Sunday 23 September 2012

Collaborative Opera

Listening to the sublime closing duet of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea it is perhaps difficult for us to accept that this music may not even be by Monteverdi, but to his contemporaries this would not have mattered. In our personality based age, the cult of the artist means that we can find such collaborative ventures difficult to understand though in the past they were perfectly common. When L’Incoronazione di Poppea was produced in 1643 in Venice, Monteverdi was about 75 and aid from pupils would not be unreasonable. Further adaptation would take place when the opera was produced in Naples after Monteverdi’s death and it is now tricky to deduce who did what. Monteverdi’s pupil Cavalli had a number of operas performed in Naples after their premieres in Venice. In Naples 1666, the Neapolitan composer Francesco Provenzale customised Cavilli’s Statira for the local taste by adding more extended scenes for the comic characters.

This adaptation of an opera to suit local conditions was a common feature of baroque operatic life. Whilst nowadays we would think twice about adapting an opera by a contemporary, history is littered with examples of one composer adapting or completing another’s work. We might not adapt a work by Britten or Birtwistle, but it is still common for operetta and musicals to be re-created for each new staged performance.

Even when an 18th century composer retained control of his operas, large scale changes could take place. When reviving operas, Handel could make drastic changes to his works. He disturbed them to such an extent that we tend to perform his operas in their initial versions, quite the reverse of the general trend to prefer the composer’s final version. Handel was resolute in his recasting of an opera to suit the current performers, even moving heroines between sopranos and contraltos depending on the available cast and constantly adding new novelties to please the crowd. When Handel’s operas were performed in Hamburg, under the auspices of Handel’s friend Telemann, they were still subject to significant changes. Hamburg taste ran to German dialogue with a mixture of Italian and German arias. For Handel’s operas, Telemann himself oversaw the changes.

Opera at this period had a strong improvisational element. Not all the details were written down and they would be recreated differently by different sets of performers. This means that, even today, we do not hear ‘ideal’ performances (in the way we might hear an ideal performance of Wagner or late Verdi), but simply the current performer’s recreation of the opera, filling in the gaps left by the composer.

This customising of operas to suit the particular performers continued into the classical era when Mozart contributed a number of arias to be sung in other people’s operas. For his late opera, La Clemenza di Tito, shortage of time forced Mozart into collaboration with his pupil, Sussmayr, who wrote the recitatives. And the versions of Mozart’s operas which were performed on the London stage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, were sometimes pretty far from ideal.

The taste of the London audience does seem to have been rather troublesome. When commissioned to write an opera for Covent Garden, the ailing Weber found himself setting a libretto which resembles those for the hybrid semi-operas of Purcell. In this case, Weber adapted his style to local taste and planned to re-work the opera into a standard German work at some later date. Death prevented this and ‘Oberon’ has steadily resisted improvement at a variety of hands; the most satisfactory version does seem to be a condensation of the composer’s original. Death also prevented Weber from completing Die Drei Pintos which Mahler completed. But the resulting singspiel has far less resonance than one would have imagined a posthumous collaboration between Weber and Mahler might have had.

A more influential posthumous collaboration was that between Weber and Berlioz, when Berlioz provided recitatives and ballet music for Der Freischutz. Whereas London taste had run to mixtures of spoken dialogue and opera, taste at the Opera in Paris was for completely sung through works, no spoken dialogue was allowed. Berlioz’s sympathetic hand was part of a tradition of French composers converting works for the Opera. Berlioz was also influential in another area when he combined elements from the castrato (Vienna) and high tenor (Paris) versions of Gluck’s Orfeo to produce the version for contralto which is the basis for the traditional version of this opera. In this case Gluck was lucky in his collaborator, and an opera which existed in no completely satisfactory version was suddenly made accessible to a new opera going public.

The replacement of spoken dialogue for French opera remained an issue throughout the 19th century. Though Guiraud did a masterly job on Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, the result does slow the opera down. But French composers themselves realised that dialogue was also a problem for foreign performances. Undoubtedly Bizet would have created a fully sung version of Carmen if he had lived and Offenbach had already agreed to a through-sung version of Les Contes d’Hoffmann for Vienna before his death. Offenbach’s death also means that he did not make the crucial final revisions to the music. So the opera is best known in an adapted version which gives a welcome theatrical drive to the opera though at the expense of the composer’s original text.

At first sight 19th century opera was less prone to local adaptation and revision, after all Donizetti and Verdi wrote their own revisions for the Paris Opera. But divas and divos routinely substituted arias of their own choosing, and most operas developed ‘traditional’ cuts and transpositions. One curiosity is Bellini’s Capuletti e Montecchi in which the end of the tomb scene was often replaced by a specially composed scene by Vaccai so that contraltos could more easily sing Romeo. But perhaps this could be regarded as a larger scale example of a diva bringing her own arias. In some operas, the tradition of replacing arias survived into the 20th century. For instance the lesson aria in Rossini Il Barbieri di Siviglia was often removed in favour of a novelty item suitable for the diva.

By the time we reach the late 19th century, the cult of the artist and the tendency to write everything down mean that operas are far less prone to local adaptation and revision; though the issue of cuts, both traditional and non-traditional, could perhaps be regarded as an extension of this.

But some artists have suffered from or benefited from well-meaning adaptation of their work. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godounov was performed in Russia the 1870’s during the composer’s life time. But the work only became well known in the west in a version made by Rimsky-Korsakov after the composer’s death in 1881.This version was made to adapt the distinctive genius of Mussorgsky to prevailing taste. In the case of Boris Goudonov, Rimsky-Korsakov was adapting a finished work and we can now perform Mussorgsky’s original. But in the case of other operas by Mussorgsky (Khovanschina and Sorochintsy Fair) and Borodin (Prince Igor), the incompleteness of the operas means that we can only ever know them in versions adapted and completed by other hands. Borodin’s Prince Igor was completed by a number of his friends and the version of the overture that has come down to us is a result of these friends remembering what Borodin had played to them but failed to write down.

Like Mussorgsky, Janacek’s genius was so distinctive that well meaning people adapted it to the perceived taste. The price he paid for the Prague premiere of Jenufa was a wholesale revision to the finale by Karel Kovařovic, the director of the National Theatre, ‘correcting’ the score. For the first foreign performance of The Cunning Little Vixen in Mainz in 1927, the translator Max Brod placed his own stamp on the opera, ‘to make things clearer and more concentrated’. His German version of the text was more of a free adaptation of Janáček’s original rather than a faithful translation. It created links between Harašta’s invisible lover Terynka and the title-role, but on the contrary he abolished many of the doubled parts, breaking down the connections between the animals and humans. Janáček never interpolated Brod’s changes into his original, preferring his own intentions, but it is in Brod’s version that the opera first became known.

Opera as collaboration does seem to be making a come back, if we consider collaboration as the joining of equals, rather than revision by a foreign, possibly anonymous hand. Returning to where we started, in baroque opera, I think that we need to recognised the role that collaboration plays in these operas. If we want to listen to the music with truly baroque ears, then we must recognise importance of the role of modern collaborators and recreators.

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