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ROBERT HUGILL looks forward to
English Touring Opera's HandelFest


In case you hadn't noticed, this year is the 250th anniversary of Handel's death. The BBC has been celebrating by broadcasting all forty two of Handel's Italian Operas (along with much else besides). Concert series and festivals have sprouted Handel performances. London concert goers could even hear two Handel operas in one day (thanks to some nifty concert planning from the Barbican and the Southbank Centre).

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), by Balthasar Denner
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), by Balthasar Denner

English National Opera are celebrating with a staged performance of Messiah, one of his oratorios in December, and have already given us a new production of his Italian opera Partenope. Regrettably they failed to revive their productions of Alcina and Ariodante which would have made for rather a nice mini Handel festival. Similarly the Royal Opera House has contributed a danced performance of Acis and Galatea with a new production of Tamerlano to look forward to; luckily, if the idea of Plácido Domingo as Bajazet does not appeal, Domingo is sharing the role with Kurt Streit. The London Handel Festival performed Handel's final two oratorios and staged his opera Alessandro as well as a variety of other material. Both the South Bank and the Barbican have had a number of visiting companies. That some of these are simply dates in a tour can be a mixed blessing. We do get to hear some distinguished London visitors but sometimes works are cut to suit the exigencies of touring -- this was very noticeable in The Sixteen's heavily cut account of Samson at the Barbican earlier this year.

By the time the year is out a London concert goer could probably have managed to clock up a significant number of performances of Handel's oratorios and concert works. But staging of the operas is a different matter. As mentioned above, neither of our national companies has really pulled the stops out, contenting themselves with simply marking the event.

A scene from ETO's 'Alcina' in 2005
A scene from ETO's 'Alcina' in 2005

But one company is making a real fuss: English Touring Opera is not only staging five of Handel's operas but they are taking them on tour. They are reviving their productions of Alcina, Ariodante, Teseo and Tolomeo and doing a new production of Flavio. The operas will be performed during a two week season at the Royal College of Music's Britten Theatre in October, before being toured to Malvern, Exeter, Bath, Snape Maltings and the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Alongside the main operatic offerings there is a programme of lectures, recitals and chamber concerts.

I saw three of these productions, Ariodante, Teseo and Tolomeo, when they were new. All were done on a shoe string and it must be admitted that none was perfect. Teseo was set in a seventeenth century church and had some lovely evocations of seventeenth century paintings; James Conway's production was imaginative but certainly wasn't a literal reading of the richly complex magical effects prescribed in the score. Tolomeo was set in one of those boxes beloved of designers and as most of the cast seemed to be in disguise we got quite a bit of grunge in the costume department. Ariodante was rather bizarrely set in a Scottish manse, with the King of Scotland become the leader of a religious group. Now this didn't do anywhere like the violence to Handel's plot as you might think, but the biggest loss was to the picturesque quality of the setting; Scottish ministers are nowhere near as glamorous as medieval knights with costume less than flattering to women in trousers roles.

But you must set against this the general clarity and lack of fussiness which producers have brought to ETO Handel productions. A lot of this may be down to economies of scale and time, but we must be glad for small mercies. You rarely come out of an ETO Handel production annoyed that the producer has spent the last three hours desperately trying to keep you entertained. This might seem a small point, but for me it is an important one. The London Handel Festival has a rather patchy record in this area; with some productions not only modishly updated but also full of audience-pleasing gimmicks. At ETO the concern seems to be simply how to project Handel and his librettists' wishes given a small budget and the need to tour the production to a wide variety of venues.

It is this touring which makes ETO's HandelFest all the more impressive. Frankly, it would be amazing for such a small company to put on five Handel operas in one theatre, but to then tour them to another five is madness. Granted, not all theatres are getting all operas. Only Malvern, Exeter and Cambridge are getting five Handel operas, Bath and Snape Maltings must be content with two each. For me, one of the benefits of this tour is that it is starting at the Britten Theatre rather than the Hackney Empire. The Hackney Empire is an impressive theatre and a valuable community resource. But as a venue for Handelian opera seria, particularly when done on a small scale, its large auditorium is less than idea. (And as someone who lives in South London, transport arrangements to Hackney are not perfect either!)

James Conway, General Director of ETO, is responsible for the productions of Tolomeo and Flavio, with the other three in the hands of revival directors. Designs for the operas are spread amongst three designers: Michael Vale and Joanna Parker do two each and Adam Wiltshire does one. The cast is similarly hard working, with many singers taking multiple roles. Counter-tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny does a remarkable double by singing Polinesso in Ariodante, a role he sang when the production was new, as well as conducting Flavio. Nathan Vale, a past winner of the London Handel Festival singing competition, sings Lurcanio in Ariodante and Oronte in Alcina. Similarly Carolyn Dobbin, Claire Booth, Neil Baker, Andrew Slater, Katherine Manley, Anne Marie Gibbons, Rachel Nicholls, Clint van der Linde, Paula Sides and James Laing all sing two roles.

ETO tends to use talented young singers mixed in with some more seasoned troupers, so that veteran counter-tenor Derek Lee Ragin will again be singing Egeo in Teseo. Over the years the company has helped launch the careers of many talented singers, so that when attending these performances you have the extra pleasure in trying to guess which young singer will go on to greater things.

In tandem with this, the company will be touring new opera for primary schools: In the Belly of the Horse is based around the tale of the Trojan Horse. And for secondary schools they will be presenting According to Handel, in which four singers from ETO will explore Handel the man and composer.

A scene from ETO's 'Teseo' in 20075
A scene from ETO's 'Teseo' in 20075

The selection of operas gives us quite a wide range of Handel's output from his early magical opera Teseo to his late masterpieces Alcina and Ariodante. Teseo (1713) is based on the libretto for Lully's Thésée and it is unusual in Handel's oeuvre as it is in five acts and generally dispenses with the convention of the exit aria, whereby a major character always leaves the stage after performing the aria. Flavio (1723) was written for the Royal Academy of Music with a cast including Senesino and Francesca Cuzzoni. Unusually, coming amidst a series of very serious operas such as Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano, Flavio is one of Handel's occasional forays into the semi-seria genre, mixing serious with not so serious satirical elements. Tolomeo (1728) is the last opera Handel wrote for the Royal Academy of Music with the dream team cast of Senesino, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni. Ariodante (1734) was the second in the series of operas that Handel wrote after he lost most of his singers to a rival opera company. So the title role was written for the mezzo-soprano voice of Carestini rather than the lower voice of Senesino (who had created eighteen Handel roles). With Alcina (1735) Handel returned to the genre of magic opera after a twenty year gap. The title role was something of a thank-you present to soprano Anna Maria Strada del Po, who had stayed with Handel after his company had departed.

This year marks ETO's thirtieth anniversary, and the company's HandelFest provides a fitting centre-piece to the celebrations.

Copyright © 23 July 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK


English Touring Opera's HandelFest runs from 15 October until 21 November 2009. For details, refer to (+44 (0)20 7833 2555) or contact the venues directly: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London UK (15-17, 21, 23 and 24 October, +44 (0)20 7833 2555), Malvern Festival Theatres (27-31 October, +44 (0)1684 892277), Northcott Theatre, Exeter (3-7 November, +44 (0)1392 493493), Theatre Royal, Bath (9 and 10 November, +44 (0)1225 448844), Snape Maltings (13 and 14 November, +44 (0)1728 687110) and Cambridge Arts Theatre (17-21 November, +44 (0)1223 503333).




















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