Sunday, August 09, 2009

Sunday Classics: Whether it's Handel or Wagner, the good old "A-B-A" form mirrors real-life experience


"Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel's Rinaldo is another of those all but can't-miss arias that everyone seems to think they can sing. They're wrong, of course, but here the Korean soprano Sumi Jo sings it very nicely, and is feelingly backed up by the orchestra of (I assume) her countrymen. (There are lots of other choinces, like Angela Gheorghiu, or there's a breathtakingly slow but also breathtakingly beautiful piano-accompanied 1987 performance by Montserrat Caballé, or even an attractive one sung -- for no good reason I can think of -- by a male soprano, Philippe Jaroussky.) In basic form this is a classic "A-B-A" aria, the building block of the baroque "opera seria."
"A" section:
Leave me to weep
over my cruel fate,
to sigh for my freedom.

"B" section [1:43]
May sorrow alone break
these bonds
of my suffering through mercy.

"A" section repeats, with discreet embellishment [2:23]

by Ken

So there I was, kind of half-listening to Handel's early opera Rinaldo, in a lovely 1982 performance from Canada's National Arts Centre in Ottawa, conducted by Mario Bernardi, with Marilyn Horne as the Crusade-era knight Rinaldo, the sympathetic soprano Benita Valente as his captive beloved Almirena, and bass Samuel Ramey in fine form as the villainous Argante, forcing his attentions on Almirena.

Let me say straight out that, while I know some Handel operas well, and have great affection for a number of others, I hardly know Rinaldo, and was listening more dutifully than attentively. This recording was one of the remaining unlistened-to items from a really, really large order I'd placed -- in an orgy of extreme naughtiness -- from the Berkshire Record Outlet.


I know I've mentioned it before, but probably not often enough. I don't see how any classical music lover can afford not to be in regular contact with the BRO online catalog of CDs, DVDs, books, and other media that come to them from all over the world as cutouts or overstocks and are sold at, well, my kind of prices. I consider myself shamelessly indulgent when I venture into the stratospheric $8-per-CD range. (To my own surprise, I put a Met Tannhäuser I don't have in my shopping cart priced at $9 per disc! Alas, it sold out before I placed an order. Whew!)

Although for stuff I really want I'll go up to the $5-$6 level. But I'm happiest in the $2-$4-per-CD range. This Rinaldo, for example, was one of a whole bunch of recent listings on the Ponto label, one of the most trustworthy issuers of live performances in terms of sound quality, which Berkshire has been selling for $4 per disc. So I paid $7.98 for the Rinaldo; the cheapest copy listed on Amazon.comis $59.16.

So, like I was saying, I guess I'd just put the second CD of the Ottawa Rinaldo on, just to get the thing listened to. So the villain Argante is trying, the musical conversation mode known as recitative, to force himself on Almirena, and I guess my mind is mostly on the work I'm doing on-screen, and suddenly I'm riveted. Benita Valente is singing "Lascia ch'io pianga," the subject of our above clip, one of Handel's best-known arias, and in truth one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. I had completely forgotten that it had to pop up somewhere in a performance of Rinaldo, and thus was taken by surprise.

And it really was a surprise appearance. The Argante-Almirena recitative lasts only a minute and two seconds (I checked), and for dramatic purposes Handel pulls an ingenious trick, skipping the customary orchestral introduction to the aria. It's not that he couldn't have written one (d'oh!), and in fact most of the performances of the aria you'll encounter on YouTube tack on the orchestral statement of the tune which occurs during the aria (at 1:20 in our clip), which makes for exactly the sort of introduction Handel might have provided under other circumstances. But here he clearly didn't want any "preparation" for this outpouring of despair.

As I've noted above, "Lascia ch'io pianga" is your basic A-B-A aria -- a main section "A" followed by a contrasting section "B" followed by a repeat of "A," where the composer would have expected some sort of discreet embellishment to enhance the dramatic argument, and tickle the audience. (Note that the A section of "Lascia ch'io pianga" is itself in A-B-A form.) Since such arias are by far the largest single component of the baroque-based opera seria, and since most performers think that what they're about is "showing feelings," the genre usually appears static and dead, coming to life only occasionally, as in an aria like this one that's so overwhelmingly beautiful that it can't help but move an audience.

In fact, though, the A-B-A form seems to me a reflection of one of the most basic forms of human experience. We have a problem to deal with, and let's say it's a really big one (A); then, because no matter how hard we try to concentrate, the mind isn't capable of remaining concentrated on a single thought, it moves to a new one (B), representing at the very least a change of action (to use the familiar actor's term for what a character does to get what he or she wants); but eventually, because the need is so overwhelming, the mind returns to A.

If the performer, instead of showing off emotions, tries to find the needs that drive the character into A, then B, and then back to A, it's possible for opera seria to come to life. Instead, however, we have turned the whole of the baroque era over to the early-music specialists, who care only for "authenticity," and seem happiest when music of serious emotional content is turned into meaningless notes, the quanity-daintyists.

Just to prove the durability of the A-B-A aria, I like to point out that the monologue with which the Nibelung Mime (that's pronounced MEE-muh, by the way) opens the opera Siegfried.

, the third opera in Wagner's monumental tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung, always seems to me the opera for the true-bluest devotees of Wagnerian music drama. In this 2006 Covent Garden performance of the opera's first nine minutes-plus, conducted in competent but pedestrian fashion by company music director Antonio Pappano, try to pay, um, only selective attention to the stage business.

First, enjoy the astounding orchestral introduction, which may be the most strikingly original and, once you tune into it, riveting opening ever devised for any opera or any other piece of music. Meanwhile, pretend that the curtain rises at 4:30 of our clip -- you know, where Wagner specified -- revealing Mime (tenor Gerhard Siegel) alone in his cave, trying to figure out (section A) how he can forge a sword strong enough for use by young Siegfried, whom he has raised from infancy to wrest the Ring of the Nibelung (that Nibelung being his brother Alberich) from the giant-turned-dragon Fafner; then he reflects (section B, 5:23) that "there is one sword" that can do the job; which leads him back to the futility of section A (7:38), because that sword, Nothung, is in fragments, which with all his forging skill he can't reforge.

(Reminder: We've already looked at the scene in which Siegfried, equipped with the reforged sword Nothung, indeed kills Fafner and acquires the Ring, as well as the scene in Das Rheingold, the "prologue" to the Ring cycle, in which we are introduced to the giants, the grasping Fafner and his more sensitive brother Fasolt.)

I suppose we could indulge in detailed analysis of the play of leitmotifs in the orchestral introduction, but if you're new to the music, I'd still rather that you focused first on the specifics of the music, with just these hints: that the opening paired-bassoon motif is often described as "Mime's Predicament" or "Mime in Thought," and note that it ushers in the B section of Mime's "aria." Then we hear music associated with the hammering of the Nibelungs, which will recur when the curtain rises (at least in Wagner's scheme) on Mime hammering his latest attempt at a sword for young Siegfried. And crucially, at 4:05 we hear the motif of the Sword, which was established so powerfully in Act I of Die Walküre, the opening beat of which flashes at that B section transition, as Mime reflects, "Es gibt ein Schwert" ("There's one sword").


"Lascia ch'io pianga"

There are a number of recordings of Rinaldo which I haven't heard. For "Lascia ch'io pianga," there's a lovely performance on Renée Fleming's CD of Handel arias, which mixes Handel favorites (including a really festive "Let the bright seraphim") with less-heard numbers.

Opening scene of Siegfried

Any conductor who doesn't thrill to the the otherworldly instrumental textures and harmonies of the opening of Siegfried really ought to find another line of work, or at the very least something else to conduct.

Naturally good stereo sound is a great help here, giving a strong edge to Decca'sVienna Philharmonic under Georg Solti and DG'sBerlin Phlharmonic under Herbert von Karajan. Perhaps even more flavorful is the playing of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra in top form under Daniel Barenboim (Teldec CDand DVD).

Now if you want to hear a conductor really dig into this remarkable music, even at the sacrifice of sound that allow you to really hear what he's doing, listen to the recorded Furtwängler Siegfrieds, as part of his complete Ring cycles from La Scala 1950and Rome Radio 1953. Or, if you want to hear a Wagnerian of genius caliber, listen to Reginald Goodall conduct EMI's Sadler's Wells Siegfried (now availablein Chandos's opera-in-English series).


Here is the updated list.

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At 1:11 PM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

Hey, Ken, nice piece, and it's always good to see somebody recognize the burgeoning Handel scene. Check out the DVD of Handel's Giulio Cesare in Opus Arte, with Connolly as Caesar and de Niese as Cleopatra. It's not afraid to be imaginative without trying to put the director in place of the composer and librettist. And the music is fantastic.

You might also try Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, with Haim conducting, on Virgin Classics. Allegorical tale, but very theatrical, with Beauty, Time, Pleasure, and Enlightenment, brought alive.

At 1:47 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for the suggestions, B, and maybe if I get my courage up I'll check them out. My problem is that I don't recall hearing a Handel performance in the last, oh, 20-25 years that didn't leave me wanting to line everybody up against the wall and put them out of my misery. The music has no chance of living unless the performers are dipping into the deep reservoir of their musical instincts, and current performers either have no musical instincts or have had it drummed into them that those instincts -- which express their humanity -- must never be allowed to "contaminate" a performance. And so art, instead of seeking truth, helps us lie about reality, plsstering over it with fake, imitation reality.

But hey, we've had the aesthetic equivalent of the birther movement in the arts for several decades now.


At 2:46 PM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

Oh, you'll like the Giulio Cesare, then. It's an intensely theatrical performance. You can't get much flavor from poor Youtube transcriptions, but check out this:

And this one uses a grand visual metaphor of a chess board to portray the strategy and scheming in Caesar's aria:

It really does come alive, just as it should. Because, like you, I can't stand dry-as-dust museum Handel. He didn't write with that intent, and it shouldn't be performed that way, either.

At 6:32 AM, Anonymous Paul said...


I agree with your comment about Handel performances of the last 20 -25 years. I remember being THRILLED by Handel operas before then, back when singers, conductors and stage directors seemed to understand the emotion, and deep drama (and sometimes delightful humor) of the works and realized it was their job to convey all that. Then the Early Music Dictators got involved, and turned everyone into a limp-dicked vegetarian -- emotion and drama were thrown out, and it all become nuance and musical mincing, just too precious for words and, alas, utterly boring. Now they're after Mozart, too. Sigh. But we have CDs and, occasionally, DVDs of The Good Old Days, when operatic performers were trained to express emotion through their voices, and did so on stage.

At 6:51 AM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

"But we have CDs and, occasionally, DVDs of The Good Old Days, when operatic performers were trained to express emotion through their voices, and did so on stage."

Paul, you really should take a look at what's going on, now. I sympathize with your viewpoint, and I know a lot of the recordings of which you speak; and some of them are still, unfortunately, being made. But increasingly a large number of early music types have reconciled with theatricality, and many of the singers they use have never forgotten it. I wouldn't recommend going near much of what I call The Italian Contingent among early music conductors, who just aim for speed, but there's the modern Christie--much more dramatic and balanced than the old--and Niquet, and Haim, especially. Others, too.

And that Guilio Cesare I wrote about, above? It's the most dramatic thing I've seen in years. And I still weep over Otello and laugh out loud at Falstaff. So I'm not coming at this without plenty of experience in 19th century opera.

At 11:04 AM, Anonymous simeonkingsley said...

well music is the food of soul but i can say that handel is the cell of life mostly to those who understands the meaning of that handelss it is always dificult for many to underst6and the concept of that but few do catch up with it so i love handel i cant do without it and i dream of going ito it deeply as i taught


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