Even adjusted for inflation, his operas are now doing far better box office (255 years after his death) than he could have ever wished at the height of his career.
No doubt George Frideric Handel—as the German-born Georg Friedrich Händel rebranded himself in his adoptive hometown of London—would have relished the irony. Only a sensibility finely attuned to the ironic could have created the delicious blend of erotic longing and satire that defines his treatment of Partenope
We are closing in on the centenary of the start of the ongoing revival of Handel opera. It all began with a production of Rodelinda
in Göttingen, Germany in 1920. From the very end of Handel’s life until that point, the composer’s output of approximately 40 operas had lain dormant, completely forgotten—aside from the occasional tune that, when abstracted from its original context, fostered a deceptive impression of statuesque, Handelian “nobility” (e.g., the “Largo” from Xerxes
An admirer of Handel’s genius as astute as George Bernard Shaw failed to perceive the hidden gold. Shaw did anticipate the thrust of the early music movement in his denunciations of the gargantuan Victorian excess with which Handel’s oratorios had been encrusted. Still, he wrote off the operas as hopelessly out of fashion, devoid of dramatic interest. They were nothing but “stage concerts for showing off the technical skills of the singers,” Shaw declared.
It would be silly to fault the playwright for his blindness, since the consensus verdict on Baroque opera in particular more or less affirmed the notorious (and xenophobic) putdown of opera in general by Handel’s contemporary Dr. Samuel Johnson: “an exotic and irrational entertainment.” Shaw was writing as a devoted Wagnerite, in an era when the Wagnerian concept of opera as a seamless continuity—an autonomous, organic form intended to facilitate the audience’s immersive experience—was rapidly becoming the desired paradigm.
Frankly, the theatrical side of the equation must have seemed all but a lost cause for the staunchest Handelian in those early years of the revival. The violence done to the musical side by ruthless cuts and rearrangements was bad enough; imagining what it must have been like as a dramatic experience, the musicologist David Vickers likens the 1920 staging of Rodelinda
at the Göttingen Handel Festival to “the entire cast of the silent-movie Buck Rogers meeting at Bayreuth on a bad day.”
And yet Göttingen was the tipping point that reawakened interest in what Handel had been up to in his operas: not just musically, but as works of music theater
. After all, this art form had been the chief focus of Handel’s creative activity until the marketplace drove him to re-channel his energy into oratorio. Rather than trivialize his operas as “stage concerts,” astute Handel lovers began to realize the reverse: that his oratorios are arguably operas in disguise. (Claus Guth’s intriguing staged version of Messiah
for the 2009 anniversary year —
easy to find on YouTube — makes the case for the one piece by Handel that has, if anything, suffered the opposite of neglect.)
Appreciation of the inherent theatricality of Handel’s musical thinking has played a key part in bringing these long-ignored works back to life for audiences today. “Handel was one of the greatest music theater writers of all
time,” says Partenope
director Christopher Alden, “right up there with Verdi, Wagner, Janáček, Britten, and Monteverdi.”
True, he created these works during an era whose obsession with star singers resembles the attitude of sports fans today. Yet Handel’s genius was to invest the conventions of his time — long since obsolete — with a lively theatricality just waiting to be tapped. “Handel wrote about issues that continue to speak to peoples’ lives,” asserts Alden. “He makes so much theater from the psychology and relationships in his operas. It’s all there to be mined.”
, which enters San Francisco Opera’s repertoire for the first time in company history with this production, is an especially compelling example of Alden’s premise. In contrast to the absurdly labyrinthine literary or historical plots and nested subplots typically found in opera seria
— the “serious opera” genre Handel imported from Italy to London for the majority of his stage works in the 1720s and 1730s — Partenope
unfolds around a simple plot line of frustrated affection. The result is an intricate character study and sophisticated situation comedy: most of what happens involves an emotional progress report mapped out by each character vis-à-vis his or her object of affection.
The libretto Handel used for Partenope
derived from a pre-existing source that had already been set many times by other composers. (The same holds for such other Handel masterpieces as Giulio Cesare
.) Regarded by several Handel experts as one of the best-crafted librettos the composer ever worked with, Partenope
manifests the sensibility of the earlier era in which it was written.
This production mimics that counterpoint of different eras overlaid atop one another not only by means of its 1920s Parisian salon setting, but through the saucily tinged supertitles that evoke the crisp wit of Noël Coward. (They were created in tandem with Amanda Holden’s English translation commissioned for the original English National Opera staging.) The sensibility of the modern setting is intended to trigger associations we can all recognize; these in turn help us tap into the emotional tug of war that plays out in Handel's music.
The poet Silvio Stampiglia (1664–1725) initially penned Partenope
in 1699 for a theater in Naples. Stampiglia was a cofounder of the reformist operatic movement the Academy of the Arcadians, which was established in 1690 in Rome to counter the kudzu-like proliferation of overwrought, over-ornamented imagery in earlier Baroque librettos. (Goethe includes an interesting passage about the Arcadian movement in his Italian Journey
, however, actually swerves away from the Arcadians’ classicizing aesthetic by virtue of its mélange of funny and serious aspects. The text and story epitomize a looser, less-uptight, more free-wheeling theatrical tonality characteristic of seventeenth-century opera. Alden additionally observes that this is closer to the “all-the-world’s-a-stage” sensibility of Shakespeare. Fans of the Bard’s mature, bittersweet comedies will immediately home in on the similar emotional realm evoked by the misaligned affections and gender confusion of Twelfth Night
or As You Like It
shares something with the later Xerxes
, the last Handel opera to be ventured at San Francisco Opera (in 2011)—also, as it happens, in a highly lauded production that originated at English National Opera, where Alden’s Olivier Award-winning Partenope
was first staged in 2008. Both operas are technically classified in the opera seria
genre but are really satires permeated with comic elements: intentional comedy, that is, not the unintended humor that sometimes triggers guffaws from contemporary audiences.
The object of Partenope
’s satire, on one level, is the artifice of opera and even of art itself. The “unmasking” of Rosmira, the lover betrayed by Arsace who passes as a man for most of the opera, as the denouement cleverly foregrounds the slipperiness of gender and identity that operatic conventions of the Baroque so easily accommodated. Standard heroic themes of valor and battle are turned on their head in the anti-heroic second act, nowhere more so than when Arsace and fight over who should get credit for the victory.
Alden picks up on the pointed artifice of the battle as a key to the entire opera by staging it as a series of attempted seductions at a party. The battle is “a metaphor for desire and eroticism as a force that comes into our lives and attacks us like an enemy,” says Alden. “It changes everything about our rational lives and injects an element of the irrational.”
The late Winton Dean, one of the great Handel authorities, called this subset of the composer’s operas “antiheroic,” a term that works especially well for Partenope,
thanks to its scenes of battle and the anti-climactically preempted duel. Dean points out that Handel had no need for such genre labels since “he approached each libretto in the spirit it seemed to demand and, being a multifarious artist, refused to be confined by any stereotyped tone or method.”
goes further in its subversive parody to take aim at the social status quo, Alden argues. This isn’t an anachronistic, avant la lettre
feminist reading: it clearly draws from the opera’s structure. The plot can be outlined as concentric circles focused on a female in power. All the male characters “buzz around Partenope as the queen bee,” as Alden puts it, measuring themselves according to their relative favor in her eyes. These suitors are positioned with an almost Tom Stoppard-like geometry that highlights comic contrasts: the aggressive Emilio and the timid, confidence-lacking Armindo. In the middle of that spectrum stands Arsace, a player whose game is cramped by the unexpected arrival of Rosmira/Eurimene. The latter, actually a more complex character than the queen, replicates and amplifies Partenope’s control over the men through the focus on her relationship to the tormented Arsace. She is also a counterweight “outsider” figure to the intruding, belligerent Emilio. Some treatments (such one by the composer Leonardo Vinci from 1725) even named the opera after Rosmira, asserting her claim to be the true heroine of the story.
Partenope, meanwhile, vacillates in her emotions; her vulnerability is both teasingly and touchingly expressed in the second-act “Qual farfalletta.” Yet she remains in control—delineated in the eight arias assigned to her in the uncut score. (She also sings in a trio and a quartet.) Dean observes that the vast majority of the music Handel gives her is “in major keys commonly associated with extrovert moods.”
“There’s a very camp aspect to Handel’s operas, especially this piece,” Alden says. “It can’t be proven that Handel was gay, but he was an unmarried man who chose to live in a sophisticated city, who had unmarried male friends in his circle. And his relationship with powerful divas was a big part of his life. Partenope
is a subversive, urban, gender-defying work that is witty but at the same time raises questions about societal assumptions. The libretto turns the norm around so that the powerful monarch in this piece is a woman. The men are all vying for her political/romantic favors. And like anyone in power, Partenope can never be sure whether these people are attracted to her or her power. Handel takes that from the story and writes music that makes her a fascinating, sympathetic, three-dimensional character.”
In fact, Handel had long wanted to set Partenope
(one treatment of which he likely saw in Venice as far back as 1707–08). He first proposed the topic in 1726 to the Royal Academy of Music, the joint-stock company to produce opera that had been formed by royal charter in London in 1719. But the board rejected it, most likely because of its parody of the heroic style of opera seria
they wanted to present in undiluted form.
The reaction of the impresario Owen Swiney further indicates that Partenope,
with its gender-bending, invited-to-bear-her-breasts “coquette,” was even considered subversively decadent. In a letter to the Duke of Richmond, Swiney fretted that the notion of Partenope
on the London stage “put me in a Sweat … for it is the very worst book … that I ever read in my whole life: Signor Stampiglia (the author) endeavours to be humourous and witty in it: If he succeeded in his attempt, on any stage in Italy [which he certainly did], ’twas meerly, from a depravity of Taste in the audience … ’twill bring more scandal & less profit, than any opera, that has been, yet, acted to the Hay-Market Theatre.” The title role, he added, was only fit for “some He-She-thing or other.”
The Academy went through a setback at the end of the decade when its ensemble of expensive, superstar singers imported from Italy decided to leave London. Reorganized as the “Second” Academy of Music in 1729, the company now gave Handel far more control over artistic decisions, and he chose Partenope
for the opening season. The opera premiered in February 1730. Pace Mr. Swiney, the production failed to cause a public scandal, and within a few seasons it proved to be decently successful.
Winton Dean’s remark about the case-by-case treatment Handel devoted to his librettos, avoiding “stereotyped tone or method,” supplies a useful corrective to the notion that his operas betray a cookie-cutter approach on account of the recurrent da capo
arias (ABA form arias) that are the musical “meat.” A similar caution should be applied by those biased against the director-centered approach to opera staging frequently labeled Regie
—by those who automatically assume productions that radically reimagine an opera’s setting, visual elements, and action are intended to “supplant” or even mock the composer’s original intentions. Alden’s decision to set Partenope
in the context of 1920s Paris is merely a starting point, not a rigid “concept” to which the score and libretto must be mercilessly tailored.
“The idea is not to airlift the piece into a specific modern context,” explains Alden. “It’s a very open-ended visual context that allows the audience to focus on the relationships and on the text and the music. I want to let all of that do the work together and not impose some meaning. For me, directing opera is a lot closer to choreography than to directing spoken theater. What I do is shaped very much by the music—that’s the bottom line. It’s not so much about interpreting a piece as about shaping it. When I direct, visual shapes come to me come straight from the music.”
It’s no coincidence that the innovative energy of the historically informed performance movement has proved to be so compatible with the outlook of Christopher Alden (and his brother, director David Alden), Nicholas Hytner, David McVicar, and other controversial directors who reject the old-fashioned stand-and-sing approach to staging Handel. Both are fueled by an intense desire to bring out the vitality of Handel’s creations—whether in the dance-inflected sensuality of his rhythms or by underscoring the emotional resonance of his theater.
“It has to do with the excitement of rediscovery of these works from the past, which for a long time seemed like dead artifacts,” says Alden says. “What’s called ‘early’ or ‘authentic’ music is just a style that emerged as another way to get in touch with these pieces.”
“What attracts me to opera, and especially to these Handel pieces, is that the music portrays so many different levels than what you find in straight naturalistic or spoken theater. Opera is a much more subconscious art form, a more opened-up art form that uses these different ways to get at things that are unspoken.”
Thomas May writes frequently for San Francisco Opera and blogs at memeteria.com.