“Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. I suppose when Pope wrote that in 1733 there were grounds for thinking so. I can’t really explain why I turned on the TV last night to watch Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro live from Pierre Audi’s Aix-en-Provence Festival, since where modern opera productions are concerned I have long since adopted an older poet’s admonition with regard to entering Hell.
And the Hell came. Thomas Hengelbrock, whom I formerly knew as a silently observant second violinist in the Harnoncourts’ old Concentus Musicus, founded an ensemble which he, for reasons known unto himself, named after Balthasar Neumann (1687-1753), a fortress designer and gunnery expert who had a sideline in monumental architecture. I happen to have a soft spot in my heart for Neumann, having performed often, as did my wife and students in the days when the Würzburg Musikhochschule was a respectable institution (not the Home for the Musically Challenged it has since become) within the stout walls of his masterpiece, the Residenz, and moreover having undergone two operations in the clinic which occupies the house he designed for himself, just behind the archiepiscopal mews.
Mr. Hengelbrock, infamous for butchering Tannhäuser at Bayreuth and now famous as music director of Hamburg’s extravagant new Elbephilharmonie, summoned his oddly-named period-instrument ensemble to Aix. Balthasar would surely have turned one of his cannons on Thomas and his crew, could he have heard and seen what I did last night. The now inevitable action on stage during the overture — in this case, a complete acting-out of the opera by commedia dell’arte figures — served to distract from the most brutish, rushed, utterly meaningless rendition of the piece I ever endured. The first duet was not quite as bad, probably because singers were involved, but the staging plumbed new depths of Euro-trash. Figaro was measuring the space for his bridal bed on a checkered linoleum floor in front of a washing machine, while Almaviva was eating popcorn, smirking and waving to “fans” from his whorehouse-modern bedroom next door.
But what finally caused me to leap from the sofa and turn off what Waugh called “the damning instrument” was a fortepiano concerto which preceded the first secco recitative. I thought I had heard something thumping along during the overture; now my worst fears were confirmed. This grotesque, historically false fashion sprouted from the brain of René Jacobs, whom I heard perform miracles (and often accompanied) as a countertenor back in the Lower Devonian, but who as a conductor has been one of the great destroyers of anything that could be called remotely historical in “historically informed performance practice”. He has epitomized the frenzied search for anything new and astonishing, however unlovely, inappropriate or tasteless, which has rendered the once blossoming field of early music a desert.
I may have missed something, but I know of only a single contemporary reference connecting a fortepiano to a work by Mozart for the musical stage. His own instrument was carried to Schikaneder’s Theater an der Wien for something to do with a Singspiel called Die Zauberflöte – I suspect for rehearsals. The knockabout little house probably didn’t have a harpsichord in residence, and there is in any case no call whatsoever for keyboard continuo in what a member of William H. Scheide‘s pioneering Bach Aria Group once told me was the composer’s “most misshapen child” before I had ever heard a note of it. Joseph Weigl, on the other hand, tells us in his autobiography that he took over the harpsichord from Mozart after the first three performances of Figaro in the old Burgtheater. The pit in that venerable building (originally a 16th-century tennis court which was torn down in 1888 to make way for the delayed completion of Fischer von Erlach’s plans for the expanded Hofburg) had its own harpsichord, which was still being used in the 1820s for Rossini operas, and for all I know beyond.
Aside from the lack of documentation pro and the abundance contra, the early fortepiano is simply not right for the job. Its lack of power and incisiveness, as well as its poverty of overtones, render it unsuitable as support for singers at any distance, and especially in a situation where they are caterwauling, moving around and gesticulating. And don’t get me started on the difficulty of tuning a fortepiano and keeping it in tune under theater conditions.
Shortly before his death, Frans Brüggen asked me to play the harpsichord on a tour of concert performances of Cosí fan tutte with his Orchestra of the 18th Century. He was to conduct himself, but his health had so deteriorated when the time came that he had to hand over the baton to a third-rate, provincial Dutchman. I found the Orkest sadly deteriorated as well. It had mutated, after countless performances of Beethoven, Chopin and Mendelssohn, into an unwieldy Orchestra of the 19th Century, with members who carried on conversations during the recitatives in the Concertgebouw. I was repeatedly asked why I only played “dry chords”? So old-fashioned... I tried to explain that all evidence pointed in that direction, that continuo was not a vehicle for solo exhibitions, and that my contribution to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s TelDec recordings of the three Mozart/da Ponte operas had met with his full approval – but made no headway.
Rummaging around online for this screed, I came across something unfamiliar to me, which reminded me how “the sun advance[s] his burning eye, The day to cheer, and night’s dank dew to dry”. At age 26, Gustav Klimt was commissioned to commemorate the Burgtheater before its demise. He painted the masterpiece of “academic” painting – a style which nowadays is coming for some long-overdue appreciation – shown below, which included some 200 recognizable portraits of Viennese high society. What a testimony to how far “Western Civilization” has fallen!
A world that treats its most precious treasures with as little respect as Aix has afforded Figaro richly deserves the darkness and dank dew that are advancing on every front.
July 10, 2021