Staging Handel’s oratorios

Ambur Braid and Chris EnnsI’ve been watching a few staged versions of Handel oratorios recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that, in general, I prefer them to his Italian operas.  It’s not just that they have really good plots they are also musically much more interesting than the operas.  For the stage Handel stuck pretty firmly to the conventions of opera seriaDa capo aria succeeds da capo aria and only occasionally does a chorus or a duet break out and that bit is often the musical highlight of the piece, to my mind at least.  Think of Io t’abbraccio in Rodelinda; surely the highlight of the whole work.  In the oratorios Handel seems to feel much freer to use multiple forms and, of course, he writes magnificent choruses. 

The 1996 Glyndebourne Theodora, featuring Dawn Upshaw as Theodora and David Daniels as DidymusSo, I think it’s pretty understandable that now that Handel has been firmly reintegrated into the operatic canon that directors have started to explore the possibility of staging his other, equally dramatic, works.  In some ways it’s quite liberating because one doesn’t have to worry at all about how the work might originally have been intended (if anyone does worry about that).  I’ve now seen a couple of staged versions of Theodora on DVD; the incredibly moving Sellars version from Glyndebourne and the rather odd Salzburg one.  I’ve also seen two Semeles; the rather brilliant Carsen production (on DVD) and the very odd COC version (seen twice in the house).  Hercules has been done a few times now and I’ll be seeing Peter Sellars’ version at COC next year.  Just last night I watched a really effective Belshazzar from the Aix-en-Provence festival (review to follow).  Even Messiah has been staged, with some success, at Theater an der Wien.  Watching this made me realise that Messiah is almost all narrated in the third person which presents all kinds of issues when one tries to present it as an opera.

So, who is up for a fully staged Solomon or Jeptha?  The former ought to be a slam dunk for the stage.

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7 thoughts on “Staging Handel’s oratorios

  1. I sure am (up for staged Solomon or Jeptha.)

    And I have to watch that Sellars Theodora again one of these days too. I’m planning to see a concert version in February – really looking forward to that, even w/ no staging.

  2. I’d be totally up for it. The oratoria I enjoy the most are Handel’s character- and relationship-driven works and I think they would read wonderfully well on stage. And thanks for mentioning Jephtha (my most favorite of them all!).

  3. The TadW is reviving the Guth Messiah next Easter, again with Mehta and Boesch. There were the three DVDs released by the TadW in 2009 (Messiah, Pelléas & Il mondo della luna) but nothing since, which is a shame since those releases put the house on the map and the Messiah developed a small cult following internationally. There’s much from the last few seasons that deserves to be more widely seen too: the Michieletto Trittico which was wonderfully sung and conducted, Keith Warner’s Mathis der Maler, Konwitschny’s Attila (actually those three are just from last season).

    Guth is also back in December to direct another oratorio: Schubert’s Lazarus intertwined with bits of Ives (interesting concept). Schubert’s sacred music is criminally neglected in Vienna, there’s just nobody like Sawallisch prepared to really push it, though FWM tries from time to time, and Orozco-Estrada’s recent A flat major Mass with Beecham-sized forces was quite honestly breathtaking, really should have been recorded.

    • I’ve seen all three of the DVDs you mention. I think it’s a whole other story about what makes it to DVD and what doesn’t. As best I can tell DVDs are essentially by products of TV/Cinema broadcasts so if ORF is ignoring TadW there will be no DVDs. This of course is the problem with COC where nothing has been recorded since Sutherland was here 30 years ago.

      • Oh you’re absolutely right – (too) much hinges on the vagaries of the ORF. There are of course frequent radio broadcasts of opera, both from the Staatsoper and the TadW. In 2011 the ORF launched a new culture channel, ORF III, and last year its budget was doubled on account of ratings success. But so far it’s confined itself to things like reruns of Mozart 22 rather than current productions, which are still mostly shown on ORF II anyway – with Salzburg taking up the lion’s share. The ORF’s director-general likes to call ORF III a domestic Arte and says that’s the model they’re following, though at present the evidence for that is somewhat thin.

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