Handel: Berenice

Handel: Berenice
Royal Opera House / London Handel Festival
Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 1 April 2019

Handel’s Berenice was first performed in May 1737 in the Covent Garden Theatre, now the home of the Royal Opera House.  It was a tricky time for Handel and the London opera scene, with two opera houses competing for a limited audience. Handel promoted a large-scale 1736/7 season, but none of his new operas (Armino, Giustino, and Berenice) was successful. Handel also suffered a serious decline in his health, not least suffering a stroke in April 1737 that paralysed his right hand. It seems that Berenice only had three performances, probably rehearsed and directed by John Christopher Smith Jnr.  It returns to the present day Covent Garden (or, at least, the bowels of the present day Covent Garden) for the first time since its premiere, in the newly restored basement Linbury Theatre, in a Royal Opera House production in conjunction with the London Handel Festival. Continue reading

Mitridate, Re di Ponto

Mozart: Mitridate, Re di Ponto
The Royal Opera, Christophe Rousset
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 26 June 2017

By the time he composed Mitridate, Re di Ponto, Mozart has already written 13 symphonies, three operas, four masses, two oratorios, and around 20 sonatas for strings or keyboard. He was just 14. This revival of Graham Vick’s 26 year-old production exposes the extraordinary artifice that was the realm of opera seria, overblowing and exaggerating every aspect of Mozart’s youthful exploration of love and family feuding.

The opera opened with what looked like the aftermath of a nasty accident. It seemed as though Aspasis had crash landed through the top of a vast cloth-covered sideboard, leaving only the upper part of her body visible. It took a while to realise that it was not a sideboard, but her costume – one of a number of vast rectangular tent-like creations of huge width that some of the singers had to contend with for much of the evening. One of several, presumably unintended, audience laughs came when a closing set panels left just enough space for Aspasia to walk through without turning sideways. She later appeared as though sitting behind a large bedecked dinner table, as pictured. Indeed the striking costume design was one of the main features of this production, which included a number of impressively choreograph set-piece dances, at one stage complete with a lot of foot-stomping, stick-banging and skirt-twirling, the whole more in Japanese than Anatolian (or 18th century European) style.
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Mozart 250 – ‘Capricious Lovers’ & ‘An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment’

Mozart in London Festival
Classical Opera, Ian Page

Classical Opera launched their ambitious ‘Mozart 250’ project with a ‘Mozart in London’ Festival weekend of events at Milton Court.  The 250 of the project’s title refers to the years since Mozart’s childhood visit to London (23 April 1764), during which he composed his first significant works. The plan is to “follow the chronological trajectory of Mozart’s life, works and influences”, culminating in 2041, the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s death. The weekend included talks, discussions and concerts over a three-day period.  I attended the events on Saturday 21 February, starting with the discussion on Mozart in London between Cliff Eisen, Ian Page, David Vickers and Andrew McGregor.

The first of the two Saturday concerts was ‘Capricious Lovers’, a look at English opera at the time of Mozart’s visit. Extracts from six operas (performed between 2 November 1764 and 15 February 1765) gave a fascinating insight into London musical life over this very brief period.  The first half concentrated on works given in Drury Lane, with George Rush’s The Capricious Lovers, Michael Arne & Jonathan Battishill’s Almena and William Bates’. PharnacesThe second half focussed on Covent Garden, with Thomas Arne’s The Guardian Outwitted, Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes and the pasticcio Maid of the Mill.  Under the baton of Ian Page, sopranos Rebecca Bottone & Sarah-Jane Brandon, mezzo Samantha Price and tenor Robert Murray were joined by The Orchestra of Classical Opera in a well-chosen range of arias, duets, trios, together with overtures from Capricious Lovers and The Guardian Outwitted.  The highlight was the delightful duet ‘O dolly, I part / with a hole in my heart’ from The Guardian Outwitted sung by a coquettish Rebecca Bottone & Robert Murray.

Drury Lane and Covent Garden were the two London theatres licensed to stage plays and operas in English – the reserve for Italian opera was the King’s Theatre, Haymarket.  Under the title of ‘An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment’, the evening concert looked at the music performed there between 24 November 1764 and May 1765.  Alongside J.C.Bach’s Adriano in Siria and Mattia Vento’s Demofoonte, we heard extracts from the pasticcio operas Ezio, Berenice and Solimano, including pieces by Pescetti and Perez as well as Bach and Vento. As in the earlier Handel days, the King’s Theatre attracted some of the finest singers of the time.  Sopranos Martene Grimson & Anna Devin and mezzo Samantha Price were the very impressive representatives of the original singers, soprano Teresa Scotti and the castrati Ferdinando Tenducci and Giovanni Manzuoli.  It was immediately apparent that the Italian style came with harmonically and instrumentally richer accompaniments than their English cousins in the other place.  This concert was preceded by a talk from Daniel Snowman on ‘A Night at the London Opera in Mozart’s London’, reflecting a rather different interpretation of the period and the life of the Mozart family than that expressed in the earlier discussion.

This is an extraordinary project, not least for the length of programme through to 2041. On the basis of this one day, Ian Page and Classical Opera have set themselves an enterprising and important sequence of events, running through to 2041.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/mozart-250-capricious-lovers-an-exotic-and-irrational-entertainment/]