Q & A: Andrea Marcon On Baroque Opera & The Rebuilding Of Venice’s Teatro San Cassiano

By Alan Neilson

With the proposal to reconstruct the world’s first public opera house, Venice’s Teatro San Cassiano, developing apace, OperaWire took the opportunity to meet up with its artistic director, Andrea Marcon, to discuss his aims, justifications, expectations, and hopes for the project.

Marcon is one of the world’s leading exponents of baroque repertoire and has conducted performances across the globe, from Spain and Italy to Russia and the USA. His work has taken him to many of the world’s leading opera houses, including Milan’s La Scala and Moscow’s Bolshoi, as well as major festivals such as Aix-en-Provence, for which he opened the 2016 festival with a production of Handel’s “Alcina.” He has an impressive CV, indeed! Yet, it may come as a surprise to realize that his successes as a conductor have been achieved with barely any formal training in the art of conducting. He is largely self-taught. In fact, he learned his craft while playing the harpsichord alongside orchestras in the pit, working with conductors, and accompanying singers.

We met up for his interview, just after he had finished a performance of Handel’s “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno” at Venice’s Teatro Malibran, along with Paul Atkin, the man behind the San Cassiano project. This is a fascinating conversation, underpinned by the two men’s passion and commitment to bringing opera back to where it all began, the Teatro San Cassiano.

OperaWire: What attracted you to the Baroque? 

Andrea Marcon: When I was a child, baroque music was not that popular in Italy, but I played a lot of Bach and listened to a lot of Vivaldi. I knew nothing about philological interpretation or historically informed practices. I used to listen to recordings by Harnoncourt, Gardiner, and Tom Koopman. This was at the end of the 1970s, and their interpretations differed completely from what else was going on at the time.

It felt like a natural, spontaneous attraction, and it was not just baroque music I liked. I loved everything baroque: architecture, painting, theatre, and music.

Over the years, this passion has not declined because there is still so much waiting to be discovered. There is so much baroque music that is not in the repertoire, unlike Romantic music, for which we, more or less, know all the works by every major composer. With the baroque, especially within the opera field, there is still so much that is not played.

Of course, I like other music too. I really like Mahler’s and Bruckner’s symphonies, but this is purely for pleasure. It is not music I conduct.

OW: Baroque has become a distinct category within opera, with its own festivals, specialists, and venues. Why is this? 

AM: Yes, this is the situation, but it should not be like this.

One reason this has happened is because people don’t know much about operas from this period. Many opera lovers, also here in Italy, think that opera started with Mozart.

It is also partly because, down to practical reasons, opera houses have large orchestras for playing the big operas of Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner. They are not designed to play the baroque repertoire. If they do play a baroque opera, then they use only a small number of musicians. My wish is that we could take out and develop a specialized ensemble that loves the baroque, as has now happened at La Scala. If other theaters followed suit, I believe the situation would improve.

The distinction between opera and baroque opera is a false one – absolutely false! Some opera houses have solved this problem. In Zurich, for example, they schedule baroque operas next to operas from other periods. They don’t care about when they were written. It is the same at the Salzburg Festival. They program romantic opera, baroque opera, and contemporary opera without distinction. But, in Italy it is still a problem!

Also, there are still people who think that baroque opera sounds boring. It is a legacy from years of baroque music being played in a very boring way.

For me, opera is opera, no matter when it was written. Yet today, opera companies specify that this is a baroque opera. But this should not be said. It is an opera! There are operas by Vivaldi, by Charpentier, by Handel, by Wagner, and by Strauss. They are all operas.

The public is polarized. In Italy, there are many people who go to see the standard repertoire of Verdi and Puccini and attend the arena in Verona. After all, it is part of our musical heritage. But it is difficult for them to listen to Monteverdi, Handel, or Charpentier. They see it as a completely different world. My question is, would the same people who love Puccini and Verdi also like to visit a Caravaggio exhibition? Or would they say, I don’t like it? It is from a different world? I don’t think they would say that! They know about Caravaggio. Yet, they don’t feel competent to sit through a baroque opera, as it is something they have never heard. It does not require a different mindset to do this. If they love Verdi’s “Otello,” why shouldn’t they love an opera by Monteverdi or Vivaldi?

OW: Does baroque opera have anything to say to contemporary audiences? 

AM: Baroque opera speaks about the gods and people of antiquity. Yet, for me, it is much more modern than Romantic operas, which I don’t find very modern at all, and this is why I think directors are always searching for a modern interpretation and critics are always talking about the director’s interpretation rather than the music. Everybody already knows the music, and it becomes a secondary concern. With baroque opera, often nobody knows the work. I am sure that for our production of Handel’s “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno,” ninety percent of the audience have never heard the piece before. It is this feature of the baroque that makes it an opera of today. It is the equivalent of discovering a new masterpiece by Canaletto. It is the same for the conductor. This was the first time I have conducted “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.” I found the ending so devastating and so moving, and I could see the orchestra was also moved. This is what baroque music can do. I don’t think that Puccini can do that to an orchestra anymore. They are too familiar with it.

I am not sure if baroque music has something new to say to the public, but I am sure that when you listen to very good music that you have not heard before, you are more touched by it than by something you have heard a hundred times. This is why something written 400 years ago has the power to affect us today.

OW: What are your views on how a baroque opera should be staged? 

AM: This is more of a question for the stage director. However, baroque opera allows for a very wide range of possibilities. Almost everything is possible in baroque opera. But one thing that is missing at the moment is the historic way of staging them. There are so few theaters that can stage them in a historical way, and even then, you need a lot of knowledge. There are only a few stage directors who are capable of doing this, and it needs to be done in this way far more often, so we can see how things were done. We must remember that at the time when these operas were first staged, it was a completely astonishing experience. When Handel wrote “Alcina” in London, the reports talked more about the staging. It was the equivalent today of going to see “Avatar” with 3D glasses. This is something that needs further exploration.

OW: What could a reconstructed Teatro San Cassiano provide for baroque opera that is not already available? 

AM: The Teatro San Cassiano was the first public opera house in the world. So, symbolically it would be amazing for our culture and our history to reconstruct it.

Our mission will be to perform operas written up to the death of Mozart, especially those of the 17th century, in a form that would be recognizable to the original audiences. Italy had lots of small theaters at that time, especially here in Venice. But not now. Today, opera houses find staging operas from this period a real problem. They cannot create the necessary intimacy as modern theaters are too large. We must remember that some of Cavalli’s operas, for example, were performed to incredibly small audiences. It was a totally different way of singing and making music. Singers didn’t have to shout. To have a theatre devoted to the 17th century with excursions into the 18th century and staging operas that are not well known or not often staged in the type of theatre for which they were written would be something enchanting, something extraordinary. It will be the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. It would be a dream come true!

Furthermore, the San Cassiano will allow us to develop a repertoire based on historically informed practices, which means having a specialized orchestra devoted to this repertoire. It will also allow us to work with students from academies from all over the world. It would become “the” opera house for baroque opera, and it will be here in Venice, the city in which public opera was born.

OW: Where would the San Cassiano fit into the musical fabric of Venice? It already has Teatro La Fenice and uses Teatro Malibran for baroque operas. 

AM: I don’t think there would be any competition. It would, however, provide music lovers with more opportunities. They do a great job at La Fenice. For the past 15 years, they have regularly performed at least one baroque opera every season. But they use the same musicians as they do for the rest of their repertoire. The aim must be to have a specialized ensemble of musicians playing and singing in the baroque style, and this is one aspect that will make it a very different experience. The public and the musicians will have more opportunities to experience the baroque. It certainly does not mean that La Fenice should not continue presenting baroque opera.

We know a lot already about baroque opera, but there are really no theaters of the size of San Cassiano with the same types of machinery, and there is still so much to learn on a practical level. The San Cassiano will therefore be a place of research, of investigation, and of experimentation. This is something that only a theatre devoted to the baroque can undertake.

OW: You have just finished a performance of “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.” How would you see a staging at the San Cassiano being different from what we have just witnessed?

AM: It is important to remember that this was not meant to be staged as an opera. It is an oratorio. For an opera, it would be very different from what we have just witnessed, completely different! What we saw makes sense in the Teatro Malibran. However, it would not necessarily make sense in the San Cassiano, where we would be trying to create a historic representation in which the opera is brought alive according to the systems of the 17th and 18th centuries. I know “historically informed” sounds boring, but it is not. It is something very exciting and will be something completely new for today’s audience. The scenes would change in the blink of an eye, most probably for every scene and for every aria. We don’t have this approach to scenography today, nor do we have the machinery to do it, with the exception of theaters at Drottningholm and Cesky Krumlov, and there is nothing like them in Italy, nowhere at all!

Paul Atkin: I just want to reiterate what Andrea has said. Historically informed might sound boring to some, but baroque opera is something that is open to the world, and theaters approach it in many different ways. What the Teatro La Fenice does is fantastic Its productions are new, modern, and exciting, but this is not the only way to present them. An opera is an art form, and art should embrace its many possibilities.

AM: Yes, there are many ways of approaching the staging of baroque opera, and this is how it should be. However, it is also good if we can reproduce performances as they occurred at the time when they were first performed.

OW: Will they require different types of singers or at least require them to alter the way they sing?

AM: I think so, yes, a little bit. Modern theaters have a different intimacy. Today there is quite a distance between the stage and the public because the orchestra takes up a lot of space, creating a gap of maybe up to six to eight meters. It is also far from the singers. In the 17th century theatre, the public was up close to the singers, so the original way of singing the recitar cantando cannot be done in a big theatre. There is also more shouting today. They must sing loud. Otherwise, the audience won’t hear them. The first thing singers learn is how to sing loud. They don’t learn to sing softly, which is far more difficult to do.

OW: Do you think that you will discover things you have not even considered? 

AM: Absolutely, yes. I am convinced about this. This will form part of the research that will take place at the San Cassiano. We will be doing opera only from the 17th and 18th centuries. A normal theatre cannot do that. It cannot stop everything and focus on this say for two years. It has other things it needs to do.

PA: What is exciting about the San Cassiano project is that we don’t even know all the questions that we will need to ask, let alone the answers. We won’t know how the singers will be affected until we start performing, and when we start performing, questions will appear that we hadn’t thought of. This is what is so exciting about the project.

OW: How do you see the artistic side of the project developing?

AM: At the moment, I dream about what we will be able to do. I am the artistic director of a dream. It is fantastic to be part of this project. I can only see opportunities, and they are incredible. There are so many young musicians and singers who specialize in baroque music now, and to have a theatre for them will be unbelievable. This does not exist anywhere at the moment. The San Cassiano will be “the” opera house for these musicians and singers.

OW: At the start of the interview, I asked you if baroque opera is distinct from the rest of opera, and you said “absolutely not,” and now you will have a theatre dedicated exclusively to baroque opera. Isn’t this a contradiction? 

AM: Absolutely not. It may appear that way, but it is not. There is no theatre in the world in which you could do more than two or three baroque operas in a season.

We have over 400 years of opera, with Mozart’s operas positioned about halfway. The repertoire pre-Mozart, that is, the first 200 years, has been neglected. A theatre presenting 12 operas in a season would never present six from the 17th and 18th centuries and six from the 19th and 20th centuries. Even in cities with more than one opera house, this does not happen. Nobody is going to say to me, “You do not need the Teatro San Cassiano. You can have this theatre and dedicate it to the baroque repertoire.” This will never happen. So it is not a contradiction. It is a necessity. I cannot see another way of bringing baroque opera into the theaters. Maybe in the future, other theaters will see what is happening in the San Cassiano and follow suit in developing a specialized baroque orchestra and presenting more baroque operas, but this is a long way off.

Where else, other than Venice, would it be so appropriate to have a theatre devoted to the baroque? This is the city where public opera began.

PA: It is not a contradiction. It is the missing piece of the puzzle.

At the moment, companies don’t always provide a full repertoire. Yes, there are theatres in which we can see baroque operas done really well. We have the musicians and the singers, but we are missing that intimate space where we can explore the operas as they were performed to see why they were so successful, why they were so magical. We need this missing historically informed space to see the operas in their full glory.

OW: If your aim is to perform only 17th and 18th century operas, will you eventually hit a dead end in which you repeat a core repertoire with the same operas scheduled year after year? 

AM: It may happen that some of the operas become hits. We may do a brilliant “L’Orfeo” by Monteverdi or “Agrippina” by Handel, which was written for Venice, and they may appear regularly on the schedule, but not to the same extent as “La Traviata” in Italian opera houses or “Aida” at the Verona arena. Our goal would be to present four or five new operas. I see what we are doing as an investment in our culture for the future.

In the Biblioteca Marciana alone, we have 10,000 opera libretti from that period, including the libretto for “Andromeda,” the first opera to be performed at the San Cassiano. There are thousands of operas from the 17th and 18th centuries in libraries across Italy, particularly here in Venice, and we should be performing them. One big hit, for example, at the Teatro Giovanni Grisostomo in 1734  was “La Merope” by Giacomelli, starring Farinelli. It was a huge success. But there is no modern edition, yet it was a very, very successful and popular piece. So the San Cassiano will be able to bring this back to the stage. It will be the equivalent of discovering a new painting by Canaletto. What we are doing is embarking on a cultural project. It is strange, but if you rediscover a baroque opera, not many people are interested, but if you discovered a Canaletto, the entire Italian media would be reporting about it. The problem is that too many people are happy with “Aida” and ”La Boheme.” Of course, they are great works, but why not rediscover the repertoire of the 17th and 18th centuries? What are we doing with those 200 years of music? Should we just forget about them and stick with Handel and a few other well-known pieces, like Vivaldi?

PA: I think the point about the libretti is that there is no reason why we can’t explore ways of bringing them back to life again, even if it is with newly composed music. That in itself would be an interesting project.

Also, the point about falling into the trap of using the San Cassiano to repeat the well-known baroque operas is we must remember that we have never heard Monteverdi or Vivaldi in the type of Venetian theatre for which they were written. They will be, in themselves, new works to some extent.

Bringing the lost operas and composers back to life is obviously one of the most important aims of the San Cassiano, and as there are so many of these operas, it will be a long time before this work is ever completed.

OW: Is there a particular composer’s work that you would like to explore at the San Cassiano?

AM: Definitely Monteverdi and Cavalli. We only have three of Monteverdi’s operas, but who knows? We may find “Arianna” one day. There are, however, over 40 Cavalli operas, and he is a great Venetian composer. Yet he is not really known. If you ask people, even musicians, “Who was Francesco Cavalli?” then very few would be able to give you an answer! He does not really figure within our culture, and this is a pity.

OW: If you could conduct any work for the opening night of the San Cassiano Theatre, what would it be? 

AM: I think it would have to be an opera from the 17th century. Maybe I would choose Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo.” It was not written for Venice, but symbolically, it marks the beginning of modern opera, which is a perfect match with the San Cassiano as it marks the beginning of public opera. Also, Monteverdi had close connections with Venice. He worked in the city for 40 years and died here. So it would make a good combination.

I would like to follow that up with a Vivaldi opera.

PA: I agree with Andrea about “L’Orfeo.” It was the first great opera, and it changed the world. But maybe Cavalli’s “Le Nozze di Teti e di Peleo,” from 1639, which is the first opera performed at the San Cassiano that is still extant, may also be a good choice. Of course, if we could find “Arianna,” that would be a brilliant way to open the San Cassiano.

I would also like to add that we are fortunate to have Andrea on board. He is such a visionary, and the project would not be the same without him. He will be able to take us to the level that the San Cassiano demands.



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