Saturday 26 January 2013

Handel opera revival, the early days in England

Unicorn Theatre, Abingdon
When I first came to London in 1981, a highlight of the year was the annual Handel Opera Society performances at Sadlers' Wells Theatre, providing a rare opportunity to see Handel's opera seria on stage. But things were changing, English National Opera's productions of Julius Caesar and Xerxes, Kent Opera's Agrippina,  and then the 1985 Handel centenary meant that Handel opera started to go mainstream. But it was the pioneering work of smaller groups such as the Handel Opera Society, Alan Kitching at the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon and the Barber Institute in Birmingham which laid the ground work for this revival.

Handel opera in England starts with Edward Dent, the musicologist, who organised abridged semi-staged performances of Giulio Cesare in the Foundling Hospital in 1927, with Rinaldo and Rodelinda following in 1933 and 1939.

After the 2nd World War, Dent would help Charles Farncombe set up the Handel Opera Society in 1955. This was a period when orchestras were experimenting with lighter textures, springier rhythms and quicker tempos in baroque music. The music of Handel and Purcell was being discovered in new ways (Geraint Jones would perform Dido and Aeneas with Kirsten Flagstad at the Mermaid Theatre, going on to make an influential recording). The 50's saw the founding of the Arnold Goldsborough Orchestra (now the English Chamber Orchestra) and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

The Handel Opera Society would perform some 28 Handel stagings (both opera and oratorios) with many notable names, including Joan Sutherland, until the withdrawal of their Arts Council grant in 1989. The sometime president of the Handel Opera Society was Anthony Lewis, professor of Music at Birmingham from 1947 to 1968. Lewis, along with Ivor Keys, would be responsible for an important series of Handel opera productions at the Barber Institute in Birmingham with notable names such as Janet Baker.

In 1952 Alan Kitching and his wife were walking through the ruins of Abingdon Abbey Buildings when it struck him that the space called the Checker Hall would make a good little theatre. What was constructed was an Elizabethan style theatre. (The theatre still exists and can be hired). Besides Restoration and other theatre, Kitching also put on an influential series of Handel opera productions between 1959 and 1974. The list of operas produced is impressive, including Orlando, Floridante, Giustino, Admeto, Poro, Flavio, Sosarme, Il Pastor Fido, Agrippina and Amadigi. Some of these being the first performance or UK performance since Handel's time. The Unicorn Theatre was tiny, which meant that there was no room for a full string section and operas were given in English translation (made by Alan Kitching himself).

Production standards for these were at best elementary, and the Handel Opera Society sometimes veered dangerously close to am-dram. Costumes were generally of Handel's day. But a wonderful range of singers were involved, whole generations of young Handelians got their first experiences. And all three were important in the allocation of the correct voice types to Handel's roles, rather than transposing men characters down an octave (which was the prevalent solution in German).

I remember seeing a Handel Opera Society production of Belshazzar in the 1980's which seemed basic and elementary (especially when it came to handling the amateur chorus), but which was a revelation in terms of the work's dramatic power, particularly the long opening scenes. Possibly never performed in their full version by Handel, we were treated to (I think) Felicity Palmer as Nitocris and James Bowman as Daniel. Other productions of theirs which I saw included Partenope (with Paul Esswood), Xerxes (with James Bowman in the title role) and Giustino (with Della Jones and Eiddwen Harrhy).

It is well worth bearing in mind that productions in the 1950's had to start from scratch. Not even Winton Dean considered the operas to be fully stageworthy, and there were no recordings, librettos or printed scores. But miracles were achieved, and Winton Dean would hold some of the Abingdon productions up as examples. I particularly remember him using the speed, litheness and handling of recitatives in an Abingdon production of Julius Caesar as a stick to beat ENO with, with their decision to cut arias and to handle the recitatives in what he saw to be a ponderous and inauthentic manner.

Nowadays we can encounter Handel's operas with moderate regularity. Thanks to the collaboration between the London Handel Festival and the Royal College of Music, production standards for the festival's annual opera are rather higher than the old Handel Opera Society days. But we should not forget the pioneering work done in the 1950's.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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