Parnasso in festa is Handel’s only serenata – an opera-like, but not necessarily staged, work written to celebrate a royal wedding. In this case, the subtitle … per li sponsali di Teti e Peleo, reveals that the libretto derives ultimately from the same source used by Cavalli and Rossini for their different works entitled Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo, the marriage of Thetis (sea nymph) and Peleus (Greek hero), the parents of Achilles. In Handel’s case, the god Apollo and various muses, nymphs and heroes celebrated the 1734 wedding of Anne, the Princess Royal to Prince William of Orange in the guise of Teti and Peleo. There is not a lot of what you might call plot, although Orfeo’s loss of Euridice is central to the otherwise joyous occasion. There are mythological vignettes, such as Daphne turning into a tree when pursued by Apollo, and the appearance of the royal couple was marked by their being festooned with pearls and mollusc shells, as befits the daughter of Nereus. Much of the music is recycled from Handel’s 1733 oratorio Athalia.

<i>Parnasso in festa</i> © Marcus Lieberenz
Parnasso in festa
© Marcus Lieberenz

This was one of director Sigrid T’Hooft’s wondrous witty creations, in which Baroque gesture, movement and dance, not to mention costume, are used to create glorious moving tableaux which are a perfect fit with the singing and the sounds emanating from the pit. The scenery, on the early 19th-century stage in the Goethestheater, Bad Lauchstädt, displayed the gloriously garbed personages – Apollo gleaming in gold, Clio in blue and white paniered silk and nursing an historic scroll – amongst the clouds. Eleven singers including seven soloists comprised the on-stage personnel, and two expert Baroque dancers.

The hunting scene was outstanding. To the sound of horns, the assembled throng pursued each other elegantly about the stage, holding dainty bows, arrows, tiny hunting horns and bits of old foxes and ermine things such as one’s aunties wore to weddings. The proceedings were then suspended for a half-time interval. The coro “Si parli ancor di tronfar” (We speak then of triumph, recognisable to those familiar with Athalia as “Bless the true church and save the king”) was almost too much fun in celebrating the royal couple with unbridled encomium.

<i>Parnasso in festa</i> © Marcus Lieberenz
Parnasso in festa
© Marcus Lieberenz

The Lautten Compagney Berlin were conducted on this occasion by Jörn Hinnerk Andresen, standing in for their usual Wolfgang Katschner. Mercifully, there were no added timpani, as in performances by this group in recent years. The overture was played with lively precision, and the band did good service in accompanying the singers throughout. There were very nice flute/recorder solos, especially in “Nel spiegar”. The choral singing was exemplary.

Before the commencement, we were begged our indulgence for countertenor (sopran) Riccardo Angelo Strano’s indisposition, but it was barely needed. As Apollo, he had the heaviest vocal load and was rarely offstage, obliged like the others to maintain a constant attention to pose and gesture. While one could detect that he might not have been singing to his full power and perhaps usual tessitura, nonetheless he carried the show, with warm unforced-sounding tone and impressive extended coloratura passages. Clio was sung by Hanna Herfuntner with cut-glass penetrating soprano voice and pretty and accurate fioriture.

<i>Parnasso in festa</i> © Marcus Lieberenz
Parnasso in festa
© Marcus Lieberenz

Another bright soprano with shinging high notes, Margriet Buchberger, took the role of Orfeo, bringing a layer of heartfelt sadness to the show, and spinning a spectacular cadenza in “Da sorgente rilucente”. Another countertenor, Georg A. Bochow, as Clori, was convincing in pink satin drag, baritone Elias Benito-Arranz was Marte (Mars), delivering “Del Nume Lieo” (aka “My vengeance awaits me”) with jovial resonant tone. Alto Julia Böhme was a fine Calliope and Aurélie Franck a pleasing Euterpe. Overall the successful presentation of such a work in such a way is a tribute to the whole ensemble. Only the most pure of purists would want to see every Handel opera presented in this way, but for the operas most susceptible to this sort of treatment (previous T’Hooft efforts include Amadigi and Imeneo both at Göttingen) it is a most refreshing and sustaining indulgence.

 

An earlier version of this review confused singers Margriet Buchberger and Hanna Herfuntner and the roles they sang. Many thanks to those who alerted us to this error, which has now been amended in our review and listing. [MP]