Steffani: more devotion than drama

I am grateful for the gift of a new voice, a new composer introduced to me by Tafelmusik, Ivars Taurins, and Krisztina Szabo. It’s truly a magical thing.

I was pondering the experience of classical music, how so much of what we’re doing is really listening to familiar melodies, whether they’re Beethoven or Puccini or Handel. We live in a kind of golden age, when music is so ubiquitous, so available through various media, that you can find just about anything: and usually for free. So much of what we’re doing when we attend a classical concert is a bit like listening to oldies, melodies we know backwards, rather than anything strange or unfamiliar.

It’s a remarkable thing to encounter something new.

That’s the miracle of this week’s programme at Tafelmusik, titled “Steffani: Drama & Devotion”. There’s so much to this composer,  Agostino Steffani, (1654-1728) that they gave two radically different halves that correspond to the parts of the title. In the first half we heard two Christian texts in Steffani’s settings, namely Beatus vir from relatively early in his career followed by his Stabat Mater, a mature masterpiece. That was the “devotion” part, for which soloist Krisztina Szabo wore a beautiful but relatively sombre gown. Tafelmusik Orchestra & chorus were superb throughout.

In the second half, containing a series of operatic pieces, Szabo was in a stunning fuchsia gown, certainly portending drama.


Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo (photo: Bo Huang)

While she will sing the Messiah later this year for Tafelmusik, Szabo is someone who is known for taking on the new and the adventurous. She sang alongside Barbara Hannigan in the world premiere production of Lessons in Love and Violence by George Benjamin (I think it was earlier this year). We have seen her in such edgy pieces as Pyramus & ThisbeErwartung and Harawi here in Toronto. In a real sense, the Steffani too is new, repertoire that’s not known to the audience or artists. And she brought a wonderful sense of adventure to the performances.

And yet I am frustrated. I need to explain and offer context.

The first half took two pieces, and saw us applaud at the end of each. In the second half, we went from aria to interlude to chorus: and in the process, stifled the drama. Each of those numbers was part of a story: but was presented without preamble and severed from any connection to anything else. I was leaning forward in my seat prepared to holler for the first aria I had heard, even though it was offered without much in the way of context. But there was a polite silence instead. Perhaps it will be different tomorrow.

Forgive me if I offer as my context, the concert I saw this afternoon: where Atis Bankas introduced each piece. We not only had loads of applause, we had clapping between the movements of a sonata. No that’s not considered good form, but it’s a sign of enthusiasm in an audience who weren’t asking anyone’s leave to show their love and affection for the artists & their work.

I  was disappointed to see these opera excerpts presented as though they were parts of a single unit, with no applause nor any encouragement of applause after each one. Call me weird if you will, but I love to applaud. I think it’s one of the components of number-opera, and also a lot of fun. In presenting these arias this way among other operatic excerpts tightly organized without any encouragement of applause: it was as though Szabo were a butterfly, so tightly crowded that she couldn’t spread her wings. Now of course she’d never agree with this assessment because she’s a trouper, indeed a total warrior in showing up, memorizing these new pieces and tossing them off perfectly.

Please note that normally at an opera aria recital we get no explanations. I can surrender to a performance without knowing what’s going on. But please don’t whisk the diva off the stage so quickly. Let us scream our approval first?

Some of these orchestral pieces were amazing, a marvelous smorgasbord of delights. I suppose from a musicological perspective it was wonderful, getting all those performances without any of that irritating applause: except that music is only one part of opera, not its sum total.  Opera is theatre, and when you only have music, you’ve removed part of its essence, a necessary part of opera. Doing it this way felt a bit repressed, bottled up, and unnatural. It was pretty, yes. But it was not operatic.

I yelled my head off at the end of course. They deserved it, because they were all wonderful.  The concert will be repeated Friday & Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 at Jeanne Lamon Hall.

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3 Responses to Steffani: more devotion than drama

  1. Ivars Taurins says:

    The pasticcio (coming from the Italian culinary word for a kind of filled pie made of many ingredients) was an extremely popular form in the 18th century. In music it took the form of an opera or oratorio, but made up of various ingredients borrowed from other pre-existing works, creating a new dramatic work.
    In introducing Steffani to our audience, I wanted to show the wide range of styles, forms, emotions, and colours that this relatively unknown but remarkable composer had produced. He wrote thirteen operas and two pasticcios. Most of these average four hours long… and so, how best to show his art in one concert?
    My inspiration came from Cecilia Bartoli’s exploration of Steffani’s music in her cd and dvd entitled MISSION. Together with the Italian conductor Diego Fasolis and his ensemble, they created their own pasticcio, meant to be savoured and appreciated as a dramatic whole.
    After I had made a short list of Steffani’s opera arias that could easily have filled two whole concerts, I narrowed that down, with the help of our soloist Kristina Szabo, to a half programme. I interleaved the final selections with dramatic incidental music and dances as well as a few choruses drawn from Steffani’s operatic output. The movements selected provide dramatic and modulatory links for the arias, to create a musical whole. At the centre of this scheme was a conscience effort to create a dramatic narrative through the connection of the individual texts, illuminating the workings of the heart and mind – love, hope, joy, despair, revenge, as well as the larger ideas of war and peace, and Steffani’s breathtaking ability to portray them.
    Unlike Handel, who was greatly influenced by Steffani’s music, and who could spin da capo arias of many minutes, Steffani’s opera arias average no more that two or three minutes – the opening bravura aria “Non prendo consiglio” clocks in at just over one minute! The instrumental dances are often of a similar proportion. There are only two arias of longer length. With fifteen selections in our pasticcio, I would have thought that applause after every aria would disrupt the drama and continuity that is inherent in a pasticcio. The opera aria recitals that you refer to and compare as an experience, are, in my view, a completely different animal.
    I hope, at least, that this Steffani pasticcio gave you something of the flavour of the grandeur, pathos, drama, intimacy and joy to be found in his remarkable music.

    Ivars Taurins,
    Director, Tafelmusik Chamber Choir

    • barczablog says:

      Ivars, thank you for the fascinating reply! I worried when I wrote this that it might offend in being an impulsive response (what else would I do, writing at midnight, then going off to work the next morning at 7 am?). Perhaps the failure is ours –for example mine by not insisting on applause, to resist that forward flow..? True what you say about arias, and I had thought to reference Handel’s dramaturgy: so regular yet so limiting in some respects, and lacking this fluidity. But I think there would have been a more fluid response from an audience, likely applauding vocal roulades & coloratura on the spot –right in the middle of that first aria for example– which we don’t do anymore. Our politeness then freezes us on the sidelines, which doesn’t seem right. In the end we’re talking about exploring something old from a great distance, and unable to really behave as they would have in 1700 (or whenever). I might have been listening from my family box, or walking down the aisles while doing business. We’re such a different creature now, that it’s tricky trying to imagine. I think many of the standard procedures we see in Handel’s time may have been strategic choices to help better govern audience behaviour, by making it easier to know what to expect. I feel the fresh breeze of Monteverdi himself blowing through this music, in its ability to be brand-new and unshackled by convention. Ah convention, genre, that necessary evil, telling us what to expect. When something is new, it’s bliss for awhile, not knowing what to expect. But I think at the time the audience would not have been silent. They would have been more rowdy and boisterous, unregulated I think. (and that’s hard to imagine in Jeanne Lamon Hall). Perhaps what you’re reading is my own little bit of rowdy-boisterous?

      And I apologize if my admiration and indeed love for the work wasn’t crystal clear in my blog (can one even call it a review?)

  2. Pingback: Circa Humans | barczablog

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