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1978
1969 – 1978: The Curtain Rises
…When German sociologist Klaus Theweleit addresses the artist in European history in his large-scale book trilogy, he takes the opportunity to explain why he started writing the books in the first place. He explains that watching Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at the Zurich Opera House, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, was an epiphany. He was immediately and unforgettably aware that he was being taken to the root of Western culture, a feeling which inspired the beginning of his book Orpheus / Eurydike. Theweleit is mentioned here because this extra-musical detour can perhaps help us to better understand the importance of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s path to the opera stage. Harnoncourt conducted Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria at the Piccola Scala in Milan for the first time in 1972, and L’Orfeo at the Zurich Opera House in 1975 as the first the first cyclical staged performance of Monteverdi’s three remaining operas. These performances were shocking, unexpected and will go down in history. There had, of course, been earlier attempts to rescue Monteverdi’s music for the stage. Great composers and capable arrangers had tried to adapt the pieces for a modern orchestra. Harnoncourt, however, wanted to show audiences what the original pieces had to say. And the originals did indeed speak; not only understandably but also captivatingly. They were more dramatic, more immediate, more direct than any modernised version could be. Thus, the conductor dispersed the apparent paradox of historically-informed performance practice that said that such old, such bygone, such incomprehensible music from the early Baroque period most clearly speaks to a contemporary audience when it is brought to life through the instruments, playing techniques and in the artistic spirit of the time in which it was created. The operatic stage offers direct proof of the music’s theatrical effectiveness. Traditional listening habits in concert halls and churches may have continued to obstruct our view of early music, but the success of the method becomes unmistakably and immediately clear on the operatic stage. The performances were hailed as a triumph by audiences and the press, which allowed Harnoncourt to open the contemporary stage for an unused repertoire. The fact that he thereby takes a step away from being an ensemble director playing an instrument towards being a conductor is only logical as it is a necessary step towards fulfilling his ambitions. The picture of this decisive decade in Harnoncourt’s artistic life is completed by the fact that, parallel to his work on scenic productions, he began the encyclopaedic recording of the entirety of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas with Gustav Leonhardt – In this way, his work on the cantatas can be seen as an important counter point to his opera career, which provided the perfect balance between analytical thinking and performance. The 1970 first recording of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, played on period instruments and accompanied by boys’ voices and counter tenors, was the revolution in Bach interpretation; and it was the beginning of something which today is a matter of course, namely using original instruments to play Bach's Passions, respecting the double choirs as well as doubled soloists – and thus trusting in the original score …
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