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Staging Handel - Now ... and Then

The Haymarket Theatre, venue of the first production of the majority of Handel's operas

We enter the theatre to see an opera by Handel (or increasingly one of his contemporaries such as Porpora or Vinci). The curtain rises on an austere, angular, darkly lit stage on which tubular frames feature somewhere on the set that will serve for all three acts, possibly varied by a few props. At some points in the proceedings back projections are brought into play. The cast is in modern dress and interacts with one another the way people do in a 21st century soap opera, while any soldiers and guards involved will be carrying not swords, but AK 47s. Sound familiar? It should do, because it is a fair generic description of the way Baroque opera is frequently staged today.

It goes without saying that it is a performance practice diametrically opposed to the way in which Handel’s operas were performed in London in his own day. Should we care? There are those who say, no, because Handel’s operas are great works big enough to take care of themselves and that anyway imaginative new productions cast new light on them for contemporary audiences. It is an argument that I would be happy to countenance were such productions to be considered experimental. But they are not. They are now the norm, the default for productions of Handel and other Baroque operas. Conversely, it is stagings that lay some claim to historical veracity – often sneeringly referred to as ‘traditional’ – that are now considered outré. I believe we are now in danger of producing an entire generation of opera goers that has no conception or understanding of what a Handel opera looked like in his day.

Handel's pasticcio Oreste , as staged by Covent Garden at Wiltons in the 2016-2107 season

So what did happen at a Handel opera staged under his direction in the 1720s or 1730s? Let’s again enter our theatre, this time a venue lit by a myriad candles. It is the King’s Theatre, London’s home of Italian opera, or, perhaps during the mid-1730s, Covent Garden. When the orchestra makes it appearance its size might surprise us. In 1720, the year of the first performance of Radamisto, the orchestra of the King’s Theatre had no fewer than 24 strings on its books: 16 violins, 2 violas, 4 cellos and 2 double basses, a substantially larger number than we often encounter today, even if not every musician was available for all performances [1].

The curtain would rise to reveal a deep stage, an illusion of grandeur and even greater depth created by the sense of perspective gained from a series of receding flats (or wings) painted to represent buildings or outdoor scenes on either side of the stage. It was one of the principal feats of theatrical engineering that the these flats were usually fixed on wheels  sitting in grooves that could thus effect a change of scene very quickly by replacing one with another. The printed text of Radamisto, for instance, suggests that at least six different scenes were required, three internal and three external. It is worth adding that once the curtain had risen it did not drop again until the performance had concluded, a convention that can doubtless be at least in part explained by the speed of scene change that could efficiently be effected in front of the audience.

The spaces between the flats were used for all entries. Hierarchical convention determined that high-born characters entered from the right, lower mortals and villains from the left, although Metastasio, ever the practical man of the theatre in addition to being the most influential librettist of the 18th century, considered that dramatic needs should take precedence over such rigidity. We find elements of both convention and the flexibility advocated by Metastasio in the Radamisto prompt book [2]. At the start of act 1 Polissena, the heroine and the wife of King Tiridate and daughter of King Farasmane is seated at a table, stage right, as befits her royal status. The first entrance is made stage left by Tigrane, who is not only a mere prince but the henchman of Tiridate, the ‘baddie’ of the piece, who in scene 2 enters stage right, as would be expected of a king. Polissena is dismissed by her husband, exiting not right, as we might expect, but left, possibly because she leaves reluctantly and crossing the stage gives greater opportunity to display her hesitancy. Farasmane, a captive of Tiridate, enters stage right with his guards, but his departure after being subjected to the threats of Tiridate is stage left, maybe an indication that he is not master of his own destiny. The above covers only the scenes 1-3, but provides a brief indication of how stagecraft was ordered in Handel’s day.

    [1] John Spitzer & Neal Zaslaw The Birth of the Orchestra, p. 279 (Oxford, 2004)

  [2] The discovery of a prompt copy of the libretto of the first version of Radamisto (April 1720) in 1985 provided an invaluable source for scholars – see Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume ‘A Prompt Copy of Handel's 'Radamisto'’ The Musical Times, Vol. 127, No. 1719 (Jun., 1986), pp. 316-319+321.   

Stage set by G B Bibiena (1696-1757). Rotunda with Jupiter on a Pedestal. The set illustrates the grandeur and depth of perspective typical of Baroque opera. - Morgan Library & Museum, NY.

Before leaving the Radamisto prompt book it is worth noting that it also gives valuable insight into the supernumeraries involved on stage, details that may surprise present day Handelians. For instance when the curtain rises on Polissena we are told that she is accompanied by no fewer than ten women. Farasmane is escorted onto the stage by four guards. Later the prompt book – but significantly not the stage directions – suggests that some eight to ten soldiers are involved charging across the stage when Tiridate takes Farasmane’s unnamed ‘capital city’. We can thus assume that at least 20 supernumeraries were involved in the first version of Radamisto. When on stage but not in action – during arias, for example – these extras would have been asymmetrically grouped in poses akin to a tableau. 18th century theorists such as Algarotti time and again compare stage images with paintings, the latter as an exemplar of the beauty, elegance and sense of proportion that should be followed in staging.

We still know too little about who did what when it comes to the relatively small amount of production required. Certainly librettists were frequently involved with the staging of new productions and we know from his own writings that Metastasio was very much ‘hands on’ in Vienna [3]. Composers, too, might well be involved for a first run and there is circumstantial evidence that Handel took a practical interest in staging. In an important article on the staging of Handel’s operas Andrew V Jones draws to attention several examples of the composer’s annotations in his manuscript scores that clearly indicate concern with what happened on stage [4].  Jones notes as particularly striking an example from Rodelinda, where Rodelinda believing her husband Bertarido to be dead addresses her son as ‘orfano’. Handel here added immeasurably to the dramatic poignancy of the moment by inserting the words ‘s’inginocchia e abbraccia il figlio’ (‘she kneels down and embraces her son’).

Despite the depth of stage, the action took place largely in a small area down stage or on an apron extending beyond the proscenium arch. Interaction between the characters on stage was restricted to recitative or during the orchestral ritornellos that punctuated arias. The most important aspects of acting were the deportment and carriage of the character, established and maintained as long as they were visible to the audience, and above all gesture, which incorporated the face, arms and especially hands. All gesture had the prime purpose of directly signalling the sense of the text to come and was performed with a rounded elegance that eschewed jerky movement, coming from the expression of inner emotion rather than being imposed. What was critical was the sense of naturalness and spontaneity that avoided any hint of the absurd synchronised movement we sometimes see in attempts at gesture from the supernumeraries. Then as now the acting ability of singers varied enormously. We know, for example, from a number of contemporary accounts that the castrato Nicolini, the creator of the roles of Handel’s Rinaldo and Amadigi, was an exceptionally fine actor, while the acting of Senesino, creator of so many of Handel’s major roles was rated by Quantz as ‘natural and noble’.

The most extensive use of gesture was reserved for recitative, it seeming likely that it was more restrained during the singing of arias. With the arrival of an aria the singer moved to the front of the stage to address it directly to the audience, not to others who might be on stage, with whom interaction was reserved for ritornellos. The audience responded often audibly with sighs of appreciation or more vociferous reactions of approbation or disapproval. This symbiosis between singer and audience is a feature of 18th century operatic performance that has frequently been overlooked and while it would hardly be desirable to import the more extrovert aspects of it into today’s opera houses, it should certainly be given more study and thought. The mutual interaction between singer and audience reached a peak in the da capo repeat, where many of the finest singers not only added ornamentation but extemporized it. This in effect meant that in such cases one might hear a different performance every time during an opera’s run, thus refuting the oft heard argument that opera seria was a stilted, moribund form.

It will be obvious that only the fundamentals of a complex subject have been addressed here. Nonetheless, I hope that by showing that the staging of Handel’s operas in his own day bears little relationship to what we so often see today we can start to understand that, to paraphrase Jones, it is only by seeing them as a totality unifying sets, costumes, gesture and expressiveness that we can truly understand the nobility of this great corpus of works on its own terms. This fundamental truth cannot be restated too frequently.                 




 [3] See Robins ‘Origin of the Species: Metastasio’s Directorial Legacy’ Opera, vol 67, no. 6, pp. 689-694

 [4] Andrew V Jones ‘Staging a Handel Opera’ Early Music, Volume 34, Number 2, May 2006, pp. 277-287

This article was originally published in Handel News: The Newsletter of the Friends of the London Handel  Festival, No. 71 (January 2018). It is republished with the consent of the Editor

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