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!