The Karlsruhe Handel Festival has been held under that name since 1985, although Handel operas have been regularly produced there since the late 1970s. Cast somewhat in the shadows of the Göttingen and Halle Handel fests, Karlsruhe is looking to step up the pace under its new Artistic Director, Moscow-born Michael Fichtenholz (also the director of the year-round general opera program). While he has been in the job for over a year, the 2015 Festival comprised the choices of the previous incumbent, and Fichtenholz sees this year’s version as the first properly under his aegis, and the result of his own artistic choices and decisions.

The Festival this year was built around two full opera productions – which will be discussed below – and a number of concerts and recitals by the likes of Julia Lezhneva, Karina Gauvin, Franco Fagioli, Valer Sabadus and Ann Hallenberg. There was also a two-day Symposium entitled “Das Alte im Neuen. Geschichte und Gegenwart in der historischen Aufführungspraxis” examining historical performance practises.

One of the advantages of Karlsruhe is its centrally located Staatstheater, not one of the more beauteous venues of Germany, but boasting a large main stage with all modern appurtenances. This Fichtenholz sees as one of the main positioning points of the Karlsruhe Handel Festival, allowing large-scale and complex productions. He is keen to increase its international appeal, manifested this year in something not seen at the other German Handelfests: English as well as German surtitles for the operas.

The new production this year was Arminio, one of Handel’s later operas of his Covent Garden period (1737), and one might say rarely performed, although it did feature at the Halle Handel festival in 2014-15. It is probably not unfair to say that that production was hard to take very seriously, in that it seemed to think it was really an early version of Siegfried, right down to a sword-forging scene. The Karlsruhe version was built around an entirely different concept, which dispensed with any hint of German nationalism and concentrated on the human drama. It was the second opera directed by eminent countertenor Max Emmanuel Cencic. It was most unfortunate that the elaborate set was subject to an accident on the fourth performance, with the revolving set apparently juddering to a halt while the cries of a stage attendant were heard from below. The performance was halted while the injured man was attended to, after which the opera was completed in concert. The subsequent performance was also performed throughout in concert. Happily it was announced that the injured stage hand was recovering well.

My review is perforce based on the conference performance, although I was subsequently vouchsaved a view of an in-house recording of the original production. In sum, it was evident that the latter was a complex and highly kinetic experience, but even without the differentially revolving sets and brisk cast movements around and through those, the director (and primo uomo) had managed to extract a concentrated dose of human drama from the text and music. Any falling off in the third act can to some extent at least be attributed to the somewhat faltering libretto (Arminio is captured! He is set free! He is enchained again! Freed again!).

In its static form, the set comprised a shadowy stately chamber, opened out somewhat in the second act, while the last, the scene of Arminio’s intended execution is positively infernal, with a guillotine at the ready and human heads on poles à la Heart of Darkness. The aforementioned instrument of execution naturally recalls the French Terror, and indeed the costumes indicate a late 18th century setting. Cencic clearly intends a parallel to be seen between the last royal family of Versailles and Arminio’s family, although with a more benign outcome, at least in the course of the opera: the opening scene sees the King (Arminio), Queen (Tusnelda) and their two children gathered together for a family dinner and ends with their being happily reunited. There is a far more modern sensibility at work, with several more explicitly sexual scenes than would have been the case 280-250 years ago, and the portrayal of Ramise as coping with her tribulations with the lavish assistance of a bottle. There are, however, scenes which allow us to empathise with the beleaguered protagonists, such as the finale of Act II, which is intimate and touching.

The well-known Baroque orchestra Armonia Atenea was led by expert Handel conductor George Petrou in a very musically satisfying performance showing dramatic balance and a nuanced interpretation of the score. The really quite sombre overture was a fine introduction to the attentive approach of the players to a work which explores fluctuating emotional states which are not necessarily resolved at the end, despite the conventional lieto fine.

While Cencic has not been above playing the fool for laughs in recent productions by his company Parnassus Productions (as in last year’s Alessandro at Göttingen), his depiction of Arminio is straightforwardly heroic, with an insistence on the importance of duty and honour over political expediency. His justly admired countertenor singing was up to its usual high standard, although it might be suggested that some of the arias are not up to Handel’s best. In the two bravura arias (“Sì, cadrò, ma sorgerà sempre vivo” Act II; “Fatto scorta al sentier della Gloria” Act III), Cencic displays flexible coloratura and excellent firmness and control across their range while bringing conviction and excitement to his delivery. The duets with Tusnelda at either end of the opera were both energetic and delightful, and Cencic’s voice blended beautifully with that of Canadian soprano Layla Claire. This was evidently the latter’s first Handel role on stage, and she impressed very much with powerful, golden tone, smooth fioriture, scintillating high notes, especially in “Va, combatti ancor da forte”, and a touching rendition of “Rendimi il dolce sposo due vite io ti dovrò”. As well as her duets with Arminio, Tusnelda shares one with her sister-in-law Ramise (“Quando più minaccia il Cielo), and here her voice also blended well with that of established mezzo Ruxandra Donose. This role was played to some extent for comedy, with Ramise reeling around in a drunken state, but with more serious moments nonetheless. Donose is always willing to throw herself into a role, as she does here, and her singing is equally versatile, with pleasingly smooth vocal production and attention to text.

The sopranista role of Sigismondo was sung by countertenor Vince Yi, who has a very straight-toned voice that varies between sounding quite feminine, and like that of a boy soprano. This can be a rather thankless part, as Sigismondo doesn’t really get to do a lot, but here the part has been developed into an excessively campy turn, which in itself sets him against his conservative father Segeste, who, towards the end, actually threatens him with an on-stage castration. In between flouncing about and cowering in fear, Yi manages to deliver his arias very well, particularly “Quella fiamma, ch’il petto m’accende”. Segeste is sung by bass Pavel Kudinov who delivers his single aria competently, while maintaining an appropriately tyrannical front throughout. The rather more vocally substantial role of Varo finds tenor Juan Sancho in very fine form, noticeable especially in Mira il Ciel, vedrai d’Alcide, delivered with heroic saturnine power but with shades of tenderness too. English countertenor Owen Willetts, who distinguished himself at Göttingen last year in the small role of Narciso (Agrippina), here portrays the similarly small role of Tullio equally well, displaying unforced even tone and fluent coloratura.

Karlsruhe’s other full operatic offering for 2016 was a repeat of last year’s Teseo, with the same cast as previously. Director Daniel Pfluger seemed to have no particular theme in mind, but Medea’s character revolved heavily around her murder of her children before the action of the opera takes place. The mise en scène was largely abstract, with no particular place/time identification. The sets (Flurin Borg Madsen) comprised moving platforms and stairs, with some revolving scenes, bolstered by back projections and a complex lighting scheme; the costumes (Janine Werthmann)were brightly coloured and vaguely medieval, if anything. Medea was particularly striking, with her whitened upper body contrasting with a cascading tiered satiny gown, grading from red at the top to purple at the bottom, and her face decorated with arcane symbols. Her two children appeared on stage as ghostly figures with large sad puppet heads. Teseo and Arcane were somewhat Norman troubadorish, although the former first appeared in a Greek helmet. Heroine Agilea wore a simple graceful tunic, while Clizia was a picture of girlish innocence in a shorter frock with strange reverse mittens on her hands. Egeo wore a flaring floor length red and gold tabard, looking rather like a chess king.

While the orchestra sounded a little clumsy in the overture, as the work progressed the Deutsche Händel-Solisten led by Michael Form were successful in bringing out layers and nuances in the score. One might also single out the haunting oboe passages in the arias “M’adora l’idol mio, gode il mio core” (Act I) and “Chi ritorna alla mia mente” (Act IV).

The soloists were uniformly successful in their roles, although it should be observed that Roberta Invernizzi, a very fine baroque specialist with a wide range, does not really have the right voice type for Medea, which seems to have been written for a darker timbre (the original singer was Elisabetta Pilotti-Schiavonetti) than Invernizzi’s cut-glass soprano. Nevertheless she was a veritable whirlwind in the role, with her rendition of the bravura aria “Sibillando, ululando atterrate la rival” representing a magnificent tour de force.

Valer Sabadus was an appropriately dashing hero in the title role, both in looks and singing; he has a sweet open countertenor voice with good control and accurate clear coloratura. Cuban soprano Yetzabel Arias Fernández was something of a revelation, with a strong pure flexible soprano, and evoking a range of moods from sad and moving to sheer exuberance. Egeo was sung by another young countenor, Flavio Ferri-Benedetti whose voice is equally sweet if softer grained, and who sings with graceful subtle ornamentation.

As the young lovers Clizia and Arcane, soprano Larissa Wäspy and countertenor Terry Wey were suitably girlish and coltish respectively. Wäspy has a sweet if not overly large voice while Wey is somewhat covered but has good flexibility and attack, if a slight tendency to shrillness in some of the highest notes. Their duet, “Addio mio caro bene/dolce mia vita”, was appropriately endearing.

For next year’s festival, it will be possible to see Arminio in its fully staged form; there will also be performances of Semele (staged) and Theodora. If the current mucical standard is maintained, it will be something to look forward to very much.

4 stars

Sandra Bowdler