outstanding performance… well-conceived programme
BSECS February 2012
It is a truth universally acknowledged that George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) reigns supreme among eighteenth-century composers, and for reasons other than his historical contribution to the establishment of Italian opera seria in England. In his lifetime, his musical wit, his expressivity, his inexhaustible energy, and his stupendous capacity for re-inventing both himself and his music earned him the epitaph ‘the great and good Mr Handel’. Today, his music is at home in opera houses and at music festivals across the world; it is equally favoured at coronations, weddings, funerals and in TV commercials (the Levi Strauss ‘Freedom to Move’ campaign springs to mind). The Messiah certainly has acquired cult status in England – and rightly so. To listen to Handel’s music is to experience life in all its glory and tragedy, or, as Jonathan Keates concludes in his rather more scholarly biography of the composer, ‘his music gives us a reason for existence’.
But there needs no all-mighty ‘Hallelujah’ dropped on unsuspecting audiences from on high to tell us this. In their outstanding performance at London’s Wigmore Hall on 9 February 2012, Bampton Classical Opera paid tribute to Handel’s genius by placing his achievements in the context of early operatic endeavours pre-dating the composer’s arrival in London. The company was founded in 1993 with a view to excavating and performing forgotten gems of the eighteenth-century repertoire, and they did not disappoint. This evening’s well-conceived programme included excerpts from Giovanni Bononcini’s (1670-1747) Il Trionfo di Camilla, adapted for the London stage in 1706 by Nicola Francesco Haym, and from John Eccles’s (c. 1668-1735) experimental opera Semele, completed in 1707 but not premiered until 1972 (Handel was to use William Congreve’s original libretto in his own Semele of 1743). Handel dominated proceedings with incidental music to The Alchemist (HWV 43), borrowed (some might say stolen) by an unknown hand from Handel’s opera Rodgrio (1707) and interpolated, somewhat incongruously, in Ben Jonson’s Jacobean comedy, The Alchemist, a revival of which took place at the Queen’s Theatre, London in 1710. The highlight of the evening, however, was undoubtedly Handel’s dramatic cantata Apollo e Dafne (HWV 122), here sung in a new and very successful English translation by Gilly French, and preceded by Sonata à 5 (HWV 288), whose violin lines, now soaring and passionate, now despondent and languid, were particularly well matched to Handel’s equally dramatic vocal work.
The evening began with the overture from Bononcini’s opera Il Trionfo di Camilla, which enjoyed spectacular success in Italy in the late 1690s and 1710s and was performed no less than one hundred and eleven times in London between 1706 and 1728. Bampton Classical Players, conducted from the harpsichord by their director Christopher Bucknall, attacked the music with as much gusto as precision, both here and throughout the evening, in the course of which the audience were treated to several memorable solos from lead violinist Persephone Gibbs and spirited continuo support from Jonathan Byers (cello) and Kate Aldridge (double bass). There followed Act III, scene 4 from John Eccles’s Semele, which represents the first attempt by an English composer to integrate Italian all-sung opera with the musical forms inherited from Purcell and his seventeenth-century predecessors. Soprano Martene Grimson and baritone Nicholas Merryweather were more than up to the challenging task of accentuating the scene’s dramatic as well as comedic potential, which comprises four very distinct elements and alternates between dramatic and pastoral settings: Jupiter’s playful wooing of Semele, their angry altercation, accompanied by petulantly scurrying semiquavers in the strings, the moment of his fateful oath, and their final encounter which ends with Semele’s destruction and a thunderous and highly dramatic burst of music as Jupiter leaves. Particular praise is due to Nicholas Merryweather, whose delicate and sincere rendition of the part of Jupiter improved noticeably upon Congreve’s libretto, which includes silly though none the less delightful lines like ‘When I Languish with Anguish’ or ‘Can you leave me, deceive me’.
Unlike Eccles’s introspective Thunderer, Handel’s conquering hero Apollo in Apollo e Dafne, subtitled La terra è liberata, requires a more belligerent approach, which again Nicholas Merryweather’s versatile baritone was able to supply. The cantata dramatizes the Ovidian story of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne, who transforms into a laurel tree in order to escape the god’s relentless and unwelcome advances. The piece vacillates between pastoral, heroic and comic modes and contains some of Handel’s most iconic musical motifs, notably the theme for strings and wind instruments following Apollo’s first recitative which resurfaces twenty or so years later in a slightly different arrangement in Acis’s aria ‘Love sounds th’ alarm’ from Acis and Galatea (1732). Both singers and players excelled in emphasising the satirical elements built both into the music and the libretto; for instance, Handel places ironic emphasis upon the words ‘ardent lovers’ spoken by the disdainful Apollo moments before he falls violently in love with Daphne. The sudden change of dynamics which accompanies the line provides something of a meta-commentary upon Apollo’s own lovesick pursuit of Daphne, soon to follow. There is delightfully comic dialogue between the two protagonists, captured in the most dynamic way by Gilly French in her English translation:
APOLLO: You are cruel-
DAFNE: You are forward-
APOLLO: You alone can redeem me-
DAFNE: Oh how unseemly!
Towards the end of the cantata Handel subjects the mood of his music to yet another transformation, doubtlessly designed to foreshadow Daphne’s own miraculous change, metamorphosing the martial tones of Apollo’s entry and his storming pursuit of Daphne into hauntingly beautiful moments of heart-wrenching tragedy in the final aria, in which the jilted god laments the loss of his beloved, promising ‘Since I cannot in life enfold you, I will hold you / evergreen without decay’. Special mention is due at this point for Georgia Brown (flute), Rachel Chaplin and Sarah Humphrey (oboe), and Zoe Shevlin (bassoon), who lent these last notes of a thoroughly memorable evening a particularly haunting quality.
The structure of this evening’s concert placed Handel’s cantata centre stage over Bononcini and Eccles, whose works, though clearly meant to illuminate Apollo e Dafne rather than to dazzle by their own merits, nevertheless shone in the most brilliant musical colours. A fitting compromise, given that in his own time Handel’s singular brilliance was by no means a foregone conclusion, least of all for the poet and inventor of shorthand, John Byrom (1692-1763). In his witty 1725 ‘Epigram on the Feuds between Handel and Bononcini’ (at the time Handel was director of the Royal Academy of Music, for which Bononcini wrote several very successful operas between 1720 and 1722), ‘Mynheer Handel’ features as a mere ‘Ninny’ to Bononcini – and vice versa. Contemporary commentators characterise the Italian as an agreeable and polished though less powerful or innovative composer than Handel. For Byrom, however, there seems to have been little discernible difference at all. ‘Strange all this Difference should be’, he commented upon the perceived rivalry between the composers, ‘‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!’ If there was any real disagreement between the two, it did not deter Handel from recycling much of his Italian colleague’s 1694 opera Xerxe for his own version produced as Serse in 1738.
Nevertheless, if there is one attribute to set Handel apart from his contemporaries it is the unhurried elegance of his musical lines, which, despite their deceptive simplicity, are profoundly capable of evoking the deepest emotions. This Martene Grimson, Nicholas Merryweather, and Bampton Classical Players demonstrated generously and earned well-deserved and enthusiastic applause for an utterly delightful performance. Here is a company to watch out for in the future.