Too much to Handel

Its effect is horrible, said Shaw; it made Berlioz grind his teeth and curse. Should we call time on our obsession with Handel's music, asks Andrew Huth

Is London getting enough Handel opera? We've just had Orlando at Covent Garden, Agrippina at the Coliseum, Ariodante at the Barbican, and the London Handel Festival's Poro, Re del'Indie. In the next few weeks, the Barbican is also giving us Giulio Cesare, Acis and Galatea and Amadigi. That's a mere seven in four months. Since Handel wrote around 40 operas his hardline fans are probably wondering why they can't have a few dozen more. They should sleep easy: there's plenty more Handel on the way. In two years' time we'll be celebrating the 250th anniversary of his death, when the enthusiasts will expect to hear every single note of every single version of every single opera.

For three decades following his move to England in 1712, Handel's main activity was the composition of Italian opera. His theatre career, spiced with triumphs, flops, intrigues, rivalries, tantrums and bankruptcies makes for entertaining reading. Eventually fashion turned against him, and in 1741 he abandoned the theatre for good. A canny opportunist, he switched from Italian opera to English oratorio, from entertaining the aristocracy to edifying the middle classes. He was soon idolised by the very people who despised the theatre as a sink of iniquity and whose attitudes and prejudices effectively killed music and drama in England for two centuries. Sacred oratorio was another matter, though: it was the next best thing to divine service.

If Victorian Handel-worshippers were even aware of the operas' existence, they dismissed them as one of the great man's failings, like his reputed ability to swear in nine different languages. "Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution," explained George Bernard Shaw. "What is more, he is a sacred institution. When his Messiah is performed, the audience stands up, as if in church, while the Hallelujah chorus is being sung. It is the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to English protestants. Every three years, there is a Handel festival, at which his oratorios are performed by 4,000 executants, collected from all the choirs in England. The effect is horrible: and everybody declares it sublime."

The decline in monster oratorio performances coincided with the beginning of the Handel opera revival, which started timidly in the 1920s, gathered pace after the second world war, and really took off in the 1970s and 80s. This revival was closely bound up with the quest to perform music of earlier periods on the right instruments and in the appropriate style. A reduction in forces and a lighter touch in performance revealed the strength of Handel's slim, lean textures, and a study of baroque ornamentation showed how apparently simple lines could flower into gorgeous vocal display.

Today, Handel's operas are better business than they ever were in his lifetime. They're good box-office and relatively cheap to produce. All one needs is a handful of singers and an orchestra that, with a bit of a squeeze, can be fitted into the back of a van. Producers are attracted by the ever-shifting tangle of relationships and by the mythological or semi-historical settings that can be moulded to fit almost any concept.

Bringing great music from the past back to life is a splendid thing. But all the same, it is sometimes hard to avoid the impression of self-denying worthiness that clings to some Handel opera performances, particularly the unstaged concert versions. The Victorians may have regarded his oratorios with pious awe, but they also revelled in the size and sonority of their huge choruses and orchestras. It was an acceptable form of sensuality. How much sensuality, how much genuine delight, can one read on the faces of a modern audience who sit for over three hours through an unbroken series of solo arias and recitatives? Handel wasn't at all an austere composer, but his operas are highly stylised and depend on the manipulation of a limited range of forms. Limitation can be a great stimulus to an artist, but even if we fully accept and enjoy the conventions Handel used with such wit and skill, we're still left with an awful lack of variety for a full evening's entertainment. Don't the devout Handel fans ever yearn for a chorus or a vocal ensemble? Wouldn't they enjoy a bit more orchestral colour? Or even some dancing now and then?

At least we've learned that "authentic" performance can be sensual - not something that could be taken for granted in the pioneering phase of the early music movement, when any concession to pleasure, let alone beauty of tone or properly tuned instruments, took second place to dour notions of historical accuracy. There's nothing so depressingly old-fashioned as a 30-year-old recording of baroque music. But one vital element is still missing. Handel operas live or die by the singing, and we're not hearing what really thrilled his original audiences: the male castrato voice. In the early days of the Handel opera revival, the castrato parts tended to be transposed down an octave for tenors. Now they're usually given to male countertenors or to women. Whatever gender-bending solution we choose, it won't be the real thing until some enlightened Home Secretary decides that our streets could be made safer by castrating a few hoodies and teaching them to sing.

Respect for the original texts is another very splendid thing, but the dogma that nothing must be changed and nothing cut ensures that we are spared no longueurs or weaknesses. Handel worked under enormous pressure, and no-one can claim that he always composed at the highest level. Any full-length work, even the best of them, has its less than inspired patches. Minor pieces, too, are accepted as though they're major ones, a lack of discrimination similar to the respect accorded to every note composed by Mozart. Last year's anniversary reminded us that there are enough mature masterpieces by Mozart to satisfy us for a lifetime, and there are very few reasons why we should seriously bother with anything he wrote before he was 20. Completeness is a virtue for historians, archivists and the compilers of dictionaries, but has little to do with living art.

With so much vocal and instrumental talent around, and with so many groups prepared to investigate obscure corners of the baroque repertory, there's no need to allow Handel a monopoly. There are literally thousands of operas from the early 18th century that haven't been staged in modern times, and even if we can dismiss most of them there's no excuse for not being a little more adventurous. Seven Handel operas in London within a few months is all very well, but not one of our major companies has ever produced anything by Rameau, his great French contemporary, a magnificent composer whose stage works contain far more variety than anything Handel can offer.

Yes, Handel is wonderful. Of course he's a great dramatist. Of course we're lucky to be able to hear and see his operas again. But there's no disrespect in suggesting that something is out of proportion. As it happens, there are plenty of people, a surprising number of them professional musicians, who find the Handel cult puzzling. Some have never recovered from gruesome amateur Messiahs in childhood. Others cringe from the beefy cheerfulness that Handel so often falls back on. Many find his initial ideas striking enough, but lose interest after a few bars when the rum-ti-tum takes over. It has been pointed out that his sometimes erratic word setting in the English oratorios reinforced the myth, widespread for many years, that English isn't a suitable language for singing.

Such dissent is rarely aired in public, though. The doubters tend to follow the example of that arch-sceptic Berlioz, who prudently kept his feelings to himself during his visits to England: "When I hear or read certain pieces by that gross master, I content myself with a vigorous grinding of teeth until I'm back home and can heap curses upon his head in private."

· Giulio Cesare (April 19) and Amadigi di Gaula (May 18) are at the Barbican, London (020-7638 8891). Acis & Galatea is at Christ Church Spitalfields, London (020-7377 6793) on April 25

Andrew Huth

The GuardianTramp

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