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  • Handel on the Stage by David Kimbell
  • Katie Hawks
Handel on the Stage. By David Kimbell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. [ 221 p. ISBN 978-0-521-81841-4. £64.99 ( $99.99)]

In his preface, David Kimbell says that "this book is addressed to those who wish to know a little more about Handel's operas and to understand them a little better". This is not "a systematic examination of all the operas" but reflections "on some more general material about them". The book does indeed lay out and study the intellectual and cultural background and practices of music and theatre in Handel's time, and is one of the most considered and interesting books on Handel opera to have appeared in recent times.

The first chapter is a scenic canter through Handel's opera-composing career: analytic, concise, and to-the-point. Kimbell makes many assumptions—such phrases as "Handel must often have found …", and "Presumably Handel [End Page 393] also knew …" are fairly frequent—but these assumptions are never unreasonable, and are probably unavoidable. His narrative is, however, deeply rooted in a long acquaintance with Handel's life and music. The chapter raises some interesting points. For example, Kimbell locates the early London operas (Rinaldo, etc.) in the English masque tradition. Not only did serious theatre need serious spectacle, but "the idea of music as heightened declamatory speech, as in the Mediterranean traditions of ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, was no part of English aesthetics" (p. 19). He picks up on this again later, with Handel's move to John Rich's Covent Garden Theatre, where Handel took "a more flexible, multimedia approach to the theatrical arts", and where his operas reflected themes traditional to English theatre—"Romance-Enchantment" (p. 39). He picks up on English taste again in the third chapter, on librettos: "whereas recitatives in Italy could be extensive, the recitative-aria ratio for the London audience had to be heavily weighted to the latter" (p. 83).

Opera was, he reminds us, fragile: the 1720s showed that "Italian opera was not really taking, and that London society's enthusiasm for it was limited" (p. 53). The precariousness of opera lies under his biographical chapter, but Kimbell never labours the point. He deals succinctly with the importance of royal patronage, the harm of any sort of operatic rivalry, and the effect on the operas themselves of gambling on public taste. He also rehabilitates John Rich—not a philistine, but a man who appreciated that art cost money.

The book's second part analyses the operas themselves: the context and metamorphoses of librettos, the composition and meaning of the music. Kimbell offers a useful explanation of Italian metre, a "checklist of Italian operas", and a series of tightly-crafted sub-chapters breaking analysis into manageable portions. He also makes use of the excursus: detailed examples are contained in a big text box (sometimes lasting pages), easily visible so that one can either read it or carry on with the main body of the book. This is excellent, and both he and the publisher must be praised on the clarity of the layout.

Kimbell contextualises Handel's librettos, discussing Zeno's reforms and the literary and dramatic intentions of the librettists in their pre-Londonised works. In an excursus, he explores that "Londonisation", where the aria-to-recitative ratio is increased, and dramma per musica becomes more musica and, perhaps, less dramma. Kimbell's essays on the librettos and their authors are thoughtful and thought-provoking. He deals sensibly with the topic of borrowing: the issue here is not that Handel borrowed, but what he borrowed and what he did with it. Indeed, Kimbell uses the lovely Mattheson quotation that "borrowing is permissible; but one must return the thing borrowed with interest". Kimbell illustrates this by exploring how Handel treats the same musical theme, using, as an example, Keiser's "Ruhig sein", which appeared in various of Handel's works. There is further food for thought in his tour through "the infinite variety of the da capo aria". Arguing that "Handel's sense of character … deserves more specifically musical investigation than it has received" (p. 151...


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pp. 393-395
Launched on MUSE
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