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Endless Pleasure?

 

Jonathan Keates on the staging of Handel\'s oratorios (from August 2015)

 

When the oratorio genre was first invented, in late-16th-century Rome, its object, according to one contemporary writer, was ‘to draw sinners to holy exercises by means of a sweet deception\'. At a purpose-built prayer hall-oratorio-beside the church of Santa Maria in Valicella, the saintly Filippo Neri, already well on the way to canonization, encouraged the performance of short musical dramas to add spiritual uplift to his religious discussion groups. The new form caught on at once and its ‘sweet deception\' soon found itself marching in step with opera, the must-have entertainment in courts and cities across Baroque Europe.

Oratorio\'s dramatic potential was clear from the outset. Felice Anerio\'s Eccone il gran Damasco, for example, telling the story of St Paul\'s conversion, features choruses of soldiers and angels, a voice from heaven, and orchestral interludes to heighten different moods, all crammed into 20 minutes. Other ‘sacred histories\' exploit the tension between spirituality and sex, 200 years before Thaïs or Samson et Dalila gave it full-on theatrical treatment. Alessandro Scarlatti\'s Santa Teodosia includes a temptation scene in which the eponymous martyr is wooed (in vain, of course) by her sighing lover Prince Arsenio. In Marco Vinacesi\'s Susanna, meanwhile, the lustful Elders drool over the heroine as she undresses for bathing and the erotic tone is heightened by a striking aria, sung as Susanna frisks in the pool, whose echo warns her that ‘a secret snake threatens your honour\'.

But was any of these works meant to be staged? Oratorio was certainly conceived as musical theatre, with star castratos sometimes taking part in the performance and the cast of saints, patriarchs and prophets comparing themselves, in best operatic style, with storm-tossed ships, warbling turtle doves or immovable oak trees. Yet nobody, whether in Italy or in countries beyond the Alps, eagerly absorbing oratorio into their different musical traditions, ever considered putting it on the stage with all the attendant artifice of sets, costumes, make-up and lighting.

Until fairly recently, that is. Blame it, if you like, on George Frideric Handel and the astounding recovery, over the past three decades, of his entire operatic output, adding works including Giulio Cesare, Alcina and Serse to the standard operatic repertoire and making all 37 Italian lyric dramas available on CD. Hungry for more courses in the Handelian banquet, directors and theatre managements have focused, at the same time, on those very same English oratorios that were once thought to embody the composer\'s rejection, high-minded and wholesale, of opera seria and its wicked world of divas, eunuchs and other kinds of unsavoury Johnny Foreigner. Nearly all of them on biblical themes, Handel\'s oratorios had assumed the status of ‘healthy option\' foods on a menu otherwise teeming with decadent alternatives-the musical equivalent of quinoa, tofu and beansprouts as opposed to the whipped cream, calvados and meringues of opera. Now it was proposed to drag them before the footlights, put away the choral society\'s brown-and-cream-coloured Novello vocal scores and replace the quasi-ecclesiastical approach to performance with a total stage makeover, as if Handel had always destined these pieces for a gilded horseshoe with velvet upholstery, an orchestra tucked into the pit and stellar vocal pyrotechnics within the proscenium arch.

Even before the worldwide Handel rediscovery began, launched by the 1985 tercentennial, there had been sporadic attempts to de-sacralize some of the oratorios and bring them inside the theatre. Winton Dean\'s classic Handel\'s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (1959) lists an intriguing range of such efforts, from Athalia in Falmouth and Monte-Carlo and Alexander Balus in Münster to Joshua in Aberdare and a Cambridge Susanna during which an onstage tree chose to blow into the orchestra just as the Second Elder sang his aria about ‘the oak that for a thousand years withstood the tempest\'s might\'. The Handel Opera Society, meanwhile, using its exiguous budget to cast pioneering light into neglected corners, brought us a Belshazzar with dance episodes during the Babylonian choruses and the Writing On The Wall flashing across a screen reminiscent of the electronic indicator on a London Underground platform.

In 1985 itself the Royal Opera House-which could have chosen to honour the composer by reviving Ariodante or Alcina, both written for the first Covent Garden theatre, opened in 1732-chose instead to present a fully-staged version of Samson. The work had been premiered at Covent Garden in 1743, but in the concert style generally accepted as suitable for sacred oratorio. At the time Horace Walpole noted acidly:

Handel has set up an Oratorio against the Operas and succeeds. He has hired all the goddesses from farces and singers of ‘Roast Beef\' between the acts, with a man with one note in his voice and a girl without ever an one, and so they sing and make brave hallelujahs, and the good company encore the recitative, if it happens to have any cadence like what they call a tune.

The 1985 Samson aimed at superior standards to those so snobbishly pooh-poohed by Walpole. The title role was sung by Jon Vickers, a memorable blind hero in a 1958 production at the Opera House with designs by Oliver Messel, in which the young Joan Sutherland dazzled audiences with her ‘Let the bright seraphim\'. During the intervening quarter-century, however, our understanding of Handel interpretation had altered and improved significantly. Vickers, now past his best and failing to impress, had made clear his rooted antagonism to period instruments and lectured the cast on the abnormality of countertenors, a prejudice apparently rooted in his evangelical Christian beliefs. There is in fact no part for countertenor in Samson. The role of Micah was written for a female mezzo, and Sarah Walker\'s account of it lent distinction to an otherwise embarrassing occasion, with the stodgiest of tempos from Julius Rudel in the pit and much irrelevant onstage shuffling to and fro by a posse of masked flunkeys dressed as undertakers\' mutes.

If it was almost nobody\'s finest hour, this Samson at any rate helped to underline several important questions as regards the staging of Handel\'s oratorios. Was his abandonment of the Italian lyric stage, with Deidamia in 1741, an irrevocable farewell to the whole genre ? The Victorians would doubtless have wanted us to believe that. In this connection I treasure the title of an 1869 Musical Times article by the composer George Macfarren, ‘The Italian Language: its evil influence upon music\', in which Handel\'s operas are damned as ‘cast in a form that limited the workings of the mighty genius of the master and allowed no play to its higher attributes\' and in which a final coffin-nail is driven home with the verdict that ‘his operas will never, and can never be performed again\'.

Yet there is no evidence, either from the Handelian horse\'s mouth or from any of his friends, that in propitious circumstances, with adequate singers and that near-impossibility, a solvent theatre management, he might not have made a glorious return to the opera house. The oratorios are abundantly operatic in their musical style, and most of their early interpreters, singers such as John Beard, Susanna Cibber and Elisabeth Duparc, were grounded in stage experience. Even Messiah, which at first seems deliberately to eschew a dramatic narrative, is irrepressibly theatrical, in everything from the angel\'s appearance to the shepherds or the duet ‘O death, where is thy sting?\'-placed where operatic duets normally belong, just before the end of the show-to airs such as ‘Rejoice greatly\' and ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth\', each of which would not make nearly so much impact without the perspective afforded Handel by almost 40 years of notable achievement in the musical theatre.

How calculated, then, is his effort towards making his oratorios work as dramas in music, at a time when English religious decorum would not allow a fully-staged presentation of them? Handel\'s contemporaries knew the conditions on which oratorio performance was permitted and some of them certainly confessed to wanting just a little more latitude in this respect. ‘Were they indeed to make a regular Drama of a good Scripture Story\', wrote an anonymous pamphleteer in 1732, ‘and perform it with proper Decorations, which may be done with as much Reverence in proper Habits as their own common Apparel, then would the Stage appear in its full lustre.\'

Handel seems to have been perfectly happy to work within the limits of Georgian England\'s religious conventions as long as nothing threatened his infallible instinct for shaping powerful characters and incidents from the materials of a given libretto. This does not mean, however, that listening to Athalia, Belshazzar or Jephtha we should imagine, somewhere inside the score, a baffled Verdi or Wagner struggling to break free. The dividing line between opera and oratorio was one he showed no obvious interest in trying to cross or to blur. In each of the two genres he is experimenting with a different kind of structure, for opera a linear narrative like a play or a novel, for oratorio something often much closer to a sequence of tableaux or episodes, in which the chorus plays a decisive role, setting the mood, drawing the moral and bringing us closer to the work\'s spiritual heart.

None of these considerations has deterred modern directors and theatre programme planners from seeking to bring the oratorios (most of them, at any rate) into the operatic orbit. In the ego-driven world of Konzeptregie productions, the epic canvas of ‘a good Scripture Story\' often has more appeal, with its simpler plotlines and broader ethical issues, than the intimate palace intrigues of opera seria. In such works Handel\'s massive, autonomous, freewheeling personality is simply too magnetic for an ambitious director to ignore. This was undoubtedly true for Peter Sellars in his 1996 Glyndebourne production of Theodora, an achievement that established a benchmark for all subsequent stagings of Handel\'s sacred dramas.

The composer\'s favourite among his works, Theodora was a conspicuous failure at its first performance in 1750. ‘The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one,\' he concluded glumly. The verdict of a friend that the piece was ‘as finished, beautiful and laboured a composition as ever Handel made\' has had to wait for confirmation until our own day. For Sellars, lyric drama essentially occupies a world of metaphor, and it was precisely this aspect of Theodora he most cherished. Dramatically he saw it as a two-hander for the heroine and her lover Didymus, culminating in the duet ‘Streams of pleasure\', which he called ‘a soundtrack for two people leaving this world that is as chilling as anything Handel ever wrote\'. The oratorio, in Sellars\'s reading, evolved from the composer\'s decision to ‘make a Theatre of the Mind that is more exciting than anything I could put on the stage\'.

The production\'s visual statements were calculated to shock. I use this last word advisedly, since that very same final duet was staged with Theodora and Didymus strapped to gurneys and awaiting execution by lethal injection. Few of us will ever forget Glyndebourne\'s American Theodora for the way in which the clean lines of Sellars\'s opera-as-metaphor style emphasized the score\'s austere grandeur, sensitively served by not just Dawn Upshaw and David Daniels as the martyred pair but Lorraine Hunt in the key role of Irene, touching the celestial in ‘As with rosy steps the morn\'.

Both the director and the conductor, William Christie, were reportedly thrilled to work with the Glyndebourne Chorus, lauded by Sellars for ‘their idealism, their sense of vocal beauty and freshness, the idea that their whole lives are in front of them\'. How to manage the choral numbers is among the bigger challenges of staging a Handel oratorio. These magnificent pieces, in all their expressive vigour and variety, are both the fabric\'s cornerstones and indicators of change in mood or pace within the work\'s dramatic continuity. More significantly, their collective utterance reaches out to include and embrace us as their listeners. Handel\'s choruses, democratic and universal by their very nature, transcend the petty snobberies and insecurities of the age in which they were written.

The problems involved in making them function adequately on stage are less obvious in Theodora, where a musical distinction is made between festive pagans and meditative Christians, than in Jephtha, the oratorio that immediately followed it. Thomas Morell, the librettist for both works, in the latter case fashioned a drama relying substantially on the classic conflict between public duty and private emotion, embodied by the fulfilment of the biblical champion\'s rash vow to sacrifice to God ‘whatsoever first cometh forth from my house to meet me\' in return for victory over the Ammonites. The latter, though mentioned in Morell\'s scenario, do not appear and the chorus of Israelites becomes a medium for commentary on successive phases of the action, rather than a direct participant in the story.

What various Jephtha stagings have tended to open up is a disconnection, not obvious in the concert hall, between the central quintet of soloists, with their arias, recitatives and ensembles, and the role of the chorus alongside them. The choral numbers are among Handel\'s most portentous, revealing his unrivalled mastery of the medium, but directors have not so far satisfactorily resolved the difficulty of what to do with the massed singers while on stage, let alone that of how to get them on or off it when the time comes.

A more difficult issue altogether, here as in other oratorios, is the 18th-century convention of the lieto fine, the happy ending in which villains repent, enemies are reconciled and the action closes amid a general atmosphere of satisfied rejoicing. We don\'t trust happy endings nowadays, having persuaded ourselves, God knows why, that there is something basically unrealistic, vulgar and infantile about a story that doesn\'t end in cynicism, betrayal and despair. Thus directorial sophistication all too often ordains a bizarre contradiction between the smiling serenity radiating from a Handelian finale and the gratuitous acts of violence being perpetrated even as the singers proclaim their communal joy. In this connection I recall, with teeth-grinding fury, the recent ENO Rodelinda, with a dynastic assassination lining itself up for poor Bertarido, and an Alcina in Cologne where the director, arrogantly convinced that he knew better than Handel about how the opera should end, denied us the thrilling recall to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness proposed by its two closing ensembles and left the cast enveloped in mutual detestation.

There\'s perhaps more excuse for giving up on the happy ending of Hercules, where the lethal brew of jealousy, madness and manslaughter with a poisoned shirt would seem to make catastrophe inevitable. Instead, following the tidings of the dead hero\'s ascent to Olympus and Dejanira\'s bewildered return to something like sanity, the young lovers Iole and Hyllus join in a decorous duet and some cheerful trumpeting adds sheen to a buoyant finale. Nobody has quite got the theatrical measure of this archetypal flawed masterpiece, looking forward to Gluck and the Mozart of Lucio Silla and Idomeneo, though Luc Bondy\'s 2004 Aix-en-Provence production was coherent and courageous enough to be going on with. The original rejection of Hercules by 18th-century audiences surely owed much to a contemporary penchant for cut-and-dried artistic categories, into none of which the piece, a hybrid of opera seria with Sophoclean tragedy, properly fitted.

 Neither, for that matter, did the composer\'s venturesome treatment of Congreve\'s Semele, a libretto originally designed for the wayward musical genius of John Eccles in the twilight years of Restoration music theatre. Of all Handel\'s English-language dramas, this is the one that forfeits the most of its impact when denied a theatrical dimension. A leavening of the mythological narrative with wit, irony and sophistication, however, needs extremely skilful calibration by the director if it is not to degenerate into unrestrained camp.

John Copley\'s 1982 Covent Garden production scarcely avoided this. It was picturesque à la Gainsborough, elaborately costumed; the beautiful lieto fine, with its deus ex machina, was played entirely straight, thank goodness. We were too easily distracted from hubristic Semele\'s slide towards nemesis, nevertheless, by inappropriate moments of farce (remember Morpheus showing off his black boxer-briefs?) and a somewhat patronizing attitude to the piece\'s governing aesthetic, as if the Georgians were really a bit of a hoot.

Much more successful in this respect was Robert Carsen\'s version for ENO, in which the glamour of the stage pictures was hard-edged, tinged with a vein of brittle cruelty, and Juno, even if got up like Someone We Know with crown and handbag, was entirely credible as a wronged wife seeking revenge.

Equally striking in its visual idiom was that most engaging of all attempts at bringing oratorio into the opera house, Mark Morris\'s dance interpretation of L\'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato, an extended cantata based on Milton\'s poems, without anything in the nature of a dramatic scenario. To a lucid and radiant rendering of the score by soloists, choir and players in the pit, dancers on stage in shades of lollipop, peardrop and peppermint humbug realized the music\'s evocative potential with the aid of Morris\'s artfully naive choreography. This latter, often censured for its hoppety-skippety self-consciousness, worked brilliantly in the cause of encouraging us to hang on to our dreams of the rustic and the pastoral just as fervently as our Georgian ancestors did.

On another Handelian planet entirely from L\'allegro is Saul, epic in design, opulent in orchestration, and the composer\'s most monumental creation. No earlier specialist in sacred drama\'s ‘sweet deceptions\' had conceived an oratorio on quite this scale, and Handel himself never again attempted anything so tremendous. Barrie Kosky is directing a new production for the current Glyndebourne season. We haven\'t met, but I\'m taking the liberty of sending him my wish-list, as follows:

1. Don\'t cut the overture, a four-movement symphony, sprightly, rousing and tuneful. Keep the curtain down and allow us to enjoy it for the finely-crafted piece it is.

2. In fact, don\'t cut anything. Audiences who can last five hours with Wagner are perfectly capable of spending three with Handel.

3. Reflect that Saul has several narratives: the traditional scripture story, a human drama of love, envy and obsession, and a subversive commentary on contemporary politics. Help us to pick out their different styles of discourse.

4. Don\'t be too relentless with the grit. Give us some colour and light occasionally. There\'s an immense fund of lyrical beauty in this score, so allow us to enjoy it. And even if you don\'t believe in ghosts yourself, try not to fudge the apparition of the prophet Samuel in Saul\'s bone-chilling encounter with the Witch of Endor.

5. Remember that David\'s great lament over Saul and Jonathan isn\'t the end of the show. There\'s an upbeat final chorus to follow. Let it stay like that.

6. And please no gaberdines, pinstripes or utility skirts. We\'re counting on you.

Barrie Kosky\'s production of ‘Saul\' opens at Glyndebourne on July 23 and runs throughout August, with Ivor Bolton conducting a cast including Christopher Purves, Iestyn Davies, Lucy Crowe and Sophie Bevan.

 

2017 Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine(Nov16)
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