Handel's Siren Song

Classic Arts Features   Handel's Siren Song
With its current revival of Partenope, New York City Opera continues its love affair with the rock star of Baroque opera. The production, running April 3-17, stars Cyndia Sieden in the title role.


On May 22, 1927, the New York Times published an enthusiastic review by American music critic Olin Downes (1886 _1955) of what was likely the first Handel opera to be staged in the United States: a production of Handel's Julius Caesar at Smith College. Downes, who had written passionately about the drastically-edited performances of Xerxes and Rodelinda that he had seen in Göttingen, Germany, in 1923, wondered how far this Handel revival could go before it reached "equilibrium." Is this interest in Handel operas, Downes mused, a "temporary symptom of these times which are indeed restless and uncertain in music, or are we to be permanently enriched by the discovery of forgotten music of vitality, dramatic pulse, even theatrical effect, which has been ignored by centuries?"

More than eight decades later, as we anticipate New York City Opera's revival of Handel's Partenope as part of George Steel's inaugural season as General Manager and Artistic Director of NYCO, the answer to Downes's question seems self-evident. Stimulated in large part by NYCO's landmark 1966 production of Handel's Julius Caesar with Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle (eighteen years before Handel would reach the Metropolitan Opera), and in the aftermath of a veritable flood of his works produced during Paul Kellogg's directorship of NYCO, Handel operas are no longer regarded as fodder for musicological experimentation or relegated to unstaged concert performances.

City Opera, which now boasts a repertory of no fewer than eleven Handel operas, has been at the center of this passionate love affair with Handel, which shows no sign of abating, and these great works have taken their rightful place in the programming of major opera houses throughout the world. Handel's operas offer everything that an audience: and an opera company: might desire: compelling dramas, with lively enticing music, and no shortage of marvelous theatrical effects.

While Downes's prediction was remarkably astute, it was by no means obvious throughout much of the twentieth century, when even Handel's most ardent supporters doubted that his operas could ever succeed on the American stage. "They are one thing in the environment of a small German city with its cultural affinities," Downes had remarked in another review, "and perhaps quite another for a gala night at the Metropolitan Opera House before one of the most nervous publics in the world."

In 1942, musicologist Paul Henry Lang's call for a revival of the "song-opera" of the Baroque as an antidote to the universal dominance of "German esthetics of symphonic orchestra opera" and "Wagner-Strauss precepts" stimulated a lively debate in the pages of the New York Times. Why, Lang asks, is the typical Baroque da capo aria: that is, a musically contrasting "B" section sandwiched between two repetitions of an "A" section: so lauded in oratorios and passions, and yet blamed for the failure of baroque opera?

The response of fellow scholar Paul Nettl was unequivocal: the succession of da capo arias was "endurable for the Baroque listener who admired the beauty and artistry of the voice," but would be monotonous for those accustomed to Gluck, Mozart, and Wagner. "We cannot listen for two hours to insane love, murderous lust, and intrigue in the form of only recitative and aria." Nettl added that Lang had "too much confidence in stage managers, directors, and singers if he believe[d] that they might be capable of overcoming by their genius and skill the problems of Baroque opera." This view was held even as late as 1962, when Alan Rich, reviewing Joan Sutherland's American debut as Alcina at the Dallas Civic Opera, wrote that the "special musical and dramatic language of Handel's operas makes it unlikely that a widespread revival will ever occur on the stages of major opera houses."

Indeed, for many the stumbling block was: and remains: not Handel's music, but the librettos, which are undeniably chock full of intrigues, romantic liaisons, gender-bending subplots, and disguises: all legacies from the carnivalesque world of seventeenth-century opera. Downes explained this in 1923 by proposing that it was the "force of Handel's genius" combined with the "lax dramatic standards of his time," that permitted him to write "temporarily successful operas to flimsy librettos." Critic Harold Schonberg agreed forty years later, writing in his otherwise complimentary review of the Sills-Treigle Julius Caesar that the libretto "cannot be taken seriously," since a literal performance of its dialogue and action would engender howls of laughter much as a performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin would today. Even Bernard Holland's enthusiastic account of NYCO's Ariodante in 1999 came with a caveat: "Musically, the opera is one of his [Handel's] richest. One pays the price for such musical luxury by putting up with true love, evil suitors, mistaken identity, last-minute redemption, and the occasional step over into silliness...."

Then there is the castrato problem: "Where shall we find an adequate substitute for that extraordinary voice, which was said to be unforgettable in its sweetness and flexible power?" wrote Stephen Williams in a 1957 review of a London Alcina that was among the first to employ countertenors: then termed falsettists : instead of the surgically gelded male trebles who were all the rage in Handel's day. In the same review of Julius Caesar, Harold Schonberg wryly commented on the "distressing shortage" of castratos: "the castrati, and apparently all other singers of the day, had a technique that would be impossible to duplicate... no harder music exists for singers."

Handel's operas were ultimately able to overcome these criticisms and take audiences by storm because of a number of developments that could scarcely have been foreseen by the early skeptics. Rid of the florid gestures, static tableaux, and ballet-inspired style of acting used in the 1966 Julius Caesar by director Tito Capobianco (which Schonberg likened to the style of silent film), Handel has been the unexpected beneficiary of the unlikely marriage between historically-informed performance and the new freedom in opera direction and production that has made fashionable the re-contexualization of standard repertory. Suddenly, as NYCO audiences have come to know and appreciate first hand, all the liabilities that had for so long dogged Handelian opera were miraculously transformed into assets. Specialist conductors including Harry Bicket, Jane Glover, Antony Walker, and Gary Wedow have shown the importance of appropriate pacing and playing in a Handel opera, as well as the rich sonic possibilities of combining a baroque continuo group with modern instruments.

As for the "castrato problem," such radical surgery on singers is definitely a thing of the past! Instead, we are blessed with a generation of superb countertenors: David Daniels, David Walker, Bejun Mehta (all of whom got auspicious starts at NYCO) and newer ones such as Iestyn Davies and Anthony Roth Costanzo, making his debut in Partenope: who, along with gifted mezzo-sopranos like Sarah Connolly and the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and sopranos including Christine Brandes, Amy Burton, Lisa Saffer, and Cyndia Sieden, have lent ample credence to Paul Griffiths's comment in his review of NYCO's 1998 Partenope that the singers "gave the firm impression that Handel wrote this music for them, so fluent are they in the vocal athletics and expressive delirium of their roles...."

As for the much-maligned librettos, their improbable plots involving mistaken identity, play with gender and sexuality, and bits of silliness have proven perfectly in tune with postmodern sensibilities and provided a seemingly limitless font of inspiration for directors who have treated New York City Opera audiences to brilliant and probing productions combining the undeniably witty with the occasional solemn moment.

Witness, for example, the unmistakable comic touches and gentle evocation of early eighteenth-century Britain in Stephen Wadsworth's elegant Xerxes, or the playful but nightmarish world of director Chas Rader-Shieber's dynamic Orlando, in which the love-crazed hero was locked in a crumbling, storybook fantasy world that resonated surprisingly well with Ariosto's understanding of madness. Few will forget the glowing magic cube embodying Armida's power in Francisco Negrin's Rinaldo, or the sheer delight of watching motherly love run amok in Lillian Groag's Agrippina amid the ancient statuary in John Conklin's spare and coolly evocative set. From the pastoral delights of Mark Lamos's Acis and Galatea to the dignified tragic pathos of John Copley's Ariodante and the eerie magic of Francesca Zambello's Alcina, NYCO has provided audiences with a veritable feast of Baroque delights. And given George Steel's commitment to the tradition of Baroque opera at NYCO, there is every reason to believe that the mythic siren Partenope augurs an exciting operatic future, luring all of us ever further into the enticing world of Handel's operas.


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Wendy Heller, author of Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women's Voices in Seventh-Century Venice, has lectured and published extensively on opera from Monteverdi to Handel.  She is Professor of Music and Director of the Program in Italian Studies at Princeton University.

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