Hasse - L'Ipermestra at Cesky Krumlov

Opera and the Age of Arrogance

We live in an age of arrogance that manifests itself in a variety of forms, some interlinked. It is arrogance born of the fallacious belief that mankind has attained a state of universal, all-pervading wisdom surpassing that of the past. We believe we know better than our forbears, no matter what the subject or the circumstances. (There are of course some disciplines where this is unquestionably true; surgery might be cited as an example). This cult of arrogance can be observed in many walks of life. In religion it has led to the casting out of beautiful liturgies that after serving well for centuries are ruled to be in some way irrelevant to the needs of modern worshipers. Instead they have had new and often banal liturgies foisted on them, meekly accepting such changes.

There are countless further examples, many driven relentlessly by the curse of ‘progressive’ intellectual liberalism, a curse that has poisoned many aspects of Western life, insidiously eroding such cherished traditions as freedom of speech in the name of spurious concepts of ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’.

   This widespread culture of contemporary arrogance extends to music, in particular two areas in which I own to special interest: early music and opera. While individual examples might be quoted in both cases, here it is the combination of the two that I will address. It can hardly have escaped the regular opera goer that in recent years it has become near impossible in the overwhelming majority of European houses to see a production of any opera written up to the end of the eighteenth century that attempts to respect the integrity of librettist and composer, instead burdening such works with present-day ‘concepts’ that frequently reflect the political agenda of the producer. So insidiously powerful is this tyranny that any attempt to protest that we owe a duty to protect the precious artistic heritage of the past is frequently met with derision. This from just those who should have the interests of opera at heart: from producers, from critics, and from opera goers who have become so indoctrinated they no longer recognise the truth.

Two recent examples of this inability to recognise such truth will suffice. Writing on social media of a new production of Le nozze di Figaro in Finland, a British critic noted approvingly that the producer had written in her programme note: ‘Every scene has to be made interesting from scratch’ [my italic]. In other words poor old Mozart and da Ponte’s scenes are not sufficiently interesting and needed the enlightened input of this brilliant producer to rescue them. When challenged on the point several exchanges ensued before the critic wrote, ‘If you’re going to argue that a director shouldn’t adapt a production [sic] for the audience of the time, then frankly we’re done’. Or put another way ‘if you believe that an opera production should remain faithful to the conception of its authors, you’re not worth talking to’.  Such intolerant insolence found further outlet on another recent occasion when I cited the criticism made on modern productions by the late Handel scholar Winton Dean in his Handel’s Operas 1726 – 1741 (Boydell Press, 2006), pp. 487-491, in particular the now-famous ENO production of Xerses. Dean, I was informed by a notable critic, was frequently wrong and this was one of those occasions. Moreover, according to one of the critic’s acolytes, Dean’s views had been expressed ‘in a very irritating and patronising manner’. In fact there is nothing at all ‘irritating and patronising’ about Dean’s criticism, which might indeed have been more severe on a production that for all its ersatz period flavour from the outset flouts both the conventions of the period and the stage directions. I suspect that what really riled these gentlemen was Dean’s final sentence: ‘It must be conceded that this and similar productions are popular with the public, who do not know when or if they are being sold a pup, and seldom receive assistance from critics who know no better’.

Today it is all too often the critics who know no better who rule the roost. In Britain most such critics are attached to the national press, familiar names forming a cartel admitting to little incursion and even less knowledge and understanding of the early operas they write about. Many of these critics play no more ambitious a role than that of becoming camp followers of fashionable, often notorious producers. This was vividly illustrated by some of the critical reaction on the occasion of the recent disastrous Royal Opera House production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, one of the noblest and most elevated operas of the 18th century. One noted national newspaper critic, who complained bitterly of the hostile reception the production received, summed up the superlative foolishness of such craven folly by informing her readers that, ‘Director’s opera, or regietheater (sic), is sometimes only graspable after the event’. What utter nonsense is this? Of what value is a production that has left the critic ‘baffled and irritated during the performance’ only subsequently to reveal ‘… insights that remain in the mind’? One suspects that in many cases such post-performance interpretation plays a large role in critical determination. If this is what a ‘renowned’ [likely for all the wrong reasons] producer has done with this piece, then one must seek valiantly to understand his motives, even if they baffle and irritate us in the theatre. So, seemingly, goes the thinking.

At least equally as damaging are the contradictory views of those early music orchestral directors that have embraced the philosophy of modern production. Indeed the Twitter account introducing one leading British early opera company is laughably oxymoronic, telling its visitors, ‘We bring you historically-informed early opera in exciting contemporary stagings’.  Trying to interpret this gobbledygook is no easy task, but one assumes that what the statement is attempting to say is that while the company will utilise singers with some notion of the stylistic demands of early opera and its orchestra would not dream of adding, say, tenor saxes and a marimba to its forces for a performance of a Handel opera, it has no compunction about the ‘concept’ of setting Giulio Cesare in the context of, say, Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia or a North Korean munitions factory.

    It is such inane contradictory nonsense that rules the world of opera today, a world that has all but forgotten the wonderfully exotic irrationality of historical opera, with all its colour, spectacle and nobility. And, yes, there is indeed a political message in the serious operas of the time (and indeed in the mixed genre operas of the 17th century), and often a social message in the comic operas. But both social and political message are those of the Enlightenment, not the 21st century, in the case of serious opera either a blueprint for just and reasoned rule or a warning to those who would flout it – ‘the instruction of mankind in a pleasing way’, to quote Pietro Metastasio, the greatest of 18th century librettists. By distorting the true objectives of the operas of the 17th and 18th century centuries, we insolently pervert such works to a reflection of our own image and distracted times, a task that is the legitimate province of the contemporary artist, not Handel or Mozart.    

    Nowhere is the hubristic smokescreen promulgated and fanned by the operatic establishment denser than in the ignorant and dishonest claim that we cannot stage early opera with any degree of authenticity because we have insufficient knowledge to do so. The true picture is quite the reverse. For staging we have the practical examples of Drottningholm in Stockholm and Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic, with their surviving 18th century sets and stage machinery restored to use in faithfully re-created historic productions. Although illness prevented planned attendance at Český Krumlov’s 2014 production of Hasse’s Ipermestra, I am reliably informed that capacity audiences that had travelled from across Europe sat appreciatively through the 4-hour show on the theatre’s wooden benches. In addition to the living evidence at Drottningholm and Český Krumlov there are many iconographic examples of 17th and 18th century stage sets, along with numerous pedagogical treatises on acting and gesture, and polemical works concerned with the practicalities of staging in an age when the ‘theatre director’ was still unknown. The letters of Metastasio not only illustrate clearly the part played by the librettist in opera staging, but also that he himself understood every aspect of stagecraft (including composition) far better than any stage director living today. The most cursory examination of such material is sufficient to reveal that a return to historical precepts solves many of the problems that constantly arise when early opera is given modern staging. As a single example, one might cite the age old problem of the da capo aria, a form that many modern producers stage with hilarious incompetence and distracting action, not only by the singer but by anyone else who happens to be on stage at the time. It is only when Baroque theatre’s love of the living tableau is understood that the answer becomes perfectly simple. The singer – let alone anyone else - does not rush around the stage like a demented fury, relying instead purely on acting ability and gesture. Singing, placed within a static stage landscape, takes total precedence. Perhaps rather more application and study, a little more humility and a great deal less arrogance should be the order of the day for opera producers and critics. But I’m not expecting that any time soon.