What do we do with a problem like Baroque Opera?

One of the paradoxes of the modern revival of interest in Baroque opera is that it is a form unsuited to life today. We live in an era in which we are increasingly likely to tear from one moment in our lives to the next, barely registering the experience before moving on to take in the next one. True, for the more culturally inclined there are exceptions. In the world of music we might point to the symphonies of Mahler or Bruckner and, most notably, the operas of Wagner, all if attended in the way they demand requiring rather more than today’s default two-minute attention span.

It may come as a surprise to some that measured by time-span Baroque opera, or at the least Italian Baroque opera, can often compete with time-defying Wagnerian amplitude. Compete with but not be compared with. The ethos behind the extreme flexibility and fluidity of Baroque opera stands at the opposite polarity to the Werktreue rigidity and marmoreal grandeur of the Wagnerian Gesamstkunstwerk (literally ‘complete art work’). Yet so hidebound are we by traditions dating back to the 19th century that in reviving Baroque opera we frequently strangle its innate freedom, pushing the genie back in the bottle in the process.

So how do the needs of Baroque opera differ so markedly to those of the 19th century? Well, for a start we must abandon the concept of a musical work, for no form in the canon of Western art music demonstrates mutation and variability to a greater degree. When a composer – not always the principal component in the greater scheme of things – was commissioned to write an opera he did so in the knowledge that he would be writing it for the leading singers contracted. If he had worked with, say, the prima donna previously he would have a fair idea of the kind of aria that suited her or that she favoured or even require. Otherwise he would be dependent on trial and error and expect to make many changes during the course of rehearsals and even after a run of performances had started. Were his opera lucky enough to be revived, probably in another city, it would often bear little resemblance to the original. New local conditions, a different cast and other considerations would determine that his opera may at times have metamorphosed into what was tantamount to being a new work, even at times including the music of other composers.

This contradiction of the concept of the work also played a considerable role in reception, in which social conditions played a major part. In Italy in particular public opera going played an important role in social life after its exponential rise in popularity during the second half of the 17th century. A key aspect of this phenomenon was the role played by the system of theatre ownership and box ownership by notable families in leading operatic centres like Venice, Naples and Rome. Such patronage was far from being restricted to viewing and hearing the opera. If you owned a box you might well go to several performances during the run of an opera, but equally you might not go to the whole performance. When you did you found other ways to amuse yourself or socialise during the course of an opera with which you had already become familiar, perhaps attending to only your favourite arias or favourite singer. Indeed one bemused English traveller found that some Neapolitans never socialized at home, conducting all their wining and dining in their private box at the opera. It was a unique culture, more often than not misunderstood by northern European observers

When we turn to the operas themselves we find further problems linked to their staging today, both practical and intellectual. The major practical problem is stagecraft. In major centres opera was staged with spectacularly grandiose sets, often designed by leading architects of the day and incorporating complex machinery that allowed for fantastical effects such as gods descending from the heavens on clouds that audiences came to expect. Today such effects are beyond all but the most generously funded houses or the two or three historic theatres still equipped with original stage machinery. Opera plots, too, are a problem for modern audiences, since they invariably fall into one of three categories: mythological stories, stories drawn from the great classics of Italian literature or stories based around actual historical figures. All three genres featured topics that were thoroughly familiar to the kind of cultured audiences that patronized opera in the 17th and 18th centuries. All three feature topics that are totally unfamiliar to the majority of a 20th or 21st century audience. Additionally before the production of a new opera the libretto went on sale to enable its incipient audience to purchase it and thus peruse its contents before the performance. It is sadly a practice undertaken by only a very small part of an audience faced with an unknown opera today. The remainder are more likely to fall into the category of the couple I overheard some years ago at Glyndebourne. They had arrived to see Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse convinced they were attending an opera by the ‘other’ Verdi.

It is obvious from the foregoing that for many reasons if we are to indulge our recently acquired taste for the operas of Monteverdi, of Handel and, increasingly, his contemporaries compromise will be involved. We are not going to sit solemnly in a darkened theatre for three or four hours during which the slightest crackle of sweet paper will inspire outbursts of ‘shhh’s’. Neither will we be permitted to eat our dinner or be allowed to come and go as we please during the course of a performance that will also likely include ballets. But because we love ‘Lascia ch’ia pianga’ and the latest countertenor sensation we have of course compromised. Let’s be clear that given the extraordinary adaptability that is Baroque opera there is absolutely nothing intrinsically wrong with making it fit for purpose in the 21st century. But it should be equally clear that both sensitivity and understanding should play a major role in any approach to the genre. Too often they have not and do not.

The early days of modern interest in Baroque opera, almost entirely devoted to Handel and largely if by no means wholly centred on Germany, saw the operas traduced in various ways. In particular roles intended for castratos (male sopranos or altos) were transposed for tenors and even basses, thus making them more acceptable and ‘believable’ to early 20th century audiences. Such transposition meant that at the same time the composer’s tonal relationships were often destroyed. In addition to cuts (on which more later) the careful balance and emotional weight of the da capo aria, with its A-B-A structure, was not infrequently undermined by omitting the central B section and repeat of A, the former often bringing new and contrasting ideas and emotions. Today these aberrations by and large lie behind us, having been replaced by other equally egregious horrors.

I would suggest these mostly concern the near entire takeover of Baroque opera by mainstream producers, a benighted profession mercifully unknown during the 17th and 18th centuries. This not simply a case of their updating or setting scenes in locations starkly at odds with the original intentions of the librettist and composer. Neither is it just a case of them having singers indulge in grotesque actions completely at odds with the nobility and sensitivities of the text they are projecting. Rather it is the (often deliberate) misunderstanding and betrayal of an art form to enhance the egocentric world-view of such producers that is the real crime.

Consideration of performance criteria and standards reveals a happier if far from perfect state of affairs. The emergence of period instruments and with them lower Baroque pitch(s) in the latter half of the last century has brought with it greater understanding of the role and sound of the orchestra we use for operas of the period. Less praiseworthy is the function played by continuo instruments in later Baroque operas, fundamentally harpsichord and cello, but now invariably augmented by lutes of varying sizes that often impose themselves far too forcefully. Even worse is the recent addiction to the harp as a continuo instrument, an instrument totally unsuited to such a role and an anachronism that needs to be abandoned as swiftly as it arrived. It must be stressed that these observations do not apply to operas of most of the 17th century, where the support for the singer played by the continuo group before the emergence of the orchestra plays a completely different role.

The singing of the operas of the period today reaches a far greater level of overall competence and stylistic awareness, though I would argue it has regressed since the days (1970s and 80s) of the early music ‘ghetto’. The incorporation of early opera into the mainstream has brought with it the widespread use of all-purpose singers, many of whom see early music as a stepping stone toward a bigger and better career. Indeed it is not uncommon for conservatoires to encourage them to do so, a profoundly unsatisfactory attitude. Such singers frequently fail to measure up to the demands of the repertoire, bringing to it a continuous vibrato that is not appropriate and that should not be as acceptable to conductors as it is. Most specialist singers are today capable of encompassing many of the right aspects of technique and encouragingly this now includes many southern as well as northern European singers. Thus runs are cleanly articulated and ornamentation generally reasonably stylistically applied and well turned. However two essential ornaments are in the tool box of far too few singers. I refer to the trill and the messa di voce (a crescendo followed by a decrescendo on an open vowel), both of which stood at the centre of conservatoire teaching in the 17th and 18th centuries but which on aural evidence appear not to be a part of it at all in many cases today. The other major failing concerns diction and textural clarity, the particular importance of which in the music of the Baroque all too few teachers or singers seem to recognise.

So how do we go about trying to solve the problems outlined in this essay? ‘What have we done well? What do we need to do better?’ I have put those questions in quotes as they formed part of a notification recently received announcing a conservatoire-organised conference titled ‘Early Music in the 21st century’ A perusal of the agenda soon revealed that far from attempting answers to these fundamental questions the conference would be largely devoted to arcane academic topics, or as was explained when I queried the content, ‘the intellectual underpinnings of the whole movement’, asking ‘The Big Why’! Frankly I’d rather hear a single cadential trill beautifully delivered than spend pointless hours in an ivory tower trying to thrash out the meaning of ‘The Big Why’.

There are more useful practical answers and if the reader has not yet come across my video ‘Toward a Better Understanding of Baroque Opera’ - – I would like to suggest a viewing (it lasts c.30 minutes). There some of the ways in which we might enhance our appreciation and by extension love of the operas of Monteverdi, of Cavalli, the operas of Handel, of Porpora are discussed. Here I will simply conclude by summarizing two avenues that need urgent consideration. Firstly, we must wrest these operas back from the disrespect shown to them by producers and theatre directors in the name of making them more ‘relevant’ to 21st audiences. That does not mean a return to the lavish, sumptuous productions that are today beyond economic viability to all but a handful of opera houses. We have, for example, so far hardly scratched the surface of digital possibilities for creating stage sets. Neither does it mean the score is sacrosanct; we have already noted that it was not. Judicious cuts must therefore always remain an option but they must be done with sensitivity toward the structure of the opera and should involve whole arias, not the butchery of the arias performed. Then study of the Baroque gesture must become far more standard in the early music departments of conservatoires. This is not for the sake of making pretty patterns but because its correct application allows singers to identify far more closely with the emotions they are attempting to convey. More work is necessary on ornamentation in general and, above all, the trill in particular. We know the trill stood at the centre of the teaching agenda in the conservatoires of the day. It must be restored to that seminal place in every early music department. Finally, if we want to try to rediscover some of the visceral excitement of the first performances we might look more seriously at the art of improvisation, an art applied to their performances by the great singers of the period.

In many ways today’s performers of early music have revealed to us the untold riches of Baroque opera in ways many would at one time never have thought possible. It is surely not asking too much to go the final mile and do full justice to these fantastical, passionate works, one of the great treasures of our heritage.

The illustration that heads this essay shows the set for Handel's Imeneo at the 2016 Göttingen International Handel Festival

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