Every year, Halle honours one of its favourite sons – composer Georg Friedrich Händel, who was born there in 1685. The Handel Halle Festival takes place from the end of May until early June and attracts the top Baroque performers from all over the globe, as well as listeners eager to discover rareties in Handel’s home town.

Georg Friedrich Händel
Georg Friedrich Händel
The 2017 festival focuses on Handel’s biblical oratorios. In the 17th century, oratorios had become a substitute for opera in the season of Lent. Handel’s oratorios were composed in English, as opposed to his operas which were, even in London, given in Italian. All his sacred oratorios were based on the Old Testament – even Messiah (which you'd expect to be based on the New Testament) contains more text from the Old. Some of Handel’s oratorios were also based on mythological sources, but this year Handel Halle sticks to the biblical ones.

Handel invented the English oratorio almost by accident. Reviving his masque Esther in 1731, Handel was approached by a member of the royal family to present it in the theatre where his operas had been such a hit, but the Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, put his foot down and refused to allow biblical stories to be acted on the stage. Handel decided to present Esther in concert instead, using the same singers to be heard in his Italian operas, but without any stage action, costumes or scenery. It became a huge hit in 1732 and the English oratorio was born. Esther is performed by La Risonanza under its founded, Fabio Bonizzoni, who has done much to popularise Handel’s Italian cantatas in recent years.

Deborah received its premiere performance at the King's Theatre in London on 17 March 1733. It tells a dramatic story, taking place in a single day, based on the Biblical stories found in Judges. The Israelites have been enslaved by the Canaanites for twenty years when the prophetess Deborah foretells the death of the Canaanite commander, Sisera, at the hands of a woman. Barak, an Israelite commander, leads them into a victorious battle and a woman, Jael, assassinates Sisera as he sleeps in her tent. Handel’s score is a pasticcio, recycling music from other compositions in Deborah, but the choruses – sometimes written in eight parts – are grand and spectacular. Handel and his impresario were so confident of success that they attempted to double the ticket price to one guinea for the pit or a box – a move which caused outrage. Jan Tomasz Adamus conducts Capella Cracoviensis and a fine line-up of soloists, including star countertenor Xavier Sabata.

Oper Halle © Thomas Ziegler
Oper Halle
© Thomas Ziegler
Increasingly, opera companies are choosing to stage Handel’s oratorios. Saul was a big hit for Glyndebourne and Jephtha has recently been staged in Canberra and Amsterdam. The latter is the only oratorio to be staged in Halle during its festival. Jephtha is also based on a story in Judges, in which the leader of the Israelites challenges the Ammonites, making an audacious promise to God that, if he is victorious, he will sacrifice the first creature he meets on his return. However, he is met by Iphis, his daughter. Unlike the biblical account, an angel intervenes to stop the sacrifice. Jephtha is Handel’s final oratorio, premiered at Covent Garden in 1752. During its composition, the composer went blind and this adds poignancy to Jephtha’s plight. Tatjana Gürbaca directs Oper Halle’s production, with a cast led by tenor Robert Sellier in the title role.

Handel’s most popular oratorio is undoubtedly Messiah and Halle recognises this with not one, but three performances! Both versions of the score – originally composed for Dublin in 1742, then revised for its London première the following year – are given, along with Olivia Trummer’s jazz reworking Rejazz Greatly. Solomon’s Knot and Concerto Köln should provide plenty of contrast in their performances.

Händelhaus © Thomas Ziegler
© Thomas Ziegler
Messiah is a little unusual in that it doesn’t have a clear narrative – more a series of reflections – and it is entirely based on scriptures. Handel’s use of the chorus in his oratorios was innovative, his training having made him familiar with Lutheran chorales. In Messiah, for instance, “For we like sheep have gone astray” sees the chorus fragmenting into different groups on the word “astray”. Then, at "We have turned every one to his own way," Handel’s lines veer even more independently. The famous “Hallelujah” Chorus is bound to rouse Halle’s audiences.

Other notable concerts at the 2017 Handel Halle Festival include recitals by noted singers such as Xavier Sabata, Sonia Prina and Vivica Genaux, as well as couple of puppet performances of Acis and Galatea (one of Handel’s biggest hits) and Giustino. Handel’s Water Music celebrates its 300th anniversary. Written in London for a pleasure trip down the Thames for King George I of England in 1717, the three suites contain some of Handel's most famous music. Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin performs it in the 9 June programme. 

Click here for a complete list of festival events.


Article sponsored by Handel Festival, Halle.