<< -- 2 -- Robert Hugill LISTENING WITH BAROQUE EARS
This customising of operas to suit the particular performers continued into the classical era when Mozart contributed a number of arias to be sung in other people's operas. For his late opera, La Clemenza di Tito, shortage of time forced Mozart into collaboration with his pupil, Sussmayr, who wrote the recitatives. And the versions of Mozart's operas which were performed on the London stage in the late eighteenth and early nineteeth centuries, were sometimes pretty far from ideal.
The taste of the London audience does seem to have been rather troublesome. When commissioned to write an opera for Covent Garden, the ailing Weber found himself setting a libretto which resembles those for the hybrid semi-operas of Purcell. In this case, Weber adapted his style to local taste and planned to re-work the opera into a standard German work at some later date. Death prevented this and Oberon has steadily resisted improvement at a variety of hands; the most satisfactory version does seem to be a condensation of the composer's original. Death also prevented Weber from completing Die Drei Pintos which Mahler completed. But the resulting singspiel has far less resonance than one would have imagined a posthumous collaboration between Weber and Mahler might have had.
A more influential posthumous collaboration was that between Weber and Berlioz, when Berlioz provided recitatives and ballet music for Der Freischutz. Whereas London taste had run to mixtures of spoken dialogue and opera, taste at the Opera in Paris was for completely sung through works, no spoken dialogue was allowed. Berlioz's sympathetic hand was part of a tradition of French composers converting works for the Opera. Berlioz was also influential in another area when he combined elements from the castrato (Vienna) and high tenor (Paris) versions of Gluck's Orfeo to produce the version for contralto which is the basis for the traditional version of this opera. In this case Gluck was lucky in his collaborator, and an opera which existed in no completely satisfactory version was suddenly made accessible to a new opera going public.
The replacement of spoken dialogue for French opera remained an issue throughout the nineteenth century. Though Guiraud did a masterly job on Bizet's Carmen, the result does slow the opera down. But French composers themselves realised that dialogue was also a problem for foreign performances. Undoubtedly Bizet would have created a fully sung version of Carmen if he had lived and Offenbach had already agreed to a through-sung version of Les Contes d'Hoffmann for Vienna before his death. Offenbach's death also means that he did not make the crucial final revisions to the music. So the opera is best known in an adapted version which gives a welcome theatrical drive to the opera though at the expense of the composer's original text.
Copyright © 22 January 2004
Robert Hugill, London UK