Going for Baroque

On p. 24 of Common Errors in English I use an example sentence that probably strikes some readers as odd: “As far as music is concerned, I especially love Baroque operas.”

When I first started teaching, popular culture’s view of opera was that it consisted of a lot of irritating screeching. This is an old tradition in humor. Mark Twain, who detested opera, approvingly quoted humorist Bill Nye as saying sarcastically “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

This view of operatic singing being at best “caviar to the to the general” (yucky salty fish eggs) was reinforced in last night’s episode of Downton Abbey which featured several characters suffering through a performance of arias by famed soprano Dame Nellie Melba (portrayed by famed soprano Kiri Te Kanawa). Melba was past her prime at the date of this fictional performance, and Te Kanawa was not at her best either, which made the suffering of the listeners more understandable.*

But over the last several decades, opera has grown in popularity. When I first started teaching operas in my humanities courses, few students had ever heard one. By the time I retired six years ago, students were competing to see which one would get to write a term paper on their favorite opera composer. Go to the Seattle Opera and you’ll see quite a few youthful audience members as compared with audiences for the Seattle Symphony.

A segment on NPR several years ago explained the rising popularity of opera among younger listeners by comparing the genre to popular music videos. When you’ve come of age watching wildly emotional singing accompanied by spectacular visual effects on MTV, it’s not surprising that you might find operas appealing.

But Baroque opera remains a very special taste. Opera was invented in the 16th and 17th centuries, partly inspired by rediscovered ancient Greek tragedies. Most early operas were based on Classical Greek and Roman themes, but Baroque taste leaned toward love stories and happy endings, which led to some pretty strange plots.

The earliest opera most people know about is Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo, based on the legend of Orpheus and Euridice, presented fairly faithfully. There’s a fascinating performance of the work conducted by Jordi Savall which incorporates movement based on ancient Greek vase paintings.

But the appeal of opera is only in a small part based on plot. If you want to experience an 18th-century drama, watch a performance of a play by Moliere or Sheridan. Opera is mostly about music.

Baroque instrumental music is very popular—consider Pachelbel’s Canon in D, a slowed-down version of which is now frequently played at weddings. Everyone knows Handel’s Water Music and Messiah, but few people know any of his 42 operas, the most often performed of which is Giulio Cesare. Classical radio stations endlessly play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but ignore his 20 surviving operas—out of a total of 50 or so.

My wife and I are both big fans of Baroque opera performances, partly because prior to the Classical period singers and instrumentalists alike were expected to decorate the written score with improvised passages, particularly during repeats in the music. This gives a Baroque opera performance some of the same sort of excitement as a really good jazz performance.

Lately we’ve been enjoying the hilarious and spectacular production of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes conducted by William Christie.

To get a taste of what really good Baroque opera sounds like without having to sit through long stretches of recitative, try the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 Baroque mashup (a pastiche opera) The Enchanted Island, blending the plots of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest set to very appealing music by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Purcell, Campra, Leclair, Ferrandini, and Rebel.

It’s a highly entertaining way to sample Baroque opera if you’re not ready for the real thing. Unfortunately, although this performance was broadcast in HD to movie theaters the Met opted not to release it in Blu-Ray, only in a normal DVD edition. But I keep hoping.

*If you don’t like caviar, try Peach Melba instead.

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