stage

Enough already with the Handel

More and more critics are saying the famous composer is over-performed and overrated

JAIME J. WEINMAN May 14 2007
stage

Enough already with the Handel

More and more critics are saying the famous composer is over-performed and overrated

JAIME J. WEINMAN May 14 2007

Enough already with the Handel

More and more critics are saying the famous composer is over-performed and overrated

stage

BY JAIME J. WEINMAN • A few decades ago, George Frideric Handel was known only as the composer of the Hallelujah chorus from Messiah. Today, he is one of the most-performed of all baroque composers; his operas are in the repertoire of every company, and young singers are trained to sing his florid arias. In 2009, the world will observe the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, which will lead to even more performances than we’re getting now. But were we better off in the old days, when Handel was rarely performed? A surprising number of critics seem to think so.

Andrew Huth, writing for the British newspaper the Guardian, started this trend when he declared that the opera world is overdosing on Handel. “It is sometimes hard to avoid the impression of self-denying worthiness that clings to some Handel opera performances,” he wrote. He also expressed a preference for lesser-known baroque composers like Jean-Philippe Rameau, the Frenchman “whose stage works contain far more variety than anything Handel can offer.”

Other critics followed suit, citing Huth’s article as their impetus. Justin Davidson, music critic for Newsday, wrote that we are “drowning in Handel operas,” and wondered “whether the Handel boom isn’t a bubble.” Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph complained about endless Handel at London’s major classical venue: “The Barbican’s obsession with baroque opera continues with a four-hour concert performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare.” A critic who still praised Handel was Anthony Tomassini in the New York Times, writing that the Met’s production of Giulio Cesare revealed “the piercing psychological insights of this staggering masterpiece.” But if the New York Times praises something, that may prove that it’s overrated.

Is Handel overrated? His operas undoubtedly have some spectacular music. But much of it sounds the same, sometimes because it is the same: he was a notorious recycler of melodies. And most of the arias stick to a rigid format: an A section, a short B section, and a repeat (“da capo,” from the beginning) of the A section. The emotional content of the music is so non-specific that Handel could take the tune of a revenge song (from Giulio Cesare) and reuse it as a song about love (in his oratorio Se?nele). That’s more a collection of showpieces than a musical drama.

Of course, an evening of showpiece arias can be entertaining. But there’s no one around today who can get the full entertainment value out of Handel’s arias. His star parts were written for castrati, men who could sing high and loud. In the absence of that kind of singer, audiences have to settle for a heliumvoiced counter-tenor, or a buxom woman (like the Polish contralto Ewa Podles, who has played Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Toronto) pretending to be a Roman emperor. Which means that Handel operas are kind of dull when not performed by mutilated people.

Greg Sandow, music critic for the Wall StreetJournal, pointed out another problem on his blog: the things that made Handel operas work in his own time are things that today’s singers don’t have the nerve to Handel’s singers, Sandow writes, would perform all their arias while standing centre stage, “sometimes even striding into the middle of the audience on specially constructed ramps. Then they’d vary the repeated section so that the original melody completely disappeared.” Opera singing in Handel’s time was like jazz; the da capo repeats allowed the singers to create a new song from the same melody. Today’s singers are trained to stick to the written notes and stay within the bounds of good taste, so they repeat the melody carefully, and boringly, as possible.

It’s not only singers who are more tasteful than they should be. Eighteenth-century opera was meant to show off costumes, sets and special effects. Handel’s first hit, Rinaldo, has magical transformations and even a boat on the stage. The music was supposed to simple and tuneful so as not to distract attention from the spectacle; when Handel had write pieces without sets or costumes, as Messiah and other oratorios, he wrote less formulaic music. Most opera companies now don’t have the budget for lavish sets, so they focus on the drama. But in these operas, there isn’t enough drama to carry the evening.

That may be the answer to the question whether Handel operas are overrated. Handel wrote them as entertainments, and they work on that level. But when opera houses treat pure entertainment as high art, the result can be kind of boring. M