Radamisto: George Frideric Handel (1720)

Handel: Radamisto

★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 13 October 2018)

Baroque naming conventions can be confusing. An opera is often named after the highest-ranking character, or on rarer occasions its protagonist, but English Touring Opera’s production of Handel’s Radamisto leaves you wondering what this prince of Thrace has done to earn to the title role. Surely this should be called Zenobia or Polissena? While the men skulk on the sidelines, Handel (and ETO) give agency to the opera’s two feisty women, who are forced to take the initiative when their menfolk prove unequal to the task. Set in early Christian Armenia, this is a timeless story of how a ruler’s lust can unsettle his judgement and lead his country to ruin – which nevertheless holds out the possibility of change and redemption. Kicking off at the Hackney Empire, and then going on a tour all over England, this is a visually gorgeous production, slightly undermined by an uneven cast.

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Xerse: Francesco Cavalli (1654)

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★

(Ensemble OrQuesta at Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 24 August 2018)

Would you believe it? I haven’t seen a single production of Xerxes for almost two years! It’s a wonder I haven’t had withdrawal symptoms. Unsurprisingly, I leaped at the chance to see Cavalli’s version of this fabulous story performed by Ensemble OrQuesta, as part of this year’s Grimeborn festival. Unlike most of the audience, I suspect, I’d actually seen Cavalli’s rare opera before, in a superb semi-staged performance in Vienna back in 2015, and so the bar was high. But it turned out that the OrQuesta show was actually a fascinating complement, not a rival, to the Vienna production, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Very simply staged, with costumes in sombre shades of black, and with a stunning silver-wire tree as the only prop, it was a pared-down, effective performance of a seldom-seen opera – and a welcome introduction to some exciting young singers.

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Giulio Cesare: George Frideric Handel (1724)

Handel: Giulio Cesare

(directed by David McVicar, Glyndebourne, 20 July 2018)

It’s always nerve-racking when you go to see something you love live for the first time. What if it doesn’t live up to expectations? What if one of the cast has a sore throat? What if, horror of horrors, the manager comes onstage to announce a substitution? But at the same time, how can you resist? My opera buddy H and I had decided that we would pay virtually anything to see the revival of David McVicar’s marvellous Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne, and our resolution was put to the test when the more affordable seats were snapped up within seconds after going on sale. However, our budget-stretching seats in row B were absolutely worth the cost. Many of the cast from the 2005 production returned, with Sarah Connolly triumphant in the title role, and we could admire every little detail. Coupled with a lavish picnic and a gang of equally excited friends (inevitably christened Team Giulio), it made for a perfect day out, and I can promise you that it did live up to all those months of anticipation.

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Agrippina: George Frideric Handel (1709)

Handel: Agrippina

★★★★

(Grange Festival, Hampshire, 8 June 2018)

Last weekend, on a balmy Hampshire afternoon, H and I donned our cocktail dresses and set off for the first of our two country-house operas this summer. It was time for the Grange Festival near Winchester (not to be confused with Grange Park Opera in West Horsley in Kent, who split from the Grange Festival two years ago in less than amicable circumstances). The Grange Festival have dusted themselves off, and are kicking off their second summer season in stunning style with Handel’s Agrippina. Full of maternal ambition, political intrigue and lustful shenanigans, this opera follows the Roman matriarch as she schemes to manoeuvre her son Nero onto the imperial throne. A dose of plotting makes me a very happy girl, but I was rendered even happier by the quality of the cast, headed by the redoubtable Anna Bonitatibus as Agrippina herself. Truly, an evening fit for an emperor.

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Phaéton: Jean-Baptiste Lully (1683)

Lully: Phaéton

★★★½

(Opéra Royal de Versailles, 30 May 2018)

When business took me to Versailles this week, I just happened to arrive on the first night of the Opéra Royal’s new production of Lully’s Phaéton. As you know, French Baroque opera is still something of a terra incognita for me, so I decided to see if there were tickets available, and discovered a last-minute return. It would’ve been rude not to. That evening, perched in a velvet-lined box, with gold and glittering crystal overhead, I settled in for an epic four-hour tale of ambition, love and hubris. It was a steep learning curve, with marked differences from the Italian operas that I know and love, but I can’t think of a better place to experience the Sun King’s composer for the first time, and the production was blessed with a terrific performance in the title role by Mathias Vidal. So join me, as I bumble my way through this first extended encounter with Monsieur Lully…

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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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Giasone: Francesco Cavalli (1649)

Cavalli: Giasone

★★★½

(Opéra Royal de Versailles, 9 March 2018)

The dauntless Argonauts came to the shores of Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, but their heroism has been put on hold. For the last year they’ve been kept kicking their heels while their leader, Jason, diverts himself with a mysterious woman. He might be thoroughly enjoying himself but, as his fellow Argonaut Hercules tells him, it’s time to move on. But Jason’s romantic adventures prove harder to shake off than he anticipates, when it transpires that his secret lover is none other than Medea, Queen of Colchis. To make matters worse, his fiancee Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos, has grown tired of waiting for him and is coming to fetch him home. Did I mention that Jason has also given each woman twin sons? Amidst the glitz and glitter of Versailles’s Opéra Royal, everything was about to hit the fan in a very, very Baroque fashion.

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Orlando: George Frideric Handel (1733)

Ricci: Angelica and Medoro

★★★½

(La Nuova Musica with David Bates at St John’s Smith Square, 1 February 2018)

I’ve seen a lot of very silly operas in my time, but Handel’s Orlando really does take the biscuit. Based loosely on Canto 23 of Ariosto’s Renaissance romance, Orlando Furioso, it tells the story of Charlemagne’s great paladin, who is driven mad by his unrequited love for the pulchritudinous princess Angelica. Let’s be glad that I’m not judging it solely on the libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, which features paper-thin characterisation and the most egregious deus ex machina ending I’ve seen so far. I’m also judging it on Handel’s music, which includes some rather delicious arias, and on the performance of La Nuova Musica and their cast, which was extremely strong. Best of all, this concert performance featured a vivacious performance by Laurence Zazzo in the title role and a general tongue-in-cheek approach that acknowledged the silliness of the story to the full. It didn’t stop the opera from being complete nonsense, but it did make it fun to watch.

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