Strange Bedfellows

May 2014Programme notes

I wrote this programme note for a double bill that I conducted (and co-edited) at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. This was the first staged production to take place in the Milton Court Theatre at the Barbican Centre, and the young musicians' response to these rarely-performed works was hailed as a ‘triumph’. The Stage Director was Rodula Gaitanou with Simon Corder as Set and Lighting Designer, Cordelia Chisholm as Costume Designer and Victoria Newlyn as Choreographer. 

Georgian London in the 1770s was a place where music thrived as much in the pleasure garden and tavern as the church and opera house. The Beggar’s Opera of 1728 had set in motion a native reaction against highly stylized Italian opera seria, in which overly large, castrated singers performed ever more virtuosic arias about ever more mythical events in a foreign language.

Enough! Arne’s The Cooper is an everyday English ballad. It comprises songs rather than arias, many of which are strophic, with catchy tunes that are often shared with the orchestra. Spoken dialogue enhances the plot’s simple charm, and the bawdy humour acts as an effective counterpoint to the graceful music. We are dealing with a work in which the characters are actors who happen to sing rather than vice versa. This is the world of vaudeville, and we have cherished the challenge of marrying heightened natural speech with sung declamation.

The savvy girl in Arne’s comedy could perhaps be seen as an innocent version of Stradella’s Salome, but that is where any useful comparison between The Cooper and San Giovanni Battista ends. Based on the biblical story of John the Baptist, the oratorio San Giovanni is an opera in all but name. We have slightly extended the work to make it amenable for the stage; the insertion of two instrumental interludes by Caldara allows for scene changes, and there are now six instead of two choruses – which would originally have been sung only by the soloists. The prospect of working over a two-month period with fifteen talented young singers on a total of 42 bars of music filled me with dread! More importantly, the chorus give gravitas to the proceedings since they allow for this drama to be lived out in a public forum. Those who might consider such musical additions sacrilegious need only be reminded that pieces often exist in several versions – especially in so-called ‘early’ music. Moreover, the tradition of the pasticcio – in which operas are concocted from various works, often by several composers – survived up until Mahler’s legendary tenure at the Vienna State Opera at the turn of the 20th century. Furthermore, composing the occasional pastiche chorus has, for me, been an invaluable rite of passage in coming fully to terms with Stradella’s distinctive musical style.

Back to Salome… We have here a character similar in part to Handel’s scheming Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. Salome’s combination of overly florid passages and occasional registral nosedives contrasts markedly with John the Baptist’s serene musical lines to portray a dangerous young minx wholly devoid of moral compass. When she demands the Baptist’s head, she bluntly snatches the initiative away from Herod in a mere five notes. But our Herod is never the invincible Biblical King. Rather, Stradella and the librettist Ansaldi portray him as a vulnerable human being who, like Pontius Pilate, finds himself trying to do the right thing but failing – thus being forever damned in the annals of history. Herod’s rage aria, Tuonerà tra mille turbini, is too long, rarely ventures far from its home key of D major and ends awkwardly, without the return of the music heard at the start. Far from a musical shortcoming, however, nothing could better depict the bluster and humiliation of a despised king confronted by a natural leader. This emotional frustration reaches its zenith in the devastating final duet where, as in Mozart, two characters sing the same music to completely conflicting emotions. Salome’s adolescent mirth is in woeful contrast to Herod’s utter devastation at what he has done. Unlike many operas, there is no concluding chorus or deus ex machina to judge or save Herod. That is left to us. Can such a brutal ending invite at least a passing sympathy for this ever-maligned king?

© Julian Perkins

Photo: Clive Barda
Scene from Arne’s ballad. Photo: Clive Barda
Scene from Stradella's oratorio. Photo: Clive Barda
Alessandro Stradella (1643–1682) by Louis Denis (between 1868 and 1888).
Caricature of Thomas Arne (1710–1778) after a painting by Francesco Bartolozzi (1782).
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