Handel's Operas 1726-1741. By Winton Dean. Rochester: Boydell Press, 2006. [xx, 565 p. ISBN-10 1843832682; ISBN-13 9781843832683. $85.] Illustrations, music examples, bibliographic references, indexes.
This volume concludes a project begun collaboratively by Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp (Handel's Operas 1704-1726 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987]). (Dean and Knapp had parted ways even before the publication of their work, and Knapp's attempt at a second volume was left incomplete at his death in 1993; his unfinished typescript, however, has been made available to selected research libraries by the American Handel Society.) With the publication of his own second volume, Dean has completed what must surely rank among the most ambitious undertakings in modern musicology: the systematic documentation and assessment of all of Handel's thirty-nine surviving operas.
When the first volume appeared, the tradition of treating Handel's operas as flawed products of the "defective" opera seria tradition had only begun to be seriously challenged. Unsurprisingly, the authors' famous contention that Handel "ranks with Monteverdi, Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner among the supreme masters of opera" was received with skepticism in many quarters. But the situation has changed radically in the intervening twenty-one years. Handel's operas are now produced with great (and ever-increasing) frequency throughout the Western world at opera houses large and small, their productions in many cases rivaling in number the works of the traditional operatic canon. The Hallische Händel- Ausgabe's complete edition is well underway, having yielded sixteen critical editions of Handel's operas. New recordings of complete operas appear at an unprecedented rate, and with each new production or recording, a growing chorus of critics and scholars heap praise approaching reverence upon Handel's operatic prowess. The transformation that Dean seemed to foresee in his Ernest Bloch Lectures of 1965-6 from "total eclipse" (the complete absence of Handel's operas from the stage from the time of the composer's death until Oskar Hagen's German revivals of the 1920s) to the "blaze of noon" seems now to have run its course with remarkable speed (Winton Dean, Handel and the opera seria. Ernest Bloch lectures, no. 1 [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969]).
Notwithstanding this fundamental change in the fortunes of Handel's operas, Dean resumes exactly where he had left off, adhering faithfully to the methodology set forth in the first volume. Once again, he divides the span under consideration into four eras, beginning with the reign of "The Rival Queens" (competing prime donne Barbara Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni) of 1726-28, and ending with the last operas of 1738-41. The author devotes an introductory chapter to each of these eras, providing biographical, historical, and social information on Handel, his colleagues, and his audience. Here and throughout the book, Dean adds much color by including excerpts from the correspondence among contemporary operagoers, much of which was not yet available in published form when the first volume was written. (Especially fruitful are the Harris family papers, edited by Donald Burrows and Rose mary Dunhill in Music and Theatre in Handel's World: The Family Papers of James Harris 1732-1780 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.])
The bulk of the book is devoted to Dean's thorough, methodical accounts of the operas themselves, each of which receives a full chapter. He begins with a summary of the opera's plot, in some cases preceded by the libretto's introductory argomento. The summaries are certainly not light reading-not even as skilled a writer as Dean can condense the often tortuous opera seria plots into easily understood narrative summaries. Still, the interpolation of stage directions from both the printed libretto and Handel's autograph manuscript, along with notes explaining any divergences between the two sources, is eminently useful. …