05 March 2011

A Fan’s Notes, or Stendhal’s ‘Life of Rossini’

Barry Banks and Joyce DiDonato in Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Tomorrow, March 6, Joyce makes her Carnegie Hall recital debut — and yep, she’s singing some Rossini.

Lest my readers think I am a freakish prodigy who breezes through masterworks of French literature like so many bonbons, I now confess that, in recent months, I have left off reading Stendhal’s Vie de Rossini (The Life of Gioacchino Rossini). And yet what follows is less an admission of defeat than a progress report, because I suspect that I have stopped reading now simply for the pleasure of returning to the book again later and discovering fresh chapters. After all, pleasure is one of Stendhal’s principal themes here, and he makes the case that it’s Rossini’s main purpose, too.

The great composer was still young and actively producing, with some of his best work ahead of him, when Stendhal set about writing this biography, which mixes in detailed descriptions of most of Rossini’s operas and many individual performers and performances. This is all the more impressive since Stendhal didn’t read music or play an instrument, and didn’t have access to recordings that might have helped him to remember more accurately a singer he heard years earlier. He must have been a phenomenal note-taker.*

Rossini the Rock Star:
At last, a Stendhal hero whom Gérard Philipe did not portray.

The book doesn’t much resemble a standard scholarly work, and it’s crammed with titillating gossip, tall-tale exaggerations, factual errors, and passionate enthusiasms. I was tempted to compile the more brilliant critical analyses, such as this one, worthy of Anna Russell: when attending an Italian opera, Stendhal advises us, it’s best to pay no attention to the lyrics and to make up one’s own libretto instead.

Or, elsewhere, “Even in music, in order to be happy, one must not break down and study a thing too closely: here is what the French don’t want to understand; their way of enjoying the arts is to criticize them.” (Boy, is that true today.) And perhaps my favorite: “Fortunate Italie! It’s only there that they know what love is.”

Marilyn Horne in Il Turco in Italia at the Met.
Luckily, one of her performances is preserved on DVD, and it’s beyond brilliant.

Stendhal’s eye for comedy is as sharp here as it is in his novels, then, and he makes of the composer a Romantic hero, something on the lines of his Julien Sorel and Fabrice del Dongo (albeit far less ineffectual than either one). Writing like a true fan, he’s often so carried away that he can’t find any better description for a piece of music than to say that it is “the freshest, most delightful work ever heard,” even though he says that about half a dozen other arias, only pages before.

Lawrence Brownlee and Joyce DiDonato in Cenerentola,
Houston Grand Opera.
This is probably my favorite moment in the production.

You know you’re reading nobody but Stendhal as he grinds certain of his other usual axes, including swipes at Italian politics and at French mores (and critics and audiences). Modern readers will find his taste for Cimarosa and Paisiello puzzling, like his equally quaint-seeming resistance to the dominant trend of early-19th-century music: Rossini’s great failing, he says, is in becoming too “German,” or too interested in orchestral effects, as his career progresses. Stendhal prefers “mélodie” (the vocal line) over “harmonie” (the orchestral part), and he blames Beethoven, and what he sees as a near-universal misunderstanding of Mozart’s work, for the shifting balance.**

Juan Diego Flórez and Joyce DiDonato in La Donna del Lago
Ask Joyce sometime about stage directors who ignore the lyrics
and make up their own libretto.

Yet even when Stendhal is cranky, he’s entertaining company. I sensed in him a spirit kindred to my own, immersing himself in music for the sheer pleasure of it, eager to explore every corner. I began to imagine myself writing a “Vie de Mark Adamo” or “Vie de Jorge Martín,” dropping into my narrative such useful and attractive phrases as “Many times have I heard the composer say” and “The dear maestro told me,” just as Stendhal writes, until he and Rossini seem a sort of transplanted Boswell and Dr. Johnson.

Stendhal in his consular uniform.

And therein lies the most glorious joke of the whole book. Writing for an audience of Englishmen, but lacking any musical expertise whatsoever, Stendhal seems to have felt the need to beef up his credentials, and perhaps he figured the odds were against his being found out. He gives a reader every indication that he and the composer are intimate friends. Yet Rossini — living in Paris by the time the book was published there (to his chagrin) — claimed never to have met Stendhal, and even the author’s defenders can point to only a few occasions when the two men may have crossed paths.

Rossini retired to Paris, where he ate very, very well.
(Also, that’s not his real hair.)

In short, Rossini was a 19th-century rock star, and Stendhal was his stalker. The Vie is the journal-cum-scrapbook of an obsessive fan.

As dear James Franco was saying just the other day — and as I have indeed heard him say many times — “Why would you want to write a ‘Vie de William Bolcom’ when you could write about me?”

Vivica Genaux as Rosina in Barbiere.
Personally, I think she ought to wear this outfit around town.

*NOTE: Marcel Proust wrote beautifully about music, of course, without having any particular musical ability himself. It’s said that he used to wake friends in the middle of the night, so that they could play him a piece of music about which he wanted to write. I’d like to think that Stendhal did something similar, but I have no evidence of it.

**Somewhat more broad-mindedly, Stendhal writes, “No matter the state of perfection to which we have carried all the arts, we must expect that posterity will have the impertinence to invent something, too.”


Anne said...

A always, your comments cheer me, Bill--even on an uncertainly gray morning in NYC. You make life seem like a great meal waiting to be be savored and discussed. Your always well-chosen images are also delicious. Bravo!

Kevin said...

Thank you, dear maestro! This reminds me of all the reasons I should be getting back to Stendhal. And that photo from "Cenerentola" is fabulous!