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.1 Instead of denying the inherently conventional nature of opera seria, Dean demonstrated that deeper understanding of these conventions and of the way they are manipulated in practice for dramatic purposes is necessary to appreciate Handel’s genius. Only when measured against precise standard patterns, such as the presence of a da capo aria at the end of each scene (immediately followed by the exit of the character singing that aria), do Handel’s exceptions to these patterns or rejection of them gain force. And only with the gradual accumulation of information through a series of arias sung by one character during an entire opera is that character’s personality fully realized in musical terms.

Dean illustrates the process by describing Handel’s presentation of the sorceress Alcina, who has two arias in each of the three acts of the opera that bears her name.2 In the first act she is “the amorous voluptuary” and “unashamed hedonist”; in the second “the woman scorned and then the sorceress practicing her craft.” Handel modifies details of the da capo form in the first aria of the second act in order to make a dramatic point about her conflicting emotions. In Act III she threatens Ruggiero, her unfaithful beloved, with revenge, but he vanquishes her magic powers. Her final aria is a lament: “Nothing is left but tears and a hopeless longing to drown her sorrows.” Dean concludes:

From this material, in music of exceptional psychological subtlety, Handel has created a tragic heroine whose character grows in human richness as her fortunes decline, so that her fate is profoundly moving. She has the stature of a queen, the passion of a woman in love, the evil glitter of a sorceress, and the pathos of pride brought low, for she can command everything except the love of the man she wants. Her entire part, outside the recitative, is bounded by the confines of da capo form.

This is a convincing description of the way Handel’s art, at its best, can present a richly formed and multifaceted character.


Handel’s procedures differ markedly from the ways we come to know a character in more familiar nineteenth-century Italian operas. In Verdi’s most fully realized portraits, there is a core to each character that remains part of his musical representation throughout a variety of dramatic and emotional moments. Whether she is singing “Sempre libera,” “Amami, Alfredo,” or “Addio del passato,” Violetta’s music in La Traviata seems on the verge of crossing from health into sickness, control into hysteria. When Alfredo returns in the last act and Violetta tries to reassure him about her health, Verdi’s setting of the words “Ora son forte, vedi? sorrido…” (“Now I am strong, you see? I am smiling…”), by drawing on musical elements associated with Violetta throughout the opera, belies their apparent meaning.

It is not that Verdi is a greater musical dramatist than Handel: he is working within a different set of dramaturgical and musical conventions. By clarifying conventions in Handel’s works, Dean demonstrated why wholesale cutting and reordering in the operas is destructive to the subtle balances that are the glory of Handel’s art. Few scholars would argue that these works are inviolable, demanding rigorous adherence to every note of the score in all performance circumstances. They would insist, however, that practical decisions, including cuts, need to be made with a keener awareness of the particularities of Handel’s style, rather than from theatrical “instincts” based on the dramaturgy of Wagner and Puccini.

In Handel and the Opera Seria, Dean addressed other problems of performance including the orchestral forces appropriate to Handel’s operas, improvised ornamentation, and the ways in which knowledge of Baroque stagecraft can inform modern productions. He is particularly eloquent about the choice of vocal ranges to replace the castrati, arguing that modern performers should follow Handel’s own approach. When castrati were unavailable, the composer inevitably had their parts sung by women at or near the original pitch, rather than transposing them down an octave or more for male singers.

None of these considerations, however, effectively deals with the other argument used to support intrusive modern revisions: that operatic composers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including Handel, were often less respectful of their own works than modern musicians would dream of being. How can we demand adherence to the letter of a Rossini score, when the composer himself in 1819 removed the original tragic ending of his Otello (1816) in order to appease Roman censors? “Sono innocente” (“I am innocent”) proclaims Desdemona; Otello promptly believes her, and the lovers proceed to the front of the stage to sing “Amor, possente nome” (“Love, powerful name”), borrowed from the composer’s Armida. Handel’s own revisions may not be as spectacularly inappropriate as this, but it is rare that Dean and Knapp in their new book praise them unequivocally. In the case of Floridante, they suggest that “the new music for Rossane is so sharply at variance with the character drawn in the libretto as to make dramatic nonsense,” and continue:

[The] inclusion [of two cantata arias] shows Handel consulting his own and Durastanti’s convenience [she was the soprano], not the requirements of the opera, an impression confirmed by the reversed sense of “O quanto è caro amor”. It should be put down not to cynicism but to Handel’s usual relaxed attitude to revivals.

When Dean and Knapp face this issue they seem slightly bemused and embarrassed, insisting that we must “draw a firm distinction between Handel’s treatment of revivals and his approach to the composition of a new opera.”

Reinhard Strohm, in a provocative essay, “Towards an Understanding of the opera seria,” takes a different approach. He asserts that Handel

gave each individual opera such a wealth of emotional moods, of internal musico-dramatic relationships and possibilities of interpretation that his scores survived the eroding effect of later revisions…. Handel creates operas that are neither “all of a piece” nor unalterable but can always be reshaped—at least by Handel himself—as though they were living organisms.3

But Strohm goes on to say that it “does not devolve upon us to make cuts and transpositions in order to breathe some sort of new dramatic life into these ‘works’ ” (since “the time is long past for any such attempts at revivification”). He concludes that “we should, and indeed may, retain Handel’s own versions of his works.”

This argument implicitly denies to Handel’s operas the status of “living organisms” in our contemporary musical culture. Yet if these works are to be performed today, they will be interpreted by artists according to their own aesthetic convictions. Perhaps it would be wiser to insist on knowledge, understanding, and sensitivity in modern revivals, rather than defer to versions Handel happened to produce because of particular circumstances or the presence of particular artists. What matters today is not that alterations are made, but how they are effected.


The purpose of Handel’s Operas: 1704–1726 is to provide the detailed knowledge and understanding of each work that will lead audiences to demand and artists to provide performances sensitive to Handel’s art. Two introductory chapters, “Handel as Opera Composer” and “Performance Practice,” recapitulate briefly the arguments of Dean’s earlier book, though often ignoring or insufficiently exploring current controversies. They advocate a more sparing application of ornamentation and appoggiaturas than most younger scholars and informed performers would consider justified. Although they make pointed criticism of some weaknesses in the operas, their adulation of Handel sometimes grows excessive, especially when it is buttressed by unsupported and inappropriate comparisons, pronounced ex cathedra, to other composers. Whether Rameau’s operas “can nearly always be cut without suffering major damage” is something we will not know until modern performances achieve more consistent levels of excellence.4

The book is organized as a chronological survey of Handel’s operas from the beginning of his career through March 1726, just before the arrival in London of the singer Faustina Bordoni.5 The authors divide their study into four periods: the beginning of Handel’s career as a composer of operas in Germany (1704–1706); his remarkable journeyman years in Italy (1707–1710), where his ready intelligence and musicality allowed him to combine elements of Italian style with his native art; the period at the Queen’s (King’s) Theatre in London (1711–1717); and part of Handel’s involvement with the Royal Academy of Music (1719–1726), “the most comprehensive attempt in the eighteenth century to establish high-quality opera in London, and arguably the most ambitious scheme of its kind before the foundation of the Arts Council in the present century.”6 A general introductory chapter briefly summarizes for each period the operatic cultures with which Handel came into contact, outlines the history of opera houses he worked with, and gives relevant biographical information.

The heart of the book is its discussion of the seventeen surviving operas from this period, among them some of Handel’s greatest achievements as a musical dramatist: Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda. Performers, scholars, and amateurs, as they try to understand Handel’s art, will seek guidance in these accounts. While they will find much that is rewarding, they will also find an almost impenetrable surfeit of information. In some cases fifty percent or more of a chapter could be described charitably as a critical commentary to a nonexistent edition. It is worth asking why Dean and Knapp felt it necessary to proceed in this way; the implications are important both for the problem of Handel studies today and for the state of contemporary musicology.

When a company chooses to perform a Handel opera or when a recording is planned, one of the first steps must be to find a musical score of the work. Despite the increase in the number of performances of Handel’s operas and in the number of different operas being performed, this is far from a simple matter. In fact, it is daunting and perilous. During Handel’s lifetime, few publications of his operas aspired to being complete, and even then recitatives were omitted and orchestration reduced. Toward the end of the eighteenth century the Englishman Samuel Arnold published four operas in an abortive effort to prepare a collected edition of Handel’s works.7 The most important single advance occurred during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the German musicologist Friedrich Chrysander, almost single-handedly, succeeded in producing a nearly complete scholarly edition of the works. While these volumes remain the basic printed sources for practically all of Handel’s operas,8 they pose many problems. Chrysander depended for his primary sources on a collection of Handel’s conducting scores, now in the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek in Hamburg. While he consulted Handel autographs in London, he was unaware of major collections of manuscripts in private hands. With limited sources at his disposal, he could not sort out the various versions Handel created as he revised his works. Thus it is risky to adopt Chrysander’s editions without additional information.

In the 1950s, as part of the postwar rebirth of musicology in Germany (marked by fine new editions of Bach and Mozart, the great encyclopedia Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, etc.), Handel’s birthplace, Halle, launched a new complete edition, but few volumes have been produced and scholarly acrimony has surrounded them. Apart from work on individual operas,9 we cannot expect large-scale publication of authoritative editions of Handel’s works to appear for some time.

Thus Dean and Knapp decided to treat the chapters in Handel’s Operas as compendiums of factual data for each work. (Much of this material can be found in various scholarly studies, but a highly significant amount of it is new.) They provide for each opera not only what we might expect to find in such a book—information about the original performances and revivals under Handel’s direction, a synopsis with comments on literary sources for the libretto, and a critical evaluation of the work—but much else besides. They list every contemporary production; they describe all surviving sources, including primary and secondary manuscripts, librettos and printed scores (whether complete editions or extracts); they identify copyists; they survey sources analytically, cataloging internal changes; they describe how the sources are related.

Such detailed discussion, appropriate to the commentary associated with a critical edition, becomes numbing in a book. Nor does the construction of the argument allow a reader to find a trail through the marshes. Because Chrysander’s editions fail to reproduce numerous stage directions in the original sources, Dean and Knapp apparently feel they must include in their synopses every authentic stage direction. As a result, their synopses, complicated enough because of the multiple plots of opera seria librettos, become almost impossible to follow. Similar problems arise if we attempt to extract information about the revivals Handel directed.

One can sympathize with the reasons that led Dean and Knapp to proceed in this way. In view of the pressing need of performers and scholars for accurate information about Handel’s operas, and in the absence of even remotely acceptable editions of the works, they have undertaken to share whatever information they have accumulated, and they supply a vast amount of data. But they have seriously compromised the force of their study. Their critical analyses become obscured in a maze of problems having to do with sources; their findings about various manuscripts, versions, and variations suffer from being described in cumbersome prose when it would be far more appropriate to present such information in tables of the kind normally used in critical commentaries.

Joseph Kerman, in his provocative book Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology, urges his colleagues to adopt new standards in which “criticism” would be the central task of musical scholarship; he contemptuously dismisses “the making of editions” as “positivism,” an activity that may have been acceptable “in the 1940s and 1950s,” when “there was indeed a great deal of basic research that had not yet been undertaken,” but that hardly need concern us today.10 After all, Kerman wrote, “no edition can meet every legitimate need of the specialist, who sooner or later has always to go back to the original documents themselves.” So much for textual problems. According to this vision of the musical world Chrysander’s editions are good enough. Why don’t we get on with the problem of criticism?

Dean and Knapp’s book demonstrates why music scholars cannot and must not be seduced by Kerman’s facile words. The authors contend that “Handel ranks with Monteverdi, Mozart, and Verdi among the supreme masters of opera” and yet, as they make clear, it remains difficult today to perform Handel’s works responsibly, let alone to write intelligibly about them.11 For Dean’s earlier book Handel and the Opera Seria, a broad view of the Baroque repertory, Chrysander’s editions may have been adequate, but their severe limitations inevitably affect much of the tone, content, and organization of Handel’s Operas: 1704–1726. Though the book aspires to provide a deeper understanding of Handel’s art through a concentrated study of individual works, it loses its coherence when it attempts to compensate for Chrysander’s inadequacies. By bringing this problem into the open, however, Dean and Knapp’s work may well hasten the day when the music of Handel is available in accurate critical editions to serve the needs of performers and scholars alike, with the result that Handel will finally have the public hearing he deserves.

This Issue

March 17, 1988