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ROBERT HUGILL investigates
the world of collaborative opera


Listening to the sublime closing duet of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea it is perhaps difficult for us to accept that this music may not even be by Monteverdi, but to his contemporaries this would not have mattered. In our personality-based age, the cult of the artist means that we can find such collaborative ventures difficult to understand though in the past they were perfectly common. When L'Incoronazione di Poppea was produced in 1643 in Venice, Monteverdi was about seventy five and aid from pupils would not be unreasonable. Further adaptation would take place when the opera was produced in Naples after Monteverdi's death and it is now tricky to deduce who did what. Monteverdi's pupil Cavalli had a number of operas performed in Naples after their premières in Venice. In Naples in 1666, the Neapolitan composer Francesco Provenzale customised Cavilli's Statira for the local taste by adding more extended scenes for the comic characters.

This adaptation of an opera to suit local conditions was a common feature of baroque operatic life. Whilst nowadays we would think twice about adapting an opera by a contemporary, history is littered with examples of one composer adapting or completing another's work. We might not adapt a work by Britten or Birtwistle, but it is still common for operetta and musicals to be re-created for each new staged performance.

Even when an eighteenth century composer retained control of his operas, large scale changes could take place. When reviving operas, Handel could make drastic changes to his works. He disturbed them to such an extent that we tend to perform his operas in their initial versions, quite the reverse of the general trend to prefer the composer's final version. Handel was resolute in his recasting of an opera to suit the current performers, even moving heroines between sopranos and contraltos depending on the available cast and constantly adding new novelties to please the crowd. When Handel's operas were performed in Hamburg, under the auspices of Handel's friend Telemann, they were still subject to significant changes. Hamburg taste ran to German dialogue with a mixture of Italian and German arias. For Handel's operas, Telemann himself oversaw the changes.

Opera at this period had a strong improvisational element. Not all the details were written down and they would be recreated differently by different sets of performers. This means that, even today, we do not hear 'ideal' performances (in the way we might hear an ideal performance of Wagner or late Verdi), but simply the current performer's recreation of the opera, filling in the gaps left by the composer.

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Copyright © 22 January 2004 Robert Hugill, London UK


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