|photo Grove Music Online|
I should be writing about Dark Sisters right now but to quote Rick Perry I stepped in it on Twitter this morning regarding the prospects for the Met’s new Baroque pasticcio, The Enchanted Island, and I wanted to explain a bit more without the constraint of 140-character installments. While I tend to be pessimistic, condemning a piece before it even premieres is rather mean-spirited and I should probably avoid doing it. But I can’t shake the feeling that this won’t be doing Baroque opera (a field in which I have had, sigh, some degree of involvement) any favors and here’s why.
A pasticcio is a conglomeration of various preexisting pieces into a new dramatic whole. They were indeed extremely popular in the Baroque as a vehicle for various greatest hits, as Horace Walpole said, “Our operas begin tomorrow with a pasticcio, full of my most favorite songs.” Almost all early operas were subject to some substitution and addition of music by other composers. It wasn’t until opera reached northern Europe around 1700 that newly assembled works became established–those cities lacked their own composers to assure a steady stream of new works. The Grove entry includes this recipe from an anonymous 1705 account of music in London:
Pick out about an hundred Italian Airs from several Authors, good, or bad, it signifies nothing. Among these, make use of fifty five, or fifty six, of such as please your Fancy best, and Marshall ’em in the manner you think most convenient. When this is done, you must employ a Poet to write some English Words, the Airs of which are to be adapted to the Italian Musick. In the next place you must agree with some Composer to provide the Recitative … When this is done, you must make a Bargain with some Mungril Italian Poet to Translate the Part of the English that is to be Perform’d in Italian; and then deliver it into the Hands of some Amanuensis, that understands Musick better than your self, to Transcribe the Score, and the Parts.
The pasticcio became a way for in-demand composers to become more prolific, cranking out new works from old music. Handel did this a great deal.
My initial objection to Enchanted Island was that the Met website lists the included composers as Rameau, Handel, Vivaldi, “and others.” This mixture of Italian and French styles seems to me a recipe for trouble, others protested that this contrast was part of the genre. But I don’t think it is! I couldn’t find records of a single pasticcio that includes a French composer. Sometimes Gluck was mixed in, and other German (or British) composers who wrote in more or less an Italian style, but never a French one. The two schools were considered independent. It’s really a big difference. I fear that Enchanted Island will fall into the trap Burney saw in a production of Orfeo, in which “the unity, simplicity, and dramatic excellence of this opera, which had gained the composer so much credit on the Continent, were greatly diminished here by the heterogeneous mixture of Music, of other composers, in a quite different style.”
But the larger question is of the Met’s duty to Baroque repertory. I’m not sure if it should have one at all; the theater is just too big to go about it properly and the lack of a period instrument band in the pit is a major problem. But if they are going to do it they should try to do the genre justice. Of Baroque composers, in the modern era the Met has produced only Handel. But Enchanted Island seems more a way of producing something with a star cast and spectacle than it is to introduce new music to the Met audience. Why go to the lengths and risk to create a new work when there are many, many wonderful Baroque operas that the Met has never produced? For all the house’s size, one of the really grand French Baroque works by Lully or Rameau could maybe work.
It seems our concept of the authority of the composer is variable. We turn our noses up at cutting Wagner and Strauss but let Baroque works get slashed apart. The justification for this is historical–it was only in the late nineteenth century that the idea of Werktreue got started, and earlier composers never expected that their texts would have such closed status (though in the present day we sometimes extend Werktreue back as far as Mozart–just ask Riccardo Muti about early Verdi or Cecilia Bartoli about her alternate Susannah aria). But it seems to me like a double standard. Why do we grant Wagner greater sanctity than Handel just because he lived at a time when his works were considered more closed? Why are we so eager to chop up the Baroque repertory, music that the Met has shown little advocacy for in the past? Why can’t we accord it at least a modicum more respect and allow it to speak on its own terms? (A modern concoction that doesn’t even follow the rules of the eighteenth-century pasticcio is not it!)
I didn’t mean to develop this so far before Enchanted Island even happens–for all I know it will be an ahistoric blast and will justify its existence in practice by being totally fun. But I’m still not happy with it in theory.