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Rebuilding Early Opera Performance



Recently I came across an interview with the doyen of classical architecture, Quinlan Terry celebrating the publication of his new book [1]. In the interview Terry describes his struggle to gain acceptance in a world in which rampant modernism had, to use his word, ‘brainwashed’ all but a few in the milieu of architecture. He was told by the Architectural Association that unless he submitted a design for a ‘modernist carbuncle’ for his final exams he would fail. His answer was to submit a parody of modernism, ‘a hideous building’, to again quote his own words. Needless to say the adjudicators loved it, thinking Terry had finally been converted to the conventional modernist way of thinking. As a practising architect, and despite (or perhaps because of) the advocacy of the likes of Prince Charles, Terry’s work, including his masterpiece the Richmond Riverside, has been widely excoriated by his critics, who describe his work in terms of tired clichés such as ‘chocolate box’.

What I found particularly striking about Terry’s observations is that he faced problems that were – and remain – analogous with those met by those of us struggling to put Baroque opera on the map in a form that would be recognised by its originators and their audience. We face the same uphill struggle to overcome the same rampant brainwashed modernism that prevails in today’s opera houses, institutions long ago taken over by producers and their servile camp followers, opera administrators. Such is their arrogance that producers not only fail to recognise, but indeed feel no need to recognise, that the performance, staging and production of early opera have special requirements that differ from those of the mainstream. The way in which you approach putting a Verdi opera on the stage is not the way you go about staging a Monteverdi opera. Whatt the time the remarkable modern early music revival started around 1960 operas of the period were rarely staged. If they were – and it was nearly always one of a small selection of Handel’s with the odd Monteverdi


What particularly struck me about Terry’s observations is that he faced problems that were – and remain – analogous with those met by those of us struggling to put Baroque opera on the map in a form that would be recognised by its originators and their audience. We face the same uphill struggle to overcome the same rampant brainwashed modernism that prevails in today’s opera houses, institutions long ago taken over by producers and their servile camp followers, opera administrators. Such is their arrogance that producers not only fail to recognise, but indeed feel no need to recognise, that the performance, staging and production of early opera have special requirements that differ from those of the mainstream. The way in which you approach putting a Verdi opera on the stage is not the way you go about staging a Monteverdi opera. What we have today is in fact a regression. At the time the remarkable modern early music revival started around 1960 operas of the period were rarely staged. If they were – and it was nearly always one of a small selection of Handel’s with the odd Monteverdi Orfeo - it was generally by small niche companies that at least made an attempt to reproduce some kind of period style, albeit usually of a necessarily threadbare nature.


When early opera eventually entered the mainstream it was dragged willy-nilly into the prevailing culture of modernism and the cult of so-called ‘Regietheater’, or director’s theatre, a world dominated by left-leaning producers anxious to put their own political stamp on any opera they got their hands on. Such has become their hold over opera that over the past half-century it has been a brave conductor or critic to contest the hegemony of the all-powerful producer. To do so also runs the risk of falling foul of the posse of critics whose own lack of understanding of early opera is equalled only by those stage directors to whom they are in thrall. I was to discover this when being ‘cancelled’ by several such London opera critics for various sins but specifically that of expressing empathy with the trenchant views on the topic of unsympathetic modern production held by the late Winton Dean, the great Handel scholar.


Yet there can be grounds for hope and again we can to turn to Quinlan Terry’s interview to find them. He explains that when the Richmond scheme was put out for tender there was an alternative, ‘hideous scheme’, which might well have gone ahead but for the decision to present the two designs to the public and ask them to vote on them. Quinlan’s design won, being a good example of how when the public is asked for its viewpoint it generally comes up with the sensible answer. Much the same applies to opera. It has been shown on more than one occasion that faced with a choice between a realistic set and characters that behave like human beings as opposed to demented idiots screaming among a pile of detritus, it will, with the exception of the irrevocably brainwashed, choose the former. In my own modest way I have proved how a return to staging Baroque music drama with the correct movement and gesture can return to this music its inherent beauty, grace and elegance. The performance of Handel’s dramatic cantata Aminta e Fillide given in London in 2019 (and repeated in Vienna in January 2022) proved how positively an audience will respond to such a presentation. Very recently someone that attended the London performance - not an avid opera goer - told me without solicitation how it had left a lasting impression on them, how they still recall the sheer beauty of the performance. It is such a reaction that makes one realise that for all the hold ugly modernism has on opera the seemingly endless uphill struggle to restore early opera to its true state is not just worthwhile but necessary. Until we do there can be no real understanding of a genre we have rediscovered only in our lifetime.

[1] The Layman’s Guide to Classical Architecture, Boförlaget Stolpe


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