Handel with Care

Classic Arts Features   Handel with Care
Robert Hilferty speaks with legendary conductor Christopher Hogwood, who will premiere Handel's Ariodante at Houston Grand Opera in November.

For me, one of the attractions of Handel was that he was such a cosmopolitan," says Christopher Hogwood, who will conduct Houston Grand Opera's very first production of Ariodante (November 1-17). "Here is one of the first really freelance creators who made it his business to travel the world and soak up national music styles along the way‹Italian, French, German, and so on. He was a tremendous magpie, really. He could gather in material‹begged, borrowed, or stolen‹and convert it into the best theatrical construct. He was a real man of the theater. He knew what worked. And he also knew what the public wanted."

For sure, Handel, the German composer paradoxically known as the inventor of the English oratorio (his most famous being Messiah), was also one of history's great creators of Baroque musical theater, having turned out no less than 40-some operas. Although he started composing these in Germany and Italy, his greatest operatic works were created in London, starting with Rinaldo in 1711. Ariodante was created there in 1734, when Handel was at the peak of his powers. "There isn't a bad piece in it," says Hogwood. "It's full of terrific numbers."

The well-seasoned English conductor should know, having recently received the Editor's Choice Gramophone Award and a Cannes Classical Award for his recording of Handel's Rinaldo. Hogwood started his career some 40 years ago shedding light on little-known medieval masterpieces, and in 1973, he founded The Academy of Ancient Music, expanding into Baroque and Classical. Although certainly a "specialist" in early music performance, not to mention a pioneer of period-instrument practice, Hogwood's baton has sculpted everything from Machaut to Martinu.

"What none of us suspected," Hogwood says, "was how the period-instrument philosophy would move on to cover Rococo, Classical, and Romantic music. Now I see original-instrument Mahler, and there's even an orchestra doing Elgar and Holst with instruments of Elgar and Holst's time."

Yet Handel holds a special place in Christopher Hogwood's heart.

"Personally, I like that he gives just as much good music to the baddies as he does to the goodies," says Hogwood. In this case, the "baddy" is Polinesso (sung by Sally Burgess) who sings lines like "If deceit succeeds, I disdain virtue forever." Crime doesn't pay, however, and his Iago-like plot to trigger an infidelity panic between Ariodante (sung by Susan Graham) and his beloved Ginevra (sung by Alexandra Coku) is eventually undone. What is remarkable about Handel is his equal-opportunity emotional thoroughness: You know exactly what every character is feeling at any given moment (perhaps even too much).

"Handel was a great humanitarian," observes Hogwood. "He really felt for people and their weakness and their problems and their situations. He is also clearly moved by baddies who repent, and you sometimes have to just clear your head a little bit and realize that this person who is singing such a beautiful aria is in fact the one who has already poisoned three members of the royal family and is now wishing he hadn't."

The conductor is also impressed, as far as Ariodante is concerned, by the lavishly orchestrated dream sequence of Ginevra, with its colorful dances at the end of Act II. "Then she wakes from the dream with a recitative and then…nothing. A recitative is always a prelude to a bigger number, but here the curtain drops. It's totally shocking even to a modern audience. And you can imagine how the audience reacted in the 1700s! It is really a great disorientation."

Although the plots sometimes seem maddeningly convoluted, this, in fact, allows the composer to pack a wide range of emotions into a single night's entertainment. "Handel was making drama at the very extremes," says Hogwood. "One moment it's suicide, the next it's total love, the next, total rage. Of course, a normal day doesn't contain all these, so there is going to be something overwrought. But so are Shakespeare's plays."

Hogwood offers sound advice to those who may get vertigo from the character juggling they come across in the synopsis. For example, when it gets to the point at which A is disguised as B is disguised as C seducing D (whose gullibility is the greatest mystery of all), Hogwood says that "usually the music tells you exactly what is happening then, and you often don't need the supertitles. Just listen."

One of the qualities that makes Ariodante so appealing is that the plot is "dead easy" when compared to other Handelian fabrications. Hogwood explains: "Act I is nothing but I'm-in-love-with-you music. In Act II there is betrayal and a mistake which is very patent. And we can all see what's going to happen in Act III. The only problem‹and it's one Handel worked on‹was how to create enough variety and tension in this to last to the end. And he does it very nicely. He developed all the characters, even those who are on the wrong side of the tracks."

Hogwood is no great fan of trendy updating of Baroque opera. "The minute you dress up, say, Julius Caesar as a Nazi it has become far too specific. Instead of making it more 'relevant,' as they always tell you, it makes it, to many people, less relevant because it's too specific. The process of updating usually leads people into a sort of verismo television concept. And of course, once you adopt a production style which is drawn from TV narrative, every Baroque formality is wasted." He is, of course, referring to recitative, in which the character at hand, usually accompanied by a continuo, offers his or her private thoughts about a situation before launching into a da capo aria, a song form with repeats.

"The minute you cut out most of the recitative and bump the arias close to each other, there's no breathing space for development time," Hogwood says, "and the whole balance of character development which was planned by those authors is lost."

Hogwood, therefore, is pleased that HGO's Ariodante will be done without any cuts. "It's not being maltreated and butchered to fit some other concept," he says. "The music is being taken seriously, and I think David Alden's production also takes the music seriously."

Robert Hilferty's articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe, the New York Times, Opera News, Opernwelt, and New York Magazine.

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