This year’s Handel Festival at Göttingen lived up to its currently very high reputation, with no less than three stunning centrepiece Handel productions and the usual bevy of small scale but exciting concerts. Those three productions came like a hat trick, one night after the other, each as good as if not better than the other. First up was Susanna, a rarely performed but delightful Old Testament story oratorio, then the fully staged opera Imeneo and finally a concert performance of the also rarely performed opera Berenice.

Imeneo Matthew_Brook as  Argenio_William_Berger as Imeneo_ photo Theodoro_da_Silva.jpg

Imeneo (Deutschestheater, May 6 & 10), Handel’s second from last Italian opera, was composed over a period of two years, and finally performed in November 1740 at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre. It is one of the composer’s shortest operas, being named by him an “operetta” (with at that time no whipped cream and waltz implications) and has perhaps the most narrative simplicity. It was revived during Handel’s Dublin season of 1742, when it was considerably reshaped as a “serenata”. This later version co-opted arias from other works, particularly Deidamia, but, at its end and in defiance of all convention, included the undeniably lovely duetto “Per le porte del tormento” from Sosarme, sung by the couple who don’t end up together. It is always a temptation to include this in performances of the earlier version, even though it doesn’t really make sense, and at Göttingen the temptation was not resisted. The only other departure from the 1740 score was the substitution of “Di cieca notte” by an aria from a draft score of 1739, “La beltà che t’innamora”, with a little tinkering with the preceding recitative; it was not clear why. The former has more musical interest and seems just as relevant to the plot, if perhaps more clouded in metaphor.

While the plotting is generally transparent, some of the relationships are rather opaque. While the character Argenio is clearly Clomiri’s father, he is sometimes described as Rosmene’s father, and sometimes as the father of both along with the assumption the two women are sisters; this is not justified anywhere in the text. In general, he behaves like everyone’s father, so he might just be considered a generalised patriarchal figure. The main point however is that both Tirinto, a sort of pre-Romantic type, and Imeneo, a swashbuckling (if perhaps boneheaded) hero who saved Rosmene’s life, are set on marrying the last named, while Clomiri hankers after Imeneo. Argenio urges the conventional view of the time, that Rosmene should favour Imeneo out of duty.

Director Sigrid T’Hooft, who delighted Göttingen audiences four years ago with a Baroque production of Amadigi di Galla, applied the same principles to Imeneo. Once again the majority of the audience was vocal in its enthusiasm – they do love a Baroque production at Göttingen – but it would seem that critical opinion was more divided, with some finding such a production too antique for their taste. A curtain featuring putti amongst clouds in a blue sky signalled the aesthetic at work: an 18th century sensibility with an edge of 21st century irony. Handel’s score indicates only one setting, “Deliziosa”, usually translated as “a pleasant garden” or similar, rendered here as a vaguely pastoral scene with painted foliage and a set of three Ionic columns and a classicising statue beneath the theatre’s candelabras, which emerge on these occasions. Variations on 18th century costumes helped delineate the characters: Tirinto was rather effete in grey silk with a blue cape and tumbling auburn curls, while Imeneo was more robust in courtly red and maroon tones. Argenio was more of a Bürgermeister-ish figure in a full-length caped cloak with tricorn hat. The women wore rather more fanciful apparel, floor-length softly styled gowns with gathered bunches of material at their hips rather than paniers, with garlands of flowers at their bosoms and on their heads; Rosmene in red and Clomiri in bright yellow had handmaidens in matching colours.

As with Amadigi, the performers expressed themselves in Baroque Gest, with some of the cast appearing to be more comfortable with this than others. There was also a troupe of dancers (Corpo Barocco), using the same bodily language, although they were deployed rather differently here. In Amadigi, the dancers seemed more continuously present on the stage; in Imeneo, they were more obvious in musical set pieces without the singers. They performed to musical items imported from other Handel sources, including the Water Music, which extended the running time of the opera and to an extent disrupted the tight narrative flow of the original. As with Amadigi however the carefully composed gently moving tableaux were a visual treat throughout.

Musically, the FestspielOrchester Göttingen maintained their very high standard under Festival Artistic Director Laurence Cummings, starting with a sonorous but gutsy rendition of the overture and continuing throughout with warmth and precision, always respecting the needs of the singers. Like Handel’s last opera, Deidamia, this one also features a number of cori, sometimes thought to indicate Handel’s transition from opera to oratorio, and these were expertly performed by a small choir dubbed the Projectchor Imeneo (3S, 2A, 2T, 2B) from the lower side boxes.

The singing was a little variable, but baritone William Berger was completely on top of the title role, as well as looking quite at home with the physical demands of the production. He was not the usual overbearing boofhead, but a more refined hero, if still conscious of his superiority in the scheme of things. Berger’s singing was also refined and lyrical, and his glowing resonant voice was heard to good effect in the aria “Esser mia dovrà”, with nice decoration in the da capo and a great ringing cadenza. He also managed a nice falsetto passage in the duetto “Se la mia pace”, mocking the hapless Tirinto.

The latter role has quite a high tessitura, originally written for a castrato and sung in Dublin by Susannah Cibber; it is now more frequently sung by a mezzo. Here it was sung by countertenor James Laing, and appeared to lie somewhere outside his comfortable range. While he has a pleasant tone when not challenged, much of his singing showed signs of strain. The opera opens with two consecutive mournful arias sung by Tirinto, both labelled larghetto, and it needs a pretty riveting performance to bring these off without putting the audience into a trance state; Laing sung prettily and with accuracy but lacked real impact. In the bravado aria “Sorge nell’alma mia”, he was definitely underpowered, with shrill notes at the top of the range and problematic in the coloratura. He was perhaps at his best in the final duetto.

Anna Dennis has become quite a favourite at Göttingen, and she was an excellent Rosmene, having not only a beautiful bright and clean soprano but a most expressive face and excellent acting skills. Her arias were distinguished by jucidious embellishments, such as a lovely cadenza in the B section of “Semplicetta”, and again in “In mezzo a voi dui” which not only suited her voice very well, but also allowed her to convince us about the depth of her dilemma, as also did her “mad scene” (or “assumed mad scene”), the demanding accompagnata “Miratela, che arrive cinta). In the less conflicted but just as disappointed, role of Clomiri, Stefanie True, who appeared in T’Hooft’s Amadigi, also sang well, with an equally bright if somewhat less powerful soprano. Her excellent intonation and cut-glass diction were enhanced by lovely trills and coloratura, particularly noticeable in two cadenzas in a fetchingly delivered “Se ricordar ten vuoi”.

Argenio was portrayed rather differently here from the usual stern authoritarian power figure; as portrayed by bass Matthew Brook, he was more unctuous than forbidding, even verging on the sleazoid. His singing was of a high standard, delivering “La beltà” in ringing tones, although his low notes were a little weak in “Sull’arena di Barbara scena”.

Berenice_Mireille Asselin David Bates photo_Peter_Heller

Berenice, Regina d’Egitto (Deutschestheater, May 7) was a delightful surprise. Composed late in his Italian opera career (1737), this is one of Handel’s least performed operas. There have been only four previous productions in the modern era noticed by Rätzer, and one acceptable recording (Alan Curtis in 2010). Performed in concert with an excellent if little-known cast, the charming music led many to wonder why they were not more familiar with this work. Many heads were puzzling over the plot as described in the program but, as is usually the case with Handel’s (and other competent Baroque composers’) operas, it was perfectly easy to follow as the performance unfolded (there seems little point in trying to summarise it here; suffice to say it concerns a Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt [conceivably the historical figure Berenice IV] whom the Romans want to marry a certain Prince Alessandro, but she’s not so keen, and so on).

La Nueva Musica was led by a very demonstrative David Bates in a sparkling performance, set off on the right foot by the multi-faceded overture and bringing out some lovely sonorities in the Act III Sinfonia. There was no weak link among the soloists. In the name role, Canadian soprano Mireille Asselin has a strong voice with a certain amount of non-intrusive vibrato, and lovely tone and brilliance in the upper range; she also sang with lots of feeling. “Traditore, traditore” was sung with appropriate fury and adorned with a great cadenza. In her Act II aria “Chi t’intende?”, she performed a mesmerising nightingale-like duet with a very nimble oboe. As her sister, Selene, mezzo Giuseppina Bridelli, was equally expressive, with a warm, well-controlled voice, although her arias are not Handel’s strongest.

The role of Alessandro, originated by the castrato Gizziello, was sung by Israeli Anat Edri, another clear penetrating soprano, with good agility and nice trills, especially impressive in “Quell’oggetto che è caro”. Selene’s beloved Demetrio was portrayed by countertenor Michal Czerniawski with lovely tone and some depth and power to his voice; he also displayed excellent coloratura and some impressive cadenzas. Raffelee Pe as a rival prince, Arsace, has a somewhat lighter voice but sang with energy and agility, especially evident in “Amore contro Amor”. Fabio, the Roman ambassador, was sensitively sung by tenor Christopher Turner, and it would have been nice to hear more from Timothy Dickinson as Berenice’s captain Aristobolo than his two arias, although of course that is quite generous for a bass in a Baroque opera, especially given the rather otiose nature of the second one; it was good to hear a real bass voice allied with accuracy and flexibility across its range.

Susanna, despite a superlative recording under the direction of Nicholas McGegan and with Lorraine Hunt (Lieberson) breathtaking in the title role released as long ago as 1990, and a more recent version (1999) with Neumann (and some diction problems), remains another performance rarity. It is based on one of the better known Old Testament stories of Susanna in the bath, much celebrated in visual art from at least the 16th century on. Somewhat unusually for an oratorio, this was the opening mainstage piece of the festival (Stadthalle, May 5) and featured Cummings and the FOG with another Göttingen favourite, Emily Fons, in the title role. The orchestra were super disciplined yet expressive as always, essaying a stately overture with transparent strings. The NDR Chor were also wonderfully united, and their English diction has improved remarkably over the years.

The soloists were a wonderful ensemble group, interacting dramatically and all singing distinctively.   Fons was an affecting Susanna, with her gorgeous rich tone, super diction, exquisite coloratura and her detailed attention to the text producing lambent tones on critical notes. One can single out the air “Bending to the throne of glory” as displaying all her strengths, with a sustained controlled cadenza in the da capo. Another tour de force was the air “If guiltless blood be your intent”, surpassed only by her final glorious air “Guilt trembling spoke my doom”, a stunning piece of singing virtuosity. Joacim was sung by Christopher Lowrey with a nice clear countertenor, excellent diction and a welcome delicate approach to the text. “On the rapid whirlwind’s wing” was sung with appropriate bounciness and energy The first duet with Susanna and Joacim was sheer delight with lovely blending of the voices, as was the final duet “To my chaste Susanna’s praise”, with rapid runs perfectly executed by both.

Colin Balzer was a late but adequate substitution for John Mark Ainsley, producing a most characterful performance, beginning well with “Ye verdant hills”. Both elders were in fact appropriately repellent, with smirks, sneers and veritable growls. The roles of the second elder, Chelsias and the judge were taken by German bass Raimund Nolte who sang with resonant confidence and good firm low notes, although his coloratura was not well articulated overall. As Chelsias, he projected great brio in “Raise your voice to sounds of joy”. Also combining roles was soprano Clara Hendrick as Daniel and an attendant. As the latter, “Ask if yon damask rose be sweet” was suitably honeyed and sung with feeling, while she subtly changed her approach for the young Daniel in “’Tis not age’s sullen face”. Overall a performance to be remembered with joy.

Other smaller scale concerts in the Festival included a great Baroque violin recital by Giuliano Carmignola in the Aula (May 8), an enjoyable performance by FOG soloists at Hardegsen (May 11), and a vocal recital at Bad Lauterberg (May 8). The latter was entitled “Opern-Café” and featured Anna Dennis and James Laing with Tom Foster on Harpsichord. This was a delightful offering, including arias and cantatas by Handel and Scarlatti, concluding with “Per le porte”. Not only did this reinforce the view that Dennis is one of the finest Handel sopranos currently singing, but also showed that Laing is capable of far more nuanced and attractive singing when in more appropriate vehicles than Imeneo.

4 stars

Sandra Bowdler