Sense & Sensibility


This morning saw the second outing for my Donizetti and Jane Austen Lecture...Sense & Sensibility or Sensibility and Sense.  For those interested, I thought it would be nice to publish the essay behind the lecture here, along with links to some of the videos etc. mentioned therein. 

Sense & Sensibility or Sensibility & Sense

In this lecture I want to explore the idea of sentimentality and emotional response in the literature and opera of the 18th-mid 19th centuries.  Authors and composers of the period alike, seem torn between two contrary beliefs.  They seem certain, at times, that sentiment and feeling are the moral backbone of society, but change their minds wildly all of a sudden and  argue that art that seeks a hyper emotional response is silly and has no place in the real

I will start by exploring some of Donizetti’s most famous works, looking at the role of reading, sentiment and being guided by the heart rather than the head in his comedies, and his tragedies.  I will then seek to compare this dichotomy in Donizetti’s canon to a similar pattern emerging in English Literature, as the great tomes of sentiment penned by Richardson and his contemporaries, give way to the romantic comedies of manners which undermine the notion of wallowing emotion as epitomised in the work of Jane Austen.

If all of that has left you wondering what in the world I am talking about; perhaps Norina’s aria from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale:

Here Norina laughs herself silly over the romantic novel of knights in shining armour pining over their lovers that she is reading, claiming boldly that she too knows how to wind men around her little finger.  She shows an amazing lack of sympathy. Rather than a doe-eyed emotional or sentimental reaction to the text, she seems to interpret it as a pre feminism feminist call to action – ‘women, confound and control your men’ – something which she proceeds to do for the rest of the opera.

There is something wonderful but strange in this refreshing response to romantic literature.  Wonderful in it’s potential for comedy and the power it gives to a heroine, but strange in that, within one of the most over-dramatic and flamboyant forms of theatre, we are presented with the idea that an emotional response to art is not a useful one.  Norina’s flippant response to the world of romance appears to be the one we are supposed to have.

Furthermore, a strange tug is created when her lover, the hapless and aptly names Ernesto (too earnest indeed), wails his heart out in lyric romantic style:

He laments his friend’s betrayal and the loss of his love, but the audience watching can do so such thing – despite the formal and tragic intensity of the music.  We know that he has not been betrayed and the joke is not on him, but on Don Pasquale. While the music draws us towards sentimentality, being in on the joke, we are unable to wallow with the quasi-hero.  His sentimentality takes on a sense of overblown silliness, despite its lyric beauty.

A similar pattern can be seen in Donizetti’s earlier opera L’Elisir d’Amor.  We meet Adina reading the story or Tristan and Isolde:

She hardly takes the powerful story of passion, violence and ultimately death in the way Wagner does!  Rather than show sympathy or empathy or react with sentiment and emotion, she turns around quite matter-of-factly and jokes: “That potion sounds great, I wonder who makes it?”  One is almost reminded of the famous Victoria Wood interpretation of a trip to Macbeth “Some terrible woman kept washing her hands saying she'd never get them clean. I felt like shouting 'try swarfega!'”

The story Adina is reading elicits a practical and satirical response from the heroine, while the hapless hero falls for the story hook-line-and-sinker and vows that he must immediately find a love potion just like Isolde’s.  His naïve sentimentalism leads to the subsequently chaotic plot in which he is duped into buying cheap wine; selling himself off to the army in order to afford the pleasure. Only to be rescued by Adina who has an entirely practical solution for winning back his love.

Too practical to believe in fairy-tales of love potions, worldly wise Adina tells the quack doctor Dulcamara that her feminine wiles are all she needs to woo a man.  He’s quick to agree.

Once more we see swooning at the power of romantic fiction being sent up, and yet, the most powerful musical moment in the opera comes in a very different guise:

This is one of those arias that is forever taken out of context, assumed to be tragic in its passion, and wallowed in.  A little like O mio babbino caro – forever assumed to be about a dead baby – I had an argument with an opera lover about it the other day, they simply could not believe it was not tragic in any way at all.  It’s not hard to hear why such arias are misinterpreted. The passionate legato and the enveloping tenor sound, the mournful bassoon gives a plaintive rustic tone at the start. The focus on the word ‘lagrima’ throughout gives the idea that the tears in the aria are the most important things; when actually Nemorino is rejoicing in having seen his beloved cry for him.   The music leads us down one path of emotional response, while the content and the context warn us to beware of beauty and sentiment. This is the double bind of comic opera. Beautiful and luxurious music demands an emotional and sensory response, and Donizetti undoubtedly would have wanted this moment in the opera to be an unadulterated pocket of pure feeling; and yet throughout the rest of the show he mocks this very meat that literally feeds him, asking, as he does, that we respond to art without losing our minds in the process, and sending up excessive sentiment.

Donizetti tragedies (and those of his contemporaries) on the other hand seem to cry out for the opposite audience reaction in every way – asking for a level of emotional response that a modern audience might find difficult to give.

As Caroline Crampton of the New Statesman put it in her largely positive review of the Royal Opera House’s recent feminist re-imagining of Lucia:

In many 19th-century operas, terrible things happen to a woman, she sings about them, and then dies. Sometimes, for a bit of variety, she will go mad prior to expiring in a grisly fashion. At the end, the principal male characters – who are likely all responsible in some way for her demise – will stand around her body and sing about what a tragedy it all is.

In a scene which lasts almost 15 minutes Lucia, covered in blood emerges from her wedding bedroom having murdered her unwanted husband in a fit of madness.  Having lost her mind she shocks the wedding party by enacting out an imagined wedding with her true love Edgardo, before imagining her own brother (the villain of the piece) to be him.  The next thing we hear in the opera is that she has died of ‘madness’ though we’re not told exactly how.

Donizetti provides a pathetic spectacle and asks his audience to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in romantic tragedy, overcome with pity, sympathy, sentiment and grief.  He asks us to share the response of the assembled party of wedding guests confronted with the spectacle of the beautiful mad girl.

While it is hard to tell how much of Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor Donizetti or his librettist Salvadore Cammarano really digested or even read before embarking on recreating this Scottish Literary Tragedy as Italian opera, it is interesting to note Scott’s description of Lucy’s (Lucia’s) temperament:

Yet her passiveness of disposition was by no means owing to an indifferent or unfeeling mind. Left to the impulse of her own taste and feelings, Lucy Ashton was peculiarly accessible to those of a romantic cast. Her secret delight was in the old legendary tales of ardent devotion and unalterable affection, chequered as they so often are with strange adventures and supernatural horrors. This was her favoured fairy realm, and here she erected her aerial palaces. But it was only in secret that she laboured at this delusive though delightful architecture. In her retired chamber, or in the woodland bower which she had chosen for her own, and called after her name, she was in fancy distributing the prizes at the tournament, or raining down influence from her eyes on the valiant combatants: or she was wandering in the wilderness with Una, under escort of the generous lion; or she was identifying herself with the simple yet noble-minded Miranda in the isle of wonder and enchantment.

Lucy is a romantic fiction addict, drawn in by sentimentality.  Unlike Norina and Adina she meets a sticky end as she becomes embroiled in her own romantic tragedy. Her reading has taught her to luxuriate in her misery rather than teaching her a practical way out of such a mess.

We see a similar outpouring of over sentimentality in Donizetti’s La Favorite.  The story of Fernand and Leonor, the loving monk and the King’s mistress who through a series of unfortunate and coincidental events, marry, only to be torn apart by Fernand’s jealousy, before Leonor, at last forgiven, dies beneath the cross of the monastery of ‘exhaustion’.    

Perhaps it is the ludicrous plots and sentimental absurdity that has made Donizetti tragedies so much less palatable than his comedies and histories for modern audiences.   The beautiful music is gorgeous and enjoyable but the ludicrously long and elaborate solo set pieces become rather tedious if you are too modern-minded to really submit yourself to the catharsis of the sentimental over-emotional minefield on which these dramas are enacted.

La Favorite has fallen out of the standard repertory and even Lucia di Lammermoor is barely performed in comparison with Donizetti’s big comedies, and in past years huge directorial liberties have been taken with the plot to try and rationalise it, feminise it, provide backstory and reasons for the madness and death.  Particularly in Katie Mitchell’s lates production for the Royal Opera House, which has been equally lambasted and lauded. Just before we take our break I’ll leave you with the ever amusing comments of Rupert Christiansen on the matter:

Stroppy, duplicitous, and sexually aggressive, Mitchell makes Lucia a curiously modern figure, more Ruth Ellis than the fey Romantic heroine depicted in the music. Donizetti and his librettist quite carefully and plausibly chart her descent into madness – but Mitchell has chosen to ignore this, inventing a gratuitous plot line in which Lucia is desperately trying to abort Edgardo’s baby, enlisting the help of her maid Alisa and some kinky sex games in disposing of her wretched blameless husband.

Some might find this intriguing; I found it merely perverse – and heavy-handed too. As with most of Mitchell’s recent work, the audience’s imagination is allowed no leeway: everything has to be spelt out literally. The spectre that haunts Lucia’s dreams wanders ominously through every scene; the love duet in the second scene becomes graphically (and ludicrously) sexual; and our noses are rubbed in the grisly details of Lucia’s miscarriage.

Trying to make sense of a Donizetti tragedy does not really work.  The Norina, or Adina response is not the one we need to have to truly enjoy a Donizetti tragedy.  We need to indulge in some raw sensibility.

And...if you were wondering what I meant about misinterpretations of O mio babbino caro...I recommend watching this:


An obsession with how, and what to read is something many of Jane Austen’s heroines share.  It seems Donizetti was not alone in being unsure of the value and use of overly romantic, fantastical and sentimental literature.  In this second half of the lecture I want to explore how Austen’s novels simultaneously praise and upbraid the Romantic and Gothic literature that preceded and coincided with her own works.   I want to show how, like Donizetti, Austen celebrates story-telling while simultaneously putting it in its place in the real-world order of things as something not to be mistaken for real life.

This is perhaps most clearly shown in the actions of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane’s first (and last) novel, Northanger Abbey.  I say first, and last as she completed it in 1803, but it was not published until after her death in 1817. Catherine is in love with Mr Tilney, she is also in love with reading, especially the Gothic horrors of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Ratcliffe.  Fortunately for Catherine, Mr Tilney is also a Ratcliffe fan, and being possessed of a sense of humour he decides to have a little fun at Catherine’s expense, describing in great detail the ghost story that might befall her in her bedroom in Northanger Abbey that very night:

“No, certainly. We shall not have to explore our way into a hall dimly lighted by the expiring embers of a wood fire—nor be obliged to spread our beds on the floor of a room without windows, doors, or furniture. But you must be aware that when a young lady is (by whatever means) introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted by Dorothy, the ancient housekeeper, up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. Can you stand such a ceremony as this? Will not your mind misgive you when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber—too lofty and extensive for you, with only the feeble rays of a single lamp to take in its size—its walls hung with tapestry exhibiting figures as large as life, and the bed, of dark green stuff or purple velvet, presenting even a funereal appearance? Will not your heart sink within you?”

“Oh! But this will not happen to me, I am sure.”

“How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment! And what will you discern? Not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other a ponderous chest which no efforts can open, and over the fireplace the portrait of some handsome warrior, whose features will so incomprehensibly strike you, that you will not be able to withdraw your eyes from it. Dorothy, meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and drops a few unintelligible hints. To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that you will not have a single domestic within call. With this parting cordial she curtsies off—you listen to the sound of her receding footsteps as long as the last echo can reach you—and when, with fainting spirits, you attempt to fasten your door, you discover, with increased alarm, that it has no lock.”

“Oh! Mr. Tilney, how frightful! This is just like a book! But it cannot really happen to me. I am sure your housekeeper is not really Dorothy. Well, what then?”

Sure enough, that night Catherine’s imagination leads her to fear not only a chest in her room, but a cabinet of a similar description to the one Mr Tilney outlines, in which she finds a scroll of papers, only to discover in the morning that they are laundry receipts.  Her novelistic fantasies then lead her to believe that Mr Tilney’s father is keeping his death wife locked up in her apartments like a wild animal. This is, of course, the plot of a later famous work by Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre). It’s almost as though Austen lightly teases the gothic romances of the previous century, while Bronte uses Jane Austen’s fantastical silly plot to compose a great work of gothic romance.

Regardless of this, Austen’s heroine, Catherine, is proved exceptionally foolish.  While Austen goes to great pains to exonerate novel reading, she seems to have much to say about how to read and the usefulness of such reading for living in the real world.  Furthermore, by placing all of this reading within a novel, she too, like Donizetti, plays with our notions of what art is and why we need it.

But why the obsession with how to read, and reading’s value?  We know that Jane herself was an avid reader of all manner of fiction, with a particular love of Burney and Richardson. In fact, her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote that her knowledge of the works of Samuel Richardson “was such as no one is likely again to acquire . . . Every circumstance narrated in Sir Charles Grandison, all that was said or done in the cedar parlour, was familiar to her; and the wedding days of [characters like] Lady L. and Lady G. were as well remembered as if they had been living friends.”  Many scholars also argue that Austen’s most famous work Pride and Prejudice takes its name from a speech given by Dr. Lyster in one of the final episodes in Burney’s Cecelia.  

The whole of this unfortunate business, said Dr Lyster, has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. […] if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination.'

Richardson and Burney are often considered the father and mother of the modern novel, and Austen their daughter.  Yet in many ways their styles could not be more different.

The lengthy, single-minded novels of Burney and Richardson, in which a single female is beset by attacks to her virtue, like Donizetti’s far fetched tragedies, have barely withstood the test of time.  However, we forget that, even at the time of publication they were pretty over the top and while very widely read, they were also very widely snubbed.

Pamela, Richardson’s first epic tells the story of a virtuous maid who is beset by advances from her noble employer in the wake of his wife’s death.  Pamela holds out against him, until he finally proposes marriage and all ends well. Richardson’s novels were published serially, and were as popular in their time as television series such as Game of Thrones, or House of Cards.  While modern day audiences take to Twitter to express their wonder at the latest instalment of their favourite Netflix saga, there are tales of churches ringing their bells for Pamela’s fictional wedding to her would be rapist. Reader reactions to both Pamela, and the tragic epic that Richard penned next, Clarissa, were sentimental in the extreme.  There are accounts of ladies swooning when Clarissa is finally raped by her pursuer, the evil Lovelace, and of grown men going into spasms of grief at her death. However, there were also contemporary critics, who saw all these reactions as preposterous, and the stories themselves as virtue signalling tomes of exaggeration, that were thinly veiled titillation posturing as moral medicine.

Fielding even wrote an entire novel in response to Pamela, his Shamela of 1741, sees the heroine of Richardson’s novel exposed as a wicked ex-prostitute snaring her poor master into bonds of marriage.  His satire teaches a very different set of morals for women:

I received your last Letter with infinite Pleasure, and am convinced it will be your own Fault if you are not married to your Master, and I would advise you now to take no less Terms. But, my dear Child, I am afraid of one Rock only, That Parson Williams, I wish he was out of the Way. A Woman never commits Folly but with such Sort of Men, as by many Hints in the Letters I collect him to be: but, consider my dear Child, you will hereafter have Opportunities sufficient to indulge yourself with Parson Williams, or any other you like. My Advice therefore to you is, that you would avoid seeing him any more till the Knot is tied. Remember the first Lesson I taught you, that a married Woman injures only her Husband, but a single Woman herself. I am in hopes of seeing you a great Lady,

Already authors were disputing the value of works such as Richardson’s, their black and white moral certainties, their depictions of complete virtue or utter vice.  

Perhaps what is most enduring about Austen’s novels, what has led to so many adaptations, films, Television series, is that they are very, very real.  While the nice girls of Austen’s novels do seem to always reap the rewards of good marriages to wealthy men they love, they are not without their foibles…pride, prejudice, hyper active, imaginations, being too easily persuaded, romantic fantasies, etc. Austen is dedicated to exploring relationships as they truly are, and from that comes genuine and lasting humour.

o what has all of this to do with opera?  Well…what we see is the emergence at the end of the eighteenth century and the start of the 19th, is a new freedom for art to satirise itself and command a new sort of audience response.  This is not to say that sentimentality was being done away with, but rather, alongside the poignant, the horrid, the sentimental and gothic, was arising a new voice in literature and opera that asked for a different audience or reader response.  Rather than the standard idea of art as a means of catharsis, experiencing such high emotion and sentiment as to keep you sane in real life, art is becoming a window to real life, which is far more complicated, far more populated, and really rather funny.

In Donizetti and Austen we see some of the first attempts at real artistic truth: a new form of art that frees the reader to use their sense and not only their sensibility to appreciate and judge the characters with whom they are presented.