The Uses Of History

One of the new things in classical music in the twentieth century was musicians playing ye olde musicke on ancient instruments (or recreations thereof) and in the manner and style of epochs long past. Call it Early Music, Period Performance Practice, Historically Informed Performance, Authentic Performance or anything else, it was and remains a point of contention among classical musicians and listeners. The arguments, while interesting, are better explored in depth elsewhere at the moment. My personal view is that it’s the results that matter, that is, if playing Mozart on instruments and in a style seemingly appropriate to his own era produces successful, satisfying performances, then all the better, but if the result is a dogmatic lecture without musical interest, then no matter what ideas and instruments are used, it’s a failure. There have been a lot of excellent performances and recordings in Period style, and the innovations of the thinking and especially research have both recovered a great deal of fine music and added a new and beneficial way of thinking about the details, especially in terms of tempo, color and phrasing. Like it or not, Early Music ideas are here to stay, wether the strings are strung with gut or steel.

The philosophical oddity of the movement is that the new thing is about bringing old ideas in front of the public, while the old thing was whatever musicians were doing with older music in their own, contemporary style. It’s a paradox. Of course, a lot of the “old” thinking leads to good music-making as well. And it’s important to note that it wasn’t the Early Music people who did all the research and recovered all the music. The impetus, arguably, began with the old fashioned long hairs, even people like Stravinsky and Robert Craft, who began their own archeology of the past. Of all the works that have been rediscovered, the most important by far has been that of Claudio Monteverdi, the first opera composer and one of the greatest composers in music history, and one of the most important contributions to his recovery was made by the quintessentially academic, long hair (although bald) composer Paul Hindemith, who on June 3, 1954 gave a public performance of his own attempt to reconstruct the premiere of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Four hundred years after the first performance of the opera, we can hear Hindemith’s realization on a fascinating and musically involving recording from the Music & Arts label.

Monteverdi’s three known operas have survived in varied record-keeping quality. L’Orfeo has always required some level of editorial intervention for a complete performance, and so there are arguments about scholarship and style. Hindemith seems to have set this all in motion by making a reconstruction in 1943 that attempted to re-create the original production, free of the aesthetic desires of contemporary music. Blame him or praise him as you must, but it seems Early Music owes it all to him. The recording is of this 1943 version, made at it’s European premiere, with members of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, a cast that included Gino Sinimberghi as the title character, Patricia Binton as La Musica and Uta Graf as Euridice. Hindemith himself conducts, and offers a four minute introductory speech (in German), followed by three short pieces from Gabrieli, seemingly to set the contemporary context of the opera.

The way we have come to hear this style of playing by 2010 is to expect lean, light textures, fast tempos, lively rhythmic playing, and there’s an inherent prejudice on the side of the illusion of accumulated knowledge, that we know more about how to play this music today than we did seventy years ago, as if it was a matter of technology; we have it today, they couldn’t know about it so long ago. This recording demolishes that altogether. The instrumental textures are in fact more delicate than the other leading recordings of the opera. Hindemith scored his version with an emphasis on keyboard instruments, including two harpsichords and an organ. He filled out the orchestra with lutes, strings (including the young Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who went on to become one of the most important Early Music conductors) and winds, with no brass. The delicacy of this sounds like it could be performed in a large salon, with audience and performers all at floor level.

Hindemith does an excellent job of judging tempos. He’s non-ideological, committed only to making each individual chorus and aria speak at what seems the proper speed, not making an argument but making music. There is a sense that all the musicians involved are figuring out what this music is and what it means, personally re-discovering Monteverdi. While the musical ideas may not be the last word on the subject, the playing is committed and lovely, and the singing is excellent. L’Orfeo is one of those pieces where it’s possible to dip into key areas to get a sense of what the recording is all about, and for this opera that track is always Orfeo’s hypnotic aria, “Possente Spirto.” The musical and idiomatic idea behind the character mesmerizing Charon means that, properly, the tenor must improvise a great deal. It is this that is truly exciting to hear on the Music & Arts CD, as Sinimberghi adds impressive figurations and decorations that are gorgeous musically and also thrill with the sense that the past is telling us in the present that it, too, understands meaning and value. The recording has good sound restoration by Albert Frantz, although with stuffiness to the overall quality. But this is more than just an interesting curiosity for Monteverdi fans, it’s an excellent musical achievement, and recommended for anyone who wants to hear and know this opera. An incredibly important document and a satisfying listen in its own right.

While the Hindemith recording demonstrates that past eras had greater knowledge than we realized, another newly released historical document demonstrates that the “old” ways of doing things were as fine as the “new” ways are. On November 27, 1971, Dame Janet Baker took to the stage of the London Coliseum to sing Poppea in The Coronation of Poppea , accompanied by the Sadler’s Wells Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Raymond Leppard. The production was Leppard’s own preparation of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, presented in an English translation, by Geoffrey Dunn, of the libretto, in the rule if Sadler’s Wells productions. The performance was broadcast on the BBC, and the release is of that live recording (there are stage noises, but the sound is fine, with spaciousness, resonance and a softly rounded acoustic).

The singing and playing represent a fascinating view of how musicians saw the past, forty years ago. Leppard’s orchestra has a bigger sound than what we are used to know, the phrasing, articulation and rhythms are more “modern” in the “old” manner; the musicians could be playing Vaughan Williams, and this is not bad or wrong, it’s a different way of thinking. If Early Music practice is about attempting to recreate the past, this Poppea is about reinterpreting the past. After this, and the English translation, which is clear and musical, the other obvious difference is that the edition Leppard prepared was a two act one, rather than the more common, three act version, itself the result of scholarship that furthered our knowledge of the opera after the fact of the BBC broadcast. This is all secondary and vaguely academic, though, to the primary reason this set exists, which is the presence of the great Dame Janet, one of the profound singers of the twentieth century. She is most known for her singing of Romantic music, like Mahler, and for her portrayals of the tragic heroine Dido in both Purcell’s and Berlioz’s operas, and it is a little disorienting to hear her as the calculating concupiscent Poppea. Disorienting, but worthwhile; she artfully shades the inherent richness of her voice into something a little lighter, a sonic cognate of the character, and her extraordinary talent to convey personality and meaning through singing makes the great success of her performance unsurprising in the end, as a great character singer will be great in any character. The style of Leppard’s conducting suits her musicality perfectly, and without dramatics or overplaying she dominates the set, her vibrancy is riveting.

The rest of the cast cannot, of course, match her, and it is here what little weakness there is in the recording lies. Barbara Walker and Elizabeth Gale are fine as Fortune and Love, but Shirley Chapman’s quasi-contralto is an odd blend as Virtue; Tom McDonnell has a good baritone, but the part of Ottone seems challenge his breath control; the remaining cast is strong, including Robert Ferguson as Nero and the excellent Katherine King as Ottavia. Overall, with Dame Janet and Leppard leading the way, this is an effective and moving recording, beautiful for the music-making and also the committed ideas that stand bravely against the tide of Early Music and show the important truth that great music can be interpreted in many ways.

And that is one of the great boons of the revivification of Baroque opera via the Early Music movement, the opening of an interpretive debate. Cultural memory in time means that which is most recent dominates our knowledge and sensibilities, seems to be the way things are, but in the case of opera, the older works have a natural quality of expression that became more abstracted through the Romantic era. The artificiality of someone singing to us in a dramatic work is easier to accept in the formal, transparent vocal structures in works like the operas of Handel. Handel’s music is marvelous, where his works might disappoint is in the staged drama. It’s a matter of knowledge, and the integration of libretto, music, acting and staging was something that developed through time, especially into and through the Classical era. For Handel, opera is a form where characters stop and sing to us, and each other, for long stretches of time.

The Early Music movement put more of these works on stage, and directors, seeing the open-ended possibilities, made them exciting and relevant. This is where the triumph of the concept is most apparent, in the combination of a specific kind of music-making, especially the light, clear singing styles, the aggressively exciting instrumental playing, and the creative opportunities to stage the stories, most of them out of Greek and Roman mythology, completely from scratch. For those familiar with the musical ideas, stagings like the Wooster Group’s La Didone, that combined Cavalli’s opera with a realization of Mario Bava’s darkly cheesy “Planet Of The Vampires” end up working easily and feeling slightly hum-drum.

The possibilities of Baroque opera can be seen in two recent DVD releases, one of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and the other a performance of Handel’s Admeto . Behind The Fairy Queen, and much of the best Purcell heard today, is the conductor William Christie, who has been a champion and leader staging and recording great Baroque operas in a style that is both rigorously researched and musically satisfying. The Fairy Queen is, originally, something called a semi-opera, but this Glyndebourne production, directed by Jonathan Kent, designed by Paul Brown and choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, turns the composers adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a fully integrated drama. Bottom and his fellow mortals are the cleaning crew in a mansion, the Fairies it’s secret inhabitants, contemporary dress so prevalent that figures who show up on stage in older style costumes are deliberately stripped. Of all the possible ways to stage any opera, contemporary dress is one of the most effective and, strangely, controversial. If a story is good enough to be seen and heard through the centuries, that it can survive contemporary stagings, and, though audiences grumble when Mozart, Verdi and Wagner are made more familiar to them (grumble out of some atavistic attachment to an imagined tradition), Early Music productions commonly present works in contemporary dress with witty, self-conscious gestures towards the artificiality of the Baroque tradition (four hundred years ago, audiences understood that the wires meant the characters were not actually flying, as they do today, and there’s delight in that). The music and singing, with Joseph Millson as Oberon, Sally Dexter as Titania, Jotham Anna as Puck and Desmond Barrit as Bottom, is as fine as one would expect from Christie, which means it’s gorgeous, clear, musical, direct and natural, and the production is beautiful, with skillful transformations between our world and that of the Fairies and a sophisticated, artful balance of contemporary ideas and specific gestures to how audiences in 1692 enjoyed the work. It’s not uncommon to see a semi-staged performance of The Fairy Queen, and this DVD represents as good a staged one as I have seen.

Purcell had the inherent advantage of working with Shakespeare’s story. Handel, one of the greatest of all vocal composers, wrote gorgeous music but didn’t give much thought to staged drama, or much more than was common for his time, which was, in retrospect, not much. As a result, his operas are great raw material for musicians and imaginative directors. One of those is filmmaker Doris Dörrie, who staged the tale of Admeto, king of Thessaly, love, confusion, betrayal and the meddling of the gods as a samurai story set in feudal Japan, with the contemporary touch of Butoh style movement that parallels and fills in the details of what the singers sing. It’s a brilliant and entirely appropriate idea, easily connected by two sympathetic ideas of structure, the vertical, formalized social structure of Japan and the vertical, formalized structure of Baroque operatic music. The costumes and design, including outfitting Ercole (William Berger) with a sumo-style body suit add complementary features to Handel’s score, expanding Admeto into a fully realized synthetic drama of song, acting, movement and stage craft. The cultures of the opera and the setting are mostly alien to us, but the combination of the two, accompanied by excellent music from the Festspielorchester Göttingen and conductor Nicholas McGegan, and with dynamic performing by Tim Mead in the title role, Marie Arnet as Alcest, David Bates as Tasimede and Kirsten Blaise as Antigona, is riveting and fully enjoyable.

Regardless of the results of the performances, a constant positive of the Early Music movement has been that the ages of the works are irrelevant, that they are as alive and matter as much today as they did in the 17th and 18th Centuries. That is fundamental to the work of Salvatore Sciarrino, autodidactic contemporary master whose music, though sonically avant-garde, is based in elements that live with us still from the past. His operatic and vocal writing, especially, would be impossible without the lessons that Monteverdi left us in his own operas and madrigals. This year’s Lincoln Center Festival presented the North American premiere of Sciarrino’s opera La Porta Della Legge, a short work for three characters based on a story by Kafka that later become a part of The Trial. Two different men try to pass the bureaucratic Gatekeeper at a nameless institution, but, more paralyzed by their own sense of powerlessness than any action by the Gatekeeper, they are unable to proceed, and die at the entrance. The music, wonderfully played by the Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal led by Hilary Griffiths, is made up of few discrete pitches and many sonic effects, like overblown flute, muffled violin glissando. The sounds are exact in time and dynamics, but their own quality is amorphous and abstract. The singers have more common lines, especially the Gatekeeper (the charismatic Michael Tews), who’s part is precise, declamatory and confident, like the character. The two men (Ekkehard Abele and Gerson Sales, both excellent acting singers) have different material, at once experimental and natural. They frequently mumble and whisper their lines, the music caught in their throats, just able to find enough volume to make its way to the audience, starting with speech and becoming song for a bit before collapsing and disintegrating. Unlike the Gatekeeper, they are unsure and can’t think with enough strength and clarity to say what they want and mean, they can’t ask or decide to pass through the gate. In it’s own way, this music has the fundamental emotional directness and urgency of L’Orfeo or Poppea, the artifice is that it is music, not that the expression has been abstracted.

The staging, by Johannes Weigand, made a virtue of this same basic directness and simplicity. Other than the curtain, a backdrop, a chair and, at the conclusion, some video, there were no other means. Subtle and slow movements of the curtain and changes in the lighting, by Sebastien Ahrens, made the stage time flow as effectively as the musical time. The climax, where Man 2 dies, had an astonishing presentation; as the character lay on the stage, the black curtain slowly descended and moved in from each side, forming an ever diminishing box of light that framed his head and then, finally, snuffed out all the light. This freedom to express just what the music and drama is about, without the burden of fusty tradition, is directly related to the creative freedom in contemporary staging of Baroque operas, and Sciarrino’s fascinating, mysterious work and the excellent production by all involved is a direct extension of that body of ideas, that sense of treating music as a living, meaningful and involving thing, of taking it out of the museum of history and making it part of lived experience.

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