mclatchy_amazonLong ago, in a galaxy far away – I mean, the era before supertitles became common in opera houses around the world – you could always tell the text-mad opera fan.  He was the one who arrived early to the theater and spent the remaining minutes to curtain hunched over his libretto booklet, trying to cram as much of the libretto as he could into his head before the curtain went up, so he could (hopefully) follow along with the words as they were sung.  Some text divas even brought pen lights with them so they could follow along with the text while the opera was going on, to the great annoyance of their seatmates.

Okay, full disclosure:  Don Pasquito was one of them.  I once attended a performance at the Metropolitan Opera of Die Walküre long ago (in the pre-seatback-title days) in which I followed the entire performance in my libretto from an isolated seat high in the Family Circle. (At least I wasn’t bothering anyone.)  I have always been a text diva.  I could never be one of those so-called opera lovers who used to say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand what they’re singing.  The meaning all comes through the music.”  Jacobins!  What next?  Why not just have them all vocalize on Ah?

All this changed with the coming of supertitles to the world’s opera houses in the late 1980s (the Met’s proprietary seatback title system, MetTitles©, was introduced in 1995, notwithstanding Artistic Director James Levine’s adamant objections – “over my dead body,” he was reported to have said, words he subsequently had to eat).  With the coming of supertitles, the printed libretto was virtually dead overnight, at least as far as the opera house was concerned.  No-one boned up before or during the performance any more, because the titles gave everyone a running translation of the libretto in English (or, at the Met, in a selection of languages, not including the original language being sung onstage, a serious drawback IMHO).

If the translation was incomplete, or a condensed, dumbed-down version of the original text, with no literary pretensions whatsoever, no-one seemed to mind much.  It was all in the interest of comprehensibility on the fly.  Good enough was good enough.  And thus the printed libretto was consigned to the dinosaur graveyard of outmoded print, where so many former stalwarts of our print culture have preceded it, with more to follow (telephone book, anyone?  newspaper?).

Or has it?  Fighting a rearguard action against the disposable translations offered by supertitles, the eminent poet and librettist  J. D. McClatchy (known as Sandy to his intimates) has just published Seven Mozart Librettos: A Verse Translation, a 1200-page volume of his translations of the librettos of Mozart’s seven most important operas. In order of composition, as they appear in the book, they are:  Idomeneo, The Abduction from the Seraglio, the three great Da Ponte collaborations (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte), La Clemenza di Tito and, the crowning final achievement, The Magic Flute.

The mission of this weighty tome (3 ½ lbs., $50.00), according to McClatchy’s introduction, is to provide facing page translations of the original librettos that will allow the reader to follow the original text with understanding but will also have sufficient literary value on their own to be read with enjoyment independent of the original source.  As a highly honored, classically-oriented poet and librettist – he has published six poetry collections and numerous librettos, is editor of the Yale Review and president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters – McClatchy brings impeccable credentials to this enterprise.  Probably no poet writing today has given more thought to the art and exigencies of words set to music.

To understand the somewhat maverick nature of McClatchy’s project, one should be aware that translations of opera librettos over the years have typically fallen into two categories. One is the “pony”—sometimes called the “literal”—translation.  Notwithstanding the fact that there is no such thing as a literal translation (all translations, whatever their intent, will be approximations) – nevertheless the understood goal of this type of translation has been to come as close as possible to the meaning of the original text, leaving aside niceties of rhyme, rhythm, assonance, beauty of expression and other aesthetic qualities associated with verse.  (The most famous, one might say notorious, example of this kind is Vladimir Nabokov’s translation into English of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which Nabokov intentionally made as baldly literal – and as ugly – as he possibly could, as he wanted to actively discourage the idea that a translation could be anything more than a tool for engaging with the original.)

With librettos, this is the kind of translation that is usually found in the booklets accompanying opera CD sets (those that are still publishing them) and used to be much more lavishly produced in the age of the late lamented LP boxed set.  Its sole purpose is to provide a close translation of the original language so that the listener may follow the original text with more perfect comprehension in the privacy of his/her home or other listening area.

The other common type of libretto translation is the performance-based translation meant for singing, which may more truly be called a version than a translation, as the requirements imposed by the musical line – of meter, of stress, of syllable count, of vocalization – as well as the requirements of verse, which may well include rhyme according to specific verse patterns – prescribe rigid limits on the translator’s art.  What usually results, or used to in the old-fashioned singing versions that one still finds in many printed opera scores, are texts full of archaisms, inverted syntax, and a very free rendering of the sense of the original.

Even singing versions of more recent vintage, which attempt a more natural, conversational style, frequently stray far from the literal meanings of the source text.  The reason is not hard to find.  In writing a version capable of being sung to the original musical line, to come up with a rhyme, or to fill out a line with the correct syllable count, the translator frequently has to jettison the exact meaning of the original.

It’s a necessary trade-off, but in the exchange, many words and phrases are elided or erased, and others inserted that have no match in the source.  In short, these singing versions may convey the general sense of the original, and may be quite ingenious on their own, but they are next to useless for following the line-by-line meaning of the original text; moreover, since they must fit within the confines of the original musical line, it’s often hard to keep them from sounding like doggerel, and they usually date quickly.

A number of such performing English versions of the Mozart operas happen to exist, as school music departments have typically performed the Da Ponte operas and The Magic Flute in English, as did the Metropolitan Opera through the 1950s.  (English singing versions of the Mozart operas, especially The Magic Flute, include those of Andrew Porter, W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, and the indefatigable Ruth and Thomas Martin, who in the 1940s and 50s made widely performed English versions of all the Da Ponte operas as well as those of other composers, and whose English version of Così was  immortalized on a classic recording made by Met singers, including Eleanor Steber and Richard Tucker, in 1952.)

McClatchy was certainly well aware of these two categories of translations, and of the Scylla and Charybdis they presented to the literary poet-translator: pedestrian exactitude on one hand, a severe restriction of poetic élan on the other.  He decided to take a third route, which is the foundation of the project embodied in this volume:  to create translations which are themselves literary texts with their own independent value.

As he defines his project in the introduction, “unlike most other translators, I have put into English verse what is verse in the original.”  (His reference to “most other translators” intentionally disregards the many singers’ versions which are, willy-nilly, in verse.  Apparently he has little regard for the efforts of Auden, the Martins, et al.)   In practice this means, for the “numbers” (arias, duets ensembles), he has made translations in verse, including rhymes and discernable (if not precise) meters, which have their own internal consistency but do not necessarily match those of the original text, or the number of beats of the musical line, and in consequence may have an effect quite other than that of their source.

Let’s look at an example:  Here is the original text of Zerlina’s entrance aria from Don Giovanni:

Giovinette che fate all’amore.
non lasciate che passi l’età:
se nel seno vi bulica il core,
il rimedio vedetelo qua.
Che piacer, che piacer che sarà!

And here is McClatchy’s version:

Young girls who play at romance,
Don’t let time pass you by.
When your heart is in a trance,
Here is why you sigh. Why,
Here is your joy, here your sweet reply.

Gone in McClatchy’s version is the whirligig triple meter of the original that suggests a sprightly tarantella (and is so embodied by Mozart’s music).   In its place is a more placid and demure English lyric, in a sprung three-beat iambic measure, studded with internal rhymes and assonances that recall the English Cavalier poets such as Robert Herrick (“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”).  It’s lovely, and unquestionably within the English literary tradition, but not really accurate as a translation and, more to the point, misses the brio of those infectious triplets in Da Ponte’s original lyric.  Is this, on the whole, a gain?

And herein lies the problem with the entire enterprise.  Why, one may ask, would anyone be interested in reading a translation, or better, a version, that goes off in its own direction with such a clear disconnect from the rhythms and sense of the original text?  In other words, who needs or wants this?  Those readers who are familiar with the Mozart operas but would like a translation to help them through the original text would do better with the more workaday translations found in the CD booklets, which, if they make no claim to poetry of their own, at least attempt to translate each word and phrase accurately.

McClatchy makes the claim in his introduction, somewhat disingenuously, that his translations are as accurate as possible given his aims, following “the original’s patterns of rhythm, rhyme and imagery (“Naturally, there are places where this was—or seemed to me—impossible to duplicate exactly, and I was forced to stray into a more suitable solution.  I have inevitably taken liberties, but they are rare, and in service to clarity and color.”) Note the words “forced” and “inevitably,” as if he were translating with a gun to his head.  In fact, the choices are all his, always his. And his divergences from the meaning of the source text, notwithstanding his claim, are many and significant enough to render his translations frequently unsatisfactory as a key to the original text.

For example, take these familiar quatrains from “Voi che sapete,” Cherubino’s first aria from The Marriage of Figaro:

Quello ch’io provo
Vi ridirò
è per me nuovo,
capir non so.
Sento un affetto
Pien di desir
Ch’ora è diletto
Ch’ora è martir.

A close translation would be, “That which I’m feeling/ I’ll tell you again/ Is new to me/ I can’t understand it./ I sense a feeling/ full of desire/ first it’s delight/ then it’s torment.”  McClatchy gives:

All that I feel inside,
The tumult and change,
I long to confide.
It is thrilling and strange.
First, I’m all fright,
Then, walking on air.
First, sheer delight.
Then, mere despair.

McClatchy’s version is far superior as poetry to the bald literalism of the prose translation given above, but can’t be recommended as a guide to someone trying to follow along in the Italian.  Nor does it match the musical quantities and stresses of the original.

Notwithstanding his envisioning of these translations as essentially a poetic project, McClatchy is actually most successful with the connective tissue of recitativo secco (in the Da Ponte librettos) and spoken dialogue (in the Singspiels).  Here, freed from both the need to follow closely the metrical patterns and syllable counts of the original text, and from his project to convert the musical “numbers” into alternative English verse, McClatchy is paradoxically at liberty to compose fresh versions of the original text that hew closely to the tone and sense of the original, and do so with fluent colloquial ease.  Here’s his breezy, contemporary rendering of an interchange between Barbarina and Cherubino in Act III, Scene 7 of Figaro:

Barbarina:  Let’s go, my handsome page, off to my house, where you will find all the prettiest girls in the palace—though you of course, are the . . .  prettiest of all.

Cherubino: But if the Count should find me, I’m done for!  You know he thinks I have left for Seville.

Barbarina: But how wonderful!  If he finds you with a girl, it won’t be the first time. Listen!  We plan to dress you up like one of us, then we’ll all go together to present flowers to her ladyship.  Trust me.  Oh, Cherubino, trust your Barbarina!

What could be more charming?

If McClatchy was determined to free himself from the constraints of the counts and musical values of the original text, it seems to be a decision that evolved from his early essays in the translation process.  The first Mozart libretto he translated, and the one that became the foundation and capstone of this project, was that of The Magic Flute. First appearing in the year 2000 in a deluxe volume as a collaboration with the visual artist David Pizzigoni (along with CDs of a classic 1937 performance conducted by Toscanini), it concludes the present volume in a revised version.  (In preparing his translation, McClatchy seems to have consulted the Andrew Porter version closely – several lines are lifted directly from it, including the line “Can these be pangs of love I feel?” from Tamino’s aria “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön”, p. 1009)  McClatchy seems initially to have conceived it as a singing translation, with many of the translated verses tailored to the musical line:   For example, take these verses in Schikaneder’s original text sung by the Three Ladies in Act I:

Würd ich mein Herz der Liebe weihn,
So müsst es dieser Jüngling sein.
Lasst uns zu unsrer Fürstin eilen,
Ihr diese Nachricht zu erteilen.
Vielleicht, dass dieser schöne Mann
Die vor’ge Ruh ihr geben kann.

Here is McClatchy’s English version, which exactly matches the German in syllable count, stress accent and rhyme scheme, and is even a reasonably close translation:

If ever love could sway my heart
This youth alone would have the art.
Come, let’s hasten to our Queen
To tell her all that we have seen.
Perhaps this lad himself may find
Some way to give her peace of mind.

And indeed, when the Met asked McClatchy to tweak his translation so that it could be used as a singing text for a special abridged children’s version of The Magic Flute, he didn’t have to make too many adjustments to his original.  This is now the version that is offered every Christmas as a holiday special on PBS.

So it was not for lack of skill or knowledge of the field that McClatchy decided to forgo making singing versions of the seven librettos in favor of a “poet’s vision/version.” The question remains, who is his target audience?  Most Mozart lovers who are also text fans will want to take their librettos straight, no chaser, in the original language, with perhaps a pony to help them through it.  Singers and conductors will want performance versions that make up in practicability what they lack in accuracy.  And make no mistake, in spite of the ubiquity of supertitles, there still remains a vocal lobby for the case of opera performed in English (see Hugh McDonald, “Language Barrier,” in the January 2011 issue of Opera News).

It’s hard to say what interest McClatchy’s skillful and elegant versions will hold for either of these groups.  McClatchy himself says that his versified versions may be read “in silence, from start to finish” but that the best way to read each opera “is with a recording of it playing.”  In the background?  Along with the text?  It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to follow along with a recording using McClatchy’s version.

For one thing, he has opened up all the cuts typically made in performing versions, especially in the dialogue sections of the Singspiele and the recitativo secco of the Da Ponte texts.  Anyone following along with a recording would soon be floundering.  For another, his verse translations of the arias and ensembles set up a disconnect with the original text and require a different focus.  They are, strangely enough, better read away from the music than with it.

Is this not a paradox?  Most of us, after all, are only interested in these librettos to the extent that Mozart made use of them.  McClatchy tries to make a case for considering them as part of Mozart’s own creative output, as the composer apparently worked intensively in shaping the final texts with his librettists (for the record, besides Da Ponte and Schikaneder they were: Giovanni Battista Varesco. Idomeneo; Gottlieb Stephanie/Christoph Friedrich Bretzner. Abduction; and Caterino Mazzolà/Pietro Metastasio. Clemenza).

Since Mozart had a hand in them, reasons McClatchy, they were really his and therefore deserve to be honored as part of his creative output.  This is a form of logic-chopping with a decidedly Gilbert & Sullivan airiness.  The fact is, had Mozart not composed music to them, these librettos would hold no more interest for us than does the libretto for Una Cosa Rara, written by the great Da Ponte but composed by Martín y Soler and now known to us mainly through Mozart’s brief quotation from it at the end of Don Giovanni.

Even less of a case can be made to the modern reader for the plays of Metastasio and the librettos based on them, including Mozart’s Clemenza; their high-flown rhetoric and overwrought passions had already fallen out of favor by Mozart’s time (hence the reform opera instituted by Gluck) and were one of the main reasons Clemenza fell out of fashion in the 19th century and was not really revived until the late 20th.  Reading the Clemenza libretto in silence, even in McClatchy’s admittedly stylish translation, is, trust me, a highly qualified pleasure.

In short, to create verse translations meant to be read independently from Mozart’s music, because they presumably now have their own music thanks to a poet’s efforts, seems both hubristic and quixotic, overvaluing the poet’s power to make these verses live on their own in translation while imagining an audience that would actually care to read them apart from the music.  At $50.00, the price of McClatchy’s Seven Mozart Librettos, the project seems a bit overweening on the part of this distinguished poet/translator, all his laurels notwithstanding.

Seven Mozart Librettos: A Verse Translation by J. D. McClatchy: W. W. Norton & Company, New York – London, 2010. 1167 pp.