Steven was an impassioned artist who always spoke quietly in rehearsal. Indefatigable, his conducting style was something like a smooth shake, a revolving. Precision and passion are not often balanced in a person without effort, but they were in Steven. Steven had something of the hair-shirted prophet about him, especially regarding the music he believed in. He had to endure considerable disappointment on this front. Much of the time his audiences were small. He kept right on going.
Why has Debussy’s Mélisande become a mezzo-soprano role? Maybe David Mamet has given me the answer to this. The playwright and bomb-thrower tells us in his new book “Theatre” that actors are in almost every case better off without a director, their own instincts leading the way. Mélisande has been sounding lower and lower over the decades (and Pélleas, too, for he always follow her wherever she goes). Here are the explanations we get: the part is low (surely Debussy realized this, yet did not change it, as he did for a baritone Pélleas), the orchestras are larger, the halls are larger, and maybe mezzos just want to do it. I have now in my imagination the idea that a century of cynicism has altered the instincts of the finest singers of the role, and also its finest hearers.
Although a certain mystery surrounds the origins and dramatic intentions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, it has become the most performed of Purcell’s stage works, not only for the obvious practical reasons (It is short and requires only a small cast, not all of whom have to possess the highest technical skill.), but because of its unique versatility, which is more than a chance artifact of transmission: Dido and Aeneas can be successfully performed with less than a full complement of dancing, stage action, costume, and sets—that is in a concert version or semi-staged, or in an elaborate staging in the taste of Purcell’s own time—or our own, if intelligently and reasonable executed, and short, far short of this year’s Glyndebourne production of The Fairy Queen. The Boston Early Music Festival’s chamber opera production of its model, John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (ca. 1682) gives a brilliant idea of what a performance of Dido and Aeneas might have been like in Purcell’s time, with its fluid interchange between the performers and the participating audience, both in song and in dance. Gilbert Blin’s production can serve as an ideal around which many worthy approximations can orbit. The opera’s economy, small cast, and the fact that there is no evidence for a public performance in Purcell’s lifetime favor a more intimate realization as a domestic masque.