What a weekend. While I only managed to get to three things in three days (Tap:Ex Friday, Hercules Saturday, and Giasone today) I feel I’ve been to a symposium studying the possibilities for opera. It’s a happy accident that the sequence bore me back in time, from Friday’s modern-day explorations, Saturday’s Regie-mented approach to the baroque, and today’s 17th Century adventure with Cavalli.
As per Opera as Drama, which is on my mind since Joseph Kerman’s passing three weeks ago, it’s worth remembering the author’s admonition that each composer’s approach is a solution to a particular set of challenges and/or problems that need to be seen in context of the time. Have we made any progress since Cavalli? I’m not sure, after looking back at what I saw and heard this weekend, which is another way of saying that the first century of opera may have been its best.
Wagner’s axiom comes to mind. Music may have been enlisted as a means to an end, namely drama, but in time music had become its end while drama, once understood as the end of opera had become merely a means to an end. Listening to Cavalli, so much earlier in the history of opera, I can’t help thinking that we’ve found a “wayback machine”, enabling us to experience a time before we went off track, before we lost our way in formal silliness. Cavalli’s music is as flexible as Monteverdi, which is to say that the relationship between words & music had not yet ossified into the more rigid formal relationships one sees a century later in Handel, conventions that—however beautiful they may be—slow everything down. Cavalli feels edgy after Handel. That’s one reason for the headline, the sense that in going back to Cavalli one can possibly discover pathways more fertile than what came later.
Forms and conventions can be helpful pathways, but also traps. We gain from having expectations as an audience, helping us know what to expect. But when those pathways get in the way maybe we should re-think those choices: as modern composers appear to do. My promiscuity is showing, i suppose. I truly love the one I’m with, and that can be a 21st century composer Friday, a baroque composer Saturday re-thought by a modern American director with funky hair & beads, a 17th century composer on Sunday, or the encore broadcast of Prince Igor from the Met next weekend.
Today, however, I’m in love with Cavalli & the approach of Toronto Consort, a multi-talented bunch who are thoroughly inter-connected with other companies in Toronto, particularly via Artistic Director David Fallis who’s also resident music director for Opera Atelier, and one of the best choral conductors in Canada. Size is a recurring theme for me, as companies that have become too big to be sustainable fail to survive, alongside those that strategically avoid getting too big. Where we expect recent arrivals such as Against the Grain or Opera Five to live the small-is-beautiful philosophy, it’s especially heart-warming in a company that’s been around since 1972. Toronto Consort are not an opera company, I should mention, but their example is important.
We watched a concert performance with lights up, following in a libretto including side by side English & Italian. This feels apt considering what I’ve read about performance norms in the 18th century; I wish the COC or Opera Atelier would try this sometime. Cavalli intersperses serious and comic as quickly as Shakespeare, with a flexibility one doesn’t see in opera from later centuries. While I didn’t test Cicognini’s libretto with a stopwatch, the words seem to move much quicker per page than most operas, particularly Handel, who can sit on a pair of lines for five minutes. In places the texture is like a very dry recitative, responsive to whatever hijinks the comedians might wish to put over; in this case the chief comedian was Bud Roach as Demo, a stuttering hunchback servant, although both Laura Pudwell as Giasone and Michele DeBoer as Medea had the audience laughing aloud. With the exception of Roach whose broad delivery suited a character showing the influences of the Commedia dell’Arte , everyone seemed to underplay in a largely deadpan delivery.
The whole time we’re going back and forth between bawdy comedy & something of nobility, the music was gorgeous throughout, whether groups of plucked, bowed or wind instruments. The opera is not segmented in the baroque sense, with few full stops to elicit applause. And so it moves steadily, the music rhythmic, tuneful & always supportive without ever stopping us dead, the way operatic music is wont to do. What a pleasure getting lost in the richness of Pudwell’s tone.
Now if only someone –Opera Atelier?–would stage this opera for us…(?)
There’s no way I’ll miss that.