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Bullish on Baroque: what's our role in the revival of interest in early opera?

I SUPPOSE IT'S A QUESTION OF OPERATIC YING AND YANG, OF balance, of the operatic pendulum compensating as it always seems to do. At a time when it is difficult to suitably cast operas by Verdi or Wagner, and when the French repertoire has reached a crisis point (some believe a point of no return), surely there is some part of the operatic universe that offers hope for the future. And indeed, after comprehensive Mozart and Rossini revivals, the world of Baroque opera today represents one of the areas for general rejoicing and optimism.

A generation ago, several pioneering conductors in Europe, such as Nicolas Harnoncourt, William Christie and John Eliot Gardiner, led a voyage of rediscovery and reappraisal into the worlds of Monteverdi's Camerata Fiorentina, the tragedie-lyrique of Lully and Charpentier and the opera seria and dramatic oratorios of Handel. Within that same period, their efforts spawned a new generation of conductors, singers, directors and, perhaps more importantly, artistic administrators who believe in and understand the importance and viability of Baroque opera. Today, there is hardly a major house in Europe that has not integrated the Baroque repertoire into its core activities, and a host of opera festivals, from Drottningen and Glyndebourne to Beaune, have aided and abetted the revival.

As usual, North America has responded more slowly and less coherently to this latest operatic renaissance. There are certain notable exceptions, such as Glimmerglass Opera, but in general, mainstream North American opera companies are either weary, not to say fearful, of the new Baroque tendencies or have felt compelled to try to bend Baroque principles and aesthetics to modernday performing conditions. The results have been less than glorious.


Of course, the ultimate irony for us in Canada is that the Baroque movement has an important and growing fan base, and that Canadians artists and artisans are at the forefront of the world Baroque revival. If major Canadian opera companies have done a poor job in performing the few Baroque works they have presented, several specialized presenters have demonstrated it is possible to reconcile Baroque aesthetics with modern conditions of presentation.

Take Toronto's Opera Atelier, for example. Under the guidance of Marshall Pynkoski and Jeanette Zingg, Opera Atelier has, over the last 20 years, presented dozens of provoking and triumphant Baroque opera productions. With works centred primarily on a core repertoire of French tragedies-lyriques and Mozart operas, the company has attempted to recreate the aesthetics and ideals of the period through the use of period-instrument ensembles, ballet, movement and gesture, and elaborate stage decor and costumes. It has largely succeeded in its aims. And these efforts have led to extensive foreign tours and collaborations with such distinguished conductors as Andrew Parrot and Marc Minkowski, as well as Toronto's celebrated Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

In Vancouver, Modern Baroque Opera has, since 1996, presented an equally adventurous Baroque repertoire, and even commissioned contemporary works performed in the spirit of the Baroque age. Similarly, Kevin Mallon and the Aradia Ensemble have demonstrated an enterprising approach in several recordings for the Naxos label. In Quebec, a horde of Baroque groups such as Les Boreades and LesVoix Baroques have increasingly enlarged their activities to encompass Baroque operas and staged oratorios conducted by such eminent specialists as Alexander Weimann and Eric Milnes. Indeed, audience members at the 2005 Festival Vancouver had the opportunity of appreciating Les Voix Baroques' production of Antonio Caldara's staged oratorio, La conversione di Clodoveo, as well as Les Boreades' acclaimed production of Handel's Acis and Galatea.


Canadian artists are also fundamental to the Baroque revival. Such celebrated international singers as countertenors Daniel Taylor and Matthew White, sopranos Karina Gauvin, Dominique Labelle, Suzie LeBlanc and Natalie Paulin, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, tenor John Tessier and baritone Nathan Berg are constantly in demand to perform in Baroque opera, though usually abroad. They are all not limited to the world of the Baroque, of course, but they could easily devote their careers to the genre if they so chose. Such emerging artists as countertenor David Lee, tenors Colin Ainsworth and Colin Balzer, and soprano Gillian Keith seem destined to follow in their footsteps, making a name for themselves in the world of the Baroque before branching out into other operatic avenues.

Other distinguished Canadians, such as Gerald Finley, have demonstrated that Baroque opera seria, to be completely convincing, requires singers who understand the style and context of Baroque opera, but who also are vocalists of immense ability and expression. After all, lest we forget, these works were originally written for the greatest vocal virtuosi of any period. That such contemporary stars as Finley, Renee Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli have turned to Baroque opera in recent years is cause for rejoicing and a portent of things to come.

The Baroque revival gained momentum not only when singers devoted themselves to the vocal specifics of the genre, allying remarkable virtuosity with expressiveness, but when directors, conductors and music administrators realized the riches of the genre. Informed by and conscious of the historical context and stylistic considerations, they unified and combined their efforts to give these works the required musical and dramatic framework and dimension.

Canadian stage director Robert Carsen was among the first to fully comprehend the potential and power of Baroque opera. He has directed a slew of Baroque masterpieces, including such works as Handel's Orlando, Alcina, Theodora and Semele, as well as Rameau's Les Boreades. In the booklet with the 1999 Erato recording of Alcina, he writes that Baroque operas, specifically Handel's works, are "consistently rewarding because of their vivid psychological development. Their construction, with its succession of arias and absence of ensembles, has the effect of focusing all attention on character development.... In any Handel production, the director and the singers need to find a way of exploring the emotional landscape without seeming to fill in or decorate around the music. The sustained pattern of a recitative advancing the action, followed by an aria to develop the emotional response to that action, creates a constantly evolving give and take."

Carsen's vision, his clarity, lucidity and understanding of the genre's nature and impact, are representative of the new approach, one that has permitted an operatic genre, thought to be unperformable a generation ago, to be grandly appreciated today. The Baroque renaissance has also been fuelled by the emergence of many specialist record labels. Over the last decade, when major labels have seemed artistically bankrupt and ignorant of modern tendencies and tastes, such labels as Opus 111, Ambroisie, Naive and Canada's enterprising ATMA have begun to specialize in recordings of early and Baroque music. These new recording companies have become the Baroque opera movement's most important ally.

Of course, the term "Baroque opera" groups a wide variety of styles and sub-genres. There are, for example, vast differences in performing practices when producing a Monteverdi Camerata Fiorentina masterpiece and one of Handel's opera seria, let alone a tragedie-lyrique by Lully, Charpentier or Rameau. Each genre has its own stylistic and interpretative considerations and specificities. This has led to an equally wide variety of performing aesthetics. It is doubtful, for example, that the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier or Les Boreades and l'Opera de Montreal would present the same work in the same manner. And it has little to do with the means at their respective disposal. It has much more to do with the realities of the modern operatic world and what compromises one is prepared to live with.

Certain compromises appear inevitable. Italian Baroque operas, for example, were written primarily with those unique vocal creatures, the castrati, in mind. Castrati are not a modern option. These days, Baroque opera productions must compromise and choose between mezzo-sopranos--thereby changing the gender specifics of many operas--or the growing army of technically proficient countertenors. Though not able to reproduce the vocal power and range of the castrati, the modern countertenor has become an increasingly viable alternative.

Other compromises are more problematic. When the COC presented Handel's Guilio Cesare in Egitto in 2002 and OdeM produced Handel's Agrippina last season, they did so in theatres completely unsuited to the artistic task at hand. Toronto's Hummingbird Centre had to be acoustically enhanced, and the orchestra played on modern instruments and in modern performing conditions. Consequently, much period performing practice had to be sacrificed. Yet, despite these considerations and some cuts, the grandeur and beauty of the work seemed to come through almost intact. The same could not be said for OdeM's Agrippina. The opera was presented in Place des Arts' Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, which holds almost 3,000 seats. Not only were the artists and orchestra (the remarkable Violons du Roy) amplified, the orchestra had to be raised one and a half metres in the pit for the sound to emerge. Some arias were deprived of their central B sections and da capo reprises, presumably due to time considerations. In so doing, much of Robert Carsen's vivid psychological development was lost. It should come as no surprise, then, that the public did not flock to such an artistically incoherent exercise.

Ironically, when OdeM's Atelier lyrique performed Purcell's Dido and Aeneas last season, accompanied by period-instrument group Arion and conducted by Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the production was housed in the warmly welcoming confines of the Monument-National (capacity, about 800). The intimacy and fine acoustics of the theatre not only respected the nature of the work, they also guaranteed that the impact and emotion of the tragedy would be fully captured. Similarly, Opera Atelier in Toronto uses the 1,500-seat Elgin Theatre, whose dimensions and acoustics do not betray the performing nature of the work presented.

The contrast between the North American and the European approach is striking. Of the various productions of Handel's Alcina and Guilio Cesare presented in Europe over last season, none was in halls of more than 1,775 seats. The Munich opera has that number, Berlin's Komische Oper 1,209, Hanover 1,207, Stuttgart 1,400, the Nederlandse Oper in Amsterdam 1,600, L'Opera de Lyon, 1,350 and Oviedo in Spain about 1,500. In addition, these productions were almost always led by conductors using orchestral forces and singers well versed in the Baroque idiom.


Indeed, one of the glories of the present generation of European Baroque conductors and ensembles is their level of musical accomplishment. In France and Italy alone, one can think of Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, Mark Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre, Jean-Christophe Spinosi and the Matheus Ensemble, Emmanuelle Haim and Le Concert d'Astree, Fabio Biondi and L'Europa Galante, Rinaldo Alessandrini and Il Concerto Italiano, Antonio Florio and La Capella de'Turchini Alessandro de Marchi and l'Accademia Montis Regalis--and the list goes on. These ensembles perform Baroque operas (invariably complete) in halls or venues where artistic and aesthetic, rather than financial, considerations reign supreme. Until major opera companies in North America, and specifically Canada, decide to perform Baroque opera for the right reasons, until they respect Baroque opera for what it is--and in so doing, banish unacceptable compromises--we will be doing the genre, our artists and especially our public no favors.
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Author:Turp, Richard
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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