In 1734, George Frideric Handel found himself in a precarious situation indeed. As a composer and impresario, he was responsible for the artistic and financial success of his opera company, but at that moment, things were looking anything but good.
His performance venue up to then, the King’s Theatre, had been leased to the more successful Opera of the Nobility, to which all of Handel’s previous star singers—with the exception of a single soprano—had defected. What’s more, to Handel’s great despair, the competing impresario Nicola Porpora also had the famous castrato Farinelli under contract as a special attraction. So in order to compete, Handel felt compelled to engage Farinelli’s great rival, the castrato Carestini. At his company’s provisional location at Covent Garden, which had formerly been a venue for spoken drama, Handel’s first work to hit the stage was Oreste. This was not an entirely new composition, but rather a pasticcio—a type of work common in the baroque era that featured pre-existing arias brought together from other operas. However, in contrast to the usual pasticcio practice of borrowing arias by other composers, this work consisted exclusively of arias composed by Handel himself. This “best-of”, compiled in the face of massive competition, deals with the story of Iphigenia in Tauris based on the tragedy by Euripides, and it was a direct challenge to Porpora’s Ifigenia in Aulide playing on Handel’s former stage.
Ifigenia [Iphigenia] serves as a priestess at the Temple of Diana on the island of Tauris [strictly speaking, today’s Crimean Peninsula], which is ruled by the tyrant Toante [Thoas]. It is her duty to ritually sacrifice to her goddess all foreigners who land on Tauris’s shores. But when her brother Oreste [Orestes], who is unrecognised by Ifigenia and followed by his betrothed Ermione [Hermione] and his friend Pylade [Pylades], lands on the shores of Tauris, Ifigenia refuses to perform her gruesome office. In some mysterious way, she feels drawn to this seemingly unfamiliar foreigner. Toante, however, insists that she do her duty and sacrifice him. The situation then escalates, culminating in the two siblings’ recognition of one another and the murder of the intractable tyrant.
Despite the success of this latest coup by Handel, all efforts by the two opera companies to outdo each other ended in mutual bankruptcy after just a few seasons—an irony of fate not unlike those to be found in Greek tragedy. In the case of Oreste, however, a desperate attempt to achieve financial and artistic success brought forth an extremely stringent, dramatically unified libretto unburdened by the usual side-plots. Handel thus succeeded in ennobling the otherwise so casually treated genre of the haphazardly assembled pasticcio by handpicking his finest arias, for only by offering superlative quality could he hope to outshine Porpora. In any case, this work presents listeners with rich, densely concentrated music like one seldom encounters in other baroque operas. So when two go to battle, the bystander can indeed sometimes rejoice.
The upcoming production at the mdw, stage-directed by Karlsruhe native Sebastian Welker, deals above all with the problem of guilt and its forgiveness in connection with the ego. “Everyone here is interested mainly in doing well for themselves. None of them can trust any of the others. This results in an inability to communicate. The ‘island’ upon which the protagonists meet represents this solitude. It offers a psychological view of the fears besetting the characters onstage. The ego demands to be validated, and it fuels deeds that eventually result in guilt and the desire for its forgiveness. What ensues is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken,” explains the director on his plans for this production at the mdw.
Mon, 29 & Tue, 30 January 2018
Oreste by George Frederic Handel
Musical direction: Christoph U. Meier
Stage direction: Sebastian Welker
with the Beethoven Philharmonie
Schönbrunner Schlossstraße 47, 1140 Vienna
Tickets available at www.oeticket.com