Friday 8 January 2010

Baroque Opera - patchwork or perfection

When we consider opera performances during the baroque period we rather tend to consider them the way we might a contemporary performance of the same work. Granted there were castrato voices and the production values were different, but the essential works were the same. Going to see Handel's Giulio Cesare in London in 1732, when Handel last revived it, then we would hear pretty much the same work as has been recorded in the 20th and 21st centuries. Wouldn't we.

Well, Up to a point, Lord Copper. Baroque opera required an impresario and for much of Handel's later operatic career he functioned as his own impresario. But if the Impresario was not a composer then the opera company would have one or more composers as their call. It tended to be the libretto, rather than the composer, which was chosen first. So that if you had wandered around Italy at the time you could have picked up repeated settings of the same libretto by different composers. Singers often travelled with suitable libretto which would be re-set.

But this presupposes that the composer was in charge of what was actually performed and most of the time he wasn't. Première runs would usually be the only time when the opera stood a chance of being performed as the composer wrote. Each revival would be re-worked for a new cast. And if the composer wasn't available, then another musical hand brought in by the Impresario would do it. Sometimes, with star singers or if the revival was put on in short order, arias would be imported from other operas.

Handel did a lot of this. When he revived his operas he behaved like an Impresario and Handel the Impresario was rather cavalier with Handel the Composer. There are examples of revivals where the star castrato sang no arias by Handel, but simply included suitable arias that he already knew. On desperate occasions, Handel let singers perform arias by other composers, when less desperate he substituted other arias from his own operas.

The ultimate of this is the Pasticcio, where an existing libretto was fitted with pre-existing arias and one of the Impresario's tame composers cooked up some suitable recitative. We have to understand that for many of the Italian speaking audiences, the libretto was the thing followed by the voices. Something of this was true in London as well, though the Londoners were less tolerant of large amounts of Italian recitative.

When Telemann produced Handel's operas in Hamburg tended to do new recitatives, in German, and adjusted the arias. No-one ever thought of the manuscript as a musical bible, it was more of a source book.

This means that if our time travel happened to wander in to an opera performance during the baroque period, they would be unlikely to encounter the sort of musical thoroughness that we apply today. The performance would almost certainly have an element of musical patchwork to it.

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