A washout in 2013, a dog’s breakfast last year, this year’s Halle Handel festival was a riot of excellence, with one brilliant treat after another. Three staged operas (I did not attend Arminio, having seen it last year q.v.), the Dublin version of Imeneo (of 1742) and a concert performance of Semele were interleaved with one stunning concert after another, while established baroque superstars alternated with those on the way up, with hardly a dull moment.

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The major new staging at the Opernhaus Halle (5 & 13 June, 2015) was one of Handel’s earlier operas for London, Silla, as reconstructed by Terence Best, still barely represented in the modern repertoire. The original circumstances of its composition are obscure, and indeed there is no firm evidence it was ever actually performed in Handel’s lifetime. The story tells of the historical late republican Roman consul, and for a time dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, known in English as Sulla. As is usually the case, the libretto assumed to be by Giacomo Rossi relies on, but does not closely follow, historical sources (particularly Plutarch). Some of the music was recycled into Handel’s subsequent opera, Amadigi di Gaula. Basically, it is the tale of a ruthless tyrant who deserves to get his comeuppance at the end of the opera but unrealistically repents for the lieto fine; the production nicely undercut that. It is relatively short for a Handel opera, and indeed was performed here without interval.

The setting was unsurprisingly a 20th century dictatorship, Germany or Italy during the last World War. A backdrop of filmed scenes occurred throughout, with what appeared to be historical stock footage with members of the cast in appropriate clothes and uniforms superimposed. It remained relevant to the unfolding narrative and was thus not overly intrusive or annoying as can be the case with this sort of thing. The set itself comprised a set of rooms mounted on a revolve, also effective. There are some ambitious, if not outright odd, stage directions in the libretto, which were successfully reworked to fit the chosen mise en scène.

Rather than, for instance, a god appearing in a chariot drawn by two dragons and surrounded by Furies with flaming torches in their hands wheeling around Silla, he falls into a sleep and his attendant/butler sings to him as a god in his dream. At the finale, where Silla embarks on a ship having seen the error of his ways, his wife Metella stands on the shore, looks out to sea, sees his ship shaken by a violent storm; a huge comet appears in place of the moon with lightning and thunderbolts. The ship is wrecked and Silla swims to a rock; Metella rows out in a boat and saves him. Yes, well, far easier to have the rest of the cast gang up on him and try and drown him in a bathtub, and leave him a drowned rat on the floor, until he comes to. During the conventional happy and admonitory coro (“Che si trova tra procelle”), Silla stands on a dias and takes imaginary aim at each cast member and down they fall, as does the curtain, as he takes final aim at the head of his wife. Then a last film clip of a despatched then exploding atom bomb. As with it seems all modern productions of Handel (or baroque, or perhaps any) opera, some of the audience liked this and some didn’t.

There was little to complain of musically. The work was performed more or less complete, with some lines of recitative left out, and a couple of arias moved around. The placing of Metella’s “Hai due vaghe pupillette” at the beginning of Act II perhaps makes a little more sense, in serving to warn Celia of Silla’s potential nastiness rather than praising her beauty after his advances, and also allows the rest of the act flow smoothly. The Händelfestspielorchester Halle on period instruments conducted by Enrico Onofri played in a workmanlike fashion, if a little loud at times with respect to the singers.

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Standout performances in the two lead roles raised the performance above the acceptable. Rising countertenor Filippo Mineccia, noted for his energetic contribution to last year’s Amadigi, once again impressed with his powerful unforced voice, and made a convincing smiling monster of the title role. The aria “È tempo, oh luci belle” was a very well performed mix of solicitation and threat, and “La vendetta” was suitably rabid, but utterly musical. Romelia Lichtenstein has redeemed many a production at Halle; as the house soprano, she is not a Handel specialist by any means, but an all-round operatic performer at home in the core repertoire as well as the Baroque. Her warm rich soprano, rock solid technique and dramatic chops have seen her through many bizarre Handel productions, although the 2012 Alcina travesty seemed to wear her down somewhat. In any case, she was an excellent Metella, and energised every scene she was in. Her rendition of “Secondate, oh giusti dei” was enhanced by a close-up of her beautiful old-time movie star face above the stage, and her control and conviction in “Io non ti chiedo più” was a moving tour de force. In her final duetto with Silla their voices were very attractively blended, even if the sentiments were undercut by the finale as staged.

The rest of the cast sang and acted well without reaching the heights of the two leads. The two sopranos, Halle regular Inex Lex as Flavia and Eva Bauchmükker as Celia both have nice pure toned voices, if the latter is a bit on the quiet side. Countertenor Jeffrey Kim (Lepido) displayed bright tone and fluent coloratura but in a rather light voice. Claudio was sung by Antigone Papoulkas en travestie with a flexible mezzo if slightly strangled tone, and bass Ulrich Burdack sang sonorously as the god.

Two productions also impressed, both at the Goethestheater at Bad Lauchstädt, Alessandro (6 & 8 June 2015) and a Vinci-Handel mashup, Semiramide (14 June 2015). The former is generally considered to be one of Handel’s serious operas, but it was pretty much played for laughs here; it is however so infrequently performed these days that it engenders few expectations. Alessandro is the first of the “rival queens” operas, written for the two sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni; including also the castrato Senesino, this means it was composed for three of the finest singers ever heard on the English stage, and as such, contains a wealth of sublime arias written to show off their voices.

The story plays out in true rival queens fashion, with both Rossane and Lisaura vying for Alexander the Great’s attentions, and his stringing along of both of them. The general conceit of the production is of a film set, with the two women being rival stars seen mostly in their dressing rooms, and the saga of Alexander’s historical martial exploits being the subject of the film. When in this context, Alexander appears in gold breastplate and skirt with a lion’s head helmet with his ally Tassile the Indian King (in love with Lisaura) and three captains Clito, Leonato and Cleone arrayed about him in frogged military coats and plums, holding spears or arranging their hands in traditional Barock Gest. When not being filmic, they all disport themselves like off duty film stars of the 1930s-40s, with nods to Busby Berkeley, Fred and Ginger and so on. Initially the performance walked a fine line between the conventions of opera seria and tongue in cheek amusement, but as it approached the Act I climax, involving the refusal of Clito to recognise Alessandro as a god, a kind of madness took over the proceedings, and this scene was depicted with roustabout comedy, culminating in Alessandro insisting that Tassile sing the final aria, with the curtain descending on a can can line of Tassile and dancing girls. There was a certain amount of harrumphing about this among the purist punters, but it has to be admitted that it was in fact very funny. Despite initial qualms at the presence of a troupe of dancers, it fitted in well to this particular production. The program describes the staging as being “nach einer Inszenierung von Lucinda Childs” (a choreographer), whatever that implies.

Musically, the quality was very high indeed. George Petrou conducted Armonia Atenea, as on the 2012 recording of this work, with some of the same singers. The playing was very spirited and interestingly textured, and always supportive of the singers. In the title role, Max Emanuel Cencic has a surprisingly big voice for his size and his rich countertenor fitted the role well; it is a pity he gave up the final Act I aria (“Da un breve riposo) as Xavier Sabata as Tassile did not quite have the voice for it. Sabata managed far better with “Sempre fido”, sung with feeling and well-rounded tone.

The two women were astonishingly good. Unknown to most, young Russian soprano Dilyara Idrisova in the Cuzzoni part of Lisaura was outstanding. With a very solid core, nice warm tone, she also has accurate flexibility and good high notes, all established in her very first aria “Quanto dolce”, with a lovely cadenza. The more familiar mezzosoprano Blandine Staskiewicz held her own as Rossane, with similar qualities in a lower range; she also produced some ravishing cadenzas. Their duet “Placa l’alma” was enchanting. As the captains, Pavel Kudinov (bass, Clito), Juan Sancho (tenor, Leonato) and Vasily Khoroshev (alto, Cleone) all sang competently and kept up the fun.

Semiramide riconosciuta (shortened here to Semiramide) is listed in the Handel catalogue as HWV A8, and is a pasticcio based on a libretto by Metastasio originally set to music by Vinci. Handel included some recitative and arias by himself as well as Porpora, Leo and Feo. There is as yet no complete commercial recording available, but there is an edition of the work by Alan Curtis, which was used here.

The plot is extremely convoluted, and one must dismiss immediately any thoughts of Rossini; there is no Arsace here. This Semiramide is ruling Babylon disguised as a man, her son Nino; while someone who is representing (or is really?) her son Nino appears as a transgender dancer (not a singing role). The other dramatis personae are her confidant Sibari (who harbours feelings for the Queen/King), a Bactrian Princess, Tamiri, who is somehow under Semiramide’s protection and three foreigners seeking Tamiri’s hand (shades of Turandot, The Merchant of Venice and … well, see Freud). They are Mirteo an Egyptian prince, Scitalce an Indian prince and Ircano a Scythian prince. It turns out Scitalce is in fact an ex of Semiramide. The three suitors are put through various paces to determine their worthiness for the princess’s hand, while everyone sorts out their identities and relationships. Tamiri ends up with Mirteo (the alto), Semiramide reunites with Scitalce and Ircano loses out on anyone because he’s the bass. One of the strengths of the production was that it made the narrative of this little known rigmarole entirely clear. Director Francesco Micheli opted for a simple staging on different levels, using the upper gallery of the theatre to expand the action, and bright colours in the costumes helped us track the characters and their moods. One absolutely brilliant scene was played out to Ircano’s aria “Qual necchier, che vana ogn’opra”, in which he, Mirteo, Sibari and Nino in white shirts, trousers and bowler hats re-enacted, in slow motion, a scene from Kubrick’s movie A Clockwork Orange.

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Vienna based Rubén Dubrovsky conducted the Bach Consort Wien with elan; for some reason the bassoon (Ivan Calestani) sounded very prominent in the continuo, which lent a rather jolly air to the whole thing. The singing by a largely young and almost unknown United Nations cast was of a high order. In the title role, Turkish soprano Çigdem Soyarslan sang with a certain amount of vibrato and a slightly metallic tone but great warmth and good coloratura. Tamiri was sung by Gan-ya Ben-gur Akselrod from Israel with a clear penetrating soprano, just occasionally a little shrill at the top, but generally good high notes. Jake Arditt, recently heard in Göttingen as Nerone in Agrippina, had the advantage of appearing here as a suave and handsome Mirteo, as befits the guy who gets the girl, and his singing was just as good: a lovely clear smooth countertenor with nice top notes, all sung with feeling.

Italian mezzo Gaia Petrone sang the trouser role Sibari with a well produced, even and flexible voice. Peter Moen, a Norwegian tenor, made the most of his role as Scitalce, with a rather dark timbre but producing some real squillo in his last aria, “Odi quel fasto?”. Ircano was sung by Igor Bakan, a Lithuanian bass, with a pleasing resonant sound and firm low notes, and manifesting some exciting rage in his, indeed the opera’s last, aria, “Di rabbia, di sdegno”.

Two other substantial works were performed in concert, Imeneo (Georg Friedrich Händel Halle, 7th June 2015) and Semele (GFH Halle, 12th June 2015). The former was the 1742 Dublin version, which was described at the time as a serenata, and not staged like the 1740 original, and Semele’s genre has always been a bit up for grabs.

This version of Imeneo has extra arias for Tirinto (culled from Deidamia) sung in 1742 by Susanna Cibber, all to the good here, as it was sung by Ann Hallenberg, and fewer for everyone else; the role of Clomiri practically disappears. There are also two top class duets for Rosmene and Tirinto, “Vado e vivo” roped in from Faramondo, and “Per le porte” from Sosarme. While the additions don’t do much for the narrative, they do enhance the music. Europa Galante was conducted from the violin by Fabio Biondi, veteran Handelians. The stage arrangement had the singers behind the orchestra, not a very happy idea, as it somewhat muffled the soloists and isolated them from the audience. Hallenberg was of course beyond compare, her velvety voice embracing all Tirinto’s variegated arias, some short and brisk, others with long flowing lines, particularly “Se potessero” (she has recorded the 1740 version with Biondi). Rosmene was sung by Monica Piccinini who has a clear, carrying if rather light voice, sang prettily and accurately; it was mean of Biondi to steal her cadenza in “In mezzo a voi dui”. Her voice blended beautifully with Hallenberg’s in the two duets. In 1742, Imeneo turned from a bass into a tenor, in this case Magnus Staveland, but he is rather an odd-sounding one. With a quite dark timbre at times he hardly sounds like a tenor at all, and seems to lack flexibility. Bass Frabrizo Beggi as Argenio brought an appropriate muscularity to his part, with a firm resonant voice with great rumbling low notes.

Semele was not written to be staged, nor does it need it, as long as there is a vocally and dramatically adept vocal cast, and this we had in spades. Ivor Bolton, another longtime Handelian, conducted Concerto Vocale Gent and Concerto Köln in a most enjoyable performance. While the orchestra was on occasion somewhat overbearing, the choir was very good indeed. Bolton singing along with every word was inaudible but still a little distracting. The soloists (nearly all English) interacted very well dramatically, and vocally there was hardly a weak link. The title role was sung by Carolyn Sampson in her pearly prime in a charming and vocally faultless performance. Holding a mirror, one of the small number of props employed, Sampson’s rendition of “Myself I shall adore” was utterly brilliant, and no less so was “No, no, I’ll take no less”. James Gilchrist as Jupiter, and Apollo, was gracious and charming, singing beautifully in his lovely mellow tenor. Juno and Ino were both sung by Susan Bickley, who did a little necklace on/off schtick to distinguish the two, but she managed that vocally and dramatically just as well. Her mezzo tones were smooth and even for the rather downtrodden Ino, and quite ferocious for the vengeful Juno; only “Above measure” seemed to lack the necessary venomous Schadenfreude. Athamas was portrayed by American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, rendering his three arias with warm gleaming tone. Bass Andrew Foster-Williams has the sort of voice you can always trust to get it right, and he did not disappoint as Cadmus, the High Priest or Somnus. Ruby Hughes had the small part of Iris, but acquitted herself well in the single aria “There from mortal cares retiring”; she is certainly capitalising on her potential since winning the London Handel Singing Competition in 2009, with a clear bright soprano voice but with substantial body.

The opening concert (GFH Hall, 4th June 2015) featured Philippe Jaroussky with Orfeo 55 conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann in an all-Handel performance. The very well constructed program alternated arias from various operas and serenatas (Parnasso in Festa, Deidamia, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, Arianna in Creta) with instrumental pieces, particularly movements from concerti grossi. Stutzmann encouraged the audience to hold their applause so that each movement flowed into the next, emphasising the musical relationships between pieces. Great playing was evident in the orchestral works, and wonderful singing in the vocal parts. Jaroussky is now a complete master of his instrument, with very fine straight out singing with no covering or affectation, able to produce fluent coloratura and wonderful cadenzas while instilling his texts with feeling. One stand out was “Qui l’augel da pianta in pianta” from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, with his sweet voicing blending with an oboe obbligato and an amazing trilled messa di voce. After a brief ceremony in which Stutzmann announced the award of the Handel Prize of the City of Halle to Jaroussky, she joined him for a rendition of “Son nata a lagrimar” from Giulio Cesare; as they leaned in for the final bar, the auditorium was a sea of hankies. There was a general census that this was as good as it was likely to get for the whole Festival; happily, not quite true.

Later in the week (6th June 2015, Ulrichskirche) Stutzmann again conducted Orfeo 55 in her own vocal recital based on her recording “Heroes from the shadows”, comprising arias sung by various secondary characters in Handel operas, again alternating with instrumental works by the same composer. Showing the same engagement between conductor and orchestra, and the determination to run the program straight through a similarly well constructed program, this was another tour de force event. Stutzmann’s dark rich contralto was well displayed by her vocal choices, including arias for Cornelia (Giulio Cesare), Arsamene (Serse), Dardano (Amadigi di Gaula) and so on. “Son qual stanco pellegrino” (from Arianna in Creta) showed off her range with quite gleaming high notes, and an enchanting “piccolo cello” cadenza; another highlight was Ottone’s “Voi ch’udite il mio lamento” from Agrippina. Encores included a rousing “Dover giustizia” (Polinesso in Ariodante).

A plethora of events showcased well known singers channeling their musical forebears. Franco Fagioli gave us “Arias for Carrafelli” (7th June 2015, Ulrichskirche) supported by Riccardo Minasi and his Il pomo d’oro, now coming into their own as a very fine baroque ensemble. Fagioli however seemed on this occasion to sacrifice sensitivity and expression to a determination to be brilliant at all costs. Most of the arias were of a bravura nature, and he displayed a lot of energy, but all the high notes were invested with a marked vibrato which gave them a glistening surface but seemed badly integrated with the lower part of the voice. “Dopo notte” (Ariodante) was little short of a travesty. A large part of the audience had a good time, it must be said. It stood in marked contrast to Filippo Mineccia’s concert of arias for Berenstadt, discussed elsewhere.

Roberta Invernizzi chose one of the “rival queens”, Faustina Bordoni, as her avatar, with a concert of arias by Porpora, Mancini, Vinci, Bononcini and Handel. She was accompanied by I Turchini di Antonio Florio. Despite some problem which led to one of the cellists (Rebecca Ferri) stepping in as a recorder player to substitute for some flute parts, they played very finely, with precision and spirit. Some of the material was extremely florid, designed to show off the soprano’s virtuosity rather than plumb any depths of feeling. Mancini’s “Canta e di caro usignolo” (from II Trajano), for instance, is one of those nightingale things with runs and trills and demanding fioriture with recorder and violin obbligatos. Invernizzi was totally up for this, with her bright accurate flexible voice and unmannered approach. More satisfying however were the slower less showy numbers such as “Un guardo solo ancor” (from Vinci’s Silvio Stampglia) and dramatic bravura pieces like “Confusa smarrita” (from the same work). The final listed work was a little known but charming aria, “O schmami il diletto” from Handel’s Radamisto, but from one of the revival versions; Bordoni sang Zenobia in a 1728 revival, also featuring Senesino and Cuzzoni. (Curiously enough, a recording of this aria can be found on Norrington’s 1984 recording of Radamisto, sung by Della Jones, and listed only as “aria”).

By any measure the most bizarre concert of the Festival was “Handel in Ireland”, in which a traditional Irish singer Caitriona O’Leary was accompanied by a tradtional Irish band Dúlra composed of what I gather are well established Irish musicians playing fiddle, flute, uilliann pipes, cello, hurdy gurdy, bouzouki (now apparently an acceptable Irish instrument) and bodhran. Their repertoire comprised a capella songs of the usual traditional lugubrious style alternating with jollier jigs. Connections with Handel were, generally, that most of the items originated in the earlier 18th century, and, specifically, three in number. A tune entitled “Patrick Sarsfield” was transcribed by Handel in a manuscript in theFitzwilliam. O’Leary essayed a rendition of “Hush ye pretty warbling choir” from Acis and Galatea; her very literal interpretation was a mistake really. Far more successful was the last item: the 6/8 version of “Rejoice” from Messiah with all the instruments in full flight. Well, it was different.

4 stars

Sandra Bowdler

(Photos : Martin Kaufhold)