Alexandra Coghlan

Hit-and-miss Handel at the Göttingen Festival

Hit-and-miss Handel at the Göttingen Festival
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Ask anyone to name the greatest classical composers and certain names are bound to come up – Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven, Bach. But ask them which composer’s music they’d most like to live with for a week, exclusively, and answers will change. Greatness is one thing, but a great festival composer is quite another – someone whose works have not only sufficient quality and variety to stimulate, but also a certain comfort, a clubbable ease about them. Handel is one such, a composer whose music has spawned festivals from London to Halle, Dublin to Tokyo.

It’s only appropriate, given the composer’s long association with England, that two of these festivals – London and Göttingen – are now directed by an Englishman. Laurence Cummings has spent a career with this music, and his affection, understanding and excitement radiates out through the dancing energy of his instrumentalists and the emotional pitch of his singers.

A concert performance of Handel’s late oratorio Susanna was a bold choice to open the 2016 Göttingen Handel Festival. Cursed with an anonymous libretto whose arthritic poetry creaks and groans more loudly with every passing couplet ('Righteous Heav’n beholds their guile, / And forbears his wrath awhile.'), it’s also based on the story of Susanna and the Elders, a tale beloved by the Victorians for its rather dubious combination of moral outrage and mild titillation.

But out of these unprepossessing materials Handel weaves a minor masterpiece. Susanna may be a paragon of wifely virtue, but she’s also a flesh-and-blood woman, desperately in love with her young husband Joacim, and dignified even at the near-tragedy’s lowest moments. The elders too, a pair of dirty old (testament) men, move beyond cliché to become two fallible, infinitely pitiable cowards. The decision here to cast a single singer (the vocally woolly but dramatically effective Raimund Nolte) as Susanna’s loving father Chelsias, her lying, would-be seducer and her Judge, was a canny one, hinting at the tale’s hypocrisy, and muddying the moral waters in one simple, but infinitely telling, gesture.

The affectionate chemistry between Emily Fons’s Susanna and Christopher Lowrey’s ardent Joacim was palpable, offering a charged emotional core to the drama. This may have been a concert, but with not only Fons and Lowrey but also Colin Balzar’s First Elder (an outstanding last-minute replacement for John Mark Ainsley) bringing such immediacy to their interactions, we needed no staging to embellish the human truth of these encounters.

Christopher Lowrey was all vocal energy, keeping Joacim free from priggish virtue by the blazing brilliance of his coloratura, virtuosic embellishments bursting suddenly through his careful crafted phrasing like lightning through cloud. Fons played a longer game. Vocally playing it safe in the first two acts, she found new poise for the courtroom scene, before dispatching her final 'Guilt trembling spoke my doom' with astonishing assurance. The girl of Act I became a woman suddenly in control of her musical destiny. Thrilling stuff.

With Balzar and Ciara Hendrick’s Daniel offering nicely judged cameos, and Cummings’ orchestra supporting all with real rhetorical flourish and percussive bite, this oratorio had all the dramatic heft of an opera – a pure music-drama at once disquieting and deeply satisfying.

In contrast to Göttingen’s sternly brutalist concert hall, the town’s Deutsches Theater is a tiny neoclassical jewel, a natural frame for this year’s festival centrepiece – a production of Handel’s Imeneo. In the hands of director Sigird T’Hooft this exquisite space became a time capsule, lit solely by candles. The staging too, historicism run wild, was a fusion of authentic costumes, dances and gestures – as close as anything you’re likely to see to an original Handel performance.

While T’Hooft is emphatic that her work is inspired by the past rather than a slavish recreation of it, the effect of so much historical homage is to suck the living energy from the show. Tying the performers so tightly into a physical language not their own, restricts their expression, rendering it emotionally sterile, fatally inauthentic. It’s a huge dramatic sacrifice to make, and one that does work better with a lightweight doily of an opera like Imeneo than it would with any of the more substantial dramas. The physical artifice aligns with the contorted conventions of opera seria to create an over-elaborate bon-bon of a show – delicious, for a moment, before dissolving and leaving nothing but a slight sweetness behind in the mouth.

At the centre of the opera’s pirate-based love triangle was Anna Dennis’s captivating Rosmene – as vivid a creature as could emerge from three hours of pouting and posturing. She gamely pulled the strings of her rival lovers Tirinto (a rather underpowered James Laing) and Imeneo (William Berger, a picture of disdainful foppishness). Add a troupe of dancing pirates (superbly costumed by Stephan Dietrich), and a smattering of fine arias, and this should all have added up to a hit, but this production is so busy looking over its shoulder into the operatic past that it misses the contemporary banana skin underfoot, staggering and sprawling its way into an accidental farce.