Two interpretations of The Cenci (4)

William Newman

Havergal Brian’s The Cenci and Berthold Goldschmidt’s

_Beatrice Cenci _ Part 4 : Narrative treatment - William Newman

Martin Esslin was initially reluctant to undertake the writing of a libretto for Berthold Goldschmidt, feeling that the radical condensation required could not be convincingly effected. But Goldschmidt, who had personal experience of such radical pruning with his own libretto for Der gewaltige Hahnrei, convinced Esslin to collaborate, and the jury for the Festival of Britain commissions was clearly impressed, as approval for the libretti submitted was a precondition for further progress in the competition.

The preamble to the score makes clear what was intended: As much of Shelley’s text as possible has been retained, so far as this is consistent with reducing the five acts of the original to three and also with breaking the equal flow of the verse 57. In general, then, a minimum of new material is used, primarily to smooth the dramatic flow, but also to concentrate attention on the victims, though new material for a chorus is introduced to comment on the action, particularly towards the end. In addition, three short lyrical poems are inserted.

The opening switches the action of Shelley’s drama, using the first scene of Act 2 of Shelley’s play to open the opera following this with Shelley’s first scene which illustrates Count Cenci’s evil nature. This is done presumably to focus attention on Lucrezia’s and Beatrice’s misery at the outset, though whether this is better than Shelley’s more tangential slide into the drama is questionable.

The second scene of the opera features the banquet where Count Cenci joyfully announces the death of two of his sons. This is preceded by the interpolation of Shelley’s poem, Thou art fair, and few are fairer (1819), in a brief masque, presumably to reduce tension before Count Cenci’s chilling announcement. Although a beautiful setting in itself, the introduction of a formulaic passage into a harrowing moral narrative must surely be seen as an error.

In the Preface to his play, Shelley wrote, ‘I have avoided with great care in writing this play the introduction of what is commonly called mere poetry…’ and though Shelley himself does, nonetheless, introduce one lyric poem (False friend), it is interesting that Brian avoids the temptation of setting it. Indeed, there is some ambiguity in Goldschmidt’s primary intention in setting the opera.

On the one hand, Goldschmidt is clearly concerned to illustrate the evil of the times and humanity’s culpability in evil actions as in Camillo’s last words, ‘Thus we are all enmeshed / In one vast web / Of sin and guilt.’ (Not words used by Shelley.) It is surely not fanciful to see the horror of the holocaust reflected here. On the other hand, in his interview with Classic CD, Goldschmidt maintained, ‘It is a bel canto opera… I wanted to write a work to show off the beauty of the human voice’. 58

Esslin shows considerable skill in compressing action and words as well as characters (Savella and Camino are merged and Giacomo does not exist). Act 2 is omitted without damaging the plot and the opera’s second act commences with Beatrice’s distraught appearance before Lucrezia following Beatrice’s incestuous rape.

The introduction of another separate poem at this point, however, also seems an error (Rough wind, that moanest loud, 1822) as it shows a considered approach at a time when Beatrice is on the point of insanity.

A more appropriate interpolation occurs as Lucrezia waits for the murderers of Count Cenci to appear, when she sings another Shelley poem (Time, 1821), this time to a setting which Goldschmidt had composed, though not orchestrated, in 1943 59.

The most contentious part of the Esslin libretto lies in the last scene of the opera where two carpenters and a double chorus are added to Shelley’s play to debate the morality of the execution. This is dramatically weak, diverting attention away from the victims upon whom Shelley rightly concentrates. Nor is it necessary for the morality of the execution to be debated in a Greek chorus manner. As was pointed out in chapter 2, Shelley overtly condemns the action of Beatrice and Lucrezia in murdering Count Cenci, but his emotional sympathies lie entirely with them and this tension contributes greatly to the drama’s strength. Conversely, this tension is dissipated by Esslin at this point.

Shelley’s The Cenci ends with a touching final speech after which Beatrice announces calmly that she and her mother are ready for their execution. Esslin adds a moral commentary from Camillo and an equally inappropriate procession led by the Pope praying for the souls of the executed victims.

Brian, as he did in all his operas, prepared his own libretto for The Cenci. As in Turandot, Faust and Agamemnon, he took a preexisting text and adapted it to his own needs, adding almost no material, but ruthlessly paring the poet’s text. Thus, Acts Two and Three disappear entirely.

The cutting of Act Two is not surprising (Goldschmidt did likewise), but the omission of Act Three at first seems curious as it includes the intensely dramatic scene (Act Three, Scene One) in which Beatrice, almost insane, obliquely tells her step-mother of her incestuous rape. The rape is never directly referred to in Shelley’s drama and, because of the cutting of Shelley’s Act Three, the crime becomes even more shadowy in Brian’s opera, though even for those with no knowledge of the story there are enough hints to make clear what has happened.

These omissions and the other substantial cuts which occur are made to move the drama rapidly forward and to reinforce Brian’s emphasis on the inexorable force of fate. Unlike Shelley, Brian was less interested in the morality of Beatrice’s action and more concerned with fate and the corrupt nature of authority and society, though these were, of course, strong elements in Shelley’s play also.

In this context, the eight brief scenes of the opera ensure that dramatic tension dose not let up and explain the occasional effort to squeeze the narrative into too confined a space for comfortable singing. In addition, the absence of sung lyricism prevents any deflection from the narrative. It should be added that Brian, who was a master craftsman at song writing, even avoids the temptation to set the only lyric poem in Shelley’s tragedy (False friend, wilt thou smile or weep). (In his last music drama, Agamemnon, Brian cannot resist a brief chorus highly reminiscent of his earlier part songs, but beautiful as this is, it does seem out of place in its context.)

NL 148 © 1999 William Lawrence Newman

  1. Beatrice Cenci, 1995, p52 ↩︎

  2. Interview with Berthold Goldschmidt, Classic CD(August 1995) ↩︎

  3. Chronologisches Werkverzeichnis in Berthold Goldschmidt edited by Silke Hilde and Wlnfried Jacobs (Bonn: Boosey & Hawkes, 1996) p67 ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 148, 1999