The Age of Innocence (1993)
The lockdown has been long enough to prompt an existential crisis with regards to my televisual consumption. Yes, I’m 100% committed to finishing the entirety of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks with @amandavosburgh before we’re all allowed out again, but other than that, I feel as if I’m out of anything interesting to watch on my Netflix account. In an attempt to get the brain going a little more, I signed up for a Criterion Channel subscription, alternating edgy indie flicks with the daily Met Opera streams. Sunday was a double feature, undertaken after rereading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, beginning with a viewing of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation before watching the Met Opera’s stream of Gounod’s Faust.
I was interested to see what Scorsese would get up to, as his films about New York aren’t usually known for things like elegance, precision, or subject matter relating to high culture, faux aristocracy, etc. Indeed, the 1993 New York Times review accused the director of taking an “anthropological” vantage point towards the story’s characters, implying that Wharton was writing for her friends, a select group of wealthy and conservative (and, by and large, male) cognoscenti. The review was right that Wharton’s audience might have been select, but the assessment of Scorsese’s cinematic realization is perhaps unfair, considering the film’s immaculate level of detail. At the film’s opening, we are introduced to New York’s high society as protagonist Newland Archer spends a typical night at the opera with production of Gounod’s Faust ¾though in Italian, reflective of an antiquated operatic convention which Wharton herself implied was peculiar to New York’s snobbery.
“She sang of course, “M’ama,” and not “il m’aime,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was molded…” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)
If you’re familiar with the story, it’s easy to see that these two sentences set the scene for the whole story. If not, a second recap: Wharton tells the story of a wealthy woman, Countess Olenska, who returns to America to seek a divorce from an abusive husband in Europe, much to the disapproval of high society. To complicate matters, her lawyer, Newland Archer, is in love with her despite being married to her cousin May. In the end, no real resolution is found, but rather a compromise to maintain appearances. The Countess returns to Europe, without a divorce. Newland and May remain married, despite the fact that his affections for the Countess were no secret. Much like the social mores by which Newland and the Countess must abide, it is not authenticity which is valued in society, but custom.
If anything, this is what’s missing from Scorsese’s adaptation. We can get an incredible visual sense of what the era was like in a way that’s much more vivid than a book. The costumes, sets, furniture, and even the china are all flawless. But the details that are sacrificed can only really be recovered in returning to the novel, to Faust, and to the history of opera in New York. We know there is a night at the opera, but we don’t know why. We can’t see or hear the alternative rendition of Gounod’s opera in French, nor can we see that it is Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson on stage.
From a certain vantage point, Wharton’s metaphor of New York’s operatic customs would be damning enough to paint a picture of a culture obsessed with imitating (and sanitizing) European customs. However, if we dig further into the details of Newland’s first night at the opera, we might find a more complex picture. There are so many details about operatic culture that perhaps Wharton is trying to ring certain bells in minds of the opera fans and haute-Manhattanites of her generation. At first, the evening’s events closely resemble the first matinée performance at the Metropolitan Opera on October 27th, 1883, which was itself a repeat performance of the opening night on October 22nd. Just as in The Age of Innocence, the role of Marguerite (the object of Faust’s desires) was sung by Christina Nilsson.
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.
It was Madame Nilsson’s first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as “an exceptionally brilliant audience” had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient “Brown coupe.” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)
Of course, Wharton wasn’t in New York in 1883, and according to her biography and letters, never witnessed Christina Nilsson sing Marguerite. We do know, however, that she loved Faust. One night at the Academy of Music in 1880 stands out in her letters. Her experience of mixing her own life and the subjects on the stage bears remarkable resemblance to that of Newland’s conflation of his betrothed with Marguerite. In reminiscing to her old governess about a performance in March 1880, she quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Ode to Beauty, writing:
I heard Faust sung on Friday night—at the Academy, and somehow you got mixed with the lyric rapture, and you were with me hearing it, and drinking your fill of those “Divine Ideas below / That always find us young / And always keep us so.” (March 27, 1880)
More curious is that Wharton describes an evening at the opera in which the role of Faust himself was sung by Victor Capoul, which only ever occurred once in New York. At the matinée on March 27th, 1883, the famed Italo Campanini, whose career had been built on Gounod’s Faust, had fallen ill and was replaced by Capoul.
“Faust” was repeated at the first matinée in the Metropolitan Opera-house yesterday. There was a large audience, the largest, in fact, that has assembled in the new building since the [inaugural] night. The performance of Gounod’s opera was, as might have been expected, smoother and in parts more effective than last Monday’s representation, and it was heard with much delight and many demonstrations of approval. Mme. Nilsson, being more familiar with the auditorium, sang at times with even more expression than on the previous occasion, and her impersonation of Margherita was notable for dramatic strength, as well as musical excellence. Signer Del Puente as Valentino and Signor Novara as Mephistopheles were both more satisfactory than before, while the place of Signor Campanini, who was unavoidably absent, was taken by M. Victor Capoul. (Review, New York Times, October 28, 1883)
“M’ama … non m’ama …” the prima donna sang, and “M’ama!”, with a final burst of love triumphant, as she pressed the dishevelled daisy to her lips and lifted her large eyes to the sophisticated countenance of the little brown Faust-Capoul, who was vainly trying, in a tight purple velvet doublet and plumed cap, to look as pure and true as his artless victim. (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)
Wharton perhaps competes for the accolade of “Opera Buff of the Century.” It’s apparent that her first chapter isn’t simply fictitious, but historical and auto-biographical at the same time. She describes her own sensations of a specific performance in history, which she never witnessed and set back in time from the 1880s into the 1870s. It’s possible that this is not a random collage, but a select montage of persons, places and events which mirror her characters.
Above all, The Age of Innocence tells the story of a woman constrained by society. The mysterious Countess Olenska also appears at the opera that night, to the dismay and disapproval of society. Recently arrived from Europe, she openly seeks to divorce her abusive husband and forge a new life in a city which she hopes would be free from the shackles of convention. Of course, as the novel progresses, she finds these conventions to be all the more rigid, noting of her American compatriots:
“But, do you know, they interest me more than the blind conformity to tradition—somebody else’s tradition—that I see among our own friends. It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 24)
But despite the icy reception from high society, the reality is that New York was not inimical to the arrival of newcomers or independent women. This was no truer than in the case of Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson, a soprano whose career took many years to gain traction in New York. Though beloved in Boston, and even more-so among her Nordic fans in the Midwest, Nilsson’s stage presence was known for a certain passivity and austerity, seen as unfitting for the romantic female characters of French opera, who ought to be engrossed in their male counterparts’ passions. This was partly due to her singing style, which was known for a certain iciness, but also to a bygone manifestation of American racism which regarded Scandinavians as a largely uneducated agrarian populace.
In the centre of this enchanted garden Madame Nilsson, in white cashmere slashed with pale blue satin, a reticule dangling from a blue girdle, and large yellow braids carefully disposed on each side of her muslin chemisette, listened with downcast eyes to M. Capoul’s impassioned wooing, and affected a guileless incomprehension of his designs whenever, by word or glance, he persuasively indicated the ground floor window of the neat brick villa projecting obliquely from the right wing “The darling!” thought Newland Archer, his glance flitting back to the young girl with the lilies-of-the-valley. “She doesn’t even guess what it’s all about.” And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity. (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)
But as time drew on, Nilsson soon became in demand, being invited repeatedly to perform Faust, including at the inaugural performance of new Metropolitan Opera House. Newcomers like Nilsson to the stage also mirrored the influx of a larger audience. No longer restricted to WASPS and visiting European aristocrats, the 1870s to 1880s saw an audience expansion across ethnographic lines with the maturation of the industrial revolution and the birth of a new middle class. Irish and Jewish immigrants once too poor to attend the opera (or excluded on the basis of ethnicity or religion) now had the means to do so. Such was the disdain for this operatic culture that on the opening night of the Met in 1883, it was apparent that many “typical” opera-goers (i.e. WASPs) were not present.
A NIGHT’S AMUSEMENTBOTH HOUSES CROWDED
Many surprises were in store last evening for that portion of fashionable and unfashionable New York society which had arranged for itself to go to the Metropolitan Opera House. Perhaps the first notable one was the disagreeable shock received by those who had thought to purchase the luxury cheaply.
These were absent when the curtain rose.
Next came the surprise (to many) of finding when the doors were opened, that although there were signs of haste here and there, everything visible was practically complete.
Next was a feeling of bewildered surprise at the unaccustomed paths to be trodden to go anywhere. And last was the enormous surprise that must necessarily have been kindled in the breast of Mr. Henry E. Abbey when the audience showed itself honestly cold in its criticism.
The audience itself was a complete surprise. Not in proportions. It was certain that the house would be full. But those who were expected by the “habitués” of places of amusement in New York were not there, and those who were not expected were in full force.
“You see such a lot you don’t know, you know, and, you know, you don’t see the fellahs you know,” lisped one young man, whose attire was as faultless as his imported manner.
Yet, as no one outside of the few who had studied the matter knew exactly what to expect, the surprises were taken as a matter of course, and the praise and criticism freely uttered on all sides seemed entirely spontaneous. (Review, New York Times, October 23, 1883)
The opera scene in The Age of Innocence does describe some Arcadian past, but it foretells the imminent changes about to beset New York.
The metaphors of the characters on stage become more apparent as the novel continues: May Wealand and Marguerite are fused, but the fate of Countess Olenska and Christina Nilsson are more closely tied, both women who managed to find their independence despite their disruption of social mores. As the novel continues, Newland Archer falls in love with the Countess Olenska as society watches silently. He thinks his affections are secret, but the dark reality is that everyone knows and refuses to say anything, preferring to manipulate the situation to remove the Countess from public view by returning her to her abusive husband in Europe. In this sense, Newland is like Capoul. The audience knows it ought to be Campanini on stage singing, and yet they abide Capoul (perhaps appearing in Campanini’s ill-fitting costume) and keep up the pretense that all is as it ought to be. Indeed on the opening night of the Met, the Times reported that Campanini and Nilsson “sang positively badly.” But five days later, despite issues with costumes, the same critic reported that Capoul and Nilsson’s performance was “smoother and in parts more effective than last Monday’s representation.”
Wharton herself was no stranger to the pretense of appearances when it came to love. Of the same period of the early 1880s from which Wharton’s operatic experiences are selected, Wharton would confide in her 1934 autobiography that:
“I inspired no romantic passions! It may be added that I felt none, & that the two or three young men who—in the natural course of things—honored me with their devotion, inspired me with no feelings but that of a friendly liking. I did not fall in love till I was twenty-one.”
This perhaps stands in contrast to the delight at having become engaged to Teddy Wharton in 1885, after a period of some emotional restlessness (after all, Wharton was careful not to name who it was she fell in love with when she was 21).
“If my present happiness had come to me at eighteen, I should probably have taken it as a matter of course, but coming to me after certain Experiences of which you know, it seems almost incredible that a man can be so devoted, so generous, so sweet-tempered & unselfish.”
What’s radical about this is not that Wharton liked opera, but that the experience of elation, transportation, and active participation as an audience member was vivid enough to inspire a novel forty years later. The Age of Innocence is an underappreciated novel in this regard, as it tells several different stories, or can at least be viewed several different ways. Like opera, the Age of Innocence contains personal, historical, and convivial elements which render a sort of universality despite dealing with highly specific subject matter. One does not have to be an opera snob to feel the emotional weight of the novel, nor does one have to know Wharton’s life story. But for those of us who do love opera, the novel is a reminder of the many benefits that a live performance can offer.
I ponder what Wharton would do with Met live streams today, having gone to great lengths to recreate a performance by Christina Nilsson that she herself never witnessed live, but only read about. Would it, like Scorsese’s adaptation, be a suitable and just compromise? For myself, I’ve certainly enjoyed the live streams, but I can’t wait for the return of live opera, where the size, emotional impact, and historical weight of a single work of art fuse into something personally meaningful for the listener. Wharton’s novel is but a glimpse into the totality of the operatic experience, reminding us that a night with Faust could prove to mean so much more down the like. When the lockdown lets up, what might a night at the opera hold in store for you, me, or any of us?
Direction: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer
Cinematography: Michael Balhaus
Music: Elmer Bernstein