Stutzmann Focuses Attention on Secondary Characters in Handel’s Operas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Heroes from the Shadows: Orfeo 55 / Nathalie Stutzmann (director, contralto), Wigmore Hall, London, 2.10.2016. (GD)

Overture from Giulio Cesar In Egritto
Sinfonia from Poro, re dell’Indie
Sinfonia (Act 3) from Serse
Larghetto from Concerto Grosso in E minor Op.6 No.3
Allegro from Concerto Grosso in E minor Op.6 No. 3
Sinfonia (Act 3) from Orlando
Allegro from Sinfonia in B flat
Sinfonia (Act 3) from Partenope
Concerto Grosso in D minor Op.3 No. 5
Allegro from Concerto Grosso in G minor Op.6 No.6
Arias from Giulio Cesare, Ariana in Creta, Orlando, Amadigi di Gaula, Partenope, Radamisto, Agrippina, Serse, Alessandro

Tonight’s quite eclectic programme, spanning Handel’s operatic career, from Agrippina written for the Venice carnival season of 1709, to Serse, first performed in 1738 and one of the last operas he wrote, focused not only on the particular audiences and singers Handel was composing for, but also on the way in which his instrumental style developed, Handel giving as much importance to the instrumental as well as the vocal line. This coming together of instrumental and vocal lines – a sharing of – has been a contentious issue in opera at least up to the time that Verdi was composing operas for Italian and French audiences. Of course I am referring to the ‘star’ roles of opera singers and the way they expected to be the whole focus of the opera. Think of the two ‘rival queens’ ‘in Handel’s time, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, both paid huge salaries. And this is what most of the audiences paid for – the ‘star’ singers. It can almost be seen as analogous to today’s ‘celebrity culture’.

As tonight’s programme notes point out ‘secondary’, singers, like Anna Dotti, who took the role of the ‘sychophantic Cleone’, with only one aria in Alessandro (1726) must have felt despairing and resentful. In fact, Stutzmann’s title for the concert (also for a recent CD) ‘Heroes from the Shadows’, acts as a counter-factual to the ‘star’ singer, and specifically focuses on secondary, or tertiary singers in Handel operas and the way in which Handel never compromised the quality of the music for them. In fact, Stutzmann concluded the recital, with a beautiful aria from Alessandro, ‘Saro qual vento’, where Cleone (a secondary ‘marginal role) sings of being taken up by the wind, which will fan the flames of anger. This concert in a sense tried to recreate an impression of a typical Handelian recital of vocal and instrumental music, including opera arias and solo cantatas, interspersed with instrumental/orchestral whole works, or excerpts. This also applied to his operas, where a movement from a concerto grosso (or ‘grand concerto) would be played in an interval. Handel’s audiences were not so concerned with completeness as they are today.

After his Op.6 Handel lost interest in composing further sets of independent orchestral music, apart from his opera overtures. But he developed more elaborate orchestral forms in his operas and oratorios, which in any case, constituted a kind of cross-over of vocal/instrumental style from both genres. In Pena ‘Tirana’ from Amadigi di Gaula and ‘Son qual stanco pellegrino’ from Ariana in Cretothe orchestra took greater prominence, a kind of ‘shared’ focus between singer and orchestral opulence with bassoon and oboe in the former, and obbligato cello in the latter. So, in a sense, the instrumental interludes and the richer orchestral accompaniment complemented each other. Also, apart from the diversity and contrast provided, the instrumental excerpts would allow for the singers to take a break and refresh themselves after increasingly exhausting vocal/acting roles.

Everything about this Handel concert was remarkable. Nathalie Stutzmann both conducted and sung in the arias.  I have never heard of this combination before, but I can say, emphatically, that this duel involvement in the music produced a conviction and dialogue rarely heard. Stutzmann’s singing was remarkable in the way it adapted itself to the tonality/mood of each aria. Orfeo 55 (I counted ten players including organ and harpsichord) were superb with playing Handel could only have imagined! Stutzmann injected just the right degree of anger (never overdone) in ‘Aure che spira’ from Giulio Cesar in Egitto. Sesto, as in his three arias, sings the theme of revenge for the murder of his father by Tolomeo. Handel’s operatic roles are not fleshed out in the naturalistic way in which we hear the characters from Mozart’s Da Ponte Operas; they don’t fit into the spatio-temporal thresholds of realism. They mostly come from, or derive from ‘classical’ antiquity, and the literature of classical Renaissance writers. They are quasi mythical characters who denote more a generic (symbolic) form or emotion, which can be a Lament, an aria of rage, or love, as specific genres. Baroque audiences expected these mythical roles, mostly emperors, queens, gods etc. But how do contemporary audiences relate to them? Stutzmann had a way of making these roles come alive somehow. It’s very much to do with ‘acting with the voice’. She made Ottone, Commander of the Imperial Army in Agrippina a most sympathetic character in the release of his somewhat repressed grief in his lament ‘Oi che udite it mio lamento’. In the same opera Handel writes some beautiful music for the Emperor Nero – ‘Nerone’. We know from Suetonius and other sources that Nero was a sadistic, brutal and corrupt tyrant, as was Caligula in the first line of Caesarian Roman Emperors. In a strange way Handel’s beautiful music underlines this all the more than with ‘ugly’ music, reminding me of Hegel’s ‘identity in opposites’, or, to put it another way, as the negative moment revealed on the other side of beauty; remember Nero was also something of a poet and musician!

The penultimate aria in the official programme came from one of Handel’s last operas Serse with ‘Non so se la speme’ in which another secondary part, Arsamene (Serse’s brother), in a trouser role sings of the loss of his lover, his heartbreak and grief. Here we hear how Handel, when other composers were adopting the more fashionable galant style, retained a simpler style, a noble lament, sounding ‘old-fashioned’ at the time, but superseding mere fashion, coming down to us as simply ‘Handelian’ and having the same Handelian affect, whether from a ‘star’ or a ‘Hero from the Shadows.’ Remarkably, after what must have been a demanding evening, Stutzmann gave three encores with an aria from each of the following three operas: Ariodante, Silla and Amadigi di Gaula – all roles from the ‘shadows’,

Geoff Diggines 

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