Saturday, 2 February 2019

Semele and beyond: Harry Bicket talks about the English Concert's latest Handel opera tour

Joyce Di Donato in Act 1 of Handel's Alcina  in 2014 with Harry Bicket and the English Concert photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
Joyce Di Donato in Act 1 of Handel's Alcina  in 2014 with Harry Bicket and the English Concert
photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
In April 2019, Harry Bicket will be conducting Handel's Semele in what has become the English Concert's annual tour of one of Handel's operas (and oratorios), performing at the Barbican Centre, but also in Paris, Vienna and at Carnegie Hall in New York.


Harry Bicket (Photo Dario Acosta)
Harry Bicket (Photo Dario Acosta)
When we meet, Harry and the English Concert had recently given a concert at the Saffron Hall in Saffron Walden, where they combined music by Vivaldi, Purcell and Bach with Locatelli's Concerto for four violins in F major Op.4 No.12. Harry sees the Locatelli as being in the same mould as Vivaldi's Four Seasons and often programmes the two pieces together. With an ensemble like the English Concert he is not nervous about casting the soloists from amongst the orchestral players, and in fact the piece itself is very competitive as each player performs the same phrase in successive entries, so the subsequent players must match the playing of the first.

This was the English Concert's fifth visit to Saffron Hall, and Harry finds it a wonderful place and a brilliant idea. For Harry, the programmes need to balance interest and popularity to attract the audience, so that the programme included Bach's Orchestra Suite No. 3 and Concerto for violin in A minor, along with Purcell's Suite from Abdelazer (which has a recognition factor because of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra), with the Locatelli as something less well known, and the audience loved it.

He feels that he can include more unusual repertoire in the context of such programmes partly because audiences have come to trust the brand. He comments that as a child he bought Penguin books even if he did not know the author because he trusted them, so would give the book a go. And this is what orchestras have to do, to build up the trust of the audience so that audience members feel that they will enjoy whatever the orchestra presents.

Harry Bicket  & The English Concert at the Drapers Hall, 2015
Harry Bicket  & The English Concert at the Drapers Hall, 2015
In April, Harry and the orchestra being their tour of Handel's Semele starting in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, with performances in London at the Barbican, at the Sage Gateshead, and in the USA in Dartmouth, Ann Arbour, Philadelphia and at the Carnegie Hall in New York. The cast includes Brenda Rae as Semele, Elizabeth DeShong as Juno/Ino, Benjamin Hulett as Jupiter, Soloman Howard as Cadmus/Somnus, Ailish Tynan as Iris and Christopher Lowrey as Athmas.

This is the latest in a series of Handel operas and oratorios that the English Concert has performed, with their tour becoming an annual highlight (including Rinaldo in 2018, Ariodante in 2017, Orlando in 2016, Hercules in 2015 and Alcina in 2014). The idea originated with the Carnegie Hall, after a casual conversation between Harry and the then director of the hall in 2007 after the financial crash. The result was the idea to stage Handel operas, after all they are relatively cheap to put on (the Italian operas do not generally use a chorus), and there are lots of good Handelian singers around at the moment (in fact, Harry adds that it is easier to cast Handel than Verdi), and many big name singers were interested in singing roles. The Carnegie Hall schedules the performances on a Sunday afternoon so that the music can be performed relatively complete and the annual Handel opera/oratorio has become a hot ticket.

Harry comments that it is a big event for the orchestra, and a shot in the arm to have that kind of response and following, as their general life in the orchestra is not that glamorous. It is a success story both for the orchestra and for Handel's opera and oratorios. On the basis of the Carnegie Hall performance, the orchestra has been able to sell it other theatres hence the significant number of venues on the tour (this year will be the first time they take one to the Sage Gateshead).

Handel: Rinaldo - Sasha Cooke, Joelle Harvey, Iestyn Davies - The English Concert (Photo Robert Workman)
Handel: Rinaldo in 2018 - Sasha Cooke, Joelle Harvey, Iestyn Davies -
The English Concert (Photo Robert Workman)
The casting mixes European and American singers, and quite often the Americans are making their European or UK debuts, and a lot of the European singers are making their Carnegie Hall debuts. For Handel's Alcina in 2014 [see my review] they had what Harry calls a 'fantasy football' cast with Joyce DiDonato, Alice Coote and Christine Rice. A cast it is more easy to assemble for a concert than for a staging with its long rehearsal period.

The operas are given without a staging and Harry feels that if you cast them right, you don't miss the staging. That great singing actors are able to find their way through a long da capo aria and use it to tell a story. He points out that a singer needs to be able to spend five minutes saying 'I love you', three minutes saying 'You betrayed me', and then five minutes returning to 'I love you' and make the return different, to take the audience on a journey. Which needs singers with real heart and emotional empathy.

Usually the orchestra has not performed Handel oratorios in this series because they need a chorus, but they did Theodora and this was very successful, so the Carnegie Hall was keen to bring in another one with chorus. Semele (technically an oratorio with chorus) is an opera in everything but name (Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens, would refer to it as a bawdy opera'), and unlike most of the oratorios it does not have an Old Testament subject, instead treating Greek myth.

Harry comments that the work has a daunting history in the USA because Kathleen Battle did a famous performance in the title role at Carnegie Hall and subsequently recorded it with John Nelson conducting.

Semele is the most operatic of Handel's oratorios and is one of his strongest works. It is a mixture of comedy and tragedy, and the scenes with Juno can be light and frivolous but she is in many ways a tragic character, having to put up with Jupiter's philandering, and Harry feels you have to be careful not to make it too slapstick. The humour should come from people taking themselves seriously. Semele's aria 'Myself, I shall adore' is ravishing, but has to have a sense of humour about it too.

The series will be continuing, there are plans for further Handel operas but they may be taking a break from Handel and doing some Gluck, Harry mentions the three reform operas Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste and Paride ed Elena (all premiered in Vienna in the 1760s), and he would also love to do Armide. He thinks they are strong pieces, yet not much done so that Alceste has not been performed at the Met for 30 or 40 years, and Paride ed Elena never.

David Daniels in Robert Carsen's 2006 production of Gluck's Orfeo at Lyric Opera of Chicago © Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago 2006
David Daniels in Robert Carsen's 2006 production of Gluck's Orfeo
at Lyric Opera of Chicago © Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago 2006
The advantage of doing them in concert is that there is no worry about the staging and some of the ballet music can be missed out. Harry mentions a production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice which he conducted at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2006, which was directed by Robert Carsen. Carsen stripped out virtually all of the dancing, there was no interval and it lasted just 80 minutes. Harry calls the result bare, stark and brilliant [see the review in the Financial Times]. But he also mentions that he will be doing the Berlioz version (Berlioz conflated the Vienna version and Paris versions with mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot in the title role) with a choreographer directing, so that almost certainly will have lots of dance in it.

We talk about what baroque dance and ballet music feels like when performed with authentic period dance and Harry comments that it is not just dances in theatre pieces, any 18th century suite is about dance and it is important to remind yourself how they were originally danced. The Bouree was evidently originally a country dance performed with clogs on the feet, which would give a vastly different feel as compared to how the Bouree from Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 is performed. How a piece was danced should help to inform the tempo and the phrasing.

Harry with be back performing with the English Concert in June 2019, when they are giving a concert at the Wigmore Hall performing music by Handel, Legrenzi Corelli, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Vinaccesi and Marcello.

And then for the Summer Harry will be heading over to Santa Fe where he is Music Director of Santa Fe Opera. This Summer he will be conducting Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, an opera he has not conducted for 20 years. He is excited by the prospect and has a good cast (Amanda Majeski, Emily D'Angelo, Ben Bliss, Jarrett Ott, Tracy Dahl, Rod Gilfry). Harry feels that it is an opera that is so hard to do, and that you need to take the plot seriously, and he adds that the autobiographical elements are very telling  as Mozart married the sister of the woman that he was in love with (he was originally in love with the singer Aloysia Weber and ended up marrying her sister Constanza). And that in the second act, the work goes to places that Mozart would never to do again.

Harry Bicket and the English Concert
Harry Bicket and the English Concert
Handel - Semele, The English Concerto, Harry Bicket, Brenda Rae, Elizabeth DeShong, Benjamin Hulet, Soloman Howard, Ailish Tynan, Christopher Lowery, Clarion Choir - Theatre des Champs Elysees, Paris (3/4/2019), Barbican Centre, London (5/4/2019), Sage, Gateshead (7/4/2019), Hopkins Center for the Arts, Dartmouth, USA (10/4/2019), Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor (12/4/2019), Carnegie Hall, New York (14/4/2019), Annenberg Center, Philadelphia (16/4/2019)



Full details of the English Concert's 2018/19 season from its website.


Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Of arms and a woman: Blondel late medieval wind music inspired by Christine de Pisan (★★½) - CD review
  • 1769: a year in music from Ian Page & The Mozartists  (★★★★) - Concert review 
  • Requiem Masses for murdered royalty: HerveNiquet & Le Concert Spirituel in Requiems for King Louis XVI & Queen Marie Antoinette by Cherubini & by Plantade (★★★) - concert review
  • In transcription: Berlioz arranged Liszt and Richard Strauss arranged Willner at Conway Hall (★★★★)  - concert review
  • A powerful journey: Sir Colin Davis complete live Berlioz recordings on LSO Live  - CD review
  • Faure's Requiem from the Schola Cantorum of Cardinal Vaughan School (★★★) - CD review
  • Something of a discoveryReverie, Icelandic art songs (★★★★) - CD review
  • Hugh Levick - Remnants of Symmetry (★★★★) - CD review
  • Everybody can! Nadine Benjamin's debut in Tosca (★★★★) - opera review
  • The main thing is to sing well and be a good performer: I chat to soprano Chiara Skerath, associate artist with The Mozartists and Classical Opera - interview  
  • Perhaps a film manqué: Stefan Herheim's Queen of Spades at Covent Garden (★★½) - opera review 
  • Lux: A trio of striking works to celebrate the Norwegian girls' choir's 25th anniversary (★★★★) - CD review
  • Early and late: Schumann from Robin Tritschler & Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Stories in music: Roses, Lilies & Other Flowers from The Telling (★★★★) CD review
  • Bach in Cologne: Christmas Oratorio performed in the Kölner Philharmonie (★★★★★) concert review
  • Finding an identity in classical music: composer Shirley Thompson on her career and recent projects - interview
  • Home

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