Too-careful Handel

I knew something was wrong — at least to me — just a few bars into the overture, when I saw Handel’s Rodelinda at the Met last month. I feel a little churlish saying this, because the production was lovely and serious, and the Met orchestra, in part simply because the strings played without much vibrato, transformed itself into a passable version of a period instrument ensemble.

But still I thought something was wrong. The orchestra sounded too thin. At intermission I did exactly what I later found someone else in the music business had done (a Handel and bel canto expert who used to work closely with the likes of Joan Sutherland) — I rushed down to the orchestra pit to count the players. By my rough count, there were just over 30.

And I submit that this is drastically wrong. The Met is a huge opera house, seating just under 4000 people. Handel never saw a theater like that, but if he had, he wouldn’t have been happy with 35 musicians (or whatever the number was) in his orchestra. He and other Baroque musicians had that many or more in the smaller halls they played in. If he’d produced one of his operas at the Met, he’d have doubled or even tripled the orchestra.

Of course, that would have made a far more assertive sound than the Met orchestra made. And maybe someone thinks that’s wrong in Baroque music. Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that Baroque music is purer and more restrained than everything that came after it. And this, quite simply, is nonsense. The very word “Baroque” should suggest the opposite. It means elaborate and flamboyant, sometimes even with grotesque overtones, and with more than a small a suggestion of wild ornamentation and unabashed theatricality. “Really, I can’t stand her new house. It’s insanely overdecorated, positively baroque!”

Or as the Chambers Dictionary (my favorite) defines the word, it’s “a bold, vigorous, exuberant style in architecture, decoration, and art generally…degenerating into tasteless extravagance in ornament.” Of course, “tasteless extravagance” is very much in eye (or, musically, in the ear) of the beholder, and we know that singers in Baroque opera seria — and especially the castrati — ornamented their music far more than anyone does today. Let’s not forget what I quoted a few posts ago from Richard Taruskin’s new five-volume history of Western music:

The liberties singers were expected to take with the written music, and had to take or lose all respect, would be thought a virtually inconceivably desecration today. [His emphasis.]

And if you believe René Jacobs, one of the best early-music conductors around, Baroque orchestras did much the same thing. On his recording of Handel’s opera Rinaldo you can hear all kinds of orchestral improvisation, with some passages written in the score for all the violins played instead by a soloist, precisely to allow for elaborate ornaments.

So the Met’s Rodelinda, even if it was careful and artistic, was from any true historical point of view a travesty. You could even say it became a travesty precisely by being — from our point of view, which is not the Baroque era’s view — artistic and careful. The singers, for instance, used only very modest ornaments (and Renée Fleming, in the title role, sang cadenzas that sounded like they belonged in a Verdi opera, but that’s another story).

And the plot, God help us, was set forth as if it was supposed to make sense! That’s yet another problem. One admiring person in the audience said, deeply impressed, that she’d learned to accept and even loved the slow dramatic pace. Now, a slow dramatic pace certainly seems to be inherent in opera seria, which was made up for the most part of inflexible da capo arias, one after another after another, stretching out for hours. A story told in that fashion certainly isn’t the kind of story we’re used to.

But in the Baroque era, hardly anyone — maybe nobody at all — paid anything like that kind of attention! Handel was very good at writing arias that fit (and sometimes even deepened) each character onstage (even if he borrowed some of them from other operas). He even sometimes abandons the da capo format, as he strikingly does in the prison scene in the last act of Rodelinda, where an aria suddenly dissolves into accompanied recitative, as if to underline the pathos of a character who’s been imprisoned.

So Handel wrote with at least an occasional eye toward drama. But mostly he was creating a spectacle for a commercial audience, which, if all went well, would yell and scream its approval. From what I’ve read, contemporary accounts of these performances never talk about the characters. Instead, they describe what the singers did. They were like somebody in our time talking about some fabulous movie classic like Gone with the Wind: “So then Clark Gable says to Vivien Leigh…”

And because the point of the da capo arias was singing, not drama, nobody wondered, when one of the arias began, how it would advance the plot, or deepen any sense of character. Instead, people wondered how the singer would ornament the repeat. They wondered what kind of dresses the women would wear — the more scandalously low-cut, the better. Sometimes they wondered whether the singers would get into fights onstage (which memorably happened when Handel was foolish enough to star two prima donnas in the same opera — and we’re talking here, by the way, of a wild physical fight, not just a shouting match).

Most of all, the audience marveled at the castrati (though I’d think that in Handel’s London almost all the singers seemed fabulously exotic, because most of them were Italian). We may think that the presence of castrated men on stage, singing heroic leading roles, represents some kind of Baroque-era taste for strong high voices, but there’s much more to it than that. People in the 18th century, after all, had healthy appetites for both sex and sexual gossip, and the castrati were living, breathing — and, very often, lustily fornicating — sexual scandals. Some were gay, some were straight; none could get a woman pregnant, so they made very attractive lovers.

And beyond that, they were illegal. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t legal to castrate boys for musical purposes, so the castrati had to have ridiculous cover stories. “Oh, a goose pecked me when I was a boy.” So the castrati, in a way, were like bootleg liquor during Prohibition, omnipresent, despite laws against them, but (because they weren’t legal) always racy and titillating.

I’d love to see a production that reflected all this, that showed us what Baroque opera was really like. Of course, we could imagine that Handel didn’t want it that way, that he really wanted everything to be sober and dramatic. But there’s no evidence for such a belief (or at least none that I’ve ever read or heard about); I’d think that, to the extent that we can realistically judge his intentions, Handel expected to convey drama through the existing conventions of Baroque opera, which meant flamboyant craziness.

Oh, and why does this matter? Quite apart, that is, from the fun we’d have with a truly Baroque (and, not capitalized, baroque) Handel production. Well, we take classical music so damn seriously. We imagine that it ought to be serious and, for lack of a better word, respectful. And in doing that, we trample on its past — a past that ought to show us the opposite of what we’ve come to believe, namely that classical music often ought to be loose and wild and fun.

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