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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Mysteries of the High Baroque

Or we could call it: “Getting a Grip on Handel” but then even less people would take it seriously.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Big mssn in s big wig: the composer George Frideric Handel.

As is the case with many of the good things in life, I came to Handel late.

Oh sure, I knew who he was. German guy who lived in England. Wore a wig. Wrote the album of flute concertos I cherished as a kid--judt about the only classical cassette I had before I turned 16. I had even visited his grave in Westminster Abbey when I was maybe 14. I was impressed!Here was the grave of a real composer, a famous one. But he remained an enigma. He had written Messiah and he was famous for that. But when I grew up, we didn't go to Messiah at Christmas and it had never occurred to my parents to take me. We sang "Hallelujah!" at Easter. Sometimes.

Cut to two years later. I was a senior in high school. And I was a young kid discovering the joys of Wagner, Richard Strauss and Metallica, all in the same summer. But Handel? Handel was a ghost, man. Sure he had written the Water Music, my second ever Handel recording--this one with Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic wading through the score. Handel was a peripheral figure, filed next to Haydn as “pleasant...and mostly harmless.”

Lets jump ahead eleven years. It's 1997 and I'm working at Citysearch, trying to appear as if I know what I'm talking about regarding classical music and opera. (Some would say little has changed.) I had written a few reviews at that point but our tiny little website (at least my tiny little corner of it) was not quite up to making the contacts needed to get press tickets and make the "leap" to doing "real"criticism. I was also going point drinking a lot. However, I had a subscription to the New York City opera that year, and the schedule included something by Handel called...Xerxes.

That performance was a revalation. It was my first encounter with a baroque opera, and my first time hearing the famous melody “Ombra mai fu” in its proper dramatic context. Lorraine Hunt (not yet married to Peter Lieberson) sung the title role, a trouser part in breeches and a frock coat. Equally flamboyant was David Daniels, the countertenor singing Arsamene, the operas other leading man. The woman next to me, confused by David Daniels' long hair, beard and alto voice hissed at one point "Is that a MAN or. A WOMAN?"

Most surprising was the show itself. Xerxes was not some stuffy, dusty museum piece about the ruler of the Persian empire, but a fresh, alive work presented as a pastoral comedy, set in front of what looked like an English country house. Thanks to my teacher and having some of the right books, i knew what I was listening to: the da capo  arias where a main theme is sung and then embellished by the singer to show off the qualities of their voices. The music was great. (It's still great--I am listening to the William christie recording of Serse (same opera) as I write this. I was in love.

Over the course of the next few years, I explored other Handel operas in the theater. Partenope (again with Mr. Daniels) at Glimmerglass. Ariodante with Bejun Mehta again at City Opera. And one performance of the granddaddy of all the Handel masterworks: Giulio Cesare en Egitto in the old Met staging with Jennifer Larmore in the title role, Sylvia McNair as Cleopatra and yes, David Daniels flying high in the key role of Sesto. I loved the music bu I think I dropped off at one point: Giulio Cesare  is four hours long.

Then came a long fallow period. I didn't have many baroque opera recordings, and I was bewildered since Handel had outdone Verdi and Wagner added together by writing 42 operas! I f was had led me to restrain myself after plunging dollars into a library for Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi, Mahler and Bach. Eventually, I  indulged  in a copy of Xerxes/Serse and a recording of Messiah but that was about it. And then, with the launch and arrival of Superconductor, a wealth of opportunities arose. Handel was back on my radar.

Part of that new interest was due to the hard work of Jennifer Peterson, a conductor and director whose company Operamission had undertaken a plan for the  the performance of all the Handel operas. Their mission began with an epic version of Rodrigo mounted in the lobby of a Flatiron District hotel. This was followed by a concert performance of an even better opera, Rinaldo. Then there was the Met’s new Guilio Cesare, a fun production centered around Mr. Daniels (of course) and Natalie Dessay. Another Met baroque effort was the pastiche The Enchanted Island which mixed various composers together, mostly Handel, Rameau and Vivaldi. The effect of this was sketchy, like putting mayonnaise on vanilla ice cream. (Ewww.)

Recently, my interest in Handel has turned from the operas to  the oratorios. Handel wrote "only" 29 of these, and a recent boxed set from Decca (the impetus for this article) brings together sixteen of these neglected works. Going beyond Messiah, there are comedies (Semele) tragedies (Hercules) and dramatization of stories from the Old and New Testaments. And there is always Messiah, which remains as fresh, vibrant and appealing as it did at its premiere in 1742. The appeal of Handel may seem anachronous in this troubled age, but his music, always genial, cerebral,and impreccably crafter, offers welcome respite to both the ears and the soul.

You should try it.

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