I found this clip from a BBC broadcast of Verdi’s Falstaff in English, and it intrigued me enough to want to ask non-opera-fans whether opera makes more sense if it’s sung in a language we can understand. It’s usually a moot point because singers’ diction is iffy and the acoustics in opera houses tend to swallow up the words anyway, meaning that we needed subtitles to understand the words in the CoC’s Nixon in China. But this is a studio performance, by two singers (Regina Resnik and Geraint Evans) whose diction is pretty good. And it’s actually a familiar subject that was originally in English: it’s based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, which Stratford will be doing this season. It’s the scene where Mistress Quickly, helping to set a trap for Falstaff, gives him the message that the two women he’s out to seduce are both interested in him (they’re not). So it’s about as good a test case for opera in the vernacular as I’m going to find online.
Different eras have had different attitudes to the proper language of opera: many countries commissioned new operas in Italian even though they weren’t Italian-speaking countries. (The foreign language, among other things, helped mark opera as something that wasn’t for the lower classes; “popular” theatre works were in German or English or whatever the native language was.) But Verdi was from a generation that always expected opera to be in the vernacular and would have been astonished at the idea of performing in foreign languages: when he wrote an opera for Paris, he always wrote it in French, had it translated into Italian for Italian performances, and so on. The 20th century and the “internationalization” of opera performance saw a long, losing fight for opera in the vernacular, which was pretty much lost, particularly after surtitles were installed in the big houses.
I think the ideal vision of opera is a theatre piece where the words matter and we don’t have to look away from the stage to understand them. So an opera in a language we can understand, clearly enunciated, is what would theoretically be best. In practice, of course, you can’t understand the words, and the translation can do violence to the music. (This particular translation is relatively inoffensive, but the original words are a very complicated combination of old-fashioned Italian and pyrotechnic rhyming; the translation loses the verbal sounds that the notes match up with, and doesn’t even try to rhyme.) I don’t think there’s any question though that one of the reasons opera lost relevance in the 20th century is that it lost that direct connection between the ear and the mind, where you hear what’s being sung and know what is being sung.
For comparison, here’s a performance of the same scene (also British in origin, but this time from Wales) in Italian with English subtitles.