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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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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The Return of Ulysses: Claudio Monteverdi (1640)

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

★★★★

(Royal Opera House & Early Opera Company at the Roundhouse, 19 January 2018)

We now use the word nostalgia to mean a bittersweet memory of the past or, sometimes, a desire to go home. But the original Greek has a slightly different meaning. Nostos means, not ‘home’, but ‘the act of returning home’. And algos means ‘pain’. Thus, in its original form, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of homecoming’. And that strange emotion is at the very heart of this bleak but intelligent production of Monteverdi’s late opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, rendered here in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. While I think that Ulisse is, overall, my least favourite musically of Monteverdi’s operas, this stripped-back production proves that it’s capable of packing a powerful emotional punch.

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Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria: Claudio Monteverdi (1640)

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 15 October 2016)

Most operas are about infatuation: the sudden, all-consuming flare of love that causes kingdoms to fall, mountains to crumble and worlds to change – the love of Paris for Helen, for example. We don’t hear quite so often about the quieter, more enduring kind of love that ‘withstands tempests and is never shaken’. Yet here, in his second surviving opera, Monteverdi does just that. His heroes, Ulysses and Penelope, aren’t tumultuous young things: on the contrary, they’re two people of a certain age, trying to make the best of a bad job. It doesn’t sound terribly dramatic, does it? And it isn’t, if by drama you mean fire and the clash of steel. But it’s one of the most moving stories I’ve seen in opera so far, because it takes the power out of the hands of kings and emperors, and lays bare the workings of the human heart.

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Calisto: Francesco Cavalli (1651)

Cavalli: Calisto

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 14 October 2016)

On Friday night it was time for the second opera in ETO’s autumn Baroque trilogy (the first was their Battle of Britain Xerxes). This time we were going back to the mid-17th century for Cavalli’s Calisto, which on the surface is an exuberant pantomime in song about gods behaving badly in the forests of Arcadia. Beneath the raunchiness, however, this opera has a surprisingly radical message. In a fascinating pre-show talk, the director and conductor Tim Nelson explored allusions to Galileo and the defeat of faith by reason, which – if this isn’t just the result of academic over-reading – would make the apparently frothy Calisto a subversive commentary on the biggest controversy of the day.

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The Creation: Joseph Haydn (1798)

CreationHaydn

★★★

(Bath Assembly Rooms, 31 October 2015)

Haydn has rather slipped under my radar so far, partly because his few operas don’t form part of the standard repertoire, and partly because a friend of mine has been a little dismissive of him so I didn’t actively seek him out. But on the basis of The Creation, performed on Saturday at the Assembly Rooms in Bath by the Bath Choral Society and the Bristol Ensemble, I’m going to have to revise that opinion.

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Adriano in Siria: Johann Christian Bach (1765)

Bach: Adriano in Siria

★★★★

(Classical Opera, conducted by Ian Page, Britten Theatre, 18 April 2015)

As Hadrian is one of my historical favourites, I was amused to discover that he’s the subject of a Metastasio libretto, set to music by more than sixty composers between 1732 and 1828. Classical Opera’s production is, rather remarkably, the first staging of the version by J.C. Bach (son of the Bach) since it opened in London in 1765. It’s been making waves in the press: the dominant reaction is amazement that we don’t hear more of J.C., especially since he spent most of his career in London* and was much admired.

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