Customizing a Mash-Up
By MICHAEL COOPER via The New York Times
When opera was a much younger art form, star singers could choose which arias they wanted to sing, often swapping in favorite numbers that showed off their voices to best advantage for whatever the lowly composers and librettists had originally written.
Now audiences at the Metropolitan Opera will have an opportunity to see this venerable tradition of authentic inauthenticity resurrected on Wednesday, when the company revives its popular production of “The Enchanted Island.” The revival features a pair of substitute arias tailored to its star singers, Plácido Domingo and Susan Graham.
“The Enchanted Island” was designed to subvert modern ideas about the primacy of composers’ intentions. It is a pastiche, or pasticcio: another tradition brought back from those earlier days, when it was common to stitch together arias and choruses and scenes from a variety of composers and adapt them to new or heavily revised librettos.
Bringing the nearly forgotten pasticcio form back to life was the idea of Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, who enlisted Jeremy Sams to devise the work. Mr. Sams took pieces by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and others; wrote new English lyrics; and wove them around a story that marries Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The resulting concoction rankled some Baroque purists — it goes against the movement toward historically informed performance, scholarly editions of scores with no cuts, and period instruments — but it was a hit when it had its premiere on New Year’s Eve in 2011.
Now, as the piece is revived for the first time, the spirit of tinkering that inspired its creation is alive and well. As Mr. Sams sat in the auditorium and watched the new arias and shortened scenes rehearsed onstage last week, he said that the production was designed from the start to be tailored to the singers at hand — just as pasticcios were in days of yore.
“Pieces like this in Handel’s day were endlessly adaptable — nothing precious at all, everything rewritten, numbers put in, things taken out,” he said. “To the end of Handel’s life, he was putting on numbers that he recycled for the people he had on hand. We were joking that with this piece, we might possibly change every single number and keep the DNA the same.”
So, when Ms. Graham joins the cast as Sycorax, Caliban’s witchlike mother, who is mentioned but never heard from in “The Tempest,” she will bring with her an aria that she has sung and recorded to great acclaim elsewhere: “Sta nell’ircana,” from Handel’s “Alcina.” It will replace a Vivaldi aria that Joyce DiDonato sang when she created the role.
The substitution is part of a tradition that harks back to the days of the “trunk aria,” when singers packed tried and tested set pieces in their luggage (along with their own costumes) and took them from opera to opera, working them into whatever they were engaged to sing.
Ms. Graham said that she was delighted that the flexibility of the pasticcio form would allow her to sing Handel at the Met for the first time. “It’s very malleable, so you can tweak it and tailor it to fit like the proverbial glove,” she said in her dressing room after a recent rehearsal, where she was working on some of the ornamentation she will sing to put her mark on the music.
Mr. Domingo — who is reprising his star turn as Neptune, a deus ex machina role that marked his first time playing a god — will have two big changes in this revival.
Mr. Sams has altered the first act so that it ends after Mr. Domingo’s dazzling underwater scene, complete with aquatic chorus and floating mermaids, instead of with the pensive scene that originally concluded it.
“It’s a showstopper,” Mr. Sams said of Mr. Domingo’s scene. “And the thing about showstoppers is they stop shows — the clue is in the name.”
And Mr. Domingo also gets a new aria to sing. In the “Enchanted Island” premiere, Mr. Domingo sang a Rameau aria in the second act, and while it was well received, he said that he was never quite satisfied with it. “I thought, let’s see if we can find a better aria,” he recalled.
So this time, the Rameau is out, and “Empio, per farti guerra,” from Handel’s “Tamerlano,” is in. “It has a better shape,” Mr. Domingo said.
Ellen Rosand, a musicologist who specializes in Baroque opera and who was an adviser to the project, watched a recent rehearsal with Mr. Sams and said that having librettists making changes right up to the last minute was quite common in the age of the pasticcio. The practice of using substitute arias outlasted the Baroque, persisting into the age of Bel Canto and beyond before falling out of favor.
Even Mozart wrote replacement arias for subsequent casts of his operas, a habit that led to a major kerfuffle at the Met in 1998, when Cecilia Bartoli, appearing in a new production of “Le Nozze de Figaro,” bucked the wishes of the director, Jonathan Miller, and sang alternate arias that Mozart had written for the singer who played Susanna in a revival of the work.
Nothing was sacred. Hilary Poriss, an associate professor of music at Northeastern University who studied trunk arias for her book “Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance” (Oxford University Press, 2009), said in an interview that singers in some early performances of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” even replaced the mad scene — now the most famous part of the work — with other music.
The tradition wound down later in the 19th century, she said, as composers like Verdi and Wagner fought for more artistic control, and music publishers became more powerful.
But she said she was intrigued to hear that it would be back onstage for the Met’s pastiche revival. “It makes perfect historical sense that they would do it,” she said.