There was a British newspaper piece linked on Musical America this week, something about Handel operas being boring. And then we had the opening of Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the Met, with a worshipful review in the New York Times.
(“[T]he richness and endless variety of the music… the piercing psychological insights of this staggering masterpiece.”)
There’s one thing I know for sure — performances of Handel’s operas today are nothing like the performances in Handel’s own time. Back then, these operas (and in fact all operas, by all composers, all over Europe) were sheer entertainment. Spectacle — lavish sets and costumes, and special effects like storms at sea and flying, fire-breathing dragons — were a big part of the attraction.
And there was musical spectacle, too. The singers sang lavish, extravagant, often improvised ornamentation. The operas, as any music history book will tell you, consist mainly of arias, almost all of them in the same musical form, with an opening section, a shorter, contrasting span of music, and then a repeat of the opening. To musicologists, this has long seemed like a very severe and static way to construct an opera, and stage directors in our time labor mightily to construct some kind of action on stage, so that something happens while the arias are being sung.
Nothing like that happened in Handel’s time! Nobody needed to be distracted by stage action. For one thing, very few people in the audience were paying full attention. People talked to each other, ate, walked around, and sometimes shouted at the stage. And for those who were listening, the repeat of the opening section was something to wait for, maybe with great excitement. What was the singer going to do? Singers would stride down to the front of the stage, wearing wildly overdone costumes, sometimes even striding into the middle of the audience on specially constructed ramps. Then they’d vary the repeated section so that the original melody completely disappeared. They did this (to judge from some surviving examples) with a virtuosity few singers have today.
Besides, our current classical music aesthetic goes against this practice. We’re supposed to respect the composer’s text, and one result is that vocal ornaments, in current Handel productions, are careful and discreet, the exact opposite of what they were in Handel’s time. I don’t claim to be a Handel expert, but for whatever it’s worth, I’ve only once heard ornaments in a Handel performance that approached what Handel’s singers would have done. This is in Ewa Podles’s recording of “Or la tromba,” an aria from Handel’s opera Rinaldo, found on a http://www.amazon.com/Ewa-Podles-c%C3%A9l%C3%A8bres-Famous-Arias/dp/B0000038C2/ref=pd_sim_m_6/002-4403189-2183203?ie=UTF8&qid=1176174202&sr=1-2 recital disk on the Forlane label, called Famous Arias. Podles attacks the music like someone out to beat the world record for wild ornaments, and (if you ask me) gets a gold medal.
And this was only the beginning. The orchestra improvised, too. Recitative accompaniments were surprising and inventive. Forget the blank chords on a harpsichord, and the discreet bass notes played on a cello, which you see in the written scores, and hear played in most performances. The players went half crazy, with the cellist improvising scales, arpeggios, and complex chords. Other members of the orchestra would improvise. The written score was only a guide to what might be done, subject to delightful, unexpected changes in performance. When Handel produced his operas in London, his own harpsichord playing was a great attraction. He wasn’t at all content simply to reinforce the orchestra, and calmly accompany the singers. He improvised virtuoso counterpoints to everything that was going on, and deliberately drew attention to himself. (Just as Vivaldi, when he produced his own operas, improvised crazy stuff on the violin, playing as high and fast as possible, and always providing one of the highlights of the show.) (You can hear one reconstruction of what the instrumental playing in Handel’s operas might have been like, on http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_m/002-4403189-2183203?url=search-alias%3Dpopular&field-keywords=rene+jacobs+rinaldo&Go.x=10&Go.y=14 René Jacobs’ recording of Rinaldo. The vocal ornaments, unfortunately, are far too discreet, though I do love it when some of the singers mockingly add their voices to an orchestral passage, something not even remotely indicated in the written score, but which Jacobs thinks might well have happened.)
And then there were the costumes. In London, everyone wanted to know what the female singers wore. Often their dresses became fashionable. Sometimes they were shocking. In effect, the singers would go from directly from the opera stage into the 18th century equivalent of gossip columns, and the cover of Vanity Fair. The singers – largely Italian – were exotic creatures in London, much whispered about. Sometimes they’d get into fights on stage. Sometimes the press would derisively comment on their supposed sexual habits, in explicit language that would never be seen in a newspaper today.
And the castrati! Castrated men sang many of the leading roles. Obviously they were exotic creatures, far removed from the ordinary run of human life. They were gigantic international celebrities, and also walking sexual scandals. For one thing, castration of boys for musical purposes was illegal in Italy. But it was widely practiced, and here were the castrati to prove it, each one representing a flagrant violation of the law. They were almost like liquor during prohibition — legally forbidden, but (with a wink and a grin) widely known to be available.
And on top of that, they were sexually potent. Their castration robbed them of any chance to have children, but they could (and did) have erections from morning till night. Some were gay, some were straight. The straight ones were much in demand as sexual indulgences, for women in the nobility. They were celebrities, after all — and they couldn’t get you pregnant.
All of this jumped from the stage in any Baroque opera performance. Sometimes the gossip came front and center, as it did whenever Vivaldi premiered an opera. Vivaldi, as everybody knew, was a priest who hadn’t said mass for decades. How sinful was that? And he went around Europe, flagrantly living with two younger women, one of whom was his prima donna. People drew the obvious conclusions, just as we’d do now. Starved of all this gossip and spectacle, Baroque opera as it’s performed today is – to speak bluntly — a 21st century fabrication, in which we contort these pieces into something there’s no sign that they were ever meant to be.