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the staging of Handel's oratorios


English National Opera's revival of its production of Handel's Semele and its performances of Jephtha led me to wondering about the role of dramatic presentation in Handelian oratorio and what the composer would have thought about these works being staged.

Unfortunately Handel is a profoundly awkward subject for the musical historian as he has left so few personal documents. The disputes over the size the forces Bach used in his passion performances are as nothing compared to the lacunae in our knowledge about Handel's opinions and performance methods. Handel has left us no written commentaries on his output; all we can do is consider his works against the background and attitudes of Handel's own time. So to consider what Handel's attitude to staging his oratorios would have been, we have to go back and look at the origins of the oratorio in 18th century England.

Handelian oratorio has its origins in the composer's period working under the patronage of Lord Chandos. Here he was part of a circle of English poets and between them they produced two seminal works: Acis and Galatea and Esther. Neither is strictly an oratorio: though Handel had written an Italian cantata on the story of Acis, the English work is in the tradition of the English pastoral masque. Frustratingly we know very little about the work's origins and its early performances. This is even more annoying in the case of Esther, though we should bear in mind that the first version of Esther was rather smaller in scale than its final incarnation.

In its creator's minds, Esther probably came into the same category of work as Acis and Galatea; we should not let the work's subsequent history obscure its origins. After all, the Book of Esther is not one of the most significant books in the Anglican liturgy and its narrative based story tends to be treated mythologically.

After creating two works in the English masque tradition Handel concentrated on opera; there things would have stood if Bernard Gates and the choir of the Chapel Royal had not put on a private, staged performance of the work. Little is known of the staging but perhaps nowadays we would think of it more as a costumed semi-staging, the sort often resorted to in the concert hall. Whatever, it prompted Handel to re-visit the work.

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Copyright © 8 September 2005 Robert Hugill, London UK


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