An Interview with Alan Curtis - 17 November 1934 - 15 July 2015

Alan Curtis in 2006

The following interview was conducted for Goldberg Early Music magazine in early 2003, when I visited Alan Curtis  at his large and beautiful villa in the tranquil hills above Florence. It is here published on-line for the first time in tribute to an outstanding musician whose tireless scholarly and practical activity on behalf of early music will not be forgotten. The article is published here without alteration.

Alan Curtis is a man of many talents. One of today’s outstanding exponents of Handel’s operas, the American conductor and musicologist has also pioneered some of the most significant revivals of the past twenty-five years, the first to edit and bring before the public operas by Jommelli and Cesti, while his recording of Ferrari’s forgotten masterpiece Il Sansone caused a minor sensation. Less familiar is his work as a keyboard player who owns a superb collection of early keyboard instruments. His Goldberg Variations was recorded twenty-five years ago, yet is still rated among the top contenders, and he has recently commenced an integral recording of the Haydn keyboard sonatas. A modest, unassertive but immensely articulate man in his late sixties, Curtis’ energy and questing commitment remain undiminished, as Brian Robins discovered when he went to visit him at his home.

For many years you have very successfully combined an academic career with that of a practical musician. How did it all begin?

I grew up musically in a university environment. In American universities the performance of music is not only encouraged, but rewarded in a way that it can’t be in a European university, where musicology is pretty restricted. The good thing about the American system is that musicology is exposed to practical music and vice versa. My good fortune was to be trained in two universities where there was a good exchange between music history and performance. I then went to Berkeley at a time when it was possible to push them more in that direction [Curtis began teaching at Berkeley in 1960] with things like the founding of the Philharmonic Baroque Orchestra.

Does your interest in Italian music date from that period?

Well, in the sense that my first successful concert at Berkeley was the madrigal comedy La pazzia senile by Banchieri, which we got the idea of doing with a group of madrigalists elegantly costumed to one side and the action performed in mime by people dressed as commedia del arte characters. It was a big success and everyone was surprised by it. That gave me the courage and ambition to take on a much bigger project, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and we did it a couple of years later at Berkeley. I think it was the first time the opera had been heard in California, but it was certainly the first time anywhere in the world that it had been done with the original small forces the composer wrote for, with instruments other than the continuo playing only in the ritornelli. Some people still can’t accept this, but meanwhile it has become viable to do Monteverdi as it was intended to be done. So that was another milestone for me and led to an abiding interest in opera. It also led directly to my doing some operatic work in Europe, because Gustav Leonhardt, my former harpsichord teacher, had come to visit and heard some tapes of our Poppea. He was scheduled to do the opera in Amsterdam and asked me to bring my edition and my services as second harpsichordist.

What about the vocal forces in those Berkeley performances? The revelation for me on your recording was the use of a female rather than tenor Nerone, which makes the duets with Poppea infinitely more sensual.

That came as part of the evolutionary process. The reason it took me so long to do my edition was that during the course of doing it I got involved with other things and my ideas changed. And that’s an example, because the first time I did it I did use a tenor. But then I wondered if this was necessary and wanted to do it again and have a female Nerone. Many other details have changed and I’m still changing my mind about certain things. I’d like to do a revised edition with more information in it before I die. My work on Poppea began in 1963 – forty years ago!

Have you changed your mind on the most vexed question regarding Poppea, the composer of the famous final duet? I recall last time we spoke you remained convinced it was either Ferrari or Socrate.

I still think that. There have been some scholars who have now come out strongly in favour of Monteverdi, but I don’t think that’s tenable. I think we’re at the point where we accept that he is not its composer.

You’ve lived in Italy for a number of years. How did you come to settle here?

Well, that also goes far back in time. My first trip to Italy was in 1955 and I loved it so much. That’s the simple answer. After that I came back as often as I could, which from around 1963 was every year. Later I lived in Asolo, a beautiful little town in the Veneto and in Venice for a time. For the past four years I’ve lived here in Florence, which is very convenient and central. It’s also a very good place to be, more lively than Venice.

We can obliquely move from talk of Florence to Handel, since Rodrigo, one of the Handel operas you have recorded, was first given in Florence.

But never again!

Well, you’ll have to do something about that! 

I’d like to, but my first attempt at doing it here led to my doing it in Sienna instead. It was close, but the ancient rivalry between Sienna and Florence is perhaps still current!

The past couple of decades have seen an astonishing revival in the fortunes of Handel’s operas, which lie at the heart of his output. From a time when it was impossible to find more than the odd one recorded complete, we’ve now arrived at a situation where I believe we’re very close to seeing all of them on disc. You have yourself written of characters and situations that are alien to the 21st century, so that makes it all the more remarkable. How do you account for this development?

Let’s start with the fundamental that you mentioned – that opera is the core of Handel’s work and that thank God we’re finally realising not only that, but that we have grossly underestimated the richness of these scores. Many of us in the past, and I include myself, have glanced at the many volumes, forty-two or how ever many there are, and put them away. But returning to them again and again as I’m now doing, thinking what can I do next, I begin to get past the things that put us off in modern times; the idea of the absurd plot or the female voice taking male roles. These are things that have prevented our seeing how great the music is. Now we are not only recognising that it is great music, but we’re also finding ways to overcome this prejudice against the tradition. One of those is that we’ve discovered that someone like Carolyn Watkinson can not only be a good Nerone, she can also be a good Ariodante. That has led to some great singers taking on these male roles and not only vocally doing them splendidly, but also acting them on stage. Now we have more and more women who, without being masculine themselves, can convincingly assume a masculine quality both as to the voice and the action that is heroic in a way fitting for these eighteenth century heroic characters. It has also helped that gender has become a fashionable issue - ambiguity of gender is increasingly recognised and accepted. There are singers in the pop world who have made it more universally acceptable, so a modern opera audience is not necessarily going to expect that all the female singers have female roles and vice versa. That has directly affected the viability of putting Handel operas on the stage. Another thing that’s currently fashionable and has helped is that absurd and complex baroque plots are now appreciated, and even enjoyed. People don’t have to either take something very seriously or laugh at it, they can do both and laugh at something serious. Possibly that’s something to do with a world situation that’s so full of hideous absurdities all we can do is laugh. It means that when the heroine sings ‘shall I stab myself or take this poison’ – which occurs three or four times in Handel’s operas – it can of course be ridiculous and just slapstick, but it can also be done with a sense of irony, with a sense of playfulness and at the same time be something to be taken seriously and can allow the singer to think seriously.

You’ve just strongly accentuated the use of female singers in Handel’s male castrato roles, and I believe that, like René Jacobs, you’ve now moved firmly away from casting Handel’s heroic castrato roles with countertenors. Can you us tell us a little about your reasoning for that. 

It really has very much to do with what we were just discussing. Since you mention René, he was one of the five countertenors I used in a single opera, Cavalli’s Erismena, which was certainly a record at the time, and for all I know may well still be! But people like you are beginning to notice that I don’t use them much any more and let me say that’s not simply just my choice. One of the reasons I’m using fewer is that the good ones are just too busy. But having said that I must also admit that I’m increasingly in favour of mezzos and contraltos especially. The soprano voice was never an option, because I don’t believe in the idea of male sopranos. You don’t arrive at a beautiful soprano register without being castrated. The countertenor voice is flexible enough to attain a note or two, say, above the range Handel gave Senesino, but I imagine he was quite capable of singing an F or F sharp, although Handel never wrote above an E for him. The problem is that they don’t have the low register that Senesino had. They can’t do strong coloratura in the lower register and therefore countertenors are not an ideal solution for the Senesino roles. I think we have to find a female substitute. René has done a nice article about this problem of blending these low chest notes with the higher register and increasingly there are women who can do this. There used to be really no contraltos left – it had become a non-existent voice type. When I first heard Caterina Calvi I encouraged her strongly, because she seemed to me to be a true contralto. Shortly after others emerged who are true contraltos – among them Sara Mingardo and Sonia Prina. And I think that is the solution for these Senesino roles, a woman who has not only the range, but also the strength and the coloratura, the brilliance and heroic quality. All of these things are hard to find. But I’m still open to using countertenors in Handel and I believe we should be open to everything, as Handel was. He worked with countertenors and all kinds of voices. But he had very high standards, so as a result of those high standards at the time most of his principal singers were Italians and many of them were castrati.

You’ve now done operas that span the whole of Handel’s career. One of the things that seems striking to me is how relatively little Handel developed stylistically as an opera composer. With those first operas like Rodrigo composed in Italy he seems to quite suddenly arrive as a fully-fledged opera composer. How far do you think this true?

I used to think that the early works were the best. I still think it’s amazing just not only how many ideas he had as a young man, but how fully developed, personal and rich those ideas were. However, he did continue to develop and, like many other composers, at the time of Rodrigo he was still writing mostly short arias. By the time of Radamisto, just a decade later, he was writing much longer arias. And it’s very interesting to compare the same aria he used in both operas. The opening tenor aria for Giuliano in Rodrigo was rewritten for Tiridate in Radamisto in the original version. The aria is transformed; there’s a trumpet which the Rodrigo aria doesn’t have and he also lengthened it and made it much more of a virtuoso piece. He also introduces more contrast and in short it’s a much richer and more fully developed aria and a better piece. There are quite a few examples of this in Handel. There are also, however, in the later works instances where he re-used something almost without change. Of course, there were times when Handel didn’t have the time or inspiration to change things, but when he did he shows us that he was continuing to develop and in addition to increasing the length of arias and formal complexity, there is also a slight change of style in that he’s more capable later of doing the same sort of light piece as Bononcini, so keeping up with the competition. He’s also capable of things that are at the same time heroic and modern, almost proto-Classical, like the ‘Scoglio’ aria from Scipione, which ends an act and is a magnificent piece. If you hear that out of context and you know Italian music, you wouldn’t first think of Handel. Is this Vinci? Who is this? But he didn’t choose to keep up with fashion just for the sake of it. Handel knew his own worth and he knew that his best arias were better than anyone else’s, so he wasn’t about to completely change his style. He knew that the things he did in Italy when he was a young man were good and that they were worth continuing to re-use. So he can be seen as a conservative, but in the best sense.

You mentioned Handel’s lighter style and I imagine you were thinking specifically of his last opera, Deidamia, which is of course your next Handel project to be released. It’s an unusual piece for Handel. Would you care to say a few words of introduction, since it will be topical when this interview appears.

It’s a light piece in the sense that there are a lot of major key arias and coming to it from Arminio it was like fluff. What I think I was able to bring to the piece that someone else might not have done was an emphasis on the more serious aspects,  in particular on the character of Deidamia herself. I believe Handel did take her very seriously and had a great deal of compassion for her desperate attempts to keep Achilles from going to war, knowing that he was going to die. But also it has the hunting scenes with chorus and a charming secondary couple in Nerea and Fenice in which they joke and tease each other and finally he says ‘Look, I’m not the flirtatious man you think I am. I’m really serious about you and want to marry you’ and Nerea just suddenly says ‘L’acetto’ (I accept). That’s one of the most deliciously comic moments in Handel opera.

One of the things that always particularly impresses me about your opera recordings is the treatment of secco recitative, which is often taken far too slowly and is more sung than dramatically conveyed. The recitatives on your recordings always have real  rhetorical point. To you it seems it has real importance.

Thank you! It’s so hard to convince people, even singers, that it’s an important part of opera. I would also add, reluctantly, that to accomplish what I really like to with recitative is something I can only achieve with Italian singers, and even then it’s a great struggle. I think there are non-Italians who can come very close, so I accept that as a compromise. I don’t insist on all-Italian casts.

I think there’s a classic example of the advantage of Italian singers on your recording of Ferrari’s Il Sansone, when the very first words of Roberta Invernizzi (Dalila), ‘È donna’ (It is a woman) leave absolutely no doubt that she is not only a woman, but what kind of woman she is.

You can’t imagine how much time we spent on that! And you can’t imagine how satisfying it is for me to find someone who can hear that. Sometimes one despairs, because you can work weeks long on recitative and have a record come out without anyone even noticing it. Its often much more difficult than the arias.

Well, we could talk about Handel all day, but perhaps we should move on and talk about something that may be a little more controversial. Your most recently released recording was of Vivaldi’s Giustino. It was very heavily cut, for which you made a strong defence in the booklet accompanying the set. My simple question is this. If it is not considered right these days to cut a Handel opera, why should it be acceptable to cut large chunks out of a Vivaldi opera?

I cut Handel! I cut a lot from Rodrigo.

Yes, but that was just recitative

When I do Radamisto in September, I will record it and also perform it in Italy and Vienna. There will be three different versions, because in Italy you have to cut a lot for a public that comes to hear a concert rather than Handel.  In Vienna you don’t need to make cuts. People come because it’s Handel; they know what a Handel opera is and they want to hear it complete, or almost so. The recording we will do absolutely complete, not because I want to be pedantic, but because with that particular piece there are no weak spots I feel need to be skipped over.

But how does that fit in with the cuts you made to the Vivaldi?

Well, I think it’s a disservice to Vivaldi to take a piece like Giustino, which even Vivaldi fans know is too long a piece – there are just too many things in it that shouldn’t have been left in. I think most people hearing my much shortened version will think it’s a viable piece and may then want to hear a longer version, perhaps.

Well, they have the opportunity, because of course coincidentally with the arrival of your recording, there was another absolutely complete version issued [GOLDBERG 21].

That recording came about as a direct result of my performances! I haven’t heard it, but if I do ever get round to listening to it, I don’t think it would change my mind. Handel is the greater dramatic composer and I feel that Vivaldi benefits more from being pruned. But I’m perfectly willing to admit that is something extremely relative and changing. Had I been asked to do Radamisto twenty years ago, I’d probably have insisted on a lot of cuts that I wouldn’t now. Certainly on the stage I’d have done a lot of arias without the B section. I hardly ever do that now, although there are exceptions. There’s an aria in Deidamia, for example, that we know Handel originally wrote without a B section, only later expanding it to an ABA because the singer wanted a longer aria.  In Giustino Vivaldi did the opposite and after writing a conventional da capo for Giustino's sleep aria, got the much more dramatic idea of having him fall asleep already at the end of the first section and thus re-wrote and greatly improved the aria. As you state in your Goldberg review, the other recording restores for us - rather anti-dramatically, in my opinion - the first version. And why can’t we contract something because the audience wants a shorter aria?  Nowadays we accept the convention of the da capo aria more easily, but working with Handel twenty years ago I would often think ‘do we really need to hear that again?’.

This has obviously come from familiarity with the form, but the increasing skill of singers in ornamenting repeats must also have something to do with it. In that sense we’ve come a long way. One way in which I think many of us feel we have not got anywhere is over the staging of baroque operas, which are still in the grip of producers who have no understanding of the conventions. What are your thoughts on this subject?

Firstly, I think that the view held by many people that historical staging has to be discarded because it’s boring is totally unreasonable. They cannot say it is boring, because they haven’t tried it. I don’t think any staging has yet achieved this, even though I’ve been associated with productions that have been cited as milestones in this context, like ll Sant’Alessio [Landi] in Rome, in which they really did try to make the staging look like the original. But it really wasn’t; there were too many compromises. So we’ve got to look at continuing to revive baroque machinery and the interesting parts of baroque stagecraft, not, as recently happened here in Italy, have someone visibly making waves throughout an entire opera! We’ve also got to be more imaginative and use gesture and movement to convey emotional conflict. I would say that relevance comes with quality. If something is good then it’s relevant to a modern audience. Of course we can’t assume that someone’s going to be interested in the inner turbulence of a royal personage just because they consider themselves a royal personage. A lot of the people who paid for productions in Handel and Vivaldi’s day were members of the nobility and were therefore interested in the emotional problems of the noble personages they saw on stage. Today we’ve got to find some other way to make noble people of interest to the public.

We can surely find the answer to that in Die Zauberflöte, where one of the priests says to Sarastro of Tamino, ‘but he’s a prince’, to which Sarastro replies, ‘but more than that he’s a man’. And that surely applies to opera seria’s  kings and nobles. They are real people in addition to happening to be a king or princess.

Yes, the way to make them relevant to modern audiences is to make them real people and that’s why I’m very much opposed to the current fashion, especially in Germany and England, of making fun of the plot and making the royal personage plebeian and vulgar. If Nerone is a humdrum business man who goes to a prostitute for an hour and then decides to marry her, it’s not very interesting. The idea that Nerone was the ruler of the world makes him historically a fascinating figure. He’s kept people interested in him and in his absurd behaviour over the centuries. Poppea is a fascinating ideal as well as probably a fascinating woman of the time who has to become special. Making her an ordinary prostitute doesn’t help.

Some of the most valuable contributions you have made to music have been the results of your musicological activities, the rediscovery and performance of forgotten masterpieces, the most notable of which was Ferrari’s Il Sansone. Have you any other surprises of this kind up your sleeve?

Yes, and I will start by saying that in my old age I think it’s time for me to also tackle well-known things, which is why I’m doing Radamisto. But even there I can’t resist doing something new, because in that instance I’m making a case for the original version, since all the musicologists and Handelians have decided that the later version is preferable. At the same time I’m working on David, an azione sacrale composed in 1724 by Francesco Conti, who was born in Florence and probably came back here to die after spending the whole of his productive life in Vienna. He was one of the best-paid musicians at the Viennese court and like Lully made a huge fortune by leaving his country. The music of Conti is very little known, although to my great delight a record with Bernarda Fink has finally come out [GOLDBERG 20], but these are not his greatest pieces. Although it doesn’t happen very often, it can be the case that something totally unknown is a masterpiece and you concurred in the instance of Sansone. I’m absolutely convinced that is also the case with David. It’s also relevant to my work with Handel, because it is the model for his Saul. So it covers the period of Saul’s mental anguish and jealousy and his throwing the javelin at David. In Conti’s version the orchestra depicts the throwing of the javelin even though it’s in the middle of a recitative. There is an ‘envy’ chorus that ends the first part where Handel’s librettist took the text almost word for word. Jennens, who read some Italian, must have known the work of Zeno, a well-known poet. Clearly the general outline of the piece and probably the idea of doing the piece has to do with Handel knowing Conti’s music. Borosini, later Handel’s Tamerlano, was Saul, so it would be surprising if he didn’t take the music of Saul, one of his greatest successes in Vienna, to England with him. But regardless of the Handelian connection, it is one of the great oratorios I’ve worked on. The choruses are very contrapuntal, the arias very dramatic. The resolution is particuarly beautiful because at the end Saul is blessed by a divine spirit, sees his future, the uselessness of his own jealousy and that David will become the next king.

Are we likely to get David on record?

I hope so. I’m doing it here in Florence with a modern orchestra, then on 11 October we shall do it at the Ambronnay Festival. That will be a semi-staged version in costume, so it will be given as an azione sacra. I hope to have Marijana  Mijanovic as David, Furio Zanasi as Saul, and Anna Bonitatibus as Jonathon.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about opera and vocal music, but we must not forget that you are also a distinguished keyboard player. One of the revelations for me today has been your remarkable collection of instruments. Can you tell us a little about that and how you came to build up such a fine collection?

The most rare is one that’s not here, but in Venice, a Silbermann. The collection has been built combining a lot of good luck with a lot of industry. The finds are always luck, but you also have to move fast once you’ve decided you want something. As you heard earlier, I don’t even have the time to tune the instruments much any more, but I do keep up my playing and the fingers still seem to work even though I don’t practise as much as I should. I still give occasional recitals, but no longer work at finding them. The big projects now take up most of my time.

How many instruments do you own?

Well, there are four in Venice, there’s one still in Berkeley, a very fine Christian Zell, while there are five here, including the only dated Walter fortepiano. There used to be more, but I have sold a couple. And that’s not counting organs; there’s a very fine eighteenth century organ in Venice.

Since our readers are always interested in forthcoming recording projects, perhaps we should end with a brief resumé of what we can expect from you in the future

There are several things on different labels due imminently. I mentioned earlier the 1608 Medici wedding music, which features my madrigal group. Then there’s something called ‘La maga abbandonata’, which is an idea that came from the Resonanzen Festival in Vienna. They wanted to do something about the ‘eternal feminine’ and it occurred to me that Handel’s idea of the eternal feminine often comes back to the abandoned sorceress – Alcina, Armida, Melissa in Amadigi di Gaula, and of course Medea, the worst of them all. But in Handel’s music even Medea was sympathetically treated and I got the idea of doing all four sorceresses. So we’ve got some beautiful contrasting arias for soprano (Simone Kermes) and contralto (Maite Beaumont) with a definite theme. That will come out on BMG. There’s also the second volume of Haydn sonatas and volume three is ready. For Virgin there will be ‘Love letters of Domenico Scarlatti’, a disc based around three cantatas in the form of reciprocal love letters sung by Patrizia Ciofi and Anna Bonitatibus. I couldn’t resist also putting them together in some duets taken from the early operas, one being from L’Ottavia ristituita al trono, so the duet is of all things Nero and Poppea! There is also a duet taken from his Tolomeo, the Handel version of which we will do after Radamisto, and a group of the sonatas, chosen because they would not only make a sort of comment on the love letters, but by interspersing them would give a sense of time between the letters.

There could be no better evidence than the above-mentioned Handel and Scarlatti recordings of the thought and care brought to every project by a remarkable musician who has quietly graced the world of Baroque music for more than a quarter of a century. One can only hope that Alan Curtis’ invaluable work as musician and scholar will continue for many years to come.



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