FULL INTERVIEW BELOW, NOW WITH DR. GOSSETT'S ANSWERS TO READERS' QUESTIONS IN THE COMMENTS FIELDS (SEE PAGE 2 OF THE COMMENTS)
Dear readers, on Sunday June 24 in the morning Opera Lively interviewed over the phone the world's leading authority in Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi - Dr. Philip Gossett, a distinguished professor of music from the University of Chicago, in anticipation of the world premiere of the critical edition of Maometto II by Santa Fe Opera on July 14 (see full announcement and ticket information further down). [Opera Lively interview # 35]
Not only we have published below the full text of this long and fascinating interview, but Dr. Gossett has registered as an Opera Lively member and will be replying to questions directly in the 'Comments' field of this article - so our members now have a rare opportunity to directly dialogue in real time and ask questions they might have about 19th. century Italian opera - let's call it "Everything you always wanted to know about Italian opera but were afraid to ask." If you have questions for Dr. Gossett, type them up in the Comments field, and time permitting, he'll reply. This is a new format for Opera Lively and a very interesting one; so, members, fire up your doubts about recordings, productions, historical facts, etc., regarding the operas of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and others.
Dr. Gossett is the general editor of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi, published by The University of Chicago Press and the prestigious Casa Ricordi of Milan. Together with the Fondazione Rossini of Pesaro, he was responsible through 2005 for the Edizione Critica delle opere di Gioacchino Rossini. Since 2006, he has been associated with the continuation of this edition, being published by Bärenreiter-Verlag of Kassel. He is a recipient of the Cavaliere di Gran Croce, the highest civilian award given by the Italian government.
His book Divas and Scholars - Performing Italian Opera is terrific and a pleasure to read. It contains a dazzling account of how opera comes to stage, filled with passion and wit.
Click [here] to get it from Amazon.com.
Dr. Gossett is the general editor of the series in which Mr. Hans Schevellis' new critical edition of Rossini's Maometto II will eventually appear. This edition will have its world premiere in Santa Fe on July 14, 2012, a performance that Almaviva will attend and review. Many of our questions for him in the interview itself have revolved around this towering, magnificent, but poorly known opera. However once we were done with this specific point, Dr. Gossett also graced us with his broad knowledge of Italian opera.
Before we start, here you have a short video of Dr. Gossett talking about the upcoming Maometto II in Santa Fe in July and August 2012 - not to be missed by those who can make it - click [here] for Opera Lively's full announcement with dates and ticket information.
Now, the full text of Opera Lively's exclusive interview with Dr. Philip Gossett:
© Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.
OL – Good morning, Dr. Gossett! How is the weather in Santa Fe?
PG - Hot! But I’m fortunate to be in a cool home that is a little bit in the outskirts of town owned by an old friend. I'm staying here now with a friend who is house-sitting for the owners who are out of town. This nice man, John Webber, is the head of the Opera Guilds in New Mexico, and I have been permitted to live in this house with him, this week.
OL - Nice! Let’s start the interview with some definitions for our readers. What is a musicologist and what do they do?
PG - A musicologist is basically someone who studies the history and texts of music in history, and that means that we are concerned with the actual works of art that were produced by composers and performed over the centuries, and we are interested in the way these works of art are part of a cultural background. So those are the two elements in which I personally have been very much occupied over the years.
There are today also musicologists who work on other aspects of the history of music, including what we call ethnomusicology, that is the study of music sung or played by the peoples of the world. There are people who work particularly on contemporary music and popular music and reception history, and those are slightly different perspectives. They are important perspectives, though. Anything really dealing with the history of music in any respect comes into the purview of a musicologist.
OL – Great. Please define for our readers what constitutes a critical edition of an opera.
PG – By critical edition of an opera I have always meant an edition that bases itself wherever possible on the very finest and most accurate sources for an opera. That means that it must study the entire performance history of a work. In some cases of course we have an autograph manuscript, and that helps us, but it is also where many of the problems start, because composers are known to have made mistakes in their autograph manuscripts. And therefore we are required – we feel it is necessary – to intervene and to correct errors that sometimes have been perpetrated on these works by printed editions from the beginning, so they are just mistakes in the old editions, simple mistakes.
We don’t believe that everybody has to perform just what we do, because that’s not what they did in the nineteenth century, not what composers did or expected, but we do think that performers should base their work on the finest editions possible, and that’s what we try to produce.
OL - I see. And how do you decide if something is a mistake, if it’s written by the hand of the composer himself?
PG – Let me give you an example of what I mean by a mistake. We know for example that the librettist of Rigoletto, Mr. Piave, wrote to Verdi and said to him, “look, the time frame of Rigoletto won’t work because to put together all the things that are supposed to happen in one night, they can’t! The party at the Duke’s can’t go until almost morning, and yet that same night they go ahead and he has this meeting with Sparafucile then the endless duet with his daughter, the duet with the Duke, and then they take Gilda away. This can’t all happen in one night,” says Piave, “and therefore I want us to put the whole thing the next night.”
So that’s what he does, and he tells Verdi to change the words of his second act chorus, in which they describe what they did. Verdi is very obedient, he does exactly what Piave says, but he also told Piave that Piave had forgotten that in act I the Count Ceprano says to the courtiers, “whoever wants to get revenge on this Rigoletto, come armed tonight to my house.” Now, Verdi says, “that’s not possible if we’re doing it the next day, so I’m going to change it to ‘Come to my house tomorrow,’” so Verdi changes it. You can see very clearly where he’s made these changes in his autograph.
The only trouble is, he forgot that Ceprano says these words twice, not just once. So that the second time around Ceprano continues to say “Come to my house tonight,” so we end up with a Ceprano who says to the courtiers, “come to my house tomorrow, no, come to my house tonight.” That’s a mistake! Verdi simply made a mistake. We have to fix it. And there are many examples of this throughout his work. I can give you lots of examples.
There’s a famous example in Ballo in Maschera, where the chorus sings at first about how there is going to be a dance in the princely palace, but of course it’s not a princely palace if he moves it to Boston. He just forgot to change the words. So if you want to do it in Boston you have to make it different, and indeed Verdi did it differently elsewhere, but he forgot one spot where the let the wrong words, so we’ve got to fix that.
I have just been told as we work in the Maometto II, that in a certain place the bass has a chord that is probably in the wrong inversion because the same passage occurs several times and in different keys, but the trouble is that in one of these times the notes in the bass are different than they are the first two times. Well, you could say that Rossini meant it, except that this is a case in which if you follow his reading precisely, you will find that there are parallel octaves that are really very ugly between the voice and the bass, so the conductor has said to me, “you really must fix that, Rossini made a mistake.” And I rather agree with him that Rossini made a mistake, so we’ll have to fix that before we publish it. The score of this opera Maometto II, we will fix it, and we will say in the note that we have done so, because that’s why we have critical notes. They explain exactly where we have intervened in the score; what happens in the original materials, and whether if at all we made changes.
OL – Reading your book I got a sense of loss, because I realized by now that there are so many performances that are so misguided, that may not reflect the composer’s intention! One interesting aspect is that in reviews or playbills we very rarely see a quote of what edition is being used. So now I feel this acute need to learn about the edition, when I go to a performance or listen to a CD or watch a DVD. I was reading this morning the current issue of Opera News Magazine, and of the various reviews, only one mentioned the edition being used – it was of a DVD released by Dynamic of Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra, and there is mention that it was out of a critical edition by Alberto Zedda. Do you see this lack of information about the edition as likely to improve anytime soon?
PG – The trouble is that many opera companies do not want to pay anything – zero! – for the purchase of a score. What they tend to do is to buy material from Kalmus. The Kalmus material, as we know, is simply a re-issue of the nineteenth century scores that were published and are no longer under copyright. We know that these scores were no good, with mistakes of all kinds. They are very faulty. But nonetheless opera companies are trying to save money, so they buy these Kalmus parts inexpensively, and they use them [Editor’s note – we looked up, as an example, the conductor’s score for Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia: it is sold by Kalmus for $185.25, and a set of parts for all instruments goes for $719.95; a vocal score for Rossini’s La Cenerentola goes for the bargain of $32.95].
Now, the trouble is that in America there is no royalty of any kind for critical editions. All that we are talking about is a rather minor fee for rental, but many opera companies do not want to pay even that. So they tend to use what they have. I remember very clearly one time in Chicago when I sat in the audience and watched a Rigoletto. Every singer had learned their part from the critical edition. The conductor was using the critical edition, but nowhere was it mentioned that the critical edition was used.
When I spoke to the conductor afterwards he told me that he was told by the management to give his score to the librarian who would fix the parts. And that was the way they did it. And they did it without saying a word. I sat in the audience and I could tell by hearing that 49 out of 50 mistakes that we know were made and that are obvious to anybody who listens to the score had been fixed. In that sense you can know what an opera company has done. You have to be aware of the history of each of these operas in order to follow what has happened.
I can tell you for each opera where the problems lie. I can tell you for example that in the case of Il Turco in Italia Kalmus reproduced a version of this piece that was made in France at the Théâtre-Italien in 1822 in order to cast aspersion on Rossini, in order to show that he was a terrible composer. I know this history, I know it thoroughly, but you think they made any effort to fix that? None whatsoever! They have continued to print this terrible score that has nothing whatsoever to do with Rossini’s own score of Il Turco in Italia.
OL – I see. I have a recording of Maometto II from Pesaro in 1985 conducted by Claudio Scimone – it’s said to be a critical edition. What is your opinion on that?
PG – Claudio Scimone is a lovely man. He is a conductor, he is not a scholar. He made an edition of this opera which has never been published because it is terrible. He doesn’t understand how the work has been put together. He doesn’t understand the sources. He doesn’t know what the sources are. I was in part responsible, I’m sorry to say, for that work, because I was officially head of the Rossini Foundation’s work for a number of years, but we never published Mr. Scimone’s work because it wasn’t publishable. He was only interested in conducting. So he did conduct his own score of this opera. Now, I can tell you where the problems lie, I can tell you what the problems are, and I can also assure you that for Santa Fe we have looked not only at Rossini’s manuscript - which is a very complicated document because it has all thrown together three separate versions of the work – but we also looked at all secondary sources, so we have guides to tell us what happened in what order – in Naples, in Venice, and later in Paris, where the work became Le Siège de Corinthe.
OL – Would you contrast the three versions for us, please?
PG – Sure! The problem was that Rossini obviously loved this opera, and he went back to it again and again. It was not very successful in its first Neapolitan version because he did a number of things that were very unusual, truly unusual. For example, he wrote in the first act what he called in the only time in the history of opera, a terzettone, a big fat trio. Now, that piece was so long… And the audience could not applaud during it because it was kept continuous. Something always interrupted or continued something to always go along. And the result was that the audience had to wait until Maometto makes his big entrance and actually sings his cavatina, “Sorgete, in sì bel giorno.” Only at that point is the audience allowed to applaud, and by doing so Rossini helps to make Maometto a positive character.
When he revived the opera for Venice, he took this terzettone and abbreviated it enormously, took a whole section of it out and put it at the end of the opera, where it could stand on its own. And in that form the work was known for generations of people. But he made other changes that I consider absolutely unacceptable. So, for example, in Maometto II the heroine, Anna, commits suicide at the end of the opera, because she loves Maometto – she clearly loves him – but she has to put the faith of her people above her feelings for Maometto, whom she considers to be the tyrant.
Now, in Venice he decided that this unhappy ending in which Anna kills herself was not acceptable to the public. We are talking about 1820 now, not 1835 in which everybody dies. We are talking about 1820 in which almost always the heroine lives at the end and there is a happy ending. So what he did in Venice was to change the ending so it would end happily. What she does at the end, Anna sings a big aria, “Tanti affetti,” that he borrows from La Donna del Lago. It’s clearly that he could not have taken this very seriously, but he did this because he was trying to get popular success, which still escaped the opera.
So he ultimately revised it again as the first work he did in Paris, and at that moment he also made other changes in it, some of which are wonderful, some of which are not wonderful. I believe that the best version of this work remains his first version for Naples, and that is what we are performing in Santa Fe.
OL – Let’s talk about the Santa Fe production. Can you tell us about the stage director David Alden’s concept is?
PG – Yes, I think I can, now that I’ve watched the work for more than a week. David is a wonderful opera director, because he knows the music thoroughly. He understands what the composer has put down as his primary text. David knows this opera intimately. When a singer is unable to finish a line because he had a memory block, David finishes it for him, because he knows every single part of the entire opera.
I’ve been enormously impressed by the intelligence which he has brought about this. What he is trying to do is to make a staged version of the opera that comes as close as possible to taking seriously every element of Rossini’s drama. So that he does some things that I would not have expected a director to do.
For example, the terzettone begins with what we call a pseudo-canon, that is, each one of protagonists sings a melody. Now, the melody is the same the three times it is sung, it is absolutely the same, and many of us had taken the position that Rossini has to be understood purely from a musical point of view with this tune as coming back three times, he does it in many, many pieces. David on the other hand believes that each of these characters has a different understanding of what this melody means, and what the words mean, and so he is trying to differentiate the characters while not interfering at all with the musical content. He is trying to get them to perform the melody differently each time. And I think that this is a very interesting way to think about Rossini.
There are also places in the score where David is willing to add things that are not specified in the work, because he thinks that they will make an interesting stage picture and don’t harm the sense of the work. So, for example when Maometto enters for the first time, which is after this enormous trio in which the music is not allowed to come to a rest, but continues to modulate from key to key, so that we end up on a dominant seventh chord that has to resolve at the beginning of the following chorus, so that there is no sense in any place that you can simply applaud Anna because the music keeps going.
Anyway, at the beginning of the chorus the orchestra and the band play along. During that passage David has some dancers present, as well as the chorus, and they begin to work out Anna’s scheme, and that makes it very, very powerful. The other thing is that he introduces a kind of character who supposedly follows Maometto everywhere and carries a death head that he sees as representing Maometto as a kind of scourge of the Western world which is one of the things he does, although he is also a very sympathetic character from other points of view.
And David is willing to explore all of these details of the piece without doing anything that is outlandish. I don’t think that there is anything outlandish about the performance. I think he’s been very, very careful to really know the Rossini score and to respect it thoroughly.
OL – Great! What about the singers, Luca Pisaroni and Leah Crocetto?
PG – They are wonderful. There isn’t a weak person among them. Luca is a brilliant bass-baritone. Leah Crocetto is a fine Anna and she is not making the mistake that so many sopranos do of trying to turn this thing into a kind of coloratura high soprano role. It’s not! We know that the woman for whom Rossini wrote this opera, Isabella Colbran, was at that time in her career a mezzo-soprano with a good upper register. He would not write for her any notes higher than B. There are no high Cs in this opera. That’s as high as she goes.
It’s similar in Semiramide, and Zelmira which he both wrote for her, because she didn’t have at that moment in her voice a good high C, not to mention notes higher than that. Now, there are occasions in which Ms. Crocetto, because she is a soprano, wants to bring the work, the music up a bit, especially at cadences. I can understand that and it doesn’t disturb me. I don’t think she does it in a way that is harmful to the score or to the whole conception of the work.
OL – Right. This brings an idea to mind, for this question: in your role as an advisor which you’ve done in many places in Europe and the United States, what do you tell them? How do they use your expertise?
PG – Remember that from my point of view a critical edition is not something to be followed blindly but is something to be interpreted by performers. And the performers are ultimately responsible for what we hear, not the editor of the volume. The editor tries to give them a score that is as close as possible to Rossini’s own score, what the composer had in mind. But then, it is up to the singers to personalize that score.
One of the things that I’ve done as an advisor was to prepare a series of ornamentations for the entire opera, for every singer. Now, I don’t insist, I never insist that the singers must use what I have written, but I try to give them some sense of how they should go about working on their interpretation of the passage, so that it follows Rossini’s guidelines. Those guidelines are visible in many manuscripts he prepared for individual singers, so we know what he expected singers to be able to do even though he didn’t write it in his autograph manuscript.
We had for example a long conversation about the use of appoggiaturas, that is, the little helping notes that you put when you have two identical notes. Sometimes the composer writes D flat, G, G, but he expects it to be sung D flat, A, G, with a so-called appoggiatura, a leaning note, OK? Now that from my point of view is a dramatic detail that we need to respect. It doesn’t mean that we have to add every single one, but it does mean that we have to understand what it was to use an appoggiatura.
We can pay attention to what our attitudes are today, which are that you don’t necessarily add every single one of these, but we nonetheless add the important ones. There can be some questions about which are important and which are not. I try to give them some suggestions about what they should do, but ultimately they have to decide what they are going to do.
I for example was able to help them the other day, because in one passage they had introduced a cut in the recitative. Now, this is understandable, it’s a very long recitative and the opera tends to get very long as a result. The trouble is that in the cut that they suggested we lose some of the most important information of the opera, which is that Anna gives to her father the signet ring that Maometto gives to her. We lost that information completely. So I suggested first to David, then to Mr. Chaslin [Editor’s note: the conductor], then to the singers in that order, that they restore at least part of the scene so that we know that this happens, because if you don’t know that this happens you can’t follow the drama.
OL – Of course.
PG – They all agreed and we fixed the score, we fixed the parts, and the singers will do it the way I suggested. So these are the kinds of things that I try to do. I also pay a lot of attention to what Mr. Chaslin tells me. If he tells me that there is a problem with a given chord, I want to know what the problem is, and sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I may not. A number of people for example had wanted a change of chord in the cantabile of the first section of Maometto’s cavatina. He sings “a Maometto intorno venite ad esultar” with a long A. Well, that “esultar” was actually written by Rossini with an F in the bass, and an A minor chord above that F. That’s a very unusual chord to be using there. But Rossini clearly meant it.
We know it from his autograph manuscript; it was preserved for years in a private collection at a university in Great Britain, and then was sold just recently at Sotheby’s, at an auction, because this private collection wanted to get money for it. So they sold it, but before they sold it I was able to send our editor of this volume, Hans Schellevis, to London, and he spent the better part of a week with this manuscript. I have a photocopy but a photocopy is not the same as the original.
You could see that Rossini indicated clearly at that point that he not only wrote the note F, but he actually annotated it Fa, so you know that he really meant it. He meant it that note to be what it is. So if someone told me – “oh well, that’s not a typical Rossini sound” – it may not be a typical Rossini sound but it is what he wanted there. And in fact it functions very well. Now that type of interaction between performers and scholars seems to me as crucial because nobody else knew the history of the manuscript and what Rossini wrote in it, whereas their instinct might tell them – “oh, he does not write that kind of chord.” He may not write that kind of chord normally but here he wrote it, and we’ve got to respect that sort of thing.
OL – Let’s move on from Maometto II, if you still have time.
PG – Of course, whatever you like.
OL – You were the pioneer musicologist in doing scholarly work on Italian 19th century opera, because at one point back then, musicologists first of all wouldn’t find opera to be a proper subject, and if it was, it would be Wagner or Richard Strauss or Berg.
PG – That’s correct! That’s correct!
OL – So what is now the status of Italian opera among your colleagues, now that you’ve done all this work?
PG – I think that there are many more scholars who are working in this field. That doesn’t mean that everybody has adapted to our attitudes, but it means that it is harder to find people who will simply dismiss out of hand all Italian opera the way, let’s say, the Germans did in the end of the nineteenth century, or have tried to do. They can’t do that, because they now know better.
I mean, for a long time people followed Beethoven’s so-called words to Rossini – “You Italians can’t make serious operas; make more Barbers.” Well the trouble is that Beethoven didn’t know any of Rossini’s serious operas, which were never performed outside of Italy, and what he thought was The Barber of Seville was not! What he thought was The Barber, was a version that had been worked out by Viennese composers in 1818 for a performance in Vienna, and which was published in Vienna.
Beethoven’s remark cannot be taken seriously, it comes out of ignorance, not out of knowledge. But the fact is that there were many, many places in which Rossini’s music is very serious, and goes against the attitude that Italians can’t make serious music. That attitude comes from a lack of knowledge more than anything else. And of course it didn’t help that Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola and L’Italiana in Algeri were so well received at the time. They were beautifully received, and sometimes they were so well received that people paid little attention to the rest of a composer’s output.
OL – I particularly love Ermione. You seem to prefer Maometto II, right?
PG – I love Ermione too. These are my two favorite operas among the operas he wrote for Naples. Remember, he went to Naples in 1815 and stayed there until 1822, and he wrote nine operas for the Neapolitan theaters. Of those nine, eight are serious. Only one is comic, that’s La Gazzetta, which he wrote in 1816 when his main theater, the Teatro di San Carlo had been burned down. You recall that in the 19th century it was possible and indeed obligatory to reconstruct a theater in one year, so they did and in one year reconstructed the Teatro di San Carlo. Of course at the time there was a king who said “I want this theater open by next year!” And if you wanted your job, you got to open it. This doesn’t happen now, so we get ten years, twenty years of work before a theater is rebuilt.
But in any event Rossini wrote a bunch of serious operas for Naples. I believe that those are among the most exciting works that he ever wrote, and some of them reflect still what is typical of a late 18th century opera. So for example, if you look at his very first opera for Naples, which was Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra that he wrote in 1815, you see that the recitatives are essentially like secco recitatives, except that they are accompanied by the orchestra, and where a chord would be played on the keyboard before, there would be now a chord played by a string complement.
This was because in Naples they didn’t like secco recitatives. It was a city very much under the influence of French music, so the French great operas didn’t use secco recitative at all, so they didn’t include them in the Neapolitan operas. So Rossini wrote this music for the recitative in Elisabetta, it sounds as if is just secco recitative with chords in the orchestra. Now by the time he writes Maometto II there are long passages of really lyrical music, in the middle of the recitatives. Nobody else did this at the time! This was only Rossini. But this was then picked up by Donizetti and Bellini later on, and of course Verdi, and they did this much more frequently in later operas, but it was from Rossini that they learned how to do this.
I think that of all the works that he wrote for Naples the two works that I prefer, not only musically but also dramaturgically, are in fact Ermione and Maometto II. There is some wonderful, wonderful music for example in his Otello of 1816, but the trouble with his Otello is that most modern audiences know the Shakespeare and know Verdi’s version which is based on Shakespeare, whereas Rossini’s is not! It’s based on an 18th century revision of Shakespeare, so we are not prepared to hear that music in the same way we might hear it otherwise.
Even in works that are more thoroughly advanced, like Mosè in Egitto, Rossini had to revise this piece several times, and he did. It was an opera written for the Lent season and in that context Rossini originally had a crossing of the Red Sea in the third act that was supposedly badly staged, so badly staged that the audience laughed. So he rewrote the third act in 1819 and added the famous prayer, the Preghiera “Dal tuo stellato soglio.” This kind of modification was very important for Rossini also, but he had to write that opera very quickly, so he assigned several pieces to other composers. Some of these pieces he replaced, but not all of them, and so you can’t do the opera without doing a piece by Carafa; Michele Carafa who was a young man at the time and wrote a lovely aria for this opera, but it wasn’t Rossini’s.
But anyway, of all of the works I think the ones that function best both musically and dramatically are the two we’ve been talking about. I love the music of his Zelmira, which is his last Neapolitan opera, but I do think that the opera runs into problems of dramaturgy in the second act, that Rossini tried to fix in Paris, but I don’t think that he was totally successful even there in fixing it. The two works that really work on the stage today are Ermione and Maometto II.
OL – I see. Is there any opera by Rossini that remains obscure and you believe should be revived?
PG – Well, I think that there are several Rossini operas that are not nearly performed as much as they should be. The Maometto is one of them; another one surprisingly is William Tell. Now William Tell has the problem that it is very long. We know it’s very long. It needs to be cut. Any way that you cut, you take out music that people want to hear. So, for example, in a wonderful new recording, Antonio Pappano does the piece correctly in French, not in Italian, but he cuts pieces that Rossini himself cut in the original season of the opera. But these include a trio for three women in the last act, accompanied by the winds alone that is just beautiful! One hates to lose it!
One also loses the aria that Hedwige sings – “Toi qui du faible es l’esperance” – with the wonderful refrain “Sauve Guillaume!” Save William! The trouble is that Rossini himself made these cuts. You could instead cut Mathilde’s great aria at the beginning of act three, but if you do that you’ve cut more Mathilde’s part, and in one way or another anything that you do that touches this work, you are going to create these problems. We did William Tell complete in Italy, we really did it complete, and we called it Guillaume Tellerung, playing off on Götterdämmerung.
OL – (laughs)
PG – In order to do that, it took six hours of music, plus we served a dinner in the middle, and people could buy a dinner and eat it in the middle of the opera, but that was the only way to do it. Now, I wouldn’t expect any American theater to do William Tell complete. But the question of how you should cut it is very serious, and needs to be dealt with.
I just said to you that you have to do this work in French, not in the Italian translation that was used in most of the history of the work. The reason you have to do it in French is that the Italian translation absolutely doesn’t understand everything having to do with the original. The most important word in William Tell is Liberté! Liberty! But you weren’t allowed to say liberty on the stage in Italy in the 1830’s. The result was that they forced translators to modify the text so that every reference to Liberté was taken out, including the one at the very end of the opera, in which the original text goes, “Liberté, redescends des cieux!” Liberty, redescend from the Heavens. “Et que ton règne recommence” May your reign begin again.
OK? You know what this became in Italian – and the Italians listen to this year after year – “Quel contento che in me sento, Non può l'anima spiegar.” Which means – I can’t tell you how happy I am. Now that phrase makes no sense whatsoever in terms of the work as a whole, but yet that was the text that was sung over and over and over again in Italy. No surprise that the Italians couldn’t make heads and tails of this opera; it’s the text that they had been using that had nothing to do with the original.
OL – How interesting! Now let’s move on from Rossini, and let me ask you about some of the most controversial topics in opera, just to get your general opinion. First of all, HIP, or Historically Informed Performances with orchestras that use period instruments. What are your comments about that?
PG – I think that there is a place in the world for Historically Informed Performances, and there is a place for the use of modern instruments. It is possible to make modern instruments play in a way that takes into account what we know historically happened.
So, for example, and I’ve written about this; this is not new. Among the worst performances that I’ve ever heard – worst, terrible performances! – was Daniel Barenboim conducting Bach’s Brandenbourg concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He sat himself in the middle of a small group of instrumentalists and asked them to give him more vibrato. Well the result was that there was so much vibrato that you couldn’t hear a fugue. What came out was mud! And everybody was playing the same thing, it sounded like mud, not like independent voices that were very clearly discernable as they have to be in Bach. So, it would have been possible to use the same modern musicians, but not insist that they give you so much vibrato that you lost the sense of the line. That is exclusively a Romantic gesture, and we have to understand that Bach was not a composer that came from that period.
On the other hand people sometimes can make bad mistakes. So, for example when Fabio Biondi used an 18th century set of instruments to perform Norma years ago in Parma. He did some wonderful things, and things that really made a lot of sense. But he did some stupid things too, for example he took the notion that the first cellist who plays the principal lines in the recitatives was called violoncello al cembalo, he took that as an indication that they used a cembalo along with the instruments, and so we hear this tinkling cembalo throughout the entire opera, now that’s crazy, it makes no sense at all! We know that they didn’t use a cembalo at the period; this came out of Fabio’s experience as an 18th century conductor, when they did use a cembalo, but didn’t once you had a complete chord in the strings, there was no reason to have a cembalo play along, and so they didn’t.
OL – Wow!
PG – Does that help?
OL – Yes (laughing), that’s very interesting! So, what about Regietheater?
PG – Regietheater! I have seen some productions that I have thought were brilliant, because what they tried to do was to develop a kind of attitude towards an opera that was complicated and made it a more interesting piece for modern theater. I’ve also seen some productions that simply fly in the face of what the composer wrote. I do not believe that those make sense today. If that’s what you mean by Regietheater I’m not for it.
But on the other hand I feel that even a director as controversial as Calixto Bieito, has done some wonderful things in the theater, and I am not somebody who objects to his opening Ballo in Maschera with these hoodlums from the 1930’s sitting on separate johns reading newspapers. I understood what he was trying to do, and it didn’t disturb me. I know it disturbed many people a great deal because they thought Verdi would not have liked it. That’s probably true, but I was not disturbed by it.
On the other hand I was terribly disturbed by the fact that in his Don Giovanni which had a lot of wonderful things in it, he didn’t seem to know according to me, what to do with the graveyard scene. Well if you don’t know what to do with the graveyard scene in Don Giovanni, you don’t know the opera. You’ve got to have something that makes sense of that graveyard scene, and his setting, I didn’t see it as making any sense of that moment.
What you ended up with was this gradual degradation of the Don, at the very end he is living in a tiny apartment with Leporello who cooks for him and takes care of him etcetera, on a two-burner stove, and so the sense of Don Giovanni as a character who has to be taken down by supernatural powers disappears altogether. I don’t think that this is right.
I liked what he did earlier in the opera, where I thought that his opening was very strong, and his treatment of Donna Elvira was I thought beautiful. Not as beautiful as the wonderful production that Joseph Losey did of Don Giovanni in which Donna Elvira – this was Kiri Te Kanawa – is shown by Leporello this catalog, and at a certain point you see that Donna Elvira picks this catalog up, and is looking for her name!! That was wonderful, it was so clever, just right!!
OL – Yes!
PG – It was a detail that can only be done by someone who truly understood this character and wanted to make this character come alive. I don’t object to all efforts by directors to do something interesting with their operas. I object to some of the things that I think go beyond what I can accept.
OL – Yes, I personally dislike a lot when they change the ending somehow, such as the Copenhagen Ring where Brünnhilde was pregnant and delivers a baby at the end, which changes completely the whole idea underlying the symbolism in the opera, that the gods were supposed to disappear in favor of the humans, instead of starting a new line with a new heir.
PG – This changes the whole idea; I would not approve of that. On the other hand, I can tell you that in La Donna del Lago, I’ve seen David Alden’s production of La Donna del Lago, and at the end of the opera you have this peculiar situation, and it is exactly what happens in the narrative poem by Sir Walter Scott, in which Elena is given by the King who loves her to Malcolm as his bride. In David Alden’s production Malcolm was a kind of what we say ‘hail fellow well met’ type, and so having wed Elena he goes off drinking with the guys, leaving her on stage wondering if she’s done the right thing! Has she done the right thing by marrying him as opposed to marry the king which she could have done?
On the other hand Joyce DiDonato told me at one point that she had been involved in a production in which the person changes the ending and had her marry the king and not Malcolm. Now that, seems to me, goes too far. I’m not willing to do that. I’m willing to show the ambiguity of the ending, because I do think there is ambiguity in there. She talks “tanta felicità,” so much happiness, whereas everybody else is talking about “avversità” – your adversity – at the end, and this in the sense of a way of saying “I don’t really feel positive about what is happening.” And David brought out this ambiguity without changing the ending in any significant way, whereas I thought that what Joyce described to me was totally unacceptable because it did as you say change the whole sense of what the piece was about.
OL – Right. What about opera in translation? Not the back and forth between France and Italy that often had the composers’ hands in it, but let’s say, doing – which is very common – for instance The Magic Flute in English. I particularly hate it. I’d like to know what you think of this practice.
PG – I do not hate some of those. I really don’t. I grew up, remember, when the Met was still doing Così fan tutte in English, and I can still quote you long sections of this opera as is it was sung in the translation of Ruth and Thomas Martin which was very good! I think that there is a place for both kinds of opera – in the original language, and in translation. But the translations have to be done well, they have to be singing, they have to maintain the sense of the original, etcetera, and that is not easy to do.
Let me tell you, we’ve tried when possible to provide English translations particularly for comic operas, but of course now that the use of titles is so prevalent, there are fewer and fewer companies that want to do this. The titles are a very complex matter; there are some things about them that I like a lot, some things that I don’t like.
So I think that there are scenes today that we understand what is happening, and that matters, so for example at the very end of Tristan und Isolde we know that King Marke has a long monologue, and until we knew what he was saying moment by moment, we couldn’t make any sense out of this. There are King Markes now who insist on doing that because when the audience has the words it makes a great difference to them. If they don’t understand the original German, you can’t simply summarize it. It has to come word by word.
There is also a scene in Die Walküre where Wotan tells the story up to that point to Brünnhilde. That used to be cut; large parts of it used to be cut. Now of course you can tell some of the details because Wagner quotes the motives of the Ring in his orchestra, but he doesn’t have everything, and so when we do know exactly what he says you don’t want it cut because he really is very interesting. Every time they relate the story of the Ring it’s a different person who relates it under different given circumstances, and in this case Wotan very definitely is trying to make a case to Brünnhilde for what he has done as being correct, and that’s why of course she will ultimately disobey him because she believes that she has done what he wants her to do.
OL – I’ll be the Devil’s Advocate on this. I often say to someone who defends the concept of opera in translation: “Look, let’s talk of Porgy and Bess. Let’s think of “Summertime.” You get (singing) ‘Summertime…’ - which gives you a certain rhythm with the syllables alternating between high and low notes and a certain melody with the sounds of the vowels, not to forget the metric. If you had to present Porgy and Bess in French, and you had to sing at this point ‘Été…’it just wouldn’t work! Rhythmycally and also melodically, it would be a problem!
PG – It doesn’t work. But what you have to do is, you have to look for ways of singing similar things in the language that you are putting the opera into. So for example I still remember that they began Cosi fan tutte with the words (singing) “To doubt Dorabella is simply absurd, she will always be faithful and true to her word.” “To doubt Fiordiligi would no more be right, than trying to tell me the sun shines at night.” Now, none of that is exactly what Da Ponte has written; but it works, I think, beautifully, because the people who were doing the translation understood what was being said and what they did was paying close attention to the way the words and music fit together, and producing words that could do that.
I know some wonderful translators into English. A woman I worked with extensively in England is Amanda Holden. She does a lot of work with the English National Opera. Amanda is a first rate librettist and translator. I’ve also worked with a woman in Italy who is also English, Kate Singleton, and Kate did several of our published translations of Rossini operas, and always did a wonderful job.
In the case of Amanda she has a tendency to change the rhythms of the Italian. I try to tell her that I don’t want her to do that, because it was very difficult to show how to sing a passage if you were to have more than one rhythm. So what I did was try to get her to focus on the line that she had allowed to be sung in a different rhythm and to find an English equivalent but using Rossini’s rhythm, and she was wonderful at doing this.
We have some wonderful translators in America, Ronnie Apter, for example, who has been for years at Western Michigan University has done wonderful work translating things like The Bartered Bride, and that’s not easy, and she’s done it, and she’s done wonderful things. She’s done Il Trovatore for us. We were very pleased with her efforts. She really captured some of the feelings of Azucena, etcetera.
OL – But then the translator needs to be a poet.
PG – Oh, there’s no question, the translator needs to be a poet.
OL – The risk is that if opera companies are not even willing to pay small rental fees for critical editions, will they pay good people to do the translation?
PG – They don’t, they don’t. It’s up to us who make these new editions, if we provide the new editions, as we do for the comic operas in particular, we provide a very good translation, then they can sometimes use that. A person in America who was particularly known for his translations was Andrew Porter. He did a fabulous translation of the Ring, you don’t think that’s an opera that could be easily translated, but he did. He managed to do it. I’ve heard the Ring in Andrew’s translation, and it works surprisingly well.
OL – I gather from the whole interview that you do not disapprove of judicious cuts, right? They are traditional in opera, but some people get very upset at any recording that has significant cuts.
PG – I don’t get upset at the notion that some cuts are introduced. I do recognize that an opera company is under certain obligations to come in, in a certain amount of time. But I do think that you have to make cuts intelligently. My general rule, and I’ve expressed it in my book, is that you don’t make a cut that will produce a version of the work that is different from anything that you will ever find in a composer’s work. But if you find certain things in a composer’s works, you can make similar cuts in a related piece.
I was fascinated by the fact that Marilyn Horne when she sang Semiramide in a new edition was astounded by the chorus that precedes Arsace’s second act aria. She told me that she had never heard it. Everyone had always cut it. And I insisted that they sing it because I thought it was a beautiful piece.
On the other hand there is a chorus in the beginning of the last scene in Semiramide that isn’t wonderful but you can’t do away with it entirely; you got to have at least some of it, because it comes back in the orchestra as part of the rest of the recitative that follow the chorus. So I suggested doing – this was at the Met – I suggested that they include the orchestral introduction to the chorus, then cut the chorus and go directly to the recitative – that is very similar to what Rossini will do in other pieces. So I thought that I was living up to my principle, while at the same time allowing them to have what they needed, because if you do Semiramide complete it’s four and a half hours, it’s very long even for an opera company that is trying to do the right thing by it. Four and a half hours of music is a lot of music.
OL – I would have more questions, of course. It would be a pleasure to keep going and going, chatting with you about opera. But just like opera companies need to mind the duration of the operas, if we continue, the interview will be too long for readers to feel motivated to read it, so we should better stop.
PG – I think you have more than enough. And I’ll not only read this but also reply to the questions your members have added to your teaser, as you put it. [Editor's note - we have added all these questions here, by merging the "teaser" with the full interview]
OL – Great, thank you so much!
PG – Very good, thank you, take care!
OL – Will you be there at Santa Fe for the opening night? I hope I’ll meet you in person.
PG – I’ll be there for the opening night, yes. Please do come and say hello.
Now from this point on, we have members' questions:
He has replied to two already; there's a third one here, and we see more in the 'Comments' field, which he'll be answering next.
OL member - Dr. Gossett, what is the right way to sing the end of "Celeste Aïda?"
PG - My point would always be that there isn't a "right way." There are ways that make sense within the context of what we know and ways that don't make sense. For Verdi, it was more important that the tenor do the diminuendo at the end than that he sing it at the upper octave, and we have a version an octave lower in his own hand. But see if you can get a tenor today who would share Verdi's conception...
OL member - In Il Trovatore's "Di qual tetra luce," why do all tenors still sing "Fra quegli estremi aneliti, la morte a me parrà, e solo in ciel precederti, la morte a me parrà" when it's documented that it was just a mistake, and instead the tenor should repeat "A te il pensier verrà"?
PG - Interestingly in the Met broadcast a while ago ofIl trovatore (they were NOT using the critical edition, supposedly) the tenor sang the right words "a te il pensier verrà"--which only shows that sometimes singers are out in front of their masters, who are worried only about getting our work for free. Not even that in America it costs very much, since American copyright law is intended only to protect "Mickey Mouse," hence there are no performing rights for critical editions.
This one hasn't been answered yet:
OL Member - I'd like to talk a little about what constitutes a critical edition in the general sense, and then ask if these methods apply to Dr. Gossett's work.
Given a manuscript copy (or several copies) in the absence of the original document, the textual critic seeks to reconstruct the original text (the archetype or autograph) as closely as possible. The ultimate objective of the textual critic's work is the production of a "critical edition" containing a text most closely approximating the original.
Basically three different methods are used in textual criticism: eclecticism, stemmatics, and copy-text editing.
Eclecticism refers to the practice of consulting a wide diversity of witnesses to a particular original. The practice is based on the principle that the more independent transmission histories are, the less likely they will be to reproduce the same errors. What one omits, the others may retain; what one adds, the others are unlikely to add. Eclecticism allows inferences to be drawn regarding the original text, based on the evidence of contrasts between witnesses. The method seeks external evidence - such as the date of the copy, supposedly because older copies are closer to the original - and internal evidence, such as, trying to identify stylistic bias that can be attributed to the scribe by looking at other works by the same scribe. An important limitation of Ecleticism is that when evidence is contradictory, the critic may be showing bias as well in deciding for one of the versions.
The stemmatic method works from the principle that "community of error implies community of origin." That is, if two witnesses have a number of errors in common, it may be presumed that they were derived from a common intermediate source, called a hyparchetype. Relations between the lost intermediates are determined by the same process, placing all extant manuscripts in a family tree or stemma codicum descended from a single archetype. The process of constructing the stemma is called recension, or recensio in Latin. Limitations: The stemmatic method assumes that each witness is derived from one, and only one, predecessor. If a scribe refers to more than one source when creating his copy, then the new copy will not clearly fall into a single branch of the family tree. In the stemmatic method, a manuscript that is derived from more than one source is said to be contaminated. The method also assumes that scribes only make new errors – they do not attempt to correct the errors of their predecessors. When a text has been improved by the scribe, it is said to be sophisticated, but "sophistication" impairs the method by obscuring a document's relationship to other witnesses, and making it more difficult to place the manuscript correctly in the stemma. The importance of this method for opera, obviously, is when a score is re-orchestrated or altered by other composers - establishing the stemma might be instrumental to identifying the true original score from its corrupted evolution.
Finally, the process of copy-text editing implies that the scholar fixes errors in a base text, often with the help of other witnesses. Often, the base text is selected from the oldest manuscript of the text. Using the copy-text method, the critic examines the base text and makes corrections (called emendations) in places where the base text appears wrong to the critic. This can be done by looking for places in the base text that do not make sense or by looking at the text of other witnesses for a superior reading. Close-call decisions are usually resolved in favor of the copy-text. The advocates of this method are aware of the limitations of the stemmatic method (that of ignoring that changes may be corrections that re-approach a text to its original rather than further deviation), and believe it is more prudent to choose one particular text that is thought to be particularly reliable, and then to emend it only where the text is obviously corrupt. The copy-text is not necessarily the earliest text. In some cases, a later text may be chosen, especially if there is evidence that the original author has made the corrections in person. The obvious limitation of this method is when there is no certainty that later corrections are faithful to the original author's intention, resulting in arbitrary exercise of editorial judgment. Obviously the importance of this method for operas is the situation when the composer himself made alterations to his writings. The critic will have to navigate through different versions to try to establish the composer's intention.
Dr. Gossett, how do you proceed? Do you use one, more than one, or all of the above methods, or some alternative?
Members, please, use the Comments field below to ask more questions; thank you.