I am particularly indebted to Philippe Brunelle, conductor and artistic director of the Plymouth Music Series, Minneapolis, for introducing me to the works of Dominick Argento, and to Dominick Argento himself, who in tireless e-mail exchanges graciously consented to answer my most naïve interrogations.
1The purpose of this paper is to bring to European attention Dominick Argento’s 1988 operatic version of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, which was commissioned by the Dallas Opera to commemorate the centennial of the story’s first publication in book form, and at the same time to address the question of adaptation in the light of the various choices made by the librettist-composer. As a matter of fact the presence in the same volume of this study and that of Pr. Hubert Teyssandier on Britten’s The Turn of the Screw is no coincidence, since James himself coupled “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Aspern Papers” in the final edition of his works. To a large extent, Dominick Argento had to contend with much the same type of obstacles as Britten and Piper, and he declared he would be proud to see his work related to theirs. A further link between the two operas was established by Argento’s casting of soprano Elisabeth Söderström as Juliana. She sang the role of the governess in the 1959 Stockholm production of The Turn of the Screw.
- 1 Cf. “Le Monde germanique et l’opéra, le livret en question,” a French and German conference held a (...)
2Though it was widely acclaimed in the United States (where the premiere was broadcast nationally on the PBS series Great Performances) and subsequently performed in several European countries, The Aspern Papers by Argento remains largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic. I have therefore appended to this paper the main facts of the composer’s biography and a synoptic description of the opera and its performance history. It is not my ambition to write here as a music specialist, but as a reader of Henry James who is particularly receptive to musical readings of literary works. For this reason, the attention I devote to the libretto might seem out of proportion to its status in the opera as a whole, yet I feel encouraged in this direction by the recent interest kindled by librettistics, a subject for which we owe much to our German and Italian colleagues.1
- 2 For more details on James and opera, see Benjamin Ivry, or Michael Halliwell.
- 3 Quoted by Leon Edel in “Henry James and the Performing Arts,” (106).
- 4 Cf. Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave, Douglas Moore’s The Wings of the Dove, or T (...)
3I will not dwell on James’ paradoxical attitude and professed indifference towards concerts and the opera. Actually, his enjoyment of them might not have been musical, but rather prompted —as his letters and autobiographical writings suggest— by a combination of other things: his fascination for the acclamation of divas, his keen awareness of possibilities for novelistic exploration (James allegedly regretted he had not turned soprano Christine Nilsson into the main character of a story), and his sensitivity to visual effects (he had the opera box function as showcase or frame for several of his heroines, not the least of whom, of course, is Isabel Archer). James’s enjoyment was nonetheless real and tangible in his fiction.2 Adaptation to the stage, on the other hand, was a field of artistic exploration not alien to his preoccupations and practice. As to working for the opera, Leon Edel recalls that James was once approached by a composer-friend of his who suggested he write a libretto. He replied he was “unlyrical, unmusical, unrhythmical” and, he added “unmanageable.”3 If James undeniably had the opera in mind, it was primarily as a source of inspiration for fiction, and it turns out that the inspiration has at various occasions proved to be mutual.4
4At first sight, like indeed almost any of James’s stories, “The Aspern Papers” might deter any attempt at adaptation to the operatic stage. With its intimately reminiscent narrative mode, its intense dramatization of silence and darkness (or attenuated light), its ambiguities and its reliance on the unsaid, it is no likely source for an art-form which, more often than not, belongs, as Schmidgall puts it, to “a world of high relief, magnification, escalation”, a world which thrives on action, movement, exhibition, and “eloquently passionate characters” (10; 20). Yet when one re-reads the story while wondering what might, to a contemporary composer, have seemed potentially “operatic” in it, one comes up with a few tenuous but interesting stabs at an answer.
5Some of the required operatic heights might be detected at the thematic level of the story. After all, “The Aspern Papers” is a story about the deification of people and about devastating passion. In the narrator-critic’s rhetoric, Aspern is “a god,” his papers, “sacred relics,” and his biographers, “appointed ministers of the Aspern temple.” His old muse is called “the divine Juliana” and “there hovered about her name a perfume of impenitent passion (500).” This stirs the narrator’s imagination into “hatching” “a little romance of [his] own:” “by what passions had she been ravaged, by what adventures and sufferings had she been blanched (499)”? The Bordereau ladies inhabit a palace repeatedly deemed “fine,” “grand,” “great,” “noble,” “magnificent” and “prodigious”, in a city which is not less so.
6Venice is a decor declared fit for “drama,” “romance” and “glory,” and it is drama indeed, that Mrs. Prest is expecting from the development of her friend’s relationship with the Bordereau ladies (494). Miss Tina’s conversation reminds the narrator of “the old rococo Venice of Goldoni and Casanova” (508). He himself borrows from a range of theatrical references to position his different protagonists, imagining a comic doubling of his own proceedings in the shape of a love story between his man Pascuale and Miss Bordereau’s maid (495), or interpreting Juliana’s green shade as “a mask” (483) and her quarters as “the dressing-room of an old actress” (538).
- 5 “Les Papiers d’Aspern”, d’après Henry James, mise en scène de Jacques Lassalle, adaptation de Jean (...)
7The very structure of the work, nine sections retracing one by one, through narration and reported dialogue, each of the climactic series of encounters between the three main characters, lends itself beautifully to dramatic rendering, as testified again recently by Jean Pavans’s successful stage adaptation in French.5
- 6 “Passages sans issue dans 'The Aspern Papers' de Henry James” Polysèmes, arts et littératures, cen (...)
8Music appears first through its logical association with poetry. Aspern is a modern “Orpheus(472),” the “singer” of Juliana’s beauty (500), and I have had the opportunity elsewhere to suggest that the nine sections of the tale might well symbolize the nine strings of Orpheus’ original lyre.6 Not only has the Orpheus legend provided the main subject of the first operas, those by Peri, Caccini or Monteverdi, it has also persisted over the centuries to become, as Peter Kivy puts it, “an operatic mainstay.” (65) Strikingly, the very first mention of Aspern in James’s novella consists of an allusion to his imagined voice: “Jeffrey Aspern had never been in [the Bordereau palace] that I knew of, but some note of his voice seemed to abide there by a roundabout implication and in a ‘dying fall’(470).” And two pages further on, the narrator makes it clear that he has not been referring to poetic voice only, but also to the corporeal voice of a handsome man: “That voice, by every testimony, was one of the most charming ever heard” (472).
9Significantly, the narrator is always careful to comment in detail on the spoken voices within his hearing range. Miss Tina is thus a “high tremulous spinster (481)” who had “acquired by contact the trick of the familiar soft-sounding almost infantile prattle of the place (508).” Juliana’s voice “was very thin and weak, but it had an agreeable, cultivated murmur(484).” Numerous notations in the form of didascalia come to modulate voices and “tone” in accordance with each specific situation, particularly in the biographer’s paroxysms of emotion. For example, this is how he comments on Tina’s first admission that Aspern was once a good friend of her aunt’s:
Miss Tina gave me this information flatly, without expression; her tone might have made it a piece of trivial gossip. But it stirred me deeply as she dropped the words into the summer night; their sound might have been the light rustle of an old unfolded love-letter (510).
10Juliana’s voice is endowed with paramount importance (on an equal footing with her gaze which is the object of so much ado) in the break-in scene, when the critic is caught in the act of trying to put his hands on the papers:
… for the first, the last, the only time I beheld her extraordinary eyes. They glared at me; they were like a sudden drench, for a caught burglar, of a flood of gaslight; they made me horribly ashamed. I never shall forget her strange little bent white tottering figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, her expression; neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned, looking at her, she hissed out passionately, furiously:
“Ah you publishing scoundrel!” (547)
11Venice as décor has its own particular musical character, never insisted upon, but mentioned in passing as part and parcel of the enchantment of the place, of the cliché too, perhaps. It is the “plash of the oars” growing “louder and more musically liquid” as the gondola passes into narrow canals (519), it is light music, mainly vocal, the melody of male Italians singing away their enjoyment of life (541) or that of open air concerts on the Piazza San Marco (502). It hovers in the background and magnifies the silence otherwise reigning in the palace and canal. A place of literal and symbolic “echoes”, Venice thus becomes the perfect soundscape in which to reach out to James’s beloved “visitable past.”
- 7 Dominick Argento kindly allowed me to quote from our e-mail exchanges.
12When he first thought of this undertaking, and in keeping with the second half of the 20th century’s tendency to compose operas on the basis of narrative fiction instead of plays, Dominick Argento had already written several vocal scores inspired by works by Chekhov, Poe, Woolf and Dickens, among others. He found in “The Aspern Papers” precisely what he was seeking, “a delicate sense of suspense, interesting characters and a moral dilemma,” in addition to a Jamesian manner whose “hints, understatements and ambiguities translate beautifully into music which is non-specific rather than declarative and overt”.7 He quotes the example of Miles, in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, whose part, albeit rich in emotionally charged music, does not in any way lead the audience to any definite conclusion as to what the boy feels. It was thus a fundamental component of the challenge for an operatic version of “The Aspern Papers” to preserve James’s refusal to supply irrefutable information. The audience had to be left free to imagine Juliana’s motivations for withholding the papers (love? vengeance? pride? modesty?) and to decide whether Tina is “pathologically shy, conniving, pitiful, manipulative,” or any combination of these. “Her ambivalence and our uncertainty,” Argento explains, make her “an attractive candidate for operatic treatment because her music can be equally amorphic, allowing us to make an interpretation filtered through our own understanding and experience.” Clearly, the composer refutes the idea that opera should be explanatory, and he equates the role of opera audiences to that of readers, relying on each member to supplement the work with his or her own part of creativity.
13Yet, as far as plot is concerned, Argento introduced three major changes that might first be perceived as incompatible with the intended ambiguity.
- 8 Dominick Argento. Speech pronounced at the Symposium of the Central Opera Conference, Dallas, on t (...)
14The first of these changes is that he established an alternation of scenes between two different periods of time. He set the primary story, the critic’s adventure with the Bordereau ladies, in the summer of 1895. James’s date is not as precise as that. This adventure relies on a substratum, a past love affair between Juliana and Aspern, which James situates around 1820-25. Argento situates it in 1835. This past affair is not the object of any narration in James. Readers can approach it only very obliquely, through rumors reported by the narrator-critic: “There had been an impression about 1825 that he had ‘treated her badly,’ just as there had been an impression that he had ‘served,’ as the London populace says, several other ladies in the same way” (472), through whatever implications the narrator-critic thinks he can discern in Aspern’s poems, and through the figments of his own and his colleague Cumnor’s infatuated imaginations: “Cumnor had a theory that she had been a governess in some family in which the poet visited… I on the other hand had hatched a little romance according to which she was the daughter of an artist…” (499). Argento chose to close the matter in his own way. The opera contains 5 scenes taking place in 1895 and 4 scenes taking place in 1835, the total of 9 scenes preserving allegiance to the chapter organization of the novella. Part of Argento’s reasons were technical: “For only a barytone, soprano, and mezzo [The Lodger, Juliana and Tina] to sustain a full-length opera”, he explains, “would impose intolerable wear and tear on the singers’ voices, not to mention a certain amount of tedium on the listeners’ ears.”8
- 9 “I was intrigued by that remarkable phrase James wrote for one of the narrator’s ruminations: he w (...)
15This entailed the invention of a situation in 1835, complete with characters and the story of what happened between them. These are the young Juliana, Aspern in person, and three other characters with lesser degrees of importance, and not at all present in James: Sonia, Barelli, and the Painter. None of this, except through the narrator’s whimsical interrogations and constructions,9 has any source whatsoever in the novella, so that Argento too, like Piper with the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel, had to write, as Hubert Teyssandier puts it, “a large number of speeches for which there is no basis in the original text.”
16Conversely, in the five scenes taking place in 1895, the libretto does not contain many words or sentences not directly taken from James’s text. Of course, the method followed in those scenes is that of intensive compression and concentration on moments selected for their dramatic intensity. Scene 1 in Argento, for example, draws situations and dialogues from chapters 1, 2, 3 and 5 of James’s story. The policy of strict fidelity to the original words is certainly facilitated by James’ minute care in choosing his sonorities and by his reliance on reading aloud as ultimate test for literary quality. However, this demands that the music tightly subject itself to text, a feat more feasible, of course, when the composer and librettist are one and the same person. In terms of adaptation, the daring structural stroke of gliding back and forth between present and past (or more accurately, between one layer of past and another), results in a dialectic tension between compact faithfulness on the one hand, and sheer creation on the other, a tension much more apparent, I think, than in Britten and Piper’s Turn of the Screw. In James, readers can see the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, albeit indirectly, through the eyes of the governess. The ghosts have definite figures, clothing, expressions and attitudes, whereas readers’ only inkling as to Aspern’s physical appearance exists through the biographer’s changeable vision of a portrait of him. Visual distance is thus one step greater with Aspern than with the ghosts of Quint and Jessel. Remarkably enough, Argento has dramatized the painting of Aspern’s portrait in the 1835 time-layer, so as to make it the one tangible object linking the two periods. He also took care of placing in the décor of the music-room a full-length portrait of the young Juliana in her splendor, thus equating the masculine fame of the composer and the feminine fame of the performer.
17For the second drastic change was precisely to make Aspern, not an American poet, but a composer of genius with a non-specified nationality, and to transfer the action from a palace in Venice to a villa on the edge of Lake Como. Hence, the papers are not love letters or poems, but the score of an opera, Medea, which disappeared at Aspern’s death and was never performed. Juliana is a soprano-diva, Aspern’s mistress, his muse, and the intended Medea. Barelli is Juliana’s impresario, mentor and ex-lover, and it is he who has commissioned Aspern’s expected masterpiece. Sonia is Barelli’s latest find, who is to sing the part of Creusa, the princess for whom Jason abandons Medea. She is also the woman for whom Aspern is planning to abandon Juliana once the opera has premiered. In the 1895 period, the seeker of the papers is called “the Lodger.” He remains as anonymous as in James, and he is a musical instead of a literary critic and biographer. The main difference, though, is that in James, he is a writer who comes to conceive of himself as a sort of avatar of Aspern, whereas it is nowhere suggested in Argento that his “Lodger” might also compose. He only introduces himself as “a writer,” who has “a theory” about the continuing existence of the Medea score.
18The invention of the 1835 story is certainly endowed with an explanatory function. Instead of being left to conjectures as to Juliana’s relationship with Aspern, the audience is given to witness a very traditional tale of love, betrayal, jealousy and vengeance. In the beautiful villa once given to Juliana by Barelli across the lake from his own, Aspern is composing a Medea whose success is sure to be secured, not only by his own genius, but also by Barelli’s financial means and by his casting of Juliana in the leading role. In Act 1, scene 2, Juliana rehearses Medea’s vengeance aria while Aspern sits for his portrait and discusses with Barelli his intention of expanding Sonia’s role in the opera. On the eve of a trip to London, Barelli entrusts his young mistress to the care of Aspern and Juliana, who promise to ferry her across the lake to their own home several times a week. In scene 4, we see and hear Sonia rehearse the role of Creusa under their joined direction. Juliana overhears Aspern’s promise to join Sonia at night. In Act 2, scene 1, Aspern very hypocritically celebrates with Juliana the completion of the score, the beauty of which he attributes to their love. At night, Juliana silently unties their boat and lets it drift away, presumably to prevent Aspern from meeting Sonia, but he romantically decides to swim across the lake. In Act 2, scene 3, we learn that Aspern drowned in the attempt. Juliana closes her villa, decides to bring her career to an end, and explains to Barelli on his return that Aspern, dissatisfied with his work, has destroyed the score of Medea. The audience knows that this is not true, for in a mute sequence Juliana is seen pressing the score to her breast and whisking it out of the room. This brings us to the third major modification introduced by Argento, which relates to the status of the papers.
19Whereas in James, readers can never be certain that Juliana keeps any papers at all, that Tina indeed burns them, or even that these papers have ever existed, in Argento, the “thick sheaf of manuscript” of the musical score is a key stage-prop. It is first seen in Act 1, scene 4 as work in progress; then in Act 2, scene 1, when Aspern triumphantly shows it to Juliana and they hold it between them as they rejoice together; then in Act 2, scene 3, when Juliana puts it away. In skillfully suggestive staging, the manuscript thus passes from Aspern’s hands to Juliana’s.
20The same papers can be seen in 1895 as Tina surreptitiously handles them, but they only appear in full view at the very end of the 1895 story, after the Lodger has gone, which is also the very end of the opera. Tina, in a mute sequence which recalls that of the young Juliana, is seen burning its pages one by one. So that the 1895 part, in spite of its close adhesion to the text of the novella, contains its clarifying points too. By accrediting one possible interpretation, that Tina tells the critic a fib only to test him, the opera of course eliminates all others. Yet the destruction of the papers is not just reductive of the fiction. It becomes endowed with its own operatic meaning, for indeed it constitutes the last scene, and even if Tina does not speak or sing, it is not without music. As she burns the pages, the 1835 figures appear and disappear one by one, in order of importance: first Barelli, then Sonia, then Aspern, then Juliana, singing fragments from their adventure. Throughout the opera, the various transitions between time layers had allowed viewers to understand that it was Juliana’s passion of memory that had the power to conjure up the 1835 characters, whereas at the end, not her death, but only the destruction of the pages of music by Tina, induces them to fade away, supposedly to eternal rest or, more prosaically, to oblivion.
21This last episode, it is true, somewhat lessens the Jamesian ambiguity, which it exchanges for what can be seen as melodrama, but melodrama to very specific musical symbolism. The appearance-disappearance of the 1835 figures not only rounds out the story, but it also takes up some very specific musical themes developed in it. One question imposes itself at this point: if the papers materialize in Argento, what about their contents? We know that Aspern’s poems, in James, are mentioned and commented upon by the critic, and also that Juliana knows them by heart, yet not a single fragment of these poems is included in the text of the novella. However, Aspern’s music can indeed be heard in Argento’s opera, according to modes of insertion which I believe should be studied within the broader question of reflexivity in the two works.
22In James’s oft-explored framework, the homodiegetic narrator is a critic and a biographer who admires Aspern as man and poet and is aware of his own inferiority in both lines. He reveals himself repeatedly in the act of writing, through meta-narrative musings or comments on his own devices, and in the act of misbehaving and courting a woman, however half-heartedly. Revisions in the final edition of the tale insist on the distance, in the narrator, between intentions and actions, and between man and writer. In the end, the sacrifice of the woman allows the birth of a master-text, that of the novella we have been reading. And the character might be no Aspern, but he turns into a Jamesian author-figure of the best craftsmanship. This story of writing about a writer is nurtured by a dense network of cultural references interweaving ancient mythology and legends, Shakespeare, commedia del arte, Petrarch, Milton, fifteenth and sixteenth-century Italian painting, sculpture and architecture and English romanticism. Aspern himself sprouts from the early 19th century American artistic void so much deplored by James (and Hawthorne before him), combined with reminiscences of both Shelley and Byron. Finally, the novella finds part of its source in the real misadventure of Captain Silsbee with Claire Clairmont.
- 10 “…I wondered, for my own part, where I had seen it all before —the pink-walled villas gleaming thr (...)
23Transferring such a complicated system to a musical world was a bold move which Argento negotiated with ingratiating subtlety. “The Aspern Papers” became, as Sutcliffe puts it, “an opera about opera and the people who make it —composers singers, impresarios— but also about a particular opera they are rehearsing, Medea” (16). The choice of Lake Como as venue was particularly suitable for a number of reasons. It was explicitly if ironically linked to the opera paraphernalia by James himself in his travel writings.10 Its shores too, like Venice, were a pleasant residence for a pageant of celebrities, including Queen Caroline, who is mentioned in James, and a source of artistic inspiration through many centuries, not the least in the romantic era. Byron and Shelly were visitors there, Longfellow and Tennyson resided there for the purpose of writing. Argento’s Aspern is seen to have composed music to a poem by Longfellow, and his death recalls that of Shelley.
24The link with Longfellow merits a few remarks. The 1835 characters, in the initial scene of happiness, are heard singing together a barcarola whose lyrics are a condensed and slightly modified version of Cadennabia, an 1872 poem in which Longfellow celebrates the beauties of the lake. If we agree to overlook the discrepancy of dates as part of any fiction’s demand for “willing suspension of disbelief,” what counts is the contents of the poem, and its function as regards attracting the audience. The borrowed lyrics affix the barcarola to a historically recognizable mood and style —effusive nostalgia— and provide a sample of Aspern’s musical genius, which prefigures the genius supposedly displayed in Medea. It is also the song that Tina sings to her own piano accompaniment in her last interview with the Lodger. The beauty of the music arrests him and seems to overflow to Tina herself, to the point of making him change his mind and contemplate proposing to her. Their last duet is in fact the superimposition of the lyrics and music of the barcarola, sung by Tina, and those of the Lodger’s revolution in his perception of her. This barcarola thus links the two periods, the happiness of 1835 and the nostalgia of 1895. It affords a very Jamesian bridge between them, and it concludes the Lodger’s adventure. It is also no coincidence if the barcarola is at the same time the libretto’s only quotation from an existing text (James’s, of course, excepted), and its only relationship with America. It is no doubt a very indirect relationship, as Longfellow’s words are about an Italian lake and sound like English romantic poetry, but it is Argento’s own interpretation of the improbability of James’s Aspern being American.
- 11 Merelli was one of the first to encourage Verdi. Barbaia launched Rossini and lost his mistress to (...)
25To be coherent with the general transposition, the cultural references in the opera had to be mostly musical and operatic. Again, Lake Como provides endless resources. In the history of opera, the 1830’s were the flourishing age of Bel Canto, “bracketed,” as Argento puts it, “by retiring Rossini and early Verdi, with Bellini and Donizetti in between” (Sutcliffe 16). He made his Aspern a fictive yet identifiable character, inspired mostly from Bellini, who composed a large part of Norma —Norma being of course another Medea figure— at the edge of Lake Como under the stimulus of a love affair with the reigning diva Giuditta Pasta, who in turn provides the model for Juliana. The two names, “Giuditta” and “Juliana,” very fittingly echo each other. Even Barelli is the accretion of two famous impresarios of the time, Merelli and Barbaia,11 “both of whom,” says Argento, “summered at Lake Como with their mistresses along with the other operatic folk.” The invention of Barelli, who imposes a rather comic quadrangle where James had created exclusive triangles, is indeed intriguing. Argento’s reasons, which I reproduce here, are perfectly representative of the numerous artistic and technical constraints weighing on the composition of an opera:
I needed Barelli to explain Sonia’s presence in Juliana’s home … and to let us —the audience— know the value and importance of Aspern’s opera, a work of art important enough to make the Lodger behave as a publishing scoundrel… Furthermore, I needed Barelli to take the role of the King when the Lodger describes the Medea story. And, as a practical matter, I needed a low male voice to balance out the female voices and single high male voice. Best of all, Barelli also allowed me to compose a scene I’m very fond of: the next to final scene when he comes to say goodbye to Juliana and we learn Aspern’s fate and the loss of the opera. In that scene Juliana is completely mute in her sorrow (symbolic of her decision to retire from singing but also allowing her to avoid having to lie to Barelli), a daring thing to do when one of the great singing actresses of our time, Elizabeth Söderström, played Juliana but her acting in that scene was stunning.
26Like Strauss’ s Ariadne auf Naxos, Argento’s The Aspern Papers stages a composer in the act of composing and deliberating as to how he should compose best, and a cast of actor-singers preparing a first performance. It also raises the issue of what it takes to make an opera a success. But unlike its predecessor, it doesn’t really show an opera within the opera. Medea exists in The Aspern Papers through 2 different modes of insertion.
- 12 This construction borrows several elements from Tosca (Act II), in which the heroine is heard rehea (...)
- 13 Argento’s stage direction
27The first of these modes is the rehearsal scene. In act I, scene 2, we hear (without seeing) the young Juliana singing Medea’s revenge aria while the men are talking outside and Aspern is sitting for his portrait. The music of Aspern is thus certainly heard, but through various forms of distance: distance in space (we cannot see the singer), in music (Juliana’s voice is not heard alone, but mingled with the men’s voices), and in meaning (the threats and tragic dimension expressed in the lyrics are diminished by the trivial actions in the foreground, the painter’s irritation at Aspern’s restlessness, for example).12 It is only at the end of the scene, which coincides with the end of the aria, when Juliana “delivers the final words of her aria framed melodramatically in the doorway”13that the distance is erased. The visual effect of Juliana’s dramatic appearance, combined with the weight of the lyrics, “all must go down with me / 'Tis sweet such death to die / to die” and the repeated culmination of the last note, an A held twice on the length of two bars, the highest of long notes in the whole aria, restores its full symbolical and ironic meaning to this fragment of opera in the opera. It thus fugitively becomes a true case of mise en abyme in all three dimensions —visual, semantic and musical.
28The other rehearsal scene has Aspern at the piano, Sonia singing Creusa, and Juliana advising her. Once again, a fragment of Medea is heard and loaded with even more dramatic irony, as Aspern joins his voice with Sonia’s and the trio clearly keeps Juliana’s voice and character at a distance from the couple’s harmony. These two fragments allow the audience access to Aspern as composer; they also symbolize and foreshadow the story of the man Aspern and his complicated love-life. In Act 2, scene 1, it is clear (though implicit), both in words and gestures, that the finished score is seen by Aspern and Juliana as the child of their love and respective talents. The suggestion that Juliana might have destroyed it for the same reason as Medea killed her children appears somewhat heavily and unnecessarily explicit in the Lodger’s meditations of the second prologue.
- 14 Argento’s stage directions
29The second mode of insertion of Aspern’s Medea into The Aspern Papers summons another layer of dramaturgy in the shape of a dumb show. In fact, the prologue of the second act consists of a long monologue by the lodger who, in elliptical foreshortening, narrates what has happened to him since he was caught by Juliana while trying to pry into her things. He then proceeds to explain, for the audience’s benefit, what is known about Aspern’s lost Medea. Here, Argento uses a device that might seem rather artificial and far-fetched. He has the Lodger read aloud, from Barelli’s diary (Barelli having contributed to the writing of the libretto), the outline of the legend of Medea. At the beginning of the prologue, the four actor-singers playing the 1835 characters silently appear on stage, put on the costumes corresponding to the respective parts of the King, Jason, Creusa and Medea, and mutely enact the final fragments of the legend while the Lodger is delivering his monologue. They “appear to be singing” but “no sounds issue from their mouths.”14In the diegesis, these figures are ghosts of ghosts and the stage lighting ensures that they emerge from nowhere and their contours are not too precisely delineated. Technically, they are actors playing the parts of actors playing the parts of mythical characters.
30This dumb show recalls, of course, the one in Hamlet, and serves comparable purposes. The Shakespearian intertextuality in Argento is discreet but real. It dons yet another form in Act 2, scene 1, when Aspern and Juliana, in a triumphant duet, celebrate the completion of the Medea score as the fruit of their mutual love. What the libretto has them say:
A hundred years from now
Upon a lighted stage
A troupe of singers will enact
An ancient legend, full of woe:
But moved by its passion, they will know,
It celebrates our love
sounds like an inverted and romantically sweetened version of some of Cleopatra’s last words:
…. Saucy lictors
Will catch at us, like strumpets; and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’ tune: the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels. Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ the posture of a whore (Antony & Cleopatra, V, ii, 213-20)
and also recalls a cue by Cassius in Julius Caesar:
…. How many ages hence
Shall this, our lofty scene, be acted over,
In states unborn, and accents yet unknown! (Julius Caesar, III, i, i 111-3)
31These veiled yet identifiable borrowings from Shakespeare play a twofold role: they secure for the invented 1835 story a roundabout link to James’ text (which openly alludes to Romeo and Juliet), and they reinforce the apparatus of reflexivity in the opera by raising the question of its durability as performing art. The libretto and score alone cannot ensure an opera’s permanence. Even though Aspern and Juliana, in the next stanza, are imagining an ideal future for the work, liberated from all technical and material constraints, we know they are only repeating the age-old dream of “immutable music,” sealed in which, “love will endure.” (Act 2, scene 1) They are transposing in vocal music the old ideal of courtly poetry, while perverting it (because they both know of Aspern’s treachery) in a manner much akin to that of James’ narrator “petrarchizing” about his mock courtship of Tina.
32Besides artistic references in general and the insertion of Medea in the opera, The Aspern Papers, also relies largely on musical intertextuality. Argento’s idea consists mostly of endowing the music attributed to his 1835 period (thus, essentially Aspern’s production), with an air of pertaining to the historic Bel Canto era, without falling into mere parody or pastiche. If the audience were to have the impression they were listening to Aspern’s music and not Argento’s own, there had to be a marked difference between the real and the fictive composers’ styles. In a previous production, Argento had had recourse to direct musical quotation, a device he decided to renounce in The Aspern Papers. What he actually did was imitate early Bellini or Donizetti styles at the beginning of the relevant pieces (the scene when Juliana rehearses her revenge monologue, the duet rehearsal of Sonia’s part, and the prologue of Act 2), and then progressively introduce his own style and give it freedom of development and expression. The music thus remains entirely Argento’s own, with at times an allusive character that reaches back to the historical period in which the novella finds its source. Besides, a limited amount of Bel Canto also gratifies an audience of assiduous opera-goers who, very much like the readers of fiction, or the viewers of a painting, will enjoy identifying allusions and contributing their own knowledge and tastes to the composer’s purpose.
33Argento’s system of reflexivity, mostly based on music-related themes, references and forms but also on literary intertextuality, is in my opinion a creditable and successful transposition into the operatic medium of the Jamesian narrator’s heuristic mania and its multifarious implications. The last feature of Argento’s adaptation I would like to study here is his treatment of characters, and particularly the two female principals, Juliana and Tina Bordereau, whose roles Argento considerably adjusted and developed.
34Juliana is the first character to appear on stage. There is no orchestral overture. Stage directions indicate that “when the curtain rises, the stage is completely dark. The scene slowly emerges out of the darkness as if conjured up by the voice that is heard.” She is a very old lady in a wheel-chair, eyes covered with sunscreens in conformity with the Juliana of the novella, and she begins singing pianissimo, what is apparently the lyrics of a poem which she cannot remember: “Snow and cypress / Glacier and leaf / The Ice-Age and…” The forgotten words, we learn later, are “the golden months of summer.” These lines express what struck Argento’s imagination about Lake Como and about James’ Juliana at the same time: the ambiguity of Juliana’s motives in James, he explains,
…was one of my reasons for moving the setting from Venice to Lake Como: the almost tropical flora and fauna around the lake and the ice-capped Alps visible in the distance, both, as I interpret them, expressions of Juliana’s heart: hot and cold. In the very first line she sings, the notes themselves are part of a twelve-tone row (atonal by its nature) yet is accompanied by purely tonal harmonies. That dichotomy and ambivalence is what interests me.
35Here is Juliana then, at the threshold of the opera, at the center of a representational system made of polysemic costume, landscape, poetry and music. She is the mistress of fully dramatized memory. Structurally, she is at the same time propelled to a higher status than that of the Lodger, who only enters the stage at the beginning of scene 1. These first minutes are a paradigm of operatic efficiency, showing how the librettist-composer can circumvent the difficulty of not being able to resort to sheer narration all the time.
36Not that sheer narration is at all prohibited in the operatic tradition; it only obeys different rules in the general economy of expository means. There are at least four passages of sheer narrative monologue in the course of Argento’s opera, entrusted to three different characters, Juliana, Tina, and the Lodger. I have already alluded to the second prologue, with the Lodger reading from Barelli’s diary. Here, in the first prologue, Juliana is entrusted with a reminiscence monologue, the purpose of which is to inform the audience as to the context of her affair with Aspern. She is helped by the 1835 figures of Barelli, Sonia and Aspern, which she introduces one by one. Argento thus put Juliana in a position to compete in 1895 with James’ lodger, not only as narrator but also as central character, and with Aspern as expected central character in 1835. Actually, Juliana’s sufferings and dilemma are one of the most developed points of interest and suspense in the opera, whereas James had left them in the background.
37As character, Juliana is introduced in her professional capacity, and endowed with talent and success. When Tina first tells the Lodger about Juliana (“Sixty years ago she was a famous woman, celebrated both for her beauty and magnificent voice,”) her melodic line very softly enhances the word “voice” at the end of the sentence. Thus underlined by a long and delicately modulated C, the word “voice” relegates the word “beauty” to the expression of a secondary attribute, when James’ Juliana was never mentioned to possess any other charm. Argento’s Juliana makes it clear that Aspern’s fame was largely due to herself (“Juliana would be his inspiration,” she says, “and so I was! And so I was! For with that op’ra all doors opened to him” [Prologue 1]). She, too, has a creative role in the composition of Medea, so that besides a narrator of The Aspern Papers, she is also, however secondarily, the co-author of the opera within the opera. Juliana’s being a singer inscribes her in a lineage of turn-of-the-century operatic heroines including Ariadne, Tosca, Fedora, and Adriana Lecouvreur, whose profession is the stage. Norma, too, is first presented in her public function as priestess before she is seen as a suffering woman. Studying this phenomenon, Walter Zidaric discerns in this status the operatic consecration of the modern woman (83). As for Juliana, the hurt she suffers is given depth and resonance by its triple layer of existence: present (1895), past (1835) and mythical (Medea).
38In this respect, even the distribution of group-singing through the four 1835 scenes contributes to making Juliana special. The scheme consists in having a quintet in the prologue to illustrate the joy and harmony reigning in the little group of friends. Then, in the next scene, comes a happy quartet in which Juliana’s voice, rehearsing Medea, is clearly singled out in its triumphant notes and tragic overtones, then a trio, the music lesson, in which, once again, Juliana is set apart, not triumphant but already abandoned, relegated to a secondary role by Aspern, even though she doesn’t yet know it. Her duet with Aspern, in the next scene, is the final moment of expression for the self-willed young singer. The last 1835 scene has Barelli lament alone on the tragic turn of events, while Juliana remains mute, her voice and her life as a loving woman indissolubly tied together in their common extinction. In this highly symbolic scheme, the victimization of Juliana by male villainy (a constant in the thematics of opera) turns her into a tragic heroine yet leaves her with ultimate power over the work of art which is at stake, the Medea score and the Aspern papers. I can’t help thinking that this peculiar final treatment might be a discreet bow to Pasolini’s 1966 film version of Medea and its very unnatural yet strikingly successful casting of Maria Callas as a Medea who does not sing a single note. Juliana’s last appearance on stage, as a once-again mute figure dressed as Medea, definitively confirms her in her manifold capacities of actress-singer, muse, woman in love, witch, priestess, woman of power and ghost from a past overreaching to myth (all very Jamesian features).
39I have reserved my last comments for Tina, the Jamesian version of whom Argento (with Frederica von Stade) has interpreted in what seems to me a very human and touching manner. I mention von Stade here because, in my opinion, she contributes more than any of the other performers to the creative process —with shades and nuances of demeanor, facial expression, and modulation of voice. There is no way Tina can be a tragic heroine, however one reads James, and even less an operatic one. She rather belongs to later 20th century operatic taste for ordinary characters or non-heroes, the “deflationary” trend much criticized by Schmidgall as “not salutary for the opera,” which is “essentially an inflationary and elevating art form.” (360)At the most, she is a sincere person, deeply wronged in her trust of others, or a small-scale short-sighted schemer overwhelmed with doubt. Through Frederica von Stade emerges a Tina whose miraculous innocence, perfect moral rectitude and indefatigable warm-heartedness mingle melodiously with shyness, self-effacement and ultimate sacrifice. Any shadier interpretation is deliberately ignored.
40As in James, Argento’s Tina lives in Juliana’s shadow, and the mezzo-soprano voice attributed to her is a degree less bright and scintillating, and a degree warmer too, than Juliana’s soprano. However, if Juliana is never greater or more magnificent than in silence, it is, to my opinion, Tina who is given the most beautiful pieces of music to sing. If something in her is “high” and “tremulous” (as James wrote), it is not her voice, the rich, rounded sound of which contradicts the tremulousness of her general deportment. What, on the other hand, is deliberately “high” or elated is her state of mind on her return from her nightly excursion with the Lodger. On that occasion, Tina’s feelings can be guessed indirectly from her narration of the little details of the evening, and the Lodger’s reaction almost seems to indicate he is not entirely insensitive after all.
41Also as in James, Tina’s fate parallels and reenacts Juliana’s in the way she suffers at the hands of an unscrupulous man and finally makes herself the sole mistress of what this man most values: the Aspern papers. She is no diva, but she is heard singing, too, what E.T. Cone calls “realistic” song (that is, when a character in an opera sings what is supposed to be a piece of music) as opposed to “operatic” song (when a character in an opera sings what is supposed to be speech) (Kivy 64). Tina at her piano, singing Aspern’s minor productions, is an attenuated version of Juliana singing Medea. But unlike Juliana’s, her plight, in keeping with James’s spirit, is maintained on the register of melodrama, never skirting tragedy. Tina might live on with a wounded heart, but she nevertheless emerges as the only character who does live on, for whereas the Lodger goes back to his initial state of frustration, she is at the end free of Juliana’s overwhelming presence, free of the papers, and free of the Lodger himself. She is last seen burning the papers, an action which might be interpreted, in spite of her age, as her first decision as an adult woman.
42All in all, and quite in keeping with many works of fiction by James, Argento’s women evolve and learn while his male characters remain typical of what Edith Wharton maliciously called “the unsatisfactory man”, locked in their blindness and lack of compassion. While Juliana embodies female dignity through work and talent, Tina represents psychological maturation. Argento might very well have conceived of her as an expression of Hoffmanstahl’s view, according to which opera should be “a musical novel rather than musical drama, dealing in psychological change and shifts of consciousness, not endeavor and achievement” (Conrad 122).
43I would like to conclude with my ever-growing enjoyment of Dominick Argento’s work and with my hope that more Europeans might share in it. I have not, of course, been able to carry out a detailed musical analysis here —I have only stressed some of the major characteristics of Argento’s interpretation of James. All things considered, I see in his Aspern Papers an eminently Jamesian work, which conjugates invention and compression to maintain equilibrium between the prerogatives of the three arts, narrative fiction, drama and music.
44In James’s long series of tales about artists, the main matrix or “figure in the carpet” is the quest for a great model. By turning this quest towards a musician, by making all his characters primary or secondary artist-figures of the musical world (even Tina, with her piano, participates in this world), Argento has built a system of mise en abyme allowing him to comment on James while creating a remarkably beautiful work of his own. Also exceedingly Jamesian is the exploration of the theme of authorship and control over one’s productions, even after one’s death. By operating on two time-levels, Argento gives a musical interpretation to yet another of James’s obsessions: the desire to create an interface with the past, with the dead, and with all forms of absence. Even in its extra-textual bearings, Argento’s opera follows a Jamesian pattern. In his works of fiction, James repeatedly refers to an existing painting of a past period (and not only in “The Aspern Papers,” but in The Tragic Muse, The Ambassadors, and The Wings of the Dove, too). Here Argento introduces not a painting, but the existing legend of Medea and he makes her the emblem of the wounded pride and femininity of his own characters.
45I have not had time or space to devote much attention to what Argento has deliberately erased or frankly diminished in James, such as the reference to America. Himself, like James, an American with half his heart in Europe, Argento has uninhibitedly re-Europeanized Aspern, and for tangible reasons: it is even more unlikely to reach for a Bellini figure than for a Byron figure in the America of 1835. And because some of Aspern’s music is embedded in Argento’s opera, the allusion must be direct, identifiable and plausible. As to Argento’s own music, not the one of fictive Aspern, it too claims the inheritance of more European than American predecessors. It is after all an Englishman, Britten, who first wrought operatic masterpieces out of Jamesian fiction, and it seems to me that he is the one with whom Argento has most musical affinities. But in the choice of his literary subjects, Argento is, like James, truly transatlantic.