Travel broadens the mind, so they say. It certainly broadened the mind – and the compositional output – of Halle’s favourite son, George Frideric Handel. An extensive spell in Italy resulted in him being acclaimed as one of the great opera composers of the day, before taking up residence in London, where he became a naturalised British subject. Handel absorbed influences from Italy and England but also made a significant musical mark on both countries. Back in his home town, the Händel Festival Halle this year is programmed under the title “Foreign Worlds”, reflecting not only the cultural influences he drew from his travels abroad, but his fascination with distant lands, from exotic Egypt to Jerusalem and biblical settings.

Handel, by Louis-François Roubiliac © Wikicommons
Handel, by Louis-François Roubiliac
© Wikicommons

In 1706, Handel was invited to Italy, where Gian Gastone de' Medici, who loved opera, was attempting to make Florence the musical capital of Italy. His greatest Italian opera, Agrippina, was premiered in Venice, earning the composer acclaim as Il caro Sassone (the dear Saxon) referring back to Handel's German roots. In Rome – where opera was banned in the Papal States – he learned to adapt, composing oratorios and pastoral cantatas. Then in 1710, Handel then took up residence in London to become Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, later King George I.

The Italian operas he composed for London were huge hits and Handel become a celebrity. Louis-François Roubiliac's statue of Handel (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum) was commissioned by Jonathan Tyers and first displayed in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. It depicts Handel as Orpheus, playing his lyre. It was the first life-size marble to depict a living artist – a huge accolade for this nationalised Briton. In Halle, the Quadriga Consort recreates the Vauxhall atmosphere with an eclectic programme of Renaissance, Baroque, folk and pop music.

Handel also established the English oratorio as a popular form, with no work greater than Messiah, written for Dublin in 1742, but revised for London a year later. Messiah features in the 2018 Handel Halle Festival line-up, performed by the excellent Basel La Cetra Barockorchester, but the eye-catching events in the programme that will surely have Baroque fans flocking there are the operas.

Berenice, Regina d’Egitto, was premiered at Covent Garden in 1737, but was not a success, running for just four performances. The plot is based on the life of Cleopatra Berenice III – not that Cleopatra – and the scramble to be her consort. Alessandro of Rome is the political choice, but Berenice loves Demetrio, a Macedonian prince who, just to complicate matters, is in love with her sister, Selene. Few of the opera’s vocal numbers are well known, although listeners should recognise the Sinfonia to Act 3, which Handel – a great recycler – later adapted as the overture to the Music for the Royal Fireworks. The programming of Berenice in Halle is important, for it marks the last of Handel’s 42 operas to have been performed there (a cycle starting with Orlando way back in 1922). Which other city could make sure a proud claim? The other Cleopatra also features in the festival, in one of Handel’s greatest operas Giulio Cesare in Egitto, a student performance at the Anhaltisches Theater, Dessau.

Matteo Loi (Toante) in <i>Oreste</i> © Herwig Prammer | Theater an der Wien
Matteo Loi (Toante) in Oreste
© Herwig Prammer | Theater an der Wien

“Foreign” can also mean “otherness” and arouse suspicion or fear. In Handel’s Oreste, due to an oracle’s prophecy, King Toante orders that all “foreigners” who set foot on the island of Tauris should be executed. Oreste, tormented with regret for killing his mother, Clytemnestra, is shipwrecked on the island where, unbeknownst to him, his sister, Ifigenia, has been made a priestess in the temple, tasked with the gruesome duty of slaying any foreigners who step onto Tauris’ shore. Oreste arrives at the Theater Bernburg in Kay Link’s production which impressed our reviewer Katherine Syer at the Theater an der Wien last season. She praised the director for avoiding “heavy-handed efforts to make this a lesson on the modern refugee crisis”, but instead fleshing out the two-dimensional characters. Oreste is a pasticcio, a score patching together arias from other works – including Agrippina – sewn together with new recitatives. Some of the same cast from Vienna transfer to the festival, but with countertenor Ray Chenez singing the title role.

Rinaldo was one of Handel’s first Italian operas composed for London. The action takes place in and around Jerusalem at the time of the First Crusade and concerns the actions of the impulsive knight Rinaldo. Star countertenor Xavier Sabata takes on the title role in a well cast concert performance, with Sandrine Piau as his love, Almirena, and Eve-Maud Hubeaux as Armida, the wicked sorceress determined to thwart Rinaldo and deliver a Saracen victory. Other operas programmed include the mythological Arianna in Creta. 

Marketplatz Halle © Thomas Ziegler
Marketplatz Halle
© Thomas Ziegler

Biblical excursions include the oratorio Samson, which is performed by the Dunedin Consort under John Butt and includes the enticing prospect of Sophie Bevan as the temptress Delilah. Meanwhile, Jephtha is an example of a Handel oratorio which has taken to the operatic stage with some success. Tatjana Gürbaca’s production played at the festival last year and returns with much the same cast.

“Foreign Worlds” also bring star singers from abroad, none starrier than Joyce DiDonato, who performs her acclaimed show “War and Peace” with regular collaborators, Il pomo d’oro. Dazzling countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić offers arias by Handel and Nicola Porpora, while Magdalena Kožená and Julia Lezhneva are other recitalists, the latter throwing in arias by Handel’s contemporaries Vivaldi, Corelli, Telemann and Graun.

Just as Handel was a keen traveller and ambassador, embracing other countries and cultures, the Handel Halle Festival also includes music from other genres and cultures, including Irish music from Camerata Kilkenny. While you’re in Halle, do visit Handel: The European, the exhibition curated in the Handel-Haus, to explore Handel’s travels and European outlook further.

Click here to see all events in the festival. 


This preview was sponsored by the Handel Festival, Halle