My mother and father have been dead for 15 and 12 years, respectively, so they’re not here to respond to my speculations about what they would say about this or that.
There’s some relief in that. The spectre of parental disapproval weighs heavily on most of us for most of our lives. My father, who remarried six months after my mother died, said that the best thing about deciding to get married again at age 88 (to an older woman) was that he didn’t have to ask his parents’ permission!
At the same time, there are still some things that I do, or think, that I’d like to explain to my parents, and win them over to my point of view.
My mother was a traditionalist. Her values – and aesthetics – stayed pretty much the same throughout her life. She was born in 1917, in New York City, into a cultured family. But while the environment of her youth was cosmopolitan, she was not an adventurer herself. She particularly disliked revisionist approaches to famous stories. I have vivid memories of her getting very cross when she attended an opera or play in which the director had set historical action in modern times. Her deep suspicion was that the director did that just to show that he was “clever,” a dirty word in her lexicon.
I have been reading the libretto to Handel’s oratorio Solomon very carefully over the last few days. The Burlington Choral Society started rehearsals on it last Tuesday in preparation for a performance on November 22. And Mom, I’ve got some ideas about it that I don’t think you’re gonna like.
It’s full of sex! Or at least carnal imagery. It really is, Mom, and I’m not just imagining it! The librettist (possibly, but not definitively Newburgh Hamilton) is never explicit – he’s always aware of propriety and of the possible resonance that Handel’s patron King George II might hear in the descriptions of power, prosperity, and abuses under Solomon’s rule – but when the Queen of Sheba marvels at the “flashing gems and sculptured gold” of Solomon’s court but suggests that the “fair truth” she most deeply seeks is in Solomon’s “soft and killing” tongue, she’s not talking about receiving “knowledge” from a book, but from Solomon’s loins. As I hear it, the entire third act is an elaborate seduction scene, with Solomon calling on the four tempers of music (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic) to “rouse each passion.”
The trick for me as director is in figuring out how to reveal what is below the surface – the pervasive erotic charge – to the performance. I promise, Mom, that I won’t accomplish that by costuming the chorus as nymphs and satyrs, but I will look to highlight suggestive passages in the music so that the audience hears the music as a mutual seduction between Solomon and Sheba.
I’m sorry if I embarrass you, Mom, but I don’t think my reading of Solomon is revisionist, just visceral. I know, I know, it’s the fact that your son is responding to submerged eroticism that’s hard to bear, but 1748, the year that Handel wrote Solomon, was also the year that John Cleland wrote the erotic novel Fanny Hill (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure). There must have been something in the air.
Luckily, as Dad said, I don’t have have to ask for your approval.