Handel Festival, Halle 2023 Back

Review Date: 4th June

Following the 2020 and 2021 cancellations, which were marred by the pandemic, the Halle Handel Festival came back with a strong anniversary edition in 2022 and shows no signs of slowing down. Due to Clemens Brinbaum’s illness, the directorial post has been taken over at short notice by Bernd Feuchtner, but the daily goings-on of the 2023 festival did not seem affected by this at all. A longer stay in Halle has made it possible for me to attend as many as eight performances, out of which three were chosen for a more detailed review. However, a few sentences about the other concerts attended shall give the reader a general feel of this year’s edition of the eminent festival in George Frideric Handel’s birthplace.

Let us begin with the curiosities. An Italian-language, abridged version of Messiah from 1768 Florence, performed on May 27 by the Innsbrucker Festwochenorchester and the Coro Filarmonico Ruggero Marchini di Torino under the direction of Allesandro de Marchi, provided a fascinating window into Handel’s reception after his death. The score, newly acquired by the Handel House, heavily cuts Acts 1 and 2, and drops Act 3 almost entirely, but the concert nevertheless provided a faithful rendition of Handel’s ideas. Agrippina – A Baroque Jazz-Guide on May 29 was a demanding crossover collaboration between the ensemble Il Giratempo, mezzo soprano Laila Salome Fischer, and jazz trumpeter Pascal Klewer. A set of numbers from Handel’s work, all sung by Fischer, were combined together to create a condensed version of the opera. Klewer’s interventions seemed minimal at first, giving the impression of two musical worlds unfolding in parallel rather than interacting with each other, but eventually the experiment proved its feasibility and raison d’être.

Three concerts need to be mentioned to illustrate the festival’s approach to confronting the audience with familiar selections from Handel’s most popular works, and the more obscure, rarely performed pieces by Handel and his contemporaries. The concert Cieco amor on May 28 performed by baritone Sergio Foresti and the Abchordis Ensemble was a thoughtfully conceived nod to the festival’s 2023 theme, “The Opera: Dispute over Dideldum and Dideldi”. Featuring selections of arias by Handel and his rival Bononcini, some of which he had already recorded on his eponymous album, Foresti provided a tasteful rendition of a wide range of highly expressive arias by the two composers, never resorting to overt stylisation or exaggeration. The rarely performed 1708 Neapolitan serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo took place on May 29, and was a welcomed and highly professional performance of a lesser-known, learned work by Handel. The ensemble, Modo Antiquo under the direction of Federico Maria Sardelli and the soloists, the male soprano Federico Fiorio, Margherita Maria Sala and Luigi De Donato, all excelled in technical prowess. Julia Lezhneva’s recital Grand Tour on May 30 in collaboration with Concerto Köln was less imaginative in terms of programming and execution. Taking as its general starting point the travelling of young gentlemen in Italy, it featured a selection of arias and instrumental movements by Handel, Vivaldi and the brothers Johann Gottlieb and Carl Heinrich Graun. The result was a rhythmically unstable performance by the orchestra, and Lezhneva occasionally resorting to vocal mannerisms.

Now it is time to move onto the main part of this review, the two stage productions and the – in my opinion – best concert I was able to attend. The management of the festival tried its best to satisfy the majority of the audience’s hunger for historically informed staging, more likely to be seen at nearby Bad Lauchstädt’s Goethe Theatre, while productions staged at Opera Halle fitted in with Germany’s mainstream tradition distinguished by Regietheater. The premiere of Serse on May 26 was a nod to the latter, with a production by the young director Louisa Proske that had a simple initial idea executed consequently and professionally. Substituting the plane tree for a spectacular private jet that dominated the stage design by Jon Bausor, the action was transferred into the world of highly privileged financial elites of the 20th or 21st century to which flight attendants Romilda and Atalanta strive. Involving, among others, climate activist extras protesting against Serse’s petrol empire and Amastre (the very confident Yulia Sokolik) cleverly disguised as a mechanic, the production strove for broad comedy and delivered accordingly, although it gradually lost steam.

Paradoxically, due to the injury of Franziska Krötenheerdt on the rather unsafe looking set, Yewon Han’s vocal rendition of Romilda’s role from the pit was highlighted as, musically, the most proficient while the director Proske jumped into Krötenheerdt’s flight attendant costume and portrayed Romilda on stage with panache. Most of the soloists did a very good job under Attilio Cremonesi’s direction, but the focus was heavily on 2023 Handel Prize Winner Anna Bonitatibus’s debut in the title role. The award ceremony followed immediately after the curtain call as Bonitatibus moved the audience with her humble speech and sing-along Ombra mai fù, but I have to admit that the technically more challenging fast arias such as Crude furie degli orridi abissi left things to be desired in an otherwise solid portrayal.

The performance of Alessandro Severo, Handel’s 1738 pasticcio consisting of numbers from his own works (most notably Berenice, Giustino, Arminio, Atalanta, Arianna in Creta, Orlando and Ezio) took place in the Goethe Theatre on May 28 featured a predominantly Czech team with the exception of star countertenor Raffaele Pe. Jana Semerádová, also doubling at the traverse flute, led the Collegium Marianum with conviction and energy, but in my opinion, some of the young and promising, perhaps slighty less experienced solosits could have benefited from a more inventive staging. However, I appreciate that Monika Hlinĕnská’s efforts were possibly limited by a low budget. This does not apply to the primi. Hana Blažiková (Salustia), who prevailed as the most consummate soloist of the evening, unattractive monochromatic wig, and costume notwithstanding. Raffaele Pe (Alessandro) had the most attractive role and the possibility to excel in challenging virtuoso arias originally composed for the castrato Caffarelli. At times, he seemed a bit removed from the production in terms of stage presence, as shown by the more limited use of baroque gesture when compared to the other soloists, especially Blažiková. Sylva Čmurgová as the scheming mother Giulia (an heir of Agrippina). The youthful voice of Tereza Zimková (Albian) deserves some praise, too, but the somewhat pale staging did not seem to convince that this pasticcio, with a competent libretto and well-chosen music, had much individuality nor claim to fame when performed alongside other Handel operas.

Finally, the concert of the Lautten Compagney BERLIN under frequent Halle guest Wolfgang Katschner with star soloists Anna Prohaska and Bejun Mehta on May 28 thrilled me with its selection of duets from Handel’s oratorios and operas, interspersed with movements from his Water Music as well as selections from Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les Éléments, Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie and the overture to Vivaldi’s Bajazet. As opposed to Lezhneva’s recital, the performance of this array of disparate numbers never lost momentum, thanks to Katschner’s disciplined conducting and his request for the audience not to applaud between duets. A block of three oratorio duets were followed by three operatic ones in the first half of the concert, a structure that was reversed in the second half. The interaction of the instrumentalists with the vocal soloists was consistently high throughout, and the musical collaboration between Prohaska and Mehta was first-rate. Not only did their disparate voices blend perfectly – as opposed to Blažiková’s and Pe’s who mostly strove to outshine his colleagues in Alessandro Severo – but one could also hear that they had worked hard together with Katschner to build a sensitive performance that balanced interpretive freedom, often involving an imaginative use of rubato, and staying true to the composer’s intentions. The Halle Festival offers plentiful musical delights each year, but it is only fitting that we cherish some more than some others.