Friday, 3 March 2017

Mutterings about Opera

Amongst my musings in this blog, opera features very seldom. I have written of my deep love of Tristan and Isolde, and of many Handel operas. I may at some time have mentioned that I also love Tosca and La Bohème, perhaps also of Bellini's Norma. But opera has never really been one of my passions, although I love collections of arias from 18th century opera. My latest happy opera hour was listening to Joyce DiDonato (mezzo soprano) and Patrizia Ciofi (soprano) with Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis in operatic duets by Handel. A stream of wonderful tunes and beautiful music that would have filled Schubert and Mozart with envy. There is a lot to be said for operatic music.

By the end of his professional life, my father was playing in the Sadlers Wells Opera orchestra. As a lifelong musician, he also loved opera, but from a musician's point of view. He liked the orchestral music and loved good singing. But he had no interest in the “plot” or in what was happening on the stage. I seem to have inherited this trait; for most operas – particularly those before around 1830 – I could not care less what the various tenors, basses and sopranos are singing about, which was probably the case with Handel's upper-class English audiences almost all of whom would have had a typical English ignorance of any foreign language, including Italian. The first opera I attended was in the Hamburg opera house, where I sat enthralled listening to Tristan and Isolde; I recall I had my eyes closed for much of the time in order to avoid being distracted by what was happening on the stage. If that was true then, it would certainly be true now when too many operatic performances appear to have been hijacked by megalomaniac stage producers determined to achieve immediate notoriety and to put the music composer in his place. The composer only has to specify “Sultan's palace, overlooking the Bosporus” for the producer to “update” the opera to the New York subway in 1958. Opera critics are quick to praise “imaginative” staging and “making the opera relevant to modern young people”. At the same time, music critics will be decrying the use of modern instruments and the absence of gut strings, etc. in defiance of what the composer would have expected. Bizarre. If you update Mozart to the New York subway in 1958, why not update that old-fashioned music at the same time, and maybe replace the violins with saxophones and re-cast the recitatives as rap music?

I recall many years ago in New York when a friend remarked that, as an economy, the Metropolitan Opera was dispensing with the side-stage sign language person who kept deaf members of the audience informed as to what was being sung. Bizarre, thinking of deaf people going to an opera, but it fits with the view of many commentators and critics that the story and the plot are of major importance; this results in commentators insisting on relating the plot at length even though, and certainly pre- 1830, opera plots are usually thoroughly silly and not worth bothering about. Some of the Mozart operas, of course, are an exception to the silly story phenomenon.

So I love listening to operatic music, but shun the distraction of staging (which is why I would never buy an opera on DVD). Sitting back in my chair, I can enjoy Bellini or Wagner or Mozart or Handel without the distractions and annoyance introduced by egotistical stage directors. Prima la musica, poi le parole. Le parole come a long way behind la musica for me.

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