Wednesday 3 September 2014

What exactly am I listening to - the vexed question of cuts and editions in live performance

Gwyneth Jones as Elektra
Gwynneth Jones as Elektra
On Sunday night Richard Strauss's Elektra was performed at the BBC Proms (see my review). The title role was sung (Elektrifyingly) by Christine Goerke who is an experienced stage Elektra and sang off the book. The version of Strauss's Elektra that we heard was the standard one, the one you (nearly) always hear in the opera house. If you want to hear Elektra uncut you have to  resort to disc, try the Solti recording with Birgit Nilsson (though when Gwynneth Jones last performed the role at Covent Garden in 1988 she did open up some of the cuts). However reading the BBC's excellent programme book on Sunday, nowhere did it tell us that the version we were hearing included the traditional cuts. Now, I perfectly understand why the cuts are there but feel that any newcomer to the piece should not go away with the view that this is the definitive version. 

Programme books ought to tell us what we are hearing. Many operas exist in traditional versions with parts cut and these are frequently performed silently with no comment. In some cases, the cuts may be an improvement or, as in the case of Elektra, they are there because of the role is extremely taxing.

The same is true of Act Three of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde; Tristan's narration is frequently cut. There was a period when I went to so many cut performances that I wondered whether I was ever going to hear the opera uncut again. Now, in a normally theatrical rehearsal period with a star tenor flying in, you inevitably have to make compromises. But again, the unwary should not have to think that what they are hearing is definitive.

Perhaps the most worrying recent example was Covent Garden's new production of Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten (see my review). This very long opera usually has its last act trimmed to a reasonable size, but here on top of the usual cuts there were extra ones. These were made for dramaturgical reasons, but there was a chunk missing from the opening of Act Three which made a friend wonder what on earth was going on and I had to explain what we'd missed. There seemed to be no mention of this in the programme book.

Sometimes, of course, opera companies can't know what is exactly to be be performed until rehearsals are well under way. But in the case of Die Frau ohne Schatten, the production was a co-production with Covent Garden getting it second so that the edition was pretty much set in stone. Opera Holland Park's performances of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers (see my review) last year were a model of what can be achieved when the programme book goes to press long before rehearsals start. There was a long article from the conductor, Matthew Waldren, on the various problems with the opera, and its different editions explaining the decisions to be made during rehearsals. So that when we heard the first night, we were under no illusion that this was definitively what Bizet wrote, it simply reflected a set of decisions taken which director and conductor thought worked best for this particular set of performances.

Sometimes programme books reflect a woeful lack of musicology. Verdi wrote no official Italian version of Don Carlos and all his revisions were to a French text, Handel never did produce a definitive version of Messiah. Operas like Carmen and Tales of Hoffmann have a complex editorial history with multiple editions; there are clear modern editions but in both cases different editors have produced slightly different versions of the opera based on different sets of critical criteria. To mount the opera and say nothing in the programme book about edition or editorial history is simple laziness. The worst example of this was a production of Carmen where all spoken dialogue was omitted, but nothing was said in the programme book.

To a certain extent this reflects the primacy of the director, everything must wait until he/she has decided what works dramatically and dramaturgically. This is reflected in the distressing tendency for directors and conductors to make their own edition, cutting and pasting from various versions. Verdi's Don Carlos often suffers from this with bits of the Paris version inserted into his later revisions, but Tales of Hoffmann and Carmen are inevitably suffers too.

It doesn't have to be so. Opera Holland Park's performances of Bellini's Norma (see my review) this year came with the information in the programme book 'Critical edition commissioned and premie4red by OHP in 2004. Edited by Brad Cohen:'. Would that all performances were like that!

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