There used to be a time when all we knew from George Frideric Handel was Music for the Royal Fireworks, Water Music, a smattering of hi-ho-diddly harpsichord works, and of course, the stirring "Hallelujah" chorus from Messiah (not even the whole oratorio). We still thought he was great, of course, but we just didn't know how great. Nowadays, thanks to the Early Music movement, an avalanche of enlightened scholarship, and a brigade of charismatic, visionary performers, we know that there was a lot more under that big baroque wig of his. And what we find there is opera‹roughly 40 of them‹the domain where his true greatness lies. It wasn't for nothing that Winton Dean, the English musicologist who dedicated his life to this extraordinary oeuvre, crowned Handel "a dramatic genius of the first order."
It all begins in Italy. Well, not exactly. Born in Halle, Germany, Handel spent several years at the Hamburg Opera, where, under the punishing nuts-and-bolts tutelage of one Reinhard Keiser, he knocked off a few youthful operas. But he decided to head south, sensing that since Italy was the birthplace of opera, oratorio, and chamber cantata‹not to mention the concerto and the sonata‹he could pick up a useful tip or two. And he did, rubbing elbows with the best of them: Corelli, Vivaldi, Albinoni, and the Scarlattis, to name but a few. Although Handel's keyboard contest with Domenico Scarlatti at Cardinal Ottoboni's palace is legendary, the German composer's relationship with Domenico's father, Alessandro, was far more crucial. What he learned from the Sicilian maestro's operas and cantatas was an absolute mastery of writing for the voice in a free, flexible melodic style. Handel left Italy a fully equipped artist.
The proof of his maturity, not to mention sophistication, was to be found in the remarkable opera he composed in Venice, Agrippina. The titular Empress, like any good machinating Machievellian mother, plots to place her son Nero upon the throne of Rome with or without violin. Momentarily conscientious, Agrippina reflects on her ethically dubious actions in the aria "Pensiere" toward the end of Act II. It is an expressive gem, opening with vigorous gestures in the strings, set off by riveting pregnant pauses. What follows is an incredibly delicious tango between the voice and an oboe. The music utterly ravishing, full of exquisite dissonances; but on top of that, we can actually hear the queen thinking. To quote our die-hard Handelian Dean again, this aria "reveals for the first time the strength and novelty of Handel's dramatic genius." A great man of the theater was born. Keep in mind too that Handel was able to satisfy the demands of his diva, Margherita Durastanti, with this aria‹and from this point on, Handel wrote only for the greatest singers in Europe, including the legendary castrati, as well as the first star tenors‹without compromising dramatic trajectory or unity. He never sacrificed overall structure for empty virtuosity.
Handel headed back north. He was in London in 1710, and a year later he made a splash with his first Italian opera for English audiences, Rinaldo, which had a decisive influence on his subsequent career. What was evident is that Handel could take the stiffest of forms, the opera seria‹with its starchy stories of kings, queens, and mythic heroes all related through recitative and aria da capo‹and bend its conventions to get the best results. Here was a master melodist who could seduce the ear with a beguiling range of novel sounds and textures. He also had the uncanny ability to create memorable characters who interact, develop, and grow in a musical and dramatic unity. In Radamisto, Handel composed one of the greatest arias of the 18th century, "Ombra cara." Through five chromatically descending contrapuntal string parts, the eponymous hero sings his poignant lament over his wife's supposed death. Grief has never been so palpable. In Ottone, we see how Handel treats his villains‹with multidimensional complexity. In it, Gismonda, another unscrupulous, scheming matriarch who wants her worthless son on the throne, captures all our compassion with her "Vieni, o figlio." Even scoundrels deserve love.
Handel's prodigious genius strikes home with unremitting force in his extraordinary triple-header, composed within the space of one year between February 1724 and February 1725. Julius Caesar, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda far surpass the work of any contemporary. Each opera has its own distinctive character and atmosphere‹what Verdi called the tinta of an opera. Handel views his characters from several angles, building them up carefully note by note, aria by aria, scene by scene (something that Mozart learned from him). Donald Grout writes that "one is tempted to believe there is no emotion of which humanity is capable that has not found musical expression somewhere in Handel's operas." The boldness, unpredictability, harmonic range, and sheer scale of his recitatives look far into the future; by manipulating the shape of the da capo aria, Handel turned the most static of forms into something potentially dynamic. He explores queer tonalities, incorporates symphonic passages, changes of meter and tempo, daring modulations, and the most abrupt switches of mood and dynamics that propel the plot forward. What other contemporary of his can match the design or dramatic punch of the churchyard and prison scenes in Rodelinda, Caesar's escape from Alexandria harbor in Julius Caesar, or Bajazet's suicide in Tamerlano? It goes without saying that Handel's women are profoundly subtle and varied. His Cleopatra can hold a candle to Shakespeare's any day; and the sorceresses in his magic operas, from Melissa in Amadigi to the title character in Alcina‹although vile, vicious, and pernicious‹assume the stature of tragic heroines by virtue of intense music portraying frustration and longing. We may want them to rot in hell, but they send us to paradise.
Handel's musical imagination kept on breaking new ground. Take for instance, "Ah! Stigie larve," Orlando's unforgettable mad scene in Orlando. In a series of ariosos, constantly changing key and changing tempo, Orlando has visions of Stygian monsters, of Charon's boat (where the dark passage across the river Lethe is paced in measures of 5/8!), of hearing Cerebus bark as he reaches the portals of Hades. It's quite simply a masterstroke of flexibility, showing the twistings of a deranged mind.
In fact, Handel was so good at reinventing Italian opera in fair England that this cosmopolitan German eventually outstripped and drove out of town his great Italian rival, Giovanni Bononcini.
In spite of this victory, however, Handel eventually had to throw in the operatic towel, owing to London's flagging interest in the genre, and penned his last opera, Deidamia, in 1741. For the next 18 years, he redirected his dramatic know-how into a new form: the English oratorio. The greatness of Messiah and the other oratorios owe their very existence to Handel's Promethean track record in opera, which ranks alongside the greatest works of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner.
At last, these precious gems are having their say. There's a reason why opera houses here and abroad are finally programming Handel operas left and right. Their power, relevance, beauty, and humanity ensure a bright future in fully realized productions that recognize the scope of Handel's genius and meet its challenges head on.
Robert Hilferty's articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal Europe, The New York Times, Opera News, Opernwelt, and New York Magazine.