Since the late 1970s, the London Handel Society has promoted a festival to celebrate the music of the composer christened Georg Friedrich Händel. There are always arguments, of course, about Handel’s ‘nationality’. Yes, he was born in Halle, Saxony (in, as it happens, a bumper year for composers: the 1685 vintage also includes J S Bach and Domenico Scarlatti), and settled permanently in England in 1712 – but, arguably, his music is heavily influenced by the Italian style he acquired in Florence and Rome from 1706 to 1710. Indeed, although his move to England was at the behest of his patron – the future George I – the bourgeois fashionistas of 18th-century London were hungry for as much Italian music as they could get hold of, and Handel couldn’t have chosen a better place than London at this time in which to make money hand-over-fist from writing Italian opera; he even, at one point, styled himself ‘Giorgio Federico Hendel’. It seems right and proper, then, that London should stage an annual festival dedicated to the works of this most fun-loving (and financially savvy) composer.
In this year’s Festival, the operas that made Handel money and fame are much in evidence (and the Festival is appropriately subtitled Handel’s Divas). In a prelude to the Festival, on 22 January, La Nuova Musica presented a successful performance of Alcina at St John’s Smith Square, but the operatic highlight (and debut) of the main Festival will be eight performances (27, 29, 30 March; 1, 2, 4, 5, 7 April) of Berenice at The Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio. The work – last performed at Covent Garden at its première in 1737 – will appear in a new English translation directed by Adele Thomas and conducted by Laurence Cummings. Another rare opera, Venceslao will also be given an outing in the Festival’s home base, St George’s Hanover Square (Handel’s parish church) on 26 April, with the tenor Nick Pritchard in the title role, with the instrumental backing provided by Orchestra of Opera Settecento under the direction of Leo Duarte.
There are plenty of opera highlights and extracts in other concerts of the Festival, including: Le Concert de L’Hostel Dieu’s presentation of Handel vs Porpora on 8 April at St George’s; Costly Canaries, an exploration of Handel’s search for super-star sopranos by London Early opera on 11 April (also at St George’s); and a more detailed look at two of these sopranos – Kitty Clive and Susannah Cibber – in Handel’s Rival Divas presented by Lauren Lodge-Campbell, Helen Charlston and Southbank Sinfonia, under Adrian Butterfield on 27 April (St George’s). On 24 April at St John’s Smith Square, The Early Opera Company under Christian Curnyn compare another pair of Handel’s divas in Handel and the Rival Queens, featuring Mhairi Lawson (as Faustina Bordoni) and Eleanor Dennis (as Francesca Cuzzoni). Not quite an opera, Handel’s Neapolitan cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (the precursor to the masque Acis and Galatea written for the Duke of Chandos) is given a rare performance at the Wigmore Hall on 3 April, by London Handel Orchestra under Adrian Butterfield, with Anna Dennis, Anna Huntley and Edward Grint in the title roles.
Notwithstanding the main theme of the Festival, the composer’s religious music isn’t neglected; there’s a come-and-sing Messiah at St George’s on 31 March for those who want to do more than listen. On 10 April London Handel Orchestra and soloists from the Royal College of Music will undertake an extraordinary re-enactment by performing two of the eleven Chandos Anthems in the building for which they were written: St Lawrence, Little Stanmore (formerly the chapel at Cannons, the palace of the Duke of Chandos, which still contains the Chandos family tombs). Another unusual performance is being given on 12 April at CLF Art Cafe in the Bussey Building, Peckham: Nico Bentley + The Pencil Collective will present Handel Remixed, a re-imagination of several pieces of the composer’s music (including his 1707 Dixit Dominus) for live performers, DJ and electronics. More traditional performances of Handel’s church music can be found on 25 April at King’s College Chapel (London) where the choir there will be presenting Music for a Queen to include the Utrecht Te Deum. On Palm Sunday (14 April) London Handel Players will give two performances of J S Bach’s cantata for that day, in a programme at Charterhouse that will also include Handel’s Gloria for soprano and strings. The highlight (and closing concert) of the Festival will be a presentation of the oratorio Athalia on 29 April at St John’s Smith Square with London Handel Orchestra and Singers under Laurence Cummings.
Some of the events need to be booked through individual venues, but full details of the Festival (including booking instructions) can be found on the Festival website