Early Music World
Opera and the Age of Arrogance
The 21st century is an age of arrogance that manifests itself in a variety of forms, some interlinked. It is arrogance born of the fallacious belief that mankind has attained a state of universal, all-pervading wisdom surpassing that of the past. Often with little or no justification we believe we know better than our forbears, no matter what the subject or the circumstances. (There are of course some disciplines where this is unquestionably true; surgery might be cited as an example). This cult of arrogance can be observed in many walks of life. In religion it has led to the casting out of beautiful liturgies that after serving worshipers well for centuries are ruled to be in some way irrelevant to the needs of modern congregations. Instead they have had new and often banal liturgies foisted on them, meekly accepting such changes.
There are countless further examples, many driven relentlessly by the curse of ‘progressive’ intellectual liberalism, a curse that has poisoned many aspects of Western life, insidiously eroding such cherished traditions as freedom of speech in the name of spurious concepts such as ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’.
This widespread culture of contemporary arrogance extends to music, in particular two areas which I own to be of special interest: early music and opera. While individual examples might be quoted in both cases, here it is the combination of the two, early opera, that I will address. It can hardly have escaped the regular opera goer that in recent years it has become near impossible in the overwhelming majority of European houses to see a production of any opera written up to the end of the eighteenth century that attempts to respect the integrity of librettist and composer, instead burdening such works with present-day ‘concepts’ that frequently reflect the political agenda of the producer. So insidiously powerful is this tyranny that any attempt to protest that we owe a duty to protect the precious artistic heritage of the past is frequently met with derision. This from just those who should have the interests of opera at heart: from producers, from critics, and from opera goers who have become so indoctrinated they no longer recognise the truth.
Revisiting this article in the summer of 2017 brings the realization that little or nothing has changed since it was first written. Indeed I was inspired to return to it by two new productions, at Glyndebourne and the Salzburg Festival, of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito that opened within a week of each other. As another article on this site - https://www.earlymusicworld.com/la-clemenza-di-tito - attempts to show, although not without dramatic weaknesses, La clemenza is one of Mozart's most noble and elevated creations. What worries modern critics most is the opera's perceived old-fashioned style. It is, we are told, an opera seria, which it is not in the correct sense of the term. Even worse, heaven help us, it was adapted from an old libretto by Metastasio. Thus, we are told, La clemenza marked a return to the 'fusty convention from which he [Mozart] had moved on'. Among such critical garbage spewed out in the wake of the Glyndebourne and Salzburg productions we can also read 'Not even Mozart held a torch for this opera', a statement that is blatantly untrue, as anyone that takes the trouble to read the article on the opera on this website will quickly discover. Virtually every review I have read of the two productions betrays misunderstanding and often grotesque distortions of what the opera is about and what motivates its characters. It therefore follows that La clemenza is an opera that needs the 'expert' help of its director, here the notorious Peter Sellars in the case of Salzburg and the not-quite-so notorious Claus Guth at Glyndebourne. Sellars' production need not detain us long. This is a Frankenstein's monster of a production in which the director has bolted onto the opera extracts from other works of the composer - the C-minor Mass, the Requiem and so on - to help poor old La clemenza cling to survival in the 21st century. In this he had the willing collaboration of the conductor Teodor Currentzis, who on his own account has added a Baroque guitar and a lute to Mozart's scoring. 'But why not?', purred the critic of one of Britain's leading dailies. Well, actually because both are totally anachronistic in a Mozart opera. But heigh-ho, I'm the conductor and that dead white guy is not around to blow me a well-deserved raspberry. This enlightened critic saw not just the emperor's new cloths but a whole wardrobe full of them, ending her review by gushing to readers that the evening ended with rapturous applause. Yes, of course it did. We are now in the Nineteen Eighty-Four of operatic understanding and reception, with audiences no longer knowing what the truth is. That this is so is to no small degree the responsibility of critics such as the Salzburg La clemenza reviewer quoted above. Such scribes were also out in force for Guth's dismal swamp-infested Glyndebourne La clemenza, in which all the pomp and colour of ancient Rome is drained away to be transposed into black, modern bleakness in order to project 21st century psychological mores onto Mozart's helpless creation. But no mind. We are told that Mozart's score still contains some 'delicious' (!) music, while several reviewers described the major obbligato parts for bassett clarinet and bassett horn as being for clarinet. We also told that Sesto has a propensity for violence - an assertion for which there is not a shred of evidence in the libretto - and that he plots revolution. No, he doesn't, at least not in Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. Sesto attempts to kill his friend Tito because he is commanded to by the woman with whom he is obsessively in love. Such scenarios still play out today. Such overwhelming ignorance of anything the opera stands for can be summed up by the critic who wrote that the opera, is Mozart's 'enlightened take on an old opera seria text', as he put it, 'is for all its toadying to the newly-crowned Emperor Leopold'. In fact there is no 'toadying', the truth is exactly the reverse. Knowing Mozart's attitude to authority it seems far more likely that he was subscribing to the original Metastasian philosophy of the piece. That he was giving a gentle didactic reminder to the new emperor: 'look, this is how a good enlightened ruler behaves'.
Today it is all too often the critics who know no better who rule the roost. In Britain such critics are mostly attached to the national press, familiar names forming a cartel admitting to little incursion and even less knowledge and understanding of the early operas they write about. Many of these critics play no more ambitious a role than that of becoming camp followers of fashionable, often notorious producers. This was vividly illustrated by some of the critical reaction on the occasion of the disastrous Covent Garden production of another of Mozart’s sublime serious operas, Idomeneo (2014), One noted national newspaper critic, who complained pitifully of the hostile reception the production received, summed up with superlative foolishness by informing her readers that, ‘Director’s opera, or regietheater (sic), is sometimes only graspable after the event’. What utter nonsense is this? Of what value is a production that has left the critic ‘baffled and irritated during the performance’ only subsequently to reveal ‘… insights that remain in the mind’? One suspects that there are many cases where such post-performance interpretation plays a large role in critical determination. If this is what a ‘renowned’ [likely for all the wrong reasons] producer has done with this piece, then one must seek valiantly to understand his motives, even if they baffle and irritate us in the theatre. So, seemingly, goes the thinking.
At least equally as damaging are the contradictory views of those early music orchestral directors that have embraced the philosophy of modern production. Indeed the Twitter account introducing one leading British early opera company is hilariously oxymoronic, telling its visitors ‘We bring you historically-informed early opera in exciting contemporary stagings’. Trying to interpret such oxymoronic gobbledygook is no easy task, but one assumes that what the statement is attempting to say is that while the company will utilise singers with some notion of the stylistic demands of early opera and its orchestra will employ period instruments, it would have no compunction about the ‘concept’ of setting Giulio Cesare in the context of such 'exciting contemporary stagings', as, say, Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia or a North Korean munitions factory.
It is such inane nonsense that rules the world of opera today, a world that has all but forgotten the wonderfully exotic irrationality of historical opera, with all its colour, spectacle and grandeur. And, yes, there is indeed a political message in the serious operas of the time (and indeed in the mixed genre operas of the 17th century), and often a social message in the comic operas. But both social and political message are those of the Enlightenment, not the 21st century, in the case of serious opera either a blueprint for just and reasoned rule or a warning to those who would flout it – ‘the instruction of mankind in a pleasing way’, to quote Pietro Metastasio, the greatest of 18th century librettists. By distorting the true objectives of the operas of the 17th and 18th century centuries, we insolently pervert such works to a reflection of our own image and distracted times, a task that is the legitimate province of the contemporary artist, not Handel or Mozart.
The above article was written and revised on several occasions, most recently in 2017. Returning to it today I am not surprised to find that my views have changed little. What has happened is that my thoughts have turned increasingly toward a more positive ways of thinking about how we might approach Baroque opera, employing not our own parameters but those of its time. This means ditching completely the Darwinian theory of operatic evolution and recognising that early opera has its own set of demands that do not conform to those of later opera. Those demands are too many to explore in depth here, but we might perhaps examine what is perhaps the most critical thorniest of the problems and the one that defeats modern producers more than any other. I am speaking of the da capo aria, the standard format for all dramma per musica from the end of the 17th century. As its name suggests, it involves the repetition of its opening section, a repetition that was embellished with additional ornamentation that most of the greatest singers of the 18th century extemporised, leaving open the possibility and on many occasions the actuality of the audience hearing a different version of the aria every night of the opera's run. (This is just one reason why audiences frequently went to more than one performance during its run; it gave them the chance to hear what their favourite singers would do that night). Let us also recall that the singer was at the front of the stage, directly addressing the audience, not performing cart-wheels or fooling around with others on stage. So if we do what was intended the 'problem' of the da capo aria resolves itself. Concentration is therefore on the interpretation of the aria both vocally and as an expression of the text. To in any way create a distraction from that objective - as almost all modern directors do - is an unforgivable sin.
The simple fact is that Baroque opera does not need a director in the modern sense and is almost certainly invariably better off without one. Any singer appearing on stage would have trained in movement and gesture at the conservatoire they attended. Stage positioning also had its guidelines. Far from an autocratic overseer whose word is final, preparing an opera for performance during the Baroque era was combined effort involving some or all of the principal figures involved: the composer, the librettist, the stage designer, the conductor, the singers and the prompter. At the end of 2019 I found the opportunity to put some of my ideas into modest practice with a production not of a full-scale opera but Handel's pastoral dramatic cantata Aminta e Fillide. I was extremely fortunate to work with some outstanding singers and musicians and if the final results were certainly not perfect they produced sufficient evidence to show that if we are truly understand this magnificent repertoire we must have the courage to trust it on its own terms
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