Although the 40 or so operas which Handel wrote in London between 1710 and 1740 constitute the greatest body of work ever produced by a single composer for the British operatic stage, they have only recently emerged from nearly 250 years of obscurity. Now every self-respecting opera company has a Handel in its repertoire, but, with that many operas to chose from, some remain unknown.
It might seem strange, then, that opera companies increasingly turn their attention to the composer's oratorios: Welsh National Opera has just opened Katie Mitchell's staging of Jephtha; later this summer Glyndebourne will revive Peter Sellars's staging of Theodora; and next week, Early Opera Company (EOC) begins a tour of Susanna. Yet these pieces weren't even conceived for the stage. Written in English, as against the Italian of the operas, they were intended as uplifting entertainments for Lent, when opera was not permitted. Towards the end of Handel's career, his operas fell out of favour; oratorios became his primary musical vehicle. Their subjects (usually but not invariably derived from the Bible) drew forth music every bit as inspired as that of his operas, which helps explain why modern stage directors find them so attractive.
Christian Curnyn, EOC's founder and conductor, has no doubt that Susanna repays a full-scale staging: "The first time I heard it, I was convinced of its theatricality. Alongside pieces like Saul and Jephtha, it's my favourite of Handel's oratorios, and it's much more readily stageable than they are. There is no conceit in the whole thing. It runs like a story, and the music is sensational, partly because of its simplicity. There is hardly any coloratura, and what there is, is descriptive of what's going on. In the operas, although the coloratura does express emotion, it's also about showing off. Susanna is so much more direct."
The new staging of Susanna is by Netia Jones, who has previously staged Handel operas for EOC. She is equally convinced that the composer's oratorios offer ample theatrical scope: "Susanna has an immediacy that speaks to a modern sensibility. I've staged Handel operas where that is much less the case, and when I first started working on them, I was alarmed by their apparent lack of action. My response was, 'We must do something. Quick, run across the stage.' Now I know that a more settled approach pays off but nevertheless, in Susanna, the drama is all in the music, because Handel had no extravagant stage pictures, no stage machinery to fall back on."
The oratorio's anonymous text derives from the Apocrypha which tells of Susanna's shabby treatment at the hands of the elders, who condemn her to death for sins she has not committed. Netia Jones responds to the story with enthusiasm: "Of course it appealed to me: it's about a young woman who is bullied and harassed by old men. Susanna is a tremendous character, and her experience really resonates with me. I don't think that Handel's treatment of the character, and of the story in general, has much to do with the story as it is in the Apocrypha, nor with any of its other baroque depictions, in music or in art. He is really looking at human behaviour."
The American composer Carlisle Floyd also found the story's contemporary relevance in his 1955 opera Susannah, which transformed it into a parable about McCarthyism. EOC's Susanna places the action in a 21st-century courtroom, complete with video linkup. As Netia Jones suggests, "Many of the musical numbers, particularly in Act One, and a little in Act Two, sound like witness stand testimony. The piece is all about snooping, particularly by the Elders, who have been spying on her before the music begins. And snooping, zoom lenses, spycams and CCTV are so much part of contemporary experience."
The look is contemporary - and therefore authentic. "Handel's audiences were looking at a stage filled with people dressed as they were," says Christian Curnyn. "The singers were maybe tarted up a bit, perhaps they had an extra feather or two, but the costumes clearly had an 18th-century feel. The singers didn't dress in togas if they were singing Giulio Cesare, and they didn't dress Attila-the-Hun style for Ottone. I prefer to do these works as contemporary, so that the audience is looking at people to whom they can relate. That isn't to say that audiences can't relate to 18th-century costume, but a contemporary setting brings the works alive."
Netia Jones agrees: "Although there is often a specific historical context in Handel's pieces, it's never drawn in particular detail, nor is it particularly relevant to the dramatic moment that the work presents. It's usually no more than a starting point.
"What really drives the narrative and shapes the piece is not that, and not just psychology, but an emotional journey. That is what excites Handel. It's a matter, not so much of ignoring the historical context, as of putting it to one side.
"Handel is a composer who understands humans, and we haven't changed in that many ways."
'Susanna': QEH, London SE1 (020 7960 4242), Thursday. Salisbury Festival (01722 320333), 8 JuneReuse content