Saturday 20 February 2016

Varying editions, the importance of recitative and events beyond Mozart - the second part of my encounter with Ian Page from Classical Opera

Ian Page and Classical Opera
Ian Page and Classical Opera
Ian Page and Classical Opera have just started their second year of their 27 year project, Mozart 250, exploring Mozart's life year by year, starting last year, with 1765 which was the year Mozart visited London. In the the first part of our interview we talked about plans for this year's festival along with exciting plans for future festivals, and in this second part of the interview we discuss Mozart's operas and the problems of which edition to record, the importance of recitative and devoting rehearsal time to it, as well as the company's continuing non-Mozart related activities.

Ian's instinct is to present the opera as it was originally performed 

Ian and Classical Opera will be performing all of Mozart's operas over the years as part of the festival, and all of the concert arias. He also hopes to perform most of the symphonies. Running in parallel to this is Classical Opera's project to record all of Mozart's operas. These are not being recorded in chronological order, partly because in order to tempt people some of the better known operas have to be included early on (La Clemenza di Tito will be recorded quite soon). But in 2018, Mozart's La Finta Semplice comes up in the festival and this has not been recorded by Classical Opera yet so in all probability performance and recording will be linked. But Ian sees this as a tricky issue, because it also makes sense to have their recording out in time for the performance.

Regarding the edition which they record, Ian's instinct is to present the opera as it was originally performed and add any extra music in appendices; this is what was done with Mitridate Re di Ponto where the extra material was particularly substantial (see my review). So for Don Giovanni they will perform and record the Prague version. This means that the Zerlina Leporello duet, written for Vienna, will be relegated to an appendix but unfortunately so will Mi Tradi and Dalla sua pace. With Idomeneo they will record the version Mozart seems to have intended in Munich, before the cuts applied simply because of its length. Ian does not think they will record the Vienna version (which uses a tenor Idamante rather than a mezzo-soprano), but the festival will enable them to perform both operas in the respective years 1781 (in 2031) and 1786 (in 2036), thus giving people the opportunity to compare and contrast.

He was extremely surprised at how little time was given to the recitative

Ian Page and Classical Opera
Ian Page and Classical Opera
One comment which Ian and Classical Opera have had so far from reviewers is about the amount of recitative in the operas in their Mozart series. But Mozart often collaborated with his librettists in cutting the recitative in the librettos quite savagely, so Ian is wary of reducing it further. Ian assisted Charles Mackerras on the performance of Idomeneo at the Edinburgh Festival and subsequent recording. He was extremely surprised at how little time was given to the recitative. When Classical Opera record Mozart operas they devote as much time to the recitative as the the orchestrally accompanied music. From an economic point of view, at least there are far fewer people involved in the session but Ian finds that devoting the time to the recitative means you can go over it in much more detail. Though there can be a difference between what Ian finds ideal and what the record producer does, with the producer worrying about perfection of ensemble and tuning, and Ian wanting to ensure that the recitative has a freedom and spontaneity to it.

When they recorded Il Re Pastore (see my review), Ian had a rehearsal with John Mark Ainsley which was focussed entirely on the recitative. In fact they spent two hours on the first recitative, and Ian found it fantastic to work in that amount of detail. But it paid off, and enabled them to set the path for the rest of the opera, opening up possibilities so that the rest of the recitative just unfolded and the rehearsal probably saved a great deal of time in subsequently during the recording.

Our discussion then has a fascinating byway as we speculate on what Mozart might have done had he lived, and Ian produces the striking information that at the time of his death Mozart was thinking of writing an opera based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. A piece which Ian speculates might have been in a similar style to Die Zauberflote.

Widening the spectrum in both directions

But Ian feels that it is important that Mozart 250 does not become everything that Classical Opera does, and they are widening the spectrum in both directions, exploring Handel and Beethoven. Their recent concert with Allan Clayton celebrating Handel's tenor John Beard (see my review) has produced a record which has recently been completed.

And they have performed Beethoven's First Symphony. Ian thinks that some composers lend themselves to the contextualising approach which they bring to their concerts. Ian would be interested in creating programmes round each of Beethoven's symphonies, looking at the pieces that influenced Beethoven and the sketches that he left. Another work is Beethoven's Leonore, the first version of what would become Fidelio. During Beethoven's lifetime some of the concerts where he premiered his symphonies were mammoth events, something we would have difficulty with now but which sheds enormous light onto the way Beethoven and his contemporaries thought about the music.

'Let's have fun, and see what happens'

For Ian, the knowledge of how things were done in the past is often simply a starting point. He finds it wonderful to have the knowledge that 'this is how they did things', and to then take this as a starting point 'let's have fun, and see what happens'. He cites as an example the handling of appogiaturas. These were ignored completely in the 1960's. Ian starts of by trying to do what they did in the 18th century, but his approach is pragmatic rather than slavish (he talks about having fun again). The performers live with it for a bit and then see what is working; far more often than not, they end up finding that the composers were spot on.

Becoming Neo-Classical Opera and putting Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress into context

The way the company has evolved, it is has always been an opera company, and Ian feels that it bothers some people when they perform symphonic concerts. The company's remit has always three things, 1) being repertoire led and performing unperformed operas by Mozart and others, 2) mentoring and supporting young singers, 3) taking the audience on a journey via the contextualising of the works in the programme. When the group was founded it was the repertoire that was most important, but now Ian feels that the priorities have been inverted and it is taking an audience on a journey which is the most important with repertoire almost secondary. And Ian speculates on the possibility, for one season, becoming Neo-Classical Opera and putting Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress into context; an intriguing thought indeed.

The first part of this interview is also available on this blog.

Ian Page and Classical Opera - forthcoming performances
Jommelli - Il Vologeso, 28 April 2016, Cadogan Hall
Ann Hallenberg, Che puro ciel - 23 May 2016,
Mozart - Don Giovanni, 17 June 2016, Cadogan Hall 
Haydn - La Canterina, 19 September 2016, Wigmore Hall

Recent Recordings
Mozart  - Il re pastore
Mozart - Mitridate, re di Ponto
Mozart - Apollo e Hycinthus 
The A-Z of Mozart Opera
Mozart - Die Schuldigkeit des erstens Gebots
Blessed Spirit - A Gluck retrospective

Elsewhere on this blog:

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