Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Handel and the Rival Queens @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

26 May 2012

Aggression seems to rule everything in Britain today; actors are not both hoping to gain the same prize, but are “going head to head” over it; the privately educated do not dominate public life, but “grab” the best jobs – and most of us can tell tales of how the smallest transgression, such as stepping on a toe, can often lead to a response that is frighteningly out of proportion. So it was hardly surprising that the final concert in the Lufthansa Baroque Festival’s wonderfully varied, eclectic offerings should dwell on the supposed rivalries between Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni – what was surprising was that the alleged hatred between them did not exist, and even the much vaunted onstage catfight never took place.

Rosemary Joshua was to have taken the role of Cuzzoni in this semi-dramatized staging, but she withdrew and was replaced by Lisa Milne, whose soft, rounded tones are, ironically, perhaps closer to those of Cuzzoni herself. She does not have Joshua’s facility with a trill, nor could it be said of her, as it was of Cuzzoni, that “Her high notes were unrivalled in clearness and sweetness” yet she sang with clarity and sensitivity, especially in Cleopatra’s aria ‘Se pietà’ and the lovely ‘Miseri, sventurati’ by the unjustly neglected Nicola Porpora.

Mhairi Lawson was ideal casting for the part of Bordoni, of whom Quantz famously wrote that “In her action she was very happy… she succeeded equally well in furious, amorous, and tender parts…” She was at her best in ‘Brilla nell’alma’ (from Alessandro) which gave full rein to her bright, agile tone, and in an aria from Cleofide, written by Johann Hasse, the composer whom Bordoni married and with whom she enjoyed a peaceful old age.

The two sopranos united for a beautifully sung ‘Placa l’alma, quieta il petto’ again from Alessandro; no rivalry here, just mellifluous singing, finely supported by Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company. Christopher Benjamin provided often hilarious contemporary readings, most of which tended to show that such rivalry as existed between these two great Handel sopranos came not from the ladies themselves but from their ‘fans’. So, not really all that different to our own time.

Further details of St. John’s, Smith Square concerts can be found at www.sjss.org.uk

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