by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, May 8, 2006.
There is nothing in music more unstoppably beautiful than a Handel aria moving in slow, regal splendor. It is like a godly machine, crushing all ugliness and plainness in its path. Consider “Ombra mai fù,” an ode to a shady tree, from the 1738 opera “Serse.” It has a stately tempo marking (Larghetto); a swaying meter of three-quarter time; a hypnotic procession of quarter notes in the bass; and immaculate lyric turns in the upper parts and the solo voice. As Baroque art goes, it is not very baroque. Not a single note is out of place, or seems to have been put there for a decorative purpose. The aria is all structure, as if it were an ideal modern building whose girders are gorgeous in themselves. There is something uncanny about how the segments are joined together. Often, the changing chords of any given bar pivot on a single tone, and this tone is found sometimes in the bass, sometimes in the middle parts, sometimes on top. Like a great river in the sun—the best way to track such music is by a triangulation of metaphors—the aria glitters on the surface and flows powerfully below.
For a long time, the better part of George Frideric Handel’s output seemed destined for oblivion, with “Messiah,” the “Water Music,” and other popular favorites standing in for the rest. In the past decade or two, however, beauty has triumphed over time, and dozens of Handel’s operas and oratorios have crossed over into the mainstream repertory. So far this year, “Hercules” has been staged at BAM, “Acis and Galatea” has played at New York City Opera, and “Solomon” has had a concert performance at Lincoln Center. This month, “Rodelinda” runs at the Metropolitan Opera. Deluxe recordings are piling up; some recent highlights are René Jacobs’s vigorous version of “Saul,” Alan Curtis’s tasteful “Radamisto,” and strongly characterized recitals by Sandrine Piau, Cecilia Bartoli, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who sings a near-definitive “Ombra mai fù.” With the release of Curtis’s “Lotario” in 2004, all thirty-nine surviving Handel operas have been recorded.
It’s a bit of a mystery why Handel has become so crucial for early-twenty-first-century listeners. The prior century made a cult of Bach, whose music takes the form of an endless contrapuntal quest. Perhaps, in an age of information overload and ambient fear, we have more need for Handel’s gentler, steadier art. At the same time, though, this composer appeals to the permanent hunger for high-class melodrama and psychological theatre. Not only the operas but also some of the oratorios have proved stageworthy; Peter Sellars’s deeply gripping 1996 production of “Theodora,” which is available on DVD, was a landmark in this respect. Handel commands our attention with bold changes of tone, vivid swings from joy to rage, and spells of paralyzing sadness. From time to time, he lifts his façades to disclose a shadowy background, full of broken forms and desperate gestures. He does not conceal the artifice of his mythological stories—deus-ex-machina endings seem designed to cause as much amusement as awe—and thereby acknowledges the limits of art. He does not want to save the world, only to make it better for a little while.
Handel was born in Saxony in 1685, moved to London in 1712, and died there in 1759. Scholars have lately been poking around in the corners of his biography, trying to flesh out the opaque image that appears in standard histories—that of the grumpy German music master with the waspish tongue. Ruth Smith has studied the composer’s relationship to the politics of his time, showing how his grand Israelite oratorios metaphorically celebrated the regime of King George II, while also leaving room for religious dissent and contrary thought. Donald Burrows has emphasized the piety and workmanship of this seemingly worldly, lordly figure. Gary Thomas and Ellen Harris have delved into the composer’s sexuality, drawing implications from the fact that he often moved in what would now be described as gay circles. We get the sense of a crafty character who had a flair for satisfying diverse constituencies without becoming captive to any of them. He was at once a great artist and a great entrepreneur, who somehow insured that business imperatives never compromised his artistic values.
Unconfirmed reports of a gay Handel—there is no definite evidence of a relationship either with a man or with a woman—have caught the fancy of directors, who have used them as an excuse to camp up the operas mercilessly. Seldom is there an up-tempo scene in Handel without a lot of prancing to dotted rhythms, often in ersatz Mark Morris moves. City Opera’s recent Handel productions have worked the camp angle, though not to excess. Mark Lamos stages the pastoral tragedy “Acis” as an ambisexual garden party disrupted by a ridiculous dancing version of the giant Polyphemus, but he manages to find tenderness and complexity in the scenario. By having Damon, Acis’s boon companion, hold his friend in his arms during the aria “Consider, fond shepherd,” he echoes a remarkable find in Harris’s book “Handel as Orpheus”—that the climactic trio of the opera is based on a same-sex love poem by Alexander Pope. There is something recognizably Handelian about this production’s intermingling of preciousness and heartbreak. By contrast, Luc Bondy’s stark, modern staging of the oratorio “Hercules” is too solemn by half, unable to give life to those long sections of the work in which characters set out their feelings as ornate décor.
One reason that opera companies are so Handel-happy is that there is a practically infinite supply of singers who can spin out his intricate vocal lines with agility and ease. In “Acis,” Philippe Castagner and Sarah Jane McMahon sang the leads fluently; Jason Hardy brought a strong bass voice and goofy dance moves to the role of Polyphemus; and the young tenor Nicholas Phan rendered the part of Damon in clean-cut, attractive style. The star of BAM’s “Hercules” was the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who, in a string of recent appearances, has transcended a first-rate technique to deliver portrayals of transfixing, sometimes frightening intensity. “Solomon,” at Lincoln Center, was led by David Hansen, a pure-voiced young Australian who is typical of a new breed of matinée-idol countertenors. Two more representatives of the type are singing in the Met’s sumptuous production of “Rodelinda”: the star German countertenor Andreas Scholl and the up-and-coming Christophe Dumaux. There is little reason to think that Handel would have disapproved.
New York’s unofficial Handel festival brought to town two more or less infallible interpreters of the composer: William Christie, who conducted Les Arts Florissants in “Hercules,” and René Jacobs, who led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in “Solomon.” Both men have a knack for making stylized Baroque forms sound alive and spontaneous: rhythms bounce along with quasi-popular energy, vibrant colors burst on the ears. Christie, who has come to BAM almost every year since 1989, is a familiar quantity, as coolly dazzling as ever. Jacobs, who has issued a string of brilliant and provocative recordings on the Harmonia Mundi label, is seen here much less often, and his conducting of “Solomon,” by turns opulent and intimate, humorous and savage, forbiddingly grand and envelopingly warm, was the revelation of the season.
There is a sequence in Act III of “Solomon” that presents Handel’s genius at its vertiginous height. The King is showing off the Temple of Jerusalem to the Queen of Sheba, and orders musical performances to adorn the setting. Among them is a dark, violent chorus of “hopeless love,” which plunges through a harmonic vortex from G minor to E-flat minor and back again. It is an enormous shock in the context of a generally festive piece. Then Solomon calls for a mood of calm, and the vortex vanishes. It’s as if Handel were telling us that music is nothing more than a magic trick that he performs on command. You might suspect him of cynicism, except that these disparate movements add up to their own temple of sound, which has withstood the centuries and shines brighter than ever. The last line of the oratorio, thundered over chords of marble, becomes self-referential: “But the fame of the just shall eternally last.”