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.
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
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.