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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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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Songs for Nancy: A concert to celebrate Nancy Storace

Anna Selina ('Nancy') Storace

(Bampton Classical Opera with Chroma at St John’s Smith Square, 7 March 2018)

This portrait isn’t immediately arresting, it’s true. The sitter, for all her charm, is no great beauty and she’s dressed with tasteful understatement. Her chief attraction is that pair of searching, intelligent black eyes. But, if you’d lived in the late 18th century, you’d have instantly recognised her as one of the most popular singers of the age. She made her debut at the age of seven and became the toast of opera houses throughout Italy, before being invited to Vienna by the Emperor himself. Here she became a favourite of Mozart and Salieri, both of whom composed music for her. She created the role of the Countess in Salieri’s School of Jealousy and was Mozart’s first Susanna in Figaro. And, amazingly, she was a Londoner: born and bred in Marylebone. On the eve of International Women’s Day, Bampton Classical Opera turned the spotlight firmly onto Anna Selina Storace (1765-1817), known as ‘Nancy’, focusing on music written especially for her.

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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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The School of Jealousy: Antonio Salieri (1778)

Salieri: The School of Jealousy

★★★★

(Bampton Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square, 12 September 2017)

Full of wit, farce and playfulness, The School of Jealousy was an instant hit, becoming one of the best-loved operas in Europe within a decade of its premiere in 1778. It told a story that was immediately accessible: a jealous, bourgeois buffoon locks away his pretty wife, only to bring her to the attention of a philandering nobleman. It’s a tale of love, lust and forgiveness, scripted by the poet Caterino Mazzolà and tweaked here and there by the young Lorenzo da Ponte. Musically, it sparkles: vivacious, ironic and colourful, it shows that Salieri in his prime was already a master of the comic idiom that would become indelibly associated with a certain younger contemporary of his.

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Apollo and Hyacinthus: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1767)

Mozart: Apollo et Hyacinthus

(Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square, 12 June 2017)

When I was eleven, I was obsessed with ponies and still spent an unconscionable amount of time playing with dolls. When Mozart was eleven, he wrote his first opera. Such is life. In this concert, Classical Opera presented three pieces written by the precocious composer between 1766 and 1767, which predictably sounded as rich and sophisticated as many a work by any other mature composer. Staged simply and effectively, with some impressive performances from the crack team of singers, these pieces were the ‘Lambach’ Symphony in G major (K45a), the sombre Grabmusik (K42) and the little opera Apollo et Hyacinthus. As there were three different pieces, I’ve treated this as a recital, which is why I haven’t given it the usual star rating.

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Zefiro Torna: Les Talens Lyriques

Botticelli: The Birth of Venus

(St John’s Smith Square, 7 June 2017)

As part of their celebrations for the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, the French ensemble Les Talens Lyriques were on stage in London for one night only, for a selection of madrigals and operatic scenes written by the great composer. I’d never seen them perform live, although I have many of their recordings, and was eager to see them at last under the baton of Christophe Rousset. The recital was made even more irresistible by the singers: two tenors whom I like very much: the Swiss Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, whom I’ve seen in several other roles, and the Swedish haute contre Anders J. Dahlin, who sings Dario in my much-loved recording of Vivaldi’s Incoronazione di Dario. My expectations were high and yet, remarkably, they were exceeded by this elegant concert which blended heartfelt grace with dramatic verve.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Anna Stéphany

★★★★ ½

(Early Opera Company at St John’s Smith Square, 18 November 2016)

With only one production so far this year, I’ve had Xerxes withdrawal symptoms, but fortunately the Early Opera Company and Christian Curnyn were there to save the day with a concert performance at St John’s Smith Square last Friday. This was billed as a concert version of their truly excellent studio recording from 2013, but in fact the entire cast is different, with one crucial exception: Anna Stéphany as the brat-prince himself. The change of cast didn’t matter, however, as EOC drafted in some of the brightest young things around, and the result was classy, perfectly-paced and probably (on balance) the best-sounding Xerxes I’ve yet heard live. Coming from me, that’s high praise.

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