On “Enchanted Island”

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.

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  1. But isn't a star cast and spectacle probably a bit more "faithful" (and those are big scare quotes) to what public opera was about in the 17th and early 18th century? If the aesthetic of the time was a kind of modified everything-goes (and this is a gross simplification), I'd rather see a resurrection of that principle. I think oftentimes, especially in the case of early music, irreverence and lack of fidelity are perhaps the most fidelitous things we can do. The very idea of sanctity wasn't something applied to non-liturgical music before the 19th century. I'm all for reverent performances of Monteverdi, because they can be awesome, but I don't really see why Enchanted Island — which has potential to create some interesting/perhaps not exactly historical instances of cultural transfer — has to be a "serious" affair. It's a New Year's Eve gala, and a party piece. Yes, I'd love to see more Baroque at the Met (and just more good productions in general) — but I don't think that, in this particular case, we need to have seriousness as the core virtue. In theory, I think I'm okay with this — I'll wait for scholars to pick it apart once it happens.

  2. For better or worse, Enchanted Island is the representative of Baroque opera at the Met (along with Rodelinda this season, and I'm literally not going there). And Baroque opera deserves better than to be relegated to a party piece. Forgetting about historical reception for a minute, the framing of Enchanted Island continues to sideline a genre of music that the Met has never given any credit to (partially for understandable logistical reasons). This music remains, in New York, underheard and underappreciated *as music.* I don't think that a production of a Baroque opera has to be serious or postmodernism-free–I love that capoeira Les Paladins, for crying out loud–but I would like it to come from a place of artistic and historical honesty.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post! I'm not sure that doing a Baroque neo-pastiche is inherently more (or less!) irreverent than doing a gala of opera excerpts loosely organized around a theme (or not.) But maybe I'm comparing apples and oranges. The issues with how the Met approaches Baroque opera–or should–are further-reaching, of course, as you point out. And if Baroque opera is under-appreciated (I would certainly agree that it remains under-heard!) I don't think that Enchanted Island is going to offer a quick fix, but neither do I think it would be a disaster. If it is a sloppy catastrophe that manages to sap the energy out of the music and doesn't do justice to the musical-dramatic talents of the composers involved (because I do think it is woefully mistaken to separate the two as if Baroque opera were inherently absurd or something) you can of course say "I told you so" while I shed a quiet tear into my champagne.

  4. I agree that it's a mistake to use "intention" or "period practice" as a fig leaf for decisions that ought to be made on aesthetic grounds. But I'm not sure what would be gained by slicing and dicing Strauss and Wagner in the one house in New York that's best suited to putting on traditionalist productions of Strauss and Wagner. If somebody else in town wants to put on a Reduced Ring or something, I'd love to hear it, purists be damned! But I don't expect the Met to put on a musicologically adventurous German Romantic program anymore than I expect them to put on a definitive French Baroque program.

    (Sidebar: Isn't Orfeo the wrong opera to be citing on the dangers of chopping up old scores? Wasn't it a forerunner, in many ways, of Romantic notions of the integrity of the work? That said, I certainly love Berlioz's hybrid edition of the piece, just as much as I love the Met's hybrid editions of 19th-c rep like Boris and Don Carlo. But I think even the Met doesn't screw with version of Orfeo they put on—correct me if I'm wrong.)

    Did you hear the season-announcement press conference this spring? Somebody asked James Levine point-blank why they don't put on more Baroque opera, and he ran down a list of excellent reasons, which I wish I could reproduce for you here. I'm sure you can imagine most of them anyway. If they decide that their one new Baroque outing this year should be larded with gimmicks to make up for the venture's inevitable shortcomings, if they decide to represent the music of not just one but a whole tasting menu of Baroque composers per season, I'm all for it! In the meantime, we can keep going to hear Les Arts Florissants playing Lully, and the City Opera playing Telemann, and support the contexts in which that repertoire has a real chance to flourish.

    (Did you write about Dark Sisters yet??)

  5. I just find it astonishing that a city as rich and populous as New York pours all its opera resources into a company that can't really do justice to anything written before about 1850 because of the space it plays in and the economica it has built around that space. Surely there's an opportunity in New York for someone to produce baroque and early classical opera on a sensible scale a la Glyndebourne or Drottningholm or (he says waving large Toronto flag) Opera Atelier. OK, I'm bored with Opera Atelier but that's because I've been watching them for 20 years. I bet they'd wow New York.

  6. First: In today's Times, James Oestreich's review of Rodelinda defines a da capo aria, repeatedly describes the drama as static, and calls Baroque opera at the Met a "specialist pursuit." (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/16/arts/music/renee-fleming-returns-in-rodelinda-opera-review.html?ref=music)

    operaramblings, that's the macro problem–NYC is a one-company town. City Opera is vanishing and doing one Baroque opera this season and as Alex Ross pointed out there is Christie at BAM but they arrive once a year at most (and recently there were several years in a row in which they didn't visit at all). Compare this to Vienna, where there's a fully staged Baroque opera with a real HIP orchestra every month or two and a few more in concert besides–and by European standards Vienna is not even considered a big Baroque town. But they have the Theater an der Wien, a small theater ideally suited to Baroque repertoire that doesn't want to overlap programming with the Staatsoper.

    Dan, I think we can negotiate an intermediate position when it comes to Werktreue. I mean, I don't hold the purist position that thou shalt never cut Wagner but I also don't see why we give ourselves license to completely ignore the composer's intentions when it comes to Baroque music. Ways of listening have changed since the 18th century–and since the 19th, for that matter–and to argue for the validity of an 18th-century reception mode (pasticcio) with our 21st-century conceptions of listening strikes me as disingenuous. Taruskin said something about this in Text and Act, I'm sure.

    I did not see the press conference due to being on a different continent at the time but I would be interested in what Levine said. Honestly I don't trust him as a musical director to investigate repertoire that doesn't interest him personally. I can see what you mean about the Gluck but the point remains the same–when your opera is 100% Gluck or 100% Italian-ish da capo aria composers, it has a cohesiveness that Handel, Rameau, and others do not. (Also I CAN'T STAND the Met's Boris or Don Carlo (which should be in French) editions, so we disagree there–why two scenes with the Fool? It makes no sense!)

    I'm going to get to Dark Sisters soon, hopefully tonight. I kind of don't have very strong feelings about it one way or the other (plus it's a little outside my usual turf).