This year’s centrepiece opera at the annual Göttingen Händel-Festspiele featured a true rarity, Handel’s 1738 opera Faramondo. In a CD review four years ago, I opined that this is “arguably Handel’s worst opera”, not on the basis of its music as such, but its dramatic coherence and what was described by Winton Dean as a ‘hopelessly obscure’ plot. Through what can only be considered sheer dramaturgical brilliance, Scottish-born Australian-trained Paul Curran has managed to animate this narrative zombie right through the problematic third act to the jolly hunting horn finale. While set in modern dress and context, from which the purists seem to increasingly resile, Curran respects the essential text and music, and clearly distinguishes each character while bringing amazing clarity to the convoluted story. In that he was immeasurably aided by wonderful orchestral playing under festival director Laurence Cummings, and a cast of stunning young singers.        

A drop curtain of a stag attacked by hounds, presumably illustrating the myth of Actaeon, exemplified the motif of revenge. The plot is driven, perhaps steered is a better word, by King Gustavo’s desire to revenge himself on King Faramondo due to the latter killing the former’s son, using his daughter Rosimonda as a bargaining chip. The latter metaphor is bodied out in the opening scene, set in a gaming lounge, presided over by Gustavo in a white-jacketed evening suit. Faramondo first appears in Rosimonda’s bedroom in combat gear, and succeeding scenes play out in a seedy industrial streetscape. Gernando, yet another king, manifests here as a sort of ex-Soviet bloc mafioso in black coat with fur collar, supported by wild women and men in black studded leather. His louche character is emphasised by his predilection for fondling and sniffing a succession of ladies’ knickers.

The FestspielOrchester Göttingen has reached a sublime peak under Cummings, each part blending smoothly while allowing each instrument or section to be individually heard and exuding great energy without rushing. FOG stalwarts Elizabeth Blumenstock (leader), Phoebe Carrai (cello), David Tayler (theorbo) and Hanneke van Proosdij(harpsichord) impressed as usual. Special mention should be made of Kate Clark for her fine flute obbligato in the “Vado e vivo” duet at the end of Act II. Baroque horn players Werin Wieringa and Alexandre Zanetta played fearlessly and almost faultlessly.

The vocal principals were all strong in both singing and acting. Young American soloist Emily Fons was almost beyond praise in the title role. Her powerful mezzo allied with solid technique produced fireworks in almost every aria, with stunning virtuosic cadenzas. Pretty singing and affecting feeling in “Si, tornerò” contrasted with gripping force in “Sebben mi lusinga” with her voice moving up a gear in the da capo, an exceptional “Poiché pria di morire”, and ferocious low notes in “Voglio che sia l’indegno” contributing to a complete tour de force of singing and emoting. Clearly a singer to watch out for. One might say the same for equally rising star, Irish soprano Anna Devin as Faramondo’s sister, Clotilde. All her arias were well sung with strong accurate tone and sparkling cadenzas, and she also displayed great acting skill in voice and body.

The rest of the cast, while not perhaps quite as strong, was also convincing with respect to both singing and acting. Ukrainian born mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych as Rosimonda has a rather dark attractive timbre and was particularly impressive in “Sì, l’intendesti” and a sweetly sung “Sappi, crudel”. Her duet “Vado e vivo” with Faramondo, trio really with the flute, was beautifully sung and the three voices exceptionally well blended. Njål Sparbo, in thebass role of Gustavo is known to Göttingen audiences from the 2012 performance of Esther. He pleased the audience again with his commanding presence, resonant low notes and flexible singing. Perhaps the best known soloist was countertenor Maarten Engeltjes. His clear natural-sounding voice brought vocal elegance to the role of Adolfo. His duet with Clotilde, “Cara/Caro”, also featured well-blended voices, with a rather spectactular cadenza at the start of the da capo.

Villainous, or at least rascally roles, often provide juicy fodder for artists. Christopher Lowrey appeared to be having a great time in the countertenor part of Gernando, leering and panty-sniffing and baring his teeth. “Voglio che mora” was sung with great dramatic relish. He has a sweet voice, rather undercutting his dark character; “Nella terra” was very well sung indeed. Baritone Edward Grint had only one aria as Teobaldo, but acquitted it well with a forceful confident bass. Mention should also be made of soprano Iryna Dziashko who, as Childerico, and despite the significance of that character, has no arias at all. Nevertheless she made her mark on stage as a bouncy adolescent boy, despite this being apparently her first appearance in a staged opera.

Many of the attendees commented on how well they got to know the characters, and even how clear the narrative was. Given the dramatic issues of the opera, one can only applaud the efforts of all concerned. And perhaps this reviewer needs to change her mind, a bit.

Sandra Bowdler

3 stars

(Photos to follow)