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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Joseph and his Brethren: George Frideric Handel (1743)

Malm: Joseph and his Brothers

★★★★

(London Handel Orchestra and Singers at St George’s Hanover Square, 20 April 2017)

Andrew Lloyd Webber wasn’t the first to realise that a good musical could be made from the story of Joseph in Egypt. 224 years before Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat was premiered, Handel chose the same subject for the second of two oratorios performed in his 1743 season (the first, a month before Joseph, was Semele). With a libretto by the radical clergyman James Miller, adapted in part from an earlier work by Apostolo Zeno, Handel’s oratorio throws us straight into the action, midway through the story. We first meet Joseph in prison in Egypt, and the tale follows his rise to power, his love for the beautiful Asenath, and his eventual reconciliation with his brothers. This was my final outing for this year’s Handel Festival and it proved a great conclusion, overseen by the ever-admirable Laurence Cummings with the London Handel Orchestra and Singers.

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Calisto: Francesco Cavalli (1651)

Lucy Crowe

★★★★

(La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall, 28 November 2016)

Calistos are like London buses: you wait for months and then two come along at once. Mere weeks after English Touring Opera’s vivacious production, David Bates and La Nuova Musica presented their own version of Cavalli’s tale of lust, disguise and confusion. Conceived as a semi-staged performance, to make maximum use of the Wigmore’s limited space, this Calisto boasted a cast to die for and delivered some great voices; yet it didn’t eclipse ETO quite as thoroughly as I’d expected.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Anna Stéphany

★★★★ ½

(Early Opera Company at St John’s Smith Square, 18 November 2016)

With only one production so far this year, I’ve had Xerxes withdrawal symptoms, but fortunately the Early Opera Company and Christian Curnyn were there to save the day with a concert performance at St John’s Smith Square last Friday. This was billed as a concert version of their truly excellent studio recording from 2013, but in fact the entire cast is different, with one crucial exception: Anna Stéphany as the brat-prince himself. The change of cast didn’t matter, however, as EOC drafted in some of the brightest young things around, and the result was classy, perfectly-paced and probably (on balance) the best-sounding Xerxes I’ve yet heard live. Coming from me, that’s high praise.

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