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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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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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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Demetrio: Johann Adolph Hasse (1740)

Ray Chenez

★★★

(Opera Settecento at Cadogan Hall, 21 September 2016)

Another long-overdue post finally surfaces from the drafts folder! This time it’s Hasse’s Demetrio, to which I’d been eagerly looking forward. We don’t hear much Hasse in London and Opera Settecento had managed to gather a truly exceptional cast, featuring many of the singers I enthuse about repeatedly on this blog. Erica Eloff, Rupert Charlesworth and Michael Taylor were joined in a casting coup by Ray Chenez, whom I last saw as a manipulative and ultimately tragic Marzia at Versailles. On paper, it couldn’t fail. On the night, however, unsympathetic cutting of the opera resulted in a fragmentary show, which I felt didn’t do justice either to its splendid cast or to Hasse himself.

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Elpidia: George Frideric Handel (1725)

Handel: Elpidia

★★★½

(Opera Settecento, St George’s Hanover Square, 31 March 2016)

Herewith another post from the depths of the drafts folder, which I hope still may be of some interest. I’m keen to post it because I’m a great fan of Opera Settecento’s habit of unearthing rare and unusual operas and this performance featured some of my favourite young singers. Many apologies for its lateness, but it all happened around the time of my uncle’s death and I wasn’t really up to blogging at the time. But I had a few scribbled thoughts and wanted to jostle them into some sense of order, so that I can have a record of this enjoyable and particularly complex pasticcio.

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Adriano in Siria: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1734)

Pergolesi: Adriano

★★★★

(Opera Settecento at Cadogan Hall, 16 September 2015)

It’s no exaggeration to say that I’d been looking forward to this Adriano in Siria since the curtain fell on the last one. It’s the first full opera I’ve heard by the precociously gifted Pergolesi, who died at the age of only 26, and who is best known here in England for his haunting Stabat Mater. However, I suspect I’ll get to know Adriano itself pretty well by the end of the year. The production company Parnassus will soon* be releasing their own new recording of the opera, featuring a rather formidable cast, and Opera Settecento’s concert performance was perfectly timed to whet appetites and throw down the gauntlet.

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Erica Eloff: The Trials and Triumphs of Love

Erica Eloff

(with Ars Eloquentiae at Handel House, 2 July 2015)

The beginning of July was almost unbearably hot by London standards; and so, on walking into Handel House’s recital room, I was delighted to find a novel solution to the problem. Every chair was graced with its own neat red folded fan. The team should be congratulated: few London venues would be so thoughtful nor so imaginative (I should note that we did have to give them back at the end: a shame, as they were more efficacious than my own).

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Antigono: Christoph Willibald Gluck (1756)

Metastasio: Antigono

★★★

(Ensemble Serse, Grosvenor Chapel, London, 25 April 2015)

I know what you’re thinking. Serse again?! But no: fear not. No Xerxes today: instead I’m rather belatedly posting about Ensemble Serse, a London-based company of young musicians and singers who specialise in ambitious resurrections of Baroque opera. Their mission statement is to offer a musical experience that’s as close as possible to what an 18th-century audience might have heard. That means no cuts, all possible cadenzas and a take-no-prisoners attitude to singing.

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