Too hot to Handel

The composer's operas delight in the the crazy, capricious side of human nature

The Age of Reason needed outposts where irrationality could be studied and perhaps admired: the insane asylum was one, the opera house another. Eighteenth-century London had Bedlam in the City of London (designed by Robert Hooke), where socialites came to giggle at the gesticulating loonies. Back in the fashionable centre of town, the theatres for which George Frideric Handel composed his operas displayed the same crazily capricious behaviour. Prima donnas of both sexes strutted and bickered, transfixed in attitudes as inflexible as straitjackets by the repetition of their da capo arias. Their tantrums were cosmic. The scheming politician Altomaro in Fernando, re di Castiglia - newly recorded by the conductor Alan Curtis and his Italian ensemble, Il Complesso Barocco - rants about Jove tossing thunderbolts, and promptly sings up a turbulent storm; in Floridante, also available in another new recording by Curtis, the tormented hero lets loose a blitz of what he calls "ardenti fulmini" - bolts of hot, angry lightning, made audible in the flurries of his vocal line.

These characters do a lot of fulminating, and the dramatic situations Handel contrives, like the crises of Racinian tragedy, serve to provoke their outbursts of rage, defiance or sexual torment. In Fernando, a Freudian family romance turns nasty, exacerbated by a territorial dispute between Portugal and Castille. The Portuguese king Dionisio, doubly befuddled like Lear and Gloucester combined, disinherits his rebellious heir Alfonso, and leaves the way open for his bastard son Sancio to inherit the throne. The dispute about succession is resolved in a duel between Dionisio and Alfonso: this is the Oedipus complex dramatised as a swordfight. In Floridante, the Persian tyrant Oronte makes love to his daughter. Elmira, sung by the brilliant Joyce DiDonato, spits contempt like a fizzing volcano. Only then does Oronte (Vito Priante) reveal that she is a foundling, so they are not related. He might have said so before, but then, of course, we would not have enjoyed the deliciously transgressive possibility of incest.

The characters of Fernando are besieged in the citadel at Coimbra, where they accumulate an energy that they can release only in their musical tirades. The Portuguese queen is a religious fanatic, goaded to hysteria: the pianissimi of Marianna Pizzolato sound eerie and ghostly. A succession of solo arias confirms the solitary confinement of these people, and the only duets occur between characters cruelly tugged apart. In Floridante, a barrage of military percussion menaces characters who worry more about their erotic tribulations than they do about the contentious affairs of state. DiDonato gives a feverish edge to Elmira's yearnings, and Sharon Rostorf-Zamir, as her sister Rossane, vents her own excitement in an aria that ends with a shriek of anticipated pleasure.

It is hardly surprising that the hero of Orlando - sung in Covent Garden's revival by the wired and freakily intense counter-tenor Bejun Mehta - should, like a Bedlamite, be driven to derangement by the convolutions of his chivalric quest. Orlando's mad scene is an exhibition of the mind's skittish free-associating powers, and of the equally unhinged virtuosity of the voice. He erupts in fury, then slumps into apathetic despair. Martial vigour alternates with mad clowning, and he celebrates his imagined arrival in the underworld by dancing a gavotte. At last he falls asleep, and is healed by the harmonious intercession of a violin. Awaking, he claims to have slain the marauding monsters that existed only in his imagination. This was the therapeutic, rationalising mission of the Enlightenment: Voltaire praised Descartes for rounding up and killing off all superstitious phantoms, persuading us to trust in our powers of reasoning.

The monsters, however, lived on in opera, defined by Dr Johnson as the most scandalously irrational of entertainments. A menagerie of un socialised ogres prowls and scavenges in David McVicar's production of Agrippina, imported from Brussels by English National Opera. Imperial Rome here is a lewd and murderous urban jungle. On John Macfarlane's bleeding drop cloth, a she-wolf suckles the founders of the city. At the end of the opera, with Agrippina's psychopathic son Nero installed as emperor on a throne that he licks with his drooling tongue, the chorus blithely celebrates the new regime, and Juno is supposed to float down from the sky to add her blessing. McVicar, however, dispenses with the ameliorating goddess; as the drop cloth descends, the vulpine foster-mother displays her fangs in a carnivorous smile that matches the mood of this ruthless comedy.

Handel reduces Roman politics to a squabble between rampant women of the Agrippina and Poppea sort, who usurp a power that ought to be exercised soberly by their menfolk. For McVicar, the empire falls apart in an orgy of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Agrippina inspects her soldiers' private parts, and attaches medals for feats of priapic valour. Nero, in a gloriously sullen and squalid performance by Christine Rice, snorts coke to fuel the flourishes of a particularly demanding aria, and muffles the bombast of a political ceremony by plugging in an MP3 player and jigging to a private beat. Poppea, betrayed by one of her many lovers, delivers an aria as a sozzled cabaret turn, with a cadenza improvised on air guitar. And Nero revises the genteel diction of the lib retto by emitting a row of expletives: somehow the words "Fuck fuckety fuck fuck" exactly match Handel's vocal line. Never has opera been grubbier, or grosser, or more scathingly truthful.

"Orlando" is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, until 13 March. "Agrippina" is at English National Opera, London WC2, until 3 March. "Fernando, re di Castiglia" is on Virgin Classics and "Floridante" on Deutsche Grammophon

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide