I went for the first time to the Händel-Festspiele in Halle, in Germany, to see this Handelian rarity, not very often performed – I knew only 2 arias, recorded by Jaroussky, among others. The opera was in concert form, and it was performed in the Ulrichkirche, which, as the name says, is a church, and the acoustics were not optimal. It wasn’t terrible, but I missed the definition and the crisp sound that I like in Baroque music. On the other hand, I did understand almost all the words, which goes to show that really it wasn’t so bad. Another thing to be noted is that it was hot as hell. There were at least 30 degrees in Halle, and it was humid, muggy and disgusting.
The opera itself is not the best Handel has written, which kind of explains why it is a rarity, but the performance was so good that the almost 4 hours (!) passed with no problems. The orchestra was Il pomo d’oro, conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev from the harpsichord, and they were fantastic. I have heard them before, they are one of the best Baroque orchestras around. Emelyanychev, who looks like he’s 12, has an energy and a commitment which are hard to describe. The sound is enthusiastic without being boisterous, I loved them.
The plot tells the mythological story of Teseo and Arianna in Crete. The minotaur, a monster half man and half bull, is imprisoned in the labyrinth, and young Athenians are sent to Crete to be sacrificed and eaten by the monster. The young Athenian hero Teseo, with Arianna’s help, manages to kill the minotaur and leaves Crete with her. (Then he dumps her in Naxos so that he can marry her little sister, but that’s another story.) In the Handelian version there are other twists to the plot: one of the girls sent to die is Clorinda, who is in love with Teseo, and has two suitors herself, the noble Arsace and the evil Tauride. Also, every single character (except King Minos) is sung by a voice in the female range, and, in this occasion, they were all women! Zero countertenors! Unusual, these days, and the result was great! The cast was indeed incredibly talented, all the singers were extremely enjoyable.
We start with Ann Hallenberg, who took the role of Teseo, written for the castrato Giovanni Carestini, one of the most famous singer of his time, the creator of the roles of Ariodante and Ruggiero in Alcina. The part has at least three arias which are fiendishly difficult, where the coloratura is almost excessive (to my taste). Especially the second one, Salda quercia in erta balza, gives me an uneasy feeling of exaggeration. Hallenberg was simply magnificent. Her precision was legendary, her voice was as beautiful as ever, with colors of amber and bronze, and her demeanor on stage was irresistible. She always looks like she’s having so much fun; she would follow the music when her colleagues were singing their arias, smiling and participating, it was great. Even if it was a concert performance, she did make an effort of interpretation, which was particularly successful in the last recitativo and aria ”Ove son… Qui ti sfido” where Teseo attacks and wins over the minotaur. I adore this woman and I don’t understand why she doesn’t sing all over the place all the time.
Arianna was Karina Gauvin, who I have already heard twice, in Mozart (the infamous WTF-Mozart-medley Tito) and in Cavalli (La Calisto). My feeling is that this is the opera where she was most comfortable, the one better suited to her voice, which is warm and beautiful.
Kristina Hammerström, as Carilda, showed a deep, unusual contralto, which I liked very much. Mary-Ellen Nesi was another deep mezzo voice, she had the most virtuosic arias, second only to Hallenberg’s Teseo and she did a fantastic job. In particular Qual leon che fere irato was exciting; at the beginning the (amazing) horns tended to cover her, but soon the balance became better and everybody shone.
Alceste was one of my pets, Francesca Aspromonte! She is an extremely young soprano who I have heard as Angelica in the Orlando furioso in Venice, and in Cavalli in Versailles (Erismena). Her voice is extremely brilliant and fresh (she’s still in her 20s) but smooth and round; she shows a depth in her interpretation which is surprising for her young age.
The cast was completed by the only man: Andreas Wolf, who, as King Minos, gave a very convincing interpretation, with a pleasant bass.
Another major plus of the evening was meeting lots of Baroque freaks like myself!! Dehggial, Thadieu, Agathe, it was great to meat them and hang out after the concert. Definitely worth the trip and the sweat in 30 degrees muggy Ulrichkirche.