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Melodrama at the Modern


Modern Theater before Suffolk University replaced it. (BMInt staff photo)

Long champions of unjustly neglected repertories, the Musicians of the Old Post Road devoted a particularly fascinating afternoon to the music of Franz and Georg Benda at Suffolk University’s Modern Theater on Sunday. The chief feature of “Beloved and Betrayed” was Georg’s best known and most important work, the melodrama Ariadne auf Naxos. Here the musicians were joined by actors Robert Walsh and Marya Lowry, as Theseus and Ariadne as they were on the night before at Worcester’s Mechanics’ Hall.

The Bendas were members of one of those extended musical families, such as the Bachs, who in past centuries furnished performers and composers to various European courts and cities. Of Bohemian origin, the family sent its most prominent members to Berlin, where Franz was the favorite violinist of Prussian King Frederick “the Great” during the mid-18th century. The Benda dynasty continues to produce musicians; you can find a recording of Ariadne conducted by Christian Benda (on the Naxos label, naturally).

Georg, or Jiří Antonín in his native Czech, started out, like his brothers, as a court musician writing chiefly instrumental music. But, like his more famous colleague and friend Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, after leaving the court he became primarily a composer for the voice, in the former’s case, for the stage. Although now rarely performed, Benda’s theatrical music has always received respectable notice in histories of European music. His output also has pride of place in European theater canon, as Benda collaborated with important writers and stage directors.

It was therefore a rare treat to be able to see this work in a capable theatrical production. The story of Ariadne, familiar from Greek mythology and also from Richard Strauss’s opera of the same title, is set here as a pair of monodramas—two scenes, each featuring essentially just one speaking character: Theseus, the Athenian prince; and Ariadne, the Cretan princess whom he abandons on the island of Naxos after she has helped him slay the minotaur and escape from the labyrinth. Benda’s Ariadne is also a melodrama, in the original sense of that word: a stage form that enjoyed great popularity at the beginning of the Romantic period, in which spoken words are accompanied and interspersed with instrumental music. Sometimes described as “spoken opera,” melodrama was an anticipation of film and television, the music punctuating and sometimes accompanying the action and dialog (or, in this case, a pair of dramatic monologs).

In our cynical age, melodrama can seem naive or ridiculous. The only familiar examples today are isolated scenes in later operas that use it—Fidelio, Der Freischütz, La traviata, Wozzeck, Strauss’s Ariadne. [Though Beethoven wrote one to accompany a play, and Liszt contributed important stand-alone examples; the genre survived through Richard Strauss’s 1897 melodrama of Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, famously interpreted by Claude Raines and Glenn Gould here, ed.]. Benda’s Ariadne, his first of several, premiered in 1775. It reflects the first glimmers of Romanticism in music and literature, and its original staging incorporated Grecian costumes and histrionic gestures that have since become subjects of dismissive parody. Yet it proved sufficiently popular in its day for the composer to publish it in multiple versions that reduce its original orchestral score to either strings and continuo or to a single keyboard instrument. We heard the string version Sunday.

Although Benda’s earlier music resembles that of his older brother and other colleagues at Berlin, his theater music can remind a present-day listener of Mozart, the young Beethoven, even later Romantic composers. A particularly effective parallel with 19th-century music drama is the return of the noble opening music toward the end of the second and final scene. This ties together a composition that otherwise risks seeming formless, entirely dependent on the words for its coherence. Yet the brief musical passages that Benda inserts between the spoken lines occasionally anticipate certain clichés of 19th-century music drama. Performing such a thing today therefore runs risks that would not have been apparent when the work was new.

If the musicians were taking a risk with this performance, far more so did the actors. I didn’t notice anything in the publicity or the program notes for this performance that stressed its “historical” aspect, and I’m sure that the intention was simply to present an effective present-day production. Yet the music in Sunday’s performance was “historically informed,” and I wonder whether a more satisfying whole might have been achieved if this could have been true of the staging as well. Even one eager to avoid what is derisively referred to as “teapot acting” might imagine a more historically oriented approach to gesture and text delivery that would more closely parallel what is implicit in the music.

The Modern is a small theater [originally 800 seats with acoustics designed by Wallace Clement Sabine ed.] whose size and intimate connection between stage and house were perfect, in this respect resembling the famous court theater at Gotha, Germany, where Ariadne was first performed. The lower level, seating perhaps 150, appeared to be sold out, and the occasional dull rumble of an Orange Line train passing by under Washington Street presented no serious competition to what was on the program. For Ariadne, the musicians sat to the left side of the stage, the red and black chinoiserie decoration of the German-style harpsichord (played attentively by Michael Bahmann) harmonizing with the black backdrop and mainly red wallpaper of the theater. (King Frederick owned a similarly decorated instrument.)

The action, such as it was, took place to the right and consisted chiefly of walking about within the confined space, in general avoiding the more demonstrative vocabulary of gesture likely to have been seen originally. The two actors, both founding members of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, used an elegant English version of Johann Christian Brandes’s text by Pamela Dellal. (Brandes based his script, written for his wife Charlotte, on a poem by Gerstenberg, who also provided song texts for C. P. E. Bach which Dellal has sung most effectively.)

The use of a translation has no bearing on the “historical” character of the production; the first editions give the text in French as well as German. Translations of the text as well as arrangements of the music for various performing forces were clearly a part of the 18th-century theatrical tradition and are equally useful today. But very few theater professionals have begun to pay the type of attention to historical performance now routinely taken for granted by musicians, though some specialists do claim to evoke theses styles. Partly for this reason, I’m afraid I did sense a disjuncture between what the musicians and the actors were doing on the stage.

Brandes’s duodrama (his term) has no exact parallel in conventional theater today. In place of dialog between speaking characters, one has a dialog between one actor and an orchestra. The actor speaks a line; the orchestra responds with a musical phrase of comparable length. In dialog with another actor, one looks, gestures, and moves in relation to the latter; what does one do in dialog with instrumental sound, whether or not it is issuing from players visible to the audience? Strike a pose? move about the stage? wave one’s arms or bat one’s eyelids? And how should one speak one’s lines or conceive one’s role? Should one try to make the presentation resemble a more ordinary theatrical experience? Or should one consciously adopt a manner of speaking and moving that is remote from contemporary stage conventions?

Stage practices of 1775 might strike a contemporary audience as a weird combination of over- and under-acting: excessive, quasi-operatic vocal rhetoric combined with striking dramatic poses rather than naturalistic movement. Conceived at a time when opera was more pervasive than today, establishing norms for theater as a whole, Benda’s Ariadne presents severe challenges for any actor or viewer who is sensitive to both the text and the music. The latter, as in opera, establishes style, emotional character, even pacing that one might expect to be reflected in the speech and movement of the actors.

Four strings and harpsichord represented the music exceptionally. Violinist Sarah Darling’s e exquisite solo playing included some touching passages near the end, as Ariadne reminisces about her mother in far-off Crete. Equally impressive were the absolute unanimity of rhythm and intonation of the five players, as well as their complete engagement with the drama. The brief musical interjections formed an effective dialog with the two speakers, despite continuously varying tempos, meters, and emotional characters (or “affects,” as they were known at the time). The only aspect of the music that failed to convince were the imitations of trumpets, sounded as Theseus is about to run off to his ship. In the original orchestral version these are of course played by actual trumpets; I’m not sure how many in the audience got the point here.

I also am not sure how consistently the cues given by the music were taken up by the actors or by the production as a whole. Performed in modern dress, without sets and only basic lighting, this Ariadne lacked visual elements that would have alleviated the austerity of a drama in which the title character, stranded by a cliff on a dessert island, watches her lover’s ship sail off, never to return. A minimal set of plain black wooden steps, represented the rock from which Ariadne eventually throws herself into the sea. We first see her alone, asleep on those steps (which could not have been very comfortable) as Theseus enters to deliver the first monolog. This left it a little unclear that she and Theseus have spent the night together, and that he abandons her before daybreak; the grand opening music in E-flat, which returns later, seems to represent night or darkness. After his departure, the sun rises during an orchestral crescendo in the new key of C major (shades of Haydn’s Creation); I wish that the lighting, designed by Nick Robinson, had come up here instead of brightening the stage a few moments later.

Walsh, as Theseus, might have done more to catch the hero’s ambivalence between love and duty, which Brandes expressly inserted into his text and which Benda’s music underscores. Even Lowry, as Ariadne, although more animated and expressive, struck me as too restrained. Both also sometimes spoke too soon, their first syllables not quite audible under the still resonating sound of the musical passage that had just finished. One passage did achieve real intensity: when Ariadne imagines herself in Hades, beset by furies and other monsters depicted vividly by the orchestra, the voice and gestures rose to the same rhetorical level as the orchestra. Here we caught a glimpse of the “operatic” style of acting that Benda and Brandes must have expected and which might be necessary to bring this piece off with something of its original effect.

Nevertheless, this experiment succeeded on the terms set for itself (and by what I presume was its budget). Early-Romantic melodrama such as this could probably never hold a candle to opera in terms of mass popularity. But it would be a disappointment if this production were to be a one-time thing. Benda wrote other melodramas, including a Pygmalion that was at least as popular as Ariadne. I hope that the Post Road players will consider offering some such work in a coming season.

Georg Benda’s duodrama was preceded on the program by a flute concerto in E minor by his older brother Franz (František). The latter was famous for his good humor, which comes across in his autobiography (readily available in English). This concerto, however, is a fiery composition reminiscent of so-called “storm and stress” efforts by C. P. E. Bach. Although now Benda’s only flute concerto that is at all familiar, it was probably written originally for his own instrument, the violin. This would explain the absence of more obviously idiomatic or brilliant writing for the solo part, which even in the quick movements tends toward the lyrical and expressive, despite the energetic writing for the strings.

Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian
Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian

Suzanne Stumpf, who with cellist Daniel Ryan is co-Artistic Director of the group, played the solo part on a copy of an 18th -century Palanca flute by the fine German instrument maker Martin Wenner. The dry acoustic did not favor it, though, and this particular instrument seemed to lack the required strength, especially by the many relatively low passages in the solo part (particularly on the note D-sharp, for which Benda’s colleague Quantz famously added a key to his own flutes). I wondered too about many slurs in the solo part, which might be vestiges of the violin version; on the flute they made some of the scales and other passagework a little too smooth, lacking character.

That said, Stumpf created some very expressive moments through well-calculated rubatos in the quick movements. Her cadenzas in the first two movements were tastefully conceived, and the strings played with the same animation and precision heard in Ariadne. This concerto formed a perfect prelude to the drama that followed.

David Schulenberg’s The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 2014 by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at the Juilliard School in New York City. His website is here.

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  1. I second this review, and raise. I’ve been waiting for this production because while I have read of the melodrama art form (and its ersatz revival in the sound track of a talking picture) this was my first opportunity to see a melodrama performed in the flesh. The stated goal mentioned in the program was to do the melodrama as it would have been done originally, in the vernacular of the audience, hence the English translation to achieve the same theatrical effect for a contemporary audience that the original did in 1775 Gotha. The performance accomplished the recreation of this art form for the audience (lower level packed house at the Modern; an ironic name for the place); probably trying to recreate late 18th century gesturing would have interfered with the performance’s unity and utility. Authentic recreation may have a further burden that the authentic bits might actually be aggravating to a modern audience; this happened years ago when a WSJ reviewer panned the authentic dancing of the BEMF opera as “wooden”. Shakespeare, for example, was enormously popular in America when he was NOT performed with (snobbish) British accents; there was even rioting between adherents of American vs. British Shakespeare. Once the Immortal Bard people got their hands on him ca. 1900 Shakespeare lost his great draw among the populace and became someone most learned to avoid in school.
    As to the acting, Theseus could have used some more emoting (the man is torn ‘twixt Love and Duty as they say after all) but men usually don’t emote as much as women. But Ariadne “stole the show” in her role becoming her character. Today we are used to minimalist staging; nowadays it works effectively and did here (rocks and stairs are equally uncomfortable); the 18th and 19th century audience demanded full realistic staging and props eventually becoming as bad/good at spectacle as Hollywood and probably as brainless. Read up on Dion Boucicault to see what 19th century English/American drama was really like; will make you enjoy Saw and O’Neill better.
    I should mention Benda’s music. Compared to F J Haydn’s symphonic styles I would place Benda’s style in Ariadne as Early Middle Haydn; Galanterie meets Sturm und Drang; timewise this is just about right. Yes, the imitation of trumpets/horns as a theatrical gimmick; later some musical cliches occasionally when a quick fix of emotion was instantly needed for the dramatic action. We got to see Benda’s musical palette in service; it is in such situations that a composer reveals himself.
    Musicians of the Old Post Road. This was an exciting concert. Particularly electric was the “Simultaneous Start” when after several more minutes of tuning and maybe a micro-second of break, at a brief nod…START! and the flute concerto was off and running. This is exciting ensemble playing at its best, maybe even worth going to just to hear them perform (I tend to choose concerts on the basis of what’s to be performed rather than the WHO’s doing it). I have been following MOPR since they started with the “Route 20 Shtick” and it has led to some interesting venues (Cambridge Society for Early Music does a simlar thing with Outreach to Carlisle and such places) and interesting concerts.
    I learned post-performance that there had been an incident involving flash photography during the performance which had disturbed their Ariadne. Apparently an internal misunderstanding. I did note the absence of the usual announcement regarding cell-phones, recording, photography (nothing about Personal Magnetic Telegraphy = texting), etc. that has become de riguer (sic) these days; shut my dumbphone off so no one could interrupt me anyways.
    For those of you who didn’t go: you missed a treat. Your music/drama education is sadly lacking.
    Lastly, an idea for future performance of Ariadne, Pygmalion, or other Melodramas. The Boston Early Music Festival as either part of it or a Fringe Event (yes, they DO have such things with the BEMF). The Modern Theater was packed by performance time; wonder how the Worceter performance fared. Concertgoers need to know this art form so theere is probably a market for a few more performances.

    > excitingimpressive was the
    I am going to seriously consider acquiring some CD’s of Georg Benda’s music.
    Those of you aemerged acting of ther Theater. It worke

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — April 16, 2015 at 11:13 am

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