Parnasso in festa, per li sponsali di Teti e Peleo, HWV73 of 1734 was the only full scale serenata, a type of opera intended to mark a royal wedding or state occasion, that Handel ever wrote. It was composed to celebrate the marriage of Anne, Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of George II, and Prince William of Orange. For this reason, Handel never envisaged it having a life beyond its initial run of five performances, but it proved so popular that he ended up reviving it for his 1737, 1740 and 1741 London seasons.
While Handel’s operas, and many of his oratorios, relied on tension, confrontation and dilemmas to generate drama, a serenata could not really do the same. This is because a celebration of a wedding had to highlight love and virtue, unblemished by any suggestion of darker elements. What is notable about Parnasso in festa is the way in which it does sustain our interest without creating the types of antagonistic situations to be found within his operas. It does this by handing characters a sense of regret (the librettist remains unknown) before turning the situation around to transform their sorrow into a celebration of virtue. For example, Orfeo expresses remorse at having lost Euridice because he turned to look at her, but Apollo tells him that the clear strength of his love for her will inspire future generations.
Similarly, Clio, muse of history, reminds Apollo of how he tried to pursue Daphne, only for the gods to save her by transforming her into a laurel tree. Apollo seems embarrassed by this, but in this instance it leads him to invite everyone to join him in drinking in praise of Bacchus. This creates a more light-hearted atmosphere, but it serves the purpose of entertaining the spectator as even Clio begins to feel inebriated!
While Act III of The Sleeping Beauty introduces a plethora of fairy-tale characters who help celebrate the marriage of Prince Désiré and Prince Aurora but essentially act as a diversion from the real story, the whole of Parnasso in festa might be seen in this light. It is a diversion full of mythological figures who are gathered to sing the virtues of Peleus and Thetis on the occasion of their wedding, and as a mirror to the real life situation. The fact they display remorse or embarrassment gives them character, but, in keeping with the jubilant atmosphere, Mars’ proclamations are firmly focused on triumph and fame with any real suggestions of carnage and bloodshed being swept under the carpet.
What really moves us, however, is the sheer quality of the music. Some of it was recycled from his oratorio Athalia of 1733, but this should not detract from the fact that much of it was specially composed. Orfeo’s first aria ‘Spira al sen’ celeste ardore’ is a beautifully tender piece, sung extremely well here by Charlotte Bowden, while the hunting chorus ‘O quanto bella gloria’ reveals extremely sophisticated writing as the trumpets ring out. The orchestra for the piece contains flutes, horns, recorders, trumpets and timpani alongside Handel’s ‘usual’ opera orchestra comprising strings, bassoons, oboe and continuo instruments.
The serenata was originally presented on a single set with the performers, it is believed, being costumed but not moving about. Given this, the presentation style of this performance from the London Handel Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Butterfield, felt highly appropriate. The orchestra was as large as any that could reasonably fit onto the Wigmore Hall stage, but by bunching the seven soloists in a semi-circle to one side they could come to the front when required while also being in the right formation to create the chorus. It is assumed that, as with Handel’s operas, the chorus would have comprised the soloists, only with a few additional men in this instance, and here three joined the one male soloist, John Lee.
Lee was an excellent Mars, revealing an extremely smooth bass, but the apparent disparity between the number of male and female parts is explained by the fact that two of those taken by mezzo-sopranos would have originally been sung by castrati. Of the six female soloists, Keri Fuge as Clio and Katie Bray had the largest parts and both performed magnificently.
Fuge displayed an extremely beautiful soprano, in which her strong underlying technique and ability to shape her sound saw her glide through lines in mesmerising fashion. Bray revealed a full and beautifully controlled mezzo-soprano in which the vibrato seemed so inherent to her voice that it never felt superfluous or excessive. Their duet that begins ‘Cangia in gioia il tuo dolor’ was one of the highlights of the evening, while Jess Dandy as Calliope, Emily Sierra as Clori and Annabel Kennedy as Euterpe all played their parts to the full. This performance proved to be an excellent advocate for a piece that, although enjoying two recordings, still deserves to be heard a lot more in the concert hall.
This performance constituted part of the 2020 London Handel Festival, which continues until 10 April. For details of all events in this year’s programme visit the designated website.