“Modernized Opera” can sound a little scary, especially if implicitly (mis-)associated with the term “upgrade” which came out of Hollywood and Silicon Valley almost simultaneously in the last several years. Perhaps this is why some people are so against it: it sounds as if their changing the notes to modern notes! Or completely reversing the tone of the opera in some sardonic way. Operas should not be modernized because they are old but because it makes sense to do so. The two terms in quotes shouldn’t be associated at all: the former is a style, the latter a consumerist slogan and a euphemism for dumbing-down. Bringing the action of the opera into the present either explicitly or in some less realistic or even abstracted way, where there is a motivation, can be a wonderful thing and be high art. When the imagery the designer and director create make poetical and musical sense in the way it unfolds through the piece, with its own internal logic compatible with that of the music, it is a wonderful thing and there is no reason modern images are necessarily excluded from this (there is the problem of literal contradictions in the libretto, references to “pastorella” or “boschi” or “selva” in an opera taken to the modern inner city, but those are a separate matter).
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra specializes in playing Baroque music on period instruments, though they often include earlier 16th and later 18th century music too, but for this program they have taken a cross section of late Baroque Italy and Germany selecting pieces all from the 1720’s and 1730’s (or in a similar style). They have also invited Roman violinist Riccardo Minasi to direct and conduct the orchestra with a program of interesting Vivaldi concerti as well as the much more obscure Jan Dismas Zelenka, who was only rediscovered around the middle of the last century, though his 300th birthday in 1979 passed without any celebration from the recording industry (according to Early Music). A Bohemian originally, Zelenka played double bass for the Dresden court orchestra, later composing for the royal chapel, then for a short while acting as Kapellmeister. The ABO plans to play a bit more of his music next year, a sample of his church music. They have also announced for their 2012 season Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in concert, which is wonderful news for Sydney operaphiles who now at least have three operas to look forward to next year — L’Orfeo, Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades with Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony and the Pinchgut company’s production in December. Baroque music, especially in the serious and exuberant way the ABO plays it, is lively, vigorous and sanguine but without violence or forcefulness. In this way Baroque music has much to teach humanity of the 21st Century.
Before the drawing of the curtains, five Mexicans squat on the stage, toiling timelessly, while a sixth peddles knicknacks in the stalls as though it were a plaza full of tourists with bulging pockets, which it is in a way. “Don’t encourage him,” one utters sheepishly as another plays patron of the quaint local arts and crafts, exported from Mexico to the Edinburgh International Festival.
Point taken. Whenever period orchestras venture far beyond the Baroque, they have something to prove. But at last night’s concert of Wagner and Berlioz by the esteemed Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, some of the proof was self-evident. Banished completely are the intonation problems that plagued such ensembles in the past; one felt secure in the technical abilities of every section; the wind soloists played as expressively as anyone could wish. London is a center for period performance, which has become beloved. Sir Simon Rattle has conducted Act II of Tristan, in concert with the forces of Berlin and Vienna, but it’s good to be flexible, and since he enjoys a long-standing rapport with the OAE, they were a comfortable fit.
Punchy, zingy, raspy, and rushed. By far the most erratic concert of the summer season was delivered at last night’s Prom where Paavo Jarvi brought his small band of Bremen town musicians (that is, the well-regarded Deutsche Kammer-Philharmonie Bremen). When Haydn made his second celebrated visit to London in 1794, he employed an orchestra of up to eighty musicians playing before crowds of perhaps a thousand. So it’s pure affectation to ask forty musicians to play two of Beethoven’s most powerful works, the Violin Concerto and Symphony no. 5, in the yawning spaces of Albert Hall, which seats over six thousand. In the name of period style we were treated last night to three double basses, all but unheard beyond the first few rows. They might as well have sawed the air.
Here we go, period style again. I’m not happy when great music is lorded over by wheezy academicians. But London is the world capital of authentic Baroque performance—there are more recorders and hautbois toodled across the land than sheep in the fields—and a packed house greeted Paul McCreesh, a leading light in the movement, when he stepped onstage at Albert Hall last night. The occasion was a festive performance of Haydn’s The Creation. Festive because the forces involved were very large, with woodwinds tripled, brass and percussion doubled, and a chorus of around a hundred. Haydn had been overwhelmed on his first visit to London when he encountered mammoth Handel performances, and like Mozart, he hungered to hear his own music with expanded musicians. He got his wish. The numbers onstage duplicated the German premiere of The Creation, which even in the English-speaking world is almost always performed as Die Schöpfung in German. Actually, it’s advised to listen to this work in a language you don’t understand. More on that in a minute.
Aston Magna, one of the oldest and most distinguished early and baroque music festivals in North America, opened with a magnificent concert featuring the great Dominique Labelle. It was also a significant celebration of the Haydn bicentenary, with one of the great Opus 20 quartets, his important secular cantata, Arianna a Naxos, and some wise words from Artistic Director Daniel Stepner on how to listen to Haydn.
Bardo, Hammer and Wallach: It’s a great treat to hear masterful and polished performances of this music that never betrayed the letter of the style yet never failed to be gracious, emotive, varied and thoroughly musical.