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Lions and Tigers and Bees, Oh My!

Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks present ‘Handel’s Bestiary’

Jun. 6, 2017
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There had been a number of failed attempts to establish Italian opera in London before George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) arrived there in 1710. But, when audiences began hearing Handel’s works in this genre, a British love affair with Italian opera (and with Handel, himself) began to flower. From his prolific quill flowed a steady stream of castrati- and prima donna-filled Baroque operas and oratorios. It is those splendiferous works that bring Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks Performance Company together at Lynden Sculpture Garden for the outdoor dance-music event, “Handel’s Bestiary.” 

Though he’s generally thought of as a composer of sacred music (The Messiah at once springs to mind), Handel was, in reality, a man of the theater. By 1742, the German-born genius had written more than 40 operas; it is mainly these—plus many oratorios, which he regarded as operas sans costumes and stage action—that made Handel one of his adoptive England’s most celebrated men. There’s so much to be gleaned from this vast repertoire of glorious music—as Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik certainly discovered.

“Working at the sculpture gardens allowed us to think bigForty acres!” she exclaims. “For ‘Handel’s Bestiary,’ we’ve assembled a cast of 70 intergenerational dancers, 20 singers and instrumentalists and one choir. It’s fairly epic in scale and allows us to luxuriate in the talent that surrounds us.”

This will be MOT’s fourth collaboration with Danceworks Performance Company, and Ponasik is excited about the impending reunion at the chosen venue—Lynden Sculpture Garden—a beautiful locale she describes as “a sprawling park that features 50 sculptures from the Peg and Harry Bradley collection,” adding, “It’s a gorgeous site, and it is so much fun to sing there. Something special happens when we perform outside, and it’s not just that sometimes birds and frogs join in the music making. The artists are a little freer and less formal, and the connection forged with the audience feels natural and unforced.”

The “bestiary” aspect of this concert joins Lynden Sculpture Garden’s actual flora and fauna with Handel’s animal-centered arias. “One of our goals is to bring the gardens to life with ‘animals.’ There will be a series of 12 arias and accompanying dances at the center of it all. But, there will also be some sneaky, secret performances tucked here and there for those who discover them,” Ponasik explains. This won’t be a concert for the sedentary, passive listener: Pre-concert picnicking is encouraged, and attendees stroll the gardens as the music plays and the animals, both human and non-human, sing, dance and frolic about. 

The arias on the program are those sung by animal and insect characters in a dozen of Handel’s works—from elephant to bee and from lion to turtledove. One example of this will be Diane Lane signing (as a frog) “Their land brought forth frogs” from Handel’s biblical oratorio, Israel in Egypt. It stems from Part Two of the work—amid an ancient Egypt beset by plagues.

Another comes from Handel’s 29th opera for the London stage, Alcina (1735), the plot of which revolves around the eponymous sorceress who lures would-be paramours to her enchanted island, there to enslave them as rocks, trees and wild beasts. The finale of Act Three finds a tiger (aka Ruggiero) venting his defiance in the aria, “Sta nell’Ircana pietrosa tana” (“In Her Rocky Lair”). Eventually, the curtain comes down with Alcina stripped of her magical powers and vanquished, her ex-lovers returned to their normal forms.

These are but two examples of the vividly drawn characters with which Handel enlivened his operas and oratorios. This concert features further excerpts from his Julius Caesar, Theodora, Floridante, Judas Maccabaeus and other works, sung by Diane Lane, Kathy Pyeatt, Sarah Richardson, Nathan Wesselowski, Cecilia Davis and others. Several instrumentalists will accompany the vocalists, playing violins, violas, cellos and horns.

7 p.m., June 16 and 17, Lynden Sculpture Garden, 2145 W. Brown Deer Road, River Hills. For tickets, call 414-277-8480 ext. 6025 or visit milwaukeeoperatheatre.org.

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