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'Atalanta' at the London Handel Festival
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


Handel's Atalanta was written in a hurry in 1736 as part of the wedding celebrations for Frederick, Prince of Wales (George III's father). In some ways this was ironic as Frederick was a supporter of the rival Opera of the Nobility; in fact Frederick did not attend any of the celebratory performances of Atalanta.

Handel wrote the piece for his Covent Garden company, substantially the same company which had premièred Alcina and Ariodante. He no longer had the services of Salle's dance company but did have available Covent Garden's small chorus and the possibility for some suitable scenic extravagances. These latter were concentrated on the celebratory epilogue which as added to the opera, with Mercury appearing as a Deus ex Machina in spectacular fashion followed by a finale full of fireworks.

The cast was similar to that for Alcina with Anna Maria Strada del Po as Atalanta, but for his hero Handel had a new castrato, the soprano castrato Gioacchino Conti. Conti was a real soprano, Handel took him up to top C in one aria, so that one of the beauties of Atalanta is the way the hero and heroine duet with each other, both in the soprano register.

Tyler Clarke and Stephanie Lewis in the London Handel Festival's production of 'Atalanta'. Photo © 2008 Chris Christodoulou
Tyler Clarke and Stephanie Lewis in the London Handel Festival's production of 'Atalanta'. Photo © 2008 Chris Christodoulou

The plot, such as it is, is taken loosely from Ovid, but with all the grisly bits removed. Atalanta is a princess living in disguise as a shepherdess so that she can pursue her love of hunting (an unladylike pursuit unsuitable for someone of marriageable age). She participates in the hunting down of the Calydonian boar, aided by Meleagro. Meleagro is also living in disguise, having come to try and win Atalanta's love. This serious couple is balanced by a lighter couple, Irene and Aminta, who also go through the trials of love caused mainly by Irene's fickleness. The plot, with its pastoral setting and serial misunderstandings, owes a lot to Guarini's Il Pastor Fido; there is none of the complex plotting which can happen in Handel's other opera seria.

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Copyright © 26 April 2008 Robert Hugill, London UK


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