Xerse (1654): Francesco Cavalli

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★★

(Theater an der Wien, 18 October 2015)

Before Handel and before Bononcini there was Cavalli. This first take on the Xerxes story doesn’t enjoy anywhere near as much fame as its younger cousin, and to my knowledge has only been recorded once, in 1985, with the title role set for countertenor and sung by René Jacobs. It’s high time for another recording and, if Emmanuelle Haïm and her excellent cast could have their arms twisted to do it, we’d be in for a treat.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1643): Claudio Monteverdi

Poppea: Vienna

★★★★

(Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 19 October 2015)

Before seeing Poppea, I’d been warned it was ‘hardcore Regietheater’, a phrase which would normally provoke serious qualms. But even I know better than to go to a Claus Guth production expecting togas and sandals. Despite my conservative tastes I can appreciate regie if it’s done well. It depends whether the director’s taken time to think about the story, or whether he’s simply thrown in sharks, parrots or a live bull for the sake of it. Guth certainly fell into the first category. His production isn’t traditional, but it’s based on an intelligent reading of the story. It toys with the audience’s expectations and makes you think afresh about the dynamics between the characters. This Poppea is good regie: deceptively playful, with a heart of darkness.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1643): Claudio Monteverdi

Poppea Norway (7)

★★

(Norwegian National Opera 2010, conducted by Alessandro De Marchi)

I’d been itching to see this production of Poppea for some time, ever since stumbling across some clips of Tim Mead’s E pur io torno on YouTube. The clips showed a bare, stripped-back set and a very striking use of colour, and the cast list looked promising. So on Saturday night, after a rather draining couple of days, I settled down to lose myself in one of my favourite operas. As you’ll be able to deduce from the rating, it wasn’t quite the treat it was meant to be.

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Alcina (1735): George Frideric Handel

Handel: Alcina

★★★½

(Freiburger Barockorchester with Andrea Marcon, Aix-en-Provenance, 9 July 2015)

Spare a thought for the modern opera singer. You spend years training and auditioning; you finally make it and become a leading soloist, a master of your craft; and then you find yourself at Aix, hands bound and blindfolded, singing while some guy you met at the first rehearsal last Tuesday beats you with a riding crop in front of a thousand-strong audience. At which point do you begin wondering, ‘Where did this all go wrong?’

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Catone in Utica (1728): Leonardo Vinci

Vinci: Catone in Utica

(Opéra Royal, Versailles, 19 June 2015)

★★★

Versailles. The very name conjures up opulence and the Opéra Royal, nestled within the palace, is no exception. It’s a jewel-box of gold and crystal, festooned with chandeliers. Simply walking into our loge took my breath away, and I was glad of it. I’d waited for this night for nine months, having impulsively booked tickets three days after I first watched Artaserse. It was an expensive leap of faith. Now, tucked into the velvet-lined corner of our box with a superb view of the stage and orchestra pit (conveniently close to those fabulous horns), I was about to find out if the wait had been worthwhile.

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Franco Fagioli: Arias for Caffarelli

Franco Fagioli

(Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche, Halle, with Il Pomo d’Oro, 7 June 2015)

So, we’d started off the weekend with (arguably) the most famous countertenor in the world and we closed it in dazzling fashion with the most formidably talented: the crown prince of coloratura. In the high-vaulted surroundings of the Ulrichskirche, Halle’s church-turned-concert hall, Franco Fagioli was on fine form as he returned to the programme of his 2013 Caffarelli album. It proved to be a delightful complement to the Porpora recital we saw at the Wigmore back in September and, with orchestral support from the ever-vivacious Il Pomo d’Oro, directed by Riccardo Minasi, it made for a deliciously exuberant evening.

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Alessandro (1726): George Frideric Handel

Handel: Alessandro

★★★★

(Goethe-Theater Bad Lauchstädt, with Armonia Atenea and George Petrou, 6 June 2015)

On Saturday afternoon, with the mercury rising above 30°C, we headed off to the Goethe-Theater at Bad Lauchstädt for our second staged opera of the week. This time it was the Parnassus production of Handel’s Alessandro, which is already something of a modern classic. Like Lucio Cornelio Silla, this staging sets the story in the 1930s, but its playful and vivid spirit couldn’t be more different from Handel’s tale of tyranny. Unfolding beneath a proscenium arch of Art Deco splendour, Alessandro presents us with the bristling egos and squabbling actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

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Lucio Cornelio Silla (1713): George Frideric Handel

Handel: Lucio Cornelio Silla

★★★½

(Oper Halle, with Händelfestspielorchester Halle and Enrico Onofri, 5 June 2015)

Tickets had all sold out and we’d accepted that we weren’t going to get to see this staged revival of Handel’s rarely-performed 1713 opera (there’s only one extant recording, from 2000, with James Bowman as Silla). And then, during the interval of Jaroussky’s concert, I got chatting to some fellow English travellers, who just happened to have two tickets going spare for the following night and very generously offered them at a discount. And so, slightly dazzled, we found ourselves at the premiere in absolutely splendid seats in the centre of the stalls.

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Philippe Jaroussky: Festival Concert

Philippe Jaroussky

(Georg-Friedrich-Händel Halle, with Orfeo 55 and Nathalie Stutzmann, 4 June 2015)

In early June, all Baroque roads lead to Halle in Saxony-Anhalt, which holds an annual Handel festival in honour of its most famous son. As a Londoner by adoption, I confess to a slight sense of possessiveness over Handel, who moved away from Halle at the age of eighteen (as opposed to the 47 years he spent living and working in London), but I suppose we can share him. And it is true that Halle’s festival feels considerably sleeker and higher-profile than London’s equivalent earlier this year: there are posters and banners everywhere; every performance was packed with people; and the programme featured a positive galaxy of international Baroque talent.

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