Tuesday 12 February 2013

Atalanta in Cambridge

The Barberini Atalanta 
Greek original, 1st century BC
or Roman copy, 2nd century AD
Cambridge Handel Opera is back with a new production of Handel's Atalanta, to be performed in the West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge on 30 April and 1,3 and 4 May 2013. The cast includes Sarah Power in the title role and 2008 London Handel Festival Singing Competition winner Erica Eloff as Meleagro. The director is Victoria Newlyn with designs by Tom Oldham and conducted by Andrew Jones. Newlyn, who trained as an actress, teaches movement and drama on the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's opera course. She has done choreography for quite a few operatic productions. She also leads performance studies and historical dance sessions for GSMD's Department of Historical Performance. She was the movement director on Cambridge Handel Opera's 2009 production of Ariodante.

The opera was composed for the wedding celebrations of Frederick, Prince of Wales and premiered on 12 May 1736, concluding with a spectacular fireworks display. Handel wrote the piece in something of a hurry, for substantially the same company which had premiered Alcina the year before, except that Handel had a new hero, this was the soprano castrato, Gioacchino Conti. Conti was a real soprano, Handel took him up to top C in one aria, so that one of the beauties of Atalanta is the way the hero and heroine duet with each other, both in the soprano register.

The plot, such as it is, is taken loosely from Ovid, but with all the grisly bits removed. Atalanta is a princess living in disguise as a shepherdess so that she can pursue her love of hunting (an unladylike pursuit unsuitable for someone of marriageable age). She participates in the hunting down of the Calydonian boar, aided by Meleagro. Meleagro is also living in disguise, having come to try and win Atalanta's love. This serious couple is balanced by a lighter couple, Irene and Aminta, who also go through the trials of love caused mainly by Irene's fickleness. The plot, with its pastoral setting and serial misunderstandings, owes a lot to Guarini's Il Pastor Fido; there is none of the complex plotting which can happen in Handel's other opera seria.

The opera isn't performed that often, though it was done at the London Handel Festival in 2008 in a modern setting. Cambridge Handel Opera has a reputation for doing productions which stick closely to the composer's original intention, so it will be interesting to see how they manage to come up with the boar hunt which is part of the plot!

This will be the last production by Cambridge Handel Opera in its present form. The present Trust is being wound up, though a new company is being created, albeit in different form. Let us hope they manage to continue Cambridge Handel Opera's strong traditions.

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