Anna Picard surveys opera’s long fascination with the supernatural from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo to Brett Dean’s Hamlet, via Mozart, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Britten.
A movement in peripheral vision. A sudden change of temperature. A shiver and shudder of realisation that something is terribly wrong. Cinema and television audiences know the cues in a soundtrack: a chromatic shift, a click of percussion, a glint of celesta. With a library of orchestral greats as reference, composers can borrow from Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mahler and Stravinsky, and often do. But what of those who went before them? What of those whose music had to do the work of an entire film crew to conjure ghosts, wraiths and shades?
In Enrico Montazio’s 1847 review of Verdi’s Macbeth, there is a checklist of the trappings of what he describes as the genere fantastico: “witches, apparitions, soothsayings, sabbaths, wires, trapdoors, Bengal lights, phantasms, gnomes, sylphs, undines, willis, and wild settings.” Despite considerable local differences of taste and resistance to foreign ideas, an appetite for the uncanny and inexplicable had spread from Germany and France to Italy, where Verdi fused supernatural and psychological torment in the first of his three Shakespeare operas.
Hints of what was to come can be found in the garish 3/8 whirling of the Chorus of Demons in Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco (1845), later echoed in the deathly tarantella that concludes Puccini’s Le villi (1883). Last heard at Opera Holland Park in 2005, the orchestral score of Macbeth contrasts the menacing glow of low brass with jittery strings and querulous woodwind, while the vocal writing, as Daniel Albright suggests in Musicking Shakespeare: A Conflict of Theatres, describes a process similar to infection from the witches to Lady Macbeth, whose sleepwalking scene is sung through half-closed lips in Verdi’s instructions, and from Lady Macbeth to her husband.
The line between madness and possession is vanishingly fine in Lady Macbeth’s ‘Una macchia è qui tuttora’, as it was in Donizetti’s scoring of Lucia’s mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor a decade earlier, with its ghostly reprise of ‘Regnava nel silenzio’. Similar ambiguity can be heard in Wagner’s 1843 supernatural thriller, Der fliegende Holländer, and Pierre-Louis Dietsch’s Le Vaisseau fantôme (1842), which was based on Wagner’s rejected synopsis. From Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) and Marschner’s Der Vampyr (1828) to Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (1831) and Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust (1841), these were the glory years of operatic phantasmagoria.
The ‘Bengal lights’ in Montazio’s review were a blue flare of sulphur, black antimony and nitre. With the introduction of gas lighting from the beginning of the nineteenth century, the range and subtlety of potential effects grew. In London, where Wagner alighted en route from Riga to Paris in 1839, the magician Paul Philipstahl (aka Paul Philidor) had introduced an eager audience to ‘spectrology’ at the Lyceum with the use of a magic lantern in 1803. As the musicologist Gabriela Cruz notes in The Flying Dutchman and the Remediation of Grand Opera, Philipstahl adjusted the Gothic imagery of “ghosts, skeletons, bloody nuns and devilish figures” that was popular in Paris, and remained so at the opera, “to embrace the more exclusively English theme of the sea”, including storms, shipwrecks and naval battles.
In the story of The Flying Dutchman, presented at the Adelphi in 1826 with the benefit of scenic projections and fade outs, both appetites were served. Cruz stops short of suggesting that Wagner experienced London’s long-running nautical phantasmagoria himself but teases out enough commonalities between the composer’s detailed descriptions of the scenario of his opera and the presentation at the Adelphi to suggest a strong possibility of influence.
A desire for supernatural spectacle in the theatre was of course not new. The 1761 premiere of Gluck’s pantomime-ballet Don Juan concluded with an upstage firework display as the Don was dragged to hell. The operas and ballets that came to be termed as typical of the Sturm und Drang movement of the 1770s were as riddled with imagery of spectres and sepulchres as the poems set to music by Berlioz from Théophile Gautier’s 1830 collection, La comédie de la mort, and the final movements of his 1831 Symphonie fantastique.
The lineage of musical depictions of the supernatural stretches back from the relentlessly extended minor key denouement of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with its implacable Gluckian trombones and pitiless chromatic advance, to the earliest great opera, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, in which the underworld is painted in hues of black and gold by sackbuts and the tarry glare of a regal organ. Berlioz, too, used low brass for the appearance of the Ghost of Hector in Les Troyens.
Perhaps a taste for the macabre never went away. Perhaps it never will. Phillipstahl’s ‘spectrology’ was advertised as a scientific debunking of ghosts and supernatural apparitions, yet it catered to an audience’s desire to be chilled. Tchaikovsky was au fait with the work of the Paris neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot by the time he adapted Pushkin’s 1833 story The Queen of Spades in 1890, lacing the mournful hymn of his Act 3 Prelude with restless, worming bassoon and clarinet figures before Herman’s encounter with the ghost of the Countess. Is Herman driven mad by this encounter or is the encounter a product of his madness? In Bartók’s 1911 retelling of a much older tale, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, it is the stillness and quietness of the silvered, shadowy opening notes and the odd intimacy of the spoken introduction that tells us to brace ourselves for a shock, that grips and does not let go, like the compulsion that drives Judith to unlock the doors in the castle until she the finds the one behind which she, too, will be locked.
Suspense is a vital dramatic tactic and was fruitfully employed by Brett Dean in the quivering, clicking, fricative soundworld of his adaptation of Hamlet (2017), another work where madness and the supernatural are entwined like lovers. A barely audible sequence of notes from a small and unusual combination of instruments can be more chilling than the grandest ‘jump cut’ chord, as is demonstrated in The Turn of the Screw (1954), last seen at Opera Holland Park in 2014. Though Benjamin Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper “gave flesh” to the phantoms in Henry James’s story in the Act II colloquy between Peter Quint and Miss Jessell, the opera succeeds by dint of the obsessive, circling variations in its orchestration for string quintet, woodwind, woodblock, glockenspiel, celesta and piano, and by the ambiguity of its ending.
As Paul Kildea writes, Britten made notes on lighting as he composed and revised The Turn of the Screw, anticipating Jack Clayton’s 1961 film adaptation of James’s story, The Innocents. Here, then, are the words of Piper’s Quint on the dark allure of the uncanny, recalling Lady Macbeth’s owl: “The hidden life that stirs/When the candle is out; Upstairs and down, the footsteps barely heard./The unknown gesture, the soft, persistent word,/ The long sighing flight of the night-winged bird.” All these need quietness to be seen, heard, felt or simply imagined, whether crooned through half-closed lips by a dramatic soprano or delivered in a bright, clear tenor voice as a seduction and provocation.
Anna Picard is Opera Holland Park’s Research and Repertoire consultant. She writes for The Times and Times Literary Supplement and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Three’s Record Review programme.