Concerts Illumine Baroque Opera
The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts a symposium that includes provocative scholarship on music and art
NEW YORK — CONDUCTOR Nicholas McGegan, who has made Baroque music his life's work, isn't afraid to be candid about Vivaldi and Corelli.
"In many ways, Vivaldi is a completely shoddy composer," he says during rehearsals for a series of concerts and lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here. "But on the other hand, [his music] nearly always works well with audiences, although sometimes I can't understand why."
Mr. McGegan also disparages Corelli: "He only wrote about five pieces and then rewrote them very slightly over and over again." While it may seem that the maestro shares a common prejudice among the music elite that Vivaldi and Corelli are minor note spinners best heard in elevators, his program, "Love in Arcadia," demonstrates a serious respect for the culture behind the music.
About 40 years ago, an article appeared in Musical Quarterly that examined a relatively obscure reform movement in late 17th-century opera: the Arcadian Academy. Early-music specialist McGegan has taken the name of that movement and applied it not only to a small chamber ensemble he directs, but also to the symposium at the museum, which continues today and tomorrow.
Although the historical Arcadian Academy may be unfamiliar to some music lovers, the general understanding of Baroque music has undergone a sea change since the Musical Quarterly article was published. In a discussion of Baroque opera, the author lamented that the history of 17th- and 18th-century opera was a "vast literary and musical subcontinent, a historical Atlantis, with its bewildering and not perhaps very tempting superfluity of material, [which] has barely been mapped, much less colonized."
It may not yet have been colonized but, through the efforts of conductors like McGegan, the Atlantis of Baroque opera has certainly been well explored.
Numerous performances and recordings make it possible for listeners to understand the various currents and fashions that run through the chaotic, anarchic years separating the Renaissance from the Enlightenment. Whereas diverse artists such as Bach, Racine, and El Greco were lumped together under the "Baroque" heading, events like McGegan's concert series reveal a more subtle world of competing artistic schools, national styles, philosophical polemics, and public reactions.
McGegan has chosen to concentrate on a theme that recurs frequently in all of the arts during this period: the Pastoral. This utopian yearning for a simple world of shepherds tending what one participant in the series calls "the cleanest sheep you've ever seen," was a vital element in the birth of opera in the 17th century.
The Arcadian Academy was founded in 1690 by a group of artists and intellectuals in the court of the flamboyant, expatriate Queen Christina of Sweden. Pastoral themes offered a simple and pleasing alternative to the fantastically byzantine and decadent opera libretti that were in vogue up to that time.
Even though the Arcadian Academy is listed in most histories of opera as a reform movement, McGegan prefers to view it as escapist.
"It was initially a literary movement, and while there were librettists like Zeno [1668-1750] who tried to make opera more moral and get rid of some of the really lascivious comedic elements, by 1708 it was a very different sort of organization," explains McGegan during an interview in the Greenwich Village space where he rehearses.
"The academy included a lot of different people: poets, composers, architects. They designed gardens, and then dressed up as shepherds and very probably proceeded to get drunk," he says. "It was in many ways complete camp."
But while McGegan downplays the importance of the reforms supported by the Arcadians, he emphasizes the astonishing burst of creativity during this period. "We have several accounts of their meetings, and one thing we know took place was the creation - in a single evening - of a whole cantata. A poet would pick a subject, start to write, and pass his verses on before the ink was dry to the composer, and by the end of the evening it would be performed."
McGegan has programmed two concerts designed to show the diversity of the academy's output. The program this evening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art includes music of two Arcadian Academy members, Archangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, along with compositions of Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, both of whom were too young to join the academy, but were involved in its concerts.
Tomorrow night's concert is devoted to the heady mix of pastoral poetry and music that was popular all over Europe during the years of the academy. It includes readings from Virgil, Dryden, Shakespeare, and others, interspersed with related musical settings by Vivaldi, Purcell, and other composers.
In between these evening concerts is a set of three lectures devoted to the music, landscape design, and painting of the period.
If McGegan emphasizes the irony and escapist fantasy of the academy, author and art historian Olivier Bernier focuses on the nostalgia and melancholy of the larger pastoral painting tradition. "If you are looking for a school of painting called `Arcadian' at the time, the connection seems rather tenuous," says Mr. Bernier, whose lecture is titled, "Happy Shepherds, Painted Idylls: The Pastoral Tradition in Painting."
"But, on the other hand, there were any number of painters whose works are clearly marked by a feeling of Arcadian landscape, especially the Roman `campagna.'
"It occurred to me," continues Bernier, "that it would be interesting not to stick just to the period in which this music was written, but to look at a much longer period, beginning under the grayer skies of the Netherlands in the 15th century." Thus, Bernier begins with Van Eyck and continues through Botticelli, Watteau, and Poussin.
Bernier considers the painted pastoral - especially those of French painters working in Rome in the 18th century - as an essentially conservative return to earlier painting styles and motifs, as opposed to McGegan's view of the music and poetry as essentially erotic and ironic. While McGegan's Arcadian gardens are part of "a male, urban escapist fantasy about rustic women," Bernier's painted gardens are "a little piece of Eden for the virgin to sit in, where man did not have to work, and sin had not yet appeared."
Since one of the goals is to consider the overlapping, often contradictory, elements of this era, it is odd that much of the music programmed (Corelli and Vivaldi) is the sort of repertoire that is often dismissed as frivolous and lacking in intellectual depth.
But if the series is successful in helping to promote sympathy for this complex period, perhaps even the least of the Baroque can now be placed in context, rehabilitated, and appreciated anew.