LHF: Handel Venceslao

London Handel Festival
Handel: Venceslao
Opera Settecento, Leo Duarte
St George’s, Hanover Square, 26 April 2019

As the London Handel Festival (LHF) draws towards its closing events, they presented the last, and one of the more interesting of Handel’s three pasticcio operas (the other two being Elpidia and Ormisda in 1724/5. These were made up of music pinched from other composers and loosely gathered together into a single opera. Venceslao was first performed in 1731 and contained music ‘borrowed’ from Giacomelli, Hasse, Lotti, Orlandini, Porpora, Porta, and Vinci. The Venceslao of the title is Wenceslas, but not the one that looked out on the Feast of Stephen. This one was Bohemian King Wenzel (1271-1305) who became King of Poland as Wenceslas II. He also appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy, but in very unflattering form. He was a descendant of St Wenceslaus I, the 10th-century Duke of Bohemia who inspired the Christmas carol – he posthumously upgraded to King.

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LHF: Costly Canaries

London Handel Festival
“Costly Canaries”
London Early Opera, Brigit Cunningham
St George’s, Hanover Square, 11 April 2019

London Early Opera’s programme explored the ‘Costly Canaries’ gathered by Handel from around Europe during the early years of the Royal Academy of Music, the aristocratic corporation founded 300 years ago, in 1719. Handel was ‘Master of the Orchestra’ with responsibility for composing his own works to Italian libretti, adopting mostly Italian operas for performance in London, and engaging singers and players, usually from Italy. Enormous fees were paid to many of these singers, leading to Mainwaring description of them as ‘costly canaries’. The three singers that Handel procured highlighted in this concert were Margherita Durastanti, Anastasia Robinson (an Italian born and trained, but English singer) and, later, Anna Maria Strada del Pò. They joined others such as Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, the two singers whose fabricated rivalry was whipped up by Academy audiences. These imported stars were paid extraordinary amounts of money, leading to the ultimate collapse of the Academy in 1729. Continue reading

LHF: Handel vs Porpora

London Handel Festival
“Handel vs Porpora”
Le Concert de l’Hostel-Dieu, Giuseppina Bridelli, Franck-Emmanuel Comte
St George’s, Hanover Square, 8 April 2019

In a very rare (if not perhaps the first) appearance by a non-UK orchestra in the London Handel Festival, the Lyon-based Le Concert de l’Hostel-Dieu and their director Franck-Emmanuel Comte and mezzo-soprano Giuseppina Bridelli highlighted a particularly turbulent period of British musical history, between 1733 to 1737. The theme for this year’s London Handel Festival (LHF) highlights the rivalry between the female singers that Handel composed for. In contrast, this concert highlighted the rivalry between Handel himself and the Italian composer Nicola Porpora. In 1733, after yet another clash with Handel, the star castrato Senesino resigned from Handel’s opera company and joined the new Opera of the Nobility, set up by the Prince of Wales in opposition to his father, George II, who supported Handel’s Royal Academy of Music. Porpora was invited to be the musical director of the new company. Their first opera was Porpora’s Arianna in Nasso, as a direct challenge to Handel’s Arianna in Creta. Despite having poached most of Handel’s key singers, such as Cuzzoni and Montagnana, the Opera of the Nobility went bankrupt and was dissolved in 1737. Handel’s own company suffered a similar fate, and the rump of the two opera companies combined for the 1737-38 season. Continue reading

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

LHF: Helen Charlston

London Handel Festival
Helen Charlston, Baroque Ensemble LUX
St George’s, Hanover Square, 1 April 2019

This year’s London Handel Festival has the theme of  ‘Handel’s Divas’, and explores the female singers associated with Handel. One of the key events of the annual festival is the Handel Singing Competition, with the winners and finalists of each year’s competition playing a key part in following festival events. Last year’s winner was mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston with Lauren Lodge-Campbell winning the second and audience prizes. I heard both in last year’s semi-finals rather than the final, and was very impressed with both: it was a rare occasion when I agree with the LHF judges! Both give solo lunchtime recitals this week, starting with Helen Charlston. Her programme featured the (exclusively male) heroes and villains found in Handel’s operas and solo cantatas, giving Helen Charlston ample opportunity to display a wealth of different personalities and moods.  Continue reading

LHF: Mr Handel’s Vauxhall Pleasures

Mr Handel’s Vauxhall Pleasures
London Handel Festival
London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham
St George’s, Hanover Square, 4 April 2018

 

London Early Opera have released two CDs reflecting the musical life of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens during the mid 18th century (reviewed here and here). Their London Handel Festival concert drew on music from both CDs with a backdrop of projected contemporary images and a spoken text setting the scene. Pleasure Gardens like Vauxhall were a focus for musical and other entertainments in 17th and 18th century London, including ‘music, food and amorous dalliance’. Such amorous dalliances were explored in the spoken commentary, given by Lars Tharp, including a diary entry from an American noting a meeting with one of the young Vauxhall ladies, who he ‘rogered twice’ and then forgot to say his prayers. As the Air from the Water Music played, we heard a description of a river journey to Vauxhall from Westminster. It was followed by Handel’s bubbly Sinfonia to Acis and Galateathe source of a couple of later arias.  Continue reading

LHF: Handel Singing Competition

Handel Singing Competition: Semi-Final
London Handel Festival
Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair, 28 March 2018

The annual Handel Singing Competition was founded in 2002 as an integral part of the London Handel Festival (LHF). This year it attracted 116 applicants, seemingly down in numbers from the 150 that the LHF quote as the norm. A private first round was held over several very snowy days around the end of February, although sound files could be submitted by those unable to be there. Eleven of the 116 made it through to this, the public semi-final, held on the Wednesday of Holy Week. Perhaps holding the semi-final of a singing competition during one of the busiest of the year for singers was not the brightest idea – I know of singers that did not enter because they knew they would inevitably be busy that week.

The competition is open to singers between 23 and 33 years old on 1 February 2018. The prizes are first: £5000, second: £2000, audience: £300, finalists: £300. All finalists are guaranteed lunchtime recitals during the 2019 London Handel Festival, and many past finalists are also asked to perform solos in other prestigious concerts during the Festival and abroad. The 2018 London Handel Festival, for example, includes 20 previous finalists.

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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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LHF: Handel – Acis & Galatea

Handel: Acis & Galatea
London Handel Orchestra, Laurence Cummings
St John’s, Smith Square. 21 March 2018

The first of the London Handel Festival’s anniversary events was a performance of Acis and Galatea, first performed in 1718 at Cannons, the palatial mansion north-west of London where James Bridges, by then the Earl of Carnarvon and later to become Duke of Chandos, demonstrated the enormous wealth he had gathered through his position as Paymaster General to the army. Cannons became the only example in England of a Germanic-style princely court orchestra (24-strong) outside the royal family. Handel was house composer from 1717-19 working under Pepusch. It had originally been a small-scale masque, probably performed outdoors, with a small orchestra and five singers, who together formed the chorus. Considering it was the anniversary of the 1718 premiere, it was rather curious that the work was here presented in its 1739 incarnation – one that Handel himself never heard.

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The interior of St John’s, Smith Square (built at the same time of the premiere of Acis) was transformed by director Martin Parr into a cross between some sort of down-market 1980’s rave and a children’s party, with a pall of dry ice engulfing the audience as they entered, party balloons hanging over the mist enveloped orchestra, and rather innocuous drapes suspended from scaffolding, for no apparent reason. It was the first of many production issues that I felt really didn’t work. That said, and more anon, musically it was well worth the trip.

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London Handel Festival (LHF): Guildhall Cantata Ensemble

Guildhall Cantata Ensemble
London Handel Festival
St George’s, Hanover Square. 21 March 2018

This is the first of a series of forthcoming reviews of the 2018 London Handel Festival (LHF).  The theme for this year is ‘Handel in London’ and is exploring Handel’s musical output as well as his wider entrepreneurial and philanthropic life in Georgian society. The wide-ranging month-long programme of concerts and events includes anniversary performances of two works that Handel composed during his 1718 residency at the future Duke of Chandos’s mansion at Cannons: Acis and Galatea and Esther. It has been traditional for many years to include lunchtime events by student and younger groups of musicians. The first of this year’s such recitals took place in the usual base for LHF events, Handel’s own church of St George’s, Hanover Square. It featured students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, with their programme of music by Buxtehude and Handel. Continue reading

Die Tageszeiten – Les Passions de l’Ame & Solomon’s Knot

Bach & Telemann’s Die Tageszeiten
L
es Passions de l’Ame, Meret Lüthi, Artistic Director
Solomon’s Knot, Jonathan Sells, Artistic Director
St George’s, Hanover Square.  17 March 2015

JS Bach: Orchestral Suite No 3 in D, Singet dem Herrn; GP Telemann: Cantata Cycle: Die Tageszeiten TWV20:39

The latter years of a composer’s life frequently see reflections on earlier times and a reversion to earlier compositional styles. But Telemann, one of the most prolific composers of the Baroque era, took the opportunity to take a peek into the musical future with his rarely performed cycle of four cantatas, Die Tageszeiten (Times of the Day), It was written in 1755 at the time when Telemann’s composing output was in decline and shows several musical insights into the forthcoming classical era. This was a difficult period in Telemann’s life – his eldest son was dead, leaving him to care for his grandson alongside his own declining eyesight and health. Although generally described as a ‘cantata cycle’, it has something of the feel of a fledgling oratorio to it, not least in its combination of elements of traditional sacred cantata and opera, both genres that Telemann had excelled in during his time in Hamburg. This performance, part of the London Handel Festival, brought together the Bern-based orchestra Les Passions de l’Ame, led by violinist Meret Lüthi, and the eight singers of Solomon’s Knot, directed by Jonathan Sells, who also sang bass.

Each of the four sections is in the same format (Aria – Recitative – Aria – Chorus), reflecting morning, midday, evening and night, and sung respectively by soprano, alto, tenor and bass – in this performance each voice type shared by two singers. Having a different soloist for the second, more reflective and sacred part of the second aria in each section emphasised the text’s link with the passing of life’s stages and the life of the Christian Soul. As if to emphasis this point, the last example was sung from the pulpit.

It was clear from the start that this was rather different to Telemann’s usual style, the opening Sinfonie seeming to switch style from Wagner to Vivaldi in just a few bars, linked by a nimble little viola figure.  The instrumental colour and texture that Telemann drew from his accompaniment continued to fascinate, another example being the halos of strings depicting first the shimmering morning stars and, later, the dew rising from an evening alpine meadow. A noisy brook murmured, the west wind swayed branches, bees raided the flowers with constant buzzing, and the death bell tolled, all meticulously reflected in Telemann’s score.

One of the delights of the score is Telemann’s use of colloquial descriptions of tempo and mood, for example noting the slow movement of the opening Sinfonie as “Dallying and dainty” and the second evening Aria as “Drowsily”. Each section uses a specific instrumental colour, most notably a viola da gamba for midday, played exquisitely by Heidi Gröger. Zoe Matthews provided the bassoon’s depiction of night.

During the first half on the evening, the two groups had performed separately, Les Passions de l’Ame giving an inventive and inspirational performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3 in D, the Ouverture being not too fast, and the ever-popular Air being not too slow, with a particularly delicate reading of the melody by Meret Lüthi.  Solomon’s Knot then gave a stunning performance of Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn, the eight singers producing a rich timbre that suited both the madrigalian intensity and joyful bounce of Bach’s varied textures. As with Die Tageszeiten, they all sang from memory, creating an ideal connection with the audience. They all took solo roles in the latter piece, most impressive being soprano Zoë Brown and counter-tenor Michal Czerniawski.

This was an excellent performance by Les Passions de l’Ame and Solomon’s Knot, both individually and together. I hope this partnership will continue.

Opera Settecento – Catone in Utica

Handel/Leo/Hasse’ Catone in Utica
St George’s, Hanover Square.
17 March 2015

Opera Settecento.  Tom Foster, musical director.
Erica Eloff & Christina Gansch, sopranos, Emilie Renard, mezzo, Christopher Robson, counter-tenor, Christopher Jacklin, bass-baritone.  

This might be the year that we grow to love pasticcio operas, with Fabio Biondi’s well received reconstruction of Vivaldi’s compilation L’Oracolo in Messenia at The Barbican (see my review at https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/vivaldis-loracolo-in-messenia/) and now Opera Settecento’s excellent concert performance of Handel’s 1732 Catone in Utica, given in Handel’s own church of St George’s, Hanover Square as part of the London Handel Festival.

Handel used to present one pasticcio opera each season, a collecting together of arias, generally by other composers, some of it already well-known to the audience, to slot into the recitative of an opera. In the case of Catone in Utica, Handel drew principally on Leonardo Leo’s 1729 Catone, to a libretto by Metastasio.  Handel reduced Leo’s recitatives and jettisoned all but eight of his arias, adding six by Johann Adolf Hasse (although not from Hasse’s own 1732 version of Catone), along with other arias by Porpora, Vivaldi and Vinci. He also removed one of Metastasio’s characters, leaving just five protagonists. As with most pasticco operas, the recitatives are all-important in carrying the plot. However the arias were more plot-neutral, and were therefore more easily transferred from other operas to suit the strengths of Handel’s available singers.

Metastasio’s libretto is based on the historic Cato the Younger (Marcus Cato ‘Uticensis’), an adversary of Julius Caesar in the last days of the Roman Republic. After Caesar’s defeat of Pompey, Cato and Pompey’s widow Emilia have fled to Utica, near Carthage, on the North African coast. Caesar arrives and tries to toady up to Cato, much to the disgust of Emilia and the confusion of Marzia, Cato’s daughter.  She seems to be rather taken with Caesar, despite her father’s wish that she marry Arbace, Prince of Numidia. Cato rejects Caesar’s offer to share the dictatorship of the empire (and marriage to Marzia, already Caesar’s secret lover), and is eventually defeated by Caesar’s army, leading to his suicide and the start of the dictatorship of Imperial Rome.

Catone in Utica - George Frederick Handel - St George’s, Hanover Square - 17th March 2015Musical Director - Tom FosterMarzia - Erica EloffEmilia - Christina GanschArbace - Emilie RenardCatone - Christopher RobsonCesare - Christopher Jacklin

In Handel’s version, Cesare is changed to a bass, Cato was sung by the castrati Senseino, and Arbace was a contralto trouser role. One of the strengths of Opera Settecento’s performance was the excellent choice of singers. Christopher Jacklin was the imposing Cesare, his opening aria, Non paventa del mare le procella from Porpora’s Siface (one of four based on storm-tossed seas) being a spectacularly virtuosic showpiece with an enormous range, wide vocal leaps and rapid scales, all delivered with aplomb. Vivaldi’s So che nascondi was a similarly bravura aria.

Catone in Utica - George Frederick Handel - St George’s, Hanover Square - 17th March 2015 Musical Director - Tom Foster Marzia - Erica Eloff Emilia - Christina Gansch Arbace - Emilie Renard Catone - Christopher Robson Cesare - Christopher JacklinEmilia was sung by Christina Gansch, a young Austrian soprano who impressed me (and the judges) when I heard her singing in the final of Innsbruck’s Cesti Baroque Opera Singing Competition in 2013. Her opening aria, Chi mi toglie (from Hasse’s Attalo) demonstrated her beautifully warm and well-rounded tone. She later excelled in Sento in riva a l’altre sponde (from the same Hasse opera), accompanied by hushed strings and featuring an excellent expansion of the melodic line in the da capo.  Her concluding virtuosic showpiece Vede il nocchier la sponda, again with outstanding treatment of the da capo and a wonderful cadenza, drew enthusiastic approval from her fellow singersAlthough this was a concert performance, I was very impressed with Christina Gansch’s acting ability.

Catone in Utica - George Frederick Handel - St George’s, Hanover Square - 17th March 2015 Musical Director - Tom Foster Marzia - Erica Eloff Emilia - Christina Gansch Arbace - Emilie Renard Catone - Christopher Robson Cesare - Christopher JacklinErica Eloff was Marzia.  Her arias ended all three of the Acts, positively with È follia se nascondete, mournfully with So che godendo vai and stunningly virtuosic with the conclusion of the opera, Vò solcando un mar crudele.

Emilie Renard seems to be cornering the market in trouser roles, always helped by her choice of clothing and attractive acting Catone in Utica - George Frederick Handel - St George’s, Hanover Square - 17th March 2015 Musical Director - Tom Foster Marzia - Erica Eloff Emilia - Christina Gansch Arbace - Emilie Renard Catone - Christopher Robson Cesare - Christopher Jacklinability. Here she was Arbace, her showpiece coming with Vivaldi’s Vaghe luci, luci belle, featuring outstanding da capo ornamentation and vocal flourishes. The role of Catone was to have been taken by counter-tenor Andrew Watts, but his indisposition led to his very short notice replacement by Christopher Robson, much to his credit.  Sadly, he was not on good form vocally, with an over-use of portamento and awkward breaks of register, although his concluding Per darvi alcun pegno was touching as Catone resigns himself to his fate.

I was very impressed with Tom Foster’s light touch direction from the harpsichord, as well as his sensitive continuo realizations, allowing himself just one real flourish as Arbace and Cesare, rather awkwardly reveal their joint love for Marzia. The youngish instrumentalists of the Orchestra of Opera Settecento played with musical sensitivity, with a notable contribution from cellist Natasha Kraemer. Oboeist Leo Duarte was responsible for producing the score, based on a manuscript from Hamburg.

HANDEL ORGAN RECITAL. St George’s, Hanover Sq. 7 April 1:10.

The London Handel Festival and Mayfair Organ Concerts present a lunchtime organ recital by

Andrew Benson-Wilson

Handel Overtures and Organ Concertos, arranged for solo organ by Handel, Babell and Walsh c 1755. Played on the ‘Handel House’ chamber organ and the 2012 Richards Fowkes & Co organ in Handel’s own church of St George, Hanover Square in London’s Mayfair. SGHS Handel organ_crop 2