Boring old Handel

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 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 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.

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  1. says

    Greg, I’m glad to see you write this. I read Thurston Dart’s The Interpretation of Music decades ago and got the impression that much music was supposed to be much more exciting, creative, difficult (!), and individualistic than we normally hear. I’ve wondered why that’s changed.

  2. Dhassler says

    I absolutely agree. I think it would be a hoot to see a performance of true historical accuracy put on before a crowd of today’s “musical purists” or “historical performers”. As an aside, how might music performed in this way be able to reach today’s audiences? As we continue to flog the great composers of the past, hoping to squeeze one more fan out of a new performance, I wonder what would happen if new music embraced this. I think we have already seen the beginning with some of the crossover ideas and more interactivity, but I think there is still a long way to go. Who knows, maybe “classical” music will top the charts again some day.

  3. says

    Makes you wonder what will happen to “West Side Story” in the future. Maybe it will featured in a concert some day along with a reverent playing of Liberache’s music.

    Something will be lost intranslation, I expect.

    Bernstein in fact recorded “West Side Story” with two opera singers in the leading roles, Kiri te Kanawa and Jose Carreras. He wanted to establish his musical as a great American opera. And I think most people would agree that he pretty much killed it. The original cast recording from the ’50s has far more life.

  4. says

    If you want an excellent example of the “21st century fabrication” of Handel operas, you can try Opus Arte’s DVD of Giulio Cesare with Danielle de Niese. It’s a 2004 Glyndebourne production.

    And here we see an excellent example of a publicist doing his work! In the best way, I mean — letting us know about something he himself genuinely likes. Thanks for reading me, Mark, and for telling us about this DVD.

  5. says

    Um…Greg…that comment about a virtuosity few singers have today? We live in a golden age of Handel singing, with highly ornamented performances all over the place. This is music that 25 years ago hardly anyone could perform, but, really, things have changed a lot. Some current performances also have spectacles of various kinds; viz., the Covent Garden Semele, admittedly an oratorio, but with both Iris and Semele flown above the stage in different devices.

    Yes, this is the conventional wisdom. But transcriptions and first-person accounts of both 18th and 19th century vocal ornamentation show that we’re doing just a shadow of what they did then, both in terms of quantity, and difficulty. One account I’ve read of singers in a Vivaldi opera talks about them singing cadenzas that lasted so long they had to breathe several times. You’d never hear that today. We might be in a golden age of Handel singing compared to the 1950s, and we may be singing Handel very well, by our own lights. But we’re not singing Handel the way his singers sung his work.

    Two quick touchstones, for how close we are to genuine Baroque practice. How long are the cadenzas? They should be very long. And is the original melody recognizable at all in da capo repeats?

  6. gborchert says

    She does a staggering job with that aria, doesn’t she? It looks like Podles has recorded “Or la tromba” twice; her other version, on Delos, is exactly the performance I used to introduce an article I wrote to preview her recent Seattle appearance in Handel’s Giulio Cesare:

    Now I’m curious to hear how the Delos and Forlane performances differ–

    Me, too! If you find out, I hope you’ll let me know. I’ll let you know, if I find out.

    I use the Forlane recording in my Juilliard class, as the closest example I can find of something approaching the practice of Handel’s time.

  7. Bill Brice says

    It’s not at all certain that cadenzas were supposed to be long. J.J. Quantz, for example in his Treatise on flute-playing (and on most aspects of the performance practice around him) pretty emphatically says that the cadenza should not be longer than what can be played on a single breath.

    I don’t present this as “proof” one way or the other. The fact that Quantz makes this point so strongly could easily be taken as evidence that his rule was being commonly broken.

    A great example of the “long cadenza” in instrumental music, of course, would be that written-out cadenza that ends the first movement of the 5th Brandenburg. It virtually subsumes the structure of the entire movement — and it’s perfection!

    The Quantz quote illustrates one of the big problems in this research. Some of the most prominent people who left instructions about ornamentation — Leopold Mozart, for instance — take a very conservative view. It’s obvious, from their condemning tone, that others were doing things they disapprove of.

    As for Quantz on cadenzas: a flute player can sustain a breath longer than most singers can. So these cadenzas could still be fairly long. Beyond this, of course, Quantz systematically teaches his readers how to improvise a profusion of non-cadenza ornaments, way beyond what we’d normally hear today.

    Back to the conservatives for a moment. When Leopold Mozart says that music should be played without alteration, just as the composer wrote it, what does he mean? Given the almost universal practice of ornamentation, and the clear need for it in most composers’ works (as shown by fermatas marking cadenzas that aren’t written out, and by repeated passages that cry out not to be played the same way, for instance in the final movements of Wolfgang Mozart’s violin concertos), I suspect we have to read Leopold’s prohibition in quite a non-literal way: Music should be played exactly as the composer wrote it, except of course for the obvious places where any tasteful player would introduce some changes. What Leopold forbade, I think, was what he thought was excessive ornamentation.

  8. says

    Handel is not boring. Obscure artists and music that you need a major in music to appreciate is boring to philestines like myself.