The Art of Guido Cagnacci: Xavier Salomon

★★★★

Guido Cagnacci is probably an unfamiliar name even to many seasoned gallery-goers. He’s an Italian Baroque artist whom I’ve always liked, despite feeling that I probably shouldn’t. Shouldn’t my inner feminist revolt at the sight of his damp-eyed saints and tragic heroines, with their tumbling auburn hair and exposed breasts? But, despite all that, the man actually did paint some pretty fabulous pictures. In this monograph, written to celebrate the loan in 2017 of Cagnacci’s Repentent Magdalen, from the Norton Simon Museum to the Frick Collection and the National Gallery in London, Xavier Salomon fleshes out the life of this little-known artist. It’s only a short introduction, but it tantalises with its tale of a passionate, innovative and unconventional painter. Come join me – and enjoy a veritable bevy of lovely pictures.

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The Judgement of Paris: Thomas Arne (1742)

Bernstein: The Judgement of Paris

(Brook Street Band at St George’s Hanover Square, 6 April 2018)

Some of you may remember that I saw Thomas Arne’s pastoral comedy The Judgement of Paris two summers ago, in the beautiful rectory garden at Bampton. This production for the London Handel Festival may have lacked the bucolic surroundings, but it made up for it in the quality of the cast, which marshalled a real dream team of young British singers. Yet the evening had a surprise in store: a bit of audience interaction, which pitted Arne directly against Handel and treated us to some highlights from the older composer’s Semele. Both The Judgement of Paris and Semele were based on libretti by William Congreve, whose sprightly, slightly rakish poetry still raises smiles.

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Amadigi di Gaula: George Frideric Handel (1715)

Dossi: Melissa

★★★★

(Opera Settecento at St George’s Hanover Square, 24 March 2018)

Opera Settecento’s contribution to this year’s London Handel Festival was a concert performance of this early work based on the bestselling 16th-century chivalric romance Amadis of Gaul. Despite his name, this parfait knight was in fact half-English (the illegitimate fruit of a union between the King of Gaul and an English princess) and was brought up in Scotland. He kept up tradition by conceiving a great amour for Oriana, heiress to the English throne (charmingly described in the libretto as ‘daughter of the King of the Fortunate Islands’). And it’s this element of the story, rather than the knightly escapades, monsters and other adventures, that Handel is concerned with here. In fact, the whole thing takes place within the bounds of an enchanted palace and its gardens. That was the excuse for some truly staggering stage effects in the original production and, although we didn’t have those at St George’s the other night, we did still get to enjoy the beautiful music; not to mention some excellent performances.

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Acis and Galatea: George Frideric Handel (1718)

Handel: Acis and Galatea

★★★★

(London Handel Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square, 19 March 2018)

This year’s London Handel Festival kicked off with this pastoral drama from 1718 which, described in the programme as ‘Handel’s most perfect work’, had a lot to live up to. It was commissioned by the Earl of Carnarvon, who was also the patron of Handel’s Chandos Anthems and his Esther, and its genesis as a pastoral masque is reflected in its brevity – a mere ninety minutes – and its plot stuffed with nymphs, shepherdess and happy rustics. I’m slightly allergic to pastoral operas, which I can’t take seriously, but I have to admit that the music in Acis and Galatea is beautiful – no matter how many times the English libretto made me wince. Charmingly staged in St John’s Smith Square, and performed by a strong young cast, this was a very Baroque evening out.

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Giasone: Francesco Cavalli (1649)

Cavalli: Giasone

★★★½

(Opéra Royal de Versailles, 9 March 2018)

The dauntless Argonauts came to the shores of Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, but their heroism has been put on hold. For the last year they’ve been kept kicking their heels while their leader, Jason, diverts himself with a mysterious woman. He might be thoroughly enjoying himself but, as his fellow Argonaut Hercules tells him, it’s time to move on. But Jason’s romantic adventures prove harder to shake off than he anticipates, when it transpires that his secret lover is none other than Medea, Queen of Colchis. To make matters worse, his fiancee Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos, has grown tired of waiting for him and is coming to fetch him home. Did I mention that Jason has also given each woman twin sons? Amidst the glitz and glitter of Versailles’s Opéra Royal, everything was about to hit the fan in a very, very Baroque fashion.

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Orlando: George Frideric Handel (1733)

Ricci: Angelica and Medoro

★★★½

(La Nuova Musica with David Bates at St John’s Smith Square, 1 February 2018)

I’ve seen a lot of very silly operas in my time, but Handel’s Orlando really does take the biscuit. Based loosely on Canto 23 of Ariosto’s Renaissance romance, Orlando Furioso, it tells the story of Charlemagne’s great paladin, who is driven mad by his unrequited love for the pulchritudinous princess Angelica. Let’s be glad that I’m not judging it solely on the libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, which features paper-thin characterisation and the most egregious deus ex machina ending I’ve seen so far. I’m also judging it on Handel’s music, which includes some rather delicious arias, and on the performance of La Nuova Musica and their cast, which was extremely strong. Best of all, this concert performance featured a vivacious performance by Laurence Zazzo in the title role and a general tongue-in-cheek approach that acknowledged the silliness of the story to the full. It didn’t stop the opera from being complete nonsense, but it did make it fun to watch.

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The Return of Ulysses: Claudio Monteverdi (1640)

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

★★★★

(Royal Opera House & Early Opera Company at the Roundhouse, 19 January 2018)

We now use the word nostalgia to mean a bittersweet memory of the past or, sometimes, a desire to go home. But the original Greek has a slightly different meaning. Nostos means, not ‘home’, but ‘the act of returning home’. And algos means ‘pain’. Thus, in its original form, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of homecoming’. And that strange emotion is at the very heart of this bleak but intelligent production of Monteverdi’s late opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, rendered here in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. While I think that Ulisse is, overall, my least favourite musically of Monteverdi’s operas, this stripped-back production proves that it’s capable of packing a powerful emotional punch.

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L’Incoronazione di Dario: Antonio Vivaldi (1717)

Dario 20

★★★★

(Teatro Regio Torino, directed by Ottavio Dantone, 2017)

My New Year’s Day treat was this opera, staged at the Teatro Regio in Turin earlier this year and now released on DVD. I already knew the CD recording, conducted by Dantone with a slightly different cast, but I always find it difficult to truly appreciate an opera until I’ve seen it staged. The adventurous Dehggial and Thả Diều actually went to Turin to see it in the flesh, and their posts whetted my appetite; not that it needed much whetting. How could I resist an opera about Darius I, which neatly forms the third instalment of a Baroque Persian trilogy, alongside Xerxes and Artaserse? Served up with intrigue, romance and a very, very silly princess, this proved to be a deft comedy, well worth the wait.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Berlin)

★★★★

(Berlin Staatsoper, conducted by Diego Fasolis, 13 December 2017)

Berlin’s Staatsoper has just reopened after a seven-year refurbishment. On Wednesday, the house was sold out as people gathered to celebrate its freshly gilded finery. And what was on the menu for the grand reopening? Not a safe and predictable opera – a Tosca or a Bohème – but a dose of Roman passion and psychosis from the 17th century. With only three performances (this was the last, until its projected revival next summer), this Poppea felt intense, fresh and daring. It wasn’t without its wobbles, but it featured some very strong casting and offered a compelling picture of a court in thrall to an egotistical, unpredictable sun king. Unsurprisingly, I’ve got slightly carried away with the length of this post, so you may wish to furnish yourself with a cup of tea before starting. There are, however, some very pretty pictures.

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The School of Jealousy: Antonio Salieri (1778)

Salieri: The School of Jealousy

★★★★

(Bampton Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square, 12 September 2017)

Full of wit, farce and playfulness, The School of Jealousy was an instant hit, becoming one of the best-loved operas in Europe within a decade of its premiere in 1778. It told a story that was immediately accessible: a jealous, bourgeois buffoon locks away his pretty wife, only to bring her to the attention of a philandering nobleman. It’s a tale of love, lust and forgiveness, scripted by the poet Caterino Mazzolà and tweaked here and there by the young Lorenzo da Ponte. Musically, it sparkles: vivacious, ironic and colourful, it shows that Salieri in his prime was already a master of the comic idiom that would become indelibly associated with a certain younger contemporary of his.

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