Let Handel Be Handel

Handel’s Operas: 1704–1726

by Winton Dean, by John Merrill Knapp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 751 pp., $59.95

Eighteenth-century Italian opera seria, once considered a theatrical form of small interest to modern audiences, is proving far more durable than even music historians might have suspected. Within the past few years operas by Handel and Vivaldi have been performed with considerable success not only by state-supported theaters in Europe whose box-office receipts are less nervously scrutinized than those in the United States, but also by the major houses in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, and San Francisco, not to mention by numerous regional companies and university theaters. Nor has the recording industry lagged behind. Whether in versions insisting on “original instruments” and “authentic” style or those more willing to compromise with a modern sound ideal, recorded Baroque opera, both Italian and French, is more widely available than ever before.

As the number of productions has increased, performers have grown more sensitive to the particular characteristics of the genre. Many Americans were first introduced to Handel’s operas through a performance (and subsequent recording) of Giulio Cesare at the New York City Opera in 1966. Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp, in their Handel’s Operas: 1704–1726, describe this production of Giulio Cesare as a “travesty,” and refer to the score on which it was apparently based as “a lethal concentration of historical inaccuracy, wilful misrepresentation, and Philistine insensitivity,” which “reduce[s] the opera to abject nonsense.” Already in 1966 many musicians and critics were aware that the City Opera Giulio Cesare was far removed from Handel’s art.

Defenders of the production argued that modern audiences could not be expected to sit through such a static and repetitive art form as Italian opera seria, with its interminable passages of secco recitative (without full orchestral accompaniment) leading to arias (thirty or more per opera). Most of these arias, no matter how beautiful they may be individually, are so-called da capo arias, in ABA form, with the singer expected to provide vocal variations during the repeat of the A section. Furthermore, many roles were written for either soprano or alto male castrati, and no one in the authentic performance movement has yet suggested that we revive the practice of “the little knife.” Thus, on purely internal grounds, the argument continued, it was essential to make large-scale cuts, rearrange the musical and dramatic structure to suit modern taste, and shift the vocal ranges. For many of these manipulations, historical precedent could be invoked. Handel himself, in company with other composers of the age, almost never revived an opera without reworking it to suit new performers and changing circumstances. It would, the defenders of Giulio Cesare and other “travesties” of Handel argued, be antiquarian pedantry to forbid modern musicians from taking similar liberties.

In his Ernest Bloch lectures for 1965–1966 at the University of California, Berkeley, Winton Dean challenged these assumptions and laid out a largely convincing theory of the dramaturgical and musical bases for Handel’s operatic art. Instead of denying the inherently conventional nature of opera seria …

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