Halle Festival 2018 (Part One) Back

This year the Handel Festival Halle welcomed audiences from May 25th to June 10th with another series of splendid concerts and staged productions of works by G. F. Handel and his contemporaries. I was fortunate to attend on two occasions this year, so this survey is going to be followed by a second one, focusing on another four festival events and hopefully doing justice to the musical richness and diversity encountered in the Saxon city. My first visit covers two concert performances of Handel’s English-language music and two very different staged productions of his Italian works. As expected, all these performances reflect certain trends in historically informed performance practice, but in differing ways and to different extents. On May 29th in the Dom zu Halle, a small selection of musicians from the London Handel Orchestra under Adrian Butterfield performed the ‘Chandos anthem’ no. 8, O come, let us sing unto the Lord (HWV 253), and the so-called ‘Chandos’ Te Deum (HWV 281). Only five vocal soloists without choir were used alongside the smaller orchestra, as was also the case at the first performance of these pieces at St Lawrence’s Chapel near Cannons, the estate of James Brydges who employed Handel as composer in residence from 1717 to 1719.

Being privileged enough to witness the concert from the first row of benches, I could not help wonder if the intimacy of the scoring and of the music making travelled well all the way to the back of the long nave. However, the audience was richly compensated for any possible deficiencies of the acoustics by a proper musical feast. In the strong competition of three German Handel festivals (Göttingen, Halle and Karlsruhe), the one taking place in Handel’s birthplace has developed into a site of increased international exchange, offering a glimpse of the best national and supranational performing traditions. The London Handel Orchestra and the vocal soloists we heard under Butterfield exemplified the British tradition at its best with understatedly expressive musicianship fully engaged in displaying Handel’s brilliant first essays in the English sacred style. The soprano Grace Davidson and the bass Edward Grint provided a solid frame for the unfolding of the sumptuous choral textures, but it was the tenors Charles Daniels and Nicholas Mulroy, joined by Benedict Hymas in the Te Deum, who drew particular attention. Days when the unavailability of certain musicians at Cannons (e. g. violists or altos) was considered a limiting factor for Handel’s musical imagination are luckily long gone, and the sublime fusion of tenor timbres while each of the three singers retained their distinctive character in Handel’s flexible mix of chordal and imitative writing was impressive throughout, never producing the effect of saturation. The seamless transition from soloist to choral singing gave full legitimacy to the number of musicians employed, making the idea of using an additional choir feel inappropriate. At the same time, the accompanying musicians made us forget about distinctions between chamber and orchestral writing. Especially in the overture to the original, Cannons version of Esther (HWV 50a), the instrumentalists shone brightly, at the same time being as crucial as the singers in proving that this setting of the Te Deum has nothing to be shy about when compared to the more popular settings, such as the ‘Utrecht’ and the ‘Dettingen’ Te Deum.

My second concert experience was somewhat limited because Samson on May 27th started at 4pm and the only performance of Handel’s rarely given opera Berenice that I could attend was only two hours later. As a result, I heard Act 1 of the oratorio only, which was nevertheless enough to establish that the performance by Dunedin Consort under John Butt was most likely to remain first-rate throughout. Although there is some debate whether the oratorio was first performed by vocal soloists alone or whether a choir was involved, Butt’s selection of singers has already proven before that they are up for the challenge of doubling in both solo and choral roles, e. g. at the Halle Festival in 2016 in the performance of the original version of Acis and Galatea, written for chamber vocal forces only. The bass Matthew Brook was the common link between the two performances with his touchingly dignified portrayal of Samson’s father Micah, a character far less showy than his 2016 Polyphemus. The history of the performance of Samson is full of cuts to the ‘undramatic’ first act, before Dalila and Harapha set foot on the stage, and the fact that Butt’s direction nevertheless conceived it as a unified whole confirms that its reflective nature can be approached with a great deal of wit and expressivity. Crucial in achieving this was the tenor Joshua Ellicott in the title role, whose voice blends perfectly its piercing, dramatic qualities with the melancholy and despair so important for Samson’s musical characterisation.

A staged performance of the serenata Parnasso in festa at the historical theatre in Bad Läuchstadt is difficult to review, especially after my enthusiastic response to the concert performance of the work under Andrea Marcon in 2014. There has been some discussion lately about whether specialist festivals such as this one should encourage historically informed theatrical (as well as musical) performance practice. The term Regietheater has become maligned to the extent that in some circles the attempts by directors such as Sigrid T’Hooft and Benjamin Lazar to reconstruct certain aspects of how operatic works of the 17th and 18th centuries were staged is seen as a redemption of sorts rather than one out of many valid ways of bringing this music to the stage. The main problem, however, is that Parnasso in festa was not conceived for the stage in the first place. Neither were Semele and Hercules, one could reply, but they are essentially dramatic works, whereas Parnasso in festa is a series of celebratory tableaux intertwined with two mythological episodes, the first one on Apollo and Daphne and the second one on Orpheus, although neither is acted out but mostly recounted by other characters, even though their male protagonists are present on stage. True, the 1734 premiere in London was done in elaborate baroque costumes and possibly with some typified gestures on the part of the singers, but to gloss over the differences with fully staged performances of operas means to overlook the nature of the given works. Set designer Niels Badenhop and T’Hooft were inspired by images depicting contemporary Italian performances of serenatas with a plethora of cardboard clouds on stage, masking the benches that the gods and muses were seated on, but the director still felt the need to ‘enliven’ this form of visually embellished concert performance with minimal interaction between the singers. When employed in the small-scale dramatic scenes involving Orfeo (Margriet Buchberger, a competent but somewhat shy soprano), the gestures made perfect sense as they would in an opera, but the celebratory collective scenes involving two dancers who portrayed Thetis and Peleus (alluding allegorically to the wedding of Princess Anne for which the work was commissioned) did not blend well with the main language of gestures employed by the soloists. To put it bluntly, it is hard to pull off being ‘baroque’ while one is sitting and waiting for others to finish their solos or to engage in general rejoicing and flirting in a hunt scene in the meantime.

To be fair, some soloists mastered the language devised by T’Hooft better than others. The soprano Hanna Herfurtner and the alto Julia Böhme as the muses Clio and Calliope excelled in musical terms, too. It was announced before the performance that countertenor Riccardo Angelo Strano felt unwell: although confident in his gestures unlike the rest of his male colleagues, as a result of his vocal indisposition he did not quite do justice to the flashy main role written for the castrato Carestini. The Lautten Compagney Berlin was conducted by Jörn Hinnerk Andresen instead of their announced leader Wolfgang Katschner, and although slightly rough around the edges as usual in their string and wind timbres, the orchestra sounded nuanced and flexible under him. However, the main point of contention in this staging is the visual aesthetic of T’Hooft and Badenhop. It is true that the shiny, richly decorated costumes may have looked better in candlelight than electric lighting, but even so, the preference for juxtaposing contrasting bright colours, the fixation on certain decorative elements as well as their exaggerated use (e. g. artificial fur in the hunting scenes), even if historically justified, occasionally just seemed too far from today’s visual sensibilities. But this may be a matter of personal taste, and the audience certainly celebrated this production with much enthusiasm.

There could not be a stronger contrast with T’Hooft’s approach to Parnasso in festa than Jochen Biganzoli’s production of Berenice at Halle Opera. Although an experienced director, it is the first time that Biganzoli has staged a baroque work and this can certainly be felt in the specifically ironic approach he took to 18th-century conventions, remaining in my opinion respectful of its musical contents, since only one or two arias were dropped from the performance, although the order of some arias was modified, especially in Acts 2 & 3. Biganzoli’s approach can at best be described as ‘intermedial’, since different multimedia contents continually provided a strong counterpoint to the typical opera seria action outlined in the libretto by Antonio Salvi, whose recitative was heavily cut according to contemporary taste in London. Especially in the first act, when the characters are introduced and their intricate amorous relationships explained, each affect-laden musical utterance was paralleled by Biganzoli with a Facebook post, a Tweet or an instant message written by the characters on their smartphones ‘on the spot’ and projected onto one of the screens on stage, mostly as an ironic commentary. Berenice, Alessandro, Demetrio, Selene, Fabio and Arsace were also opening doors and running from room to room on the stylised revolving stage, as if in some sort of dystopian reality show. As the action progressed and many of them became disillusioned with their desires and aspirations, the multimedia accompaniment was reduced or contrasted by situations countering their carefully constructed public personae, e. g. when the otherwise dissembling Demetrio vented his rage in the dramatic aria Sù, Megera, Tisifone, Aletto or when the strong queen Berenice over-ate in sweets as she could no longer hide from the fact that Demetrio did not reciprocate her feelings. The production somewhat lost its sense of direction near the end, overloading the final scene with an exaggerated number of selfies that the cast took with each other, involving the orchestra and the conductor, but somehow making us forget about the characters and their initial conflicts, which may have been intended. Winton Dean’s opinion that the deficiencies of the opera are dramatic rather than musical because Handel was content to set the libretto to ‘agreeable music without attempting to plumb the depths’ may explain Biganzoli’s distancing, ironic approach. Although at times slightly too much in love with itself, in my opinion this was an imaginative way of looking at opera seria in general and if not entirely optimal for a group of Handel aficionados, it could serve as a good introduction to Handel for younger audiences.

The orchestra of Opera Halle under the young conductor Jörg Habulek proved once again how musicians playing an extremely varied repertory habitual at German theatres could come close to sounding like a period band. The players were precise and confident, the tendency to add percussions to numbers in moderate or fast tempi not overdone, and Handel’s scintillating score came to the fore in the best possible way. This applies to the singers as well: although most of them did not rise to the level of excellence encountered at the festival’s more prestigious concert performances, the countertenor Samuel Mariño (Alessandro), the mezzosopranos Svitlana Slyvia (Selene) and Franziska Gottwald (Arsace) and the tenor Robert Sellier (Fabio) sang their parts with conviction and finesse. Countertenor Filippo Mineccia as Demetrio and soprano Romelia Lichtenstein in the title role had the most attractive numbers, fully justifying the casting choices. In Lichtenstein’s case, who probably holds a record number of Handel roles in staged productions in her repertory, this is hardly surprising, and her dedication and experience are always a delight, especially in the bravura Act 3 aria Chi t’intende with oboe obbligato. This playfully involved the audience in the action by filming them react to Handel’s impressive instrumental and vocal acrobatics.

The 2018 Halle Handel Festival ran from 25 May to 10 June 2018. A second review will follow in due course.