These gender-bending, cataclysmic, Eros-centric operas by George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) that are working their way back into consciousness, such as it is, like slow-moving outer planets on a collision course with our own Late Baroque Age… where is one to hear and see them?
Paris is a good place to start. I saw an otherworldly Orlando Furioso (1727) at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in March 2011. Oh wait, no, that was Vivaldi. Sorry. God, it was thrilling.
San Francisco Opera occasionally coughs up a Handel, as in last year’s sublime Xerxes (1738) with cross-dressing diva Susan Graham and girly-man counter-tenor David Daniels, et al. But no Handel in their 2012-13 season, just some Jake Heggie. Not the same thing.
Under a rock I found something called Pocket Opera and they do one Handel opera every year. Grazie tanto, Pocket! But wouldn’t you know it, in these criminal financial times, Pocket Opera is threatened with non-existence. That doesn’t seem right, somehow.
Why must artists suffer while bankers thrive? I know it’s good for us to suffer, but shouldn’t that apply equally to bankers? What exactly do bankers do, that they should thrive at the expense of artists? They handle (not a pun) other people’s money. Am I alone in seeing the irony here? I suppose the temptation is too great for these weak-willed bankers not to figure out how to steal some, then some more, and so on, until they begin shutting down entire countries. Someone ought to write an opera about that.
Meanwhile, Pocket Opera founder Donald Pippin, rumored to be deathless, is threatening to sell his Steinway (circa 1875) to keep his organization afloat. Sounds like a cry for help, doesn’t it?
If any bankers are reading this, why don’t you suck it up and write the old dear a check for a million dollars? You won’t even feel it leaving your account and entering his. I bet they’d give you a lifetime free pass plus one, so you could get some culture finally. Your experience might go something like this:
You’d enter the Hillside Club in Berkeley, which is a story unto itself, flash your pass in the foyer at a comely young person whose eyes would light up under the influence of your beneficence, be greeted again as you enter the hall, be handed a xeroxed program, be tempted by tables of treats and librettos, help yourself to a free glass of water, then find a seat among the hundred or so chairs offering unobstructed view of the raised stage. Wait. You’d have your own special seat, roped off. Naturally.
You’d look at the program, see the prominent photograph of yourself on the donor page, feel chuffed, wonder if anyone recognized you, think of friends who should follow your lead, dash off a quick Tweet to that effect before indefatigable executive director Dianna Shuster took to the stage to tell you to turn off your smartphone. You obey promptly. Noblesse oblige, Baby.
The instrumentalists — first violin, second violin, viola, cello, first oboe, second oboe plus English horn, and bassoon — would take their seats somewhat invisibly behind the artistic director’s harpsichord. You’d be so fascinated by what you couldn’t see. The invisible life of musicians. The road not travelled. Why did you drop clarinette after high school? Your first girlfriend said it made you the best kisser. Sigh.
Then the singers — four women in the case of last Sunday’s performance of Teseo (1713) — parade on and take their seats. They hold notebooks. You’ve been advised this would be an on-book performance, since there are only two airings. It’s hard enough to sing the stuff without having to commit it to memory. You wonder if it’ll be too bookish.
The music starts. It’s quite nice. Dynamic. Steady beat. Surprising harmonies. Good acoustics in the deceptively rustic hall. You might like this. You wonder what the singers are thinking, sitting like chess pieces in their operatic finery.
Suddenly the hunched figure at the harpsichord swings slowly around and rises. This is Donald Pippin. You’re old friends. He took your check off your hands. You beam at him. He beams back. Then he launches into his trademark narrative, the vaudevillian masterstroke that allows Pocket Opera to pull off a Handel in under three hours, but who’s counting, by cutting the recitative — which is sublime, granted, but you understand the limitations under which they toil.
“They don’t make castrati the way they used to,” Pippin says, to general laughter. You’ve been warned about castrati. “In Handel’s day, when castrati were unavailable, Handel would use a mezzo-soprano.” You don’t really need to be told why you get to hear four ladysingers. You’re down with that.
Then it starts. The vocal beauty. One songstress after another takes center stage to funnel out to you a distillation of all her charms and tantrums, as if by magic transmuted into seething, soothing melodies by that old German with Italian technique who conquered London. You’re reminded of at least two of your wives. You reassure yourself they’re both safely remarried, off the payroll. These are merely emotional memories you’re experiencing. A rollercoaster ride someone else is taking for you.
At this particular performance, you’re quite taken with Abigail Nims in the title role. Not only are you mesmerized by her catlike sang froid, she seems to be speaking directly at you in a language you feel you understand, even though you never learned Italian past “Ciao!” So this is opera. Who knew? You wish the mellifluous Marcelle (Medea) Dronkers, aka your first wife during divorce proceedings, would invest in some contact lenses, but she’s no longer your problem. Inwardly, you liken Rebecca (Egeo) Krouner’s deep flowing contralto to huckleberry jam oozing onto morning toast. Yum yum. You sympathize with that helpless look on Aimee (Agilea) Puentes’ face as she gets lost in the furiatura, reminiscent of the bad wipe-outs you experienced as a young surfer. It’s all good.
The opera goes on and on until it’s over, but you stick around because not only do they always want to thank you, you’re in the mood to chat up some of these divas. You feel you’re poised to make an excellent return on your investment.