Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) was born and grew up in Halle, Germany. At age 18, he moved to Hamburg, where he got a job playing several instruments in the opera orchestra. When he was 21, he went to Italy, where he spent over three years composing, performing in concerts and making contacts in the Italian music scene. At age 26, he traveled to London, and at age 27 he settled there permanently, becoming a dominant force in the English music scene for many years.
This is a transparency (for the overhead projector) that I always had with me when I was teaching opera appreciation courses at the adult education center in Frankfurt. It lists most of Händel’s operas, in Italian, but not his early ones that have been lost, and not his later oratorios in English.
So far, I have seen fifteen stage works by Händel: twelve of his operas, plus three of his ‘oratorios’ in staged performances:
Agrippina (HWV 6, Venice 1709) takes place in ancient Rome and shows how Agrippina connived to get her son Nero installed as Emperor. The opera was a huge success for its 24-year-old composer when it premiered in Venice, where it had a run of twenty-seven performances. I saw it several times in Frankfurt in 2006 and 2008 in a brilliant production by David McVicar that he originally created for the opera house in Brussels.
(HWV stands for Händel-Werke-Verzeichnis in German.)
Rinaldo (HWV 7, London 1711) was the first opera Händel composed especially for London, where it debuted when he was 26 years old.
I first saw Rinaldo 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 (HWV 9, London 1713) did not have its first Frankfurt performances until 2013 — three hundred years after its London premiere.
The Frankfurt performances were held in the Bockenheimer Depot, with Tilmann Köhler as the stage director and Felice Venanzoni conducting from the cembalo. Three of the six singers were Frankfurt ensemble members: Jenny Carlstedt, Juanita Lascarro and Anna Ryberg. The other three were guests: the counter-tenors William Towers and Matthias Rexroth, and the French mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez, who was making her Frankfurt debut in the role of the enraged sorceress, Medea.
Radamisto (HWV 12, London 1720) had to wait almost as long as Teseo for its first Frankfurt production, but not quite: only 296 years instead of 300. The stage director was again Tilmann Köhler, but the conductor this time was Simone Di Felice, one the staff conductors (Kapellmeister) of the Frankfurt Opera. Gaëlle Arquez was again in the cast, along with Paula Murrihy, Thomas Faulkner and several others. The story takes place in ancient Armenia and is based (loosely) on incidents from the Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus.
Ottone, Re di Germania = Otto, King of Germany (HWV 15, London 1723) is about a Byzantine princess, Theofane, who was sent to Rome in the year 972 A.D. to marry the German king and later Holy Roman Emperor Ottone (Otto II, 955-983). I saw it at the Händel Festival in Karlsruhe in 2023.
Giulio Cesare in Egitto = Julius Caesar in Egypt (HWV 17, London 1724) was and is Händel’s most-often-performed opera, both during his lifetime and since. 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.
The Frankfurt production, from 2012, used numerous reels of 16- and 35-mm film as props in some of the scenes involving Cleopatra — which I thought was a great idea because she is known to modern audiences mainly as a film character. In one scene they had a genuine 16-mm projector set up, and the first thing I noticed was that nobody knew how to thread the film into it, not even the bass-baritone who was supposed to be doing it.
Now, twelve years later, the Frankfurt Opera is planning a new production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto for March 2024, to be conducted by Simone Di Felice and directed by Nadja Loschky. Cleopatra will be sung this time by the South African soprano Pretty Yende, and Caesar by the American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo.
Tamerlano (HWV 18, London 1724) was performed in Frankfurt in 2019, with Lawrence Zazzo in the title role. It was conducted by Karsten Januschke and directed by R.B. Schlather, and featured the Belgian tenor Yves Saelens as the defeated Ottoman Emperor Bajazet, along with the American soprano Elizabeth Reiter as his daughter Asteria.
For this production, the inside of the Bockenheimer Depot was built up to look like a prison, and even the orchestra played inside a cage as though they were prisoners of the conqueror Tamerlano.
Rodelinda (HWV 19, London 1725) was based on a tragedy by the French playwright Pierre Corneille (1606-1684). I saw Händel’s Rodelinda 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.
Orlando (HWV 31, London 1733) was the first of three Händel operas based on episodes from the highly popular knightly epic Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) — the other two being Ariodante and Alcina. I saw Händel’s Orlando in a new production in Frankfurt in 2023.
Ariodante (HWV 33, London 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.
Alcina (HWV 34, London 1735) had its world premiere barely three months after Ariodante.
I saw Alcina at the State Opera in Vienna in 2016, with the orchestra Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski. A nice touch in the Vienna production was that seven of the orchestra musicians wore costumes and appeared on the stage from time to time, where they were integrated into the staging while playing solos or accompanying the singers.
Two years later, I saw a totally different but equally brilliant staging of Alcina at the theater in Hof, Germany, featuring ten dancers from the Hof Theater’s resident ballet company.
Xerxes, (HWV 40, London 1738) was one of Händel’s last operas, before he abandoned opera and devoted the rest of his life to composing English-language oratorios. I have seen Xerxes several times on the main stage of the Frankfurt Opera, with Gaëlle Arquez (and later Zanda Švēde) in the title role. Elizabeth Sutphen and Louise Alder, who played the squabbling sisters Romilda and Atalanta, decided (unusually) to swap roles for the revival in 2019.
In addition to these twelve operas, I have also seen three of Händel’s oratorios in staged productions.
Messiah (HWV 56, London 1742) was staged by David Freeman in Frankfurt in 2016.
There was no continuous narrative in this staging, but it included a crucifixion and a resurrection, and various prophets, sinners and hermits, as well as a group of villagers taking refuge in a bombed-out building.
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. The reason for this (my interpretation) is that she had been away for several months for medical reasons, and the somersault was to let her fans know that she was completely cured and back in action.
Semele (HWV 58, London 1744) is a secular oratorio that has been staged several times as an opera in recent years. I saw it as the featured opera at the Händel Festival in Göttingen, Germany, in 2023.
Hercules (HWV 60, London 1745) also works very well as a staged opera, even though the composer originally chose to present it in concert form. I saw it in Frankfurt in 2023, as staged by Barrie Kosky and conducted from the cembalo by Laurence Cummings.