Inexplicable things happen to me in London. Several years ago I made an early morning visit to Westminster Abbey, that great reliquary of historical memory, and found it almost empty and utterly silent, a rare state for one of the world’s great tourist magnets. I intended to spend a few quiet moments at the memorial stone of my favorite composer, George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), the great German-born composer, Italian-trained, and rightly claimed by England as their own.
I found the famous frieze of Handel ensconced amidst the fitting company of Shakespeare, Longfellow, and Tennyson, and I sat quietly in the ancient coolness of Poet’s Corner. After a good deal of time I heard distant music, indistinct in the vastness of the space. With the Abbey’s busy schedule of performances, I naturally assumed it was a rehearsal. As I moved towards the exit the music gained clarity; it was, to my delight, Handel’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day. Definitely a rehearsal, I thought. I could see no musicians, but this was no surprise, given the vastness of the church. I sat down again to enjoy Handel’s extraordinary work, and to ruminate on how elegantly this ancient space coexisted with the modern city around it.
Unlike Handel’s London audience, who clamored hungrily for new music and new stories, modern opera audiences largely dwell in the past. Happily, over the last forty to fifty years, the musical authenticity movement has taught us innumerable lessons about Handel’s prodigious musical output, much of which had sat unperformed from his time to ours. Handel, one of history’s great men of the theater, was for too many years known solely as the composer of one work, his sublime Messiah
—itself a work created for theatrical performance, which somewhat belies its sacred image. As Handel often led his own performances from the keyboard— for the non-playing but gesticulating conductor was still in the future—he could easily communicate his intentions directly to his fellow performers; it is therefore not surprising that a type of musical shorthand developed between composer and performer, and many important ideas did not need to be written down.
It is thanks to the pioneers of the authenticity movement—Charles Mackerras, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, San Francisco’s own Nicholas McGegan, and so many others—that we can now be more confident in interpreting not only what Handel wrote but also, much more importantly, the clear inferences of what he didn’t. For the post-Mahlerian musical world, when the written musical text became something of a deity, to improvise or reinterpret anything a composer wrote became a definite moral conundrum. But Handel’s shorthand makes complete sense if one applies common sense: many rhythmically repeated figures, “repeated ratios” in Baroque architecture, should actually be played unevenly, which creates sonic curves where there are written straight lines. Some, but not all, dotted figures are played in a double-dotted fashion, creating an angular rhythmic pattern—sonic symmetry. Tempo markings in the Baroque indicate mood, or “affect,” as often as they indicate speed, for Baroque music is never divorced from the inflections and contours of human speech. We have also learned much about the size of Handel’s orchestras, which varied greatly, and modern performances must take into account a space the size of San Francisco’s War Memorial, truly huge in comparison with any Handel might have known, but with such a warm and clear acoustic that Handel operas can work beautifully in it. We have learned that the dynamic range of instruments in Handel’s day was not as polarized as our own. We have gained profound insight into Baroque string playing: most players today understand that trying to impose a “continuous melody” long bow stroke in Baroque music is unstylish, yet even twenty-five years ago this was not an accepted idea. A shorter elegant stroke of the bow, a satisfaction in making small musical shapes, supports Handel's melodic structure and his sensuous sequences of tension and release. Baroque bows were of much lighter weight and more balanced than their modern equivalents. Handel’s music is bass line driven (he usually wrote the lowest notes first), and one of the most rewarding discoveries of the period instrument movement is how the lowest instruments—cellos, basses, and bassoons—can inflect a bass line precisely as an actor inflects a sentence, and bring an aria to vivid life.
But undoubtedly the most important stylistic aspect of Handelian operatic performance is the issue of vocal ornamentation. The great singers of Handel’s day, largely Italians, personalized their arias to a degree almost unimaginable today, and only comparable in our time to the great jazz singers who took standard ballads and improvised them in their own style. Even a great composer like Handel fully understood and expected this, though naturally there were degrees of decorative taste then as now. One of the great effects of the Handelian renaissance of the past decades has been that we are now in the second generation of singers who are both schooled and gifted at Handelian ornamentation. Our own cast, led by Susan Graham and David Daniels, both experienced Baroque singers, can improvise in ways which truly honor their distinguished colleagues of more than two centuries ago.
So, we have learned a great deal about Handel of late, but one dilemma remains: We can never hope to recreate the expectations and experiences of an audience hearing Handel’s operas as contemporary music. Today’s opera audiences arrive at a Baroque opera with a host of associations about opera that obviously didn’t exist when these works were written. Eighteenth-century audiences did not sit politely in a darkened theater. The house lights (candles, of course) remained illumined throughout the performance to facilitate glances at the translated Italian libretto. Eating, drinking, and talking were rampant, though I doubt even a liberal eighteenth-century audience could have tolerated modern cellular phones. One does not want to even contemplate the intermission search or use of a restroom in eighteenth-century London. The private boxes were home to an abundant array of behaviors, from commercial dealings to some slightly older pleasures. So it is important that we honor Handel not by imprisoning him with immutable dogma or academia, but by utilizing our knowledge of his time to create something new and relevant in the context of a busy and modern opera house. This is the genius of Nicholas Hytner’s production: Precisely as Handel did himself, he allows the ancient to inform the modern, for we are most definitely in three different worlds when viewing a Baroque opera. We are in the time of the opera’s composition; we are in the historical time of the characters, which is inevitably much older (Xerxes’s libretto dates from the early seventeenth-century, almost a century before Handel wrote his opera); and most importantly, we are viewing the work through the prism of our own lives and experiences here in the twenty-first century.
On the surface, Handel’s music falls pleasantly upon the ear, but a deeper exploration of his many London masterpieces—Radamisto
, Giulio Cesare
, and the opera closest at hand, one of his last, his exquisite Xerxes
from 1738, very loosely based on the life of the Persian King Xerxes the Great—reveals a complex and profoundly dramatic composer, a musician who deserves a vaulted place in the operatic cannon alongside a cherished few: Monteverdi, Gluck, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Janáček, Puccini, and Britten. Handel’s music changes stock characters into figures of Shakespearian depth, all while ravishing our ears with dazzling melodic invention. Each of the London operas is long by modern standards, but they are so filled with a diverse and eclectic range of musical works that they are not dull to an attentive and absorbent listener. Handel’s writing for the human voice is surpassed only by Mozart (ask any singer). Mozart emulated Handel, even going so far as to reorchestrate his Messiah
(with clarinets!) and Acis and Galatea
, a beautiful act of homage from one genius to another. On his deathbed, Beethoven supposedly pointed to the complete edition of Handel's works and uttered something like, “there lies the truth.”
Handel’s Xerxes, which enters the historic repertoire of San Francisco Opera for the first time this season, is an anomaly among Handel’s London operas. It is his only comedy, though to describe the complexity of Xerxes with only one word, “comedy,” is to seriously understate its delights. Xerxes is a serious comedy, a complex domestic love quadrangle with comic elements that veer into madness and rage and traffics in the most extreme emotions. It is an Enlightenment masterpiece, touching on intellectual textures only dreamt of in other operas. The score of Xerxes is one of Handel’s thorough masterpieces, filled with such a huge range of styles and emotions, an opera that is more dramatically complex than any of its peer works (just try to explain its plot to anyone!), and it has the distinction of having the most famous opening aria of any opera ever written, “Ombra mai fu”—erroneously known for centuries as Handel's “Largo,” even though it is clearly marked the decidedly less slow “Larghetto.” It sets the course of the evening perfectly, for despite its semi-divine reputation, it is actually a love song that Xerxes sings, with an ardency reserved only for very young men, to a tree. In Xerxes, we hear Handel boldly experimenting with new forms: the endless parade of A-B-A structured arias is gone. We hear truncated thoughts, arias, and symphonies interrupted by recitatives, short choruses, and ensembles, so rare in Baroque opera.
If there is an obstacle for modern audiences in appreciating Baroque opera, it tends to involve the organization of the narrative, the plot. Unlike later popular operas, which attempted to portray realistic situations, or many modern operas, which attempt to imitate movies, Baroque operas purposefully evade reality. Allegory and emotional abstraction are the most direct route to the supremely desired goal of Baroque composers: emotional reality. Some still criticize Baroque arias for “stopping the action,” perhaps not realizing that they are specifically designed to do exactly that. Handel’s arias are a matrix through which the emotion of the characters is dissected and experienced. David Daniels, one of the most experienced Handelian singers in history, described to me his attraction to Handel, “it is the deep humanity of how he dramatizes characters; it is Greek, basic, very real. There is an emotional inner life to these people that one simply doesn’t find in many other composers.” Fascinatingly, the leading countertenor of our day listed to me the three composers he thought the most profound, in order of his preference: Wagner, Handel, and Janáček.
It is inaccurate and dishonest to label Handel’s music repetitious. Precisely like the heightened emotions it expresses, his music does not so much repeat as it continues
. For maximum enjoyment, surrender your investment in narrative reality; it doesn’t need to have happened to you to be real for someone else. Handel evokes more than he portrays, so you will be more able to experience Handel’s golden balance of emotion and intellect if you do not spend the evening glued to the supertitles; his music and his characters dwell most often in a sphere beyond words. Baroque music correlates to that moment of possibility presented in the bouquet of a newly opened wine, rather than to the feeling of the bottle being emptied. Handel incites the imagination, but he never tells you what to feel. He is the musical compatriot of the great Baroque architects: your presence is required to complete the work of art they began.
I often think back to that early morning in Westminster Abbey and wonder if I actually heard what I thought I heard. In the passing years I find myself choosing to overlook the more logical explanations, preferring to imagine something more eternal, perhaps even supernatural. I love the thought that Handel’s music might always be there waiting to be heard, and that I just intersected with it in the Abbey at the right moment. I recall the choir intoning John Dryden’s great words, the same words carved on Handel’s memorial stone, “From harmony, from heavenly harmony, this universal frame began,” just before I found myself outside in modern London, hailing a cab.
This blog post is reprinted from the Xerxes program magazine. All photos by Cory Weaver.