Roses, Thorns and Diamonds

I missed Handel. The last time I listened to him to my heart’s content was in 2019, at the Händel-Festspiele Göttingen, the place where the oeuvre of Il caro Sassone was revived on 26 June 1920, when the first modern performance of Rodelinda took place thanks to the efforts of Oskar Hagen. In 2020 an anniversary festival was being prepared with great pomp to mark the centenary of those memorable events. The organisers intended to present – in one form or another – all 42 of Handel’s operas, headed by Rodelinda in a fully staged production at the local Deutsches Theater. Their plans were thwarted by the pandemic. It was not until the following autumn that the festival returned – the long-awaited premiere of Rodelinda was not only the most important element in the truncated programme of the event, but also a farewell to Laurence Cummings, who ended his ten-year tenure in Göttingen. The following season the Greek conductor, pianist and director George Petrou took over as artistic director of the Händel-Festspiele, while the outgoing general director Tobias Wolff handed over his duties to Jochen Schäfsmeier, the manager of Concerto Köln until then.

After forty years of absolute British rule the festival changed its course. Which way it is now going I was not able to find out until this year,  and in a rather limited way at that, as I could make it only to the last three days of the Göttingen Handel celebration. In all respects the trip was informative and successful. However, I did not expect I would precede it with a Venetian prologue of uncommon beauty: the premiere of Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Teatro Malibran as part of the La Fenice season. Such an opportunity was something I could not miss. This was because today’s name of Malibran is that of the oldest surviving opera theatre in Venice, erected on the remains of Marco Polo’s residence – the famous Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, which was opened in 1678 with a production of Carlo Pallavicino’s Vespasiano, and served as the venue of the world premieres of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore and Handel’s Agrippina, the title role of which was sung on 26 December 1709 by the then prima donna Margherita Durastanti. The golden age was fairly brief: the theatre began to decline already in the 1730s; it changed hands, but nevertheless continued to operate. Maria Malibran sang there in 1835: appalled by the technical condition of the theatre, she gave up her fee so that it could be used for the renovation of the building. Renamed in the singer’s honour, Teatro Malibran continued to experience various ups and downs. In the 1980s it began collaborating with La Fenice. It was only natural that it took in the La Fenice ensembles after the disastrous fire of 1996. Today it operates independently, but also hosts concerts and some productions of the Venetian Phoenix.

Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Handel’s first oratorio, composed in the spring of 1707 and soon after that performed at the palace of Pietro Ottoboni, superintendent of the Apostolic See in Rome, has enjoyed remarkable success on stage recently. This is all the more surprising given that the libretto, by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, is practically without any action and from the point of view of today’s audiences it carries little dramatic tension. It is, in fact, a philosophical dispute – true, heated at times – involving four paired allegories: Beauty and Pleasure, as well as Time and Disillusion. It leads to the inevitable conclusion that spiritual beauty is superior to sensual beauty, and eternal life is superior to earthly life. If there is anything theatrical in this work, it is Handel’s music, which became for him an inexhaustible source of self-quotations, like Pleasure’s aria “Lascia la spina”, echoes of which would appear later in Rinaldo and the magic opera Amadigi di Gaula.

Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Teatro Malibran, Venice. Photo: Michele Crosera

This is the track followed by Saburo Teshigawara – director, dancer, choreographer as well designer of sets and costumes for the Venetian production of Il trionfo. The Japanese artist finds his inspiration in the butoh dance, in Martha Graham’s techniques, in Tadeusz Kantor’s “zero theatre”; he plays with time and space, combines very expressive dance – alternating between dynamism and stillness – with a bright play of light, and with optical illusion. The stage is black as night and on it Teshigawara “tells” the music with four singers – personified concepts whose message he emphasises with the colours of the costumes (from snow-white Beauty, silvery Pleasure, grey Disillusion to black Time). He complements the concepts with the movement and gesture of four dancers (Alexandre Ryabko, Javier Ara Sauco, and sometimes also the director himself and his assistant Rihoko Sato), and frames them in the only props used in the production: four openwork metal cubes, which delimit the space of the discourse as well as boundaries between concepts.

The clockwork precision of Teshigawara’s concept was perfectly matched by Andrea Marcon’s interpretation – highly expressive, detail-oriented and insightful in terms of shaping the dramaturgy and musical time. The Teatro La Fenice orchestra was inspired in its playing, with the singers generally giving fine performances. Among the female soloists one that deserved particular praise was Silvia Frigato as Beauty. Hers is a light, luminous soprano, used with ease and a great sense of phrase. Not far behind her was Giuseppina Bridelli (Pleasure), whose dark mezzo-soprano, silky in the middle range, only initially sounded jarring with an insufficiently rounded tone in the coloratura. Slightly less successful was Valeria Girardello – in my opinion miscast as Disillusion, a typically contralto role requiring a voice finely developed in all registers. However, she made up for her colour shortcomings and some intonation flaws with good acting and considerable expressive power. Surprisingly – and not only for yours truly – the strongest point of the cast turned out to be Krystian Adam (Time), singing with an uncommonly handsome tenor, with a dark spinto hue, with excellent diction and, above all, with a sense of the intense, typically Baroque play of affect. His spine-chilling aria “Urne voi”, rightly rewarded with the first ovation of the evening, found a worthy equivalent only in Beauty’s final declaration “Tu del Ciel ministro eletto”, interpreted by Frigato with admirable lyricism and restraint.

After such a powerful dose of excitement in Venice, I found myself almost overnight in Göttingen’s Deutsches Theater for a performance of Semele, a musical “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and one of Handel’s most original stage works, which the composer disguised as an oratorio and presented as part of a series of Lenten concerts at Covent Garden in 1744. Rediscovered and appreciated only in the twentieth century, today it is among the top ten of Handel’s most frequently staged operas. After Giulio Cesare, which in 2022 opened up “new horizons” for the festival, time came for Semele, which, owing to its mythological inspirations, fitted in perfectly with this year’s motto of the event: “Hellas!”. The devil is in the detail, for the formula of the Händel-Festspiele has remained essentially unchanged. George Petrou, however, puts greater emphasis on the continuity of the Mediterranean cultural tradition, on the exploration of the oeuvres of lesser known composers, and above all on a radically different approach to the music of Handel himself – fiery, effervescent, closer (all things considered) to Marc Minkowski’s extremely theatrical interpretations than to the intellectual, balanced interpretations of the masters of the English historically informed performance.

In the case of Petrou – who not only conducted, but also directed the two productions at the Deutsches Theater – a substantial role is also played by a bond with the legacy of Greek theatre: with the seriousness and realism of ancient tragedy, understood by modern audiences, and on the other hand with the bawdiness – quite surprising today – of plays by Aristophanes and later authors of Attic comedy. There is a bit of everything in Semele, though in Petrou’s directorial concept the comic element, sometimes bordering on slapstick farce, prevails. However, the production begins on a dramatic note: a pantomime reenactment – to the sounds of the overture – of the death of the Theban princess in a maternity ward, in a bed surrounded by relatives and medical staff. The mood soon changes: we are entering a conventional space with no direct associations with the temple of Juno, where the action of Act I takes place. Things pick up only in Act II, when Juno descends into a nightclub, where access to Jupiter’s love nest is guarded by two bodyguards instead of fire-breathing dragons. The whole gets really funny in Act III, with Somnus characterised as the leader of Hindu sadhus plunged into a drug-induced trance and confused by the sudden intrusion of Iris and Juno at least as much as their semi-conscious guru. The final scene of Semele veers dangerously towards a lieto fine: in my opinion the least successful element of the staging, as we learn of Semele’s tragedy already in the prologue and are moved to tears by her martyrdom at the end of the opera. I’m not sure whether the idea of Bacchus being born from Semele’s ashes in the form of a bottle of champagne won anyone over to this risky Baroque convention.

Semele, Deutsches Theater Göttingen. Photo: Alciro Theodoro da Silva

Compared with Teshigawara’s poetic, visually stunning theatre, Petrou’s concept (created together  with the set and costume designer Paris Mexis, and the lighting director Stella Kaltsou) war neither revelatory, nor particularly captivating. The main contributors to the unquestionable success of the venture were the performers, led by Marie Lys in the title role, a singer who boasts a clear, well-placed soprano, excellent technique and good acting skills. She may have been outclassed in that last respect by Vivica Genaux in the double role of Ino and Juno – changed beyond recognition by a fat-suit, red wig and red glasses as the former, made to look like Jackie Onassis as the latter. I have to admit that I am not a fan of the unique timbre of her voice or her peculiar coloratura, but I did not expect her to show such a sense of comedy and verve on stage: as Ino, she even sang with a different timbre to make the roles entrusted to her all the more different. Marilena Striftombola was a phenomenal Iris (and Cupid). She is a quicksilver artist wielding her agile soprano with a truly youthful lightness and bravura. Jeremy Ovenden (Jupiter) is past his prime, but he made up for it with his musicality and experience, which came to the fore especially in the famous aria “Where’er you walk” in Act II. Riccardo Novaro gave a very decent performance in the triple role of Cadmus, Somnus and High Priest, as did Rafał Tomkiewicz – excellent in terms of singing and acting as usual – in the thankless role of Athamas. The whole – with an Athenian chorus under Agathangelos Georgakatos and the FestspielOrchester Göttingen – was conducted by George Petrou with truly Mediterranean verve and panache, often at breakneck tempi, though without destroying the formal freedom of Handel’s score, one of the most beautiful ones in the composer’s oeuvre.

Later that same evening I let myself be led blindfolded – like Bruegel’s blind man – to the Concert in the Dark in the Lokhalle, a former Göttingen locomotive depot, where festival instrumentalists and singers played with our perception for over an hour, presenting in the darkness music from Delphic Hymns to Rautavaara – in the most diverse line-ups and spatial configurations. The following day I listened with the greatest pleasure to an intimate performance by the French Ensemble Masques – over coffee and cakes, as part of the Café George series at the Forum Wissen Göttingen. Earlier, in the University Auditorium I admired the virtuosity of the flautist Erik Bosgraaf and the harpsichordist Francesco Corti in a programme featuring works by composers associated with the court of Anne, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, a favourite pupil of Handel. I grumbled a bit that the immanent melodiousness of these gems got lost a bit in the dizzying tempi of their performances. I stopped grumbling, when Fanie Antonelou, the soloist of the Greek ensemble Ex Silentio sang Handel’s solo cantatas without the slightest sense of the composer’s idiom and with an instrumental accompaniment equally lacking in style. Pity, because the programme of the concert in the great hall of the picturesque Welfenschloss near Hannover could have been limited to pieces by unknown composers from Crete, which the Venetians ruled until the Ottoman conquest in 1669.

Jeanine de Bique. Photo: Sorek Artists

However, this year’s festival ended on a very strong note in the form of a gala recital by Jeanine De Bique, a Trinidadian soprano and graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, who recorded her first solo album Mirrors in 2021 with Concerto Köln – featuring arias of female characters from Handel’s works, juxtaposed as if in a musical mirror with portraits of the same women in works by other composers of the period, including Carl Heinrich Graun and Georg Philippe Telemann. De Bique has been presenting this programme in concert for the past two years, sometimes shifting the emphasis a little, as she did in St John’s Church in Göttingen, where she replaced the aria “Mi restano le lagrime” from Alcina with the much more spectacular monologue “Ombre pallide”. I listened to her streamed recital from last year’s Bayreuth Baroque festival. Since then the singer has matured, has become more at ease, has engaged in a wonderful dialogue with both the musicians and the audience. Her voice is a true diamond, still not fully polished, but nevertheless worth hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling – it already shines like a crown jewel in the royal treasury: indomitable, clear, captivating with its brilliance and rainbow of colours. If it still lacks anything, it is only some softness in the upper register and a touch of vividness in the low notes of the range. De Bique’s interpretations – supported by Concerto Köln’s extraordinary sensitive accompaniment – touch the heart and at the same time make us realise the essence of the greatness of Handel, who favoured complex musical drama, revelatory colour effects and poignant lyricism over empty virtuosity.

Called to sing encore after encore, De Bique finally sang “Tu del Ciel ministro eletto” from Il trionfo. I will not compare the two performances. Let me just write that I find it hard to imagine a more beautiful link between the impressions of these few days in Venice and Göttingen.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

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