Opera Settecento presents a new and previously unperformed edition at the London Handel Festival.
Many people might not even recognise Fernando, re di Castiglia as being an opera by Handel, but they may be more familiar with Sosarme. The composer began work on Fernando, from a libretto he probably came across during his years in Italy, during the 1731-32 London opera season, but the failure of his Ezio, which lasted for just five performances, forced him to speed up work on its ‘successor’ to ensure there were no gaps in the schedule. This may have been why he had already completed nearly two acts before it occurred to him that the chosen subject matter carried more than its fair share of risks.
Set in Portugal around 1300, it portrayed a virtuous Spanish king intervening to resolve dynastic tensions within the Portuguese royal family, who were not exactly painted in a favourable light. It would have played badly with a London audience to have praised a Spanish monarch so soon after the Anglo-Spanish War of 1727-29, and with the Portuguese, who were a traditional ally, by raking up a troubled period from the country’s history.
Being in no mood to take risks, Handel moved the setting to Sardis in Lydia in ancient times, changed the title to Sosarme, re di Media and all bar one of the characters’ names, and removed any Iberian references. If this is all he had done, we would hear everything that had originally been written as Fernando, only with different words, every time we listened to Sosarme. However, he also restructured several arias and cut many lines of poetry, so that much of it was lost in one way or another from the ‘new’ piece.
Opera Settecento, directed by Leo Duarte, presented Michael Pacholke’s new edition for Bärenreiter, meaning that this performance at St George’s, Hanover Square constituted the first ever to restore all of Handel’s original intentions for the work. This is because, although a commercially available recording of Fernando exists, it was made almost a decade before Pacholke’s own research and, in reality, restores less than five per cent of Handel’s original music.
The rather complicated plot of Fernando is best understood by describing that of Sosarme, albeit with the Iberian names restored. It sees Alfonso, son and heir of King Dionisio of Portugal, rebel against his father in the mistaken belief that the king wishes to disinherit him in favour of his illegitimate son Sancio. Fernando, King of Spain, who had been engaged to marry Alfonso’s sister, Elvida, is now invading with his own army in an attempt to stop this dynastic war. While Fernando tries to act as mediator between Alfonso and Dionisio, Fernando’s counsellor Altomaro, who is also Sancio’s grandfather, urges his grandson to fight to be proclaimed Dionisio’s heir. When Sancio refuses, he decides to overthrow Dionisio himself, thus proving himself to be the plotting, scheming villain of the piece. Dionisio decides to avoid an extended war by challenging Alfonso to fight in single combat. They are interrupted just before the duel, however, by his wife Isabella and Elvida. The two men learn that Altomaro has betrayed them both, and then that he has committed suicide. As Dionisio and Alfonso are reconciled, the way is left open for Fernando to marry Elvida.
“…this performance… constituted the first ever to restore all of Handel’s original intentions for the work”
Fernando generally follows the same story, but does not complete it because just before the end of Act II when Isabella resolves to intervene before Dionisio and Alfonso can fight, Handel decided to change the setting. This performance of the work also ended at this point, thus allowing us to focus solely on what had originally constituted Fernando. The evening would not have been as effective if it had been presented in any other way, as Handel cut hundreds of lines of poetry when he ‘revised’ it, and clearly it is the depths to which issues are explored, and hence the characters revealed, that makes it such an engaging piece.
All Handel operas see the protagonists consider their problems at length, but, even allowing for this, a particularly rich tapestry is woven here by virtue of the sheer complexity of the dilemmas they face. So many, for example, arise from the initial set-up alone, which sees the rebellious Alfonso, along with his sister and mother, being besieged in the city of Coimbra by his own father, and having to contemplate attacking the king in order to help the people who are starving. All of the characters are consequently put into difficult situations, but their dilemmas would not have had the same impact if they had been skated over, or if the drama had been any less coherent (as Sosarme tended to make it), which would have made it harder for us to appreciate the context in which the individuals operated.
Musically as well, the work proved to be extremely fine, with arias such as Sancio’s ‘So ch’il ciel ben spesso gode’ standing out. It did so particularly in this instance because it was delivered so richly by Jess Dandy as her contralto shaped the deep sounds that it demands with immense skill. Another standout moment came in the form of the duet between Fernando and Elvida ‘Per le porte del tormento’, which pitted Meili Li’s smooth and ethereal countertenor against Susanna Fairburn’s secure and nuanced soprano. It was noticeable, however, that Handel followed this almost immediately with the aria ‘Alle sfere della gloria’ for Fernando, when he usually, although not always, avoided giving a performer two large sings in such close succession.
The orchestra was fourteen strong, and presumably this reflects the original number for which Handel wrote Fernando. If it seemed small to us it is only because we are generally used to hearing larger forces tackle his works today. The group included two horns and two trumpets and, under the direction of Leo Duarte, seemed to get the measure of the music in every way. There were also excellent contributions from Ciara Hendrick as Isabella, Nick Scott as Dionisio and Charlie Morris as Alfonso, while Frederick Long stood out as Altomaro for the fullness and richness of his bass-baritone.
If the fact we were only offered the first ‘two thirds’ of an opera may have made the evening feel incomplete, there were some compensatory factors. These came in the form of performances of Handel’s Oboe Concerto No. 3 in G minor, HWV 287 with Duarte as soloist before Act II, following the interval practice of the composer’s own day, and the final chorus from Sosarme itself so we could be left in no doubt that the story we had just witnessed did ultimately have a happy ending.
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