Half baked thoughts on pasticcio (should opera be *gasp* tasty?)

Looks tasty, I’ll have some (said the actress to the bishop).

It seems like pasticcios would be right up our alley, what with the many layers and the possibility of using whatever’s left in the fridge… I mean mixing and remixing etc.

Mash-ups are right up my alley, that’s for sure. I love the idea of repositioning given pieces and coming up with something slightly (or more than slightly) different. So in preparation of Catone in Utica, I’ve been thinking about them, helped by talk on other blogs as well.

But it was soon brought to my attention that there are some out there who take a dim view of pasticcios (and possibly pasta dishes in general). It could be argued that, had the Met put up more Baroque opera productions before they did The Enchanted Island, people would’ve been more relaxed about it.

You might be asking yourself why all of a sudden The Enchanted Island, which premiered more than three years ago? Have you been reading old news again, dehggi? Nope, not this time. I saw that pasticcio on Sky Arts back in 2012 and enjoyed it, though I’d’ve rather had a (shock, horror) mezzo or a countertenor sing all the fun arias DeNiese didn’t quite have the chops for.

I did, though, read about The Indian Queen currently over at the ENO, which I did not go to see, forewarned by a mysterious gut-feeling (or maybe it was just gas). I was very amused by Leander’s reaction to it, read her lowdown and then clicked on her link to the Classical Iconoclast’s blog to see what he thought about it.

As usual he wrote a very sensible piece and gave The Enchanted Island as an example of a pasticcio that worked1. On his turn he linked to what Jeremy Sams, the author of the pasticcio, had to say to the Guardian about it (3 years ago). All fun and games. Then came the comments from the cognoscenti which brought on the snark chez dehggi:

I’ll stick with the Adès version, thanks.

We’ll keep that in mind, cheers.

And, er, what’s the point? Does it improve on the originals? Do we need another Baroque opera?

So long as it’s good entertainment, who cares? Everyone can pat themselves on the back.

I love it when people answer their own questions.

“the counter tenor required in all baroque opera”
– I suppose this is a joke? No baroque operas required/employed countertenors. Male altos sang in English churches. Baroque operas required castrati – quite a different thing.

Well no, but I have a feeling this anal retentive poster wouldn’t have got it had it been a joke.

“mash-up”? i believe the appropriate word is pasticcio.

although usually, composers, up to rossini would do it with stuff they had previously composed, unlike mr sams who has plundered left, right and centre.

vivaldi was pretty good at it: if you listen to his le olimpiadi, you can hear the first movement of spring in the “four seasons” turned into a rather heavy-footed chorus.

mash-up works very well. While we’re being nit-picky, it’s L’Olimpiade, and pasticcios were done all the time using other people’s music. Part laxity with copyright, part free advertising, them 18th century folk had different ideas about intellectual property.

It’s magpie music, it’s stealing. And you’re not Robin Hood.

I’m sure those long dead Baroque composers are crying themselves to sleep in their crypts.

I reckon ‘mash up’ is a far better, and far less pretentious term.

This also isn’t the first time this has happened – The 300 year old Beggar’s Opera sits proudly as the godfather of jukebox music theatre.

Hey, a beacon of reason among those so eager to nip fun in the bud. It wasn’t me, btw 😉

A new English translation of the works (simple, I hope, and not too flowery)

That was the problem: Sams’s libretto isn’t flowery enough. The music he selected is beautiful and often fun, but let’s face it – it’s flowery. (Sometimes it’s even foofy.) Hearing that flowery, stylish music with Sams’s plain-spoken and often pedestrian words induced a lot of cognitive dissonance.

Blimey, constructive criticism! Agreed, flowery language works better with this type of thing.

Unfortunately for Mr Sams the desperation behind this new creation is far too obvious. They totally misjudged (on the advice of Mr Gelb, it seems) the highly sophisticated opera lovers of New York. Would it have been so atrocious to give them one complete baroque opera instead of this pasticcio? Did they really think that the audience wasn’t ready for it?

Engaging a great cast to do an English language sing-along to baroque melodies is not cutting it nowadays. It just seems lazy and a great way to under estimate the intelligence of the very audience that keeps a great company like the Met afloat.

Check for yourselves and see how many tickets are available for the next five performances and that alone will tell a different story. It’s all well and good to blame the cognoscenti for being outraged, but then at least have the decency to present a work that has integrity and substance. I’m afraid this is mainly the kind of fluff that puts a lot of people off from attending opera performances, empty mindless entertainment.

I’m in agreement with the feeling behind the first statement: yes, there should be more Baroque opera at the Met and elsewhere. Which doesn’t mean a pasticcio is a bad idea. Maybe they thought the audience wasn’t ready for 4hrs of Baroque estravaganza and maybe that was bad judgment. It still doesn’t make this pasticcio a bad idea in itself. Wrong place and wrong time perhaps.

I have no qualms with engaging a great cast to do an English language sing-along (?) to Baroque melodies, especially if it works with the concocted story. Where is the harm, exactly?

I don’t think this is the reason why many people don’t attend opera. Many people don’t attend because they are not interested in opera, usually because they have not been exposed to it. I can think of far greater crimes against taste than a greatest hits of Baroque vocal writing. Like being impervious to a bit of playfulness.


  1. But, you will say, The Indian Queen is NOT a pasticcio! Or rather it hasn’t been for the past 300 years, as it seems Sellars is determined to make it one now. I could live with that, but is it fun
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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on March 15, 2015, in baroque, rants and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. OK I can’t resist. I hated the libretto of Enchanted Island. I reviewed it in a pastiche of Sams:

    Ten great singers get to sing trash
    ‘Cos Peter Gelb wants lots of cash
    Jeremy Sams goes for broke
    Which almost rhymes with baroque
    For real baroque would too jazzy
    for the New York bourgeoisie

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It should probably be noted somewhere that, technically, the “plundering” wasn’t done by Jeremy Sams but by William Christie. Which kind of makes it okay in my book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Also I’m not sure the Met should do more baroque opera. I tend to think that rep is better left to smaller venues. Insofar as baroque opera had a performing history before the aughts, that was generally NYCO’s territory (though not ideally, perhaps, saddled with the white elephant of the NYS Theater), especially when they had that production pipeline from Glimmerglass up and running.

    Anyway all the best baroque opera I’ve seen in NYC has always been at BAM. Wish they’d see they could fill the vacuum left by NYCO very nicely.

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    • The Met should just reorganise itself. Does it really need to be so big? But you’re probably right about BAM. I’ve only been there once and not for opera (too long before I became interested). I was wondering, though, why BAM was not brought into conversation when NYCO flatlined.

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      • I think the people looking to revive NYCO have maps that don’t extend beyond Manhattan.

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        • So basically the Met is too big for good part of the repertoire and people making opera-related decisions in NYC aren’t using all they have at their disposal…

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      • The Met was built for what was standard repertoire in the middle of the last century (and also as a Great Society project to enable a large ratio of cheap seats to expensive seats), so it might be arguable that they’re at the mercy of the architecture in a period when there’s been a tectonic shift in the repertoire in demand.

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    • I keep hearing that “the Met is too big for baroque” whether it’s Jimmy L making excuses or baroque fans expressing a preference for smaller venues. The Met’s too big for Mozart too but that never seems to get said. More profitable i guess.

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      • Yeah, we’ve had this conversation before, so I’ll summarize what I said last time, which is that Mozart’s continuous performance history with larger orchestras in bigger spaces counts for a lot in terms of programming. No such luxury for baroque opera, which was largely a marginal and academic scene fifty years ago when all these performing turfs were being carved out (and is still critically owned by HIPsters in a way Mozart isn’t).

        Harry Bicket threads the needle okay vis a vis the Met — and has done Mozart there with (so I understand) a very different orchestra makeup than Levine in the same rep — but why do baroque opera there when you could do it other places? It isn’t like NYC is hurting for appropriately-sized theater space.

        I’d love to know what conversations took place over the BAM boardroom table regarding NYCO’s demise — given NYCO’s last hurrah was at the Gilman, there can’t not have been some — but I can see their not wanting to venture too far into that financial morass. Still, it seems to me like the Gilman is underutilized, so maybe what they need is the next Richard B Fisher to come along and front a vat of cash for a new opera initiative.

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  4. The libretto of the Enchanted Island is atrocious. I mean in the quality of the English itself. On par with the Twilight books.

    The piece in itself is ok enough to be seen once, but the random mixing of different styles irks me immensely.

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