Handel, George Frideric


DeidamiaGeorge Frideric Handel - Deidamia

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2012 | Ivor Bolton, David Alden, Sally Matthews, Veronica Cangemi, Olga Pasichnyk, Silvia Tro Santafé, Andrew Foster-Williams, Umberto Chiummo, Jan-Willen Schaafsma | Opus Arte

There has been some terrific work done in recent years in terms of critical editions, in the development and playing of period instruments and through inventive stage productions, all of which have gone some way to revive even the most obscure of Handel’s operas and help restore the composer’s reputation to the place it deserves. There was however a reason why the Baroque form of opera seria went out of fashion, consigning all but a few of Handel’s operas to obscurity for several hundred years. They can be frightfully dull.

Even Handel, towards the end of career, moved away from the overly restrictive conventions of the form in preference for the oratorio, but even his late operas show a diminishing of interest and invention, and they would certainly have appeared as rather old fashioned by the time that Gluck’s reforms and Mozart’s invention took the form into a dynamic new direction. Written in 1741, Handel’s last opera, Deidamia - which only ran for three performances - is not the most involving work by the composer in its subject or treatment. With its classical theme, limited dramatic action and interaction, it might as well be an oratorio, composed as it is around da capo arias, brief recitative and the occasional duet. On the other hand, it’s still Handel, and with a little involvement and invention, even the driest of Handel’s opera serias can be enhanced with a strong and sympathetic production.

There’s a tendency to take Handel very seriously indeed, but his works are littered with comic references and many of his classical opera seria works - Flavio, Partenope and even Serse can be seen as playing with or even parodying the form. Robert Carsen recognised this in his Glyndebourne production of Rinaldo, and David Alden likewise approaches Deidamia the only way that would make it watchable for a modern audience, by exaggerating the humour that is very much a part of Handel’s musical palette and certainly a part of this opera. The influence of Neapolitan opera buffa shows clearly in the situation that Handel develops through a minor figure in the story of the Greek-Trojan war, and - much like Mozart would do in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and later to perfection in Le Nozze di Figaro - Handel recognises that there’s lots of humour to be derived from hidden identities and cross-dressing. It’s evident immediately from the moment that Deidamia, on the island of Scyros, expresses her frustration that her lover - the great hero Achilles - is unable to keep in character in his female disguise. Having been sent there by his father to hide - an oracle having warned him of Achilles fate should he join the war with Troy - Achilles is disguises as a young girl, Pyrrha. Instead of picking flowers and doing some needlework, Achilles is unable to resist his red-blooded masculine urges and is off in the woods hunting wild animals.

In David Alden’s production for the De Nederlandse Opera - beautifully stylised as well as humorously inclined - Achilles (a trouser role, just to add to the confusion and humour about the nature of the character) stomps onto the stage at this moment in a frilly pink dress throwing air punches, a bloody deer carcass slung over his shoulder with what looks like a few bits chomped out of it by the Greek warrior in his predatory zeal. It’s evidently not the image that Pyrrha should be projecting, particularly since Ulysses/Odysseus has just arrived in Scyros. Ulysses (disguised as Antilochus) has managed to gain the support and warships of the Scyros’ ruler Lycomedes in the war against Troy for the abduction of Helen, but he has heard reports that Achilles is on the island and is currently looking for him. Ulysses however is not blind to the charms of Deidamia (and with Sally Matthews sporting a series of attractive swimsuits in this production, it’s not difficult to see why), and Deidamia for her part is inevitably flattered by his attentions, which only enrages the headstrong Achilles when he observes them flirting with each other from his hiding place.

Deidamia then, apart from the classical Trojan war subject populated by figures of mythological standing, is an opera that is filled of lovers who express their woes in anguished da capo arias - “You are unfaithful, you do not love me” and “You have robbed me of my happiness” are sentiments expressed here and there are others along the same lines. That’s not to say that some of the arias aren’t exquisitely beautiful - it’s still Handel after all - and, to take Odysseus’ ‘Perdere il bene amato‘ as an example, capable of expressing genuine feeling and emotion, particularly when it is sung as finely as it is here by Silvia Tro Santafé. That’s the great strength of Alden’s production - it might look tongue-in-cheek and visually stylised with little concession to reality - but it doesn’t neglect to give Handel’s beautiful musical arrangements the expression they deserve, and with Ivor Bolton conducting the Concerto Köln wonderfully through this elegant score, there’s not much chance of it being anything but respectful and attuned to all the colours of the work.

And, despite being an opera seria, despite the repetition of the aria da capo arrangements, Deidamia is indeed a colourful work that blends the humour and parody of the situation with some genuine expressions of beauty and feeling. Appropriately then, the actual set designs are equally colourful, elegant and beautiful in their simplicity. You could even see the three main characters reflected in the three acts. Deidamia’s nature is exotic, based around a tropical island theme of Act I, the little island of Scyros an Aegean paradise surrounded by a limpid sea that reflects the sun-tinted blooms of cloud in its clear blue skies. Achilles’ wild and untameable nature is reflected in the jungle of Act II, while the Greek classicism and nobility of Ulysses is the theme of the third act’s developments. There’s maybe nothing naturalistic about the sets or the costumes - submarines that convey the Greeks to the island where they hop off and walk along the reflective surface of the sea - but it relates to the characters well and looks simply gorgeous from whatever angle it is viewed (and it is beautifully filmed here on this BD release). There are more than enough reasons in Handel’s music alone for this lesser work to be of considerable interest, but Alden’s stunning sets and the stylised costumes enhance the majesty and beauty in the music even further. And the comedy.

The combination of Handel, Bolton and Alden provides good enough reason alone, but the best reason for watching this production is for the singing performances. There are a few weaker elements in the cast - Victoria Cangemi’s Nerea isn’t always capable of sustaining a pure line and has a tendency to come apart on the high notes, and Umberto Chiummo’s Lycomedes isn’t the steadiest either - but in the three main roles where it counts, the performances are utterly delightful. There are considerable singing challenges in the roles of Deidamia, Ulysses and Achilles, which are compounded by the three of them having to find a way of bringing these character’s fairly routine sentiments to life and work together dramatically. Silvia Tro Santafé, I mentioned earlier brings a forcefulness of expression and depth of sentiment that is perfectly matched by beauty and lightness of Sally Matthews’ nonetheless robust singing and her eye-catching performance, each of them further contrasted by Olga Pasichnyk performance of Achilles’ impetuous masculine vigour and enthusiasm. Although the aria form doesn’t give much of an opportunity for these characters to interact, the strength of Handel’s work is in providing just such a contrast of personalities, situations and emotional tones, and this cast really makes that work in a way that is simply spellbinding.

Beautifully staged, with wonderful colour schemes and lighting, this spectacle looks outstanding in High Definition on Blu-ray, but the HD audio tracks are most impressive. There’s a brightness and clarity and luxuriousness of tone in both the PCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes that really highlights the qualities of the period instruments in a Baroque orchestra. Directed by Ivor Bolton, the qualities of the score, the construction and rhythm of the music are all the more apparent and impressive. The BD also has an interesting 24-minute featurette that looks behind-the-scenes at the music and stage rehearsals, interviewing those involved, as well as a Cast Gallery. The booklet examines the themes in Handel’s work in more depth and there’s a full synopsis. The disc is all-region, BD50, Full HD, with subtitles in English, French, German and Dutch only.

RinaldoGeorge Friedrich Handel - Rinaldo

Glyndebourne, 2011 | Ottavio Dantone, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Robert Carsen, Sonia Prina, Varduhi Abrahamyan, Tim Mead, Anett Fritsch, Brenda Rae, Luca Pisaroni, William Towers | Opus Arte

It’s always good to have a fresh outlook placed on the subjects of Handel’s Baroque operas - or at least I think so anyway. Whether it’s traditional (although I’ve never seen a Handel opera done “authentically” period), whether it’s in a modern setting, or according to a more abstract conception, it helps if there is a strong vision that is able to reconsider what the essential themes of the work are and how they can be best presented to a modern audience. In the case of Rinaldo, a staging of the work in its libretto specified setting during the first Crusade is sufficiently remote from modern beliefs, attitudes and experience as to be possibly a distraction from the real themes that underpin the work. The purpose of any production, modern dress or otherwise, must surely be to reflect on what the work is actually about, not recreate a historical performance, and if it can break through the rigid formalism of opera seria and actually make it entertaining at the same time, well then so much the better.

Which brings us to Robert Carsen’s very distinctive but carefully considered Glyndebourne 2011 production of Handel’s first London opera from 1711. Recognising that it’s not the most consistent work, the majority of it cobbled together like a remix of Handel’s earlier greatest hits, it certainly does no harm to try and make it look as fresh and meaningful as Handel somehow manages to make it all sound. Carsen makes his intentions clear from the outset, asking the question “Were the Crusades political or inspired by an act of personal vengeance?” This message is written in chalk across a blackboard and it’s an English boys’ boarding school that acts as the backdrop or framing device to delve into the personal sentiments expressed so beautifully if somewhat generically in what is after all a patched together piece. In response to this history lesson question, a young boy, bullied and teased by his classmates, his life made a misery by his authoritarian teachers, imagines himself the great warrior Rinaldo and sees the mighty forces of Goffredo coming out from behind the blackboard to slay his tormentors.

Setting a Crusades war within the confines of a boarding school, the action taking place in classrooms, bike-sheds, dorms and locker rooms, with a gym turned into a torture chamber (there’s a difference?) and an epic battle taking place on a football pitch, the production could however just as easily be seen as placing itself at a distance from the actual events described and sung about in the libretto, but Carsen manages nonetheless to faithfully retain the entire sense of the original work within this setting. At the centre of the events relating to the siege of Jerusalem, Rinaldo’s promised love, Almirena - daughter of Goffredo - is abducted by Argante, the General of the Saracen army during a three-day truce, recognising that Rinaldo is the key to the outcome of the battle. Almirena is placed under the enchantment of the sorceress and Saracen Queen, Armida - but it’s the enchantress and her General fall prey to their own sentimental weaknesses in relation to this heroic couple. In the mind of a schoolboy, this story is wrapped up in teasing by his classmates over his girlfriend, and the dark figures of authority that keep them apart are those of the school teachers. Mix in some Furies that have a bit of a St Trinian’s thing going on and sadistic teachers in rubber bondage outfits and it certainly adds another dimension to the passions and characterisation of these mythological figures.

Through this blending of fiction, reality and fantasy, the Glyndebourne production of Rinaldo captures the essential sense of the power of mythology and identification with the sense of empowerment that lies within it - something that is much more relevant (although the case could be argued otherwise) than the sense of nationalistic pride and moral righteousness that comes with battling the dark sorcery of dangerous foreign infidels. Robert Carsen’s production, I would argue, however doesn’t entirely discount these themes either but brings them out in other ways. There are lots of clever little details in the props, uniforms and locations of a English public boarding school that reveal the same institutionalised nationalistic and militaristic attitudes. Quite correctly however, these are secondary to the love story whose purity is reflected perfectly in the innocence of first-love in the playground and by the bike-sheds. It also manages to find an imaginative way around those tricky stage directions calling for armies on horseback launching into epic battles.

Many of these directorial choices provoke laughs from the audience at Glyndebourne, which you might not consider appropriate for an opera seria work, but it shows that there is genuine engagement with the work. Whether it also inspires the performers I couldn’t say, but musically and in terms of the singing, this is a magnificent production, so at least it clearly isn’t a distraction. All the main roles are sung terrifically well. Tim Mead is one of the best Handel countertenors, but I’ve never heard him singing so well as Eustazio, his voice as angelically pure as a schoolboy soprano, so perhaps the production does indeed help in that respect. The purity and idealism of young love and innocent idealism also works in favour of contralto Sonia Prina’s Rinaldo and Anett Fritsch’s Almirena - both combining expressiveness with a gorgeous clarity and tone; and if being a sadistic headmaster and a kinky dominatrix school teacher gives force to the commanding performances of Luca Pisaroni and Brenda Rae as Argante and Armida - both of them demonstrating masterful coloratura - then I’ve no problem with that either. Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Goffredo sounds strong enough at the start, but she isn’t able to sustain this through to the final act.

The whole thing however is held together and driven along musically by the outstanding performance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ottavio Dantone and anchored by his scintillating harpsichord playing, and it’s given additional emphasis in the clarity of the audio tracks on this DVD/BD release. It’s particularly impressive in the High Definition Blu-ray presentation. I don’t think I praise the actual quality of the sound reproduction on Blu-ray releases quite enough, but when you hear the tone of the Baroque period instruments in orchestral playing like this and exceptionally good singing, it just sounds incredible. This is a very fine recording. Image quality too is near flawless, the production covered well in the editing with no distractions. The Opus Arte release also contains a few excellent short features on the production and the musical interpretation in the extra features interviews (it’s good to hear the musicians views for a change), and there’s a booklet with an essay on the work and a full synopsis. The BD is all-region, 1080i Full-HD, with PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. Subtitles are in English, French and German only.

JephthaGeorge Friedrich Handel - Jephtha

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Harry Christophers, Frederic Wake-Walker, James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley, Gillian Keith, Jonathan Best, William Purefoy, Elizabeth Karani | Buxton Opera House - 11 July 2012

Staging a Handel oratorio is an attractive proposition, since they often contain some of his most beautiful and stirring compositions in a much freer and more varied form outside of the restrictions and conventions of the Italian opera seria, but they inevitably present certain challenges when it comes to dramatising them for the stage. Works such as Theodora and Belshazzar are indeed semi-dramatic, their religious subject sometimes the only reason preventing them being staged as operas due to English censorship restrictions of the time on the staging of biblical subjects, and they have been successfully adapted as staged opera works, as even has Messiah. Categorised as a “dramatic oratorio in three acts”, Jephtha however doesn’t actually have all that much happening in the way of action, but the qualities of the music in Handel’s final oratorio, finished while partially blind and losing his sight completely soon after, mean that it’s certainly worth trying to find a way to present it to a modern audience.

The libretto by Dr Thomas Morell presents the biblical story of Jephtha from the Book of Judges in the oratorio style of repeated declamations and pronouncements, the devout sentiments expressed in a poetic fashion with only small sections of recitative to link them together. Not a lot actually happens in the relatively straightforward story, where Zabul asks his brother Jephtha to lead the Israelites into battle against the Ammonites. If successful, Jephtha will continue to rule and he vows that if God helps him, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees on his return. It’s his daughter Iphis however who he encounters, come to meet her father. Jephtha agonises over what has happened, but intends to carry out his promise, only to be prevented at the last moment by the intervention of an angel. The biblical story is filled out (and given a happy ending) by Morell by way of Euripides, with some scenes featuring Iphis’s beloved Hamor, and Jephtha’s wife Storge lamenting the premonitions she has had of what is to befall her family.

Like opera seria work from this period, it’s difficult to stage such scenes naturalistically, and particular so in a work that was created as an oratorio, where not only is there much expression of interiorised emotions, but those expressions are particularly ‘elevated’, by which I mean relating to religious convictions and conceptual ideas more so than simply reacting to circumstances. A conventional stage setting won’t work, and might even work against such a particular means of expression, so director Frederick Wake-Walker’s approach is appropriately conceptual. Initially, the staging seems to take a leaf from the book of Christof Loy, the stage bare but for five chairs, the singers dressed formally, taking their places as if for a rehearsal of a performance, walking forward to sing from the stand placed at the front of the stage, with some brief interaction between them. The idea of it being a performance remains throughout, coming through again at the presentation of flowers at the end, but there are other elements at play here that are more difficult to pin down.

It’s left to the chorus - an important element in Handel oratorios, and the principal attraction for staging such works - to take on the task of enhancing the meaning or deeper expression in this Buxton Festival production of Jephtha. Dressed in black robes, with ruffs around their neck, quite what their movements and placements on the stage mean can’t really be defined, but in many respects, they are the embodiment of the scenery, the sentiments and the whole mood of the piece. I know that sounds like grasping for meaning, but meaning is there for the individual to find in the work and its presentation, and if you are attempting to express dark thoughts and “scenes of horror”, then this approach is much more appropriate than setting it in a countryside location or some such naturalistic location. The measure of whether this approach works or not is in whether the full force of the work comes across without the need for literalism (which would be difficult to find in this work in any case), and there was no question that it served Handel and Morell’s work exceptionally well.

Just as vital, if not evidently more so, is the musical accompaniment and the singing, and in that respect, the staging supported what was being expressed here and didn’t detract from it. The playing from the Orchestra of the Sixteen in the pit conducted by Harry Christophers was marvellous, finding the drama in the music itself and working in accord with the singers. The role of Jephtha has the widest variety of emotions, from angry declamation and fervent passion though to complete dejection and soft humility, and James Gilchrist matched the tone and delivery for each sentiment perfectly. This is a wonderful work however for the variety of voices and in how they work together side-by-side in individual sections, but also in unison in duets and trios. Susan Bickley’s Storge, Gillian Keith’s Iphis and countertenor William Purefoy’s Hamor were all outstanding in this respect, each fully characterising their roles through the voice even more so than through the expression of somewhat obscure pronouncements. Jonathan Best and Elizabeth Karani in the smaller roles of Zebul and Angel fitted wonderfully into this arrangement, an arrangement of voices and expression that is amplified by Handel’s choral writing, delivered passionately by the Festival Chorus.

CesareGeorge Frideric Handel - Giulio Cesare in Egitto

Salzburg Festival, Haus für Mozart, 2012 | Giovanni Antonini, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Andreas Scholl, Cecilia Bartoli, Anne Sofie von Otter, Philippe Jaroussky, Christophe Dumaux, Jochen Kowalski, Ruben Drole, Peter Kálmán | ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming, 27 May 2012

The question of how to stage a Baroque opera, rather different in form from the more familiar narrative drama form established in 19th century opera, has been a tricky issue that has had to be addressed in order to bring these works back into the modern opera repertoire. How do you make a rather long-winded and out-dated style of opera appealing enough to engage an audience through all the ornate embellishments and opera seria conventions? It helps of course if the score is by Handel, and it helps if the opera in question has a subject as juicy as Julius Cesar’s campaign in Egypt and his romantic encounter with Cleopatra, with some beautiful, memorable arias, and a considerable amount of profuse romantic declarations and rejections, and large amounts of political plotting and scheming. Despite being the most popularly staged Handel opera, the work - four hours long and featuring no less than four principal countertenor/castrato roles - does present considerable challenges in the staging of these event, since most of the action is alluded to only in the brief recitative and usually takes place off-stage. An “authentic” period treatment for the four hours of Giulio Cesare in Egitto could be a bit of a slog for an audience without some visual entertainment, and it seems to be with that principle in mind that Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production of Handel’s 1724 opera for the 2012 Salzburg Pentecost Festival (newly under the directorship of Cecilia Bartoli) is certainly nothing like a period treatment.

Let’s just take a couple of early examples to see how they approach the long drawn-out expressions of deep emotions that establishes the characters and their relation to each other in the critical First Act. Cornelia, aghast at the murder of her husband Pompeo, his head cut off and presented to Cesare by Tolomeo in a misguided attempt to gain favour and the rule of Egypt, sings of her loss in an exquisite lament (‘Priva son d’ogni conforto’) that doesn’t actually require her to do anything dramatically, just emote the pain. Sung eloquently and movingly by Anne Sofie von Otter, the sentiments don’t really need any further elaboration, but Leiser and Caurier choose to show the depths of Cornelia’s despair by having her place her head in the jaws of a crudely manufactured giant rubber crocodile. Or - how should one stage the aria ‘L’empio, sleale, indegno’, where Tolomeo vents his anger at Cesare, while standing alone on the stage? Well, Leiser and Caurier have him tear apart a foam dummy of Cesar (one that bizarrely has arrived earlier on the top of the limousine bearing the arrival of the Roman Emperor), pulling bloody innards out of the stomach and biting into them.

Evidently such scenes clearly bear no relation to naturalism, never mind tradition, and as the early booing from the audience at Tolomeo’s tantrum here demonstrates, it’s clearly not for everyone. Whether it’s to your taste or not, in both cases, it can’t be denied that the visual expression of those scenes don’t really do anything more than simply match the extravagance and depth of feelings as they are expressed by both characters through the excessively ornate terms of the da capo aria. The nature of the convention and its lack of adherence to any kind of naturalism in dramatic situations is even played upon in Act II, when Cesare’s General, Curio - dressed in modern army combat gear - looks on in a frustrated manner as he tries to get the Emperor into a bulletproof vest and away from a group of assassins approaching them in Cleopatra’s palace, only for Cesare to insist on returning to the front of the stage to finish the long repetitions of his da capo aria. It’s clever, it’s knowing, it’s aware of the conventions and working within them, but most importantly, Leiser and Caurier’s production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto is never boring.

Updating the involvement of a major Western power in the turmoil of the Middle-East to a modern setting is however clearly always going to generate some amount of controversy and to their credit, Leiser and Caurier don’t shy away from scenes that, in some cases, almost seem designed to shock and provoke a reaction. Little of that however relates to any actual commentary on real-life modern-day situations other than in the broadest of terms, but there are certainly recognisable features of present-day Egypt, the wider Middle-East conflict and recent Arab Spring rebel uprisings, with the stage bearing all the signs of a desert war, littered with burning tanks and, um, giant lizards. As head of the invading foreign power, Cesare here is keen to strike up a deal with the new regime, installing Tolomeo as the new puppet ruler in an arrangement that will be beneficial to Rome for the setting up of oil wells in the region. In this context, having seen his father killed by this cruel regime, Sesto becomes a terrorist and straps a bomb around his waist for a suicide attack, assisted by his grieving mother. Bombs rain down in a shock-and-awe battle towards the end of the conflict, as the rebels take on the government forces. Without having to make any overt commentary on the Middle East, it’s a scenario that a modern audience would be able to relate to - certainly more than Cesar’s campaign in Egypt in 48 BC - but what is even more surprising is how well it actually works hand-in-hand with the themes, if not the actual historical events, recounted in Handel’s work.

The directors however - depending on your view - could be seen as pushing things a little too far into parody. Certainly the abuse of power, the sexual improprieties and the mistreatment of women that go along with it are all part and parcel of the exercise of political authority and ambition - as is Cleopatra’s use of seduction to try to gain power herself - but the manner in which these scenes are depicted seems to be fully considered according to the nature of the characters and not merely put in to shock the audience. For Cleopatra’s part, it all seems to be done with a sense of fun, and Cecilia Bartoli (well used to working with this directing team) throws herself bravely into the role, and not just in singing terms - which you would expect anyway. She seems to enjoy playing the part of this sexy temptress, vamping it up in a leather outfit that emphasises her ample bosom, or as a dancing girl with feather fans, even dancing like an Egyptian while wearing a wig of the Queen’s famous bob hairstyle. At one point in Act II she even rides a rocket bomb (as Cupid’s dart) into the sky, which earns huge applause, although her stunning delivery of the aria might have had something to do with that. Her character’s slip into lamentations in the second half of the work however is handled without any such fuss or spectacle (although she also feels like sacrificing herself to the rubber crocodile at one point). So too, the enslavement of Cornelia and the attempts to use her as a bargaining tool for sale on is treated with great delicacy, but the “villains” less so, Tolomeo shown jerking off to a porn mag while singing “Belle dee di questo core”.

More than simply setting out to shock or upset, the impression given is that, in their attempt to prove that opera seria doesn’t have to be just a long series of tedious arias with short sections of recitative to set them up, the directors have perhaps just gone too far in the other direction and thrown in far too many ideas that don’t always work. This Giulio Cesare in Egitto is just overflowing with ideas and there’s almost too much to take in. But one thing for sure is that it’s never, ever boring, and in a four-hour Handel opera, that’s quite an achievement. Just as importantly, it doesn’t detract from what it the most important element of the work, and that is its expression through the singing. Bartoli, as noted above, is just outstanding, fully entering into the role and singing it beautifully, powerfully and with genuine feeling and understanding for the character of Cleopatra. Andreas Scholl’s delicate countertenor also fully embodies the character of Cesare, the singing impassioned, the da capo coloratura both expressive and impressive. The real key to the success of this production however lies in the equal attention given to the superb casting and performances of the other roles, particularly Anne Sofie von Otter’s Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky’s Sesto. Their expressions of deep anguish underpin the seriousness of drama and its conviction, and they are both outstanding in individual arias, but particularly impressive in their ‘Son nata a lagrimar’ duet. Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo, Jochen Kowalski as Nireno, Peter Kálmán as Curio and Ruben Drole as Achilla also give fine performances that ensure that there are no weak elements here as far as the singing is concerned.

Giulio Cesare in Egitto was recorded on 27th May 2012 and broadcast live by the French/German television channel ARTE. It is currently available to view in its entirety for free on their ARTE Live Web site.

OrlandoGeorge Frideric Handel - Orlando

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2012 | René Jacobs, Pierre Audi, Bejun Metha, Sophie Karthäuser, Kristina Hammarström, Sunhae Im, Konstantin Wolff | Internet Streaming, 12 May 2012

As conductor René Jacobs observes in the programme notes for this production of Orlando for La Monnaie-De Munt (watched via their Internet streaming service), Handel - like many other composers who have tackled the subject - must have felt somewhat inspired by the subject of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’, for in contrast to some of his works for the Kings Theatre in London where he reworked music from other earlier pieces, Orlando is composed of entirely new music. It may even be the case that Handel took a hand in the writing of the libretto itself, drawing from a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, introducing some new characters and arrangements to suit his own ideas.

Ever the businessman, there is clearly a calculated approach to Handel’s arrangements for Orlando, which works within the strict conventions of opera seria that audiences and singers would have expected, but seeking to make Italian opera a success in London, Handel also ensured that there is something in it for everyone. Even within the limitations of dramatic action that you can expect from such Baroque work, Handel extended the frame of the unrequited love story between the great warrior Orlando and Angelica, the Queen of Cathay through the introduction of the characters Dorinda and Zorastro - neither of whom appear in Ariosto’s source work - bringing a lighter element and even some comedy with the former and a supernatural aspect with the latter. This gives Handel scope to extend the emotional range of the work to some extent, but the majority of the work is still based around the expression and hiding of feelings between characters who still conform very much to commedia dell’arte types.

Orlando

The origins of the work extend back to ‘Le Chanson de Roland’, written by a monk at the end of the 11th century, which relates the tale of Roland (who becomes Orlando the story was developed into Italian by Ariosto) set against the background of Charlemagne’s campaign against the Saracens in 778. At the heart of the work is the supremacy of reason - symbolically shown with the appearance of an eagle in the third act - which helps quell the fires of passion that have been aroused during the romantic complications that have taken place. Dorinda is in love with Medoro, the wounded soldier she has been tending, but he is in love with Angelica, who shares his feelings. Orlando however is also in love with Angelica, but she can’t bring herself to admit to the heroic warrior who has saved her life that she is really in love with Medoro and, having been warned by Zorastro of Orlando’s jealous rages, she is somewhat frightened of the consequences should Orlando find out about her love for Medoro. And she has good reason to be cautious, for when Orlando discovers their names carved together on a tree, he burns down Dorinda’s house with Medoro inside and attempts to murder Angelica, until Zorastro’s intervention finally brings him back to his senses.

Concerned very much with inner feelings and emotions expressed and kept hidden, their force given expression through a descent into madness, Orlando does inevitably present a challenge when it comes to staging it. For Pierre Audi, the director of the De Nederlandse Opera, Orlando is very much a psychological drama, and his production accordingly uses the burning of Dorinda’s house as the key symbol of Orlando’s state of mind throughout. It’s certainly a valid way to approach the work, but Audi’s method introduces a few complications that don’t always seem to be entirely coherent or successful. The decision to portray Orlando as a fireman in Act I is a strange one - although one can see how it relates to a modern depiction of his heroism and the esteem that he is held in, as well as relating it to the notion of playing with fire, the fire of passion, and the pyromaniac actions that ensue later - but apart from the wearing of a helmet and some barrels and hoses on the stage, this occupation isn’t over-emphasised. Perhaps even more difficult to grasp however is the fluid approach towards the timeline of events that Audi sees as a reflection of Orlando’s perspective in his madness.

Orlando

In Act I then, Dorinda’s house has already been burned, the charred remains of its frame are all that are left of it, and Orlando and his firecrew are gathering the hoses back in. An altered view of the destroyed house is shown in the second act, which is where the derangement of Orlando’s nightmare is most pronounced, believing himself to be on the banks of the Styx and drawn to the land of the dead. Projections are used to emphasise his delirium, with repeated imagery of Orlando walking through fields of fire. Act III, where the house is actually burnt down, instead focuses on reconstruction, with a new frame being built, although - in line with the open ending - the rebuilding is necessarily left incomplete. Audi’s other idea for the stage treatment is to often have the characters remain on the stage even after their have sung their aria and should normally be making their exit. This is a fairly standard Brechtian device now, revealing the construct behind the drama, and it has relevance to the psychological nature of the opera’s themes, reflecting the mindset of Orlando’s nightmarish descent into madness, the jumbling of timelines in his mind and his presence at scenes where he is not normally involved reflecting his imagining or reconstruction of events in his mind.

Orlando

I’m not sure that this reorganisation of the events or their altered perspective really makes anything any clearer, whether it really gets into the mind of the character, or even that it makes the stage action any more compelling to watch, but it does seem to work well with the rather complex psychology and inner turmoil that is sung about and reflected in the score. That is brought out wonderfully by René Jacobs and the playing of the Baroque Orchestra B’Rock, Jacobs making the most of the freedom open to the conductor and the resources at their disposal by expanding the instrumentation for the basso continuo for the brief excerpts of recitative for a more fluid arrangement. The casting for this production is also very strong for all five main roles. Bejun Metha sings Orlando with an otherworldly quality that doesn’t however always seem to get to the heart of his passion and rage, but he is a very fine countertenor. Sophie Karthäuser is a marvellous Angelica and mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström handles the role of Medoro well, but again, you never feel any of them completely get to grips with the characters. In line with Handel’s revisions of the character dynamic in the work however, Sunhae Im displays the most personality as Dorinda, singing with a light beautiful Mozartian voice, and Konstantin Wolff adds the necessary weight as Zorastro.

Orlando is available for viewing free online on the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt until 2nd June 2012.

AriodanteGeorg Friedrich Handel - Ariodante

Theater Basel, 2012 | Luca Tittoto, Franziska Gottwald, Maya Boog, Nikolay Borchev, Christiane Bassek, Agata Wilewska, Noel Hernández Lopez | Basel, Switzerland, 17 May 2012

This is obviously very much a personal view, but the best approach to staging Baroque opera seems to be to avoid the traditional approach at all costs. By all means stick to the traditional in terms of singing and period instrumentation - there really isn’t any alternative that works better - but in my experience, if you want to find a way to engage a modern audience and take them through the rather static drama and the rather stiff conventions of the repetitive da capo arias of Baroque opera, it helps if there is some inventiveness and an imaginative approach to the staging. Done straight, it can be difficult to lift or support the emotions that are being expressed at length in the long arias between the few moments of dramatic content - although this obviously depends on the composer and Handel is certainly an exception - but until relatively recently, it was supposed that hardly any Baroque opera, not even Handel, could ever be presented to a modern audience.

Thankfully, through painstaking research, restoration and training in period instruments from Baroque musical experts like William Christie, Jordi Savall, René Jacobs and Christophe Rousset, have proved that these works are of much more than just interest to music historians. Staging these works however is another matter altogether, and it often requires a radical approach. I’m thinking of Doris Dörrie’s Noh-theatre inspired direction of Handel’s Admeto, the Royal Opera House’s 2010 production of Steffani’s Niobe or, as when I last visited the Theater Basel, the WWII updating of Gluck’s Telemaco, but as seen with William Kentridge’s production of Die Zauberflöte, there are also a wider range of tools that can be at service to a director of personal vision and imagination. In my experience - again this is very much a personal viewpoint - it’s surprising just how successful some of the more radical presentations can be in this respect, the more abstract conceptual stage approach tapping into the emotional content over and above the dry recounting of the narrative of the libretto. I don’t think however that I’ve ever seen anything quite as ambitious as director Stefan Pucher and the Theater Basel’s wonderful willingness to experiment with Baroque opera through modern theatrical tools in their extraordinary 2012 production of Handel’s Ariodante.

Ariodante

When you speak about the stage direction here however, it’s necessary to consider the input from the innovative and visually impressive set design by Barbara Ehnes and the costumes of Annabelle Witt, as Stefan Pucher’s stage direction is truly a multimedia event. It’s through these different layers - along with the lighting, the use of projected images and even filmed sequences projected onto the sets - that the different layers of the music, the interaction of the characters and the heightened emotions are fully explored, much more so than the usual static delivery of the long arias. It’s not that all the necessary qualities aren’t already there in Handel’s exquisite compositions that capture the sentiments of its characters so well, but the staging simply allows an audience to see them visualised and respond to those qualities from an older operatic tradition that would otherwise seem almost unfathomable to anyone used to a more modern or traditional approach.

There’s nothing particularly inspiring about Ariodante’s late-eighth century Scottish setting, but theatre director Stefan Pucher - in his first opera production - clearly recognises that this ancient setting and the opera seria music that accompanies it is so far removed from what we are familiar with as to be practically abstract anyway. What is still relevant is the opera’s human story of love, jealousy, deception and revenge, and that was given utmost consideration. Act I then accordingly provided a tartan overload in the most extravagant of colours and weaves that, if they might not relate to any specific clan, certainly gave each of the figures their own strong definition. The tartan stretched to the brightly lit and visually impressive set designs that seems to create an enhanced 3-D effect through the still images, gothic paintings (by 17th century artist Otto Marseus van Schrieck), slow moving projections and lighting effects on the foreground screens, while the singing platform was set back on a revolving stage within a wide inverted cross. The sets inside were rather minimal, with a few eccentric touches in keeping with the Schrieck imagery such as giant bugs and slugs in an orange room in Act 1, but the frequent refreshing of the set from scene to scene all contributed to keep attention from flagging.

Ariodante

Even this would eventually have become tiresome over the course of the whole opera, but the designers also managed to find a distinct visual look for each of the subsequent two acts, if it was never a look that related naturalistically to any location specified in the libretto. A kick-boxing match standing-in for the battle between Polinesso and Ariodante on the jousting grounds was perhaps the strangest sight in Act III. Showing that there was a complete understanding of the structure of the works however and the necessary impact that was written into the chorus and ballet finales of each of the acts, the director pulled out all the stops at these points, inviting the audience to sing along to ‘Sì godete al vostro amor’ from music sheets handed out to the audience when entering the theatre (a surprisingly invigorating experience), and using filmed outdoor sequences featuring the cast, which was also extremely effective in suggesting the depths of Ginevra’s madness and inner turmoil at the end of Act II. More than just being visually stunning, the whole multimedia experience encompassed the tone and the intent of the music score, as well as drawing in the viewer and involving them fully in the experience. It made the production - the finest I think I’ve seen during the 2011-12 season - absolutely riveting.

Ariodante

It was not so riveting however that attention wouldn’t occasionally be drawn to the wonderful playing of this magnificent opera on period instruments by the La Cetra Barockorchester Basel under the direction of Andrea Marcon. Even they were visually integrated into the spectacle, placed on a platform that would rise and sink at the start and end of each act like an old-fashioned cinema organist, allowing the music to take centre stage where appropriate. Just as importantly, there was full attention given to the direction of the performers, who were never allowed to become just singing props that fitted into the overall package, and with the kind of singing we were hearing here, there was even less likelihood of them being overwhelmed by the spectacle. Mezzo-sporano Franziska Gottwald demonstrated a breathtaking range and facility for the demanding arias assigned to Ariodante, and was particularly impressive in Act II’s ‘Scherza infida’. Maya Boog however was just as impressive as Ginevra, handling the arias with aplomb, but also acting with genuine emotional and dramatic conviction throughout. There were however no weak elements in the casting which also included Agata Wilewska as Dalinda, Luca Tittoto as the King, Nikolay Borchev as Lurciano and Christiane Bassek as a disturbingly moustachioed, long-haired villain Polinesso, and Noel Hernández Lopez as Odoardo.

RodelindaGeorge Frideric Handel - Rodelinda

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Harry Bicket, Stephen Wadsworth, Renée Fleming, Stephanie Blythe, Andreas Scholl, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Shenyang | The Met: Live in HD - December 3, 2011

The challenges of staging a Baroque opera for a modern audience are difficult enough through trying to find a way to make the rather static nature of the drama more interesting to watch and bring the archaic musical conventions of the opera seria alive. By nature a more intimate drama, the difficulties of reaching out to a large audience in a major opera house, or even indeed to a worldwide audience watching live through a HD broadcast link must be even greater. With their production of Handel’s Rodelinda, the Met certainly made every effort to keep the drama and action moving through an inventive, appropriate, period set with direction by Stephen Wadsworth, and consideration was clearly given to the casting of strong singers to project the deeper emotional drama of the piece, but there was the feeling that the Met really isn’t the right venue for such works and the full impact of one of Handel’s most lyrical and dramatic operas was never fully achieved here.

Although it has a reputation for having a complex plot, the dramatic action of Rodelinda is actually not all that difficult to follow, and on the surface at least, it’s actually one of Handel’s least complicated situations. Updated in this production to Milan in the early 18th century, the King of Lombardy, Bertarido, has been deposed by Grimoaldo, and is believed dead. Grimoaldo, had been planning to marry Bertarido’s sister Eduige in order to gain a legitimate claim to the throne, but resolves instead to marry the queen, Rodelinda. Grimoaldo’s henchman, Garibaldo, puts pressure on Rodelinda, threatening the life of her son, and she reluctantly is forced to accept Grimoaldo’s proposal. Her husband Bertarido however is not dead, but has been smuggled into the city by his friend Unulfo, who still remains loyal. Overhearing Rodelinda’s agreement to marry Grimoaldo, Bertarido is forced to reveal that he is still alive, a selfless act that causes Grimoaldo to reconsider his intentions. The remainder of the storyline falls into conventional lines of resolution of both the political and, more importantly, the romantic situations that have become entangled.

Rodelinda
Even if it is fairly conventional in this respect, there is however still rather more dramatic action than you usually find in a Handel opera, with plenty of confrontations between opposing rivals and reunions between lost lovers. The real drama however goes on beneath the surface, the inner turmoil expressed, as it it often is in Baroque opera, through long repetitive da capo arias. Rodelinda is one of Handel’s most beautiful works for how these inner conflicts are expressed in the singing and in the music. It’s more than the usual, “I’ve been betrayed, how can I live with the shame?” type of situations, and the resolution is more than the person in the wrong coming to their senses and bringing about an honourable resolution that restores the political and romantic order of things. Superficially, it has to be admitted, Rodelinda does fit this template to a large extent, but it’s how those characters grapple with those difficult decisions, and it’s how those sentiments are expressed in the singing voice in some lovely poetic arias, through the achingly tender musical accompaniment, and in how the characters evolve over the course of the three acts, that the opera excels as one of Handel’s finest, most involving and most beautiful works.

From interval discussions behind the scenes during the HD-Live broadcast, it’s clear that the singers and conductor Harry Bicket are fully aware of the qualities of the work, of how those dramatic situations need to be presented, and how those deeper emotional conflicts and character development can be expressed in the improvisational coloratura of the seemingly rigid form of the da capo aria. Somehow, however, this never managed to be convincingly conveyed in either the dramatic staging, the singing or the performance of the orchestra. The Met’s Rodelinda treated Handel’s opera with skill, respect and consideration, but it just never felt like a Handel opera. As good as each of the singers is individually, the casting here was perhaps not the most appropriate for this particular opera. Personally, I’m not usually of the opinion that there’s only one way to present a work or that certain singers should only stick to a certain repertoire for which they are best suited – I like seeing a singer stretch their capabilities as much as I enjoy seeing a familiar opera transformed by a new interpretation – but few if any of the Met’s stellar cast seemed entirely comfortable in their roles here.

Rodelinda

Renée Fleming championed this work and helped get it performed at the Met when it was first produced in 2004, and she is a terrific dramatic singer who brings an attentive intelligence to the role of Rodelinda. Fleming demonstrated that she is capable of meeting the extraordinary vocal challenges in her own way, but – even though she is experienced in this type of opera – perhaps the demands of the Baroque technique got in the way in this performance, because she never succeeded in bringing the Queen’s drama to life. Neither did Stephanie Blythe fit well in the role of Eduige. She sang more than adequately, but you just didn’t get a sense that she was feeling her character’s predicament. Bertarido, with his deep reserves of love, honour and bravery, is perhaps the most interesting character in the opera, but Andreas Scholl’s light countertenor was too small for the Met production and didn’t always bring enough underlying steeliness of his character’s core. Iestyn Davies’ countertenor Unulfo however fared much better. Joseph Kaiser and Shenyang were good fits for their roles as the baddies, but even Kaiser failed to draw the full extent of Grimoaldo’s conflict and the change that he undergoes from the beautiful arias that Handel gives this character.

Ultimately however, the singers were competing with an enormous stage set that was certainly inventive and brilliantly designed by Thomas Lynch to keep the action flowing, providing a sense of realism and spectacle, but – like Wadsworth’s production for Iphigénie en Tauride last season – it was much too elaborate for the smaller intimate scale of the human drama that is played out in such a work. The same can be said for the Met Orchestra, which played the score of Rodelinda well enough, but only partially using period instruments and arranged to fill a larger opera house, it lacked the rhythm, the simplicity, the beauty and the delicate touch of a Baroque orchestra. As ever with the Met then, we got a typically top-class opera production, with top-flight singers and an intelligent and considered approach to the work, but either the venue, the occasion or the medium of HD-Live is all wrong for Baroque opera, because this version of Handel’s Rodelinda just never came across as movingly, involvingly and lovingly as it should.

AlcinaGeorg Friedrich Handel - Alcina

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna 2011 | Adrian Noble, Marc Minkowski, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, Anja Harteros, Vesselina Kasarova, Veronica Cangemi, Kristina Hammarström, Alois Mühlbacher, Benjamin Bruns, Adam Plachetka | Arthaus

If it doesn’t do the mostly static and uneventful nature of Handel’s 1735 opera any favours, it’s at least appropriate that director Adrian Noble chooses to stage this production for the Weiner Staatsoper entirely within the ballroom of a stately house. Alcina does indeed feel small and intimate – some might say dry and mechanical – the kind of entertainment put on for the amusement of a gathering of nobles at an 18th century dinner party. That’s not exactly high-concept, but it’s about as adventurous as you’re going to get for a rare performance of a Baroque opera at the Vienna Staatsoper (the first in 50 years), and if it doesn’t do much for the opening up of Alcina, it at least recognises its limitations and, under the baton of the excellent Marc Minkowski, it’s about as good an account of the opera as you could expect.

The play within a play concept is only really nominally adhered to, the overture used to set the occasion within Devonshire House, where Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire and some guests (you would only know this from the production notes) put on a performance that perhaps appeals to or reflects their nature. The Duchess becomes the sorceress Alcina, who enchants men and then casts them off, changing them into wild beasts, trees or ghosts, left to roam her island. Her latest conquest is Ruggiero, who is unaware of his fate, but when his betrothed Bradamante (disguised as a man, Ricciardo) and Melisso, her tutor, come to rescue him, Alcina recognises that she may indeed have real feelings for him. There’s not a whole lot more to the opera than this. There are a few additional complications added with Alcina’s sister Morgana falling in love with Ricciardo (not realising he is actually Bradamante), which enrages Oronte, Alcina’s general who is in love with her. There’s another figure, Oberto, taken in after he and his father were shipwrecked on the island (his father since turned into a wild beast). And just in case that’s all not confusing enough, there are the usual identity problems with trouser roles to come to terms with. Not only is the young boy Oberto played by a female, but Ruggiero is a woman playing a male role who is betrothed to a woman dressed as a man.

AlcinaT

That’s complicated enough to get your head around without having to consider that Adrian Noble’s production has historical figures playing these roles, but it’s not as complex as it sounds. The dramatic action is limited and the emotional content isn’t that deep, the endless da capo arias expressing no profound wisdom or inner turmoil and no noble sentiments beyond simple expressions of love, rejection and love again, repetitively back and forth as awareness of identities and natures are revealed. Essentially, it’s a case of the power of true love prevailing. Handel’s Italian operas can be rather dramatically limited in this respect – certainly when compared to his oratorios – and Alcina seems relatively straightforward in its playing out of the situation, with arrangements that aren’t particular complex. Mood and character however are tastefully evoked throughout, but there are indeed also some beautiful heart-rending arias and melodies by the time the characters reach the crux of their situation at the end of Act II and in Act III.

If the staging is slightly static in an opera where nothing much happens – a fact only emphasised by non-participant guests sitting around watching the performance – Adrian Noble at least makes it all look very lovely indeed, with striking lighting, colours and simple effects that are appropriate to the occasion but highly effective. The tone is matched by Minkowski’s conducting of the Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, finding the rhythmic centre of the score, the whole ensemble bright, vivid and dynamic, but with a delicate touch to individual instruments which are picked out beautifully in the sound mix. The single greatest thing about the choice of staging however is indeed the use of a small core of musicians on the stage creating a wonderful connection in their accompaniment of the singers.

The most notable singing here is from Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova as Ruggiero, demonstrating a remarkable range from deep notes to high coloratura seemingly effortlessly. Her delivery and acting can be slightly mannered and even distracting, perhaps on account of playing a male role, but I don’t think the Vienna audience give her the credit she deserves here. Kristina Hammarströmn is a good Bradamante and Anja Harteros fine as Alcina, if a little lacking in character. There are a few off-notes here and there, but her Act II aria “Ah! Mio cor! Schernito sei!” is one of several beautiful Handel compositions here and sung very well. As Oberto, Alois Mühlbacher thankfully adds some variety to the voices and the repetitive romantic declarations and expressions of disappointment in rejection.Drawn out to three and a half-hours, those sentiments can become rather tedious after a while, but while Alcina isn’t the greatest Handel opera and is fairly static and limited in its dramatic situation, its overall construction is carefully considered and it’s worth persevering with for the some wonderful moments and beautiful arrangements that arise out of it as a whole. The staging and performances from the orchestra and the singers all ensure that those qualities come through.

As do the specifications of the Blu-ray from Arthaus. The sumptuous staging is finely detailed and extraordinarily colourful and, other than the use of fades and one lapse of rapid cross-cutting, the filming is fine. The PCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio mixes are impressive. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. A twenty-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is included.

BelshazzarGeorge Frideric Handel - Belshazzar

Grand Théâtre de Provence, Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2008 | Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik, RIAS Kammerchor, Christof Nel, René Jacobs, Kenneth Tarver, Rosemary Joshua, Bejun Mehta, Kristina Hammerström | Harmonia Mundi

Belshazzar, written in 1744, was among the first English oratorios composed by Handel after he had abandoned the Italian opera form, and consequently has an interesting place among the composer’s works, still retaining some the dramatic content and style of opera composition. The dramatic content comes about due to the nature of the subject, which is biblical in nature, if not entirely a religious piece of work. So while there are contemplative hymns to God and fervent pleas for deliverance sung throughout, the historical and religious conflicts means that there is a bit more variety to the content and the tone, as well as the opportunity for a staging to apply other meaningful references that could have some present-day significance.

Taking place in 539BC, the Babylon of King Belshazzar is under siege from Cyrus, Prince of the Medes and Persians. The king’s mother Nitocris has a grim foreboding that the city will fall, and this is confirmed by the prophet Daniel. Cyrus has comes up with a plan to divert the Euphrates, and enter the city through its channel while Belshazzar and his men are celebrating the feast of Sesach, the god of wine. Despite warnings and pleas from Nitocris and Daniel, Belshazzar uses the occasion to extend the drunkenness to sacrilegious behaviour that horrifies the Jewish population that are held in captivity in the city. Cyrus enters the city and liberates the Jews from bondage, promising to set up a new Jerusalem.

The plot is not overly complicated for a three-act, almost three-hour oratorio, but there is a certain amount of dramatic ground to cover, which means that there is more opera seria-like recitative in Balshazzar, and consequently, it may not be always quite as musical and melodious as later Handel oratorios. And if the individual sections are not the most memorable or notable Handel however, the impact of the oratorio is on a dramatic level and in the piece as a whole. It’s staged here for the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2008 by Christof Nel in a manner that doesn’t set any modern agenda or updated interpretation of the work, letting the dramatic action be dictated by the words of the libretto. One can see nonetheless that Belshazzar is not just a biblical or historical work, but that it applies as much to the role of a monarch or ruler, which has meaning for the period that the work was written, as well as having relevance to present-day conflicts not so far away from where this is set in antiquity.

René Jacobs conducts the Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik and the RIAS Kammerchor through a fine live performance of Belshazzar at Aix. The singing in English, from principals and chorus soloists alike, is uniformly wonderful across the whole range of voices – tenor, counter-tenor, soprano, mezzo-soprano, bass and male alto – that Handel brilliantly composes for and blends together. Bejun Mehta (whose crystal clear countertenor can also be heard to terrific effect in a recent production of Handel’s Theodora) is notable here as Cyrus and Kenneth Tarver is fine as Belshazzar, but even more impressive are Rosemary Joshua as Nitocris and Kristina Hammerström as Daniel. Such fine singing could not have been easy either with the acting demanded – a drenched Tarver clearly finds it too much – but a good balance between both is achieved in the staging.

I’m not entirely happy with the HD transfer on the Blu-ray from Harmonia Mundi. Even though it’s on a BD50 disc, the encoding is not great, resulting in a faint jerkiness and blurring when there is movement on the screen. The effect may be variable on different players with better refresh rates, but this is the first BD I’ve come across with such a problem. There isn’t enough movement on the screen for this to become a significant issue, but it could be a minor irritation. The audio tracks are in the standard PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and are both fine for the demands of the orchestration and the singing. Subtitles are in English, French and German only. Other than a text synopsis, there are no extra features on the Blu-ray disc.

Castor et Pollux George Frideric Handel - Theodora

Salzburg Festspiele, 2009 | Christof Loy, Ivor Bolton, Freiburger Barockorchester, Salzburger Backchor, Christine Schäfer, Bejun Mehta, Joseph Kaiser, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Bernarda Fink, Ryland Davies | Unitel Classica - C-Major

Presented at the Salzburg Festival in 2009 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, Theodora isn’t a Handel opera, but rather a staged version of his 1750 oratorio. It would however be more accurate to say that this is semi-staged, and perhaps even more accurate to say it’s barely staged at all. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination, and it certainly doesn’t place any demands on the costume or set designers, to scatter a few chairs about the stage and have the chorus and principal singers dress in the modern formal black evening-dress of a concert performance, unless there’s some hidden significance in updating the martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus from Antioch in 3AD to a concert stage. It’s semi-staged in that rather than face the audience, the singers move around a bit, remove the occasional item of clothing and put a little more acting into the singing.

As it turns out though, it doesn’t matter in the slightest if it seems like the production team earned an easy paycheque for this one, because it works. Theodora is not an oratorio that lends itself easily to a dramatic staging and attempts to do so (such as Peter Sellars’ Glyndebourne production) can potentially detract from the true qualities of this remarkable work, so thankfully this version hasn’t been messed around with at all. The oratorio considers the fate of Theodora, a Christian woman who tries to hold her virtue from the assaults of the Roman governor Valens and refuses to worship Jupiter, who is eventually martyred along with a young Roman soldier Didymus who attempts to help her escape from the life of forced prostitution that is her punishment. It’s a religious work, made up of contemplative prayers that espouse virtue and chastity, but, along with the fate of Didymus, who loves Theodora in a pure fashion, there are other noble sentiments in the work that celebrate valour in the face of tyranny and martyrdom.

The music itself – really some of the most exquisite music Handel ever composed – expresses this perfectly and as evocatively as you could imagine. The music is warmly rapturous, the singing heavenly and the choruses inspiringly uplifting. The producers clearly recognise where the strengths of the piece are and give them centre stage, doing nothing in the loose dramatisation that could interfere with the singing performances. Those performances are magnificent, the English diction perfect in every case, with Christine Schäfer’s Theodora exhibiting fragility turning into steely determination, Bejun Mehta a glorious countertenor Didymus and Joseph Kaiser a fine, emotionally moved Septimus. Ivor Bolton conducts the Freiburger Barockorchester with great sensitivity through a breathtaking performance. This is a stunningly beautiful work, perfectly performed and very well presented in High Definition, with a terrifically detailed image and two fine audio tracks in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, where every element of the mix is crystal clear and perfectly balanced.

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