Though Handel is one of the greatest of all musical dramatists, until now we have resisted the temptation to produce his operas because of the demands of opera production. Oratorio can be done in any room of suitable size and proportion. Opera requires scenery, lighting, costumes, makeup, acting, and memorization of roles. To omit any of these produces a misrepresentation of the composer's intent; we say this even though concert performances of opera are common. Yet concert performances of baroque opera often are a dreary bore, fulfilling the negative expectations fostered by the standard textbook description that runs something like "and thus it was that baroque opera became a seemingly endless alternation of recitative and da capo aria." These same textbooks often characterize the libretti as beneath contempt as literature or drama. So why bother with baroque opera -- even Handel's? Because done in the spirit in which it was written, it is very good musical theatre, received truths notwithstanding.
Winton Dean, Andrew Porter, and other enlightened critics have railed against the negative view of baroque opera for some time, and last April the University of Maryland's Opera Theatre Program decided to present Handel's Tolomeo. The production demonstrated that 1) Handel opera is not a dreary bore; 2) the best of the libretti are very good dramas; and 3) production of most of Handel's operas does not require a huge theatre and expensive equipment and costumes in order to produce telling performances. Indeed, the experience of the last few years at some of the world's leading opera companies suggests that a sumptuous production in a huge house is not only unnecessary, but often counterproductive.
The April production of Tolomeo took place in the Music Department's 235-seat recital hall. Lack of space precluded the use of elaborate sets or a large orchestra, and because there is no pit in the recital hall, the orchestra sat at floor level-just as in Handel's day. Such an arrangement makes it awkward to have a conductor standing front and center waving his arms. Rather, Maestro McGegan directed (and will direct) the performance as Handel did: from one of the two harpsichords. The small hall and orchestra meant that our singers did not have to strain to be heard nor make exaggerated gestures to be seen. Such was the success of Maryland's young singers, that friends and colleagues urged us to revive the production at this year's Festival as our opening concert.
In 1983, in connection with the Maryland Handel Festival's production of Deborah, we presented a performance of Handel's Chandos Anthem IX, a work that was the musical source for a number of pieces in the oratorio. For the 1987 Festival, we have taken up this practice once again, this time presenting works by others, Stradella and Erba, which Handel used in the composition of Israel in Egypt.
As part of this year's scholarly activities, we will present, in cooperation with The American Handel Society, a special lecture by Jens Peter Larsen, one of the world's leading Haydn and Handel scholars. As may be seen from Dr. Larsen's biography, not only is he the founder of modern Haydn research, but he established the basis for most of the Handel research done in the last thirty years.
On Saturday, October 31 at 6:30 p.m. in Marie Mount Hall, University Community Concerts, in association with the Maryland Handel Festival, will present a panel discussion chaired by Mr. Robert Aubry Davis and including Nicholas McGegan, Percy Young, and Jens Peter Larsen to introduce the music to be performed that evening by Gustav Leonhardt. Admission to the panel discussion is free.
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