The German city of Halle is a place of pilgrimage for all Handel devotees – the composer was born there in 1685 and the Handel House is now a much-visited museum. Every year, from the end of May until mid-June, the Handel Halle Festival takes place, attracting top Baroque performers from around the globe to perform in some fantastic venues. Running since 1922, the Festival has become a key part of the Baroque calendar, exploring Handel’s works from the evergreen hits to freshly discovered repertoire in historic Handel venues, such as the cathedral, the Marktkirche, Handel House, or the historical Goethe-Theater in nearby Bad Lauchstädt.

In 2015, the focus is on “Handel and his Interpreters”. It’s odd to think that in his day, the singers performing in Handel’s operas were more celebrated than the composer himself, often charging astronomical fees. Singers such as Giovanni Carestini and Francesco Bernardi (the countertenor known more famously as Senesino) attracted great attention and Handel would tailor his writing to suit a particular singer’s style and technical strengths.

Rivalries grew between certain singers and their sets of supporters. Sell-out houses were by no means guaranteed, and the directors of the Royal Academy of Music were eager to bring in international stars for its Italian operas. Francesca Cuzzoni was one of the finest sopranos in Europe, but also one of the fieriest. The mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni was her fierce rival. Bordoni made her London debut in 1726 in Handel’s opera Alessandro… opposite Cuzzoni, who did not take kindly to her presence. Bordoni was younger and more attractive and Cuzzoni was not happy sharing a stage with her. Handel, and other composers who wrote for the pair, had to make sure that the operatic spoils were divided equally; for every florid aria penned for Bordoni, he had to write one just as demanding for Cuzzoni. These ‘rival queens’ had staunch sets of supporters, who would boo and jeer the opposition. This rivalry reached a peak in 1727 when (during a performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte) a riot broke out in the audience, bringing the opera season at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, to a premature close.

During the 2015 Halle Handel Festival, five of Handel’s operas which featured some of these star singers will be performed. Of particular note are two performances of Alessandro, the opera which originally featured Cuzzoni, Bordoni and Senesino on the same bill. The opera centres on the historical figure of Alexander the Great and his distorted view of himself that led him to believe he was a son of the god Jupiter. Based on Lucinda Childs’ production, the performance has Greek period instrument band Armonia Atanea conducted by George Petrou. Max Emanuel Cenčić takes on the ‘Senesino’ role of Alessandro, while Dilyara Idrisova and Blandine Staskiewicz hopefully avoid the bitter rivalries of Cuzzoni and Bordoni as Lisaura and Rossane, the women vying for Alessandro’s affections.

Élisabeth Duparc, nicknamed "La Francesina" was a French soprano who featured in a number of Handel works. She sang the title role of the perky Semele (desired by Jupiter but burned by his divine power), which is performed by Carolyn Sampson at this year’s festival. Duparc also created the role of Rosmene in the opera seria Imeneo, which is given on 7 June with a fine cast, with Monica Piccinini in La Francesina’s role. The opera was first performed in London in November 1740, but sank without trace after just two performances. A specially written concert version was given in Dublin in 1742 and it is this is the version that Europa Galante presents in the 2015 Festival.

Another star soprano on Handel’s roster was Anna Maria Strada del Pò. After starting her career singing for Vivaldi in Venice, Strada moved to London in 1729 to perform roles written for her by Handel. Arminio was composed in 1736 and tells the story of the Germanic leader Arminius and his defeat of the Romans in 9 AD. Strada took the role of Tusnelda, Arminio’s wife. 

Strada also took the role of Tamiri in Semiramide, a pasticcio based on the opera by Leonardo Vinci, which Handel hastily assembled in 1733 following Senesino’s sudden resignation from his ensemble. Senesino’s great rival Carestini took on the role of Scitalce, while Margherita Durastanti played the title role. In the 2015 festival performances of Semiramide, Turkish soprano Çigdem Soyarslan is joined by Gan-ya Ben-Gur Akselrod and Andrew Owens in a production from the Theater an der Wien.

Lucio Cornelio Silla, an opera seria based on events in Rome, is a key event in the 2015 Festival. Stephen Lawless’ production, conducted by Enrico Onofri, stars Filippo Mineccia as the Roman dictator title role, originally played by Valentino Urbani ("Valentini"). Silla was one of Handel’s early London operas. The success of Rinaldo in 1711, created a craze for Italian opera, which Handel was only too eager to satisfy.

Some of Handel’s interpreters earn a whole concert to themselves during the 2015 Festival.  María Espada performs a concert of arias Handel composed for Anna Maria Strada, while the great Italian soprano Roberta Invernizzi gives a recital of arias written by a variety of composers for Faustina Bordoni. Gaetano Majorano, better known as “Caffarelli”, is celebrated in a programme from the remarkable Franco Fagioli, supported by the equally wonderfyul period band Il Pomo d’Oro. Another Argentinian, soprano María Cristina Kiehr, offers arias written for Margherita Durastanti. Countertenor Filippo Mineccia performs a recital of repertoire written for Gaetano Berenstadt.

There will also be a gala concert by Philippe Jaroussky, who will receive the 2015 City of Halle Handel Prize.

It’s not quite all operatic fare, however. The festival opens with Glorias and Te Deums by Vivaldi, Handel and Charpentier, while Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks find their place in the programme. And no Handel festival would be complete without Messiah!

For a celebration of Handel’s operatic writing, Halle is 2015’s chief destination.