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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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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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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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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Semele: George Frideric Handel (1744)

Handel: Semele

★★★½

(Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 10 March 2015)

Let the London Handel Festival commence! Things got underway in suitably regal style at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with a tale of divine seduction and boundless ambition that bore a moralistic coda: be careful what you wish for.

Nature to each allots his proper sphere, But that forsaken,
we like meteors err: 
Toss’d through the void, by some rude
shock we’re broke, 
And all our boasted fire is lost in smoke.

(Chorus: Act 3, Scene 7)

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