Munich Gets A Handel on Two Baroque Operas For much of the 20th century, the baroque operas of Georg Frideric Handel were neglected or even forgotten. Only his "Largo" from the opera Xerxes - often played in public ceremonies - suggested that the genius of The Messiah and composer of impressive religious oratorios might still have something worth hearing in his operas. In the 1920s, in the German university town of Gottingen, Professor Oskar Hagen - Uta Hagen's father - began reviving Handel's remarkable opera seria.
But only in recent years have major opera houses attempted such innovatively designed new Handel productions that the operas have become part of the regular repertory. Two recent productions at the Bavarian Stage Opera underscore this trend.
David Alden is an American-born director who works a great deal in Britain and Europe. He brings a distinctively witty and modernist sensibility to period operas. The Bavarian State Opera has already had great success with his staging of two of Handel's baroque operas: Giulio Cesare and Xerxes. But without the connivance of the correct stage designer, his unusual visions of the characters and plots might not work.
For Ariodante, Alden had the good fortune of being paired with set designer Ian MacNeil, who devised an all-purpose baroque chamber with a raised proscenium stage in its back wall (lighting was by Mimi Jordan Sherin). None of the architectural detailing is complete, however, as it was built to look either unfinished or disintegrating. The latter better suits the disastrous events that occur within it.
Overhead is an elaborate painted mythological vaulting. This is very much in keeping with the feeling of a court theatre or a noble chamber. The vault descends for the second act, and the villain, Polinesso, does some of his dirty work on top of the rough plaster dome. This has the effect of letting the audience look behind the scenes - behind the glittering baroque interiors - at nasty realities. Even on the stage-within-the-stage, elegant pretension is often ripped bare.
In a delicate court ballet, with towering powdered wigs and exquisite costumes (also by MacNeil) one lady has her wig knocked off to reveal her as a transvestite. She is then shoved about and thrown out of the stage frame onto the floor below. The contrast between elegant appearances and sordid facts is frequently emphasized visually.
In the climactic scene where the hero Ariodante and his beloved Dalinda survive a plunge in the ocean and emerge from rolling baroque waves, MacNeil uses a series of spiraling cylinders, cranked from the side, like those still in use in the 18th - century Drottingholm Court Theatre near Stockholm.
The nobles wear breastplates with period costumes, and the combatants don full armor, so most of the cast gets a thorough physical workout. Even though Alden and MacNeil have set their Ariodante in a baroque fantasy world - with a mysterious range of mountains inside the inner court theatre - that action is roughly realistic, not daintily stylized.
Although the action of Rinaldo takes place during one of the Crusades, Alden and designers Paul Steinberg (sets), Pat Collins (lights), and Buki Shiff (costumes) chose neither the medieval or the baroque for their vision of this tale of true love sorely tested, Christian fidelity, and Saracen perfidy. This production is, for the most part, a sendup of the purported reasons for the Crusades, which apparently weren't so much about faith as about power and booty.
Shiff dressed Rinaldo like a New York mafioso, looking to reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity. The Christian Magician is dressed like a voodoo conjurer; the brusque and conspiratorial Crusader general supporting Rinaldo's campaign is costumed like a Mafia capo. His brother, on the other hand, is costumed as a blond, wavy-haired TV evangelist. Steinberg's sets for the bible thumper's big scene, urging the troops onward to free Jerusalem, enhance the televangelist image.
That's the motif for most of the production. The magic palace of the Saracen sorceress, Armida, is a seriously skewed travesty of a 1950s living room. A German critic dated it to the 1970s, but its central floor lamp could have been designed by Ray and Charles Eames. Not only is its perspective off center and its yellowish floor steeply raked, but the walls are bold, clashing pink and orange. A cutout of the fleeing heroine, Almirena, pops out of the stage-left wall to reveal the poor captive girl filling the cavity.
The source material for Rinaldo is Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberatta. When the Crusaders finally conquer the city, a glowing sign on a scaffold spelling out "Gerusalemme" is revealed. The letters are repeated on the stage floor, so large and solid that the characters can walk on them. Between these two Gerusalemmes Steinberg has placed a tall swooping slide, illuminated in neon, with three black cutouts of girls, also outlined in neon, sliding down. With Rinaldo, Alden and his design team have created an operatic funhouse.