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Beast seller

Other than binging on seven or eight Agatha Christie novels in seventh grade, I can’t recall ever again reading another mystery novel, or what they now call “crime fiction.”  Perhaps it’s a coincidence but around that same age I attended my first opera and began subscribing to Opera News.  Hence, Commissario Guido Brunetti, hero of twenty highly successful crime novels set in Venice, rang no bells for me until I discovered he was the creation of Donna Leon, better known to me as a rabid fan of the operas of George Frideric Handel. 

That enthusiasm has resulted in her newest book, Handel’s Bestiary: In Search of Animals in Handel’s Operas, published in Germany last year and now in the US by Atlantic Monthly Press and in the UK by William Heinemann.

This odd volume, featuring color illustrations by Michael Sowa plus a CD containing over an hour of music, attempts a new spin on the medieval bestiary, a literary compendium of essays about animals—real and imaginary—reflecting on their so-called innate behaviors, usually for the purpose of moral instruction.  Leon, born in New Jersey but for many years an English professor in Italy, is served well by her academic background in evoking bestiaries’ enormous influence on the arts since the Middle Ages.

While Leon thoroughly investigates the most common archetypes of the twelve animals she’s chosen, she’s particularly pithy on the often hilarious discrepancies between visual images found in the bestiaries and the actual physical appearances of the creatures, explaining that elephants, for example, often looked “like large, tusked wolves with lion paws.” Oddly, however, one learns much more about medieval beliefs than about Handel.

My first experience with Leon and Handel came via a 2002 CD called “La Maga Abbandonata (The Abandoned Sorceress)” featuring music from Amadigi, Rinaldo and Alcina sung by Simone Kermes and Maite Beaumont.  Leon and conductor Alan Curtis jointly conceived the program and the CD’s final track presents Leon reading from “Acqui Alta,” a Commissario Brunetti novel (there’s also an ad for her Swiss publisher on the inside back cover of the CD booklet).

In the years since, Leon has become so involved with Curtis’s orchestra Il Complesso Barocco that recent recordings credit her as “supporting producer.”  The orchestra has recently presented “Handel’s Bestiary” as a series of concert-lectures in Spain and Germany. Last week Leon even gave an introduction before the performance of Ariodante in Baden-Baden.

Despite this intense interest, Leon is no musicologist—she wears her enthusiasm lightly.  Each chapter in “Handel’s Bestiary” focuses much more on the animal’s symbology than on its importance to Handel’s music. Baroque operas typically abound in “simile arias”: a character comments on his or her situation by comparing it to a ship, a battle, an animal and so forth.  In one of the arias studied, Theodora, a Christian, has been imprisoned by the Romans for her beliefs and sings,

O that I on wings could rise,
Swiftly sailing through the skies,
As skims the turtle dove!
That I might rest,
for ever blest,
with harmony and love.

From my own quick, unscientific scan of some Handel libretti, it seems there’s about a 50-50 split between arias that directly address the dramatic situation: “I will revenge the wrong done to me/I love you but I can’t tell you that I do”, etc.; and “simile arias” (Cleopatra’s “Da tempeste” from Giulio Cesare or Ariodante’s “Dopo notte” are familiar ones.)   Unfortunately, Leon only briefly touches on the connection between the animal and its musical-dramatic context—rarely is even a third of each chapter devoted specifically to Handel.

Done in a style more appropriate to children’s books, the twelve illustrations (one per chapter) by German artist Michael Sowa strike me as labored whimsy, rarely illuminating to the text they accompany.  For example, the “frogs” illustration shows a stage where an army of frogs advances on a comically frightened prima donna while musicians in powdered wigs pipe away in the pit.  Leon’s text, on the other hand, examines the devastating plague of frogs that attack in Israel in Egypt.  Perhaps Sowa was chosen since he had already published his own bestiary Sowa’s Ark in the 1990s. Frankly, incorporating reproductions from medieval bestiaries would have been much more illuminating.

But I suspect the CD that accompanies the book will prove the real attraction for most.  Given the wealth of material available—every Handel opera seems to contain numerous “animal arias,” Leon and Curtis have mostly stayed off the beaten path choosing rarely heard arias from Arianna in Creta, Deidamia, and Partenope. However, the subtitle proves to be misleading when a third of the pieces come from oratorios, not operas!

Eleven of the twelve selections were recorded specially for this venture.  The twelfth comes from Curtis’s excellent recent Berenice although the aria (about a bee), sung by tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani, is much more appealing performed by soprano Gemma Bertagnolli on George Petrou’s spectacularly good new recording of Handel’s self-pasticcio Alessandro Severo.

Except for another tenor aria (elephant) from Judas Maccabaeus, Karina Gauvin and Ann Hallenberg divide the remaining ten pieces.  Although Gauvin, a French-Canadian soprano often performs on this continent, North American audiences sadly have had no opportunity to hear the great Swedish mezzo in recent years.  While in Berlin in 2002 I heard Handel’s Hercules at the Konzerthaus; Gauvin, whom I’d heard in New York, was the Iole but the English mezzo scheduled for Dejanira cancelled and was replaced by Hallenberg whom I had never heard of.  She was spectacular, and I have avidly sought out her broadcasts and recordings ever since. Both Gauvin and Hallenberg often sing with Il Complesso Barocco, starring in Curtis’s recent very fine Tolomeo, as well as his disappointingly limp Ezio.

One of the delights of this CD is the inclusion of several “alternate arias” that Handel wrote for revivals of his works.  When singers arrived to sing roles they hadn’t created, Handel would often compose entirely new music to suit his or her particular talents.

Though there are many of these arias, they are rarely performed, although Ian Bostridge’s newest CD includes an aria Handel wrote for a tenor Sesto in Giulio Cesare.  A swaggeringly florid piece about a stag, written for the title character in Ottone three years after its premiere, is Hallenberg’s showpiece—her seamlessly warm voice effortlessly surmounting every hurdle.  On the other hand, Hallenberg also sings the most familiar arias, Sesto’s from Giulio Cesare and Ruggiero’s from Alcina, as well as the “frog” piece from Israel in Egypt.

For me, however, Gauvin shines brightest.  She suavely chirps Deidamia’s aria about a nightingale and charmingly lectures how not to flutter like a moth, a sentiment from Partenope, one of Handel’s most appealing heroines. Her previously unrecorded aria—for me, the highlight of the CD— the bewitching “Io son qual fenice” (phoenix) was written for a revival of Admeto and became the only aria ever sung by both Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni.  Throughout, her musicality and superb technique (what gorgeous trills she possesses!) are a joy.  Instead of the expected fireworks, the CD ends with a deliciously languid duet from Floridante for two lovers longing to be like turtle doves.

It pains me to point out how staggeringly unhelpful this project’s design is.  The CD sleeve identifies the singers and selections they sing only by the names of the animals! To discover the name of the opera, the character singing, etc., one must flip to the relevant chapter or check the list at the back of the book.   Also, even though the text could have easily fit into a book of fewer than 100 pages, it has been extravagantly (and wastefully) stretched to over 140.

Yet, for all its ups and downs, Handel’s Bestiary provides an entrancing opportunity to brush up on bestiaries but mostly to hear two of today’s most superb Handel singers performing some rare and wonderful music.

20 comments

  • CruzSF says:

    Thank you so much for this review. Just yesterday, I was pondering this book at Amazon. I enjoy Leon’s mysteries and have heard her speak about her love of Handel and Baroque music. Her enthusiasm is infectious. What a shame that the book itself doesn’t live up to expectations (or even its own promises) but it seems worth the (discount) price for the music, at least, and as an introduction to Handel’s operas and orotorios.

    Thanks again for this timely review.

  • No Expert says:

    An odd little labor of love, indeed. The duet from Floridante is the highlight, just gorgeous.

    • brooklynpunk says:

      Ms. Leon is a VERY enjoyable Mystery Author--I’ve devoured all her opera-based books--BUT--I checked this out , in a local bookstore--and decided to save my pennies for her next thriller….

      • bluecabochon says:

        I feel the same way, bp. I have all of her (19?) books, have turned friends on to her, and hope to trace some of Brunetti’s steps during a future trip to Venice. Did you know that there’s a cookbook featuring recipes supposedly eaten in the Brunetti household? She’s quite a character, and her books are marvelous, but I decided to pass on this one as well.

        The title of the book, dear reviewer, is “Acqua Alta.”

        • semira mide says:

          The cookbook is a gem. I hate to cook but the results even with my lousy cooking are great. Leon and Joyce DD are friends and one of Leon’s books is actually dedicated to our Parterre favorite!

        • oedipe says:

          And here is an actual example of Acqua Alta (Venice, December 2010):

          [img]http://parterre.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/ACQUA ALTA 130 CM 05.jpg[/img]

  • Nerva Nelli says:

    “…the English mezzo scheduled for Dejanira cancelled and was replaced by Hallenberg whom I had never heard of. She was spectacular…”

    WATCH YOURSELF! Dire accusations of xenophobia are being readied…

  • Hans Lick says:

    How about the Hyrcanian lion invoked by Bradamante in Alcina?

    • Regina delle fate says:

      The Hyrcanian tiger is invoked by Ruggiero: “Sta nell’ Ircana, pietrosa tana, TIGRE sdegnosa…..

  • Hans Lick says:

    How about the Hyrcanian lion invoked by Bradamante in Alcina?

    … and if the English mezzo who cancelled was Alice Coote, I heard her Dejanira in Chicago and found it the finest account of the role since the heyday of Maureen Forrester.

    • Krunoslav says:

      Well, I guess you missed Sarah Walker, who was better than either Forrester and Coote in the role.

  • manou says:

    OT -- if anyone wants to see the ROH Macbeth live on June 13, here are the links :

    http://blog.roh.org.uk/?p=3168

    http://cinema.roh.org.uk/now-booking/nearest/*/20332

    The first gives a list of HDs and the second a list of cinemas worldwide.

    I would absolutely recommend Macbeth, if only for Monastyrska, who is quite something, but there are also Keenlyside and Aceto -- also Pittas in his ROH debut.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      How interesting: “The Cinema Seaason is generously supported by the Bank of America Merrill Lynch.” At least Bank America did something right. Thank your brokers!

    • oedipe says:

      Thanks manou. Has anybody looked at the list of cinemas (in various countries) that are supposed to present the HD? IS THIS FOR REAL? I mean, if there is an audience for the ROH Macbeth even in a fraction of these places, it would mean that interest in opera is booming!

    • Sonofamoll says:

      My friends and I will be in the theater for this, so glad to have this testimonial! We go to as many of the UK and European offerings as we can. In the US, the live broadcasts start in the middle of a work day. Amazing how many “meetings outside the office” we manage to have…

  • Donna Anna says:

    I love Donna Leon. Brunetti’s cases seldom end neatly and the moral ambiguity abounds. I have no intention of getting this compilation but brava to her for providing a forum for hearing these rarities.
    When it comes to opera in modern Italian mystery stories, Michael Dibden is the maestro with Cosi Fan Tutti.

    • bluecabochon says:

      I’ve never read any of the Aurelio Zen books -- I must try one.
      Yes, sometimes the resolution of her cases is morally ambiguous -- especially the latest one, which is quite good. I’m especially fond of Signora Elettra, and wish for another book that focuses on her -- there was one long ago that did, but imo it’s time to examine her life and “connections” again.

      • Donna Anna says:

        I think you’ll like Aurelio Zen. The stories are written with a droll sensibility but also a keen awareness of the regional politics at work. Zen has a mother who enjoys ill health, an on again off again lover and the usual assortment of incompetent but politically savvy peers. Read Cosi--the chapter headings are taken from Da Ponte’s libretto.

  • Alto says:

    Thanks for the valuable review.

    It may be worthwhile to point out that the passage from THEODORA that you quote as an example is not a product of a Baroque librettist’s creativity but is straight from Psalm 55:

    “And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest.”

    It’s a line and image that Mendelssohn also famously made much of.