This aria, “Già dagli occhi il velo è tolto” / “Now the veil is lifted from my eyes,” caught my attention when I first heard this CD. I had never heard anything from Mozart’s Mitridate, Rè Di Ponto before, and I did read the liner notes to see what the aria was about, but I forget what they said. (I am not feeling phenomenally helpful today. I exhausted all of this week’s ‘helpful’ allotment on undergraduates.)
At first hearing, this aria stopped me short purely in musical terms. My opera Italian (i.e. facility for Italian sung mostly by people who are not Italians) is passable at best, and I caught “son penitito” / “I am penitent” or “I have repented” but that was about all. This one of those arias where you basically do not need to have any idea what is ‘about’ to like it. The emotion is in the music itself and the singer’s tone and phrasing.
I had originally intended to wind this up with the previous paragraph, since I am in San Francisco and dead tired, but something occurs to me. I had a friendly disagreement with someone recently about Broadway shows. Other than a brief Andrew Lloyd Webber phase at the age of twelve (the fact that I am admitting this in public demonstrates, I think, my remarkably maturity and strength of character) I do not really enjoy Broadway shows. I had a roommate freshman year of college who played Rent all the damn time. I have heard Rent described as ‘the poor man’s La Bohème.’ I see where this description is coming from, but such a statement is a gross insult to poor people the world over.
I was challenged a while back to explain what I thought the difference was between Broadway and opera — it’s all musical theater, right? Well, yes and no. If I had to articulate what I think the difference is, I think it’s in the relationship between the text and the music. If you do not understand the language, a Broadway show is going to be basically incomprehensible. Or, at least, even if you get the gist, you’re going to miss quite a lot, because these types of things tend to be fairly texty: a greater portion of what is going on is in the text (and in spoken dialogue) rather than the music. Opera is a little different. If you know the basic outlines of the story, the emotional punch and the meaning are there. More of it is in the music than in the text. I am not saying that you do not need to understand the story to get the most out of an opera or that in opera the relationship between music and text doesn’t matter; neither am I saying that there is no musical communication in Broadway. What I am saying is that the emphasis is different. Broadway tends to rely less on the complexity of the music and more on the words, wheras opera tends to be tilted toward the music. (Thus, the above Mozart video is lovely even if you don’t have a clue what it’s about.)
And of course there are other differences between opera and Broadway. I am not about to start a slinging match over the details, but there are certainly differences in quality/type of voices and in technique; I think there is also a difference in the musical relationship between singers and orchestra. And of course there are genres (operetta, e.g.) that are sort of in the middle. But I think the relative emphasis on music or text is somewhere close to the core of the difference.