The Universal Frame

Classic Arts Features   The Universal Frame
As Houston Grand Opera prepares to stage Handel's Julius Caesar, HGO Music Director Patrick Summers shares his thoughts on how to listen to: and appreciate: the work of this classic composer.

Inexplicable things seem to happen to me in London. Several years ago I made an early morning visit to Westminster Abbey, that great reliquary of British history, and found it utterly silent‹a rare state for so popular a destination. I found Handel's grave peacefully ensconced amidst the fitting company of Shakespeare, Longfellow, and Tennyson, and I sat quietly in the ancient coolness of Poet's Corner.

After a good deal of time I heard distant music. With the Abbey's busy schedule of musical performances, I assumed it was a rehearsal. As I moved toward the exit the music gained clarity; it was Handel's Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day. Definitely a rehearsal, I thought. The Abbey is so huge that it didn't surprise me not to see any musicians. I sat down to listen to that extraordinary work, ruminating on how elegantly the ancient and the modern can coexist.

Opera often dwells in the past. Over the last 50 years, the "authenticity" movement has taught us innumerable lessons about Handel who, despite a prodigious output, was known for too long on the basis of only one work, his sublime Messiah. Audiences of Handel's day had an insatiable appetite for new music; indeed, there was little else performed. As Handel often conducted his own works, he could easily communicate his intentions directly to the performers; it is not surprising, therefore, that a type of musical shorthand developed between composer and performer.

It is thanks to the pioneers of the authenticity movement that we can now be confident in interpreting not only what Handel did write down but also, what is more important, the inferences of what he did not. For example, certain rhythmically "even," repeated figures should be played unevenly. Some, but not all, types of dotted figures should be double-dotted, creating a very angular rhythmic pattern. "Tempo" markings in the baroque era indicate mood more often than speed. Certain types of emotional situations lend themselves to ornamentation, others do not. We have learned about the size of Handel's orchestras, although modern performances must take into account theaters that are huge by comparison. We have learned that the dynamic range of Handel's day was not as polarized as ours today. Knowledge of baroque instruments also informs our musical interpretation. We have gained profound insights into baroque bowing style in string instruments: rather than trying to impose a modern, "continuous melody" bow stroke, a shorter, elegant stroke more aptly supports Handel's long melodic structure and his sequences of tension and release (baroque bows were of much lighter weight and more balanced than their modern equivalents). The list of "authenticity" discoveries is endless.

Despite the positive effect of the authenticity movement on the way we perform Handel, one dilemma remains: we cannot hope to truly re-create the expectations and the experiences of an audience that is hearing Handel's operas as contemporary music. Eighteenth-century audiences did not sit politely in a darkened theater: the house lights (candles) remained illumined throughout the performance to facilitate glances at the translated Italian libretto. Eating, drinking, and talking were rampant (though I wonder if even an 18th-century public could have tolerated cellular phones), and one does not even want to contemplate the restroom break of 18th-century London. The private boxes were home to an abundant array of assignations, from commercial dealings to some slightly older pleasures. So it is important that we honor Handel, not by imprisoning him with immutable dogma, but by utilizing our knowledge of his time to create something new and relevant in the context of the modern opera house. By giving contemporary audiences an opportunity to hear Handel's music with their own ears and expectations, the ancient informs the modern.

On the surface, Handel's music falls elegantly upon the ear, but a deeper exploration of his London masterpieces, particularly Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), reveals a complex and profoundly dramatic composer. His music can change stock characters into figures of Shakespearean depth, even while ravishing the ear with dazzling bravura and melodic invention. Handel's writing for the human voice is extraordinary, surpassed only by Mozart (who admired and emulated Handel, going so far as to reorchestrate Handel's Messiah and Acis and Galatea‹an act of homage, not hubris). Each character is presented in a boundless variety of vocal and orchestral writing. Caesar and Cleopatra naturally have the majority of tours de force, but the secondary characters all have diverse showpieces. Cleopatra's many arias illuminate a fascinating woman, from her erotic "V'adoro pupille" to the heart wrenching "Se pietà, di me non senti" and "Piangerò la sorte mia." Handel's Italian operas have none of the vast fugal choruses one hears in his great English oratorios. Characters so rarely sing together that it is particularly effective when they do: Cornelia and Sextus, mother and son, have one of the most poignantly tragic duets in all opera. By contrast, late in the work, Caesar's and Cleopatra's sensual mingling of voices seems to foreshadow Henry Kissinger's dictum that "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."

The castrati, adult male singers surgically altered in their youth to preserve their treble ranges, were the great stars of Handel's era; enraptured audiences did not yell "bravo" to the castrati but rather, "evviva il cotello" ("hail the knife"). They are honored today by an elite group of countertenors, led by David Daniels, who have reached their rare vocal status through more pleasantly organic means than did their predecessors. Handel was clearly inspired by the virtuosity of the great castrati Senesino and Farinelli, with the most poignant and demanding music in Julius Caesar going to the countertenors. Listen for the achingly sad beauty of Caesar's "Aure, deh, per pietà," and how contrasted it is to his joyously humorous duet with the solo violin "Se infiorito ameno prato." Caesar's aria "Va tacito e nascosto" presents the first use of the solo French horn in opera and remains, 279 years later, an exemplar of brilliant writing for the instrument. The audiences of Handel's day were not likely to have a judgment about the masculinity of a male character singing in a female register: high pitch often symbolized high rank.

If there is an obstacle for modern audiences in appreciating a baroque opera, it tends to be the organization of the narrative, the plot. Unlike later popular operas, like La Traviata or Tosca, which attempted to portray realistic situations, baroque operas purposefully evaded reality; allegory was considered the most direct route to emotional clarity. Some criticize baroque arias for "stopping the action," perhaps not realizing that they are designed to do so. Handel's arias are a matrix through which emotion is dissected and experienced. It is inaccurate to label Handel's music repetitious: exactly like the heightened emotions they express, his arias don't so much repeat as continue. For maximum enjoyment, surrender your investment in psychological reality and allow yourself to experience a vast tapestry of emotion and intellect. Handel evokes more than he portrays, so don't let yourself spend the evening glued to the supertitles; he dwells most often in the subtle sphere beyond words. Baroque music correlates to that moment of possibility presented in the bouquet of newly opened wine, rather than to the feeling you have once the bottle has been emptied. Handel incites the imagination rather than explicitly telling you what to feel; like the great baroque architects, he leaves room for you.

While it has been fashionable and illuminating, particularly in festival environments, to present Handel's Italian operas without cuts, it can be very daunting in the context of a modern repertory theater. No musician likes removing music, and our decision to remove some of Handel's panoply of riches has not been taken lightly. Like most great theatrical composers, Handel was the ultimate pragmatist, altering and cutting as befit the occasion. While we cannot presume to know what he would have wanted for Houston in 2003, we can presume that he would rather be enjoyed than endured. If we open ourselves to listen, the old can tell us how best to approach the new.

I often think back to that early morning in Westminster Abbey and wonder if I actually did hear an organ and a choir. In the passing years I find myself choosing to ignore the most logical explanation; I prefer instead to imagine something more eternal, as though Handel's music might always be there waiting to be heard and I just happened in at the right moment. I recall the choir finishing John Dryden's great words, "From harmony, from heavenly harmony this universal frame began," just before I found myself back out in modern London, hailing a cab.

Patrick Summers is the Music Director of Houston Grand Opera.

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