Authenticity is the mother of invention

After long neglect, there are now few opera composers more popular than Handel. But how much should productions try to recreate original Baroque stagings?
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The Independent Culture

Last year the assiduous Handelian might have seen six Handel operas in London alone. Contrast that with the situation 100 years ago, when throughout Europe Handel's operas might as well not have existed. The language they spoke made no sense to an audience fluent in Verdi and Wagner. It was only when one Oskar Hagen dared to stage Rodelinda at Göttingen in 1920 that these flamboyant pieces re-entered the opera house.

Last year the assiduous Handelian might have seen six Handel operas in London alone. Contrast that with the situation 100 years ago, when throughout Europe Handel's operas might as well not have existed. The language they spoke made no sense to an audience fluent in Verdi and Wagner. It was only when one Oskar Hagen dared to stage Rodelinda at Göttingen in 1920 that these flamboyant pieces re-entered the opera house.

The revival continues to gather momentum. This year the Göttingen Festival celebrates its 80th birthday with a new production of the opera that started it all, Rodelinda, while the London Handel Society's 23rd annual festival is about to begin, and Opera North is preparing Tim Hopkins's production of Radamisto.

It was the popularity in 18th-century London of opera seria, especially Handel's, sung in Italian to an Anglophone audience, that prompted Dr Johnson's remark that such opera was "an exotick and irrational entertainment". And the idiom has hardly become less exotic, more rational. Audiences have had to relearn how to make sense of the formal rules, notably of da capo arias. These, the dramatic heart of Handel opera, divide, into three sections, A-B-A, in which the singer takes the repeated A section from the top (da capo), embellishing, extending and generally fantasticating the vocal line at inordinate length.

The period instrument movement has re-established that the da capo aria is not a vocal freak show but a means of potent expression that stage directors must somehow make work in the theatre. One approach is to revive Baroque stagecraft, which conductor Nicholas McGegan, Artistic Director of the Göttingen Handel Festival, has tried on several occasions.

Although McGegan insists that "authenticity in the theatre is a nonsense", he has studied the available documentary evidence. In his view, "it works in the right kind of theatre. We've made copies of 18th-century costumes, used flied sets and raised the orchestra pit so that it was just about like an 18th-century pit. We also had a go at Baroque acting, lighting and scenic effects. It wasn't an attempt to turn Göttingen into a temple of authenticity, but it certainly helped to save money: you build your sets representing "The Garden', "The Palace', "The Throne Room", and then you re-use them regardless of the opera."

You can, McGegan acknowledges, only go so far. "Many 18th-century singers couldn't act at all, and if we tried to reproduce what they did, we wouldn't have an audience. But if the costumes are cut in the right way, the women wearing corsets and so on, certain body movements are dictated by the cut of the costume: you can't, for instance, raise your hands above your head. And lighting is important. If you use those gestures on a brilliantly lit stage, they don't have the same impact as when the stage is, let's say, Rembrandtesque.

"But although I've done that kind of staging, it's not the only way to do Handel. I have conducted performances of David Alden's Ariodante at English National Opera, very much not that way of doing an opera, and that's fine by me."

Back in London, Tom Hawkes is preparing the London Handel Festival's Ottone, the 10th Handel opera he has directed. The last, Oreste (seen at the Royal Opera House in January) included elements of Baroque stagecraft but, when asked if he is going for Baroque again, Hawkes replies with an emphatic no.

"I have taken those principles and developed them in some productions, but I've come to the conclusion that, unless you have an 18th-century theatre like the one at Drottningholm in Sweden, where you really can emulate Baroque performance, then forget about it. An 18th-century production would be more static than we find acceptable: you would start with a tableau, the principal character centre-stage, good on the right, evil on the left. As each singer left the stage, the others would change their position, and little else would happen."

The director must nevertheless tackle the music's formal characteristics, notably the da capo aria. "At first," Hawkes suggests, "the generic rules are a constriction, and you find a way of freeing yourself while working within them. You have to deal with the fact that four lines of poetry might occupy eight minutes of stage time, during which the action has, in many respects, ceased, to be replaced by character development. What you must get across is that the character who is singing somehow changes between the A section of the aria the first time around, and the da capo repeat. My starting point is always the music, what Handel did with the emotional situation within the musical structure available to him."

Although his theatrical style is different from Hawkes's, Tim Hopkins, director of Opera North's Radamisto, agrees that "you allow the dynamic volatility of the da capo repeat to represent all kinds of emotional development. You might see the decorative elements that accompany the repeat as interesting fault-lines in a character's certainty, or as self-reflection, or as mere ebullience. The form, far from being redundant or dramatically imprisoning, is continuously developing: da capo arias are abstractions of imagination and thought, no more flexible or inflexible than any other dramatic material. Handel's operas are drama through music as surely as any other opera."

Not every director understands the idiom. Nicholas McGegan recalls a production of Handel's Scipione in Germany: "The director had never staged opera before. The conductor told me that at the first play-through, they reached the end of the B section of a da capo aria, went back to the A section, and the director asked what they were doing. He didn't know what a da capo aria was, and when it was explained, he said, 'You can't. I've staged from the B section straight into the next recitative.' That's an extreme example, but there are directors who force an opera to fit their concept, if necessary changing the opera."

Perhaps such errors of judgement are a small price to pay for having these extravagant and, yes, "exotick" operas back in the opera house. That is where they belong, no matter how they're staged.

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