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<<  -- 3 --  Robert Hugill    DRAMA IN THE MUSIC


This is where we come to the problems with Handel's dramatic oratorios; all of them include eminently stageable scenes but these are cheek by jowl with far more static sections. In all of his oratorios, Handel mixed elements of opera, masque and anthem, but in each the relative quantities were slightly different. But always he was a dramatic composer, so even his most static scenes are alive with dramatic possibilities. Whether Handel would have considered staging them is another matter. He never staged a work involving large scale chorus; some of his operas have small choruses but none on the scale of the oratorios. A practical rather than a theoretical musician, opera for Handel was whatever was staged in the opera house; but lacking a professional operatic chorus he could never produce a full staging of any of his English works. French opera, after all, did use a substantial chorus but Handel's retort would probably be a comment on the differences between the French and English operatic establishments rather than a theoretical discussion on the nature of opera.

Another point worth bearing in mind, is that whereas many of the oratorios have a strong dramatic narrative, his operas were not prized for their narrative qualities, particularly the complex works written in the first half of his operatic career. Up to the collapse of the first Royal Academy, the noblemen supporting Handel's endeavours seemed to prize complex works which explored character, often at the expense of narrative cohesion. Operas like Radamisto, large, serious works, plunged characters into serious moral dilemmas to see how they reacted. Even in the simpler, later works, this element of a character undergoing a series of tests remains strong, so that to our eyes plots can seem incoherent.

Oratorio was totally different; all the dramatic oratorios were based on well known stories and many had a strong sense of characterisation and dramatic propulsion. This would have been something of a novelty in a fully sung work; the audience would have been used to encountering narrative propulsion mainly in spoken drama. Perhaps this is also a clue to the success of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, not only did it mock the pretensions of Italian opera, but it combined narrative propulsion with relatively complex musical content. Even the oratorios like Messiah and Israel in Egypt which are not dramatic in form (there are no named characters) still have a strong narrative carried forward by the chorus. It is his ability to treat the chorus as an extra character in the drama which is one of Handel's greatest contributions to the form.

Dramatic though his English works might be, Handel seems to have been completely disinclined to stage works in English. Perhaps, for him, operatic performance was bound up with the virtuoso performances of the singers. As he replaced foreign singers by native ones in oratorio, so the oratorios came to rely less on virtuoso display. The compensation was probably that the English singers were all trained by Handel himself. He seems to have prized dramatic truth in their performances, even using an actress as Delila in Samson; the equivalent nowadays of Thomas Adès using Imelda Staunton in his new opera.

Georg Friderich Händel (1685-1759) in 1733 by the German painter Balthasar Denner (1685-1749)
Georg Friderich Händel (1685-1759) in 1733 by the German painter Balthasar Denner (1685-1749)

This dropping of the stage element in his works seems to have been a liberating experience for Handel, allowing him to create works which are significantly freer in form than his stage works. His imagination plays with dramatic form in ways which would not have been possible on stage in his day; the chorus mutate from dramatically involved Isaraelites to Greek chorus-like observers, without any worries about physical stage logistics. If an 18th century impresario had asked to stage one of the oratorios, Handel would almost certainly replied, 'Yes, if you wish'. After all, he was a creature of the stage and an impresario himself, if it could be well done and there was an audience then he would have been content. But he probably would have added that he saw no need to stage the works, all the drama was in the music.

Copyright © 8 September 2005 Robert Hugill, London UK


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