Susanna: George Frideric Handel (1749)

Handel: Susanna

★★★

(London Handel Festival; Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, 5 March 2019)

The Biblical story of Susanna is very timely. A beautiful woman in a happy marriage is targeted by two powerful elders in her community while her husband is away. When she rejects their sexual advances, they revenge themselves by publicly accusing her of adultery with a mysterious third person, destroying her reputation and bringing shame upon her family. She is condemned to death but, in the nick of time, is rescued by the youthful prophet Daniel, who interrogates the elders, exposing inconsistencies in their stories. Susanna is vindicated and the two elders condemned to death in her place. At the risk of sounding frivolous, this is the #MeToo oratorio, and any director handling the story in the present climate will be forcibly aware of the parallels. This new production from the Royal Opera House, which features singers from the Jette Parker Young Artists programme, is a little too eager to demonstrate its social conscience. It tackles not only the sexual exploitation of women (as expected) but also (less logically) the climate crisis. The result is weighed down by concept, which – at least on the first night – risked distracting attention from the grace and variety of Handel’s music.

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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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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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