OPERA / If it ain't Baroque, don't mend it: Handel's operas have been dwarfed by the popularity of his Messiah. Stephen Wadsworth, Patrick Garland and David Alden intend to return them to their full stature. reports

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The Independent Culture
AT THIS time of year it is difficult to escape Handel's Messiah: in a kind of seasonal knee-jerk, it fills every church and concert hall. The work still speaks to us, and it is not simply a question of shared Christian belief. Yet, while Messiah is central to our musical culture, Handel's operas remain peripheral, even though their musical language is not essentially more alien than the oratorio's.

This continuing neglect is often explained away in terms that may express a native distrust of opera: castratos are thin on the ground these days; opera seria plots are silly affairs of unlikely coincidences and far-fetched transformations; and, above all, the musical conventions are too rigid - few ensembles, acres of recitative and interminable da capo arias. Of course the music is gorgeous but, really, nothing can be done with the stage mechanics.

The result is that Handel's operas are a merely occasional treat. Although most of them were written for the London stage, they are more often performed, and recorded, in continental Europe.

Perhaps that is changing. With Willy Decker's Scottish Opera Julius Caesar still dividing opinion (was it vandalism or visionary imagination?), London is hosting a miniature Handel festival. Stephen Wadsworth's new production of Alcina opened last night at Covent Garden; in January comes a single South Bank performance of Patrick Garland's staging of Ottone; and then, in April, David Alden directs his first Handel opera, a new production of Ariodante for English National Opera.

If all this signals a renewed willingness to learn opera seria ways, it is nevertheless surprising to hear Patrick Garland reiterating traditional complaints: 'The libretto of Ottone is meaningless, and I have made no effort to tell the rather spare, but at the same time complicated, story. The problem with Handelian opera is that there are no characters, there are simply arias. I asked Peter Hall why he had never been challenged by Handel's operas, and he said, 'It is the most exquisite music, but what can we do with the da capos?' '

So we come back to the da capo aria with its tripartite form in which the third section repeats the first, but with ever-increasing embellishments. Garland, perhaps representing the view of an essentially realist theatrical tradition, says: 'Human beings - characters in plays - do not repeat themselves three times. It is very difficult for a theatrical director: you run out of steam. I have adopted what I felt was a compromise: I tried to dramatise two- thirds of each aria, but for the third part I enjoyed the artist declaring it boldly out front, to the audience. There is great value in the opera being in a language you don't know: you can hear it rather than understand it. The singers are expressing feelings, not the fundamental narrative demands.'

Such thoughts might raise eyebrows at the Coliseum, where ENO strives for the moment-to- moment communication that Garland abandons. Certainly David Alden expresses very different views about Ariodante, with its plot derived from the 16th-century epic poem, Orlando Furioso, by Ariosto: 'I find the da capo aria very rich soil, and I don't consider the plot problematic. It's enigmatic, which is different, and challenging for that reason. There's something elusive about Handel's attitude to the people and the story. It's rather difficult to work out how satiric he is being, how much he is dealing with a Renaissance way of looking at the world, and how much he is talking about 18th-century European people playing sexual games. It's a withdrawn, interiorised, melancholic, proto-Romantic piece. That's why I wanted to do it: there's something hidden about it.'

While Alden stresses the enigmas of Ariodante, Wadsworth is drawn to the clarity of Alcina, which also bases its plot on Orlando Furioso: 'One of the reasons I'm interested in 18th-century art is that there's a blending of a budding realism or rationalism, which is represented by the formal design, and the soon-to-emerge passion and fear and sex of Romanticism. There's a sense of the magic in Alcina opening the door into an unconscious world. Da capos are supposed to be the sticking point, but they seem to me a language which I speak and love. I have more problems with Wagner. Our thoughts, our lives move forward, but we might need to go back and review something, and in that way a da capo aria might be a perfect picture of life. There are sometimes technical issues about filling time, but if the actor has a sense that something is being repeated exactly, it's boring and stupid and wrong.'

Of these three Handel operas, only Ottone will be performed with a period instrument orchestra (the King's Consort), although Ariodante will be conducted by period specialist Nicholas McGegan. David Alden feels that the early music movement has transformed Handel's dramatic potential: 'It used to be that people couldn't sing Handel, they didn't really know the musical style. In the last 15 or 20 years, performing style has evolved so much. The edgier modern sound that conductors want, the new vocal styles, have made these pieces more approachable, and opened up theatrical possibilities that were obscured when the operas sounded in a different way. Whether it's authentic or not is not my problem.'

On the other hand, when asked what there is to learn from Baroque stagecraft, Alden replies: 'Nothing. I've read about it, I've seen the occasional production, I look at pictures - I understand it intellectually, but it's not my nature. One tries to dream oneself into the mindset of 1730. There is something about the characters' self-absorption in their own emotional lives, and it's the duty of a production to spill this out on the stage in a tense, exciting way, otherwise the piece won't happen.'

Stephen Wadsworth's interest in 18th-century style does not extend to attempting to replicate it: 'This production of Alcina is influenced by ideas of form and content and design that are in their essence 18th-century, but no one sits around and does Baroque gestures. The essence of 18th-century art is to use beauty to insinuate often devastating ideas into your mind and heart. The fear, the disturbing content, emerge in a form that is absolutely undisturbed, and I find that riveting.'

The productive tension between Handel's culture and our own extends further, as Patrick Garland discovered when he took Ottone to Japan: 'The Japanese must have discovered elements in their own culture that related, possibly the high voices, the counter-tenors and sopranos. Or possibly the austerity of movement, which a journalist in the Tokyo Times said resembled the stylisation of kabuki theatre.'

So, far from being trapped in Baroque convention, Handel's operas cross cultures and centuries to touch the 20th-century heart. With their very different responses, each of these directors has devised strategies to allow Handel to work today - and not before time.

Alcina: In rep to 22 Jan, Royal Opera House (071-240 1066). Ottone: 25 Jan, QEH, South Bank (071-928 8800). Ariodante: from 28 April, ENO (booking opens 15 Feb, 071-836 3161)

(Photograph omitted)