Händel as an opera composer

The Händel House in Halle has an interesting exhibit on “Händel, composer of opera” where visitors can sit and watch Georg Friedrich Händel (as a sort of Monty-Python-style figure) come in, sit down at the cembalo and explain some of his operas.

Händel explaining his operas

The spectators can push buttons to choose which opera he should talk about, and whether he should speak English or German. This is plausible, since in real life Händel was fluent in both English and German, as well as Italian and French.

Program booklets for Händel operas in Frankfurt

Of Händel’s forty-or-so operas I have only seen nine so far, but I’ve seen most of them several times:

Agrippina had its world premiere in Venice in 1709 when the composer was 24 years old. In Frankfurt I saw it a number of times in 2006 and 2008 in a brilliant production by David McVicar that he originally did for the opera house in Brussels.

Rinaldo was the first opera Händel composed especially for London, where it debuted in 1711 when he was 26 years old. I first saw it at the State Opera House in Berlin in a hilarious production that was voted Production of the Year by the critics of Opernwelt Magazine in 2003. In the second act there is a scene where Miah Persson as Almirena has been transformed into a mermaid by an evil magician. She slithers out from under the curtain, sits on the edge of the stage with her fishtail dangling into the orchestra pit and sings the hauntingly beautiful Lascia ch’io pianga (Let me cry). As I write this I am listening to the cast recording of this production, which was voted CD of the Year for 2003. Since then I have seen two more equally brilliant but very different productions of Rinaldo, one at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt with the Polish counter-tenor and break-dancer Jakub Józef Orliński and another using blue-screen technology at the opera house in Chemnitz, Germany.

Teseo was first performed at the Queen’s Theatre, London, in 1713. Three hundred years later I attended the first Frankfurt performance at the Bockenheimer Depot. It was conducted by Baroque expert Felice Venanzoni of the Frankfurt Opera staff. Three of the six singers were Frankfurt ensemble members: Jenny Carlstedt, Juanita Lascarro and Anna Ryberg. The other three were guests: the French mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez (whom I have seen in several other productions including Jacques Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène at the Châtelet in Paris) and the counter-tenors William Towers and Matthias Rexroth.

Radamisto had its world premiere in London in 1720, but its first Frankfurt production wasn’t until 296 years later, in 2016. The conductor this time was Simone Di Felice, another Baroque expert who is on the staff of the Frankfurt Opera.

Giulio Cesare program booklets from Frankfurt and Paris

Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) dates from 1724. The story takes place in the year 48 B.C. and deals with Caesar’s Egyptian war and his love affair with Cleopatra. I have seen it in two fantastic productions, once at the Opéra Garnier in Paris and several times in Frankfurt with the American soprano Brenda Rae as Cleopatra.

Rodelinda was first performed in 1725. I saw it in Darmstadt in 2004. The stage director was Rosamund Gilmore, a former ballet dancer who has a knack for getting even the clumsiest singers to go dancing around the stage. To see one of her other productions I even went to Gelsenkirchen, which turned out to be fine even though it was a city I had never considered visiting before that.

Ariodante, from the year 1735, was staged in Frankfurt by Achim Freyer and Friederike Rinne-Wolf in a highly unusual way. Instead of trying to twist the stylized medieval plot to make it seem realistic, they stylized it even more by dressing the singers up like playing cards (my interpretation) and making them stand motionless for long periods of time. The singers hated this, but for us in the audience it was a fascinating solution that helped us get settled in to the rhythm of this long and unhurried baroque opera. I saw this production several times in 2004, 2005 and 2007.

Program booklet from Vienna

Alcina had its world premiere at the Covent Garden Theatre in London in April 1735, barely three months after Ariodante. Both of these operas were based on episodes from the then highly popular knightly epic Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533). I saw Alcina at the State Opera in Vienna  in 2016, with the orchestra Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski.

Xerxes, from the year 1738, was one of Händel’s last operas, before he abandoned opera and devoted the rest of his life to composing oratorios such as The Messiah, Samson, Joseph, Belshazzar, Hercules, Judas Maccabeus, Joshua, Solomon and many others. I have seen Xerxes several times on the main stage of the Frankfurt Opera, with Gaëlle Arquez in the title role. Elizabeth Sutphen and Louise Alder, who played the squabbling sisters Romilda and Atalanta, have (unusually) decided to swap roles for the revival in 2019.

Program booklet for the Messiah in Frankfurt

In addition to these operas, I have also seen a weird and wonderful staged version of one of Händel’s oratorios, The Messiah. It was staged by David Freeman in Frankfurt in 2016, and started with a group of villagers taking refuge in a bombed-out building. There was no continuous narrative in this staging, but it included a crucifixion and a resurrection, and various prophets, sinners and hermits. 

Actually the moment I remember most clearly about this staging was when the American soprano Elizabeth Reiter did a somersault right in the middle of her big aria. I thought this was a perfect thing to do, but don’t ask me why.

My photos in this post are from 2009 and 2018. I revised the text in 2018.

See more posts on the composer Georg Friedrich Händel.

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