The Tudors - opera, history and time

Posted on Thu, 2013-09-19 16:55 by David Pountney

Inevitably the presentations of, so far, 2 of our 3 Donizetti Tudor operas have raised questions about period authenticity – is it desirable, is it relevant, and to which period should it apply?

When Donizetti, and his other contemporaries chose British subjects, was it because they were particularly interested in the details of British history, landscape or culture? I don’t think so. British subjects were fashionable in this period largely due to the extraordinary Europe-wide success of the novels of Sir Walter Scott which established the British Isles, especially Scotland, but also historical Britain as an exotic, romantic location. This was a decision as much to do with fashion as anything else, just as it was fashionable in the late 19th/early 20th century to locate to exotic Asiatic cultures, and in neither case was historical or cultural veracity ever of prime concern. The romantics, signalling a retreat from the coming threat of industrialisation, ironically pioneered in the actual rather than the romanticised British Isles, were in search of larger than life characters set within extreme landscapes. That was their agenda, not historical accuracy. Wordsworth and Coleridge went to the Lake District to escape from reality, or perhaps rather to find an alternative reality, not engage in historical research.

When Donizetti set out to compose these Romanticised, melodramatic views of British history there was never a thought in his mind of incorporating into the music any element of period accuracy. What he was after was the emotional reality of his characters, distilled into clear melodramatic conflicts. So when we come to consider what period authenticity might mean in the context of these pieces, we first of all have to acknowledge that the main means of communicating them, words and music, take no account whatsoever of historical accuracy. Firstly, Henry VIII (Enrico!) sings in Italian, and secondly the music is entirely the music of early 19th century Italy, employing some instruments that did not exist in Elizabethan times. Donizetti does not even suggest the possible cliché of giving Smeaton a lute to pretend to play, as Don Giovanni does the mandolin. The composer, not the director has, through the music, updated the story by a mere 300 years.

Donizetti is not a particular culprit in this regard. Did Verdi, for example, show any interest in period, as distinguished from local colour, for which Verdi’s word was “tinta”. This applies not to the accuracy of period detail, but to the unique flavour of each drama. In Rigoletto, for instance, whose location was in any case shifted from the royal French court of Francois 1 in Hugo’s play to the Renaissance ducal court of Mantua to avoid implying that a royal personage could behave badly, Verdi creates “couleur locale” in the opening scene by the use of the off-stage band, but the opening music is typical 19th century salon music. When this is later followed by a minuet, it is in the classical style of Mozart and Boccherini, clearly influenced by Don Giovanni, which Verdi studied closely, but makes no reference to the music or the period of Monteverdi whose patron was actually Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. On the contrary, Verdi blithely introduces this musical reference to a completely different period because it was not the period that interested him, but the atmosphere of a courtly entertainment. When Jonathan Miller famously introduced a juke box into this opera, he was behaving with the same cavalier disregard for period authenticity as Verdi.
 
The relocation of Rigoletto from Paris to Mantua, or that of Ballo in Maschera from Stockholm to Boston (!) were of course at the bidding of, or an attempt to circumvent, the censor, but that in itself tells us a lot about the inherent meaning of these works as perceived at the time. If the censor had really thought that either of these pieces were actually about the court of Francois the 1 or Gustavus of Sweden he would probably not have been very interested. His concern indicates that he knew that these pieces would be read with a contemporary inference.

Even if Verdi had imitated Monteverdi rather than Mozart in Rigoletto, it would not have made any real difference to what the music is telling us about the period of the story because the essential language that Verdi is using throughout the piece is, obviously, his own musical voice as a 19th century Italian composer. Little bits of period pastiche here and there do not alter the essential musical content of a work and its instant conveyance of a particular social, political and musical epoch. In Aida the High Priestess is given a melodic pattern that clearly signalled “Oriental” at the time, but the language of the triumphal march, for instance, is unmistakably that of 19th century imperialism. Tchaikovsky wrote a whole scene in The Queen of Spades in Mozartian pastiche, but that cannot alter the fact that throughout the piece the Petersburg of Catherine the Great is characterised by music of a century later.

In Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss sets a mid-18th century Viennese story in which the principal musical ingredient is the Waltz, a dance whose musical epicentre lies 100 years later. In Alfred Roller’s legendary designs for the premiere, 18th century elements are grafted onto an evidently Jugendstil sensibility, so 150 years later. More recent composers, with greater access to period research, have made more serious attempts at period pastiche, such as Britten’s “Elizabethan Dances” in Gloriana, but even these can never erase the predominant influence of Britten’s own contemporary musical language. Pastiche cannot over-ride fundamental stylistic content, and I don’t think there has ever been a composer who has thought it worthwhile to set out to adapt his musical style to the period of the story he is setting.
 
I could go on, but you have got the point. The composer, not the director, is the first one to “modernise” a story, and if the director then goes on to set the work in a naturalistic replica of the period of the story, he is liable to be contradicting the music, which is sometimes but not always a fruitful tactic. The decision of the designers of The Tudors to evoke but not to replicate Elizabethan style seems to me at once an intelligent and sensitive response to Donizetti’s own indifference to period detail.

The occasional intrusion of contemporary details in these productions also reminds us of another hugely distorting influence on the possible period authenticity of an operatic event: our own eyes and ears. If the composer is the first to modernise, the audience is the last and by no means the least important element to do so. We bring with us ears that have heard car horns and telephones and can never again achieve a state of Mozartian aural innocence, eyes that have watched television, and minds and hearts that are full of all the vastly changing content of current social, political and emotional discourse. We can never again view works of the past exactly as their authors intended because we arrive with a totally altered viewing and listening apparatus.  We are ourselves updating every work we witness without even thinking of it. All of this should alert us to the fact that a theatrical performance is a transformative invitation to the imagination, not an exercise in the unattainable replication of the past.

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