Some readers may be excused for thinking that there might not be much more to say about Handel’s operas following the achievements of Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp in two volumes (the second by Dean alone) first published in 1987 and 2006. While Dean and Knapp employ a chronological, opera-by-opera approach, offering a comprehensive study of the history, composition, structure and reception of each work, David Kimbell advances a different methodology. In a similar way to Silke Leopold’s Händel. Die Opern (Bärenreiter 2009), he takes a step back, presenting instead a guide to understanding Handel’s operas as a whole, drawing not only on his own experience of European opera studies, but also on a deep understanding of Handel’s musical dramas. Although the fundamental approach is similar to that of Leopold, Kimbell’s book places emphasis on different aspects of Handel’s operas, making it a unique contribution to Handel studies. His intended audience is made up of those ‘who wish to know a little more about Handel’s operas and to understand them a little better’ (p.ix), and he caters to this audience not only through his careful selection of examples drawn from across Handel’s output, but also by focusing on Handel’s early career. If we are to understand his London operas, a deeper understanding of how Handel developed as an opera composer in Germany and during his time in Italy, whilst he was learning his trade, is required. This is particularly evident in the opening chapter, which provides a biographical survey of Handel’s engagement with opera from his education in Halle through to his move away from opera in favour of English oratorio around 40 years later in London. The main body of Kimbell’s study is divided into two central points of focus: librettos and music, both served by two chapters. The librettos are considered first in terms of the argument and dramatis personae of each, followed by a study of how words were developed for music more generally. Handel mostly set pre-existing librettos that had already proved their worth, and which were revised and adapted for London (pp.51–2); looking more closely at Handel’s librettos and comparing them to the originals can shed light on what Handel found important for his London audiences. With the exception of biblical or hagiological opera, and purely comic operas, Handel set every type of story during his career. In his first chapter on librettos, Kimbell therefore breaks down his discussion into subject types: historical, mythological and pastoral, romance. Additionally he focuses on further components which were integral to Handel’s dramas, such as the dramatis personae and character types, as well as morality, allegory and topicality. During Handel’s career, a number of preferences for particular types of subject can be observed over time: historical topics were favoured during the Royal Academy period; mythological and pastoral themes were employed to persuade English audiences brought up on English dramatic operas (‘semi-opera’) (p.56); and starting with Radamisto (1720) operas of action and spectacle gave way to operas of action and character (p.62), with a new emphasis on human nature and the development of individual characters. The chapter closes with a brief discussion of some of the Italian librettists whose work may have inspired Handel and his London librettists. Moving on to consider the actual words of the texts Handel set, the second chapter on librettos begins with a brief discussion of the relevance of wordbook dedications for understanding the history of an opera. Kimbell then provides a description of the typographical features of a Handel libretto and the differences between recitative and aria. Particularly useful is his breakdown of the functions of arias, which goes beyond the ‘convenient generalisation’ that an aria’s principal purpose is the expression of the passions (p.75), showing that they can also be character sketches, conversational, moralizing or metaphorical. The accompanying example drawn from Handel’s 1735 opera Ariodante ensures that there is no room for doubt. The remainder of the chapter offers a convincing interpretation of how opera seria was produced in Italy and England, concentrating for example on the necessity for Handel to take on a larger amount of the dramatic responsibility than his Italian counterparts, or his collaboration with his London librettists. In the first of two chapters on Handel’s music, Kimbell follows a similar structure to the section on librettos, beginning with Handel’s early operas up to and including Rinaldo, to consider how the composer mastered the compositional medium leading to the success of his later career in London. Particularly welcome is that Kimbell highlights the significance of Hamburg as a centre for ingenuity in opera, which is sometimes overlooked within Handel scholarship in favour of Italy. It was Hamburg, no doubt, where opera drew on Italian and French traditions and fused them with north German ecclesiastical and domestic achievements, that prepared Handel for many of the challenges he would later meet in London. As Kimbell shows, in Handel’s only surviving opera for Hamburg, Almira, ‘the seeds of all Handel’s achievements in the field of opera’ can be found (p.92). Handel’s two Italian operas, Rodrigo (Florence 1707) and Agrippina (Venice 1709–10), as well as his first London opera, Rinaldo, serve as examples of how Handel adapted to the needs of different audiences at different times, whilst also masterfully introducing the reader to a further common theme of Handel scholarship: the adaptation and reworking of earlier compositions, and borrowings from works by other composers. Looking at this group of operas in detail offers an excellent glimpse into Handel’s development as an opera composer, for example through the frequently cited example within Handel scholarship of the simple instrumental saraband in Almira becoming the aria ‘Lascia la spina’ in Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno in Rome and then being adjusted again for use in Rinaldo as ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in London (pp.123–4). Kimbell’s second chapter on music concentrates on its role within the drama. A welcome and refreshing discussion of Handel’s orchestra precedes a systematic discussion of the structural-musical elements within the operas, with a particular focus on the outer frame (overtures and finales) and how the acts are dramatically articulated by music. Kimbell highlights the differences that can be observed here between the different stages of Handel’s career, dividing his analysis between the early operas, the Royal Academy period, the ‘Second Academy’ operas, and Covent Garden and later. In doing so he again shows how Handel refined his use of music at different times. The chapter additionally offers an introduction to the relationships between verse and music, considering metre, rhythm and rhetoric, which will be particularly useful to students and scholars with only a basic knowledge of Italian. Handel’s creative use of music in atypical scenes, variety within the da capo aria and resources for musical characterization also receive attention. The final chapter of the book moves on to assess ‘aspects of the performance of Handelian opera in his time and ours’ (p.162). All too frequently are Handel operas staged in a manner which Handel would not have recognized, despite the high standards of historically informed performance expected from the orchestra. Kimbell enlightens the reader on how Handel’s operas would have been performed in 18th-century Hamburg, Italy and London, before progressing to a discussion of the rediscovery of Handel’s operas from the 1920s onwards, as well as how we might approach Handel’s operas today—performances should reflect the composer’s ‘real intentions’ rather than adopt an ‘archaeological’ approach (p.185). Examples drawn from recent productions help underline this point. Returning to the roots of Handel’s operas in European traditions, librettos and music, and giving attention to the early works in order to understand Handel’s operas better, are the main underlying themes of this book. Not only do the carefully selected examples superbly articulate the points Kimbell wishes to make, but readers are also provided with a range of additional elements to help them follow the argument or fill potential gaps in background knowledge. A checklist of operas detailing the original source of the material used by Handel’s librettists (p.49); excurses providing more detailed examples and/or additional information explaining, for example, the da capo aria (pp.106–7) or vocal ornamentation (pp.189–92); an annotated appendix providing an overview of the repertory of the Royal Academy of Music; and plenty of musical examples are all especially helpful. This well-written study is an essential read for anyone with an interest in Handel’s operas. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Early Music – Oxford University Press
Published: May 22, 2018
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