The philosopher Bernard Williams brought to his writings on opera a rare vigour and intelligence—although Vernon Bogdanor disagrees with his interpretation of Wagnerby Vernon Bogdanor / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
On Opera by Bernard Williams (Yale University Press, £19.99)
Listening many years ago to The Marriage of Figaro and Pelléas and Mélisande on Radio 3, I found the operas illuminated by interval talks given by the philosopher, Bernard Williams. The talks were short, about 20 minutes, and yet of a depth that is rare even in scholarly tomes on opera. Although barely acquainted with Bernard, I begged him to bring his scattered writings on the subject together into a book. He smiled appreciatively and said he would think about it. In the preface to this volume, his widow, Patricia, says that he was working on it when diagnosed with cancer. He then decided to use his remaining energies to complete his final philosophical work, Truth and Truthfulness (2002). He died in 2003, but Patricia has put all opera-lovers in her debt by preparing this book of essays.
Reading On Opera, I was gratified to realise that my impression of profundity all those years ago was not misplaced. This is one of the best books on the subject since Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama, published in 1956. It has also been beautifully produced by Yale—to a standard which, alas, is all too rare in the productions of our own university publishing houses.
Williams, like Kerman, is interested in how composers achieve dramatic ends through music. His main concern is the means by which music reinforces drama, or in some cases (as in Rigoletto) undermines it. He wants to explore what Michael Tanner, in a perceptive introduction, calls “the human truth” of opera. The book is at its best in its analysis of Mozart’s Italian comedies—Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni. Williams illustrates both their psychological penetration and their ultimately problematic nature, and in doing so overturns many of our conventional attitudes towards them.
Mozart and his librettist, Da Ponte, are often said to have turned Figaro into a politically castrated version of Beaumarchais’s radical play, transforming it into “a masterpiece of sentiment.” On the contrary, Williams insists, it is Mozart and not Beaumarchais who displays, in the character of Count Almaviva, “the interpenetration of social power and sexual relations.” In the play, Almaviva is unfaithful from boredom. In the opera, his unfaithfulness is associated with divisions of rank. The opera “shows how rank can itself generate rage and loneliness, while lack of it can leave room for a greater…