…and it ends like Parsifal

I haven’t been able to write about this issue (old skool 20th century interpretations of Baroque opera) quite as I would’ve liked to. It always comes off – at least in my head – as a cross between a whinge and an eye-roll. I want to find something to like about it yet I could never get over all the hurdles (there are just so many). I try not to be dogmatic about things because I know that’s the easiest way to fence myself away from potential enjoyment. But this is like reading a book from another era and going “did decent people from back then really think this was ok?” Then I wonder what things we take for granted now that future generations will roll their eyes at. So whinge or not, I’ll go ahead and post.


1963 was a very long time ago, further from us than 1643 it seems. Just because it’s set in Rome it doesn’t mean it has to be GRAND. I take it Karajan did not have tongue-in-cheek in his vocabulary? Of course not, everybody belongs to the socially accepted gender-description. But if you don’t get the joke, then why even bother with a work like this? Is this merely an academic attempt? An overly earnest nod to “the genius of Monteverdi”? What exactly did someone of Karajan’s mindset think when looking at that manuscript?1

Jurinac is merely unsexy as Poppea (shouldn’t that be a capital offence in this opera? but in spite of myself I like her in the seduction duet – she shows potential compared with her hopeless Nerone). Perhaps she’s as sexy as a 30ft marble statue of Mother Earth could be; but even if she were able to do something closer to the original idea, what else could she do, given the dire context?

I mean the tempi! OMG. A kingdom – no, two kingdoms – for a hint of rubato and a lick of finesse. Everything is so square, there’s zero flow, life is completely sucked out of the score, details-what-details, (across the board) no sense of phrasing at singing level. There is a chugging GRANDEUR at orchestral level (I bet K used the full forces of Wiener Philharmonic) but that seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t this primarily vocal music?

The way Ottone’s entrance lament E pur io torno cui qui was obliterated of any semblance of poetry and longing makes baby Jesus cry because that music is some of the most beautiful in the whole opera. Seriously, if you like it even a little bit don’t listen.

The chap (a Wagnerian baritone…) simply can’t wrap his voice around this stuff and neither can Wiener Philharmonic cope with the filigree. At funeral speed he uneasily sketches a couple of flourishes, much like a first timer on ice would try to get to the other side of the rink, but the only thing he conveys is a timid attempt at religious fervour from the very general ballpark of Bach’s Passions; you’re not quite sure where he should be arriving anyway, since at that speed and squareness the phrase is pretty much a candle’s flicker in a damp, dark tomb.

One of the beautiful things with Monteverdi is that it’s so sparsely written it allows everyone an opinion. Of course, it also allows for exercises such as this. The other beautiful thing about Monteverdi is it’s not rocket science. Just say (legato) that sentence in your head: E pur io torno qui. How simple and beautiful, eh? It really doesn’t need anything besides what it is. So, yea, you can have your vision but you also have to take what he gives you as he gives it to you. Don’t muddle it up; have some respect for the music.

But it’s Nerone who is so off the mark it defies description. Seriously, in the Nerone-Poppea duet of mutual seduction/manipulation he brays like an amorous donkey (hint: louder =/= more passionate; at least not before 1840).

Even so “the best thing” is the orchestration just prior to and on Pur ti miro. But then there’s the heldenchoir towards the end… seriously, the goodies keep on coming. Ottavia’s Addio, Roma! is hair raising. If I were Nerone I’d remove all the spanners and candle sticks within her reach^%&(()&&%$F!

Did everyone (aside from religious music specialists) sing like this back then? I mean, did they (ie, Karajan) just use the same singers for all the operas and did all the operas simply sound like either young or mature Wagner?

Did I mention the tempi and the clever curious medieval accents? This is 1643 not the 1400s. Why would Ottavia sing Disprezzata regina as if she were a medieval princess locked in a misty tower on the northern edges of Norway (or perhaps Outer Mongolia)? It does sound like she’ll break into Vissi d’arte2 any moment now – which is neither Northern Norway nor Outer Mongolia and definitely not Monteverdi.

In spite of my usual snarkiness I don’t want to kick a sick puppy but this is just so odd, from a 2017 perspective. I enjoy when something is done slightly – or not so slightly – differently, but not if it’s not working. The very vision doesn’t match in this case.

Yet, like in the case of a car wreck, once you start listening it’s hard to stop. It’s very interesting listening to this in parallel with Harnoncourt’s version from 1979, which itself is way more flowery than what’s being done nowadays, yet clearly from another world.

ps: I need to write a separate post about E pur io torno qui. There are some interesting interpretive differences out there (and I’ve been a bit obsessed with it recently; that Ottone ain’t half bad; then that weird interaction with Ottavia… heh).

ps2: the title (and the mention of Turandot) comes from one of the wry comments below the yt video. It’s worth reading them.

  1.  needs more brass, probably. 
  2. I only say that because I can’t quote anything Turandot sings. 

About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on June 29, 2017, in baroque, where does this belong, eh. Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. It’s like watching a herd of elephants dance Swan Lake

  2. Current scholarship suggests that super-dramatic harpsichord trill abt minute 2 was recycled from an earlier work on the subject of the perils of Pauline.

  3. you are now talking about Ottone and Ottavia!! i was talking about them for a looong time before and you kept brushing them aside for the love birds! it takes a Nerone coming off the wheel (try (counter)tenor) for you to notice! and Ottone’s opening line and piece! i was stuck on them eversince Mingardo. the music from orchestra coming along for the ride is irresistible!
    (haha about the rest of the writeup)

    • well, yes, the lovebirds do take a bit of time to be pushed aside 😉 they are so shameless! But Mingardo is right, pretty much all the characters here are strong.

      I’ve heard the Cencic version but he at least sings in the right style. This is just bizarre. If we had Mozarteans or even belcantists, but Wagnerian singers from the ’60s! Boggles the mind.

  4. Holy cow, I’m a fan of the divine Karajan, but this is ATROCIOUS. Nevertheless, I am old enough to remember Bach’s chorals done a’ la Verdi’s Requiem, and Rossini like Puccini, so I can kind of relate.
    Thanks for this post dehggi, very interesting. Your comments are, as always, very much on point.
    I cannot stop myself from Italian nazi-grammaring, however, I apologize. It is “E pur io torno qui” with a Q, not with a C. And, if you want to quote Turandot, her most famous aria is “In quella reggia”.

  5. And for more unbaroqueness try the recording in which Flagstad sings the title role in Dido and Aeneas (with Mrs. Legge as Belinda)

  6. Regie, or Not Regie?

    Here’s something else to add to your anachronistic file: an audio recording of Gluck’s Orfeo conducted by Karl Richter (OK for his time) with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (!!!), Gundula Janowitz, and Edda Moser (the Vienna version.)

    (yes; I am back.. I’ve been lurking again.)

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