Classical music has a mindset. Or I might call it an ideology. Two parts of it are:
- Classical music is a high, refined, deeply serious art.
- And so scholarship about its history is greatly important, and tells us how our masterworks should be performed.
But what happens when these two points conflict? When scholarship shows us that some of our masterworks — as they were performed in their time — were neither high, serious, nor refined?
I think that then we drop our scholarship, without ever saying that we’re doing that. So we can still perform our music as if it were high art.
Case in point…
…Handel’s operas. One of which, Alcina, I saw reasonably well performed at the Washington National Opera, with supple and spirited conducting by Jane Glover. (Well, most of the singers had no idea how to sing Handel, but later for that.)
Only problem with Glover’s conducting and many other things that were good was that no kind of unified performance concept — involving music or anything else — would have been possible in Handel’s time. Or desirable. Or even appropriate for the music! (Which is true in our time, too. A point I’ll get to later.)
And that’s because Handel’s opera performances (and all Baroque opera) were and were expected to be…
I should first explain that these operas were meant to be entertainment. And not very high entertainment, either. What by far was most important — what the audience — came to see — was spectacle.
The spectacle came in two flavors.
First, scenic spectacle: The stage directions in Alcina call for collapsing mountains, the sea flooding the stage, cages full of wild beasts, and rocks and animals transformed into people. All shown on stage, in Handel’s time, with what we could call 18th century special effects.
And then musical spectacle, which I’ll describe in a moment.
So where was the anarchy?
First in the audience. They didn’t listen quietly. They talked during the performance, listened only when they felt like it, and shouted at the singers, whenever something really pleased or displeased them, or got them going in some other way.
Which, simple common sense suggests, meant that the performers would try to get the audience’s attention, by any means necessary. That contributed to anarchy.
Which also came from Handel himself! He led the performances from the harpsichord. Improvising, well, spectacularly. He was one of the great attractions at his operas. (Meaning that the discreet continuo playing we hear today is, historically, all wrong.)
And you’d think the orchestra would have improvised, too. First because Handel would have set the tone, and then because improvised ornaments were 18th century practice. (There are even reports of all the violinists in 18th century German orchestras improvising — believe it or not — independently. Which meant that they were all playing different versions of their melody.)
And the singers!
They also set a tone of anarchy, which surely affected everyone. (Including journalists writing about the performances, one of whom once speculated, in explicit detail, about the sexual habits of two sopranos who’d gotten into a physical fight on stage.)
The singers, first of all, were exotic, simply because they were Italian, Italians being flamboyant rare birds in Handel’s London.
They dressed extravagantly, wearing costumes (often glamorous or wild) that they brought with them from Italy. (No unified production concept there!)
And they ornamented their music madly. Most of the musical pieces in Baroque operas, Handel’s included, are da capo arias. Meaning that there’s a first section, then something contrasting, and then back to the top (which is what “da capo” means), as singer and orchestra repeat the entire first section.
As aria follows aria, all with that shape, these operas today can seem stately, if not unvaried and dull. But in Handel’s time, the singers didn’t simply repeat those first sections. They transformed them into something new and often wild, by changing, ornamenting, and just about rewriting their music, making the original melody unrecognizable.
So the da capo arias weren’t predictable, as they often seem now. Just the opposite, because you never knew what the singers — extravagant Italian virtuosos — were going to do.
This was the musical spectacle the audience came for. We have no idea today what it was like, because our practice now is to ornament discreetly, true to the classical music mindset, “we’re refined.”
But in the Baroque era, the singers went nuts. That must have pushed the operas over the anarchy edge. Our discretion means that we miss the theatrical point of these operas, and also that we’re unfaithful to them musically. In spite of all our claims to be historically authentic.
I know two recordings that give me some idea of how this was. First, a recording of Handel’s opera Rinaldo,l ed by the extraordinary René Jacobs, in which all kinds of crazy things happen. Including singers singing along with orchestral music, and insane improvisations during secco recitatives. You can stream this on Spotify, or buy the CD on Amazon.
Then there’s a recording of a Rinaldo aria, sung by Ewa Podles, who ornaments almost as wildly as 18th century singers did.
If anyone knows other anarchic performances, I’d love to hear about them!
And finally a word about why I think the Washington singers — most of them, anyway — didn’t understand Handel.
Handel’s music moves in lines. I think that you can see that in the printed score, even if you don’t read music. The singer in each aria sings pretty much continuously, except for introductions, endings, and brief interludes played by the orchestra.
And in this singing, the line is all-important. There are high notes and low notes, but they’re all connected, and — this is what I think you can see, even if you don’t read music — never interrupt the music’s flow.
So now we have (to give just one example) Angela Meade, singing the title role in Alcina. She’s used to another style of music, Italian operas from a later time, by Bellini, Verdi, and Puccini.
In those operas, high notes are much more emphatic. Again, you can (I think) see that easily in the printed score. If there’s a high note, either it stands out on its own, or else it’s the crown of a musical arch, in which it’s built up to and then subsided from.
Meade, singing the title role, would sometimes find some music where a high note briefly sounds like Puccini. And so she’d sing it like Puccini, with extra emphasis, finding notes before it (if she could) that could function as a buildup.
Which spoiled Handel’s line. And sometimes made a lower passage that came afterwards — or even a single lower note — sound as if it had no point. So the music made no sense.