I’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 seria. Da 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.
So, 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.