Handel on the Stage.
In his preface, David Kimbell says that "this book is addressed to those who wish to know a little more about Handel's operas and to understand them a little better". This is not "a systematic examination of all the operas" but reflections "on some more general material about them". The book does indeed lay out and study the intellectual and cultural background and practices of music and theatre in Handel's time, and is one of the most considered and interesting books on Handel opera to have appeared in recent times.
The first chapter is a scenic canter through Handel's opera-composing career: analytic, concise, and to-the-point. Kimbell makes many assumptions--such phrases as "Handel must often have found ...", and "Presumably Handel also knew ..." are fairly frequent--but these assumptions are never unreasonable, and are probably unavoidable. His narrative is, however, deeply rooted in a long acquaintance with Handel's life and music. The chapter raises some interesting points. For example, Kimbell locates the early London operas (Rinaldo, etc.) in the English masque tradition. Not only did serious theatre need serious spectacle, but "the idea of music as heightened declamatory speech, as in the Mediterranean traditions of ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, was no part of English aesthetics" (p. 19). He picks up on this again later, with Handel's move to John Rich's Covent Garden Theatre, where Handel took "a more flexible, multimedia approach to the theatrical arts", and where his operas reflected themes traditional to English theatre--"Romance-Enchantment" (p. 39). He picks up on English taste again in the third chapter, on librettos: "whereas recitatives in Italy could be extensive, the recitative-aria ratio for the London audience had to be heavily weighted to the latter" (p. 83).
Opera was, he reminds us, fragile: the 1720s showed that "Italian opera was not really taking, and that London society's enthusiasm for it was limited" (p. 53). The precariousness of opera lies under his biographical chapter, but Kimbell never labours the point. He deals succinctly with the importance of royal patronage, the harm of any sort of operatic rivalry, and the effect on the operas themselves of gambling on public taste. He also rehabilitates John Rich--not a philistine, but a man who appreciated that art cost money.
The book's second part analyses the operas themselves: the context and metamorphoses of librettos, the composition and meaning of the music. Kimbell offers a useful explanation of Italian metre, a "checklist of Italian operas", and a series of tightly-crafted sub-chapters breaking analysis into manageable portions. He also makes use of the excursus: detailed examples are contained in a big text box (sometimes lasting pages), easily visible so that one can either read it or carry on with the main body of the book. This is excellent, and both he and the publisher must be praised on the clarity of the layout.
Kimbell contextualises Handel's librettos, discussing Zeno's reforms and the literary and dramatic intentions of the librettists in their pre-Londonised works. In an excursus, he explores that "Londonisation", where the aria-to-recitative ratio is increased, and dramma per musica becomes more musica and, perhaps, less dramma. Kimbell's essays on the librettos and their authors are thoughtful and thought-provoking. He deals sensibly with the topic of borrowing: the issue here is not that Handel borrowed, but what he borrowed and what he did with it. Indeed, Kimbell uses the lovely Mattheson quotation that "borrowing is permissible; but one must return the thing borrowed with interest". Kimbell illustrates this by exploring how Handel treats the same musical theme, using, as an example, Keiser's "Ruhig sein", which appeared in various of Handel's works. There is further food for thought in his tour through "the infinite variety of the da capo aria". Arguing that "Handel's sense of character ... deserves more specifically musical investigation than it has received" (p. 151), he discusses components of arias such as thematic fragments, ritornelli, and orchestration to highlight Handel's own exploration of character. This is a chapter that singers, and particularly, directors would do well to peruse. For example, he notes the joy of Ginevra in the tiniest musical details--a joy which is temporarily extinguished in Act II, but returns, with melismas in Act III; such joy was entirely lacking in the most recent London production of Ariodante.
The final section of the book, its ritornello, perhaps, is devoted to the story of the Handel opera stage. The descriptions of Handel's own theatres are brief, but many points are packed in--for example, the lack of spectacle at the Royal Academy and the replacement of spectacle at Covent Garden--and what that meant for the choice of subject and the drama of the operas. This historical context is a prelude to the main part, an essay on how to stage Handel opera.
Without being prescriptive, Kimbell argues for sympathetic staging. He laments the "cliches of contemporary theatre (rolling in the dust [etc.]", and "the common blight of frenzy", p. 188), the "concept" and "irony". His critiques of several notable opera productions will not suit the post-modern relativists, but will, I suspect, strike a chord with anyone who knows anything about Handel. I myself was castigated by one musicologist for rubbishing the recent Kosky Saul [sic], whose concept of "baroque excess" I had clearly failed to understand. I probably failed to understand it because it was a misrepresentation of the eighteenth-century "value system": "might one not hope", writes Kimbell, "that a stage director would acknowledge ... some plausibility, some merit ... in that value-system ... ?" (p. 195). His is a robust argument for letting the music dictate the drama, not the other way round.
Kimbell's discussion of the music of various operas will no doubt become a goldmine for programme-note writers; his exploration of the contexts of Handel's opera should be a great aid to music students. But the book as a whole is a well-written, thought-provoking read for any Handelian. I hope that Cambridge University Press will publish the book in a more affordable paperback edition soon.
Arlington, East Sussex
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|Publication:||Fontes Artis Musicae|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2017|
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