04 Jun 2012
Handel and the Rival Queens: Lufthansa Baroque Festival
A fascinating evening of arias and readings on the theme of Handel’s “rival queens”, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni.
I saw two operas consecutively at Oper Koln. First, the utterly bewildering Lucia di Lammermoor; then Thilo Reinhardt’s thrilling Tosca. His staging was pure operatic joy with some Hitchcockian provocations.
Bernard Haitink’s monumental Bruckner and Mahler performances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) got me hooked on classical music. His legendary performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C-minor, where in the Finale loosened plaster fell from the Concertgebouw ceiling, is still recounted in Amsterdam.
Karita Mattila was born to sing Emilia Marty, the diva around whom revolves Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos). At Prom 45, she shone all the more because she was conducted by Jirí Belohlávek and performed alongside a superb cast from the National Theatre, Prague, probably the finest and most idiomatic exponents of this repertoire.
‘Two outrageous operas in one crazy evening,’ reads the bill. Hyperbole? Certainly not when the operas are two of Jacques Offenbach’s more off-the-wall bouffoneries and when the company is Opera della Luna whose artistic director, Jeff Clarke, is blessed with the comic imagination and theatrical nous to turn even the most vacuous trivia into a sharp and sassy riotous romp.
This performance of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne was so good that it was the highlight of the whole season, making the term ‘revival’ utterly irrelevant. Jakub Hrůša is always stimulating, but on this occasion, his conducting was so inspired that I found myself closing my eyes in order to concentrate on what he revealed in Britten's quirky but brilliant score. Eyes closed in this famous production by Peter Hall, first seen in 1981?
A staged piano recital and an opera as a concert. Pianist András Schiff accompanied the Salzburg Marionette Theater at the Mozarteum Grosser Saal and Anna Netrebko sang Manon Lescaut at the Grosses Festspielhaus.
On August 4, 2016, soprano Leah Crocetto and accompanist Tamara Sanikidze gave a recital at the Scottish Rite Center in Santa Fe New Mexico. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Contest, this year Crocetto was singing Donna Anna in Santa Fe Opera’s excellent Don Giovanni.
On July 31, 2016, against the ethereal beauty of the main hall in the Scottish Rite Center, soprano Angela Meade and pianist Joe Illick gave a recital offering both opera and art songs ranging in origin from early nineteenth century Europe to mid twentieth century America. Many in the audience probably remembered Meade’s recent excellent portrayal of Norma at Los Angeles Opera.
When more is definitely more, and less would indeed be less. Two of the biggest names in Italian theater art collide in an eponymous theater.
It was the fifth Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall this season, and we were celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th. And, given the extent and range of the composers and artists, and the diversity and profundity of the musical achievement inspired by the Bard, we could probably keep celebrating in this fashion ad infinitum.
Each August the bleak and leaky, 12,000 seat Arena Adriatica (home of the famed Pesaro basketball team) magically transforms itself into an improvised opera house that boasts the ultimate in opera chic — exemplary Rossini production standards for its now twelve hundred seats.
This highly enjoyable Prom, part of 2016’s ‘Proms at ’ mini-series, took as its guiding concept the reopening of London’s theatres following the Restoration, focusing in particular upon musical and dramatic responses to Shakespeare. Purcell, rightly, loomed large, with John Blow and Matthew Locke joining him. Receiving their Proms premieres were the excerpts from Timon of Athens and those from Locke’s The Tempest.
With all the bombast of the presidential campaigns rattling in our heads, with invectives being exchanged and measured discussion all but absent, how utterly lovely to retreat and relax into the harmonious soundscape and well-reasoned debate posed in Strauss’ Capriccio, on magnificent display at Santa Fe Opera.
When we entered the Crosby Theatre for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette the stage was surprisingly dominated by a somber, semi-circular black mausoleum, many chambers inscribed with scrambled names of US Civil War era dead.
Molten passions were seething just below the icy Nordic exterior of Santa Fe Opera’s wholly masterful production of Barber’s Vanessa.
Farce is probably the most difficult of dramatic comedy sub-genres to put across. A farce got up in the stately robes of opera sets its presenters an even higher bar. Presenting an operatic farce on a notoriously chilly and cavernous auditorium is to risk catastrophe.
Fan interest began raging when Santa Fe Opera engaged venerable artist Patricia Racette to make her role debut as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.
A funny thing happened on the way to Andalusia.
The tale of a Syrian donkey driver. And, yes, the donkey stole the show! The competition was intense — the Vienna Philharmonic and the Grosses Festspielhaus in full production regalia for starters.
Two men, one woman. Both men worshipped and enshrined her in their music. The younger man was both devotee of and rival to the elder.
A fascinating evening of arias and readings on the theme of Handel’s “rival queens”, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni.
Creatively the early 1720’s were a triumph for Handel, he produced a string of masterpieces culminating in Giulio Cesare in 1724. The Royal Academy had a strong cast of singers, the cast headed by the castrato Senesino and the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. But the directors clearly thought something was missing and engaged a second prima donna, Faustina Bordoni. For a few seasons, the Royal Academy had two reigning divas. Bordoni arrived in time for the premiere of Handel’s Alessandro in 1726, thus issuing in the era of ‘The Rival Queens’.
For the final concert of this year’s Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music at St John’s Smith Square on Saturday 26 May, Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company told the story of the amazing and sometimes scandalous seasons when Cuzzoni and Faustina (as they were habitually referred to in the press) reigned supreme. Soprano Mhairi Lawson incarnated Faustina and Lisa Milne (replacing Rosemary Joshua) incarnated Cuzzoni, with Christopher Benjamin reading from contemporary sources. The concert followed events historically, starting with Ottone (1723), Handel’s first opera for Cuzzoni and ending with works written for the sopranos when they left the Royal Academy.
By an unfortunate co-incidence, Alessandro (1726), the opera in which the two sopranos first sang together in London had the same subject, Alexander the Great, as the popular tragedy The Rival Queens (1677) by Nathaniel Lee and the satirical play, The Rival Queans by Colley Cibber. Thus the press and the public soon dubbed Cuzzoni and Faustina as well, a media phenomenon was born. Cuzzoni and Faustina, whilst both touchy prima donnas, had worked together before. But in London, public and press interest created the Rival Queen phenomenon, akin to a modern media storm. London society formed itself into Cuzzoni and Faustina factions.
Whether the two sopranos actually came to blows on stage is debatable, but the events ended in disaster. The Royal Academy ran out of money. The Rival Queens departed. Faustina married the composer Hasse and had a long and happy marriage as the toast of continental Europe. Cuzzoni’s marriage was less happy, with many debts. She returned to sing with the Opera of the Nobility, the company set up in rival to Handel, under Nicola Porpora. But eventually departed to Italy, dying in penury.
Benjamin’s readings included a contemporary description of the Cuzzoni’s voice from Mancini and a positively salivating description of Faustina’s face and voice which was printed in the Universal Journal. There was a funny and hugely satirical view of what it was to be a prima donna from Marcello.
There was cause for no little humour when one of present day sopranos took to the stage immediately after a big build up about her historical counterpart’s voice, or a satirical description of her historical counterpart’s behaviour. A situation which was treated with much good humour and general hilarity which, combined with the high level of performance, contributed to the distinctive quality of the evening.
Contemporary letter writers described the furore surrounding the singers, with Mrs Delaney, intolerant of those who found Handel’s work lacking, saying the English have no taste in music!
Cuzzoni’s last mentions were the pathetic letter published in the General Advertiser announcing her intention of trying to clear her debts before leaving for Rome, and a description by Charles Burney of her third visit to London, when her powers had diminished considerably. By contrast, Burney’s diary from the 1770’s gave a touching description of his visit to the elderly Hasse and Faustina in Vienna.
And what was Handel’s reaction to all this? There are sufficient anecdotes to suggest his relationship with the sopranos was stormy, though that applied to his relationship with Senesino as well. Handel’s operas for the Rival Queens show a concern to give the two ladies equal weight and balance. And this is the problem, musically Handel seems to have been a little inhibited, the operas written for Cuzzoni and Faustina do not match those written for Cuzzoni alone. But, if not quite vintage Handel, there were some very striking moments.
Curnyn opened with the overture to Ottone (1723) in a crisp and lively performance with a fast section whose oboe burbling had an apt touch of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba about it.. This was followed by Lisa Milne singing “Amanta Stravagente” from Flavio (1723), a delightfully teasing piece in which Milne’s rich voice easily threw off the runs. Her next aria was the best known piece in the evening, a stunning performance of “Se pieta?” from Giulio Cesare (1724). Here, as in some of best slower arias, Handel lets the bassoon off the leash in the ritornelli, to provide lovely counterpoints clearly relished by the orchestra’s bassoonist.
The overture and three arias from Alessandro (1726) brought us to ‘The Rival Queens’. Mhairi Lawson sang a captivating account of “Lusinghe piu care” (Sweetest allurements, true darts of love). A relaxed piece, but still with plenty of passage-work which Lawson encompassed easily, her voice with a warm, soft edge to it.
Milne’s “Che tirannia d’amor” (What a tyrannous thing is love) was a siciliana with a strongly pathetic vein which seemed to be one of Cuzzoni’s specialities. The first half ended with Lawson’s brilliant account of “Brilla nell’alma” (There sparks within my soul an unexpected yet sweet contentment).
We opened part two with Lord Hervey’s description of the Faustina and Cuzzoni factions developing in Society, followed by a stylish account of the overture to Admeto (1727) from Curnyn and the orchestra.A satirical description of the factions from a broadsheet hilariously attributed the popularity of Faustina and Cuzzoni to a papist plot. Though we can laugh today, there were probably people in London who really did take this seriously.
Milne followed this with a lively performance of “Torrente cresciuto” (Consider the torrents), a simile aria from Siroe (1728) which was obviously intended to display Cuzzoni’s talent at divisions, and Milne showed herself quite the equal. Faustina’s aria from Riccardo Primo (1727) “Quell’innocente” (An innocently suffering heart) was another apparently simple, pathetic piece which was certainly not simple and Lawson showed deceptive ease with the passage-work.Next came the overture of Porpora’s Polifemo written for the the Opera of the Nobility in 1735. Porpora used rather busier textures than Handel and Curnyn’s attractively lively performance made me wonder what Porpora’s operas would be like.
Milne’s final aria was “Miseri, sventurati” (Oh, how wretched, how hopeless) from Porpora’s Arianna in Nasso (1733). Porpora used a richly textured accompaniment with delightfully bubbling oboe. The aria is pathetically charming, and received a very affective performance from Milne. In the Da Capo she elaborated the vocal part extremely but without showy brilliance. Lawson’s final aria was from her husband Hasse’s opera Cleofide (1731), based on the same libretto as Handel’s Alessandro. Lawson sang “Son qual misera colomba” (I am like a wretched dove), preceded by a dramatic accompagnato. The aria was very much in the galant style, with the sort of difficult but gratefully written coloratura which made Hasse a great favourite with contemporary singers.
But this wasn’t the end. Christopher Benjamin gave a final reading from ‘The Art of Florid Song’ in which the charms of Faustina Bordone and Francesca Cuzzoni were described, with the author wishing to unite them in one person. Then Mhairi Lawson and Lisa Milne joined together to sing the duet, Placa l’alma, quieta il petto (Sooth your restless spirit) from Alessandro.
A delightful conclusion to an evening which mixed erudition, humour and superb performances into one profoundly satisfying whole.