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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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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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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