Take It from the Top

Classic Arts Features   Take It from the Top
Paul Thomason pays tribute to the da capo aria.

A singer performing an aria is a lot like a shortstop. When the batter hits a fly ball that heads right for him, the shortstop only has to back up a few steps, raise his hands over his head, and catch the ball for the out. It's the athletic equivalent of an aria like Mimí's "Si, mi chiamano Mimí" in La Bohème: short, sweet, enormously satisfying (at least for the shortstop's team) and it leaves the audience wanting more.

But occasionally things get more complicated. The ball is hit with terrific force and propelled to the right of the shortstop, which means he has only a couple of seconds at most to race to it. But before he gets to it, the ball bounces and abruptly shoots way above his head. So he has to leap into the air, snag the ball, and hurl it toward first base as he is turning his body back in the direction he needs to throw the ball‹all in midair, all within two seconds‹if he is to make the out. That spectacular combination of speed, technical prowess, split-second timing, thrilling accuracy, and overarching elegance is the athletic equivalent of the da capo aria. Fortunately for us, Handel's opera Ariodante, which runs at Houston Grand Opera from November 1 through 17, is chock full of them.

All da capo arias have three distinct sections. First there's an opening "A" section; that is followed by a shorter, contrasting "B" section. Then "A" is repeated (the words "da capo" mean "from the top")‹this time with embellishments, as when a great jazz musician takes a familiar tune and plays with it, ornamenting it with additional notes or varying the color of the sound. This brings out even more of the song's emotion, makes it more personal, and helps listeners connect with it on a more profound level. That's exactly the task facing the singers of Handel. They not only have to cope with his original, demanding vocal lines of sections "A" and "B," which never allow them to hide behind a surging orchestra, but the composer also expected the singers to personalize the repeated sections, always within the boundaries of their characters in the opera.

Arias in operas are like soliloquies in spoken drama. They are opportunities for the composer to exploit dramatic and emotional situations and, if the composer is really good at his or her job, to let the audience know more about the character who is singing the piece.

Handel's operas are composed almost entirely of arias, most of them da capo. The chorus only appears at the end of an act, and ensembles are usually confined to a very occasional duet. In Ariodante there are four duets‹extremely generous by Handelian standards, two in the first act (which together account for under three minutes of music), and two longer duets in the third act (lasting about ten minutes). Trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets are as scarce in Handel operas as castrati are on today's opera stage.

At first this can make Handel operas sound rather odd to modern ears. We are comfortable with a work like Rigoletto advancing its plot by having four characters sing their own unique music, simultaneously, to express their feelings. If Handel had written Rigoletto, the five-minute-long Quartet would have been split into four different arias in a row, with the spotlight on each singer in turn.

Nor was our modern mania for "realism" on stage. Human emotion, however, stays the same, even when the style with which it is expressed might change. Love is love, no matter if it happens in 1702 or 2002.

Which brings us right back to the da capo aria. At first hearing, da capo arias can sound artifical or seem very formal, especially when an audience today hears five or six of them in a row. But the critic who once spoke of "the deadeningly predictable da capo form" is missing the point entirely. That is like complaining that a classic art collection is predictable because all the paintings have four sides with a frame around them. If you look at the paintings themselves‹at the different subject matter, the various colors and techniques‹and are open to the emotion and drama of the individual paintings, you'll find them anything but dull. The same marvelous variety can be found in Handel's da capo arias.

Take, for example, two pieces from Handel's most famous work, Messiah: "He was despised and rejected" and "The trumpet shall sound." "He was despised" is an astounding portrayal of grief, the emotion made all the more pronounced, and profound, by the utter simplicity of the lamenting vocal line. This means almost anyone in the average church choir can get out the actual notes of the aria. But only the greatest singers can truly mine all the aria's nuances and soul shattering emotion. Contrast that with the unfettered triumph and joy of "The trumpet shall sound." Could two arias be more different?

One writer defined Baroque operas as "complex mosaics with the arias as articulate cameos." In Ariodante, Handel was such a skillful composer that he not only provided incredibly detailed, beautifully rendered cameos, but he actually brought those cameos to life, and in the process gave us a peek into our own hearts.

Paul Thomason is a frequent contributor to Playbill.

Recommended Reading: