Podcasts / New York Arts / Opera

Heavenly lengths…yeah! Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs discuss Steffani’s Niobe and the future.

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Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Artistic Directors of the Boston Early Music Festival
Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Artistic Directors of the Boston Early Music Festival


[At the beginning and end to the podcast you hear Philippe Jaroussky rehearsing the part of Anfione in Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe.]

There is a lot of talk about long operas these days, in the light of the Boston Early Music Festival’s triumphant production of Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe, which, as cut by the directors, lasted about 3 hours 45 minutes; and now an important revival of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is coming up, which also promises to be a long evening, potentially as long a five hours. Huntley Dent has just reviewed Henrik Ibsen’s early rarity, Emperor and Galilean, presented by the National Theatre, London, with the play’s two parts of four hours each reduced to a single evening of three and a half hours. It seems this goes against the modern grain, although blockbuster movies tend to be long and certain genres of popular novels very long. Yet Francesca Zambello, in her interview with Seth Lachterman for New York Arts, pointed out her concern to keep the Glimmerglass production of Carmen within temporal bounds that would be acceptable to a wide audience (in actuality 2 hours, 50 minutes, with intermissions, which is pretty well standard), and length is usually the first thing an operatic neophyte complains about. Glimmerglass, which has had a run of disappointing ticket sales in recent years, is symptomatic of the “industry,” to use a current term. NEA statistics show that opera attendance in the U.S. peaked around 1992, declining percentagewise in 2002, and showing a significant drop both in numbers and percentages in 2008. The NEA and others blame the economic collapse of that year and high gas prices, but the historical figures indicate a trend that goes further back than that. No one has pinpointed the reasons yet. Is it the decline in education, above all in the humanities? The decline in music education in schools? The ever-decreasing attention span created by the media, computer games, and Internet surfing? Whatever it is, arts administrators are determined to keep on selling tickets, which means for most adapting to public taste. Both Glimmerglass and the Chicago Lyric Opera have introduced Broadway musicals into their seasons, because they are the only kind of “artistic” event to show growth in 2008.

BEMF is to some degree above this, since it exists for the purpose of serving early music and, as the largest and most important such festival in the world, it has a devoted audience who travel to Boston every two years just for that, but, when you listen to Paul O’Dette in the interview posted here, you will realize that he, too, is concerned with selling tickets. If you are presenting a performance of any kind, what better measure of success is there? An empty hall is a depressing sight, even if you have a packet of rave reviews from the critics.

If one’s ambitions are more than purely commercial, the process of cutting is a painful one, as Paul O’Dette explains in our interview. One is always giving up something, or compromising the whole. On the other hand, there have been some impressive achievements in creating pocket versions of classics. Peter Brook’s 90-minute La tragédie de Carmen captures the essence of what affects us in Mérimée’s novella and Bizet’s opera. (Peter Brook will offer a similar version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute this summer at the Lincoln Center Festival.) I was equally impressed by Omar Sangare’s 90-minute distillation of Tennessee’s Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in the very same theater this past spring, in which his basic concern was to adapt Williams’ 1940s dramaturgy to modern tastes. Williamstown audiences have more recently had an opportunity to compare it with original in an excellent Williamstown Theatre Festival production. Even if the play retains all of its fascination and power as Williams wrote it, the adaptation justified itself as an experience in itself. The creators themselves, of course, had to adapt to their audiences and had to make the same kinds of decisions Paul O’Dette has confronted, not least the composer of Niobe himself, Agostino Steffani, not to mention Shakespeare, some of whose plays exist in short and long versions.

By contrast we should not forget that there is an audience for long, even extremely long productions in New York City, Europe, and parts of Asia. Regular readers will have noticed how I reminisce fondly about Peter Stein’s all-night Oresteia at Ostia Antica, and his twelve-hour version of Dostoievsky’s The Demons sold out in New York last year.

I’ll be the first to admit that this is not the most edifying subject. In a way it is irrelevant, because, in theater as in music and opera, when we sit down to witness a performance, we abandon the time on our watches and enter into the temporal world of the composer, librettist, and stage director, and we accept their time as our own. In terms of imitation, there is not only the Aristotelian timespan of twenty–four hours, “imitated” by the poet, the choregos, and the participants within ninety minutes or two hours, there are also whole chunks of lifetimes, as in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, not that hasn’t been considered a flaw by many. In Hamlet and King Lear, we can take it as we like, although the time frames are most definitely not Aristotelian, and who, when seeing a compelling production of either play, is inclined to construct a chronology in his head? In Lear we see most clearly how Shakespeare expands and contracts time according to the plot and the psychic state of his characters. Who is aware of time during the wrenching scenes in the storm? It must have seemed long to Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar, but the audience lives only within Lear’s stormy rhetoric. His phrases and pauses are the only timekeepers. Then time contracts during the race aginst time and evil to save Lear and Cordelia in prison. If you are truly accepting the performance and following it, the time on your watch or cell phone no longer matters, unless you’re thinking about that post-curtain dinner reservation or the last subway train. For this reason the indications of length prevalent in New York concert programs has always seemd to me to be a counter-productive, even destructive distraction. There’s something a bit crass about it, especially considering how short present-day concerts are. To borrow a phrase from the retail world, if you have to ask, you can’t afford the time.

Richard Wagner’s response to the daily urgencies of his audience was to demand from them the investment of a stay at Bayreuth, where they could attend festival performances of his music dramas at a time of day when they were alert. Their sojourn in Bayreuth was to be free from the distractions of business or social obligations. Steffani had to be more accomodating, but the court culture in which he worked was more adapted to putting an operatic performance at the center of life, especially at carnival time, when everyone had Lenten dearth before them.

Niobe Regina di Tebe was conceived as an expansive, motley entertainment (that is bringing together various genres) for a court theater that was as much a social center as an auditorium. Guillaume Tell, as a prototype grand opera, is equally strange to us. In embarking on an adventure with something from the past that is new to us, just as in something new that is new to us, it is best just to let oursleves go, to give ourselves over to the music and the spectacle, just as Anfione gave himself over to the spheres. Next time you have the opportunity, try it!

A note on Mozart’s Idomeneo

At one point in the interview Paul O’Dette mentions Mozart’s great opera seria, Idomeneo, Re di Creta, as an opera which is almost never performed in its entirety. Since Messrs. O’Dette and Stubbs had to leave to perform in the last Acis and Galatea, our time was short, and I didn’t want to use it myself.

I have heard and seen some very fine performances of Idomeneo in reather heavily cut versions, for example Benjamin Britten’s, Colin Davis’, and Karl Böhm’s, but there is no doubt that the more Idomeneo, the better, as in Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt’s recording and the even more complete recording by Sir Charles Mackerras, based on his own edition, which even included the ballet music that follows the final curtain. Last summer I had the immense pleasure of hearing a concert performance of Sir Charles’ version in Edinburgh, magnificently led by Sir Roger Norrington, following Sir Charles’ passing. One of the most serious problems in cut versions of Idomeneo is that the third act often seems too brief, and the opera loses the classical symmetry of its structure—an essential formal element in the work. Admittedly Mozart was terrifically excited by the opportunity to compose for the Cuvilliéstheater in the Munich Residenz, with its incomparable company and orchestra, and he wrote more music than was needed. Steffani, writing for a stage in a different part of the Residenz, was similarly inspired. Realizing that the first act was too long, Steffani willingly shortened the act in the way described in the interview. Seeing Niobe for the first and only time—so far, I hope—I thought that its somewhat sprawling story was as intelligible as it will ever be, but that a few arias and scenes seemed a bit abrupt.

Stephen Stubbs, as you will hear, says that there may be some good news ahead for the now rapidly growing band of Steffani enthusiasts: there may be a recording, and it is quite possible that this recording will be uncut. Gilbert Blin’s splendid production may even be videorecorded for release on DVD. (Since Lully’s Psyché (2007) I have thought it essential that the BEMF productions should be available in this form.) I have a distinct feeling that the more of Niobe we see and hear, the better.

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