Monday, July 07, 2008
Opera is very much an acquired taste, and within that genre, early 18th-century Handel operas are an even further acquired taste since they are long, repetitive, and all the music sounds the same on first hearing.
Most of the interesting plot action happens offstage, and what little does occur onstage is in the form of recitative with harpsichord accompaniment, which gives way to arias for mostly soprano voices telling us how they are feeling by singing one verse, transitioning to a contrasting verse, and then repeating the first verse with improvisatory fireworks thrown in to show off the singer's voice. Think of a jazz singer doing a tune straight the first few bars and then playing with the melody until it's almost unrecognizable a la Betty Carter.
Complicating things further, Handel mostly wrote for a combination of female sopranos and castrati, the legendary castrated male singers dating from the Italian Renaissance through the 18th century, which are sung in our non-castrating times by female mezzo-sopranos and altos, or male tenors and countertenors. (For more on the castrati, I'd recommend the brilliant sci-fi novel "On Wings of Song" by Thomas Disch about a decadent New York of the future where the castrati make a comeback, or Anne Rice's third novel, the deliciously lurid historical romance, "Cry to Heaven.")
For some reason, there has been a boom in Handel opera stagings over the last 30 years, with multiple recordings of just about all the operas, and if you do get hooked on the music, they are irresistable. Staging them is tricky business, and I've seen them treated with everything from the dully straightforward to campy to overarching European regietheatre, where everyone runs around in trenchcoats looking sinister. For "Ariodante," which just finished its run during the San Francisco Opera's summer season, the underrated British director John Copley went for the straightforward but it wasn't dull.
This was partly because the singing was so good, but also because the mixture of lush, baroque costuming and simple, beautiful sets was mixed with sincere stagecraft. Topping the strong cast was Susan Graham (above) in the title role. She already proved herself a goddess last year in Gluck's "Iphegenie en Tauride" and this performance merely confirmed her divinity.
The real surprise of Sunday's final performance was the tenor Richard Croft, making his San Francisco debut after singing Gandhi at the Met's "Satyagraha" by Philip Glass recently. His voice is just plain beautiful. I'm not convinced that the fine bass Eric Owens should be singing this music and Sonia Prina as the villain didn't allay the disappointment everyone felt over the cancellation by legendary contralto Ewa Podles, but Veronica Cangemi as the innocent love dupe was wonderful throughout.
At the end of the performance, Ruth Ann Swenson received the San Francisco Opera Medal for 25 years of starring performances at the house, and it's wonderful to report that her voice, which has always been perfect in Handel, remains intact through age, breast cancer surgery, and feuds with New York Metropolitan management. It was a magnificent performance and the entire opera was a treat for the initiated.