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.
Donna abbandonata would have been a good title for the first concert of Temple Music’s 2017 Song Series. Indeed, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice seems to be making a habit of playing abandoned women.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
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.