In reviewing Against the Grain’s staged version of Handel’s Messiah I alluded to having had some thoughts about staging Messiah. That’s because, although I realised that the AtG production was quite excellent it was also making me a bit uncomfortable and I needed to think through why that was. I also wanted to think about in relation to a very different approach to staging the piece; that taken by Claus Guth at the Theater an der Wien in 2009. There also seems to be a fashion for this sort of thing emerging with a St. Matthew Passion, also in Vienna, and the TSO about to stage Mozart’s Requiem. What can we say about staging a work that was never intended to be staged and doesn’t even tell a story as Handel’ other oratorios do? Some of the thoughts that follow might apply to staging any non-narrative religious text but most will be very specific to Handel’s Messiah and specifically rooted in the text selection by Charles Jennens.
One way and another I see quite a lot of contemporary opera. I like a lot of what I see though there are some works where one gets the “I’ll never get that evening back” feeling. But something has been bugging me. Quite a few times I’ve had the feeling that I’ve seen something skilfully put together and admirably performed but it’s left me a bit cold, or maybe a bit empty, where other pieces I’ve felt really enthused by and wanted to go back and hear and see again.
So, back at the Four Seasons centre last night for a second look at Tcherniakov’s production of Don Giovanni, this time from the Third Ring. I’ve also been thinking and talking a lot about this production both with people who love it and people who don’t. There’s not a lot of middle ground.
The other night I was chatting to some folks at a performance by Loose TEA Theatre and a comment was made to the effect that it was companies like Loose TEA and Against the Grain who were creating the future audience for opera. I didn’t think about it much of the time but it turned into a sort of brainworm that wouldn’t go away. I don’t think the idea was that somehow innovative “pop up” type companies would replace the likes of the COC; at least not this side of nuclear war or total economic collapse (neither of which seems impossible it has to be said). So the hypothesis has to be that this sort of endeavour makes a significant contribution to replacing the aging “big house” audience. As I began to mull that over and further stimulated by yet another fact free piece in The Guardian on “opera snobs” (courtesy of Schmopera) I started to develop a number of lines of enquiry that aren’t exactly tangential to the original hypothesis but rather seem more like a set of eigenvectors defining the problem space. Which is a mathematician’s way of saying that what follows is kind of all over the place.
I think I’m seeing two trends in the world of opera companies right now. On the one hand companies are closing shop, more or less messily. Opera Hamilton, New York City Opera and, now, San Diego Opera are all relatively high profile closures. On the other hand, with far less fanfare, there are smaller, more innovative companies springing up all over the place. Some prosper, some don’t. Is there a common theme? I can see a few. Rigidity versus flexibility seems to be one theme. Having what marketeers call a Unique Value Proposition (or not) is another.
It’s received wisdom in the opera (and, more generally, classical music) world that “modern” works are a hard sell. “Modern” appears to mean anything post Puccini plus anything from the early 20th century that’s perceived as “difficult”, like Bartok or Janacek. This is reflected in programming. In the last five years COC has programmed precisely one work written this century and in the last two seasons the most recent works were written in 1957 and 1945. Next year is even worse with nothing written after 1914. It’s no wonder people say the opera house is becoming a museum.
I’ve been watching a few staged versions of Handel oratorios recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that, in general, I prefer them to his Italian operas. It’s not just that they have really good plots they are also musically much more interesting than the operas. For the stage Handel stuck pretty firmly to the conventions of opera seria. Da capo aria succeeds da capo aria and only occasionally does a chorus or a duet break out and that bit is often the musical highlight of the piece, to my mind at least. Think of Io t’abbraccio in Rodelinda; surely the highlight of the whole work. In the oratorios Handel seems to feel much freer to use multiple forms and, of course, he writes magnificent choruses. Continue reading