This year is the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, but the revival of interest in his operas is already 20 years old. Previously he’d been best known for oratorios such as Messiah, but opera directors had become tired of the standard repertory and, with over 40 to choose from, Handel’s long-forgotten products in the field proved a gold mine. Many of the most celebrated of these resurrections are now available on DVD.
The finest of the four productions reviewed here is the 1996 Ariodante from the English National Opera, directed by David Alden. Stylishly innovative, sexually energetic, and with all the characters shown as being on the verge of insanity, this production hovers on the edge of brilliance. Handel’s compulsive, rhythmic music is shown to be a cover for barely repressed passion. Dressed in 18th-century costume, distraught characters perform his vocal acrobatics as the extensions of almost unbearable states of mind.
Written in Italian, it’s here sung in an English version by Amanda Holden. She catches the 18th-century poetic idiom perfectly and manages at the same time to be ironic and witty, providing an ideal complement to the director’s manic vision.
Ann Murray sings the errant knight Ariodante to extraordinary effect — just watch her in the long aria after she learns the king has agreed to her character’s marriage to his daughter Ginevra and succession to the throne of Scotland. She writhes on the floor and stands on tables while getting her voice around an impossibly difficult vocal line. Joan Rodgers as Ginevra is also excellent, as is Christopher Robson as the ambitious and sexually devious Polinesso. Subtitles in the version most easily available in Taiwan are in Chinese and English.
If you want to sample a Handel opera you couldn’t do better than opt for this two-DVD product. It was previously listed among 27 outstanding opera DVDs in the Taipei Times on Dec. 22, 2005.
My second choice is the Glyndbourne Festival Rodelinda, dating from 1998. Jean-Marie Villegier directs this story, also featuring sexual and political rivalry, in the style of early silent movies. He sets it in the 1920s, with cocktails, military uniforms, cigarettes and newspapers, and the entire action seemingly taking place at night. The melodic and catchy score once again only half-conceals a world of lethal intrigue and obsessive rivalry.
William Christie conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and subtitles are in English, German, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.
Tamerlano, like Rodelinda, was one of Handel’s early successes. The main characteristic of the two-DVD version from Germany’s 2001 Halle Festival is the large number of bonuses available — interviews with director Jonathan Miller and conductor Trevor Pinnock, and historic footage from previous Halle festivals going back to 1951 (Halle was Handel’s birthplace). There’s also a “score-plus” function by which you can opt to see the score with a shadowy version of the stage action just visible behind it.
Halle’s Goethe-theater is small, so the production can’t use elaborate scenery. It compensates for this with exotic costumes to go with the 15th-century Turkish setting, even though these actually represent an 18th-century view of imperial Ottoman styles. The cast is mostly very strong. Monica Bacelli sings the title role, and counter-tenor Graham Pushee is Andranico. Subtitles are in French, English, Spanish and Chinese.