Friday, 25 December 2009

"Hello, I must be going!" Handel's Ezio and the End of Opera Seria

Though it may come as a surprise to some, it seems that Ezio, always the blacksheep in Handel's operatic oeuvre, is experiencing something of a revival. Only last month, the Kammerorchester of Basel performed an undramatised version of the entire opera to a packed house and rapturous reception at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris; a major new production was staged (and broadcast on Germany national television) for the Schwetzingen Festival in May; and the BBC, in promoting their July performance on Radio 3 featuring Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg, have dubbed it Handel's "lost masterpiece", which in certain circles might be rather like callng Alexander Oliver Stone's lost masterpiece. In its day, Ezio was Handel's least popular opera, lasting just five performances, and was never revived in his life time. It was not until 1977 that the Handel Society revived the opera, staging its first London performance in nearly a quarter of a millenium, at the Sadler's Wells Theatre. 

By 1732, the high baroque style of opera seria was reaching the very acme of its formalization, and Ezio, with its lack of ensemble singing, strict division between arias and (mostly secco, ie accompanied only by cello or harpsichord continuo) recitative, is often considered rather the ideal type of this genre. The format, defined more by the Italian librettist Metastasio than any particular composer, involved a strict adherence to the Aristotelian unities (of action, of place, and of time); a classical setting, often freely adapting Graeco-Roman tragedies to suit the obsequious temperament of the baroque era; and an absolute paramount placed on the transcendent power of the voice. For this was the era of the great castrati and the prima donnas - the superstars of their day, famous for their virtuosic vocal chords and prodigious tempers, they weilded an enormous power, largely responsible for the tendency to end each scene with a big coloratura aria so the singer might show off their range before walking off stage to inevitabily rapturous applause.

Opera seria was primarily a music of the absolutist courts and a number of conventions in staging and lighting were employed to emphasise the identification between the kings and crown princes in the audience with the gods and emperors on stage. As such, a happy ending, emphasizing the mercy and noble spirit of the ruler, was compulsory. This final expression of mercy, often widely divergent from the source texts or historical facts, was necessary, according to Mladen Dolar, as an act of flattery to the monarch, emphasizing their humanity even whilst affirming their irrevocable otherness. "The logic of mercy," says Dolar, "relies on and engenders the logic of superego, the other side of the law." The law's 'other side' being the patriarchal figure which both suspends and guarantees the efficacy of the law, maintaining and enforcing the law whilst simultaneously acting as its inherent transgression. Opera seria thus provided a kind of structuring fantasy for the last days of the feudal system, before both were swept decisively away by the French revolution.

Already, in Handel's time, a serious rival to the dominance of opera seria was arising in the form of opera buffa, seria's less formal, more 'democratic' younger sibling, with plots more resembling Hollywood screwball comedies from the 1930s and a sense of high camp and low humour carried over from the Commedia dell'Arte. Though both existed side by side for some time (Mozart wrote several of each, though his two opera seria, Ideomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, were amongst his biggest flops), it was increasingly the more casual, less stylised, opera buffa which found favour with audiences, and it was opera buffa which had the more pronounced influence upon the major operatic reforms of Gluck later in the century. If already in its day, Ezio was starting to look a little stuffy and old-fashioned, weighed down by the straitjacket of its classical structure, what chance does it stand today, more than two hundred years from the disappearance of the social system it reflected and ideologically supported?

Indeed, the years have in many ways hardly been kind. Nietzsche regarded any use of recitative as completely 'unmusical' and Adorno saw no musical qualities in any of Handel's work sufficient to justify their continued performance. Many contemporary books about the history of opera prefer to skip straight from Monteverdi to Mozart or Gluck, eliding the Metastasian period like some embarrasing episode in the family history. At best they might note the odd pleasing air or notable rhetorical flourish in an era otherwise marked by rigid formalism which lead to a dearth of innovation and questionable lack of taste. But what is there in Handel's operas, and perhaps Ezio in particular, that resists this kind of glib dismissal? 

Almost uniquely amongst the major composers of the 18th century, Handel was neither, truly, a court composer, like Salieri or Haydn, nor a church composer like Bach, though he is often thought to have been both. His appointment as Kapellmeister of Hannover was but shortlived, for Handel immediately absconded to London upon being appointed; and despite numerous official appointments, he evidently never felt really at home playing jester to the British throne and spent little time at court. Handel's place, from the very beginning of his career in Hamburg, was in the theatre. Few composers can have devoted so much of their lives to pursuing so fervently, and almost single-handedly, a commercial enterprise such as opera production on the London stage. Even the move away from opera towards oratorio towards the end of his life was motivated largely by commerical considerations. Handel thus stands on something of a continuum of British producer-entrepreneurs that extends even to Joe Meek and Pete Waterman.

Neither should one be too scadalised by the mention in this context of pop music producers. Handel was never an 'academic' composer, and he was frequently somewhat looked down upon in elite musical circles, in Hamburg, Florence and London. Frequently out of step with the latest fashions in Italy, and cutting something of an ungainly figure in London's polite society, Handel could never count on the support of the press nor of the establishment. His appeal, then, was always to the ear of whom we might tentatively call the 'man on the street'. As such his operas retain a melodic freshness that nas never dated, and a stylistic variety foreign to his more au fait contemporaries. Newman Flower describes how Handel's tunes "swept with swift insidiousness to all corners. To all drawing-rooms. To drinking dens." The audience for opera in London at the time was broad, and it is no small testament to Handel's popularity with all classes that several of his melodies were even cribbed for The Beggar's Opera, something of a grandaddy, both to the English music hall and the German singspiel

Ezio is one of only three operas Handel composed from a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, and scholars have often wondered why so few (he composed nearly fifty operas in total) when he had success producing numerous pasticcios based on Metastasio's librettos. It may be that Handel found the texts of this Italian poet, whose name is so indelibly linked to the very definition of opera seria, just too too much. Perfect for a quick pasticcio, bolting together a few melodies from other operas to fill up the season, but otherwise just a little too on the money. Ezio conforms so perfectly to the conventions of opera seria that it almost becomes its own meta-analysis, exposing and exploding its own formalities even in its slavish conformism. In one scene in particular Varo stands up the front of the stage explaining at great length in florid, melismatic stanzas, how much of a hurry he is in, and how he really doesn't have any time to waste. Patricia Juliana-Smith, in an essay which calls Handel, "perhaps the gayest of opera composers," says of his operas that they, "seem to the post-modern perspective nothing so much as camp critiques of received notions of heroism and romance." But is it so much to suggest that a contemporary of Swift may have had his own satirical intent without requiring any 'post-modern perspective'?

Ezio is a story all about unreliable narrators. The drama, the intrigue, the major twists of the story are all the result of characters giving a false narrative of events. Almost all the characters in the opera tell lies, and they tell those lies, invariably, to the king. The king thus acts as a kind of Lacanian big Other as the one who must not be in full possession of the truth. The only character who refuses to lie is Ezio himself and he is repeatedly punished for it, whilst none of the liars are ever punished. The king of England at the time, George II, was one of Ezio's few contemporary fans, apparently, turning up to every performance but the first. And in a sense, even given their wide audience, opera seria were always addressed to the king, as noted above. But doesn't an opera about unreliable narrators, which addresses the king, whilst simultaneously establishing the king as he who must be lied to, raise questions about the unreliability of its own narrative? And indeed, if we compare Metastasio's libretto with it sources in Racine's Britannicus and Roman history, we find that the happy ending is, in fact, a 'lie'.

Whilst in most opera seria, the granting of mercy by the monarch is acted out essentially freely and out of their own benevolence, thus affirming their essential humanity and, simultaneously, their power over humanity, as per Dolar's analysis quoted above, in Ezio the act of mercy is only undertaken under considerable physical threat. Massimo has roused the wrath of the people who are already rising up and attacking the emperor's palace, and it is only by the re-appearance of Ezio and Caeser's granting of his acquittal that the uprising is quelled, with the mob literally at the gates. Behind Ezio's apparently fawning tacked-on happy-ending then, there is a not so veiled threat to the figure of the monarch: use your power benevolently or risk the wrath of the people (a threat that may have registered somewhere, less than a hundred years after the English revolution). 

It seems pointless to speculate on Handel's relationship with King George at the time, of course (from what I can gather they had their ups and downs...), and at any rate biography and intentionality need not have the last word in the analysis of any text. For all its formalism, there's a lot to like in Ezio - however we might interpet it. It is easy to sneer at the imagination of a 1960 East German music festival in dubbing Handel, "The people's composer - a true revolutionary!" But isn't it more exciting to gamble on the possibility that the composer of the Messiah and royal Fireworks Music might just be more interesting, less stiff, than we had supposed? That there might just be some latent utopian potential, some spirit in this work, missed by the crowds at its first performances, such would strike me as a wager worth pursuing. And now that tickets for the opera cost less than tickets for a rock concert, with both the cheapest and the most expensive tickets at the Royal Opera House in London selling for less than the cheapest and most expensive tickets for a concert at Wembley Arena, now that heads of state are more likely to patronise the latest indie band than the most talented composer, to call for a new appreciation of opera seria as populism, and pop music, seems not just conceivable, but urgent, essential.