Going the distance with Handel
You have to have stamina to work your way through Handel's operas. Having enjoyed the delightful magical and pastoral scenes of the operas broadcast in the Handel Opera Cycle in the past few weeks - Orlando, Alcina, Atalanta - we're now back to more traditional heroic stuff with Arminio (1737), this week. It tells the story (from Tacitus) of warfare between the Romans and the Germans (the barbarian invaders, in other words), with the German tribal ruler Hermann (Arminius) betrayed into captivity by the collaborator, Segestes, but ultimately triumphant.
The German theme may have meant the opera was intended to honour the Hanoverian monarchy. Perhaps Handel was inspired in that direction by his recent success with the delightful pastoral opera, Atalanta, written to celebrate the wedding of the Prince of Wales. Or perhaps he was hoping to ingratiate himself for financial reward - after all, he was still doing battle himself against the so-called 'Opera of the Nobility', who were occupying the opera house, and just as keen to curry favour with the royal family.
Of course, London couldn't maintain two opera companies: Arminio managed only six performances, and by the end of the season the Opera of the Nobility had folded. Handel had London's operatic life back to himself, and reigned triumphant. But Londoners' ennui had the last laugh. Although we still have some weeks to go before we reach the end of the run of Handel's operas, he had eventually to give it up due to lack of audience support in 1741, replacing it instead with the oratorio, which had proved increasingly popular with Londoners throughout the 1730s.
But had he really given up on opera? On Sunday night I went to hear his oratorio Susanna (1749) at the Barbican, where William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are doing four 30th-anniversary celebratory concerts. The performances were generally very good (particularly from the countertenors, Max Emmanuel Cencic and the showy David DQ Lee). But what really struck me was just how operatic the work was, with barely a chorus to be heard (a pity, given Les Arts Florissants' quality in that regard). So, Handel found ways to work operatic style into his biblical oratorios, despite the tastes of his audience, even at the end of his composing career. Really, it's HIS stamina you have to admire!