Monday 5 January 2009

The compleat Handel

As part of the Handel centenary celebrations, Radio 3 is planning to broadcast all 42 of his operas. They span a remarkable 40 year period of his career and the vast majority were written for London. Yet the remain very little known. Most ordinary opera goers have heard only a tiny handful. A Handel freak like myself has heard less than half of them in 30 years of opera going. if you're interested the ones I've seen are:- Agrippina, Alcina, Ariodante, Flavio, Lotario, Giulio Cesare, Giustino, Radamisto, Rinaldo, Rodelinda, Orlando, Partenope, Poro, Serse, Siroe, Scipione, Tamerlano, Teseo, Tolomeo.

One problem with the operas is that to the uninitiated they can all sound the same. This seems to apply to Emma Pomfret whom the Guardian persuaded to listen to all 42 operas and write about it in an article in the Guardian which would almost be enough to put you off listening to Handel again.

Of course, to the uninitiated everything can sound the same. If you don't like Puccini, or are resistant to his charms, then inevitably all his music sounds alike. Handel, on stage, suffers also from problems with the way it is produced and poor dramaturgy is something which I've come across repeatedly on stage. For Handel to work you've got to understand the structure of opera seria and the arias. A good producer can help a newcomer appreciate Handel's stylised world, a poor producer can make the operas sound pointless. But when listening, you've got to do the work yourself. Throughout his career Handel played with form. The earlier London operas are a bit hide-bound by the requirements of the opera company's noble sponsors who seemed to expect Serious Opera. Later in his career Handel was able to be more flexible and to create a dramatic point by playing with our expectations, particularly in the moments where he fails to deliver the da capo just when we think it is coming. To appreciate this though, you've got to follow what is going on.

So listening to the Complete Handel will require work, but it will be rewarding. I'm not going to be able to hear it live, the BBC are broadcasting it in the Afternoons. But I will definitely be using their Listen Again activity.

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