Handel Rides Again

Classic Arts Features   Handel Rides Again
Our current appetite for Handel's once-neglected operas goes much deeper than we might think.

Given the recent string of triumphantly received Handel works‹Xerxes, Partenope, Ariodante, Acis and Galatea, Rinaldo, and Agrippina here at New York City Opera alone‹it can be easy to forget that Handel's operas were all but forgotten for nearly two centuries. None of them was performed anywhere between 1754 (four years before Handel's death) and 1920, when Rodelinda was revived in Göttingen. Flavio itself, which premiered in London in 1723, did not receive its first modern revival until 1967. In some respects, this should come as no surprise: opera was a thriving art form into the early 20th century, and audiences of the past clamored for new and different works. Handel's scores, too, were hardly the only ones thrust aside: Monteverdi's surviving operas, now considered supreme masterworks of the form, also languished in obscurity for hundreds of years.

Still, the question remains: Why now? For some, today's rediscovery of Baroque opera is strictly by default, given the seeming lack of robust, dramatic voices required for the operas of Verdi and Wagner‹at least as those works were performed in the mid-20th century. Conversely, those who see the operatic glass as half-full cite the wealth of prodigiously talented Baroque stylists currently treading the boards, including such charismatic countertenors as NYCO's Bejun Mehta and David Walker.

Handel's renewed fortunes can also be understood as the latest outgrowth of the 20th century's early music revival, with opera among the last areas of the Baroque repertory to be systematically explored given the challenges associated with reconstructing works of such complexity and length. Finally, the resurgence of Baroque opera might even reflect the reshaping of the operatic canon set in motion by Maria Callas, who (to use the prissy terms of the Gluckian and Wagnerian "reforms") showed that florid singing could be more than "mere display"‹that the runs, trills, and abbellimenti of bel canto could be used to plumb the depths of a character's soul and sustain a musically rigorous discourse. (While bel canto is, admittedly, an ill-defined term, among Italian musicologists it is a tradition associated not only with early 19th-century opera, but extending all the way back to Handel and his contemporaries.)

Still, one wonders whether the gusto today's audiences have shown for Handel's operas might not reflect some deeper affinities between the concerns of the late Baroque era and our own postmodern condition. For many scholars, ours is a "neobaroque" age, undergoing shifts in technologies, politics, and worldviews analogous to those of the late 17th century. Handel's era saw the final capitulation of manuscript culture to the printing press; we in the early 21st century are witnessing the eclipse of print by electronic technologies. The early 1700s marked the twilight of the ancien régime: the splendid theatrics of Louis XIV and his court, which unfolded as the bourgeoisie usurped aristocratic privileges‹flocking to the relatively new public opera houses of Venice and London, and also readying far more momentous upheavals. Today, modern nation-states wobble under pressure from "globalization" in its many forms. The scientific advances of the two eras highlight both the ingenuity and the limitations of our species: Newtonian mechanics, reducing humans to cogs in the clockwork universe; the mapping of the genome, revealing humanity as no more mysterious than any other life form. Understandably, both ages exhibit a concern with liminal states, in particular a predilection for testing (sometimes, blurring) the boundaries between the "natural" and the "artificial."

A passage from Canto XVI of Torquato Tasso's epic Gerusalemme liberata (c. 1581), a source for Handel's Rinaldo and countless other operas, exemplifies the nascent Baroque sensibility. The narrator describes the dizzying interplay between art and nature in the sorceress Armida's garden:

So with the rude the polished mingled was
That natural seemed all and every part,
Nature would craft in
counterfeiting pass,
And imitate her imitator art...

The landscape evokes wonder despite‹or, perhaps, because of‹its contrivance, and is no less seductive for that. In music, this kind of sophisticated delight in artifice finds a parallel in the basic component of Handel's operas: the hyper-stylized da capo aria, whose regular (ABA) structure, studied contrasts in tempo and tonality, and exuberant ornamentation unabashedly announce its artfulness and call attention to its performer's virtuosity. How different this is from Wagner's naturalistic effects‹the "primal vibration" with which Das Rheingold begins, the apparently "artless song" of the Shepherd in Tannhaüser‹all "elaborate contrivances," as musicologist Carolyn Abbate has pointed out, but so puritanically intent on concealing their own artifice. And for all their overt artfulness, Handel's arias do induce a real emotional response, as Flavio's "Ma chi punir desìo" (sung by Emilia) and "Amor, nel mio penar" (sung by Guido) eloquently reveal.

The delight in the grafting of natural and artificial elements common to both Baroque and postmodern culture extends to other artistic domains, as well. In Handel's time, the public thrilled to the preternaturally virtuosic, surgically engineered voices of such castrati as Senesino and Berenstadt (the first Guido and Flavio, respectively). Today, audiences relish the processed vocals and meticulously crafted personas of Cher and Madonna and barely blink at the incongruous notion of "reality TV"; they flock to mind-bending films like The Matrix and theme park attractions promising "realistic" recreations of fictional worlds. Both cultures indulge a blithely arbitrary cult of personality, where individuals are exalted for being exalted and famous for being famous. Early opera, which originated in the Italian courts, celebrated the might, grandeur, and even the foibles of its aristocratic characters: the flighty Flavio, for example. Today, in our post-meritocratic age, the media prop up what some call an "iconic monarchy," where athletes, models, and movie stars enjoy untold wealth and influence, while royals and political leaders (Princess Diana, President Clinton) are recast as entertainers, whose performances are staged for the diversion of all.

Baroque and postmodern aesthetics also share a playful acceptance of their belatedness and an ease with the mixture of styles and content resulting from bricolage: the commingling of elements from disparate sources. Consider two of the most highly regarded television series of the 1990s, "Twin Peaks" and "The X-Files," built from the flotsam of popular culture, their plot twists and relentless allusiveness defying both logic and the deadly earnestness of much Romantic and post-Romantic art. By any standards, Flavio is an odd grab-bag of motifs, a far cry from the canonical Ovidian and Vergilian tales from which the first operas were drawn. It counts among its sources an 8th-century history of the Longobards, Spanish and French drama of Handel's time, and (for buffa elements) Venetian comic opera. Its labyrinthine plot encompasses the title character's light-hearted eroticism and the matrimonial complications of Teodata and Vitige, the murder of Lotario, and Emilia's quest for revenge. Handel's music seconds this complexity, ranging from the tripping dance rhythms of Flavio's "Starvi accanto" to the high drama of Lotario's death scene. As with Agrippina and Partenope, and like Mozart's Così fan tutte (another opera unloved in the 19th century), Flavio's sophistication and humane irony strike a chord with contemporary audiences.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a great admirer of Handel's music. In The Gay Science (1887), a key source for postmodern thought, he heaped scorn upon the sickliness and exaggerated truth claims of Romantic art, writing of the "playful tenderness" that can be "lavished even on problems that have a prickly hide and are not made to be caressed and enticed." He challenged his readers to become adorers "of forms, of tones, of words." Perhaps we in the 21st century are finally catching up with Handel's strikingly state-of-the-art genius: the formal splendor of his music, and the playful tenderness he lavished on human folly some 300 years ago.

Marion Lignana Rosenberg, a regular contributor to Opera News, has written about the arts for Time Out New York, Salon.com, Boston Magazine, and Oggi 7.

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