Monteverdi the Modern

September 4, 2008

Western culture has had a perennial method of reforming itself, making itself fresh and current: we repeatedly go back to the ancient Greeks. After the music of Renaissance Humanism had flowered into something very complex, certain intellectually-inclined Italians felt a great desire to purify Renaissance music of the luxuriance that had grown up. Hence what was called the secunda prattica. The High Renaissance style was thus thought of as the prima prattica, since the New Learning — as a sign of what C.S. Lewis called the New Ignorance — had thought of its own practice as being the first worth considering. (The Humanists, when they copied an ancient or medieval manuscript — making the emendations they thought proper — had routinely destroyed the manuscript, since their having improved it eliminated, in their view, further need for the source, thus greatly impoverishing our access to the past.) But the new experimenters in musical style were not so arrogant; they had the humility belonging to true explorers. Thus did the fabled Florentine camerata and its fellow travelers in Venice and Rome devise a new manner of singing — imitating their conception of Greek drama — that aimed for a naturalness of declamation and expressivity that went straight for the heart. In the process, they invented opera.

It was not necessarily foreordained that the graceful and satisfying style that we associate with these early operas should have resulted merely from a desire to return to the old Greeks. Wagner, after all, professed an identical goal with rather different results, because he, like the creators of early opera, chose from the ideas and methods that were in the air around him to create a new art. That many still find solutions of both Monteverdi and Wagner (as well as other back-to-basics movements, like that of Gluck) fresh and rewarding is surely a sign of their complete success.

It has long struck me, though, that the musical style of the secunda prattica as exemplified by Claudio Monteverdi, represents one of the most miraculously fresh, ever-green impulses in our musical heritage.

After a little initial publicity for the new and rather wittily named Opera Omnia some months ago, I happened to run into the producer and director of their planned first production. It was to be Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea and would be performed in the new, innovative performance space in Greenwich Village, Le Poisson Rouge. A little conversation with the impassioned young producer convinced me of his zeal, as well as his knowledge and pronounced instincts. Thus it was no surprise to arrive at the last performance of the sold-out run of five shows (after considerable trouble squeezing myself past the refuseniks clamoring for space in the jammed house), to find an assembly that was electric with anticipation. And it must be said that the avid air never seemed to dissipate during the three hours of musical drama before us.

Why should this be? Why should the high-minded ventures of an innovation designed for audiences at the turn of the 17th century hold a noticeably varied audience in thrall on 21st-century Bleeker Street? I have long tried to analyze for myself what it is about the characteristic monody that those people had devised that makes it so compelling as direct communication. Its melodic contours are largely predictable (except when they aren’t, usually at highly dramatic moments), and its harmonies are mostly baldly functional (except, again, when they aren’t, and for the same purposes). I had pretty much decided that the character was layable to the character of the Italian language and its complete reflection in the melodic contours that the composers devised for it.

That idea was overthrown before my eyes in this Poppea, however, since it was sung in English without any loss in the charm of these graceful monodies. The subject of opera in translation is eternally debated, and my only contribution to the debate can come from my own experience. The justification for calling forth my personal story is to show one person’s inconsistency of reaction — which may be a mildly instructive instance of why the subject never seems to come to any definitive resolution.

My first experience of Mozart opera was the old Met recording, in English, of Così fan tutte, a work that I can still sing from beginning to end (aside from the large cuts the Met then made) in the Ruth and Thomas Martin translation. I remain grateful for that acquaintance when I had not long emerged from infancy, but it has to be admitted that it colors my reaction to the work to this day — a sort of inner surtitle going on continuously.

In late youth, I heard my first French opera sung in English. It was at the English National Opera, and I declared — with a finality that only the young can achieve — that French opera lost all its character when translated. This decision was quickly bolstered by their production of Manon, which seemed to me insipid in English. Just this past season, however, I’ve seen another Englished performance of Carmen — as it happens, in a live Webcast from the same ENO — that I thought completely successful. I didn’t mind the absence of the original words at all. I don’t believe that the determinative change was in me. I’m convinced that it was just that the second Carmen was a superior performance that swept away even such basic considerations as the differences between French and English.

One of my other memorable exposures to high-level opera in English also took place in London. In the days when Roger Norrington (now Sir Roger, of course) ran the Kent Opera, I heard them at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre three nights in a row. They performed, in English, Idomeneo, Rigoletto, and The Return of Ulysses. At the time, I found myself saying that, in English, the competition among the operas was not even a contest. The Monteverdi came out on top as the most successful of the entertainments. Given the chops of the other two composers involved, this result surprised me.

For what could be more wedded to the Italian language than the declamation of Monteverdi’s singers? It is a musicological truism to say that Henry Purcell did for English something like what Monteverdi had done with Italian. Could Purcell’s stage pieces work in Italian? Can we even hope to prejudge this question in the abstract? It might be instructive for native English-speakers to test, at least mentally, how possessive we may feel about some of our own language’s musical setting. It’s admittedly difficult for me to imagine Billy Budd in Italian, or The Dream of Gerontius in Spanish. On the other hand, while the mind may revolt at the prospect of Ives in French, I find it quite agreeable to imagine something as “quintessentially American” as Stephen Foster in German. (“Beautiful Dreamer” almost seems to want to be in German, and a line like “List while I woo thee with sweet melody” seems halfway there already.) Hence the complexity of individual reaction to these things.

The larger point here is that, while there may have been in contrary breasts a yearning for the original Italian at Opera Omnia’s shows, the audience seemed to be as rapt as any presenter could wish (or as any bean-counter could wish, since we were told that the project had come out in the black). What could this success be laid to? I want to mention first the thing that seems to have received least journalistic attention: the orchestra was above praise. With all respect to the fine singers, every small interlude of pure instumental music was a breath of fresh air. So far as I’m concerned, the small ensemble of remarkably unified playing left nothing to be desired and provided the ideal under-painting for what the singing superimposed.

The immediacy of that singing in the atmosphere of a relaxed conviviality that included a bar and tables with drinks freely flowing was of course another indispensable element. While the instrumental playing was utterly idiomatic, vocal production and style for this repertory is a much more problematic issue and one that is rarely settled better than it was here. It is a very sensitive topic, since these singers — like almost all their colleagues — cannot afford to give up their all-purpose approach to singing for the sole sake of occasional performances in a repertory in which projecting to the furthest galleries of a vast hall is not a consideration. Not that anybody over-sang, but that the whole orientation of vocal production that has become normal has this essential task of projection near its core. It involves a kind of projection that was irrelevant in the chambers and intimate theaters that allowed this delicate, nuanced vocal art to develop and first thrive. It is clear from their generous writings that the connoisseurs of early opera valued the subtlest shadings that included radically quiet singing.

Too often a success like that enjoyed by this Poppea is seen simply as a justification for moving on to the next triumph — or disappointment. Many a company has been an early bloomer, only to look back with permanent nostalgia on its early success. Without in any way fearing such a fate for Opera Omnia, it was nevertheless cheering to hear rumors of a possible continuation or revival of this production. What could be a better laboratory for their aims, a better refinement of their successes, a better detective project for things that might be improved, than a continuation — an expoitation, if you will — of their demonstrated affinity for this particular opera? There is, coincidentally, London’s Monteverdi Choir as a sort of precedent: that famously successful venture began with and derives its name from an initial outing with Monteverdi’s great Vespers of 1610, to which it has often returned with signal success. Why shouldn’t Opera Omnia have The Coronation of Poppea as its explicit fons et origo, its touchstone, its constant point of reference during a flourishing future?

Wesley Chinn, Producer; Avi Stein, Music Director; Crystal Manich, Stage Director

Cast: Hai-Ting Chinn, Cherry Duke, Melissa Fogarty, Jeffrey Mandelbaum, Marie Mascari, Melanie Russell, Kathryn Aaron, Richard Lippold, Robert Boldin, John Young, Steven Hrycelak, Molly Quinn

Avi Stein, cembalo; Daniel Swenborg and William Simms, theorbo and baroque guitar; Christa Patton, baroque harp; Motomi Igarashi, viola da gamba and lirone; Aaron Brown and Dongmyung Ahn, violin

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One Response to “Monteverdi the Modern”

  1. […] Poisson Rouge has been cited here before for its presentations and means of presentation. I’ve now been there for five very different […]

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