The centrepiece opera at this year’s Göttingen Handel Festival is Rodrigo, concerning the decadent Spanish king who lost his kingdom to the Moors (or Mediterranean Muslims). This was Handel’s second opera (Florence, 1707) so it is fitting that there is also a concert celebrating his first (Hamburg, 1705), which features another but fictional Spanish monarch, Almira, sometimes considered to be based on Queen Isabella and her husband Ferdinand who presided over the Reconquista, or the end of the Muslim Caliphate and re-establishment of the Castilian monarchy.

Seconda Prat!ca – Chiefs of Music and Queen’s Singers © Alciro Theodoro da Silva
Seconda Prat!ca – Chiefs of Music and Queen’s Singers
© Alciro Theodoro da Silva

This was no mere recital of arias from Almira however, but a rich and complex offering which mixed Handel with Renaissance polyphony and more recent Spanish vernacular pieces. It was performed by performance group Seconda Prat!ca, involving 12 individuals, divided into sections. Two sopranos represented Almira the Queen of Castile (Olalla Alemán) and Almira the Memory of Iberia (Maria Bayley, who also played claviciterium – a keyboard instrument – harp and harpsichord). The Queen’s Singers comprised an SATB group; The Queen’s Minstrels included two violins, viola da gamba and a lute/Baroque guitar/theorbo exponent. The designated Chiefs of Music were Jonatan Alvarado (baritone, flute, recorder and Artistic Direction) and Nuno Atalaia (tenor vihuela, lute, guitar, Musical Direction). There were thus eight singers in all and seven instrumentalists, and different combinations were deployed at different times.

Seconda Prat!ca © Alciro Theodoro da Silva
Seconda Prat!ca
© Alciro Theodoro da Silva

The repertoire included five arias from Almira, an accompagnato and a recit, plus some dance movements including a sarabande recognisable as “Lascia la spina/ch’io pianga” (a lot of Handel’s works from this period recycle a lot a lot of material). These highlighted the emotional journey of Almira through her opera, from unrequited love for Fernando, through apparent betrayal to the lieto fine, helped along the way by an excerpt from Handel’s Spanish cantata Nò se emenderá jamá (HWV 140). These excerpts were woven in with the variety of Spanish material alluded to above. Three 15th-century works (by Ycart, Cornago and Ebreo da Pesaro) led the way. The very soft playing of Bayley in the first work took a while to penetrate the ears of the audience, who didn’t totally subside into silence until she started singing. The second work featured three of the male singers with Baroque guitar and recorder, in very fine harmonisation, followed by an instrumental piece for recorder, lute and guitar. Then came the first Almira aria “Ach Schmerz! … Chi più mi piace” (for those not familiar with it, Handel’s first opera is a curious mix of German and Italian languages). Then we had a 17th-century piece, another Almira aria, and two more Baroque Spanish pieces combining lute, guitar, singers … and so on.

Olalla Alemán © Alciro Theodoro da Silva
Olalla Alemán
© Alciro Theodoro da Silva

Despite the mixing of idioms, the programme worked very well in creating specific moods relevant to Almira’s narrative, and the different instrument mixes, tonalities and varieties of colour were well integrated and greatly appreciated by the audience. All the performers brought a high level of skill, and gracious presences to the event.

Soprano Sofia Pedro, with the Queen’s Singers, made a very good impression with nice clear tone in an aria in the final piece, Durón’s Fin de Fiesta. The two solo singers, Alemán and Bayley, were both impressive, singing alone, together in duets (especially the Handel cantata) and in ensemble, and Bayley while playing harpsichord. Alemán could have a fine career as an opera singer, with a full-bodied creamy voice, elegant phrasing and singing with deep feeling, noticeably in the demanding aria “Vedrai, sá tuo diespetto”.

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