In 1735, George Frederick Handel rocked the London operatic world with his new concoction, Ariodante. Based on a story of princely deception and ultimate romantic fulfilment, the work opened Handel's first season at Covent Garden, in the midst of a vicious battle between competing opera houses in 18th-century London. The show was a great success – it was performed 11 times in 1735 and revived in 1736.
After that, Ariodante wasn't performed again until 1926, in Stuttgart, Germany.
For two centuries, Handel's operas, as opposed to his oratorios, lay forgotten and languishing on the remainder pile of Western music – vaguely known, mostly ignored. Yet today, Handelian operas are among the most popular and regularly staged pieces in the repertoire. Not quite up there with your Carmens and Traviatas, but part of the standard fare of most modern houses. Two years ago in Toronto, we had Peter Sellars's production of Hercules at the Canadian Opera Company. Starting Sunday afternoon, it's director Richard Jones's Ariodante, also at the COC's Four Seasons Centre.
Perhaps because Handel's operas are so completely of the past in Western musical culture, they have lent themselves easily to modernization. Sellars's Hercules transposed the story of the Greek hero returning from an ancient battle to our wars in the Middle East, with powerful effect. And director Jones has taken a story set in ancient Scotland – of jealousy, manipulation of belief, and tragedy – and transferred it to Scotland's Outer Hebrides of the 1960s, with its isolation, suffocating community, overheated and powerful emotions. Can the gentility of 18th-century Handel survive the transition to the anxieties of the 20th and 21st centuries?
Very easily, says associate director Benjamin Davis, remounting Jones's production in Toronto after its previous manifestations in Aix-en-Provence, France, and Amsterdam. "What appealed to Richard in this piece were the psychological complexities of these characters. Handel may have lived in a world that predated psychology as a formal field of study, but his characters and the situations they find themselves in are fascinating psychologically," he says. "Our task was to find a modern congruence between a story from the 16th century and our own time. And the structure of Handel's music actually helps us. The da capo aria [a common baroque device where the beginning of an aria is repeated more or less identically at the end] enables a psychological investigation which progresses, so the da capo section of an aria becomes a development, a psychological development rather than just a repeat."
COC music director Johannes Debus, conducting his first Handel opera, agrees wholeheartedly. "Handel was this great melodist," he says. "He has this ability in just one melody – in just one melodic cell, even –to depict the mood and the character of a person or a situation. He also uses rhythm in this unique way – to demonstrate character. Baroque music is so full of disguised and not-so-disguised dances," he adds.
"The first number in Ariodante is a sarabande, a courtly dance, which perfectly fits the character of Ginevra, whether she is portrayed as a Scottish princess, as in the original, or the daughter of a Hebridean leader, as in our production," Debus says. "The music expresses her character – there are triplets, ornaments in the orchestral accompaniment, which give off this hint of how she sees herself. Handel is full of moments like these."
But for Debus, as with Davis, there are many challenges to interpreting and modernizing Handel, and one of these has to do with the musical notation itself. The baroque orchestra of the 1700s wasn't far different from the big jazz bands of the thirties and forties, where musicians, familiar with each other and with the style of music they were playing, didn't bother to write down every nuance, every inflection, every loud and soft. They just instinctively knew what to do. It makes it tricky for a conductor 250 years later to catch that baroque spirit.
"With every bar, you have to make decisions," Debus says. "You have to make decisions on how to phrase a line, how to shape it, decisions on articulation. The musicians of that era didn't need a lot of direction from a composer, but the music was nonetheless immensely sophisticated and subtle. If you could write down everything that happens in the actual music on the score, it would be densely packed indeed."
And there's the action on stage to consider as well. Richard Jones's productions are noted for their tight choreography, with moments on stage directly associated with moments in the score. As Benjamin Davis explains, that correspondence was very deliberate "because it punctuates both what we're seeing and also supports how we hear. That visual punctuation, the visual choreography with the music, enables us to hear it with greater clarity."
The contemporary notion of regietheater, the German name given to these attempts to modernize older operatic works, is fraught with controversy these days among opera fans who don't want their traditional productions tampered with. But Davis and Debus are strong believers in the idea of modernization. As they both feel, when it's done properly, with respect for the original, it opens up fresh new worlds of interpretation and meaning. Says Debus, "To me, the most rewarding thing is when the staging and the music create a unity, and build on each other and the staging makes the music stronger and the music makes the staging stronger. If that happens, I think we have fulfilled the idea of opera, of music theatre."
Ariodante runs from Oct. 16 to Nov. 4 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto (coc.ca).