Time is a funny thing

A series of blog posts discussing time, perceptions of time and historically informed performance (HIP) plus seeing Opera Atelier’s Der Freischütz got me thinking along some curiously convergent lines and arriving at the conclusion that HIP isn’t and can’t be what it is often purported to be; a fairly faithful attempt to reproduce a work as it would have been seen by its first viewers or “as the composer intended” or something like that.  Not, of course, that even if it was, we would see and hear it as the original audience did but that perhaps is a topic for another day.

The first strand in my argument is drawn somewhat tangentially from a post by The Earworm.  (One needs to read the comments too).   Here she argues that, as a professional historian, she has a differentiated sense of the past.  She knows that the 1580s are different from the 1720s.  Implicit here is the notion that many people don’t and I think she’s right.  Just as for some people there is “here” and “other countries”; with little to differentiate Austria from Australia or Sweden from Switzerland, for many more there is “now” and “the past” in which people did things differently but with nothing much to differentiate the 1400s from the 1700s except maybe the outfits.  Relating this to HIP we see a rather clear split between “long ago” when HIP is appropriate and when “the way we do things now” is proper.  The dividing line between the two varies over time and from person to person.  I’ve heard Saint James of Levine argue vehemently that it’s wrong to do Handel at the Met, because it should be done in an HIP style (for some value of same) but he clearly has no issue with doing Mozart!

The second thread came courtesy of Leslie Barcza in a clever and funny rumination on Opera Atelier’s Der Freischütz.  Now Leslie and I don’t see entirely eye to eye on this particular production but he certainly got me thinking about it in a different way.  I was particularly taken with his idea that music theatre pre Wagner was, essentially, a “mishmash” and that, therefore, a “mishmash” was a perfectly reasonable way of staging such a work in a HIP context.  One thing we would certainly agree on is that Opera Atelier’s Der Freischütz is a “mishmash”.

Reflecting further on the many HIP performances I have seen I can think of precisely one that consistently tries to recreate an original performance and that’s a Paris performance of Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione.  Other HIP approaches I’ve seen either gleefully mix styles and periods like the Salzburg King Arthur or the weird and wonderful Glyndebourne The Fairy Queen (the bonking bunnies production) or they take the approach favoured by Opera Atelier which claims “authenticity”  but actually mixes a research based, and quite nuanced, approach to singing, acting and choreographic style with anachronistic approaches to lighting. language and diction for example.  So, whether intended as such, virtually all HIP performances end up as a “mishmash”.  In future I think I’ll be more open to just letting myself enjoy without being puzzled or put out.

There’s a third element to all this.  It was while watching Der Rosenkavalier and listening to von Hofmannsthal’s wonderful words to Die Zeit; es ist ein sonderbar Ding that I got the idea and the title for this post.  So Leslie, Hugo and The Earworm, thanks!

9 thoughts on “Time is a funny thing

  1. “Not, of course, that even if it was, we would see and hear it as the original audience did but that perhaps is a topic for another day.”

    Definitely. We can recreate the sound and much of the style – but we’re consciously hearing it as a recreation. And attempting to stage or perform a work in such a way that it would evoke the same reaction as it did for its original audience is probably borderline-impossible. This is why as far as HIP goes, I think I’m in roughly the same camp as you. I like knowing how musical performances were different in the 18th or the 19th century, and I appreciate all the effort and research that revealed that, say, Handel as performed in the 1960s sounded different from how it was performed in the 1760s – and often I like the way HIP-influenced performances sound – but pace Mr. Levine I’m also happy to hear Handel at the Met!

    • The other thought that this whole thing triggered was that it’s HI Performance and therefore stops at the edge of the orchestra pit. I’ve never heard anyone argue for HI Audience Behaviour though that must have conditioned how opera houses presented work.

    • It was two or three years ago at the season launch press conference. I remember him going on about the size of the house etc and being totally frustrated that nobody asked him why those arguments didn’t also apply to Mozart.

      • It may be that the Mozart rep, which has been continuously performed at the Met since forever, ends up simply being grandfathered in — audience expectations being what they are — whereas doing Handel there is an experiment that only began in 1984, when Handel operas were rare and exotic beasts. Or Levine may think they’ve mastered the job of fitting Mozart into that enormous space without sacrificing too much of the sound, whereas Handel they haven’t and won’t (and I would tend to agree, frankly). Or it may be that he’s just not a fan. Or it may be he really is a fan.

        I’d love to hear him discuss the issue in depth now that the Glimmerglass/NYCO partnership isn’t there to occupy that space in the repertoire.

      • I imagine it’s pretty much the grandfathering thing. There’s no way the Met is going to stop doing Mozart so it’s not really worth discussing it. I think you do raise an interesting point of who is going to do baroque and early classical repertoire, or indeed anything that isn’t suited to a 4000 seat behemoth, in NYC.

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