the vast collection of photographs of bygone singers in costume amassed by Charles Jahant and donated to the library in 1980. The images are dramatic, striking, overblown by current standards, from the more familiar — Enrico Caruso as Radames, Ezio Pinza as Don Giovanni — to the less-known: Rosetta Pampanini as Madama Butterfly in the 1930s, or, from the same era, a wide-eyed Dora Zschille as Isolde in Dresden, clutching a golden cup with desperate intensity. Their modern-day equivalent are the ads the Metropolitan Opera plasters on New York bus shelters and newspaper pages. These black-and-white photographs were at least comparably ubiquitous in their day; fans often bought them as postcards.

International flavor

At the other end lie mouthwatering rare documents. Among the show’s tributes to this year’s Verdi bicentennial is an autographed manuscript of a tenor aria that Verdi interpolated into his opera “Attila” a few months after its premiere. The lead role of “Attila” (yes, Attila the Hun) is written for a bass; but no less a personage than Gioacchino Rossini, at that time the elder statesman of Italian composers, prevailed upon Verdi to write an additional aria for the tenor role of Foresto, which was to be sung by Rossini’s protege, Nicola Ivanoff. (Rossini had already intervened similarly to get Verdi to write an extra aria for Ivanoff in “Ernani.”) The aria is not done in performance, but represents a marvelous curio for Verdi fans: the composer’s own hand, lines of slightly crabbed notes in sepia ink, with a dedication to Ivanoff scrawled across one side, possibly added after the fact, and probably misdated.

All exhibitions of archives have the problem that each item represents a whole story, and the exhibit itself is not always able to tell it. This one includes individual letters from Bellini, Puccini and Wagner, interesting less for what they say than for their cheerful randomness, survivors of a bygone epoch. Watercolors of sets for “Carmen” and “Don Giovanni” give a glimpse of the archive of Oliver Smith, whose collection — a relatively recent addition to the Library’s holdings — illustrates an entire chapter of 20th-century Broadway and operatic set design. Russian opera is represented by an excerpt of the “Boris Godunov” manuscript and photos of Alexander Kipnis in the role.

As for American opera: there are original scores of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” Barber’s “Vanessa,” and Deems Taylor’s “Peter Ibbetson.” In the 1930s, Taylor was a doyen of the New York musical scene, an influential critic who, when the Metropolitan Opera announced its search for a composer of a new work, put in his own name and got the gig. “Peter Ibbetson” had 23 Met performances, including a run-out on tour — more than nearly any other American opera at the Met since. You’d think this was an important chapter in American opera. However, Taylor’s work is largely forgotten today. Bugs Bunny and the Three Stooges remain.

A Night at the Opera

on display through Jan. 25, 2014, at the Library of Congress’s James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. SE. 202-707-4604. www.loc.gov.

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