Listening to the broadcast of Handel’s Ariodante from Geneva (November 17th), I began to fear that a new and definitely unwelcome fashion may have crept into the performance style of Handel works. The two or three readers of this weblog may remember my opinion about Magdalena Kozená’s new Handel disc. Apparently, the Czech mezzo-soprano is not the only victim of this quasi Schwarzkopfian heavy interpretative style.
Although Switzerland recalls rather cold clockwork precision, the highly talented group of singers gathered there is amazingly heavy-handed in their treatment of Handel, as if they were trying to infuse large doses of theatricality and drama in every syllable, regardless if the patient actually needs this medicine – or if he is, for that matter, really ill.
It is true that there is a preconceived notion that Handel’s music is rather graceful than powerful and that his operas’ contrived libretti are helpless. But that is the prejudiced opinion. Artists should know better and this new let’s-help-the-composer-to-get-his-point-clear approach is ultimately offensive to the genius who created these impressive and undying masterpieces. Although these singers might have the impression that they are giving their hearts and soul to Handel while pumping their own emotionalism and excitement into Handel’s music, they are actually being narcissistic and concentrating too much in their own excitement. I know that there is no historical evidence whatsoever of how a singer should tackle interpretation of Handel operas, but I would simply let the music speak for itself too see which approach fits the music better.
We must always keep in mind that, although human feelings are always the same, the way they are portrayed in art has changed a lot. I am sure that there are lots of people in New York or Paris who were born with a post-modern Weltanschauung, but the rest of us tend to have a default Romantic point-of-view. This is probably why most people see baroque opera as cold technical display. However, those who have interest in baroque art and its complex code of expression, the affetti, will understand that these works are immerse in emotions, once you open your eyes to the peculiarities of its aesthetics. When a singer drowns the purity of a line with Puccinian vibrant top notes and parlando effects, he is presenting nothing other than a transvesti of a performance, neither powerful in the way a Wagnerian or a Verdian would recognise it nor satisfying in its unstylishness for those who happen to care about that.
When you listen to Lorraine Hunt’s Scherza, infida, there are no artifficially inserted interpretative reminders of Ariodante’s predicaments; the much lamented late American mezzo-soprano’s performance is a single profound statement of pain and despair. Her inbuilt intensity doesn’t need to go against Handelian phrases; on the contrary, it invests Handelian lines, it reveals the expression reserved in the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic brushstrokes with which the master portrayed that particular dramatic situation.
Although Waltraud Meier probably never sang any note by Handel in her life, I remember an interview of hers in which she says that the great challenge for an artist is to surrender. Singers tend to clad themselves with ideas before they go on stage in order to produce this or that impression – but according to Meier letting the music speak by itself is the ultimate courageous act: going before the audience and not trying to produce this or that impression but open yourself to the whole spectrum of expressive possibilities. Of course, this is risky business if you don’t have artistic maturity.
Anyway, back to Geneva, I have to confess the main issue is, of course, Joyce DiDonato. She is a great Handelian singer whose purity of line, technical finish and good taste rarely let the listener down. Curiously, the only time I really did not connect to a performance by her was watching her DVD of Handel’s Hercules, in which her Dejanira was so expressionistically handled that I couldn’t help thinking she was having far more fun than I was. Her Ariodante does not reach that level of schyzophrenia, but again I did not recognise her in that over-the-top approach which only made her voice tense and her singing a bit unstylish. When Patricia Petibon does that in the same performance, it does not surprise me. I always have the impression she is trying to sing Verdi’s La Forza del Destino into baroque music, making her damsells in distress sound nothing but particularly hysterical.
I have read that DiDonato is really going deep into her portrayal of Alcina, studying the text with thorough investigative eye and discovering many and many things, but I hope the results are not preciosistic and overambitious, that all those discoveries of hers will illuminate rather than overshadow the dramatic truth she is looking for. It would be a pity to see her fall in the same trap Kozená could not avoid.
PS – On second thought, I realise I was unfair to speak about the cast in Geneva’s Ariodante in a generic way. I should point out that Varduhi Abrahamyan is an outstanding Polinesso, a name to watch, and that Amanda Forsythe and Charles Workman are quite commendable in the parts of Dalinda and Lucanio. Patricia Petibon herself has indeed some beautiful moments, but most of the time she is trying to pour Medea-like intensity into the role of the vulnerable Ginevra. If she had a Medea-like voice, one could discuss if this is a valid possibility. As for Joyce DiDonato, I have the impression that, although she sang it unfailingly well, the role is a bit low for her voice and if you overlook the almost verismo-like pathos of Scherza, infida or Cieca notte, there is a breathtaking Doppo notte sung with true technical aplomb. I must point out that reviewers who saw the opera live tended to have the opposite opinion of mine – I am sure that live at the theatre the visuals must have given sense to a musical performance that sounds overdone when listened to alone.