“Handel operas are boring,” said someone I know. And I agree — or rather current productions generally are, despite the fad for Handel operas, despite how well some singers sing them, and despite all the clever ideas that directors have.
They’re boring because Handel operas aren’t any kind of drama we readily understand. Mostly they’re strings of arias, each in the same undramatic form, A-B-A, the point being, first, to express two contrasting affects (Baroque Music 101), and, second, to give the singer a chance to put on a show. Contrasting affects, marching in pairs, aren’t any modern idea of drama; they’re highly stylized, more like a procession of paintings hanging in a gallery than an exposition of plot and character. And singers putting on a show — responsible opera is supposed to condemn that! The singers shouldn’t think of themselves; they’re supposed to think of their character, the meaning of the story, and all the fine musical and dramatic details the composer wrote into the score.
But baroque opera composers just didn’t think like that, and — at least in my view — wrote operas that demand spectacle, on stage, in the orchestra, and in the singers’ throats, before they’ll work in any way at all, including dramatically. So my idea of a Handel opera production would look something like this (with most of my thoughts drawn from what Handel himself did in the opera companies he ran in London):
1. The audience should be able to see the orchestra.
2. The musicians should be extravagant virtuosi, each with his or her own approach to the music, and of course a wild flair for improvising.
3. To give these virtuosi scope for all their extravagance, parts of the orchestral music should be played as solos, whether or not that’s written in the score. (Listen to René Jacobs’s recording of Handel’s Rinaldo to hear what that could be like.
4. The cellist who plays the bass line in recitatives ought to improvise, extravagantly, spectacularly. (Again, you can hear that on Jacobs’s Rinaldo.)
5. The orchestra should be led by a spectacular improvising harpsichordist — Handel himself, when he put his operas on. He was one of his opera company’s great attractions, and current Handel productions should find someone who can draw as much attention as he did.
6. The singers should wear unusual, fashionable, attention-getting costumes. That happened in Handel’s time; people talked about the dresses that the prima donnas wore.
7. The singers should sing about four times as many ornaments than we normally hear today, with cadenzas that go on forever. Ideally, these ornaments — and certainly the cadenzas — should be improvised. If this happened, we’d all look forward to da capo aria repeats; we’d all be on the edge of our seats, wondering what the singer would do.
8. A ramp should be built from the stage out into the middle of the audience, so that singers can walk down it, stand in the middle of the opera house, and entertain. (That happened in Handel’s time.) Think of a Handel opera production almost like a cabaret show. The singers should perform more as themselves than as their characters; since a long series of da capo arias makes no sense unless the singers are showing off, showing off is the best way for singers to bring their characters to life.
9. The lights should be on in the opera house. (As they were up to the middle of the 19th century.) The audience should be free to talk, to come and go, to take breaks from the performance, to walk around. That way, the performers would have to grab our attention; if they didn’t, we’d stop listening.
This approach of course wouldn’t work for later operas, for Wagner, for instance — Wagner assumed that the audience would listen to every note, and his operas reflect that. Handel assumed no such thing, and his operas reflect a very different assumption, that the audience will only pay attention if they’re given something worth paying attention to. The operas should be performed with that in mind — which will make them dramatic, and lots of fun.