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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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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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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Il Duello Amoroso: Louise Alder and Emilie Renard

Louise Alder

(David Bates and La Nuova Musica at St George’s Hanover Square, 20 April 2017)

Thanks to work travel, I haven’t been able to see all that much of the London Handel Festival this year, but I’d been looking forward to this event: a programme of duets performed by two of our most talented young singers, Louise Alder and Emilie Renard. These duets were chamber pieces written by Handel during his early period in Italy and the most famous of them was the cantata Amarilli vezzosa, composed in 1708. It was a rare chance to hear these early works: I only wish La Nuova Musica’s music director, David Bates, had kept a more sympathetic balance between orchestra and singers.

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Ormisda: George Frideric Handel and Friends (1730)

Ormisda - Maria Ostroukhova

★★★★

(Opera Settecento at St George’s, Hanover Square, 28 March 2017)

I’m running slightly behind on London Handel Festival reports, but didn’t want to forget this remarkable Orsmida, dominated by an absolutely brilliant performance from the talented mezzo Maria Ostroukhova. Like Catone and Elpidia in previous Festivals, Ormisda is a pasticcio, pulled together by Handel using arias from other composers’ operas. Not only did this enable him to fill one of the slots in the 1730 opera season, easing his workload a little, but it also introduced London audiences to some top arias from the Continent. Ormisda pulls together some very enjoyable music by Hasse, Orlandini, Vinci, Leo and Giacomelli, to tell a classic opera seria tale of dynastic politics in ancient Persia.

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Faramondo: George Frideric Handel (1737)

Handel: Faramondo

★★★

(Britten Theatre, 25 March 2017)

You can’t accuse Handel of not being productive. He wrote Faramondo while recovering from a stroke and, having finished it on Christmas Eve, began his next opera on Boxing Day. That would become Xerxes, one of his most enduringly popular scores, but Faramondo itself has never enjoyed the same acclaim as its younger sibling. There are perfectly good reasons for this, namely that the opera itself is a bit of a mess, but the students of the Royal College of Music have gamely taken up the gauntlet in this staged production, performed as part of the London Handel Festival. They’re accompanied by the London Handel Orchestra, with Laurence Cummings directing from the harpsichord; I also spotted Leo Duarte tucked in at the back with his trusty oboe.

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Oreste: George Frideric Handel (1734)

Handel: Oreste

★★★½

(Royal Opera House at Wilton’s Music Hall, 9 November 2016)

This was my third Handel pasticcio, after Elpidia and Catone in Utica, but it differed from both of these in that Oreste is made up purely of Handel’s own earlier work.  It hung together much more successfully as a result, with melodies that tickled my memory but nothing that shouted its origins elsewhere. It’s the fourth of the Royal Opera House’s Baroque productions that I’ve seen in other venues and, after the immensity of the Roundhouse’s Orfeo and the intimacy of the Sam Wanamaker’s Playhouse’s Ormindo and Orpheus, Wilton’s Music Hall offered an appropriately faded setting for this tale of love and madness at the end of the world.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Handel: Xerxes

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 8 October 2016)

Xerxes and Spitfires both rank pretty highly on the list of things I get excited about, but I never imagined I’d have cause to refer to them both in the same sentence. Now that has all changed, thanks to English Touring Opera’s revival production, which transplants our favourite brat-prince to the airfields of the Battle of Britain. It opens with the glorious sight of our misguided king serenading a Spitfire (plane tree – plane – Spitfire – brilliant), as he contemplates his new campaign to rule the skies of Europe, and it’s sheer fun from there on in.

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