On the benefits of going the other way

As you may have gathered from several recent posts, I have re-evaluated my opinion of recorded opera and come to enjoy it but still find live performances to be preferable.

On the whole, I’m sticking to my guns and I don’t think I’ll ever be convinced otherwise (with the caveat that I’d probably find a recorded version of an excellent performance preferable to a live version of a bad one).  However, lest you think that I think that opera on DVD is inferior to the live version in every respect, I should mention that I’ve recently discovered one way in which it is actually better.  Read on to discover why.

As well as opera, I’ve recently been exploring more of the works of George Frideric Handel (to use the spelling of his name that he adopted on settling to live in the UK, also used by the English version of Wikipedia – unsurprisingly, the German version uses the original, Geman spelling of his name: Georg Friedrich Händel).  Previously I’d only really been particularly familiar with a few of his better-known pieces such as the Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Messiah.  I used to have a tape of one of his sets of concerti grossi (the opus 6 ones, I think) too, but that wore out years ago.

Opera was very much one of Handel’s bags and it is probably not surprising that my explorations of opera and of Handel’s music should soon converge.  Having listened to a number of isolated arias from several of his many operas, I recently managed to get hold of a DVD copy of Rodelinda (HWV 19), which is widely considered to be one of his best.

Baroque opera is something of a niche market compared to more mainstream, later opera and, consequently there are usually few, if any, available recordings of any given work and the ones that exist tend to be relatively expensive.  I was, therefore, pleased to get a fairly cheap (but very good condition) second-hand copy of an acclaimed performance of Rodelinda by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1998, featuring Anna Caterina Antonacci (whom I recently watched (on DVD) in a completely different role as the star of a Covent Garden production of Carmen), Andreas Scholl (one of the world’s leading countertenors) and a bunch of other very competent performers none of whom I’d heard of.

Incidentally, I vaguely recall that I was once supposed to be going on a school trip to Glyndebourne but it got cancelled.  It could have been in 1993, the year the festival was cancelled while their theatre was being rebuilt, although I think it was earlier than that and the cancellation was presumably on the part of my school rather than the festival itself.

Returning to Rodelinda, this particular performance was interesting because, although they seemed to go for a fairly HIP (as in Historically Informed Performance, aka Authentic Performance etc.) version musically (complete with a theorbo and a couple of recorders in the orchestra pit), the staging was definitely post-baroque.  Visually it was particularly interesting because throughout most of the story the sets and costumes were all rather monochrome but at the very end they brought in some quite strong colour.  This was very much in keeping with the plot (and I won’t say any more for fear of giving the game away if you should have any desire to check out Rodelinda for yourself and want to preserve the surprise; the Wikipedia page has a good synopsis you can read otherwise) and presumably was done that way on purpose.

Handel was very much a composer in the opera seria (literally “serious opera”, in contrast to opera buffa or “comic opera”, although the terms can be slightly misleading) genre, which is characterised by the da capo aria.  This is an aria (or song, in non-opera-speak), usually for a solo performer, that starts with one section, moves on to a contrasting second section and then goes back and repeats the first section.  The end result can be quite long and somewhat repetitive, although at their best (such as in Rodelinda) they can contain some truly delicious music.  In fact baroque opera is built almost exclusively around alternating passages of recitative (basically, sung dialogue, which serves to move the plot forward – generally quite rapidly – and can involve several characters) alternating with solo da capo arias (giving individual performers a chance to shine while pausing to explore their character’s emotional response to the situation), with few if any ensemble or chorus pieces (in Rodelinda there is one exquisite duet at the end of the second act (of three) and a quartet at the very end of the how).

In a way this is a shame, as I particularly involve the vocal interplay in ensemble pieces (my single favourite bit of Carmen, for example is not one of the famous arias but a lovely quartet in the middle of the second act).  Still, the emphasis on solo items does help to give baroque opera a unique character (along, of course, with the distinctive melodic, harmonic and rhythmic structures, as well as orchestration, of baroque music, etc.) and I think it’s best to enjoy each operatic genre on its own terms rather than in comparison to different genres.

One of the arias towards the end of Rodelinda involves one of the main characters falling asleep in a garden.  As you might expect, the music at this point is very gentle and soporific.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s likely to happen if you’re watching it in a comfortable chair in a darkened room late in the evening after about 3 hours of sitting down enjoying the show…

Which brings me at last to the benefit of opera on DVD as opposed to a live performance: When you fall asleep part-way through, you don’t have to miss large chunks of the action but can go back and revisit them at your leisure.  Plus, you don’t have to worry about winding up other members of the audience or disturbing the cast with your snoring. 🙂