Real Rossini

December 4 2007

On an Overgrown Path, the best blog about “classical” music (mainly of the last hundred years), quoted Anthony Holden in The Observer, June 17:

La donna del lago, Garsington, Oxfordshire, Thurs to 7 July.

“Like his twin brother Christopher and all too many other globally renowned opera directors, David Alden can be maddeningly inconsistent. For every award-winning Jenufa or Ariodante at ENO, there are two or three eccentric turkeys gobbling their way round provincial houses. Now he has elected to head into rural England and immediately, infuriatingly, disastrously caught the country-house bug.

“Rossini may be best known for his comedies, but the mature composer also wrote ornate, high-romantic dramas. One such is La donna del lago, the first Italian opera to be based on a Walter Scott novel, inspiring 25 more in the two decades after its 1819 premiere, not least Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. We might never have enjoyed such riches if Alden had directed La donna’s premiere. At Garsington (above) he reduces this noble work to a shambolic panto. Perhaps it is because he’s American that Alden signs up to the general belief that black-tied, champagne-quaffing English country-house audiences must be made to laugh, and have a jolly evening out, whatever the work on offer.

“So the rebel Scottish army becomes a bunch of can-swilling lager louts, staggering around the stage in a parody of music-hall insobriety. The trouser-role romantic lead, Malcolm, is a punk in Sex Pistols T-shirt and Doc Martens. Mustachioed deer smoke cigars and read Country Life, pickpocketing their drunken hunters. The baddie, Rodrigo, does a Ricky Gervais stand-up routine in horns and leather jacket; when he gets angry he starts, guess what, overturning tables and chairs. Yes, just about every available stage cliché is on view.

“Only the heroine, Elena, manages to maintain some semblance of dignity amid this puerile chaos, though the vocal range of Carmen Giannattasio is severely stretched by Rossini’s coloratura demands. The same proves true of the tenors Colin Lee, Michael Colvin and all other principals. David Parry conducts with more enthusiasm than finesse, while Alden makes a Monty Python mockery of high Rossini. The audience, of course, loved it.”

End of quotation.

This was the year in which the BBC began to market the Proms as Glyndebourne for yobs.

Back to 1964, or earlier. Hans Werner Henze:

“[Visconti’s] humility is in contrast to the widespread, fundamentally more uninhibited procedure of producers who solve their problems by chopping classical texts about, and removing classical works of music from their context so as to reproduce them in modernistic forms, in styles these works have never dreamed of. I am thinking above all of stagings of Rossini operas beyond the Italian frontiers, where the producers evidently start out convinced that the ‘Swan of Pesaro’ is such a boring old bird that it would be impossible to present him to the spoilt modern public in his original form, and therefore the score must be cut about, the libretto rewritten, and the plot gingered up with all sorts of ‘desirable’ frolics and pranks. If this were done to a work such as Così fan tutte there would no doubt be a public outcry. The oeuvre of Rossini in the original forms of his opere buffe e serie should be treated with the same respect for the text as that of Mozart, Verdi or Wagner. The buffo elements are not ‘humoresques’ (Is there really such a thing as ‘funny’ music?) but rapid tempos, staccati, crescendi, hard cold marble, frugal elegance; their scenic equivalent should be dry in the manner of Goldoni, stylized, ceremonious; a circumscribed minimum of gesture should suffice, as the scores prescribe, with more precision than words could attain. Thus the spirit of Rossini, steeped in the rich experience of the Italian theatre, would all at once be standing in front of us again, close enough to touch; this would be ‘living’ theatre.

“But even the works of Verdi and his forerunners are vulnerable; they are not taken quite seriously. Some producers believe they are serving the cause of Verdi when they consider the scenic requirements he specified no longer valid and ignore them, and by using decor borrowed from the repertoire of modern painting, lose sight of the original spiritual landscape of the composer and his music.

“It is typical of this trend that the producer pays less attention to the visual form of the work that emerges from the music than to the possibilities of conceiving the opposite of what the composer and librettist might have intended. What I suspect is involved here is, at least to some extent, fear of the avant-garde press, and of a public which has just reached the level of 1930s dramatic modernism, and for the time being is not prepared to think again and try to understand that there is only one scenic solution for a theatrical work, namely the one the author had in mind. As operas from other periods can be staged only in their historical and social context, one must accordingly realize the visual imagination of the age in which they were created and to which they belong. If one emphasizes that, say, the music of Verdi is immortal or has not aged, one has to accept that his visual and intellectual world has aged as little as his notes. If Verdi’s music is still young, then so is the painting of his time. Verdi, together with all great masters, had an extremely precise vision of theatre, which is sufficiently documented; their taste was excellent, even if it does not happen to be yours. In my eyes any attempt to approach the scenic realization of these works in a more ‘metaphysical’ way than is necessary for practical reasons, represents a minor falsification, an expedient, but not an artistic and not a creative answer. Producers, especially of opera, who feel the creative urge should first of all apply it to [modern opera, ie to] investigating the precise visual and stylistic relationships within the sound image created by contemporary visual and sensual stimuli – and at a stroke music drama would have one fewer dilemma and, in its place, one more fine task.

“It may be that certain plays can be staged by drama producers freely and in new ways. But as drama has nothing to do with opera except in quite peripheral ways (such as the presence of a stage, a curtain and an auditorium), and since in opera the real producer is always the same, namely the musical score, the craft of the opera (unlike that of the drama) producer consists in mediating, in making ‘visible’ the score, which is the cultural context of the work. There is nothing to be invented or added, things must only be made as luminous and truly beautiful as possible. This alone requires so much cultura, inspiration and talent that a lifetime would hardly suffice for an opera producer to master his profession.

“Whereas I do not feel it is appropriate to transpose music of other cultures into a form that ‘corresponds to our time’ (What form would that be?), in the mise en scène of contemporary works the entire arsenal of modern art should be enlisted. […] [But even in modern opera] the collaboration of set-designer, producer, composer and conductor should be far more intensive; insufficient collaboration, or neglected or ineffective communication (sometimes deliberately so) often enough result in distortions, false conclusions and untruths that serve and give pleasure to no one.”

Why is there no Henze Reader in print?

From Visconti and Opera Production in Music and Politics, Faber and Faber, 1982. Translation by Peter Labanyi of Studien in Neapel in Essays, Mainz, Schott, 1964 and Musik und Politik, Munich, dtv, 1976.

Henze’s position seems uncompromising, but he isn’t advocating slavish reconstruction. He wants Rossini’s works to live. I saw an excellent modern stylisation of La pietra del paragone in Munich this year. Re-imaginings don’t fail when they reach for meanings which are already in the work.

In a post on eighteenth-century taste, I quoted Karl Popper in a Comment at the end which is indirectly relevant here.

“What I must describe as Toynbee’s irrationalism expresses itself in various ways. One of them is that he yields to a widespread and dangerous fashion of our time. I mean the fashion of not taking arguments seriously, and at their face value […].”

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2 Responses to “Real Rossini”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    I can live without Jonathan Miller’s updatings, but he does make a distinction between them and what he calls German Konzept-regie.

    “‘Two things I can’t bear about opera,’ he volunteers. ‘I can’t bear that Zeffirelli-esque, picturesque historical kitsch, which seems to me to be just sedentary tourism on the part of the audience. And on the other hand I can’t bear what has infected England which is a German Konzept-regie where you disfigure it, make it interesting in order to show there’s a director at work. It’s fraudulent rubbish.’”


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