5. The Tyrant as Hero.
Reflections on a Handel opera
'... beautifully sung by Natasha March and Elisabeth Cragg'
<< Continued from last week
The absurd story, like that of many heroic operas, declares itself as
wish-fulfilment unadulterated. Most men have a touch of Silla in them, but
can wishfully believe that goodies like Lepidus, Claudio, Celia, and Flavia
may, by the skin of their teeth, get by; in the opera, though not in Plutarch's
history, wish-fulfilment extends even to the the tyrant himself, in that
Silla, having observed so much disinterested benevolence, finally repents,
re-embracing Love at the expense of war and tyranny, rather than dying in
a wrathful Act of God. Of course his repentance is another game of let's
pretend, momentarily seeming true under the spell of Handel's music.
That the action is a dream engendered by a nightmare is implicit in the
overture: which is delightfully civilised 18th century dance music, amiably
bland if not complacent as it evokes Handel's London as it hopefully
was. The London Handel Orchestra under Denys Darlow, who has done so much
for Handel's cause over many years, plays it graciously, and Darlow's
tempi are throughout stimulating but discreet. A trumpet-and-drum interlude
transmutes contemporary London into ancient Rome wherein Silla swaggers
and blusters, an 18th century Hero a long way from 18th century Perfectability.
That so many of the roles in opera seria were written for, and sung
by, neutered castrati underlines the pretence within the myths: the pseudo-grandeur
of trumpeting male sopranos must surely have caused a frisson of unease
even in contemporary audiences; today, at so late a date, we cannot be deceived,
though the superb performances of James Bowman and Simon Baker -- countertenor
falsetti who play Bad Silla and Good Claudio -- promote at least
a suspension of disbelief. A female soprano, as was often Handel's
wont, plays the Good Lapidus, and Joanne Lunn's quavery innocence of
tone sheds an ironic-sounding gloss on human pride and presumption.
Copyright © 7 April 2001
Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK
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