Tuesday 24 July 2007

Handel's Operas, volume 2

We I have finally finished the 2nd volume in Winton Dean's amazing trawl through the complete Handel operas.
This 2nd volume is the one that people thought that Dean would never complete, after all he is over 90 and his collaborator in volume 1 has subsequently died.

This volume covers the 2nd half of the Academy operas (from the two divas rivalry) to the end. The format is essentially the same as volume 1 so the interested amateur has
a lot of information about libretti, editions, manuscripts to wade through. But even this esoterica is well worth the effort as, in the absence of definitive documentation about the performance of the works, it is the close reading of what information we have which gives us the context for the works.
Essentially we get a full summary of the plot, including all of the rubrics from the printed libretto, an aria by aria discussion grouped by character, something of the history of the work and its performances, details of manuscripts and printed libretti.
The inclusion of the comprehensive rubrics is useful as many later sources reduce these and the full scene descriptions give us a clearer idea of what was in the librettist and composer's head.
With the long gap (over 20 years) between the first and second book we have seen far more productions of Handel operas in main stream opera houses. Dean does not hesitate to comment on these, after all it is not that long ago that he was still writing opera reviews for Oper Magazine.
He is dubious about many of the productions, including ENO's seminal Xerxes.
In his review of the book in Opera magazine, Hugh Canning was not completely sympathetic with Dean's rather purist view of Handel opera production. But I find myself rather agreeing with Dean.
Whilst I can appreciate the clever mechanics of a production like Xerxes and can more than empathise with the way it has made Handel opera popular,
I think some how it does rather falsify the relationships of the characters.

Fundementally Dean regards Handel as a great dramatist; if the operas are treated sympathetically then the characters will be strongly and well drawn.
Productions which try to alter and improve things, the great majority I'm afraid, only suceed in bringing in an
element of falsity. I wish I was a little more sympathetic to contemporary Handel opera production, but again and again find myself agreeing with Dean.
When I do like aspects of a production, I find that often these are the aspects which are disliked by critics.
I remember when the Royal Opera's Orlando was first done, we both enjoyed the fluency with with Francisco Negrin staged it.
With the rotating set he managed to make the scenes flow into each other in a way that is not often done. Too often
we have big hold-ups between scenes which is not the way the productions were conceived in the first place. But this
aspect of Negrin's production was just the one which seemed to be overlooked or disliked by critics.

Dean's book give plenty of room for thought; especially in the areas where Handel's inspiration seemed to be inextricably linked
to the circumstances of an opera's first production. His sequence of operas for the twin divas have much admirable music, but the necessity of balancing the 2 soprano parts
seems to have robbed his creativity somewhat, perhaps the studied calculation necessary was alien to his compositional make up in some way.

Another fascinating thing is how he seems to have dissociated himself from an opera once written.
Operas that have faults almost never seem to have them corrected in revival, its as if he approaches the revival purely as an impresario and not as a composer revising his work.

There is much food for thought in the book and it seems to be essential on the Library shelves, along with volume 1 and Dean's volume on the oratorios.

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