Why remake Monteverdi’s Arianna?

ARIANNA a la recherche

At the end of September 2017, OPERA OMNIA will present the premiere of Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), performed by the young professionals and advanced students of the International Baroque Opera Project at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’. Read more about the project here. Singers, continuo, instrumentalists and technical theatre specialists may apply to take part, here.

 

WHY remake Monteverdi’s Arianna?

 

Recalling the famous question, why climb Mount Everest, I’m tempted to answer for Arianna, “because it’s not there!”. All that survives of the original music is the famous Lamento, published for voice and continuo in 1623, also transcribed as a 5-voice madrigal and in religious contrafacta. As Tim Carter writes in Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (2002), Monteverdi regarded Arianna, composed in Mantua the year after Orfeo, as his greatest work for the stage; he revived it as his first production for the public theatre in Venice (1640);  it came closest to the via naturale alla immitatione, ‘the natural way to represent’ drama in music.

Arianna was by all accounts a huge success, and its central lament for the protagonist reportedly moved the ladies in the audience to tears.

 

Certainly, the construction of almost the entire opera is a formidable challenge, a musicological and artistic mountain to climb, with a huge pile of text to set, including a Prologue for Apollo and a virtuoso final aria for Bacchus, both sung by Francesco Rasi, who also sang the title-role in Orfeo. Any half-way decent setting will present a similar challenge to performers and an intriguing experience for audiences, as well offering irresistible grist to the mill of critics and musicologists.

 

So ARIANNA a la recherche attempts to set the famous Lament in context, with all due humility that the exercise of imitating Monteverdi can never be more than an exploration, an Essay in music, a baroque Versuch.

 

It is the task of the historian to create appropriate frames of reference within which Monteverdi’s works might plausibly have been viewed and understood by competent members of their first audiences. We are helped by various more or less obvious signposts in the works themselves; we are hindered by the unclear nature of early seventeenth-century theatrical and musical semiotics. Much hangs on the question of how precisely the music both informs and shapes our understanding….

Constructing meaning is an exercise both challenging and fraught with danger. But it is an essential part of the theatrical experience.

 

And the investigation of this ‘lost opera’ is a fascinating research project, following Professor Carter’s lead once again:

 

The longest chapter in [Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre] concerns the ‘lost’ works, where Monteverdi’s music does not survive, for all that one can still say a good deal about it. In general, however, my approach tends to be less philosophical or aesthetic than pragmatic; I am not so much concerned with my own, or even Monteverdi’s grand statements as with the nuts and bolts of how a seventeenth-century musician might have written for, and worked within, the theatre.

 

Composing, rehearsing and performing a setting of Rinuccini’s libretto (which survives in several variant editions) is the ultimate practical investigation, a hands-on study that should complement traditional musicology and reveal new insights.

 

Treating Monteverdi’s operas … as being of and for the theatre does not diminish their stature.

The status of his operas as the first ‘great’ examples of the genre means that they are rarely studied in this more practical light: thus their careful design and even content made to suit his performers have not hitherto been fully appreciated. Not that these works suffer as a result; indeed, one is forced to recognise still more Monteverdi’s remarkable achievement as a man of the theatre.

 

 

It’s always possible that the publicity surrounding this ‘reconstruction’ might flush out of hiding an original source for Monteverdi’s setting, held perhaps by some private collector, or buried in some as yet un-catalogued archive. For performers and academics of the future, this would be a great result from our humble endeavour. And the investigatory effort would not be wasted: on the contrary, comparisons between original and reconstruction would reveal gaps in our knowledge and understanding.

 

Reverse-Engineering Arianna

 

Many of the world’s most inspiring teachers take the trouble also to study new disciplines, deliberately placing themselves at the other end of the teacher/pupil axis. For this, amongst other reasons, I began studying Tai Chi. In the academic study of any of the arts, the reverse side of the coin from analysis is creativity. Early Music, our discipline of Historically Informed Performance, is sometimes characterised as searching to understand and follow the composer’s intentions: the reverse of that process is to become the composer oneself, transforming the libretto not only into a musical score, but into a dramatic performance and an emotional experience for the audience.

 

In short, the journey ‘a la recherche’ of lost Arianna is empowered by the connections between Research, Training and Performance that define the theatrical mission of OPERA OMNIA, that have guided my academic and artistic work ever more strongly over the last decades. I hope that, in your different individual ways, you will be interested to join us on this unique journey.

 

[Pioneering musicologist, Nino] Pirrotta wished to dispel any lingering Romantic vision of Monteverdi as a transcendental genius, and the related claim that opera as a genre emerged fully formed and perfect in his hands. Rather, he sought to place the composer and his work for the theatre squarely in the context of his life and times. Monteverdi was a working musician… and his operas, for all their undoubted status as masterpieces, were the product of artistic struggle where problems were exposed and not always solved.

 

 

It was Professor Carter, playing devil’s advocate, who first challenged my Arianna idea with the question, “Why?”. Since then, he has been immensely generous with comments, guidance and historical information. All the musicological citations in this article are from Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre. Inevitably, we will disagree here and there, but this project could not succeed without him. Thank you, Tim.

 

 

So much for “Why?”. The next question is of course, “How?”. Watch for my next post!

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