Author Topic: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios  (Read 108157 times)

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Tancata

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Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« on: July 10, 2007, 01:25:37 PM »
or getting a Handel on the deluge...

...

So, I'm really getting into Handel's operas and oratorios (I'm considering them largely as one and the same body of work). When I'm getting into a new composer, I really like to steep myself single-mindedly in their stuff. But the problem with Handel is that there are so many of these bloody things and, unlike the Bach cantatas, it costs a serious amount of time and money to buy and properly get to know any one of them. I have bought and got into several of them already over the past six months, but I keep having a nagging feeling that I'm missing out on the best stuff  ::).

What I'm really looking for are value judgements about the relative merits of Handel's compositions in this field. Which are the major ones to look into, which are less essential? I want to experience the best of Handel's output in this field without shovel-feeding myself dozens of 3-hour works! Most commentary on them makes them out as all being superb. I can believe that, but I still want the best of the best.

I know already: Messiah, Saul, Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo - (loved all of these) - Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Israel in Egypt, and a number of the Italian cantatas (liked these, but not as much as the first four there). I have heard a number of the others in concert (Theodora, Solomon, Samson, &c) but not enough times to fully appreciate them.

I think my next investigations shall be Theodora and Orlando. The latter is being staged here in Dublin later in the year, should be great fun. The former seems to be "the One" for Handel nuts...

From investigations elsewhere, it seems Agrippina, Serse, Hercules, Rodelinda, Ariodante, Alcina, Belshazzar and Judas Maccabeus are prime Handel. But people often speak of all of them in glowing terms. And there's this post from Mr. Rinkel:

Quote
I'm not a major Handelian; I'm content to own a representative sampling from the operas and oratorios, perhaps a dozen of each. Of the operas, my absolute favorite is Orlando (and that in an unfortunately cut, unfortunately LP-only version with Sofia Steffan conducted by Stephen Simon); other great ones are Giulio Cesare, Ariodante, Alcina, and Rodelinda. Saul, Hercules, Israel in Egypt, Jephtha, and Theodora are among the greatest of the oratorios, but I find them all somewhat uneven. And yet just when Handel seems to be note-spinning on automatic pilot, you encounter a staggering chorus like "Jealousy" from Hercules or "The People Shall Hear" from Israel in Egypt, and it all becomes worth it.

More thoughts along these lines would be appreciated.

« Last Edit: July 10, 2007, 01:31:56 PM by Tancata »

Offline The new erato

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #1 on: July 10, 2007, 01:35:36 PM »
The Italian operas and the English works are quite different animals.

Try Ariodante (but there really are such riches) in the first category, and Acis & Galates (a quasi opera/oratorio) and - since you know Saul, Jephta, in the latter.
« Last Edit: November 21, 2007, 11:17:01 AM by erato »

Offline knight66

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #2 on: July 10, 2007, 02:42:03 PM »
Handel certainly wrote on the large scale. A great deal of his arias are A,B,A and that makes for usually at least seven minutes for a set piece and the musicians need to take account of the repetition and use their imagination to give the vital variety to each piece in the da capo and capture the drama.

My own favourite is Theodora. Although an oratorio I think it worked superbly when staged at Glyndbourne and the DVD version captured the considerable achievements of the main singers, all superb. In that version the role of Dydimus is sung by a countertenor. I also have a CD version with a mezzo in that role and this is a frequent issue across quite a number of the works, in that you may feel strongly one way or the other, I don't mind. For sure in the Caesar DVD, from the same source, Sarah Connelly is completely convincing as Caesar, another top recommendation.

Theodora has an almost endless string of achingly beautiful arias and as usual, Handel is sparing with the duets. There are two in Theodora, each exquisite. The choral work is less impressive, but not at all dull, but in this work it is the arias that are utterly memorable.

I also recommend Hercules. It has some wonderful choral writing and again the arias predominate. Handel gives the characters space to explain themselves. I have the CD version conducted by Minkowski. He springs the rhythms, brings out the muscularity of the work and drives the dramatic side forward. Ann Sophie von Otter sings the hero's wife. She is given basically a mad scene and Otter conspires with the conductor to take the piece right to the edge, almost out of the style, but it works marvelously. Otter has been criticised by some for a lot of parlando singing, but on this set she does not indulge in any of that.

For something more choral in contrast, you might try Israel in Egypt. Here there are very few arias and the chorus is the protagonist. Handel writes marvelously descriptive music for the plagues and the libretto is full of word painting that Handel heightens......"There were lice in all their quarters", accompanied by the violins buzzing like flies....."Pharaoh's chariots went to the bottom as an stone" Sung by the choir in a descending scale. The choruses follow on one another like a series of fugues and the story progresses excitingly without a narrator or much by way of 'characters'. The Gardiner version is excellent. It has a filler of 'The Ways of Zion Do Mourn', a not inconsiderable piece, though muted as against the Technicolour main event.

A contrast of a different kind is L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Described as a pastoral ode in three parts. It uses poems of Milton. There is no plot or story, it is almost a philosophical discussion set to vernal music with delightful arias, choruses and indeed one duet which is well worth waiting for. Handel was parsimonious with the duets, they are often his most exquisite creations, but he was strict in their placing and there is often one almost at the end of a work and then perhaps just one other. I have and very much enjoy the CDs conducted by John Nelson, excellent singing and playing.

These are all modern HIP recordings. I have older discs and enjoy them also, but I happen to have alighted on these ones as a first stab.

I could go on, but I will give you a rest!

Mike
« Last Edit: July 10, 2007, 02:45:57 PM by knight »
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Offline Anne

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #3 on: July 10, 2007, 03:03:14 PM »
Mike,

What is your opinion of Semele?  I have the recording with Kathleen Battle, Marilyn Horne, Samuel Ramey, John Aler, Sylvia McNair.  Ambrosian Opera Chorus/English Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Nelson but I have not heard it yet.

Tancata

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #4 on: July 10, 2007, 03:10:42 PM »
Thanks for that erato and knight!

I'm actually familiar with Giulio Cesare (the Sarah Conolly/Danielle de Niese/Christie DVD is excellent, yes) and Israel in Egypt. I haven't fully gotten into the latter, though. I have the Parrott recording which was budget price on Virgin Veritas and seems respectable to me. I think "The Ways of Zion do Mourn" is actually incorporated into the Parrott "Israel" as Part 1 of a 3-part work (the original structure according to the liner notes). But certainly to my ears things don't really start to pick up until Part 2 (Exodus).

I will take note of both your recommendations - Minkowski looks good for Hercules and Ariodante, he's done a lot of these works to generally good reviews. For Theodora I'll probably look for a CD version first, although I'll look into that DVD - whatever's cheaper usually wins with me. Is it the McCreesh recording of Theodora you have, Mike? I have his version of Saul and found it excellent, and I generally find him an exciting conductor (Matthew Passion, Monteverdi Vespers, etc...)

I have no preferences for countertenors versus mezzos or altos, it just depends on the quality of the individual singer.

As for L'Allegro... - I may put it a little further down my list. The libretto sounds a little like the dreary one for Il Trionfo (let me guess...Moderation wins in the end...) - when all the music is top-class, I may decide on the basis of which libretto has the higher-octane drama...  :P Acis and Galatea I can try easily, I think my parents have about 10 versions of that although I doubt whether any are HIP  ::).


Offline knight66

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #5 on: July 10, 2007, 03:18:29 PM »
Semele is another first rater.....I have the same recording. It even has an ensemble in it, unusual, and several duets. It is in English and is an oratorio, but is secular, based on Congreve and so might seem like an opera when simply listened to. Handel was battling ill health during its composition and it came after a bit of a gap in his writing of major vocal works. I think it feels like an experiment; as he was reluctant to write opera at this point, yet this oratorio did not follow the normal religious subjects. Indeed it is about Gods and their love affairs.

I wonder why he did not write more in this pattern? Operas had proved to be an expensive risk and the public were fickle in quickly tiring of any novelty. Turning back to oratorios saved Handel the extra worry and effort involved in mounting an opera and the considerable expense and financial risk.

I have no idea whether it has ever been staged, but if Theodora can be staged, this surely could be. It has the feel of La Calisto about it.

Mike
« Last Edit: July 10, 2007, 03:21:04 PM by knight »
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Offline knight66

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #6 on: July 10, 2007, 03:38:46 PM »
Tancata, I do have the McCreesh and it is good, but pales in dramatic terms up against Christie in the staged version and...not his fault, but I cannot forgive Robin Blaze for not being David Daniels. Good as Susan Bickley is she is not the magnetic presence and compelling interpreter that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was.

I also have an older set, cut down and on only two discs, it has Heather Harper who is wonderfully sympathetic as Theodora and the female Dydimus is no lesser singer than Maureen Forrester, she is excellent. This is a much older recording and could not be a first recommendation as it simply does not contain all the music.

I have heard that the Zion piece is used prior to the Israel in Egypt as though Handel had forgotten to produce an act 1! In the Gardiner, it comes after the main piece and is on disc two. I have sung Israel in Egypt several times. On one occasion, paid for by Israeli TV we recorded the piece for its sound in a hall in Jerusalem, then went to the Red Sea and stood on a blasted rock, (blasted flat for us), for two days being simultaneously frozen by the wind and fried by the sun. We mimed to our recording while it was filmed.

I watched the cello players scrambling down the scree and sand being blown into the harpsichord and did think that a lot of musicians simply would not have risked their instruments, but the Jerusalem Philharmonic put up with it all.

There was a particularly surreal moment when we watched a train of camels walk past our rock and others during breaks when the men, in their dinner suits, rolled up their trousers and paddled in the sea.

Bearing in mind this was about the defeat and drowning of the Egyptians, it subsequently emerged that our film was shown on Israeli TV on the day the land we had been filming on was handed back to Egypt as part of a treaty. We were rather miffed that we had been used for such propaganda.

Mike
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Offline Anne

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #7 on: July 10, 2007, 03:58:40 PM »
Thanks, Mike.  Much obliged.

Offline knight66

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #8 on: July 10, 2007, 04:18:10 PM »
A pleasure.....I know it is not either an opera or an oratorio, but as Tancata has Israel in Egypt, I would like to mention a different choral piece, Dixit Dominus. It is an exhilarating virtuoso piece and although the soloists get some lovely opportunities, it is the energising and piled up choruses that make the piece stand out...again I would recommend Minkowski, the fillers there are rather fine cantatas, another wonderful seam to be mined.

Mike
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Offline Dancing Divertimentian

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #9 on: July 10, 2007, 08:41:15 PM »
Lots of good Handel.

You might pick from one of these for a quality introduction:

•Orlando/Hogwood
•Rinaldo/Hogwood
•Theodora/Neumann
•Saul/Neumann
•Belshazzar/Neumann
•Imeneo/Spering
•Ariodante/Minkowski
•Hercules/Minkowski
•La Resurrezione/Minkowski
•Agrippina/Gardiner
•Judas Maccabaeus/King
•Almira/Lawrence-King

All are HIP but that's what hits home for me.

As far as the note-spinning thing, well, let your ears decide. There's certainly enough musical substance to justify any investment in time.




Veit Bach-a baker who found his greatest pleasure in a little cittern which he took with him even into the mill and played while the grinding was going on. In this way he had a chance to have the rhythm drilled into him. And this was the beginning of a musical inclination in his descendants. JS Bach

Tancata

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #10 on: July 11, 2007, 03:43:43 AM »
Thanks for this, guys. Orlando/Hogwood also looks like a runner, since I want to prepare myself before going to see this opera in September. I'm reading Hogwood's book "Handel" at the moment and finding it a great read. He is very enthusiastic about Orlando in particular, so it doesn't surprise me that his recording is recommended. It looks like that and Theodora/Christie will be first on the list (it's cheaper on DVD than on CD  ;D).

I will put Dixit Dominus down too - oh, choices, choices.  >:D

Who said anything about note-spinning?  0:)
« Last Edit: July 11, 2007, 03:46:44 AM by Tancata »

Offline Anne

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #11 on: July 11, 2007, 04:05:28 AM »
Does anyone have any comments about the Rene Jacobs' Julius Cesare or the Rene Jacobs' Saul?

Tancata

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #12 on: July 11, 2007, 04:26:53 AM »
Anne, I can say a little about Jacobs' Giulio Cesare, but keep in mind the only other recording I can compare it to is the Christie DVD Mike mentioned above.

I am a Rene Jacobs fan, but I think even a totally objective person would recommend this recording to anyone. Jennifer Larmore is brilliant as Cesare - her voice is a good fit for Senesino's and never feels stretched at the bottom (as IMO Sarah Conolly occasionally sounds on that DVD). Elsewhere the singing is universally at a very high standard. Cleopatra is sung by Barbara Schlick. Some people don't like the slightly odd, sharp edge to her voice but I don't mind it. Marianne Rorholm is Sesto, excellent. Cornelia is sung by that fixture of HIP recording, Bernarda Fink, as fine as ever. Two small exceptions might be the countertenors. I really don't like Derek Lee Ragin - I think he hoots and shrieks all over the place (although that sort of singing isn't totally inappropriate for Tolomeo, I suppose). But I'm probably just wrong - he keeps getting big jobs and was one of the big countertenors of the time. Dominique Visse is the other falsettist, in the small part of Nireno. He features on a very large proportion of Rene Jacobs recordings, often in comic roles. He has a very thin, squeaky voice but is quite expressive. He is not really a great singer, but the part is so small - a few recitatives and a single aria which is presented after the opera finishes as a bonus track.

Concerto Koelln are brilliant under Rene Jacobs lively direction. This recording is from the era when he didn't introduce his own little "touches"  ::) to recordings. Completely unmannered, crisp and exciting.


Sean

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #13 on: July 11, 2007, 04:50:41 AM »
Tancata

If I remember there's 37 operas and 23 oratorios, 60 of the bloody things as you say. I'm playing the last opera Deidamia right now and rather keen on getting hold of the whole series, not least to be rid of them: what sets these works apart from the masses of similar 18th century efforts is I think principally the enormous quality of the vocal line, ranging from always beautiful, to transcendental.

I agree there's some note-spinning, but the constant quiet intelligence carries all before it. I don't know the ones Knight mentions but the trio written together(?) of Julius Caesar, Rodelina and Tamerlano are often mentioned as essentail listening; you already know Rinaldo, which I thought of exceptional beauty and intrigue (esp the recording with Norman); Orlando is another unusual piece, though with too much recitative; Ariodante I thought slightly overrated from what I'd read. I've explored-

Operas- Alcina, Ariodante, Deidamia, Julius Caesar, Orlando, Rinaldo, Rodelinda, Serse & Tamerlano

Oratorios- Acis and Galatea, Alexander’s feast, Athalia, Israel in Egypt, Jephtha, Messiah & Solomon (also the marvellously varied Ode for St Cecilia’s day)

(& overtures to Imeneo & Ottone)

& Second Knight's comments on the Dixit dominus, and to a lesser extent the Gloria.
« Last Edit: July 11, 2007, 04:52:36 AM by Sean »

Offline Anne

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #14 on: July 11, 2007, 04:55:31 AM »
Thanks for the reply, Cantata.  I really appreciate it.

« Last Edit: July 11, 2007, 05:21:21 AM by Anne »

Offline knight66

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #15 on: July 11, 2007, 06:14:05 AM »
Thanks for the reply, Cantata.  I really appreciate it.



A lovely transposition!

I agree re the comments on Jacobs' Caesar to the extent I only have excerpts of it. I was not keen on the Cleopatra and she deterred me from then buying the whole set. I have the Mackerras with Janet Baker....in English. There are very good things there, but performance practice has moved on and I find the Christie on DVD to be the best I know of....though I don't by any means know all that is available.

Mike
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Offline Dancing Divertimentian

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #16 on: July 11, 2007, 06:28:28 AM »
Who said anything about note-spinning?  0:)

Larry touches on it in the post of his you quoted and you asked for "more thoughts along these lines"...




Veit Bach-a baker who found his greatest pleasure in a little cittern which he took with him even into the mill and played while the grinding was going on. In this way he had a chance to have the rhythm drilled into him. And this was the beginning of a musical inclination in his descendants. JS Bach

Tancata

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #17 on: July 11, 2007, 08:42:01 AM »
Larry touches on it in the post of his you quoted and you asked for "more thoughts along these lines"...

Hmm...yes  :-[.

Sean - thanks for that - recitative doesn't bother me, so Orlando's still on  :).


Offline Anne

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #18 on: July 11, 2007, 09:21:45 AM »
Tancata - Cantata

Mike:
"A lovely transposition!"

I wish I could take credit for that.  ;D  Like Tristan - Tantris

hildegard

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Re: Getting at Handel's operas and oratorios
« Reply #19 on: November 21, 2007, 07:12:30 AM »
I attended a beautiful performance of Handel's Alexander's Feast last night at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in NYC. Although this piece is seldom performed, it was -- after The Messiah -- the most often performed of Handel's compositions during his lifetime. The orchestration of this piece is incredibly gorgeous as is the choral canvas. As the program notes, the poem on which this ode is based "excited Handel's imagination to the point of infusing him with melodic, harmonic, coloristic, and even dramatic ideas that brought out some of the best music composed by this giant of the Baroque era." How true!
« Last Edit: November 21, 2007, 07:16:03 AM by hildegard »

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