LHF: Handel Singing Competition 2019

Handel Singing Competition 2019
London Handel Festival
Semi-Final: Grosvenor Chapel, 5 March 2019
Final: St George’s, Hanover Square, 6 April 2019

The Handel Singing Competition has been a key part of the London Handel Festival since 2002. The finalists form a key part of future festivals, with invitations to return over the years ahead. The current festival includes such 20 past finalists, including specific solo recitals for the two main prize-winners (see here and here). Many successful careers have gained from the exposure that the competition offers although, for any potential applicants,  it is worth noting that some of the most famous of those were not first prize winners. Indeed, an unsuccessful finalist in the very first 2002 competition is currently top-of-the-bill at English National Opera (Lucy Crowe), and an unsuccessful finalist from last year is one of the stars of the current Royal Opera House/LHF Berenice (Jacquelyn Stucker). Of the LHF’s own list of seven of those who have gone on to “internationally recognised soloists”, only one was a first prize winner. And, over the years, I have also spotted several excellent singers in the semi-finals that don’t even make it into the finals. For that reason, I usually try to review the semi-final, but this year I went to both. Continue reading

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

Il Santissimo Natale

Il Santissimo Natale
The English Concert & Choir, Laurence Cummings
St John’s, Smith Square, 12 December 2018

The 33rd St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival continued with a very welcome first-half performance (by The English Concert and Choir, directed by Laurence Cummings) of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Missa per il Santíssimo Natale. Scarlatti is usually overlooked in comparison with other composers, both in his many operas and his few compositions for the church. His il Santíssimo Natal Mass was composed in 1707, during Scarlatti’s brief time as maestro di cappella at the Basilica of S Maria Maggiore in Rome. The two jubilant Kyries contrasted with a reflective central Christe. The gentle mood continued into the opening of the Gloria, before the bouncy rhythms returned. As in the later parts of the Mass, frequent changes of mood were a compositional feature, dissolving from one to the other with delightful ease, helped by some well-judged directed from conductor Laurence Cummings. The final Agnus sequence is a gently expansive movement, providing a suitably reflective conclusion to an impressive composition, Scarlatti’s operatic experience never far from the surface, without imposing. Continue reading

Glyndebourne: Saul

Handel: Saul
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Laurence Cummings
Glyndebourne Festival Opera. 22 July 2018

Glyndebourne’s new production of Handel’s Saul was one of the highlights of the 2015 season, gaining rave reviews from, amongst others, me – see here, which also gives more background to the oratorio and the production. Glyndebourne has a long tradition of staging Handel oratorios, and I have no problem at all with that, subject to my normal reservations about what some some opera directors get up to with their productions. This was not entirely devoid of some concern on those grounds, but the sheer spectacle of Barrie Kosky’s direction and the musical integrity of Ivor Bolton’s direction allayed most of my concerns. The same applies to this revival, at least musically, on this occasion conducted by the equally distinguished Laurence Cummings, directing the same Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Glyndebourne’s resident period instrument orchestra.

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LHF: Mr Handel’s Scholars

‘Mr Handel’s Scholars’
London Handel Festival
London Handel Orchestra, Laurence Cummings
Anna Devin, Maria Ostroukhova, Nathan Vale, Derek Welton
St George’s, Hanover Square, 23 March 2018

The Handel Singing Competition was inaugurated as part of the London Handel Festival in 2002, and counts several well-known singers amongst the past finalists, if not always amongst the past winners. Several former finalists have become regular performers at subsequent festival events, and this concert was one such. It featured four past finalists, three from 2006/7 and one far more recently, from 2016: two first prize winners, one 2nd prize winner and two winners of the audience prize. Handel was known to have encouraged younger singers, and the title of ‘Mr Handel’s Scholars’ refers to the name by which his young proteges were known. Each half opened with an overture, following by a range of extracts from Handel operas and oratorios, several of which are standard fare at singing competitions.

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Fitzwilliam & Friends: Purcell + Pergolesi +

Fitzwilliam & Friends: Purcell + Pergolesi +
Fitzwilliam String Quartet, Julia Doyle, Clare Wilkinson
Kings Place. 29 September 2016

Music by Purcell, Marcus Barcham Stevens, Jackson Hill, Rachel Stott, and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater

Image result for julia doyle sopranoKings Place’s 2016 ‘Baroque Unwrapped’ series continued with a fascinating combination of musical styles performed by the period instrument Fitzwilliam String Quartet together with their ‘Friends’, soprano Julia Doyle (pictured) and mezzo Clare Wilkinson, two of the finest singers around, with Laurence Cummings, harpsichord and organ. They opened collectively with three groups of pieces selected from Purcell’s Fairy Queen, King Arthur, and Dido and Aeneas. Julia Doyle and Clare Wilkinson were outstanding soloists in piece such as If Love’s a Sweet Passion’, The Plaint, Fairest Isle and Dido’s Lament. I was particularly impressed with Julia Doyle’s beautiful singing and her excellent use of ornaments: she is one of the few singers who can manage a proper trill, rather than just relying on vibrato.

With the departure of the ‘friends’, the Fitzwilliam Quartet continued with Purcell’s Fantazia 7 followed by three of the specially commissioned Continue reading

Handel: Giove in Argo

Handel: Giove in Argo
Britten Theatre, 26 March 2015
Laurence Cummings conductor
London Handel Orchestra

Like London busses, you can wait for ages to hear a pasticcio opera, and then three come along at once. After Fabio Biondi’s reconstruction of Vivaldi’s compilation L’Oracolo in Messenia at The Barbican and Opera Settecento’s excellent concert performance of Handel’s 1732 compilation opera Catone in Utica (both reviewed below), along came Handel’s 1739 Giove in Argo. It was considered lost until some arias were discovered a few years ago. John H Roberts has reconstructed and edited the score (for Bärenreiter), adding missing recitatives. After recent outings in Göttingen, Hanover and Halle, this was the first UK performance since 1739. It was given in the intimate space of the Britten Theatre with singers from the RCM International Opera School as part of the London Handel Festival.

The plot is loosely drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It focuses on the antics of a rather naughty Giove (Jove/Jupiter) and his attempts to seduce Continue reading

Purcell/Sellars – The Indian Queen. English National Opera

Peter Sellars has done it again!  Although billed as “Purcell’s” Indian Queen, the latest in his radical reinterpretations of opera is really Peter Sellars’ Indian Queen, the plot completely re-imagined as a vehicle for Sellars’ political and social views.   This spectacular production left me more conflicted than many Sellars’ shows that I have seen.  As a pure performance extravaganza, it certainly worked well. But in order for it to work, you needed to suppress any sense of history or musical integrity.

With his spiky lavatory-brush hair and right-on approach to contemporary politics, this impish and oh-so-American director has always taken a cavalier approach to opera, imposing his own views on whatever plot the composer might have chosen.  His latest London production, notionally based on Purcell’s The Indian Queen (English National Opera, 26 Feb), is one of the most extreme examples of this approach, not least because he has jettisoned the text entirely and replaced it with spoken text of his own choosing – principally extracts from the novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by the Nicaraguan author Rosario Aguilar.  Aguilar’s novel aims to “recapture the woman’s view of the conquest and colonisation of Central America through the lives of six women who participated in the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians”. The historical setting has been changed from the years before the Spanish conquest of Central America (and a conflict between the kings of Peru and Mexico) to a post-conquest scenario where the brutality of the Spanish invaders is intermixed with a curious love story between Teculihuatzin (the Mayan Indian Queen) and Don Pedro de Alvarado, one of the conquistadors.

The music is based on Purcell’s unfinished ‘semi opera’ The Indian Queen, original intended as incidental music to Dryden’s play. It was first performed in 1695 in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, a few months before Purcell’s death. Only about 50 minutes of Purcell’s survives, consisting of a series of musical interludes at the end of each act, never quite achieving the status of typical late 17th century ‘masques’.  The music is difficult to programme in concerts – a 50 minute series of seemingly unrelated short pieces of very different temperaments and moods.  But Purcell’s music has the ability to delve into unbearably intense emotional depths, so it deserves to be heard far more than it is.

To that extent, Sellars has done Purcell’s music a service, in that it gets performed.  This is a co-production between ENO and the Russian Perm State Opera and the Teatro Real, Madrid, and had been performed in both places, to varying degrees of success, before its London opening.  To turn it into a full length (indeed, an over-long) opera, Sellars has added other music by Purcell, sacred and secular.   Not content with the new post-conquest story, Sellars’ opens at the beginning of time, Mayan style, with five scenes from Mayan creation myths, with dancing to a backdrop of what was supposed to be jungle noise, but was in practice rather uncomfortable white-noise broadcast rather too loudly from loudspeakers.  We were sent out for the interval with an almost cartoon-style massacre and rivers of blood, all to the accompaniment of ‘Hear my Prayer, O Lord’.  Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down too well in Madrid.  Sellars’ trademark mannered infant-class gestures featured in many of the chorus’s actions – something I have never got used.

The staging, lighting, costumes and the large painted panels were all bold and impressive.  And the music was outstanding, with generally excellent singing from the youthful soloists. Lucy Crowe excelled as Doña Isabel, notably in O Solitude and See, even night herself is here.  Bass Luthando Qave impressed as a Mayan Shaman, as did Noah Stewart as Don Pedro de Alvarado.  Vince Yi (Hunahpú) is billed as a countertenor, but his voice had the timbre of a male soprano.  Luisa Julia Bullock (as Teculihuatzin/Doña Luisa) displayed far too much uncontrolled vibrato for my taste and for Purcell’s music, although she impressed in her late duet O Lord, rebuke me not with Lucy Crowe. The text was extremely well declaimed by actress Maritxell Carrero, portrayed as Leonor, the daughter of Teculihuatzin and Don Pedro, and therefore of mixed race; something key to the text.

Laurence Cummings directed the ENO house band, most playing modern instruments, but showing just how far they have come in recent year to understanding period performance – something that Cummings must take much of the responsibility and credit for.  The orchestra was lifted to almost stage level, making them visible to most of the audience.  An unfortunately un-named specialist period instrument continuo group deserved the special applause they got at the end.  Laurence Cummings got into the mood of Sellars’ directorial style, pushing the music to its limits albeit always within his own deep understanding of period style.  Notable were several moments when he paused, mid phrase, producing very effective dramatic moments.  My only musical quibble was with the chorus, whose unadulterated vibrato I would have found excessive in Wagner.  I know that is just what they might have had to sing the following evening, and that it is hard to rein in vibrato, but unless they can do it I do wonder if bringing a specialist choir might be a solution to what is, too often, an ENO issue.

I always approach Sellars productions with a degree of trepidation, as this evening was no exception. But, despite everything arguing against it, I quickly got into the spectacular of the production and the curious story. Yes, it was too long, but the music was something special.  I tried not to like it, but just couldn’t.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/04/01/purcellsellars-the-indian-queen-english-national-opera/]