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.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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.