Partenope: George Frideric Handel (1730)

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: George Frideric Handel and Friends (1731)

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: George Frideric Handel (1733)

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: George Frideric Handel (1737)

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: George Frideric Handel (1720)

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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Giulio Cesare: George Frideric Handel (1724)

Handel: Giulio Cesare

(directed by David McVicar, Glyndebourne, 20 July 2018)

It’s always nerve-racking when you go to see something you love live for the first time. What if it doesn’t live up to expectations? What if one of the cast has a sore throat? What if, horror of horrors, the manager comes onstage to announce a substitution? But at the same time, how can you resist? My opera buddy H and I had decided that we would pay virtually anything to see the revival of David McVicar’s marvellous Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne, and our resolution was put to the test when the more affordable seats were snapped up within seconds after going on sale. However, our budget-stretching seats in row B were absolutely worth the cost. Many of the cast from the 2005 production returned, with Sarah Connolly triumphant in the title role, and we could admire every little detail. Coupled with a lavish picnic and a gang of equally excited friends (inevitably christened Team Giulio), it made for a perfect day out, and I can promise you that it did live up to all those months of anticipation.

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Agrippina: George Frideric Handel (1709)

Handel: Agrippina

★★★★

(Grange Festival, Hampshire, 8 June 2018)

Last weekend, on a balmy Hampshire afternoon, H and I donned our cocktail dresses and set off for the first of our two country-house operas this summer. It was time for the Grange Festival near Winchester (not to be confused with Grange Park Opera in West Horsley in Kent, who split from the Grange Festival two years ago in less than amicable circumstances). The Grange Festival have dusted themselves off, and are kicking off their second summer season in stunning style with Handel’s Agrippina. Full of maternal ambition, political intrigue and lustful shenanigans, this opera follows the Roman matriarch as she schemes to manoeuvre her son Nero onto the imperial throne. A dose of plotting makes me a very happy girl, but I was rendered even happier by the quality of the cast, headed by the redoubtable Anna Bonitatibus as Agrippina herself. Truly, an evening fit for an emperor.

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Franco Fagioli Sings Vivaldi and Handel

Franco

(Barbican Hall, with Venice Baroque Orchestra, 4 June 2018)

It’s two and a half years since Franco Fagioli last sang in London, and a year and a half  since I saw him as the eponymous Eliogabalo at the Opéra de Paris. Would time have wrought any changes on that distinctive voice? I came to his latest concert full of curiosity. This time his programme was devoted to music by Vivaldi and Handel, with the accompaniment of the Venice Baroque Orchestra, led by Gianpiero Zanocco. Part of the evening’s success must be attributed to their deft and zestful performance of the music, but – as I said to Dehggial – they are the Venice Baroque Orchestra after all and, if they hadn’t been able to play Vivaldi properly, it would have been a sorry state of affairs. And Fagioli himself? A very pleasant surprise. He’s stripped away some of the affectations that have irritated me before; his voice seems stronger than ever; and he turned in a performance that left the Barbican’s rafters shaking with applause.

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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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