The spirit and the letter

A short history of opera translation

By David Christoffel 25 October 2017

© Eléna Bauer / OnP

The spirit and the letter

Did you know that performing pieces in their original version is an extremely recent practice in the long history of the opera? A few decades ago, opera librettos were still translated, or even adapted, for the countries in which they were performed. From its origins to the present day, David Christoffel looks back over this curious history, which plays an important part in how the genre is received.

Child's play?

Let's try an educational experiment. We'll listen to Allegri's Miserere and ask children to translate into their own language what the singers are saying. For this exercise, there is no need to tell the children that it consists of Psalm 51; that might prevent them from imagining all sorts of things:

"It's a funeral and there are people praying for the dead person to go to heaven."
"It's people who are remembering things that are no longer there."
"It's like a flower that opens, but which is imaginary."

The ideas are very varied. And it does not mean that the children are bad translators. On the contrary, they provide a highly creative image of the translation exercise, and show that translation is chiefly based on an effort of the imagination and an acute sense of responsibility. When we listen to Allegri's Miserere and read the translations suggested, we can see that the children have largely understood what the composer intended to convey. And this means that the chief quality of good translators lies less in their linguistic skills than in the preciseness of their musical sensitivity.    

Maquette de décor de Charles Percier pour Les Mystères d'Isis, acte I, 1801,
Maquette de décor de Charles Percier pour Les Mystères d'Isis, acte I, 1801,

Translating emotions

Because he gives a melodic character to a phrase, an opera composer can also be compared with a translator. But as soon as the act of translation comes into the picture, the debate takes on huge and significant ambiguities. Assuming that music is a language, the idea of a composer who is in fact a translator would imply an emotional unity between words and music. This was somewhat the ideal of the musicologist Momigny, who in his Cours complet d’harmonie et de composition of 1806, laid down various principles: "To translate faithfully, it is not enough to present the same situation and the same feelings as the original; its expression should be reproduced as far as possible. So what it means here is that word and note should always go together, if possible."

No sooner had he decreed the idea of fidelity as a key principle than he decided to explore the reason for the different colour given to Dido's words by the music when she says to her lover, "Do not gaze pitilessly upon my sorrowing tears." Where the composer makes Dido repeat the phrase, Momigny sees in it "a kind of coquetry that perhaps detracts from the nobility of the subject." Instead of confining himself to the lack of fidelity, the musicologist ponders the refinement of a music able to imbue desperate words with such charm that it adds to the meaning of the phrase, raising the sense of distress to a level beyond the flat unambiguousness that could always be given to it by a sorrowful character. (In this instance, "sorrowful character" is taken to mean a person evincing a gloomy, too-unvarying picture of sorrow.)

An amputated "Flute" or "Les Mystères d'Isis"?

With opera, translation is primarily a question of rewriting. When the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck created Orphée et Eurydice in Vienna, the libretto by Ranieri de’Calzabigi was in Italian. But to perform it in France in front of Marie-Antoinette, the composer had the text translated by Pierre-Louis Moline and adapted the opera to French taste, giving the principal role to an "haute-contre" (high tenor). When the subject is mythological, according to the palimpsest taken as the source, we can imagine that the story is always a "rewriting". After the Revolution, the French remembered Marie-Antoinette's preference for foreign works in a French version. The arrival of The Magic Flute in Paris was typical in this respect. Instead of translating Die Zauberflöte as La Flûte enchantée, the score's structure was reworked to such an extent that the French version of 1801 was entitled Les Mystères d’Isis. Instead of a singspiel (which alternates sung and spoken passages), Parisian audiences were presented with a grand opera complete with recitatives and ballets. Far more than a translation, this was a full-blown adaptation. To meet the expectations of Paris Opera audiences and the style they were used to, as well as the work carried out by the librettist Étienne Morel de Chédevile, the work was rearranged by Ludwig Wenzel Lachnith, who recomposed Mozart's score by removing some passages and adding others. Hence the comment of the German lady who declared that "it is clearly a gross distortion of this work to turn it into a grand opera" (Le Moniteur of 16 September 1801). As final evidence of this flagrant, sweeping transformation, the work was even tailored to the regular singers of the Paris Opera. So the role of the Queen of the Night, which Mozart had written for a coloratura soprano, was given to Mademoiselle Maillard, whose tessitura was so low that she is still famous today as the singer who introduced the mezzo-soprano tessitura to the Paris Opera.

In 1829, a German troop performed the original version of Die Zauberflöte to Paris audiences. But when Mozart's score was revived at the Théâtre-Lyrique de Paris in 1865, it was to a libretto translated into French by Nuitter and Beaumont. Meanwhile, Berlioz had roundly derided Les Mystères d’Isis (writing in his Mémoires that "Mozart has been murdered by Lachnith"), even though he himself had written recitatives for Weber's Der Freischütz in order to get it performed in 1841.

"Der Freischütz" or "Robin des Bois ?"

Before being hallowed in French as "Le Freischütz", Weber's opera was adapted in 1824 as Robin des Bois ou les Trois balles. Castil-Blaze's adaptation was so free that he actually brought back the Huntsmans' Chorus at the finish to provide the public with the happy ending withheld by Weber from German audiences. In 1824, Castil-Blaze also created the French version of the Barber of Seville at the Odéon, adding several recitatives (largely taken from Beaumarchais), extending the two acts to four, and even changing Rosina from a contralto to a soprano. That the translator should also act as an arranger could be seen as a double dose of non-authenticity. But we can also consider opera as a sphere where the drama has to fit the music and that in this light, you cannot alter one without adapting the other. Although largely criticised for the liberties he took with the originals, Castil-Blaze claimed that his work enabled many of the public to become familiar with the opera. Despite the controversy, and after long discussion, it was finally the French version with spoken dialogue that was performed at the Opéra-Comique in 1884. By dint of seeking popularity, some of Castil-Blaze's translations actually turned Rossini's arias into variety songs: as we know, the Calumny Aria in the Barber of Seville was even sung by Serge Lama.

Maquette de décor de Charles Percier pour Les Mystères d'Isis, acte III, 1801
Maquette de décor de Charles Percier pour Les Mystères d'Isis, acte III, 1801

A national question

In 1973, Rolf Liebermann was sounded out to take over as head of the Réunion des Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux. But the post was supposed to go to a French person. The statutes were changed and Liebermann was appointed "Director of the Opera". From then on, works were performed in the language of their creation. Following protests from the public, an RPR member of Parliament even submitted a written question to the government. Pierre Bas (who died recently) questioned the Minister of Culture and Communication, noting "the following titles of works performed at the Paris Opera: Die Walküre, Das Rheingold, Die Eutführung aus dem Serail, etc." and finally indicating that "the questioner, whose attachment to Europe is well-known, nonetheless points out that the Paris Opera is an institution of national prestige." The Minister, Jean-Philippe Lecat, replied: "All the great opera houses of the world have made it a rule to perform works in the language of their creation. For example, one of the great successes of the New York Metropolitan Opera this season was Dialogues des Carmélites, sung in French and incidentally advertised with its own title."

But member of Parliament Pierre Bas added a subtler detail to his concerns: "Les Vêpres siciliennes, the only work composed by Verdi to a libretto by Scribe in French, was produced at the Paris Opera in Italian, and advertised as I Vespri siciliani." The Minister replied punctiliously: "Although the libretto of Les Vêpres siciliennes was indeed written in French, for casting reasons the Paris Opera production had to use the Italian version approved by Verdi, which justified the announcement ‘performed in Italian’."

The fact is that "casting reasons" could take us down a long road, if the problems of accent are considered as well as the question of translation. From the moment a score's original language is re-established, another matter becomes even more glaring: the discrepancy between the language of the singers and that of the work. Then a dilemma arises: is it better to have Wagner performed in the language of Molière, or in the original version with excessively French singers who distort it with such heavy accents that even 19th century Germany would not have recognised it?

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