The location and miraculous preservation of the theatre at Drottningholm which I described last week make it a must for devotees of 18th-century opera as well as those in search of a whiff of Sweden’s illustrious past as a European super power. Many a music scholar and professional has Drottningholm on their life’s itinerary.
Therein lies one of the problems: avoiding those in the same business who you don’t want to talk to on the slow boat out to the palace or over the long afternoon in palace, park and theatre. Seriously jetlagged after an epic detour through various Heathrow terminals, I was not immediately on the lookout when I got in line for my ferry ticket and then overheard somewhat familiar voices and names organizing their rendezvous on a nearby cellphone. Sensing danger, I snapped into focus, reorienting my profile imperceptibly but crucially to windward and away from my professional acquaintances, and readying myself for the trials ahead.
Fortunately I’m a genetic mix of all major northern European peoples, with large percentages of Nordic blood. Even in the height of tourist season on the way to Drottningholm, tall and blond blends in with at least some of the masses on the quayside.
Over the rest of the afternoon I deftly avoided my musicological colleagues, not out of contempt but out of pure instinct: as they entered the boat’s caf? I shuffled Swedishly onto the sundeck; at the Chinese Pavilion in the Drottningholm park I ducked into the hornbeam as they ascended the knoll; on entering the theatre I took time to examine the vintage wallpaper as they passed by (the largest intact collection of wallpaper surviving from the 18th century in northern Europe!); during intermission in the theatre’s D?jeuner Salon (luncheon hall), a generous high-ceilinged room that opens onto the park, they hove into view and I casually turned to the corner to inspect the intricacies of the marbling. I don’t do Facebook, and clearly I wouldn’t have been cut out for court life either.
There’s an Old Williamsburg reenactor feel to the place, and something almost, but not quite, silly about meeting the opera’s artistic director, Mark Tatlow on the path between the old hunting lodge and the musicians’ entrance to the theatre. He had yet to cover his bald head with the required wig and he carried a modern, compact edition of the opera. I said I was surprised that he would even be able to pick out the score’s tiny notes in the far-from-brilliant light and through his progressive lenses with their frames that could almost pass for 18th-century spectacles. He said he had the piece memorized and only used the score for the recitatives in case one of the singers drops a line.
Now in his mid-fifties, Tatlow has traced a zig-zagging trajectory across Europe since he graduated from Cambridge, from the Nice opera to the music directorship of St. Paul’s Boys School in London and now, for the last few years, a return to Drottningholm as its musical director. He was the star of this performance. Not only did he train the young singers in period style, but he also brought a more-than-respectable level of discipline and conviction to an orchestra that includes many excellent players, but has not yet attained the level of precision and fire that would make it world-class. He conducts the band from the fortepiano placed at the side of the orchestra’s enclosure and at the lip of the stage, and he sensitively and imaginatively played all of the tricky recitatives in the dim light, prodding more than following the young singers a few feet away on stage. His command of the score and of Mozartean style with his hands in the air and at the keyboard would surely make him in high demand if he could get occasional time off from his grinding teaching and performing schedule in Stockholm.
Tatlow’s gestures are full of a graceful fluency and clarity reminiscent of the kind of 18th-century movements adopted by the actors under the stage direction of the Dutch director and expert in historical acting and stagecraft, Sigrid T’Hooft. Her wonderful essay in the program booklet entitled ”A Historical Cos?: the non-staging principle” outlined how the shared language of musical and physical gestures of the 18th century allowed singing-actors to circulate across the great opera houses and enact a wide-range of scenarios with little or no stage direction and hardly any rehearsal. The typical Drottningholm season in the 18th century featured fifty different works. Because of the shared language of acting and staging, lengthy production schedules could be shortened massively from today’s standards: not only were backdrops, costumes, and some arias imminently reusable, but so were gestures.
T’Hooft further argues against attempts at strict reconstruction, and for the use of 18th-century insights into bringing fresh theatrical insights to the staging of well-worn works such as Mozart’s operas. T’Hooft’s production at Drottningholm uses historic acting techniques, not in an illusory attempt to duplicate 18th-century performance exactly, but rather treating the historic sources as fodder for the modern imagination: historic acting is not proscriptive but a resource to expand the possibilities of modern production even if in lavish costumes made in the Drottningholm atelier and in the perfect theatrical setting.
Rather overthink and overanalyze character in an attempt to ”inhabit” the role, instead, as T’Hooft encourages actors to learn the 18th-century language of physical expression, ”painting their passions with face and eyes rather than becoming them.” This fluid matching not just of emotion, but often of individual words, to gesture opens up new realms of innuendo, irony, appeal, and allows the moral of this amoral story to be both comic and unsettling: in their own unexpected ways the artfully contrived postures and movements burrow deeply into life’s big questions even while making even the consideration of them appear nothing more than a matter of convention. The contrivances of European culture become something both to celebrate and to laugh at.
The student singers, for whom this production served as final exam, for the most part picked up these historic techniques easily, and brought to them their own creativity. In the person of bass-baritone Staffan Liljas, Mozart librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s scheming human puppeteer, Don Alfonso, was a mix of comic mischief born of boredom and a deadly seriousness, kept cool by ideology. Alfonso gets the two betrothed pairs of young lovers to swap partners with the supposedly absent men doing the wooing disguised as Albanians. His gestures were as lithe as they were unsettling, and he won over the audience with his cajoling libertinage, and buoyant comic manner and voice.
The baritone South African Luthando Qave, whose almost transparent baritone voice provided a complementing contrast to Lilja’s richer sonorities, carries himself well and found the humorous mixture of bravado and bluff naivet? that makes up the character of Guglielmo. He returns now to New York, where he won a place in the Metropolian Opera’s young artists program.
Vivianne Holmberg’s chambermaid Despina, enlisted by Don Alfonso for his deceits, was sharp vocally and visually, fresh and stinging. The two noblewomen were somewhat less convincing as a whole, but still gave enjoyable performances. Soprano Sara Wid?n demonstrated a talent for heartfelt, yet always contained, expression and for cantabile phrasing in Dorabella’s second act aria, Per piet?.
The eighteenth-century manner of carrying oneself was learned from early on. It survives perhaps only in the bodies of modern ballet dancers, trained from childhood in the proper carriage. How different are basic postures and physical attitudes today could be seen at the recent royal wedding in Westminster Abbey where, as co-editor Cockburn pointed out, the Princes slouched unroyally. To reclaim and to reteach this enlightened, aristocrattic habitus now takes more time than a few weeks of rehearsal allow: there must be some basic carriage in place, unmarred by the modern slouch. Like spoken language, body language has changed hugely since Mozart’s time. Grafting 18th-century gesture onto a body carried around the stage in modern fashion can be painful to watch. This incongruity could be seen most glaringly in the stage persona of young tenor Joel Annmo’s Ferrando. Tatlow began the afternoon by announcing that Annmo had previously lost his voice and had merely gone through the motions onstage for the previous performance while a substitute had sung his part from the wings.
The mere plea for understanding marked another big difference between the age of royalty and that of middle-class privilege: in an 18th-century court a director of music would never make excuses for his singers before his employers. Either offer up a performance worthy of a queen, or pretend you are doing so, and let royal taste and favor decide how to judge the results.
Annmo has a pure tenor voice, which, even lacking some of its power and not at its best, soars easily into its higher range. His lines expand towards ardent crescendo, quickly and in long steady swells, and then evaporate into delicate pianissimo. But he’s got a modern way of carrying himself, and the attempt at a balletic court step doesn’t wipe out the underlying sloppy shuffle: the thumbs have learned to swivel habitually in towards the hips rather than easily outward and upward like those of the 18th-century gentleman. His acting, so crucial to the effectiveness of his role, resounded with dissonant and unintended comic clang each time he adopted a new pose and groped for another gesture. I’m not trying to be unkind to Annmo, just using his physical performance as an example of the incredible nuance and difficulty of historic acting, especially when it confronts the modern body. Annmo’s visual presence was more out of place on the 18th-century Drottingholm stage than 18th-century star actor David Garrick would have been on a skateboard in Santa Monica. Like any human habit or artefact rescued from the past, 18th-century acting (or 21st-century attempts at it) is not for everyone, and Annmo’s Ferrando proved that in Drottningholm?as in live theatre everywhere?bad acting will always beat good singing hands down.
The performance began with the traditional three strikes of the staff on the floorboards that initiate theatrical time, the magical and seemingly untouchable realm that even a Drottningholm fire in 1751 had a hard time disrupting. Sunday afternoon’s performance ended with applause, modern and, by 18th-century standards, impolite. In this modern world not only kings and queens get to decide what is good and what is not. Drottningholm is more than just a good thing. It is a miracle.
David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com