Egisto (1643): Francesco Cavalli

★★★

(Hampstead Garden Opera at The Cockpit Theatre, 4 June 2021)

In many ways, the plot of Egisto sounds like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Four young lovers are forced to confront the fickleness of the human heart while, behind the scenes, supernatural forces use them as pawns in a divine rivalry. Here, though, the antagonists are not fairy royals but gods: Venus and Apollo; and Cupid, not Puck, is the meddler who both provokes and resolves the chaos. There the similarities end, for Egisto also includes pirates (tangentially), a descent into hell (brief) and a mad scene, which makes for an eccentric piece of early Baroque. First performed in 1643 it was Cavalli’s seventh opera and the second which he produced with his long-time collaborator, the librettist Giovanni Faustini (also responsible for Ormindo, Calisto and, at least in part, Elena). It hasn’t often been performed in modern times, and Hampstead Garden Opera have bravely chosen it to kick off their post-Covid programming, performing it at the Cockpit Theatre in North London until 13 June. A variety of captivating voices among the young cast made it an engrossing first foray out into live opera: my first since March 2020.

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The Crown (1765): Christoph Willibald Gluck

★★★★ 

(Bampton Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square, 18 May 2021)

Bravo, Bampton Classical Opera: it takes a certain panache to make your post-Covid comeback with an opera called (in Italian) La corona! Commissioned for the Viennese court in 1765, this this rare piece by Gluck is a sparkling treat for the ears; despite being only an hour long in this concert version, it’s packed with musical variety, ranging from limpid pastoral to the martial grandeur of the chase. Based on the myth of Atalanta and Meleager, The Crown uses the Calydonian boar hunt as the backdrop for a delightful celebration of adolescent ambition and female courage. Performed here by an excellent cast, backed by the chamber orchestra CHROMA, it was the perfect way to ease back into Baroque after a year-long drought. I should say that this review is based on the excellent video broadcast of the production, as unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough off the mark to secure one of the limited seats – but the film is a treat in itself; it’s still available and comes highly recommended. I’ll link to it at the end of the post. So, gather up your arrows, steel your nerves, and come with me into the verdant forests of Calydon…

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Susanna (1749): George Frideric Handel

Handel: Susanna

★★★

(London Handel Festival; Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, 5 March 2019)

The Biblical story of Susanna is very timely. A beautiful woman in a happy marriage is targeted by two powerful elders in her community while her husband is away. When she rejects their sexual advances, they revenge themselves by publicly accusing her of adultery with a mysterious third person, destroying her reputation and bringing shame upon her family. She is condemned to death but, in the nick of time, is rescued by the youthful prophet Daniel, who interrogates the elders, exposing inconsistencies in their stories. Susanna is vindicated and the two elders condemned to death in her place. At the risk of sounding frivolous, this is the #MeToo oratorio, and any director handling the story in the present climate will be forcibly aware of the parallels. This new production from the Royal Opera House, which features singers from the Jette Parker Young Artists programme, is a little too eager to demonstrate its social conscience. It tackles not only the sexual exploitation of women (as expected) but also (less logically) the climate crisis. The result is weighed down by concept, which – at least on the first night – risked distracting attention from the grace and variety of Handel’s music.

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Partenope (1730): George Frideric Handel

Handel: Partenope

★★★★

(Hampstead Garden Opera at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, 21 May 2019)

It’s summer on the Bay of Naples and Partenope rules the roost. With her eager band of male followers and her chic Victorian swimwear, this queen of the sands is the last word in organised fun. But something’s up down at the beach. A rival gang, led by the flattering Emilio, is trying take over the next cove along; and Partenope’s newest beau, Arsace, looks set to steal her heart. If only an irritating little fellow called Eurimene would stop popping up to spoil it all! Hampstead Garden Opera relocate Handel’s comedy of manners to the end of the 19th century, when men were men (and had moustaches and stripy beachwear) and women ruled the waves. Brightly coloured, lively and full of fun, it was the most engaging version of the opera I’ve seen yet; better still, we had the good fortune to see an extremely promising cast of young singers.

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Venceslao (1731): George Frideric Handel and Friends

Renaissance Polish Costume

★★★½

(26 April 2019, Opera Settecento, St George’s Hanover Square; London Handel Festival)

It’s rare for a Baroque opera to look beyond the ancient world for its subject and rarer still for a librettist to look at Central and Eastern Europe; but Opera Settecento are brilliant at unearthing unusual pieces for us. This opera is (apparently) inspired by the life of Wenceslas II of Bohemia and Poland, though when I say ‘inspired’, I mean of course that opera and history bear no relation to one another. We can’t even blame Metastasio for this, because the libretto was written by Apostolo Zeno (I like to think that Metastasio would at least have tried to get some historical accuracy). Zeno’s tale is an identikit Baroque story of love, lust and power and, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, it never quite hangs together. Part of that is due to the plot, on which more shortly; but it’s exacerbated by the fact this is a pasticcio. Handel probably didn’t write anything except the recitatives: the rest was cobbled together from other composers – arias from other versions of Venceslao or from completely different operas – as a quick fix to keep audiences happy while he worked on his next original piece. On the bright side, there’s an awful lot of Leonardo Vinci here, which makes me very happy.

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Athalia (1733): George Frideric Handel

Aparicio: Athaliah and Joash

★★★★

(29 April 2019, London Handel Singers and Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square)

The final event of my Handel Festival this year was Athalia, a Handel oratorio written in 1733 and first performed during his brief summer sojourn in Oxford. It’s a strange beast, with ingredients that would make for a splendid opera seria in the hands of Metastasio. Just think: a murderous queen who has wiped out her own grandchildren in order to rule Jerusalem; an heir to the throne raised in secret; the clash between the old Jewish religion and the newly-revived worship of Baal! Surely that’s crying out for at least a couple of overly showy arias?! However, such foreign indulgences were trimmed from Handel’s oratorios, reflecting the changing tastes of British audiences, and the exuberance of Italian libretti is replaced by a self-consciously worthy text adapted by Samuel Humphreys from Racine. It’s peppered by the kind of awkward 18th-century rhymes you can see approaching with grim determination from a mile away. Fortunately, Handel livens things up with fine music and reliably rousing choruses; and I confess that, by the end, my instinctive suspicions of the oratorio genre had softened. Somewhat.

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The Rival Queens

Rival Queens

★★★★

(24 April 2019, St John’s Smith Square; part of the London Handel Festival)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that two women who work together can’t possibly be friends. In fact, they’re bound to be bitter rivals. Probably over a man. This is the story of two such women: Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, brilliant sopranos who starred in Handel’s operas during the years 1723-1728. They became notorious for the supposed feud between them, although recent research suggests that the fault lay with their passionate partisans, who thought nothing of hissing and catcalling when the ‘other’ was singing. Over the years, attention has been diverted from these two ladies as singers (rather than as rivals), and this London Handel Festival concert, with the Early Opera Company directed by Christian Curnyn, redressed the balance. With readings from the 18th-century press performed by the excellent Lindsey Duncan, and arias written for Cuzzoni and Bordoni sung by Mary Bevan and Mhairi Lawson, we were invited to get up close and personal with these queens regnant of the Handelian stage.

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Berenice (1737): George Frideric Handel

Handel: Berenice

★★★★★

(London Handel Festival; Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, 30 March 2019)

The newly-restored Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House is currently playing host to a very special production. It isn’t often that you get to see Baroque operas performed on the same site where they were premiered, but that’s the case here with Handel’s 1737 opera Berenice, a feast of love, jealousy and political ambition set in Roman-era Egypt. Sumptuously costumed in 18th-century gowns, wigs and frock coats, an excellent cast plunges into this tale with enormous gusto, under the expert baton of Laurence Cummings, directing the London Handel Orchestra. Vivid, exuberant and presented in a perfectly-pitched English translation, this is easily the most fun I’ve had in a theatre since last year’s Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne. Baroque heaven.

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Radamisto (1720): George Frideric Handel

Handel: Radamisto

★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 13 October 2018)

Baroque naming conventions can be confusing. An opera is often named after the highest-ranking character, or on rarer occasions its protagonist, but English Touring Opera’s production of Handel’s Radamisto leaves you wondering what this prince of Thrace has done to earn to the title role. Surely this should be called Zenobia or Polissena? While the men skulk on the sidelines, Handel (and ETO) give agency to the opera’s two feisty women, who are forced to take the initiative when their menfolk prove unequal to the task. Set in early Christian Armenia, this is a timeless story of how a ruler’s lust can unsettle his judgement and lead his country to ruin – which nevertheless holds out the possibility of change and redemption. Kicking off at the Hackney Empire, and then going on a tour all over England, this is a visually gorgeous production, slightly undermined by an uneven cast.

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Xerse (1654): Francesco Cavalli

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★

(Ensemble OrQuesta at Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 24 August 2018)

Would you believe it? I haven’t seen a single production of Xerxes for almost two years! It’s a wonder I haven’t had withdrawal symptoms. Unsurprisingly, I leaped at the chance to see Cavalli’s version of this fabulous story performed by Ensemble OrQuesta, as part of this year’s Grimeborn festival. Unlike most of the audience, I suspect, I’d actually seen Cavalli’s rare opera before, in a superb semi-staged performance in Vienna back in 2015, and so the bar was high. But it turned out that the OrQuesta show was actually a fascinating complement, not a rival, to the Vienna production, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Very simply staged, with costumes in sombre shades of black, and with a stunning silver-wire tree as the only prop, it was a pared-down, effective performance of a seldom-seen opera – and a welcome introduction to some exciting young singers.

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