Johann Gottlieb Rhode:
“On the Opera Nina, or, the Love Distracted Maid” 
|277| The author of Nina risked a great deal indeed in choosing a madwoman as the protagonist of his play, since in and of itself the portrayal of madness on stage is pointless, and merely fills our emotions with indignation.
Who cannot but still recall with aversion those many performances of the opera Die Liebe im Narrenhause,  it being indeed quite incomprehensible how anyone could portray the highest degree of human misery on stage as an object of amusement, in a condition, moreover, in which the unfortunate person forfeits the very character of a moral being, and how so many spectators were capable of laughing out loud when the unfortunate girl in that opera, after seizing a straw, believes she is plunging a dagger into her own heart.
The portrayal of madness in and of itself is pointless precisely because the point of dramatic presentations in the broader sense, namely, to present an example, is utterly lost. And yet, Shakespeare is quite capable of |278| engaging us even more through the madness he attributes to his Lear, and — Nina invariably brings tears to everyone’s eyes!
Both plays employ madness merely as a means to evoke more vividly the psychological consequences of certain emotional conditions, and to develop the moral origins of those conditions more clearly. In the case of neither, moreover, do we assume all sense and reason has been irretrievably lost, for we conceive their madness as merely a temporary condition and indeed associate our sympathy in this regard directly with our hope of seeing it ended.
The author of Nina can admittedly not be compared with the author of Lear with respect to the execution of his plan. With respect to Lear, the entire history of his mind as well as his heart is developed psychologically. The moment he begins to rave, we sense that he cannot but lose his mind precisely because we see that he does indeed have a mind to lose. This entire psychological development is lost in Nina, for it is through the narrative that we learn of both her history and her condition, and through this narrative that our imagination is summoned to replace direct observation.
This narrative is a bit lengthy and, if not well delivered, even boring; and yet it is absolutely necessary. We must already know who Nina is, how good and amiable she is, and why she has plunged into this unfortunate condition if at her first entrance we are to find her as interesting as we in fact do.
The appearance of her father beforehand is equally necessary. We must already |279| be familiar with his remorse and his tears at his previous behavior toward his daughter, and he must already have elicited our sympathy to a very high degree indeed if at the sight of his unfortunate daughter we are not to genuinely hate him, which was quite contrary to the author’s intention, who wanted merely to move us and sublimate all our emotions in sympathy and sweet melancholy — a goal to which the expressive, masterful music of Dalayrac quite contributes.
Our author’s ultimate object was the moment when Nina, after the cause of her madness has been removed, transitions once more into soundness of mind and reason, a moment that is equally interesting and suitable for demonstrating the most profound understanding of the human spirit and mind.
So we are to observe Nina in a threefold condition:
(1) in a condition of madness;
(2) during the transition from madness to reason, and
(3) in a condition of restoration.
The author lingers longest with the initial condition and concludes as soon as the third enters. On the whole, I have little to say about this treatment. He sought to engage and captivate his spectators for Nina, to win them over for her, and how better to do so than by providing a complete portrayal of her in her madness? He took away her mind that he might portray her heart all the more unconcealed. Nina — utterly incapable of dissimulation, inauthenticity, or calculation — |280| is wholly heart and wholly amiability.
Because she lost everything when she lost her beloved, the notion of his return accordingly means everything to her. Indeed, this notion has taken control of her entire being, and everything is lost for her that cannot in some way be associated with that return. Amid all this, she does have a dark consciousness of her condition; she believes she is ill, since she feels unhappy, and because she profoundly senses that this poor Nina is abandoned and — alone.
The author treats the transition from madness to reason quite deftly by leaving its execution largely to the actress herself who is performing Nina. That said, it is nonetheless inexcusable that this main crisis enters for the most part by way of a duet sung by Nina and Germeuil. Since singing and dialogue alternate in the play, the song form is here doubtless out of place.
Before I come to my evaluation of Madam Unzelmann’s portrayal of Nina, I hope I may be allowed a few remarks about the music. The high degree of genuine expression and declamation that Dalayrac was able to insert into his music is universally acknowledged. When Nina sings, one can hear that a madwoman is singing — and yet how beautiful is her singing! But how much beauty, how much true musical declamation is lost because a German text has been put to this music, music that is suitable, however, to the French words alone!
Dalayrac is one of the few composers who |281| truly understand the concept of musical declamation; he always knows why he is associating precisely this note with this word, since he understands the effects that notes have and how to accommodate them to the emotions to be elicited.
Through this translation, however, those specific notes are now associated with words that have quite different meanings and that connote quite different concepts than do the French words — and the entirety of the music’s declamatory capacity is lost! This is why Nina performed in French invariably makes a stronger impression than in performance on German stages, notwithstanding I know of no French actresses capable of competing with Madame Unzelmann in this role.
If the poet had any particular ideal in mind when developing his Nina, it could only be Nina as portrayed by
Madame Unzelmann does not turn Nina into an insane woman, not at all! Instead, a kindly, gracious madness has taken hold of her of the sort that in both its affectionate and its tragic expressions perpetually moves us to tears. Her gestures are not meaningless or pointless like those of an insane person; they are quite purposeful, true, and full of meaning.
And yet her mind has lost its ability to assess those purposes; she behaves like a child swinging to and fro between fantasies, both smiling and weeping over nothing. But the fantasies of poor Nina |282| have a specific reference, one infinitely important to her. The spectators sympathize with her; her smile unsettles them — her tears make them melancholy — thus Madame Unzelmann does not turn Nina into a dreadful being or an example of misery that can but cause us to shudder — no!
The emotion she evokes is that of melancholy, wistful compassion; and in the midst of the most genuine features of a broken heart, madness now also adds the comfort of forgetfulness, and at the mere sound of a shepherd’s pipe, the grace that had to characterize Nina before she became unhappy arises in her once more.
I will now try to demonstrate this general assessment by precisely examining her acting.
The first time she enters, the entire audience is awaiting her in a state of tension, everyone anticipating her appearance. Slowly, with unsteady steps, a bowed head, and with tousled and disordered hair, she finally appears.
She sits down on the bench in an arbor, where each day she watches and waits for her beloved. Her very first words already betray why she is there. She has picked a nosegay for her beloved, and gazes rigidly toward the place whence, at least in her imagination, he will be coming. Her speech soon transitions into song, and this song is Dalayrac’s masterpiece, and Madame Unzelmann’s delivery of that song a masterpiece of mimetic art.
And just as she transitions from speech to song, from prose to verse, so also is the entire play of her countenance elevated, and from |283| her portrayal she almost transitions to pantomime. The song itself includes the words:
und [ich] harre [des Geliebten] vergebens! [and I await (the beloved) in vain!]
These words are repeated three times,  and one can judge the subtlety of our actress’s performance if I describe the expression with which she delivers these words.
The first time, she puts the emphasis on “harre” [wait and watch], and her countenance is the most complete and perfect embodiment of waiting and watching. Carelessly leaning on the bench, she turns her face upward and stretches out her arms. She watches and waits for the beloved, and yet she senses that she is waiting in vain. I need hardly point out to anyone possessing even a modicum of feeling for the mimetic arts just how perfectly she directs her gaze into the vast, indefinite space of heaven. (See the first plate. )
The second time these words occur, she has through the preceding countenances prepared the audience for a completely different expression. Now she wholly emphasizes vergebens [in vain], and her countenance is the purest expression, the most beautiful embodiment of the feeling with which this notion cannot but fill her entire inner being. Her body position is more vehement, her legs more outstretched, her breast more hunched; her right hand covers her eyes and forehead, while her left arm is outstretched. (See the second plate.)
|284| At the third ocurrence, she emphasizes both harre [watch and wait] and vergebens [in vain] equally, and her countenance perfectly fuses the expression of both. Her legs have been drawn up somewhat, her breast rises, and her hands are held up folded over her head, in struggle, and toward heaven.
There is no need to say anything about the subtlety and accuracy in the choice of these particular moments of embodiment, or about the beautiful and true sequence in the strength of expression. They attest either the most profound study of the art form itself, or the most exquisitely developed sensibility on the part of the actress. . . .
|285| But let me return from this excursus to the performance of Nina. Her exit from the stage is touching and affecting. Once more, she has waited in vain for the beloved. She places on the bench the flowers she has picked for him, sadly wishes them farewell, and departs. But hardly has she gone even a few paces when she involuntarily turns back. Her gaze is fixed on the flowers and the bench, onto which she now sinks down silently, struggling with despair.
But her fantasy quickly changes; she seizes the flowers — after all, she picked them for him — and presses them to her mouth. Smiling, she puts them back down on the bench, calling out yet again a series of adieus, her hand all the while throwing kisses to them with equal rapidity. Suddenly, however, her gaze again turns rigid — tears stream from her eyes, and, sobbing, she says her final adieu! and hastens off.
What a remarkable portrayal of unhappy Nina’s broken heart! |286| Her entire being expresses itself here as if in a mirror. The rapid change of emotions — her standing there, alone and virtually silent — sadness, despair, joy, pain — everything revolves around a single point in characterizing the madness that has taken hold of her. This entire tableau is a masterpiece of our actress’s artistic sensibility, and especially the final transition — from smiling to tears — is as authentically drawn from the depths of the heart of the unhappy girl as it is inimitably performed and portrayed.
The scene in which she first sees her father is no less masterfully executed. She becomes uneasy when she sees him even though she does not immediately recognize him, and this uneasiness elevates into anxiety when she hears him speak — the tone of his speech awakens dark, apprehensive memories in her; she wants to flee, but without knowing why. And finally her conversation with the alleged stranger, her fright when he mentions her father, her entreaty that, if he has a daughter, he ought “never to afflict her — and, above all, if she loves, beware of crossing her in the choice of her heart, for that causes a grievous etc.”; all this is delivered with such affecting truth that it cannot but bring a tear to every eye.
Finally, the beloved himself appears for whom she has been waiting; but she does not even recognize him! And yet the sight of him affects her like an electric shock. With his appearance, all the memories of her past reawaken in her, but obscurely, confusedly — and amid the vehement struggle of her emotions, she faints, helplessly.
Yet even this collapse has a positive effect on her mind, the unnatural tension of her feverish condition |287| abates, and the coldness of her mind and heart begin to dissipate. The image of the beloved becomes ever clearer to her; she presses him to relate everything to her, since she herself has forgotten it all — and with every memory he elicits in her and clarifies for her, she takes a step forward.
Gradually, gradually she begins to become aware of reality again, and the confused images of her mind begin to organize themselves. She recalls the final scene with her beloved in the arbor, and in this very moment she sees her father. At the sight of him, a whole new array of memories of reality awakens in her, indeed so strongly that the remaining ideas her imagination has conjured recede; she has suddenly found the one feature enabling her to distinguish notions of reality from those of delusion. She cries out loud and collapses — but no longer mad — at the feet of her delighted father.
I remarked at the beginning that the author handles this transition from madness to reason quite deftly by only intimating at the path the actress is to take while leaving to her the actual execution. With respect to that execution, it admittedly takes an actress of the caliber of Madame Unzelmann if the connoisseur is to find truth in and be satisfied with this transition. Inevitably, however, a whole array of subtle turns and gestures betraying refined emotional nuances and an accurate |288| observation of nature will be lost on the great mass of people; at the same time, however, the true connoisseur will perceive them with delight and then offer both admiration and gratitude to the artist!
Before concluding this article, I would like to make a few remarks about the copper engravings that normally accompany these articles. According to various assessments the author of this article has heard concerning these engravings, people have wholly misunderstood their real purpose. People are objecting
(1) that they do not at all resemble the actors and actresses depicted.
But it was never the intention to provide portraits of actors and actresses in these engravings. Nor could even an extreme resemblance to such contribute even the slightest to their purpose, yet neither can any potential dissimilarity with those persons thwart their goal, since their objects are not the person of the artist, but rather the art in that person’s performance.
They are, moreover, also found
(2) faulty insofar as they are not rendered with sufficient subtlety and beauty.
This objection, too, utterly misses the author’s goal. Even the most subtle, artistic engraving might well prove less commensurate with this goal than a few hastily drawn features — assuming the latter are drawn with mimetic correctness. The subtlety and purity |289| of the engraving is related to the mimetic expressions of the figures approximately like the quality of printing paper to a book’s actual text. Since we admittedly would prefer to possess a good book printed on vellum rather than on blotting paper, and quite justifiably can demand external elegance from a publication dealing primarily with taste and the fine arts, so also has the author assigned the future execution of these engravings to the renowned director of the Academy of Art here, namely, Herr Daniel Chodowiecki, that nothing might be left undone whereby he might address the public’s wishes.
But one might ask: what is then the real purpose of these engravings? I feel obligated to answer this question in full.
Nothing in recent times has hindered the progress of art in general more than the way critics and writers write and rationalize about it. Goethe quite justifiably complains in the introduction to his Proplyläen concerning the indefinite quality of most of what is written about art insofar as that writing thereby become quite useless to the actual artist and connoisseur.
Critics speak, for example, with delight about a given painting’s harmonious use of color, about the veracity of expression and beauty of the figures, etc.; but not a single word is said regarding how that charming harmony of colors is produced, and what exactly makes |290| the expression true and the positioning beautiful; in short: absolutely nothing is said about that with which art is in fact concerned.
The result is that the true artist has gradually come to view the art critic with an indifference bordering on contempt. Of what use to him are the declamatory descriptions and vague judgments that are based on not a single specific reason? What does it help to know what this or that person “felt” when viewing a certain work of art, when what he is really concerned with is to learn what actually produces those feelings in the observation of a work of art?
Because he finds little or nothing in publications that he might genuinely employ, he quite naturally concludes that the theory of art is nonsense, and that the artist must in effect train himself. And yet such is precisely the hazard to which newer artists succumb when seeking to approach antiquity or perfection.
This lament concerns especially the imprecision in judgment in what is said and written about the acting arts. One can read reams of wonderful words about the truth of expression, the beauty of portrayal, etc., and yet only rarely learn what the critic understands as “truthfulness of expression” or why he finds or does not find it here or there. In short, the reader must simply take him at his word |291| because he provides no reasons for these judgments (or knows not how to provide such). The reproached artist tends to believe the latter to be the case, and is often justified in doing so. . . .
These are the reasons the author uses this rather than any other form for his assessment of the local stage, and why he accompanies the selected moments of the performance with drawings |292| whose mimetic correctness and precision he and many other witnesses can attest. . . .
 “Ueber die Oper: Nina, oder Wahnsinn aus Liebe,” Berlin: eine Zeitschrift für Freunde der schönen Künste, des Geschmacks und der Moden 3 (1799), 277–92; illustrations of Friederike Unzelmann as Nina, ibid.
To get better sense for the difficulties attaching to the female lead’s performance in this play, to which Dorothea alludes in her letter and as described in this review, see the following storyline (Romantische Liebe und romantischer Tod 99):
Nina, the daughter of a count, was once engaged to Germeuil, a childhood friend and now an extremely virtuous young man. The wedding day was set when suddenly a rich rival appeared and convinced the count to withdraw Nina’s hand from Germeuil and give it instead to him, the rich rival. During a meeting between the two rivals, Germeuil is injured in a duel and flees. Nina believes he is dead, and when her father tries to coerce her, despite the duel, into marrying the rival, whom she rejects, she falls into a deep mental crisis or instability and depression.
The play itself now shows how Nina emerges from this crisis. In the first five scenes, Nina’s guardians describe her unstable condition at length, her vacillation between hope in Germeuil’s return and despair, between awareness of her surroundings and a retreat into dreams and anxiety; on the other hand, her father now repeatedly demonstrates his compassion with his daughter and his remorse.
In scene 6, Nina appears for the first time on stage. Here and in the following scenes, the audience sees what has previously only been described, namely, Nina’s isolated mental condition, her vulnerability, and her suffering because of the separation from Germeuil, for whom she daily picks a nosegay. Fortunately, Germeuil returns in scene 11, reconciles with the count, and manages, in the final scene, to draw Nina back to reality and to consciousness, to reconcile her, took with her father, and thus to attain a harmonious ending. Back.
 German libretto from Nina oder Wahnsinn aus Liebe. Musik von d’Alairac. Clavier-auszug der Reichs-Frey-Frau von Dalberg geb. von Greiffenclau unterthaenig zugeeignet von Sterkel (Mainz 1787), no. 4, “Larghetto.” The libretto provided here does not repeat “ich harre vergebens” (I wait and watch in vain), but rather
(vs. 1) "ich harre vergebens" (wait and watch in vain) (vs. 2) "ich lausche vergebens" (listen in vain) (vs. 3) "Ich rufe vergebens" (call in vain).
The libretto used by Friederike Unzelmann, at least in the performance being reviewed here, seems to have repeated “ich harre vergebens” in each verse.
By comparison, the French original speaks about the beloved
(vs. 1) not returning; (vs. 2) not singing; (vs. 3) not calling out.
The English libretto speaks about Nina
(vs. 1 ) looking but not espying; (vs. 2) listening "but, alas! in vain!"; (vs. 3) the well-beloved not calling. Back.
 Rhode delivers a short excursus on the relationship between the theory of art and its engagement by the artist and on how the artist, once thoroughly versed in the theory of art, no longer needs theory, it becoming instead second nature, as it were. Back.
Translation © 2014 Doug Stott