Staging Handel’s oratorios

Ambur Braid and Chris EnnsI’ve been watching a few staged versions of Handel oratorios recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that, in general, I prefer them to his Italian operas.  It’s not just that they have really good plots they are also musically much more interesting than the operas.  For the stage Handel stuck pretty firmly to the conventions of opera seriaDa capo aria succeeds da capo aria and only occasionally does a chorus or a duet break out and that bit is often the musical highlight of the piece, to my mind at least.  Think of Io t’abbraccio in Rodelinda; surely the highlight of the whole work.  In the oratorios Handel seems to feel much freer to use multiple forms and, of course, he writes magnificent choruses.  Continue reading

Opera in translation


Babelkitten eliminates need for surtitles

The issue of performing opera in translation has come up in comments on other blogs a couple of times recently.  I posted a few fragmentary thoughts in various places but feel that I need to get my thinking straight, coherent (hopefully) and in one place.  Basically what was bugging me was a recurrent theme that only the original language (not always as simple as it sounds) was acceptable.  Clearly this flies in the face of a long history of performance practice in major opera loving countries and, like most absolutist statements, looks quite dodgy when subjected to any sort of analysis

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Reward for effort

jane_pensive_smallVarious discussions on and around this post got me thinking about the issue of reward for effort versus instant gratification and what that means for audiences, critics and management.  It goes something like this.  Opera house schedules are dominated by relatively elderly, often unchallenging repertory.  As Philip Hensher says, it’s as if The Second Mrs. Tanqueray was still the most performed piece on the straight stage.  In North America these works are usually presented in a way that is unchallenging and familiar to audiences.  There isn’t much new work on show and most of what there is is musically fairly undemanding.  Even 20th century classics like Lulu or Peter Grimes aren’t much seen except perhaps in the very large centres.  In Europe it’s a bit different.  The standard works tend to be presented in more challenging productions.  The 20th century classics are given more often and new work is often rather more demanding in nature; Riemann and Birtwistle rather than Heggie and Adams.

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Watching DVDs the Handel way

There’s been a bit of jokey banter in comments on posts about various Historically Informed Productions about Historically Informed Audiences.  The serious point being that we don’t watch opera in the same way the audience did in Handel’s day and, of course, we don’t perceive it in the same way.  There’s nothing one can do about the perception but it did occur to me that the way I watch DVDs is, in some ways, more like Handel’s audience than the way I watch/listen when I am at a live performance.  This struck me yesterday as I was watching a rather good production from Zürich of Handel’s Orlando.  I’ll be writing more about that later.  Continue reading

War in opera

As November 11th comes around for the 94th time since the guns were, very temporarily, silenced I thought it might be interesting to look at how war has been seen by librettists and composers over the years. Very early on we get a very gritty take on the subject in Monteverdi’s extremely compact Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda but not so long after the path for the next three centuries is set with Purcell’s broadly comic King Arthur.  As far as I can see from Purcell to 1945, with very minor exceptions, the message is largely “war is fun”.  War is an excuse for a big parade (Aida; unless Tim Albery is directing!), an excuse for a drinking song (Faust), just plain comedic (La Fille du Regiment), a plot device (Cosí fan tutte) or a background event (Tosca, various versions of the Armida story).  The only opera, pre 1945, that I can think of that deals with the horror of war is Les Troyens, and that of course takes place in a distant, mythical, past.

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Time is a funny thing

A series of blog posts discussing time, perceptions of time and historically informed performance (HIP) plus seeing Opera Atelier’s Der Freischütz got me thinking along some curiously convergent lines and arriving at the conclusion that HIP isn’t and can’t be what it is often purported to be; a fairly faithful attempt to reproduce a work as it would have been seen by its first viewers or “as the composer intended” or something like that.  Not, of course, that even if it was, we would see and hear it as the original audience did but that perhaps is a topic for another day.

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Will the Met’s Live in HD series significantly affect live opera?

I’ve been giving far too much thought to a range of issues surrounding the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcasts to cinemas. They have attracted a wide audience and are much talked about, both as performances and as to their impact on live opera; the so-called HD Generation. That said, I’ve seen little analysis of what the broadcasts really are or of their audience or of how and why the HD audience reacts to them the way it does. I want to explore those questions and then go on to look at whether and how the HD broadcasts might influence the practice of live opera. Some of this will be speculative as I am certainly not privy to the kind of data about the audience and its reaction that I would need to do what I want to do well. Some of it will be coloured, perhaps highly coloured, by my own experiences with live music, electronically reproduced music and the tricky relationship between them.

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