Abstracts of issue 1/1986 (4)

Ion Zottos

A Neoclassical Dramatic Synthesis of the Arts: Greek Subjects in Händels Dramaturgy

This is the first part of a tripartite article on the dramatic technique Händel developed in the works he composed inspired by the Greek classical past. A number of critics, including Mr. Winton Dean, have justify noticed that the quality of Händels music ran very high, when he dealt with Greek antiquity. The works in question are:
  1. Teseo: an Italian opera,
  2. Acis and Galatea: an English masque, and
  3. Semele: an English opera – oratorio.

Händels Teseo in Athens (Herod Atticus Theatre, 5 August 1985): A Review

The advertisement of Teseo mentions 4 New Scenes... Decorations, Flights, and Machines. In the present performance the scenes and decorations were essentially those that come with the bare splendid decay of the Herod Atticus Theatre. As for the flights and the machines, the Roman arches of the Odeon proved sufficient. Minerva could be seen at the top center arch, while Medeas final entrance in a Chariot drawn by flying Dragons could make full use of the stage and it did (these splendidly dressed dragons might be, by the way, the dream of frequenters of certain types of East Side bars in New York during the Carnival or other such festivities). The costumes (partly due to the generosity of the A. G. Levendis Foundation) were magnificent, with the possible exception, I thought, of King Aegeus, who was made to look more like King Valoroso out of Thackerays The Rose and the Ring. The lighting was used effectively, especially in the “magic scenes. It must have been the lavishness of the performance (highly-paid castrati, elaborate costumes and stylized dragons) that made the original impresario, Owen Swiney, back in 1713, embezzle the money after the first night and flee to the Continent. Although one assumes Tom Hawkes production tried to be authentic, one had the feeling that it leaned more heavily towards the French tradition (of Rameau) than to a performance at the Haymarket Theatre during the reign of Queen Anne. It is a pity Addison did not give us an account of Teseo as he had done with Rinaldo.
The rich and clear mezzo-soprano tone of Zehava Gal made her sing Teseo with conviction. Marilyn Hill Smith was an adequate Agilea (though she sounded much better the day after in Bach). Lynda Russell and Penelope Walker sang steadily – and beautifully – (as a pair of secondary lovers) in the Act V G major duet between Clizia and Arcane and improvised a cadenza, which was not written in the score. Lynton Black served to introduce a much-needed male voice as the Priest of Minerva. Robin Martin-Oliver is the exception among counter-tenors in managing to present a convincingly masculine and imposing appearance; furthermore his voice has color and is exact. But it was Claire Primrose, the sorceress Medea, who stole the show: putting aside unnecessary stylization, she emerged as a Kundry like figure and enlivened the music in an almost ideal fashion: she knew how to move about the stage (with or without her guardian dragons) and sang magnificently. Her incantation scene and her final morirò conveyed the effect of genuine despair. One almost felt disappointed that she did not at the end get her man; instead she had to console herself with the caresses of the four horrid monsters.
At the harpsichord David Roblou was exceptionally good and true to the style. Maestro Malgoires choice of pitch for his strings (415 instead of the normal 440 or higher) is justified for such was the frequency of the pitch during Händels time. Yet it sounds almost half a tone flat to those blessed with perfect pitch, and interferes with the clarity of the whole when wind or / and brass are involved. Those who were surprised by the relatively fast speed of the Overture may be comforted to know that to the baroque composer Largo was not a mere metronomic indication: it comes down to what later generations were to call maestoso, i.e. majestic. The chorus was good, and the orchestra (under Jean-Claude Malgoire) lived up to the refined (if not obvious) complexities of the Händel score. I have said elsewhere that perhaps less than excessive attention was paid to ornamentation and style. But then again I am speaking from the point of view of the baroque specialist, not the enlightened layman for whom the spectacle was intended. Generally speaking, it was a very musical, expressive and, at times, moving performance. It is vexatious to have such music neglected”, wrote Händels friend Mrs. Pendarves in the mid-eighteenth century. Now, thanks to Lina Lalandi and the English Bach Festival (partly supported by the British Council), this music is gloriously revived.

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