How to Handle...Handel

Classic Arts Features   How to Handle...Handel
New York City Opera dramaturg Cori Ellison talks to director Stephen Wadsworth about his approach to Handel's operas.

Cori Ellison: New York City Opera has figured importantly in the Handel opera revival in America, beginning with the legendary Julius Caesar of 1966. When you first produced Xerxes here seven years ago, it was our first Handel opera since Alcina in 1983. Since Xerxes, we've done Agrippina, Rinaldo, Flavio, Partenope, Acis and Galatea, Ariodante, and Alcina again. How would you compare Xerxes with the other Handel operas we've done?

Stephen Wadsworth: In many ways Xerxes, the latest of those operas, most resembles Agrippina, and even Rinaldo, the two earliest. Like these two, Xerxes was based on a Venetian libretto from the previous century and so has an often larky tone and a more free-wheeling dramaturgy and musical style than the operas from the intervening years. Flavio has some of that wit, too. Partenope has more. Acis is different from the rest in that it wasn't intended for staged performance and it's a setting of an English text, but it is wit incarnate. Alcina and Ariodante are peak achievements in opera seria, and though both feature situations which can be played to amuse, they are bigger, darker pieces.

CE: Handel never used to be thought of as funny.

SW: Well, Messiah isn't very funny, it's true, but the operas are never afraid of dramatic irony, and they frequently rise to comic heights.

CE: Do you think our sense of Handel has changed in the seven years since we last did Xerxes in New York?

SW: We're understanding his range as a dramatist much better now that we've actually been seeing his works performed. Scholars who opined about Handel forty years ago had mostly seen his operas on paper only. Received opinion about him came from several things. 1) Messiah, his longest-running show, is a devotional work, and it's come down to us through the grand, sentimental musical traditions of the Victorian era, which also sent us the so-called "Largo" from Xerxes (actually a larghetto character piece) as a big, soupy anthem. 2) The Germans first revived the operas extensively, and from what we know of the Göttingen revivals in the 1920s and '30s, the performances played, shall we say, on the heavy side, and sounded rather Brahmsian. 3) Until the 1980s, most string players used the same kind of bowings for Handel that they used for Wagner, and if you do a piece in the wrong style all the information encoded in its true style is going to be suppressed, lost. Since Handel's tricentenary year, 1985, we've gotten used to hearing his music played the way he expected to hear it.

CE: His music certainly does feel edgier and keener, dramatically sharper when played on the instruments he wrote for and as they were played by him and his contemporaries. Tempi are brighter, sonorities more transparent and precise, musical extremes more pronounced.

SW: So it sounds and feels like a more real, less varnished, more vivid world for the characters‹the stakes feel higher, the compromises more daunting, the rewards more earned. Even bands who don't play period instruments, such as the NYCO and Met orchestras, have learned to play Handel in the proper style. Style is content, you know, there's no difference between them.

CE: A huge variety of production styles has emerged in the last, say, twenty-five years. Which ones are right for Handel? If the director gets the style wrong, don't we have the same chance of losing important information encoded in the style of the piece as we do when it's played wrong?

SW: Touché, you're onto something really big here, and it doesn't only apply to Handel. I could say that the productions that are "right" are the ones that work for you. Or that productions can get key things "wrong," from the curatorial point of view, and still be entertaining and powerful. The truth is, any production style can work for any piece. But the further one moves away from the style of the work itself, the more careful one has to be to stay in step with its true intent, or purpose.

I think your question is about curating. Who should be curating the dramatic side of these works of art? Who ensures that the production stays in step with the work? The opera world just isn't set up to curate the dramatic half of the operatic art, so maybe it's unfair to shoot the directors. But someone has to take the responsibility. I wish opera directors had the good fortune to be really produced more often‹that is, to work with producers who demand that they serve the piece they're directing, whatever the style of the production. But there are not many real producers in opera, so a lot of directors never really grow as artists, and there's a bit too much work out there that's glib, lazy. And there certainly aren't many conductors who initiate a dialogue about why a scene was written the way it was, or how you're doing it.

CE: Let me press you further on which production styles you think are right for Handel.

SW: Well, understanding and working with the structures of the music is right, allowing the characters and situations to speak clearly is right, researching the source texts and the early Enlightenment and the conventions of Handel's theater is right, and so on, but these things are true for all composers and dramatists. I thought Peter Sellars got Theodora right at Glyndebourne. It was bone-simple yet very complex, and a large part of its integrity was its respect for the music. The Met's Giulio Cesare was extremely conventional by comparison, but Stephanie Blythe and David Daniels playing the Sesto-Cornelia scene was as right as it gets. I've directed four Handel operas and done each in what I suppose you could say was a different style‹and none in the style of Handel's own theater.

CE: There's been a lot of musicologist's ink spilled about Xerxes being different from most of Handel's operas‹about his breaking down the forms he'd used for years. You've written about that in the Xerxes program note. We know the singers he wrote for in this period were not the greats for whom he'd written most of his earlier operas, but I'm not convinced that this explains why his style changed.

SW: Neither am I. Doubtless he did simplify for his new troupe, but he also clearly wanted to write longer, freer dramatic arcs. Handel was one of the great operatic dramatists; given an inch, he took a mile. And the style of the libretto, as noted, contributed to this greater fluidity, too. Maybe he wasn't breaking down forms so much as rearranging their parts, or letting them evolve. He had always played with da capo form but had never before sustained that playfulness as he did in Xerxes.

CE: Our Xerxes score says you "translated and adapted" the opera. How would you define the difference between translation and adaptation?

SW: The idea is to bring the work to life for an audience today, in this country, but as much as possible on its own terms, with respect for the literary sensibility of the period and of the author in question. Translations never end up being literal, not if you want them to play well. And the work at hand is being translated by a whole new sensibility‹mine. So I make a literal translation first, and then I translate more freely, and that's more an adaptation. Furthermore, I did some dramaturgical work on Xerxes‹I set the action in a sort of imagined 1730s England, I cut a few arias and a couple of recitatives, and I streamlined the story by reworking one recitative in Act III. That's also adaptation work. A translation, I suppose, is a facsimile of a work in a different language. Maybe an adaptation is a version of that work which tries to represent its vital essences to a different culture. That's a highly discussable definition, but it's a start.

How faithful do you consider your translation of the Xerxes libretto to the original Italian?

SW: I think it's faithful in spirit. The main departure from the original is the prosody. How do you translate a short line of maybe five Italian words, some of which are contracted and all of which end with vowels, into an equally terse and singable bunch of English words, almost all of which end with consonants? Yikes! How do you translate a colloquialism‹and Xerxes is full of them? I didn't always stick to the Italian rhyme scheme, or even always to a strictly literal translation of words or images. I went for the conciseness and singability of the original, and that cheeky, obsessive rhyming of the Italian is there, although often on a slightly different schedule, in terms of where the rhymes land from line to line. Italian is a shamingly beautiful language to work from, and Handel set it with great sensitivity, but he also set English frequently and brilliantly, so I had some guidance‹I knew how he'd responded to and played with our language. Oh, and most of the funny lines are in the Italian. Not all, I admit, but most.

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