‘I simply didn’t understand why my first entrance had to be on a motorbike.’
Esteemed opera colleague
My bemused colleague was filling me in on his return from a staged Handel production in Germany. The stage director had a so-called konzept for the work that would show his colours as an original artiste, thus furthering his career. Whether it had anything to do with the music seems to have been a trifling matter.
From 1985, the Cambridge Handel Opera Group (CHOG) put on biennial staged productions of Handel’s operas, in addition to concerts and seminars. These were led by Dr Andrew Jones, who also prepared the editions and translations. CHOG’s productions stood out for marrying historically informed performances with historically appropriate stagings, so that its closure in 2013 was a sad loss for many Handel devotees.
I am privileged to be Artistic Director of the newly-minted Cambridge Handel Opera Company (CHOC). Thanks to the support of the Handel Institute, we are now registered as an independent UK charity and staged our first professional production in 2018 with Handel’s Rodelinda (the same opera that CHOG first performed in 1985). We aim to build on CHOG’s impressive legacy, and are very fortunate in having Dr Jones’s good will and support in this venture.
In addition to the financial challenges that face almost any opera organisation, CHOC’s challenge will be one of profile. When one mentions historical staging, many still imagine musty costumes and awkward physical gestures. Indeed, a colleague once described CHOG only as being ‘serious’, before it transpired that he had never even been to one of its productions! Experiencing some of these productions as a Cambridge student showed me how an understanding of historical stagecraft heightens the creative dialogue that must always exist between drama and music. An appreciation for how the poised repeated quavers allude to the hunter’s stealthy steps in Cesare’s aria ‘Va tacito e nascosto’ (‘‘How silently, how slyly’’) from Handel’s Giulio Cesare can, for instance, elicit the exactly appropriate physical energy from the singer.
This is not to say that no updated Handel production embraces these qualities (I love performing in some of them). On the contrary, the lethal injection that ends the acclaimed Glyndebourne production of Theodora is truly harrowing – not a konzept in sight – and I with others relished Christine Rice’s performance at ENO as the punk-playboy Nerone in Agrippina, in which she snorts illegal substances during her manic aria ‘Come nube che fugge dal vento’ (‘‘As a cloud flies from the wind’’). In short, in the same way that one must be as creative when playing a Baroque violin as its modern counterpart, one must also be creative when staging a work in a historically appropriate style. Forget the unimaginatively termed ‘Historically Informed Performance’. Think instead of ‘Historically Inspired Performance’ – in which knowledge is not an end in itself, but rather a tool for creating moving performances.
Wanda Landowska was tireless in her efforts in showing that the harpsichord was not some outdated fossil, but rather an instrument that can move listeners today. Together with other institutions, CHOG has played a similar role for Handel’s operas. It is now surely time for what I call ‘historically inspired’ productions to emerge from the wings and show audiences how compelling and complete Handel’s dramas can be when meaningfully allied to his music. And, who knows, they may even be ‘serious fun’!
© Julian Perkins
Cambridge Handel Opera Company mounted its first staged production in April 2018 with Handel’s Rodelinda. Please write to Julian Perkins through his Contact page if you would like details of CHOC’s tempting Friends’ Scheme...
This article was published in Handel News 67, October 2016.