Handel Festival Halle 2019 Back

The Handel Festival Halle seems to surpass itself each year with larger programmes consisting of opera productions (fully staged or in concert) and recitals given by singers, instrumental ensembles and conductors of international renown. Over a period of more than two weeks (31 May–16 June) an estimated 58000 people have attended this year, which is almost a quarter of the overall population of the Saxon city. These respectable high numbers are partly due to free open air and crossover concerts drawing in a broader audience, but also the festival’s highly international standing that attracts both artists and audiences from all around the world. It boasted nine opera performances of works either composed by Handel or arranged as a pasticcio by him, e.g. Arbace (HWV A10) and Venceslao (HWV A4), both performed for the first time in Germany.

Opera Halle was represented by its customary two productions, a revival of last year’s Berenice with the same cast of excellent soloists including the Venezuelan male soprano Samuel Mariño and the premiere which opened the festival, Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto, which was performed in German translation perhaps as a nod to older performance traditions. The other regular opera venue, the Goethe-Theater in Bad Lauchstädt welcomed co-productions of Handel’s Il pastor fido and Alcina, but the festival also spread regionally to theatres in Magdeburg and Bernburg. Apart from this, concerts were programmed in most of Halle’s functional churches including the Ulrichskirche and the Marktkirche, the Franckesche Stiftungen and the Georg-Friedrich-Händel-Halle. Suffice to say that some of the highlights were recitals by soloists such as Karina Gauvin, Sandrine Piau, Nuria Rial, Jean Rondeau, Valer Sabadus and Carolyn Samspon, though I was unable to attend all these events. The festival’s motto was “Sensitive, heroic, sublime – Women in Music at the Time of Handel” and apart from concentrating on female artists, the festival was mindful to consider female identity in Handel’s and our own age.

The opening of the festival generated considerable media attention because it marked a return for acclaimed director Peter Konwitschny, who led the Halle theatre from 1986 to 1990, and his regular set designer, the Halle born Helmut Brade. Contrary to the festival’s overall adherence to historically informed performance trends, past conventions of transposing certain roles an octave lower were revived so as to cast Cesare and Tolomeo with, to quote the director, “real men” and convey the political currency of the opera’s plot. Regardless of this rather restricted view of “baroque gender stories” (to quote the title of the album promoted at a concert to be discussed later), the real question is whether the approach taken by the director and all the decisions made to accommodate it were justified by a successful musical and theatrical reading of the opera. The Händelfestspielorchester Halle under specialist conductor Michael Hofstetter played with competence and verve. The majority of the roles were assigned to members of the ensemble of Opera Halle who all did a good job in terms of singing and acting. Noteworthy performances were given by Vanessa Waldhart (Cleopatra) and Svitlana Slyvia (Cornelia).

The Croatian baritone Grga Peroš did not have an easy task singing the florid part originally written for Senesino, and his lyrical approach to the numerous coloraturas reminds me of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s take on the role on Karl Richter’s recording from the 1970s. He shone most brightly in “Se in fiorito ameno prato” with the solo violinist on stage; it is a pity that the great soliloquy in the third act was dropped. One of Konwitschny’s most radical ideas was to cast the role of Sesto with a boy actor and have all his arias performed at first by the head and then the spirit of his father Pompeo (Jake Arditti). This put the fine countertenor – or should we say his talking head – in a difficult position of limiting himself to far less than he was capable of, and simply overwhelmed the young Benjamin Schrade, who cannot be more than ten years old. As proven by Lorraine Hunt’s touching portrayal of Sesto in Peter Sellars’s ground-breaking production from the 1980s, the traumatic transformation into a child soldier can be conveyed convincingly without a “real boy” on stage, in much the same manner that the political brutality and the underlying cynicism of the conflict between Rome and Egypt does not need “real men”. The production had momentum in Act 2, but revealed its essence in Act 3 by interventions in the score and the libretto that left the shattered Cleopatra and Cornelia to close the show with the duet “Son nata a lagrimar”, assigned by Handel to Sesto and Cornelia at the end of Act 1. An effective ending, although one cannot help but wonder if Konwitschny’s inspired, intellectually challenging productions from the 1990s have given way to simplistic reading that did not account for the unorthodox casting choices.

On the other hand, the production of the original, 1712 version of Il pastor fido (HWV 8a) in Bad Lauchstädt showed that an inventive director’s interpretation of Handel’s opera based on the famous pastoral play by Giovanni Battista Guarini can be combined with an attractive historically inspired musical performance. The Polish band {oh!} Orkiestra Historyczna, led by two maestri (Martyna Pastuszka on the violin and Marcin Świątkiewicz on the harpsichord) seemed at the height of its powers. The players were young and bursting with energy, they played with precision and edge and they were not afraid to take risks, e.g. in Pastuszka’s energetic and tasteful ornamentation at the helm of the orchestra. It is evident that director Daniel Pfluger knows his Guarini, which is probably why he dared to set the pastorale in a contemporary, somewhat soulless living space inhabited by the Canadian dancer Davidson Jaconello, who hardly left the stage during the whole performance. At first it seemed that this modern-day everyman, suffering from both burnout syndrome and heartache, was the alter ego of Mirtillo, but the continuous parallel unfolding of the pastoral and the contemporary plot became more and more complex as the opera progressed, without ever endangering the simplicity of the director’s initial premise as a frame of sorts.

This premise consists of Jaconello’s character proposing to a woman (Amarilli), prompting the jealousy of their friend (Eurilla) with whom he eventually betrays her. After Amarilli finds out about the infidelity, she rejects him and cuts off communication until it is too late and he has taken his own life. In accordance with this, the competent soloists Philipp Mathmann (Mirtillo, occasionally experiencing intonation problems), Nicholas Tamagna (Silvio) and Anna Starushkevych (Dorinda) were dressed in stylised Arcadian costumes and acted their scenes in a self-consciously pastoral manner, whereas Eurilla (Rinnat Moriah) and especially Amarilli (Sophie Junker) switched seamlessly between the pastoral and the modern. In accordance with Handel’s later expansion of the role in the 1734 version of the opera, special musical and dramatic emphasis was placed on the role of Amarilli, portrayed masterfully by the Belgian soprano Sophie Junker.

Of the four concerts I attended, L’arte del pianto: Music around Arianna featured works by Handel, Claudio Monteverdi, Pietro Locatelli and Benedetto Marcello centred around the Cretan princess who was abandoned by Theseus on the island Naxos. The Swiss orchestra Les Passions de l’Ame played under their leader Meret Lüthi with the same youthful enthusiasm, but far less technical perfection than their Polish colleagues, especially in Locatelli’s tricky concerto grosso Il pianto d’Arianna, consisting of many short contrasting movements that depict the heroine’s state of mental disarray. However, Shai Kribus showed considerable skill in a transcription of Teseo’s virtuoso aria “Qui ti sfido” from Handel’s Arianna in Creta for oboe solo. Hana Blažiková, on the other hand, is famous for her interpretations of 17th-century music and was at her most impressive in the subtle, but at the same time very passionate rendition of Monteverdi’s famous lament “Lasciatemi morire”. A singer with artistic integrity, she was more successful in Handel’s lament “Se nel bosco resta solo” from the same opera and Marcello’s delicate “Come mai puoi vedermi piangere” from his serenata Arianna (1726), but somewhat less brilliant in Handel’s flashier “Sdegno, amore”, also from Arianna in Creta.

Even more varied in stylistic terms was the programme presented by Il Suonar Parlante Orchestra under leader Vittorio Ghielmi, who also appeared as an accomplished soloist on the viola da gamba in the fiery, “Sturm-und-Drang” Concerto in D minor by Johann Gottlieb Graun. With the exception of this composition, the first half of the concert was meant to showcase the talent of Austrian soprano Anna Prohaska in arias by Francesco Cavalli and Handel covering a wide expressive spectrum. Although she appeared confident, her singing sometimes came across as cold and shrill. As she did not change her beautiful green gown in the second part of the concert, perhaps one could say that Prohaska stayed throughout in the role of Dafne, in which she made a more rounded impression, but the real highlight of the concert was when the Italian baritone Fulvio Bettini joined her in Handel’s cantata Apollo e Dafne. Although finished in Hannover, one could say that this work is the crowning achievement of Handel’s previous assimilation of Italian styles. Apollo has more music to sing and Bettini commanded the audience’s attention with singing that lacked display for its own sake, focusing on Handel’s variedly expressive music and thus imbuing this mythological villain with human traits. He was especially moving in the closing aria “Cara pianta”, the symbolical core of the myth, in which Apollo sublimates the loss of Dafne with his art.

Two large-scale ambitious concerts seemed tailored to the theme of the festival. On the one hand, Lautten Compagney Berlin presented music from its aforementioned album Baroque Gender Stories, whereas L’Arpeggiata under its founder and leader Christina Pluhar gave a concert called A Fine Lady: Kitty Clive – Handel’s Muse in Covent Garden, which coincides with the publishing of Berta Joncus’s book on the famous English actress and singer. L’Arpeggiata has built up a reputation by bringing together different musical genres and traditions with the aesthetic of the early music movement in unexpectedly creative ways. Their tours usually promote their numerous commercially successful albums, so it would not come as a surprise if the next record centred on Kitty Clive. However, I am confident that it would sound different from the concert heard in Halle on 2 June, since the ensemble seemed to have been in the initial stages of selecting and shaping the music into an attractive whole.

Pluhar conducted without the theorbo, and the arrangements she prepared of music by John Playford, Henry Purcell, Henry Carey, Thomas Arne and Handel were written out in great detail. The playing of the orchestra was subtle and sophisticated, but with the exception of Doron Sherwing on the cornett, the parts lacked individuality and were meshed in a rather uniform overall sound. Consisting for the most part of songs heard in English-language theatres such as Drury Lane and arias and duets from Handel’s oratorios, the programme needed more unity or coherency. For instance, the two songs for “Miss Cross” (as the countertenor Vincenzo Capezzuto in drag was billed in the programme) were not outrageous enough in their humour and added little to the evening, whereas the competent tenor Dávid Szigetvári remained underused by appearing only in two Handel duets. Swedish Soprano Maria Keohane stood apart from the rest of the soloists with her more voluminous voice and interfered with the microphones while she sang two arias from Handel’s L’allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. The soprano Céline Scheen and especially the mezzosoprano Giuseppina Bridelli were the most accomplished singers of the evening, but regardless of what one makes of L’arpeggiata’s approach to music-making – in the end, this is a question of taste – the evening did not explore the figure of Kitty Clive in a significant way.

Let me conclude this review with a critical tribute to one of the highlights of the six festival events I attended. On 1 June, Lautten Compagney Berlin under Wolfgang Katschner seems to have played with more finesse and balance than I remember, which made me wonder if the Bad Lauchstädt theatre’s tricky acoustics are to blame for my less favourable opinion in previous years. True, the album Baroque Gender Stories is already recorded and the players as well as the mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux and the countertenor Lawrence Zazzo are well versed in the repertory comprising arias and duets by Handel, Vivaldi and their younger contemporaries and successors such as N. Porpora, J. A. Hasse, B. Galuppi, G. B. Lampugnani, G. C. Wagenseil and T. Traetta. This concert nevertheless reminded me that even in a time of carefully researched, prepared and produced albums, live performance is far from being a supplement to the recording as the main product on the musical market, but its true raison d’être. The singers brought their considerable artistic experience to this project exploring such important questions as gender identity in 18th-century opera, but they also brought a willingness to play around with gender roles and to ask what kind of relevance this really has.

Zazzo’s performance explored uncharted territory, as performance of female roles by countertenors has been limited to recreating 17th– and 18th-century Roman all-male opera performance (e.g. recordings of S. Landi’s Sant’Alessio and L. Vinci’s Artaserse). In Baroque Gender Stories and on the Halle stage, besides these and the usual male roles written for castrati, Zazzo tried his voice at others: roles written for female mezzo-sopranos and altos specialising in trousers roles and roles of women who are disguised as men as part of the opera’s plot. This suited the deeper tessitura of his voice. Genaux, who had been singing castrati roles for more than a decade and was assigned the more virtuosic numbers, broadened her repertory with arias for strong female characters in male disguise such as Metastasio’s Semiramide or Emira in settings by different generations of composers. The audience was given the opportunity to compare not only these different roles, but also how the two singers dealt with expressing the specificity of the music in terms of gender (or lack of it). To achieve this, watching the live concert is crucial, as the audience are able to witness a transformation without the aid of costumes through the mastery of two distinguished singers specialised in 18th-century music.

The Halle Handel Festival ran from 31 May to 16 June 2019.