Halle Festival 2018 (Part Two) Back

Similarly to the first part of my visit to Halle at the end of May, the second included a concert with a mixed programme, an integral concert performance of a Handel opera (as opposed to an oratorio in May) and two staged performances of Handel’s works, one in a style that owes a lot to historically informed attempts to recreate a period staging and the other in the manner of German Regietheater. All four were superbly rewarding experiences in their own way, and only two were marred by some shortcomings. This was not the case with the Sunday lunch concert on June 10th by Berlin ensemble Concerto Melante, whose players are an exciting combination of members of the Berlin Philharmonic and early music specialists. Under leader Raimar Orlovsky the chamber orchestra sounded perfectly even and unified. The programme, entitled ‘Light and Shadow in the World of Shepherds’ was an exploration of pastoral music of the 17th and 18th centuries. After opening with one of the most familiar examples, the Pifa from Messiah, an array of differing pieces by Italian and German composers followed, written over a timespan of around a hundred years and either exploring the imitation of birdsong by different wind or string instruments or setting Italian pastoral poetry.

The windows of the Alte Aula of Halle University had to be opened due to the hot and humid weather, but this gave some actual nearby birds a chance to join in with the music making, raising the question of whether Concerto Melante was imitating them or vice versa. The most successful in this was Saskia Fikentscher on both the recorder and the baroque oboe, accompanying the soprano Marie Luise Werneburg in cantatas by both Alessandro Scarlatti and Handel, but also displaying unfettered birdlike solo virtuosity in Antonio Vivaldi’s recorder concerto RV 428 and Handel’s oboe concerto HWV 301. Although it was a joy to hear such accomplished music making on two high-quality period wind instruments, the string players also held ground as ‘musical ornithologists’ in some of the less known composers’ depictions of nightingales (Johann Georg Ahle) and the hen and the cuckoo (Marco Uccellini). Werneburg also deserves praise for her subtle but confident rendition of three very different chamber cantatas. She drew the most attention in the final number of the concert, the early version of Handel’s cantata Tu fedel? Tu costante? (HWV171a). Probably written in either Florence or Venice before the composer revised the setting of two of its three arias in Rome in 1706, this was the first performance of this version of the piece in Germany since it was discovered by American scholar John Roberts in 2015. The musicians provided an excellent insight into the changing styles of the composer under the influence of Roman intellectual circles, reflecting a less serious understanding of the vivid poetic complaint on infidelity.

The concert performance of Handel’s rarely performed opera Arianna in Creta by Il Pomo d’oro under their chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev displayed the Halle festival at both its best and its most starry. World-renowned early music specialist singers such as Ann Hallenberg, Karina Gauvin, Kristina Hammarström and Mary-Ellen Nesi appeared alongside two upcoming stars, the soprano Francesca Aspromonte and the bass Andreas Wolff, who are on the verge of following in their colleagues’ footsteps. Arianna in Creta has never been one of the most highly regarded operas of Handel’s later career, most probably because it was written in 1733 in an attempt to vie with the Opera of the Nobility and the novel musical fashions imported from Naples. Even though most of his previous singers fled to Porpora’s rival company, Handel could boast the young castrato Giovanni Carestini as his new primo uomo and the soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò in the title role. He may have wanted to emulate not only his rivals’ more gallant style but also to dazzle the audience with extremely ornamental, florid writing a bit more than he normally did. This aspect of the score could be behind Winton Dean’s unfavourable judgement of the opera’s dramatic unity and character development, making it seem superficial when compared to some of the masterpieces he wrote shortly before and after. However, there could be no more convincing advocate for Arianna in Creta than the performance heard at the Ulrichskirche in Halle on June 9th.

Although drawing slightly too much attention to himself with his exaggerated movements and the stamping of his feet, it became apparent after a while that these gestures are instrumental to Emelyanychev’s energised leadership, inspiring the orchestra to play with precision, gentleness and verve. Although he was often conducting and playing the harpsichord at the same time, the plasticity and rhythmic vivacity of the recitatives proved that a sense of polished control over the performance was maintained throughout, never jeopardising its spontaneity. In spite of the high standards of the singing, Ann Hallenberg as Teseo was the absolute star of the evening. After her first aria, ‘Nel pugnar con mostro infido’ the audience broke down in applause and ovations, opening the door for many a spontaneous celebration of the other soloists’ singing, as well. Hallenberg had the most perfect diction and articulation, every line of the libretto coming to the fore crystal clear. She convincingly embodied the larger-than-life hero and her straightforward rendition of the poetry and the music underlining his steadfast self-confidence in the face of not only the Minotaur but also Arianna’s growing undeserved jealousy displayed a musical ‘machismo’ of sorts rarely associated with modern interpreters of the castrato repertory. My second favourite soloist of the evening was Francesca Aspromonte as the secondo uomo Arsace, who shone not only in the famous and oft recorded aria with violoncello solo, ‘Son qual stanco pelegrino’, but also in her character’s other arias, less attractive at face value but injected with flair and vitality by the Italian soprano. All of the other soloists, including Karina Gauvin in the title role, gave memorable performances but most importantly, after this evening Arianna in Creta seems more than ready to face the challenges of the international operatic stage.

Muzio Scevola was a pasticcio staged in London in 1721 with each of its respective acts written by a different composer. Even though Filippo Amadei, cellist in the Royal Academy of Music’s orchestra, wrote the first act, all ears and eyes were directed at the contributions by the two main rivals for the affections of the audience, Giovanni Bononcini who produced Act 2 and George Frideric Handel who rounded off the opera with his final instalment. Handel’s ‘victory’ in this operatic battle has done little justice to the work as a whole (if one can call a pasticcio a ‘work’ in the modern sense of the word in the first place), and only one commercial recording of Handel’s Act 3 along with a selection of Bononcini’s arias exists so far. To rectify this, the first staged performance of the pasticcio since the 18th century has been produced in Halle in cooperation with Czech period band Musica Florea and its frequent associate, the Hartig Ensemble, specialising in historical dance. The production was directed by Laurent Charoy, the set designed by Václáv Krajc and the overtures to each act as well as some arias choreographed by the director of Hartig Ensemble, Helena Kazárová. In my opinion it presented a wholehearted effort to reconstruct most components of an 18th-century performance, more successfully so than Sigrid T’Hooft’s Il Parnasso in festa, examined in the first part of this year’s Halle review. The stage lights emulating candles, the opulent but tasteful costumes by Roman Šolc and the beautiful baroque landscapes that Jiři Bláha painted on the set left a much more balanced and rounded visual impression. Added to this, the adoption of baroque gestures was an integral part of the codified opera seria dramaturgy. Markéta Cukrová (Clelia), Michaela Šrůmovà (Orazio), Sylva Čmugrová (Irene) and Lucia Knoteková (Fidalma) were particularly successful in applying them to the benefit of the dramatic action and the portrayal of their characters.

In musical terms, however, one cannot disregard the fact that Alexis Vassiliev faced serious challenges in the title role. Although it seemed at first that the intention was to present as much of the original score as possible, upon closer inspection it turned out that of the more than half a dozen cut arias at least fifty percent were originally assigned to Muzio. The conclusion that they may have been simply too demanding for the French-Russian countertenor seems inevitable. An experienced singer with a considerable voice, he nevertheless had great difficulties in sustaining longer notes and his coloratura technique was verging on the grotesque. Since most of these cuts affected Handel’s Act 3, the end result of the evening must have been quite different than the first performance in 1721. In some of Handel’s less successful operas Act 3 becomes a slightly rushed attempt to tie the dramaturgic knots, but in Muzio Scevola it is the longest act and a chance for Handel to outshine his Italian colleagues. Due to the cuts, even Amadei’s introductory and somewhat less ambitious Act 1 stood ground and I could not help the impression that I heard more music in Bononcini’s Act 2 than in Handel’s. Musica Florea played with taste and panache, and Markéta Cukrová was probably the most accomplished singer, bringing the same weight to arias by all three composers, but most particularly Bononcini’s ‘A chi desia’ and Handel’s ‘Dimmi, crudele Amore’.

In German theatrical circles Tatjana Gürbaca is a highly regarded opera director, but her production of Handel’s Rinaldo in Mainz in 2013 did not quite live up to my expectations. However, the revived 2017 production of Jephtha at Opera Halle under early music specialist Christoph Spering provided an opportunity for a daringly imaginative take on Handel’s last great oratorio. Gürbaca set out to probe the foundations of the Judeo-Christian values at work in Handel’s and Morrell’s retelling of the famous episode from the Book of Judges returning to the theme of human sacrifice. Stress was placed on a scriptural aspect clearly stated in the libretto but often overlooked in concert performance, namely Jephtha’s background from different Judaic tribes, placing him at the head of a community that was – in Gürbaca’s vision – in a state of transition between different beliefs and concepts. The choir of Opera Halle should be given credit for mastering the demanding parts in the numerous and lengthy choral numbers while portraying convincingly a closely knit community consisting of individuals nevertheless. Gürbaca’s experiences from her award-winning Antwerp Parsifal were undoubtedly instrumental in what must have been intense rehearsals for the chorus.

On the bare revolving set designed by Stefan Heyne the first act introduced the community and the characters Jephtha (Robert Sellier), Storgè (Svitlana Slyvia), Iphis (Ines Lex) and Hamor (Leandro Marziotte) as its distinguished members but also familial archetypes, while Zebul (confidently portrayed by Ki-Hyun Park) acted as a ‘civilising’ agent trying to impose an organised religious order on them. Act 2 was geared towards the moment of Iphis’s wedding procession coming to meet Jephtha, who had made a vow to sacrifice the first human being that greets him after a successful battle against the Ammonites. To generate tension, Gürbaca created the impression of temporal simultaneity by breaking the fourth wall and placing Lex on the balcony for ‘Tune the soft melodious lute’, after which she made her way to the stage together with the female chorus through a door leading to the stalls. As a result, audience members including myself were thrown confetti during ‘Welcome thou’, but Jephtha’s horror at the realisation that he will have to sacrifice his own daughter was even stronger. Gürbaca’s directorial reading became more focused on the community’s reaction to the sacrifice, enabling different readings of the moment of the death itself, which possibly occurred at the hand of the chorus already at the musical culmination of the oratorio in the complex and dramatic chorus ‘How dark, o Lord’, closing Act 2. In Act 3 the production distanced itself from the happy ending imposed on the Biblical story by deconstructing the values ascribed to Iphis’s pledge of virginity as the deus ex machina means of avoiding her death.

The musical performances of the evening were very engaging. Even though Marziotte’s somewhat thin voice seemed to have limited expressive ability at first, he still portrayed Hamor’s martial fanaticism in ‘Up the dreadful steep ascending’ and the despair of ‘On me let blind mistaken zeal’ with great convincingness. Robert Sellier’s voice boasts lyric rather than dramatic qualities, but his supreme acting and the tenderness of ‘Waft her angels’ made his rendition of the title role very satisfying. It was nevertheless the ladies who stole the limelight: Slyvia as the matriarchal Storgè and Lex in her layered, moving but also thought- provoking portrayal of Iphis. As a proof that Regietheater and scholarship can be thinking along similar lines, I would like to end this review by explaining the considerable musical interventions in Act 3. Gürbaca, undoubtedly reaching this decision together with Spering due to the necessary ammendments to the score, chose to modify the three arias for Zebul, Storgè and Hamor following the chorus ‘Theme sublime’ that present a pacifying, meek reaction to Iphis’s salvation from death as a virgin dedicated to Jehovah. According to Winton Dean, this ‘happy ending is a sham’, and the fact that all three arias are in the same metre and of a surprisingly light character suggests that Handel was either not taking them entirely seriously or he was not inspired to set them in a particularly convincing or varied way. In the Halle production, only the beginning of each aria was performed in succession, which was facilitated by the fact that the arias are written in neighbouring keys. Afterwards bits of them were combined into a cacophony hinting at the falseness of the resolution of the conflict. The diversity of musical and stage readings in Halle in 2018 could not have found a more fitting conclusion in Jephtha and once again confirmed Halle’s status as the leading festival devoted to the city’s most illustrious citizen.

The 2018 Halle Handel Festival ran from 25 May to 10 June 2018.