Many months ago, I bookmarked Greg Sandow’s post about English supertitle translations of Italian operas, and then I asked Wolf Trap’s own Italian guru Franca Gorraz to respond to some of the issues Greg raised. It’s all on my mind today as I dive into what will grace the supertitle screens in this summer’s Così fan tutte.
I try to start by holding both extremes in my mind at the same time: to capture as many nuances of the original text as possible while remembering that our audience needs to have an experience that’s easy, natural, and unencumbered by the burden of academic correctness. So Franca is my touchstone on the original source, and I welcome her feedback on my supertitle drafts. And she is so accommodating and gracious when I say things like “It’s too long – I only have 26 characters for that line” and “It goes by too fast – they’ll be reading so furiously that everything else will get lost”. Excuses, excuses…
As you can imagine, these questions are very familiar to me: I wrestle with them every single time I approach an opera in Italian (or French). Figuring out the literal translation is of course necessary and the very first step (blessed be Nico Castel for ever and ever, right?), and trying to put it in reasonable English that is still faithful to the original is essential.
The problem with it is that it is almost impossible to “translate” the differences in language registers, whose shifts do convey many unspoken messages and indications. Think of the more stylized structure of “Porgi amor,” when Contessa is still very aware of her rank and follows the appropriate language and an unsullied legato line that reflects her control over herself and her own emotions, compared to the language of ‘Dove sono” – utterly stripped down, by choice, to stunning simplicity (and still breathtaking line, of course).
“Dove sono” comes after that long recit with all its quicksilver mood switches… trepidation… pep talk to herself to convince herself that it’ll be fine… seeing/watching herself reduced to this… the bitter, clear-eyed, structurally very tightly articulated list of the wrongs done to her – that culminate in that shattering line “fammi or cercar da una mia SERVA aita,” the indignity of having to have a subordinate see all these weaknesses. (And oh how singers almost squirm at that “serva!” It goes so against the grain, against the feeling of Contessa and Susanna being “friends.”) From this moment of stark reality comes the simplicity I mentioned.
This brings me to the problem of having to address the issues of language as indicator of social class and of the way the character identifies (or not) with it. One of the most sublime moments in all of opera, the silence that precedes Conte’s “Contessa perdono” and then the words themselves, often get a giggle. How to convey to a modern audience the fullness of meaning, the cosmic significance of Almaviva humbling himself to his wife/property, and begging her forgiveness as countess… and yet, how else to translate than with “Countess, forgive me'”…
I think that these issues are particularly difficult for an American to face because English is so ideologically determined to avoid class references, of course, and the need to claim absolute equality is now so ingrained that acting /speaking truly as if you, Count Almaviva, knew that you held absolute rights, ordained by God, over Susanna is so very hard hard for the singer to inhabit, for the spectator to embrace.
Add to that the need to be aware of subtle lexical /structural choices that, for example, show us a character like Adina adopting, early on, a style of language that is more typical of the male world, to change later on to a much more ‘feminine’ and soft vocabulary and music, and you can see why I am always thinking I need more time to work on language! And let’s not even talk of the need to transmit the colors and layers of the aural landscapes created, say, in Fauré’s or Bellini’s songs…
My only solution is to try and uncover all the layers for the interpreter, and then hope that his/her singing will somehow embody the awareness she or he has acquired. Sometimes it works, sometimes, not so much. It is still a joy to work on it.
I love that last paragraph. Franca does a lot of work with our singers – some of it easy and joyous, some of it almost maddeningly in its detail. And as you can imagine, some artists cotton to this type of work more easily than others. But as opera producers, it’s not just about trying to put the right constellation of words up on the screen – it’s about providing as much detailed context as possible so that the supertitles are just vessels into which the actors pour endless stores of nuance, character and meaning.
If you’re coming to Così, Ulisse or Bohème this summer, you’ll have the opportunity to download my supertitle script from our website before coming to the theater. (This is an idealistic promise made in April, but you can probably hold me to it.)