Pergolesi was 26 when he died. Jim Morrison was twenty-seven. Both were musical geniuses. Both made a new sound in music.
This week during six hours in flight to and from Phoenix, I listened to three new CDs transposed to my iPod of Jim Morrison and The Doors. I confess to being enthralled by his music and singing. My kids think this is a twisted musical obsession. The Decembrists are almost as good and I buy their every new CD. I don’t even tell the kids this; they would think me weird. But back to Pergolesi.
Tonight I watched his opera Adriano In Siria. The music is fast; a venerable eighteenth century rock and roll festival, Jim could have done it proud if he had lived longer. The emotion is visceral; Jim does as well when he recalls dead Indians spread across the road. The words by Metastasio evoke horror and profundity; Jim in English does the same, as do the Decembrists. A whole book could be written on the poetry of these three music makers and their word-smiths.
Pergolesi wrote at a time when there were plenty of castrati around to sing the male roles in high voice. Now we have the counter-tenors, and a fantastic sound they make, although I am sure they are nothing like those genuine castrati.
In the production that I watched tonight they use contraltos to sing the castrati roles. That is terrible. There is nothing worse than watching and listening to women pretending to be men. Spoils everything. If they cannot find enough counter-tenors to do the roles, I suggest they use tenors and simply transpose the singing down an octive or two. No real harm would be done.
Sure we would not hear the music where the composer wanted it to be. But the composer had castrati at his avail. We do not. So why not tamper a bit with the singing and make the drama more real. I would rather see good drama with males playing males than listen to less than faithful replication of what some long-dead composer envisaged.
For contraltos are no better at replicating a castrati than a counter-tenor. I say: do away with this interminable attempt to make the music sound like the composer made it. We cannot, for we do not castrate young males anymore. Let us rather stick to the dramatic intent: males in conflict, in lust, in love, in power-plays. Women trying to hide their breasts are a silly substitute.
We will never hear a full-throated castrati in Handel of Pergolesi. So I select dramatic verisimilitude over an annoying attempt to sing in the right register. I just hope the MET does not saddle us with a slew of women in men’s roles in Mozart’s La Clemenza Di Tito. How I long to hear that opera sung by full-throated males as males and shrill women as women.