<< -- 2 -- Robert Hugill DRAMA IN THE MUSIC
During Handel's lifetime, composers enjoyed little or no control over the performance of works. If someone had a score of your piece, then they could perform it. So whenever Handel re-visited a piece he changed it, quite often to its detriment, but his primary concern seems to have been the introduction of some novelty; thus Handel's revival of Esther was primarily concerned with producing a version which invalidated performances not under his control. Prevented from staging the work by the church authorities, Handel seems to have wandered into oratorio without too much pre-conception.
This first oratorio used an English chorus but singers from the Italian opera singing in a mixture of English (of a sort) and Italian. It would not be until Saul that Handel used a predominantly English speaking cast in his oratorios. And Esther was performed in a theatre; the adverts spoke of the theatre being done up decently and mentioned the coronation in connection with the placing of the chorus. So, though in a theatre, the audience would know that the chorus was to be seated in rows, not used dramatically. All of Handel's London performances of his oratorios were in the theatre, except for his annual charity performance of Messiah at the Foundling Hospital.
Even from the beginning, oratorio trod a fine dividing line between theatre and concert and eschewed any liturgical function entirely. This has parallels elsewhere. In Germany, Telemann's liturgical passions were paralleled by his passion oratorios -- dramatic recountings of the passion story written for performance in the opera house. In Italy, Carissimi had written oratorios with a liturgical function, but during Handel's visit to Rome, cantatas and oratorios would receive full, costumed stagings. In France, Charpentier's experiments with the form would lead him, in David et Jonathas, to a form surprisingly close to fully developed Handelian oratorio.
Can we learn anything else about oratorio, other than that it is awkwardly theatrical in form? Nowadays, there is a tendency to define it simply via the performance requirements -- a Handel oratorio is any large-scale work which needs to be performed in English by chorus, orchestra and soloists. But in Handel's day the view was probably rather different. Charles Jennens, who wrote a number of librettos for Handel, added his own notes to his copy of Mainwaring's biography of Handel. In the list of Handel's works, Jennens divides the oratorios into a number of categories: Serenata, Ode, Oratorio, Opera -- this is where he makes his memorable comment about Semele being a bawdy opera.
It is tempting to take this at face value, and regard Semele and Hercules as English operas pure and simple. Semele was, after all, based on an English opera libretto by Congreve. Just to confuse matters, Handel gave one of his Italian operas, Imenio, in concert performance during his stay in Dublin, describing it as a Serenata. It is hard to describe Semele and Hercules as 18th century operas because Handel adapted the libretto to his own purposes and both works include large-scale static choruses of a form which would seem to have precluded them being fully staged in Handel's own day.
Copyright © 8 September 2005
Robert Hugill, London UK