Claudio Monteverdi is universally acknowledged as the first great opera composer, despite the fact that most of his operas (half a dozen or so) are lost. We have his Orfeo (1607), and, from towards the end of his life, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (1640) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1643). The rest, in whole or in part, have been swallowed by history. Next week, the conductor William Christie and his orchestra Les Arts Florissants bring Il ritorno d'Ulisse to London, and there is no mistaking the regret in his voice when he says, "No one will ever know whether we have the best of Monteverdi."
Of the three Monteverdi operas that survive, Ulisse is the least performed. Sadly, what Christie brings to London is itself something of a torso, albeit musically whole. The single performance is part of a tour that takes a complete production to cities throughout Europe and North America. What comes to London, however, will be a concert performance only: despite every effort on Christie's part, no one could be found to present it staged.
This is doubly sad since the show (which originated at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in July 2000) is staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company's Adrian Noble. Yet Christie is confident that the concert performance will benefit from its origins in a staged production: "It's one of the most exciting things I've done in my professional career, and it's been a privilege to work with Adrian. He came to musical theatre fairly late, and so he's fresh. We did Purcell's The Fairy Queen in Aix in 1992, and it was startling. Now that he has had two significant successes, I hope that he might do less theatre, and more opera. I'm performing Handel in a couple of years in Paris, and I'd love to see what Adrian would do with something 18th-century. I think he could produce wonderful, new and exciting ways with the form, as he did with Monteverdi."
Since the surviving manuscripts took so much for granted, we don't know how Monteverdi's works were staged, nor, in detail, how they sounded. That requires imagination and flair from both director and conductor, which is what Christie finds seductive about period performance. "Because they are so open-ended, they provide a vehicle for creativity, and that applies to the musicians as well as to the director," he says. "You have essentially to invent an orchestra, especially in Ulisse and Poppea. Of course, you need convincing singers, but if they don't have a dramatic orchestra to nourish and goad them, the whole thing falls down. Les Arts Florissants and I have been working together for 20 years, and they have an extraordinary sense of drama, of theatre. They love working with each other, and with singers, and they adore the improvising that this music requires."
There is irony in the fact that the exigencies of Baroque performance practice, rather than contemporary composition, have reintroduced improvisation to classical musicians. Christie insists that the effect has been a beneficial symbiosis: "In France, there has been a terrible cleavage between old and new, brought on and exaggerated to a great degree by Pierre Boulez, who has no love for anything we do. This is in flagrant contradiction of what has been the case in the US or, especially, in Britain, where composers do have a sense of the distant past. If you look now at Peter Maxwell Davies, or 40 years ago at Britten or Elisabeth Lutyens, their music shows a deep respect for, and understanding of, the past."
As Christie points out, both ancient and modern demand a sense of adventure. "I was brought up in the belief that if you wanted to be revolutionary or even just a little audacious, if you weren't satisfied with orthodox ways of singing, you were into early music, or you were into new music. They were all new sounds, and you had to invent new techniques for them. Thirty years ago, a singer working on a Sequenza by Luciano Berio had the same essential problem that she had working on early 17th-century style: how do you get those affects into the voice that are sometimes beyond normal beautiful singing? There are people in Les Arts Florissants who can play a piece by Brian Ferneyhough one day, and something by Geminiani two days later, and I love that."
In Christie's view, something else that period instruments have achieved is to alter perceptions of the operatic voice. It is, he suggests, a change for the better. "We now have singers whose very voice would have been called into question 30 or 40 years ago. Can you imagine someone like Barbara Bonney or Cecilia Bartoli auditioning then, when the consideration was decibels? The early music movement has brought a certain kind of finesse, a different way of singing, as well as a new repertoire. Of course, you sometimes find Handel sung the way that you would sing Puccini, as if one style will serve all; but you also find conscientious young singers who bring style and understanding to this repertoire, and realise that it is part of their musical patrimony."
Later this year, Simon Rattle takes up his position at the head of the Berlin Philharmonic, an orchestra that until now has represented the very antithesis of period performance. But Rattle has already invited Christie to work with his orchestra. "We are going to do big pieces by Purcell and Rameau, repertoire that the Berlin Phil really doesn't play. It's an orchestra which believes in the absolute truth of what is on the page, so it'll be a question of telling them, 'No, there is another kind of music where you, the players, have to add things that are so subtle that they can't be notated.'
"These orchestras have to be shaken up, and it will be great challenge, but one that I'm convinced will be important in the future for all intelligent and gifted orchestras."
William Christie conducts Monteverdi's 'Il Ritorno d'Ulisse' at the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891) on 17 MarchReuse content