Civilization and the Sublime

The musical masterpieces of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries illuminate a vision of metaphysical order, now refreshing to contemplate, that was once pervasive in Western culture. The standard repertoire of opera recapitulates history from an era defined by theology and idealism that are still at the core of civilization as we know it, even when over-arching narratives in this mode are considered oppressive for their normative form and clear moral conflict. Opera conveys nobility through the music, and the librettos are often based on classic works of literature. Though many of the virtues celebrated by the Western Canon are now thought to be retrograde, they contain the moral premises from which things still widely appreciated emerge.

Consider a scene from Verdi’s Don Carlo, the famous dialogue between King Phillip of Spain and his soldier-courtier Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. The play on which Verdi’s opera is based is Schiller’s Don Carlos, written between the American and French revolutions. Civilization was then in the midst of an unprecedented shift, and freedom was everywhere of the essence. The plot of Don Carlo hinges on republican ferment in the Protestant Netherlands against oppression by a Spanish monarchy backed by the Church. Rodrigo has served well in Spain’s wars. In this scene, King Phillip detains him to discuss compensation. When Rodrigo asks not what his monarch can do for him, but what the monarch can do for the oppressed Flemish, King Phillip is bemused.

Abetting the nascent rebellion is, of course, heresy in addition to disloyalty. It is only Phillip’s recognition of this veteran’s merit that sustains their conversation. Instead of having the patriot dragged off to the inquisition, Phillip hears his account of suffering in the Netherlands under Spanish dominion and an impassioned defense of the liberation movement gaining momentum. The king listens forbearingly and, even more remarkably, explains his rationale for opposing freedom, an idea he calls an evil dream. “By bloodshed,” he begins, “I maintain peace in the world. With the sword I have humiliated innovators who deceive the people with illusions. Death, in my hand, will create a bountiful future. Consider Spain—the artisans in the cities and peasants in the countyside. They are content and loyal to God and king. None have reason to complain. This same peace I will bequeath to my Flemish subjects.”

This, predictably, elicits a reaction, because in Verdi’s rendition of Schiller’s story, Rodrigo has just sung, in a duet (audio-1) with the king’s son, “Oh God, who instilled in our souls the fervent hope of freedom, now kindle the flame in our hearts. We swear to live and die together, and our last cry shall be ‘liberty!’” Incarnate in this music are the ideals of the American Revolution composed a hundred years nearer than we are to their discovery. Therefore, when Verdi’s hero erupts, it is against King Phillip’s justification of oppression. “Horrendous, odious peace! The peace of the tomb! Beware, oh king, that history will say of you, ‘he was another Nero!’ When the priest is a hangman and every soldier a thief, the people languish. They die in silence, and the empire is an immense and terrible desert. Those who still have the strength, curse Phillip, yes curse him! Like God the redeemer, rise to refashion the world. Soar to sublime regions above any other king. Through you let the world revive. Grant freedom!” (audio-2).

Phillip replies with another defense of the course he is following. He repeats wearily the claim that freedom is an illusion, unsustainable for anyone who knows the human heart as he knows it. He offers the consolation that Rodrigo’s sympathies with the rebellion will not be exposed. “The king,” he says, “has heard nothing. But beware of the Grand Inquisitor!” Schiller’s drama is complex, and as the scene develops, King Phillip reveals his soul in lament of his love for the queen, love that is unrequited because the queen, formerly the betrothed of his son Carlo, is still in love with Carlo (audio-3). Phillip’s confidence is followed by a decree that the Marquis will be always at his side. Rodrigo at first resists, but consents in faith that the king has a heart that might be persuadable. The end of the scene reiterates Phillip’s warning to beware of the Grand Inquisitor.

The Grand Inquisitor is malignant religion personified, familiar to us as a staple of anti-religion. Five hundred years ago a Spanish bishop might have said, as Imams in Iraq have been saying about elections in their country, that freedom is an offense against God. The Inquisitor of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov published in 1881 is too late to have been known to Verdi’s librettists. Like them, Dostoyevsky probably found the character in Schiller. Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor argues that man cannot handle—indeed does not even want—freedom. This same pragmatism drives Verdi’s plot to its tragic conclusion. Rodrigo is a martyr in the cause, while his compatriot, Don Carlo, will carry the torch under a heroic mandate and the specter of his grandfather, Charles the Fifth.

The French Revolution, of course, demonstrated that Phillip’s argument is not entirely unfounded, but before turning to a plot involving Robespierre’s reign of terror, there are other things to notice in Don Carlo. Were it not for the historic moment of decisions made by Phillip’s queen in self abnegation, the domestic passions of this opera could easily devolve into soap opera. Elizabeth loves Don Carlo, who is technically her step-son. She was once betrothed to him in an arrangement meant to improve diplomatic relations with the French. Instead she has married his father, King Phillip. Elizabeth is similar to other Verdi heroines. Innocence caught in the dynamics of empires is a common theme. Alienated in the Spanish court and longing for her homeland, she is still in love with Carlo who also loves her (audio-4). She finds the strength to inspire him to transform romantic passion into resolution to fight oppression perpetrated by his father. With Rodrigo’s moral support he begins to envision heroism in the Flemish revolution.

The Grand Inquisitor recognizes these characters’ intentions and soon demands that King Phillip resort to extreme measures against his son, an abomination the Inquisitor justifies by invoking the sacrificial metaphor dispensed by the church. Partly due to Phillip’s suspicion that the queen has consummated her love for Don Carlo, he concedes, even while asking if the throne must always bow before the altar. In the ensuing conflict Elizabeth, Carlo, and Rodrigo transform legitimate emotions impelling them toward pathos into nobility by disciplined defense of the cause of freedom. Rodrigo turns the fury of the Inquisition on himself and dies in a ruse that delays the execution planned for Don Carlo (audio-5). The evil transcendent authority wielded by the church hangs over all events. Everyone who can prevent capture of Don Carlo is cowed by the Inquisitor and his minions, but when Carlo is finally trapped, there is a reversal of this supernatural dynamic. The specter of Phillip’s father, Charles the Fifth, emerges from a monastery to repel Carlo’s pursuers, and he escapes. This libretto appears to be intentionally ambiguous about whether the ghost is, in fact, a courageous monk acting to effect God’s will in history.

Verdi’s treatment of this plot is in accord with Schiller’s conception of tragic art. Schiller’s idealism involves freedom of the will against historical events and even death. His philosophical piece, On the Sublime, contains the poet’s conception of freedom attained in a kind of rational transcendence against the injustices of human history and random forces of nature. This is literary theory of a different order than deconstruction of texts to expose class oppression supposedly inherent, not only in their imagery and meaning, but in the very structure of the language. Schiller’s aim is poetic truth that will inspire intellectual freedom of the sort in which patriots risk their lives in the fight for actual freedom. It is detachment from self interest for a noble cause.

Verdi’s first successful opera, Nabucco, contains another slant on ideals that recur throughout the composer’s works. Nabucco conflates the biblical account of the Assyrian conquest of Israel with the story of Nebuchadnezzar—Nabucco—from 2nd Kings. Fenena, a pagan whom the Jews hold hostage, is the daughter of Nabucco. She is in love with Ismael, nephew of the king of Jerusalem and leader of the military. As in Aïda, I Lombardi, and other works, the lovers are citizens of opposing powers in a conflict of empires. Fenena’s imposter sister Abigaille is ambitious, and her ill intent is complicated by the fact that she also loves Ismael. When Nabucco announces that he is not only king but God, having overthrown both Baal and Jehovah, he is literally thunderstruck and descends into madness. Nabucco thus incapacitated, Abigaille is nearly able to succeed in a plot by which she usurps the throne and attempts to rule in his stead. The chorus Va’ Pensiero with its strains of transcendent hope in time of oppression, both the oppression of the Hebrews in captivity and that of Italians under the domination of Austrians, has become an icon of Italian history and ethos. Verdi’s choice of a story from the Hebrew Bible is fitting in that the ancient texts embody the tradition of abhorrence for oppression of the powerless that Hebrew prophets implanted in Western Civilization. After many centuries some of the most important implications of their ideas have been realized.

Of course the Austrians occupying Italy understood that operatic encores of choruses like Va’ Pensiero encouraged the hope of freedom under an unjust administration and that people fired by the prophetic illumination of art would not be willing to submit for long. When the Italian Risorgimento succeeded, Verdi was one of its heros. The connection of Verdi’s music with freedom was impossible to ignore when Leontyne Price sang her last performance of Aïda at the New York Metropolitan Opera. An ovation lasting more than thirty minutes followed her singing of O Patria Mia. The universal expression of patriotic devotion in this aria is particularly moving when sung by a great grand daughter of slaves in a country that is exceptional for having ended slavery on the basis of a religiously grounded abolitionist movement.

The idea that God inspires or aids the agents of moral progress is not unusual in opera. Transcendent themes in the music seem impervious even to Euro-trash productions that postmodern directors impose on it. Also interesting are the cases in which heroic ideals go awry. We only need turn to Giordano’s Andrea Chenier to hear a note that signals the corruptibility of republican fervor. The French Revolution and its aftermath are, of course, the prototype of revolutions accompanied by purges for the removal of uncooperative groups or individuals not fully aligned with the movement. One aspect of the French Revolution that distinguishes it from the American Revolution is an anti-religious bias evident in the polemics of Voltaire and, to the point, Diderot: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”. When reformers versed in this rhetoric encounter corruption even in humanistic reform, the logic inherent in it can only intensify prosecution of those with presumed sympathies for the ancient regime. In the opera Andrea Chenier, a former servant in an aristocratic home finds himself, after the revolution, in a position of power. The character of Gerard is not that of a stock operatic villain. He gains sympathy through his acts in aid of the protagonists and his ambivalence about the despotism of revolutionary tribunals. When he sings the indictment of Andrea Chenier, Enemy of the people, he can only do so in full cognizance of the irony of accusing the poet of a capital offense for works of literature.

Gerard’s disillusionment pours out in the soliloquy of his aria. He knows Chenier’s work will be deemed counter-revolutionary and the poet condemned to death. With the mob at the door, Gerard recalls when he lived above the hatred that impels justice as meted out in a riot. “Proud of my convictions, I lived only for truth. But now, I am again a servant. I have only changed masters. Sold to violent passions, I am a slave of my impulses, and worse, a man who weeps while he murders. I heard the cry of freedom, ‘Come, children of the revolution!’ I became united to that voice. But where is that dream now? Where is my noble ambition, the glorious light of my pathway? We meant to bring joy to the hearts of the poor and the hope of freedom, to make the world a Pantheon where men of noble ideals would be united in one fraternal embrace. Now I have betrayed this sacred mission. Love is contaminated by passion stronger than morals or reason. Let it be! Passion is my master!” (audio-6)

This is not cynicism. It is grief in full awareness that liberty, equality, and brotherhood entail recognition of order beyond subjective impulses. The historical period Verdi and Giordano dramatized was a hundred years past, but the ideals still moved audiences who understood their debt to them. The passage of another hundred years saw the end of cultural optimism, and the idea of progress was no longer respectable. People began talking about the end of history. From our vantage point, the American and French revolutions can be contrasted on the basis of contradictory anthropology. As evident in the rhetoric and religious doctrines of the perpetrators, the French revolutionaries grounded their cause in optimistic humanism, while the Americans were, by and large, Calvinists schooled in the doctrine that human nature is inherently corrupt. The separation of powers of the American Constitution can be seen, among other things, as an upshot of the doctrine of human depravity. Logically, Calvin’s doctrine does not tend toward liberationist creeds but toward limited power distributed over executive, legislative, and judicial sectors of government. This simple abstraction makes the moral conflict dramatized in pot-boiling Italian opera more compelling in an era of cultural disputes of a scope that verge on constitutional law. One element of the government devised by puritans and deists is separation of church and state. Separation of cult and culture is impossible.

The opera Faust had its premier at the Paris Opera in 1859. In a coincidence that now seems a hellish juxtaposition, 1859 is also the year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. The opera made Charles Gounod the most famous musician in Paris. Since then Charles Darwin has been on the ascendant. The demonology of Faust’s bargain with the devil clangs uproariously against modern materialism, and where scientific reductionism waxes philosophical, The Origin of Species has the status of dogma. Evidence for a cosmology richer than we find in Darwin includes grand opera. Whether or not the theory of evolution can account for moral conflict, human nobility, and ignobility, it is difficult to maintain that it is rocket science of the same order as engineering physics. Interestingly enough, the character in the title role of Gounod’s opera is presumed to be a man well versed in natural philosophy—science of the era of the Faust legend—as well as medicine and jurisprudence. After a lifetime of study in these fields Faust despairs of finding satisfaction in the Western cultural legacy. Satan offers to disencumber him of his rational and metaphysical inhibitions, and Faust consummates a transaction.

His search, simply put, is for the satisfaction of a moment that he would wish to sustain. An abbreviated treatment of Goethe’s version of the Faust legend, the opera centers on Faust’s seduction of Marguerite, a peasant girl who soon finds her life in ruins. Faust’s conquest, among others, can be seen as an upshot of the materialistic world view. This is not Goethe’s Faust; there are, of course, many versions of the legend, and several operas based on it, but in some versions of the odyssey the philosopher’s quest becomes the life of a sensual athlete, including romps with courtesans of legendary reputations—Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Thäis. Satan serves Faust’s inclinations while amusing himself baiting the bourgeoisie. Using the power now at his disposal, Faust enraptures Marguerite with jewelry and his transitory affections and then deserts her. The composer Gounod, who, from what we know of him, apparently had reasons to be somewhat weary of indulgences of the flesh, concludes the opera with Marguerite’s apotheosis and translation to heaven. The final scene is musically exultant, ascending chromatically and aimed at an experience of transcendence. (audio-7)

Traditional Christian cosmology evidently played very well in Paris in 1859. The opera was an immediate success, revitalized French opera, and remains a standard of the repertoire. It is remarkable that the French responded in droves a hundred years before their existentialists and atheists—Sartre, Derrida, Foucaut et al.—took center stage. The hell of it—as if Satan is collecting on Faust’s agreement and taking his due—is that Darwin’s materialism supplants metaphysics for ensuing generations. Dialectical materialism, that presumed-inevitable liberation of the underclass, becomes an obsession among the intelligentsia. Marxists, and the nihilists who follow them, are a thousand times more predacious than the bourgeoisie they depose. Blind to atrocities by regimes claiming to redistribute material resources—for what other resources are there?—they abet or incite revolts against every civilized institution. Western Civilization is, of course, an obstacle to those who would take back territory lost by oligarchies of earlier eras. If it can be deconstructed, deconstructionists or their minions will march in to fill the void.

While analyzing dramatizations of ideas that were still axiomatic in the cultural landscape of the nineteenth century, we should not be surprised to find old landmarks overgrown. In an effort to undo the paralysis of a modern quagmire the current administration has tried to revive heroic ideals championed by Verdi in justification of a war of liberation in the Middle East. One would think it more difficult to find contemporary exponents of the self abnegation demonstrated by Elizabeth, Rodrigo, or Andrea Chenier, but families of those engaged in the war in Iraq know the equivalent moral issues and attendant ideals well. In bald contrast to Gounod’s Faust, the reigning materialistic epistemology consigns too many important questions to matters of values. The overtones of the Faust legend blend in our imagination and the cynical philosopher becomes Dr. Frankenstein unable to bring moral truth to bear on science.

Art has remained as one way to probe realities that don’t reduce well to scientific studies. The heyday of operatic drama predates the modern attempt to demythologize culture, so it is infused with religious images. Verdi didn’t go to church for much of his adult lifetime, but it would be difficult to count the operatic arias he composed that are prayers. Are the virtues celebrated in opera socially constructed? In an era that reduces people to measurable quantities of production or configurations of attitudes to be profiled for advertising campaigns or politics, how would we begin to answer this question? Are heroic human resources constructible, or a majority with raised consciousness? Aristotle conceived man to be defined by his purpose, not by a collection of data measuring his output or consumption. Schiller’s and Verdi’s characters, Elizabeth, Don Carlo, and Rodrigo find their purpose in establishing the ideal of freedom, if not the Flemish state. Faust, contrariwise, abandons historic ideals to indulge passion. There is a quest for “spirituality”, notable in Goethe’s Faust, but it is religion of a different order. The prodigious Doctor evades the interconnected ideals of the tradition he inherits. The "moment" that he might wish to sustain is unabashedly subjective. Rudolf Steiner followed Goethe in an impenetrable quest for spirituality distinguished from the God of the operatic canon.

Verdi took great care in the selection and the details of his librettos. He studied the dramas of Shakespeare and composed three operas based on them. The then prevailing theology is evident in one climactic theme of Verdi’s work, which merges the others in a horrible crescendo, that found in Otello, wherein Iago abets the passion of jealousy in a man of reason and civilization, who, on the basis of trivial circumstantial evidence, finally succumbs and murders his innocent Christian wife. In Shakespeare, Desdemona’s plea is for time to say a single prayer before she dies. Verdi’s opera interpolates an aria, the famous musical anomaly of her Ave Maria, which is the pivotal event in the final act. (audio-8)Even villains have a creed in opera. Verdi’s Iago proclaims it furiously: “I believe in a God of cruelty who in his own image has created me, and whom in wrath I worship.” Being of this order is irreducible in the character and in his music. In Verdi it is impossible to mute the clear demarcation between good and evil. (audio-9)

Even Wagner, to whom moral ambiguities are often attributed, cannot evade the culture of his era, to the dismay of current critics and directors. In an essay in a subscribers’ booklet circulated prior to Seattle Opera’s 2004 production of Wagner’s Lohengrin, an unnamed author calls Ortrud a “rationalist”. Ortrud is clearly the force for evil in the drama, yet this writer asks, under the heading Wagner’s Moral Complexities, “How do we know Ortrud is so wicked? Her questions about Lohengrin are perfectly sensible. And if her tactics seem ruthless, remember that Ortrud truly believes that the throne is rightfully hers, that it was usurped from her family by Elsa’s. And why do we believe Lohengrin is so wonderful? The trial-by-combat scene in which he defeats Frederic of Telramund, although sanctioned by King Henry’s medieval government, was as barbaric and foreign to Wagner’s audience as Ortrud’s black magic. By putting this scene onstage, Wagner was asking: Does might make right?”

Lohengrin is a marvelous portrait of romantic chivalry. (audio-10) The foregoing analysis by a writer in Seattle Opera’s education department is missing a salient theme in medieval literature. At the heart of the Grail legend and the chivalric code is the idea of might for right. If Ortrud is fighting for what she thinks is rightfully hers, she has no moral compunction about destroying the innocent in her ambition. Ortrud, the sorceress wife of Frederic of Telramund, accuses Elsa of fratricide and trysting with an illicit lover. Her intent is to usurp headship of the Duchy of Brabant, which belongs to Elsa’s brother, Gottfried, heir to Brabant’s Christian dynasty. Gottfried, now strangely absent, is presumed dead, and Ortrud is progressively corrupting her husband by her false testimony that Elsa has murdered him. The collapse of Frederic’s nobility under the influence of his wife is a significant subplot of the opera.

This opera is not morally complex. Though the composer apparently was personally compromised in numerous ways, he found truths in his art that were probably inevitable in the logic of any version of this story that would be received by his audience. The Seattle-Opera essayist continues, “Wagner’s Lohengrin uses this popular pattern, and this old story, to talk about a central issue of the day: the crisis of faith in nineteenth-century Europe. During Wagner’s lifetime, the rise of science, technology, and industry were shaking to its foundations people’s faith in the church, long the mainstay of European society. Wagner shows us how Elsa’s pure faith in Lohengrin’s virtue evaporates when she listens seriously to the intelligent questions of Ortrud, who is competing with Lohengrin for power over the community. Ever the rationalist, Ortrud demands proof, and Lohengrin’s powerful mystique, penetrated by her piercing light of logical inquiry, turns out to be airy nothing.”

Ortrud the rationalist! This is akin to calling her invocations of the Norse deities logical positivism. Elsa’s fragile faith is an important element of the story, but in this drama, at least, the church isn’t in crisis. The crisis would be more correctly identified as within the human soul. It is a crisis of finding the spiritual resources to continue living in an unjust world, not a crisis of faith in the church. In this opera injustice is perpetrated by Ortrud and her husband as he becomes complicit in Ortrud’s lies. You couldn’t find a less ambiguous case of false witness in the book of Leviticus. The mystery of the enduring power of Lohengrin may be explained by analyzing it as a dramatic theodicy. How atrocities can be permitted under the sun by a benevolent and omnipotent God is a question that does not completely relent under logical analysis. Dramatic renderings of the issue have had wider appeal and greater staying power. The story of Job in the Bible is one of the oldest examples of dramatic theodicy. Job suffers in his innocence, and his complaint reaches the court of heaven where God permits the ordeal to continue, apparently to negate Satan’s taunt that Job is faithful only because God rewards him for virtue. Making Job into an object lesson does little to relieve him, but, eventually, there is a thunderous conclusion in the firmament, more in resonance with operatic crescendo than philosophical abstraction.

It is true that in the story Wagner adapted that Elsa’s faith is a critical factor in her relation to the figure of her redemption. She has every reason to trust Lohengrin who confounds the lies of her accusers and saves her from death or exile. As long as she doesn’t waver on her agreement not to ask his name or lineage, the romance continues. Ortrude and Frederic are disgraced. Lohengrin and Elsa retire to their nuptial bed, and all is well until Elsa’s trust gives way to suspicions planted in her by Ortrude. She begins to probe Lohengrin’s anonymity. He first evades her queries then reminds her of her vow never to ask. She persists, and her inquisitiveness becomes more intent on having an answer. At the critical moment, when she finally insists on knowing her husband’s name, Frederic and his cohorts storm the house. Frederic’s sword is of no avail even in ambush, and Lohengrin slays him. Instead of the sensual evocation of a Wagnerian climax, this thrust disgorges Telrumund’s entrails on the bridal bed. A determined foe has been slain, but Elsa’s question has dislodged the balance that secures her place of safety in this world. Lohengrin sadly tells her that he will publicly give answers to her questions.

In the morning, the assembled people of Brabant learn the name and status of Elsa’s guardian. Lohengrin’s song begins as the strings evoke the transcendent realm of his origin. (audio-11)
“In far off land, to mortal feet forbidden, there is a castle, Monsalvat by name.” In the ethos of medieval chivalry Monsalvat is the sanctuary of the sacred chalice Jesus shared with his disciples when he instituted the Eucharistic memorial of his death. The Holy Grail comes from the world of Celtic myth in Welsh legendary Tales of The Mabinogion. An unfinished 12th-century poem by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes describes the discovery of the grail by Parsifal. Wagner’s interpretation of the Grail motif is based on an epic by the 13th century German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach. In the first utterances of his song, Elsa’s defender and acclaimed guardian of Brabant identifies his nobility as transcendent in origin. As a knight of the Holy Grail his strength comes from participation in a divine order that shares the mystery of the blood of Christ. “A gleaming temple therein is hidden, so rich as nothing on earth could frame. There a cup most holy powers possessing is guarded as a gift of heaven’s love. To be to sinless men a boon and blessing, it was brought to us by angels from above. And every year a dove descends from Heaven, the mystic might within it to renew. It’s called the Grail, and purest faith it lendeth to all the knights who in its service strive. He whom the Grail to be its servant chooses, it arms with holy supernatural might. Opposed to him, deceit its magic loses. The powers of darkness he can put to flight. Though to distant lands the Grail may send him, the cause of injured virtue to defend, holy might will attend him while unknown to all he can remain. The art, that in the Grail is hidden, is light no mortal eye can gaze upon. From every doubt its knight must be protected. If recognized, he must at once be gone. Thus compelled, now I reveal my sacred story. The Grail’s servant to you I hither came. My father Parsifal reigns in his glory. His knight I am, and Lohengrin my name.” The crescendo in the brass and trumpet flourish that attends this revelation leaves no doubt that Wagner knew very well the effect this story would have on his audience. King Heinrich sheds a tear, and Elsa laments paradise lost. Aware that his hope of love in this world is also lost, Lohengrin grieves with Elsa that her remorse is vain. The people of Brabant are bereft of their guardian. Against King Heinrich’s entreaty Lohengrin explains that should he, in disobedience, seek to remain, his power would be gone and his cause would fail. He reassures Heinrich with a premonition that the Eastern horde will not prevail against German lands. The swan that ferried him to Brabant returns to take him back to another world.

Nietzsche admired Wagner, and for a while they were fellow travelers, but analysis of this medieval plot will be better served by leaving the Nietzschean will to power and moral relativism aside. The profound and truly human question is why the innocent suffer while God remains inaccessible? The answer, in a bald-faced abstraction of the sort that is not consoling in absence of myth like that of Lohengrin, is that supernatural assistance, transparent and clearly evident to all observers, would irrevocably compromise human freedom. Despite the weight of postmodern ideology and the theory of evolution, there are moral truths, and there is some help to be found in virtuous acts. Suffering, when it has meaning, ceases to be unbearable suffering. We endure in a fallen world in order that there may be human freedom. This is a reasonable literary explanation for Lohengrin’s extraction of the promise that Elsa never ask his name or lineage. If he were to remain in Brabant when everyone is aware of his divinely ordained might, his authority would be unquestionable and human actions could never for long diverge from virtue as ordained by the community of the faithful. The Christian Dynasty of Brabant would become eschatological.

Jules Massenet wrote a number of operas based on spiritual and biblical motifs (audio-12). His opera Thaïs dramatizes the climactic irony of Christian asceticism subduing pagan sensuality. Thaïs, a figure of mythic elegance, is a courtesan, yet full of artistic refinements and imbued with elemental candor. The story begins in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria, built by the Greek architect Dinocrates to immortalize the name of Alexander the Great. It is the city of the library of the Ptolemies with its manuscripts of Plato, Pythagoras, Philo, Origen, Athanasius, and Clement, copies of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, and documents signed by Julius Caesar and Octavian, a port city of lavish white sands and Mediterranean seascapes known to Cleopatra and Mark Antony. On the threshold of an evening in the fourth century, Thaïs, connoisseur of the flesh, is ruminating before her mirror on aging and mortality. In this moment of her only vulnerability, a monk Athanaël intrudes with violent admonition from the desert. He is driven as much by suppressed desire for Thaïs as by zeal to redeem her for eternal life (audio-13). If renunciation of the world is the portal of eternity, Thaïs is singularly ill disposed. She sustains his initial assault then reacts with derision and ejects him, but he has disturbed the serenity of her opulence. In the lingering awareness of some strange enticement she begins to weaken. The fruit Athanaël has unseasonably harvested slowly intoxicates her.

An evening alternating jubilance and bouts of sobbing is the beginning of a spiritual quest for Thaïs. Prayers to Venus are supplanted by a vision emplanted by the desert hermit, and she willingly rejects a wealthy suitor in her thrall to become a virgin seeking Christ the bridegroom. In the darkness she comes out of her house to find the monk Athanaël is asleep. When she wakes him to ask for spiritual guidance, he understands that she will now submit to his discipline. He says calmly that he will take her to a convent where she will wait for God to come and claim her. Then his severity returns. He commands her to set fire to her house and abandon her possessions, an ordeal to which she agrees, but she hesitates at destroying a piece of art that she loves. In rage Athanaël smashes it, and they trudge off into the wild.

This dichotomy that sets spirit and sensuality in opposition is bleak beyond recognition, now, among affluent, accommodating Christians, and born-again pagans who do not seriously consider eternal life an inducement to abnegation of the flesh. The irony of Massenet’s opera and the novel by Anatole France on which it is based is that after the pilgrimage through pain that Thaïs undertakes, she dies in ecstatic transcendence, while Athanaël recognizes in despair that he is in love with her. In abjection he regrets having driven her to this end. Christians and secularists alike will feel some sympathy with Thaïs in her contemplation of mortality. Athanaël’s primal dilemma is only compelling when desire is constrained by guilt or panic about being made into a eunuch for the Kingdom of God. The irony of our time is that Christians have expropriated the opulence of the world, whether the baroque Pentecostalism of televangelists and swinging mega-churches or the elegance of blue-blooded Episcopalian ritual, while California transcendentalists are surrendering themselves for the sake of enlightenment and following their spiritual masters into the Mojave. Everybody seems satisfied with the role reversal, so why revisit a false dichotomy that was history when Massenet set this primal religious drama to music?

A few have followed Jesus far enough along his via dolorosa to fully comprehend what is meant by his injunction, “take up the cross,” his foreboding that “a man’s foes will be those of his own household,” or that enigma for proponents of family values, “No man can come after me who does not hate father, mother, sisters and brothers, his wife, and even his own life.” In Massenet’s time these eschatological sayings evidently informed contemporary culture to an extent that opera houses could mount lavish productions based on them. The composer of the opera Thaïs claimed in his autobiography that the state of his soul was most apparent in his music. Evidently a veteran of the war of sensuality and spirit, Massenet clearly left the imprint of a strong religious impulse on his operas. This same conflict appears in Manon and Hérodiade. Yet, he had a reputation for womanizing. If he did battle in the conflict of spirit and sense, how was he able to work? Musical craftsmanship of this magnitude is not accomplished in a torpor or guilt. In Thaïs Massenet confronts the most severe injunctions of monastic asceticism. Thaïs, Manon, Herodiade, and Le Cid merge musical motifs and theology so convincingly that one might believe that he had either found a path to resolution of monumental spiritual questions or had equally monumental powers of metaphorical abstraction.

Perhaps the convulsion of abstinence, ecstasy, and despair with which the opera ends is one of the justifications we now have for putting limits on spiritual compulsions. Massenet’s music could possibly inform the beneficiaries of the twentieth-century sexual revolution. Having witnessed Athanaël’s despair, students traumatized by sex might hesitate at the impulse to abandon their studies for a communal farm. At any stage in life those who are susceptible to extrapolations from the hard sayings of Jesus are more likely to find metaphors for dealing with them in enduring works of art from the past than in cinematic caricatures of religion or the music they are likely to hear in church. Better that we turn to the operas of Massenet. Universally regarded as a fine craftsman of orchestration, he is the composer of twenty six operas, twenty three of which were staged. He had lavish and widely imitated lyrical gifts. The operas were the most performed of his era in the French musical theater, and they have proved their enduring value.

The bourgeois audiences for Massenet’s operas were far removed from the heroic asceticism of desert monasteries. How might a performance of Thaïs at the Paris Opera have affected bourgeois women? According to Massenet’s biographers they were captivated by his music, which became the standard of the repertoire. It takes little imagination to see that many among the Parisiene would have found Thaïs a sympathetic character. She is urbane, cultivated in her tastes, beautiful, and most interesting of all, independent. A modern sex goddess might be the envy of many women, but she is seldom admired for her elegance. Thaïs is characterized as a woman of intelligence and grace as much as voluptuous allure. She entertains the Alexandrian nobility in sumptuous refinement in her own palatial home. She owns artistic masterpieces. Nicias, the only suitor who appears in the opera, is high caste Alexandrian. He has been a friend of the monk Athanaël since their youth and hosts the renunciate in his home. It is Nicias who has the influence to get Athanaël admitted to the home of Thaïs. Nicias has spent a fortune for a week in her company, but she has the power to eject him at will, and she does so in order to retreat to a convent with the holy man.

Contemporary literary theorists find oppression of women in Western art and culture, yet here in a bourgeois French opera is a woman of independent means who voluntarily follows erroneous counsel to a conclusion that eviscerates her mentor, himself a spiritual athlete, while she is indestructible (audio-14). The illogic of renunciation leads to her death, yet even in death Thaïs is indomitable. The husbands and lovers of the Parisiene would have been more the equivalent in property, influence, and character of the suitor, Nicias, than of Thaïs. Like Nicias, bourgeois men would have been willing, at times, to spend extravagantly on desirable women, but what could they have made of Thaïs? Shouldn’t they have considered her an affront? The opera was not extremely successful in early productions but it survived despite this protagonist of the supposedly oppressed gender. In every phase of her pilgrimage Thaïs embodies innate charm. Her musical motifs are gentle and forthright throughout her transformation from regal courtesan to saint.

Anatole France reportedly commented while working on his novel Thaïs, “I have only two enemies: Christ and chastity.” In the novel the monk Athanaël is characterized in even more rigorous excesses than in the opera. An episode, not used in the opera, has him take refuge from Thaïs on top of a column in a deserted city. The spectacle of him in the ruin becomes a tourist attraction, and the city is rebuilt and flourishes. Masssenet’s librettist, Louis Gallet, transformed the monk of this incident into the austere, tormented, yet impressive, Athanaël. The agony of love sublimated in evangelistic zeal remains in the opera but little of the scorn for him apparent in the book. One can only conjecture that in this contrast, librettist, composer, and box office patrons preferred a treatment of religious asceticism that was cognizant of the fact that in Augustine’s time it was considered the manly embodiment of saintliness. Theater patrons who experience to this tragedy of renunciation contra indulgence now recognize it as fanaticism.

For as long as human beings have pondered mortality, renunciation of the world for spiritual purity has been one option for dealing with the horizon toward which we continually sail. Believing there is a reality that transcends the world we inhabit has for many inspired a compulsion to gaze so adoringly on the horizon that living in the present world becomes mainly a distraction. Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy provides a theoretical framework for abnegation of the physical world for an immaterial, ideal realm. Christian theologians in fourth century Alexandria fought a never completely successful battle with the hyper spirituality of Greek metaphysics. Physical indulgence as evident in the pagan religious ethos provided a stark contrast to the philosophers’ quest for eternal form underlying nature. In this context a religion that began with John the Baptist and culminated in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus seemed more consonant with the acetic world view than that of the pagan remnant.

The theological resolution that is often neglected is, of course, the doctrine of the Incarnation, in which the eternal transcendent God takes on human flesh and shares time-bound human existence. The Christological controversies of the third and fourth centuries proved just how difficult this is to deal with intellectually. Kierkegaard said it was an insurmountable intellectual problem and believing it comparable to the moral atrocity of Abraham offering his son Isaac on the altar. Without trying to disentangle the many threads of this discourse, we will only suggest that the resolution of the dilemma of Athanaël and Thaïs requires a thorough analysis of the doctrine of the Incarnation.


Michael Dodaro is a musician and writer. He has sung leading roles in orchestra productions of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Bartered Bride by Smetana, Don Pasquale by Donizetti, and Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny. Currently, he serves as a cantor at St. Jude Catholic Church in Redmond, Washington, and Trinity Episcopal Church in Seattle. He is published in First Things, Journal of the Institute on Religion in Public Life, The New Oxford Review, and numerous online venues. His education includes a B.A. in English literature and philosophy from the University of Washington and M.A. from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is employed in the software industry as a programmer/writer.

Footnotes; audio excerpts:
1. Don Carlo; Verdi excerpted from EMI; SZDX-3875; Cappuccilli/Carreras/VonKarajan;
1979.
2. Don Carlo; Verdi; excerpted from Europa Musica 051-035; Teatro alla Scala, Milan; 1968.
3. ibid; Ghiaurov.
4. ibid; Orlandi-Malaspina.
5. ibid; Cappuccilli.
6. Andrea Chenier; Giordano; excerpted from Angel; R63-1620; Sereni/Santini.
7. Faust; Gounod; excerpted from EMI recording 79-750462; 1979; Domingo/Freni/ Ghiaurov/Pretre.
8. Verdi; Otello; excerpted from London recording 411-618-1; Tebaldi/VonKarajan.
9. Verdi; Otello; excerpted from London recording 411-618-1; Protti/VonKarajan.
10. Wagner; Lohengrin; excerpted from Deutschegrammophon recording 2530 176; Kubelik.
11. Wagner; Lohengrin; excerpted from Deutschegrammophon recording 2530 177; Kubelik/King.
12. Thaïs; Massenet; excerpted from EMI 1842-1912; London 1976; Maazel.
13. ibid; Milnes/Maazel.
14. ibid; Milnes/Sills/Maazel

15. Photo (Trinity) by Paul Hannah; Seattle, WA

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