GLYNDEBOURNE, EAST SUSSEX - JULY 14: Iestyn Davies as David in George Frederic Handel's Saul directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Laurence Cummings at Glyndebourne Opera House on July 14, 2018 in Glyndebourne, East Sussex. (Photo by Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images)
On Opera

The geopolitical prescience of Handel

On opera’s flirtation with current affairs

I hear things are pretty rocky over in the Middle East, but how infinitely more dreadful had the Cambridge “Uni” production of Handel’s Saul actually gone ahead!

Just in time, thank God, they realised how inflammatory it would be to perform this unflinching docudrama about Israelite-Philistinian strife — and more to the point, their fellow crybabies might have detected pro-Israelite propaganda in the blatant show of support for David’s disproportionate response to Goliath’s justified resistance, and that would have been curtains for the Opera Society all right.

It just goes to show how dangerous music can be, forever meddling in geopolitics — who did this Handel character think he was anyway, Henry Kissinger? History is full of things these guys should have left to professionals like Just Stop Oil or Queers for Palestine: see those frivolous takes on slavery, Il Seraglio and L’Italiana in Algeri, plus any number of facile interventions in colonialism (Lakmé), animal rights (The Cunning Little Vixen), necrophilia (Salome), you name it.

Amazingly, another story about Israelite violence unleashed against the peaceable Ammonites of Jordan made it past the gauleiters of Covent Garden last month. As it happens, Jephtha (another provocation by Handel) seems less interested in antique power-struggles than in the notion that people taking dictation from God — step forward Cromwell, West Bank settlers, those mullah chaps, Tony Baloney — might take a minute to check it’s really Big Daddy on the line and not a prank call from Vovan and Lexus.

Despite accidents of geographic detail, these Handel grenades are — fancy that! — about England, if anything. Saul’s story of a ruler who has mislaid God’s favour was still pretty hot stuff in 1739, following four regime changes, the whacking of the Lord’s anointed, a gloomy foreign weirdo arriving on the throne, an ongoing 150-year war with various Euro Nazis bent on our extinction, and civil war about to kick off again.

You can read Handel’s oratorios as encrypted national epic, though his music always drags things back from the political to the personal — and so by the shared values of the Arts Council and our little activist directors is deplorably non-engagé.

Whether opera itself ever actually tried being “relevant” in the correct manner is rather vexed. Another upcoming Covent Garden show — the old double bill of Cav & Pag, from 30 November — being the fluffers for “verismo”, might lead you to hope for some sort of Corbynite Bicycle Thieves-style grit.

In the event, verismo was as shoddy and fake as the rest of opera: anyone behaving like this in real life would clearly be sectioned. When you think about it for five seconds, the incontinencies of late nineteenth-century Italian music, and the essentials of operatic staging, are not terribly conducive to kitchen-sink drama.

None of this, naturally, stands in the way of directors fresh from their GCSE Colonialism and Intersectionality Studies

True, the composer Pietro Mascagni lit on a satisfactorily grim and terse tale set among the peasants of Sicily (Verga’s onlyslightly ironically-titled Rustic Chivalry), but he instantly ponced it up into full-scale sobtastic hysteria.

The real clue lies in the location (and the same applies to Pagliacci, set in Calabria): this is just Orientalism for a country lacking any handy eastern outposts for its lurid fantasies. You might think the short-legged, sullen cafoni of the Mezzogiorno a peculiar focus for lustful imaginings, but we must all take our pleasures where we may.

Verismo’s big idea lay in shifting the operatic gaze from aristos to plebs, though this was less about bleeding hearts than the picturesque possibilities of prole grunge; perhaps even more than previous styles, it resists any kind of Significance, though its descent through the early twentieth century into the unimprovable camp of larks like L’amore dei tre re and I gioielli della Madonna is babyishly amusing.

None of this, naturally, stands in the way of directors fresh from their GCSE Colonialism and Intersectionality Studies, determined to manhandle every piece into a whinge on current iniquities. While this almost invariably spoils the show, there are scraps of tangential fun to be gleaned.

A nice example was provided by the north-London exquisites who staged Peter Grimes at Covent Garden last year, boasting of their plucky tour of eastern badlands in search of material. Picture their quaking progress through Jaywick and Frinton amid the Brexit savages of coastal Essex, then immortalised on stage in chavulous Union Jack-waving glory as the brutish persecutors of poor old misunderstood Paedo Pete.

This urge to turn opera into an arm of the Guardian comment page has many delightful consequences for the discerning. The 14-year-old Mozart also evidently had an uncanny grasp of events 250 years in the future in his opera about Mithridates, first-century BC king of Pontus, whereof a recent Brussels production featured “an emergency EU summit as a result of a supposed attack on the ruler of Crimea … ”, helping enormously to clarify current conflicts in Tauris and the Pontic Steppe.

We’ve had Bartok’s Bluebeard as the Austrian maniac Fritzl, Donald Trump popping up as a TV preacher in Shostakovich’s The Nose, and just lately a thinly-disguised archfiend Vovik in Opera North’s Masque of Shite.

That one co-opted Purcell into the war on Bad Boomers, courtesy of new-young firebrand Sir David Pountney, 76. To date, the audience has been slow to stagger up the barricades alongside our great directorial freedom-fighters. But when they do, just you watch out, wrong-thinkers!

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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