5. The Tyrant as Hero.
Reflections on a Handel opera
'... beautifully sung by Natasha March and Elisabeth Cragg'
During Europe's Heroic Age -- roughly speaking, from the mid-17th
to the mid-18th century -- Man grew so proud of his heroic accomplishments
that he imagined that anything God could do he ought to be able to do better.
Our reason, abetted by our will, seemed irresistible: so at Europe's
sundry centres of power autocratic societies invented myths, precipitated
into artistic conventions, that paid homage to Man in the Highest. Among
the most potent of these conventions was Heroic Opera (opera seria)
which, nurtured in Italy on the Italian language, eventually pervaded most
of Europe, especially France of the almighty Roi Solei, Germany and
Austria, and, more peripherally, the Scandinavian countries.
Such operas, created by people acutely conscious of being conscious,
were stylized in their forms and rigid in their ethical rather than religious
formulations. They dealt in the potent passions of people who believed,
or at least hoped, that man could play God, taking as heroes and heroines
men and women deriving from the god-aspiring humans of classical antiquity,
or from historical but legendary power-addicts who were often tyrants. The
pieces' reliance on man-made values, despite frequent rhetorical appeals
to 'the gods', meant that these myths were prone to be morally
confused and confusing; indeed, heroic opera may have been the main medium
through which people attempted courageously to confront, if inadequately
to control, their confusions. Significantly the greatest composer of heroic
operas, Handel, was a European rather than a national figure. Born in Germany,
he displayed dazzling precocity as a student in Italy, but established a
mature career in England where, in the second decade of the 18th century,
he came as a fashionable pragmatist as well as famous artist, ostensibly
to sell Italian opera to our rapidly rising, potentially affluent, middle
class. In this new world ethical values were spread more widely and broadly,
while being less meticulously defined, than they were in Italy and France.
Handel's supremacy lies in the fact that, though his scale of values
is still strictly schematic in being measured by the limitations of human
intellect and will, it allows, in incipient democracy, for both variety
and depth of human motivation.
Copyright © 31 March 2001
Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK
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