Bodies in space that tumble, roll, race; sing, play, dance at the same time. Handel’s many solo cantatas, which analyze the extremes of human torment, are dramatic in their own right. Staged by director Adele Thomas for the headlining event of this year’s London Handel Festival, they reveal the torments of life with a new level of compassion and transparency. Anger, sadness, revenge, shrouded in music of radiant precision and beauty, chafe and trouble us. The performances here – four cantatas, each with a different singer, together with a dancer and a small instrumental ensemble – evoke great sympathy in their intensity and physicality.
Collected under the title In the realms of sorrow, the cantatas are reinforced, almost discreetly, by tiny musical interludes newly composed by Héloïse Werner: a detuning or retuning, strange harmonies, a hint of a scale, a double bass transformed into a resonating drum. The countertenor James Laing, in evening dress and “smoking” a cigar, acted as smooth master of ceremonies. Under its current music director Laurence Cummings and his team, this annual Handel festival, established in 1978, has bid farewell to advocacy and embraced creativity and progress. Cummings was key to Opera North’s 2022 Orpheus, a European baroque-Indian classical collaboration. Last year Thomas directed Vivaldi Bayazet in the Linbury Theater of the Royal Opera House. Both were seminal culminations of a new, expansive and daring direction in musical theatre.
Claire Booth’s bravery and vulnerability when it’s all undressed crushed us all
In the realms of sorrow had an ideal venue: the Welsh chapel-turned-nightclub turned squat that is now Stone Nest in London’s West End. The inevitably limited audience sits in a circle. The seats are tight; you have to like your neighbors. The eight musicians stood at the edge as if pinning down the action like tent pegs, or sometimes flew loosely up and down the stairs, with Cummings conducting from the harpsichord in a dimly lit corner. With dancer Jonathon Luke Baker merging smoothly and brilliantly into the action, each cantata had its own visual and theatrical signature. Kudos to Emma Woods for the choreography, with designs by Hannah Clark and (lighting and video) Josh Pharo.
Countertenor Patrick Terry, who throws sex to the wind in the tale of Chloris attempting to pluck her lover Thyrsis from Hades, gave a vocally stirring, heartbreaking and turbulent performance of Il delirio amoroso, HWV 99. The Soprano Nardus Williams, husky soaring voice out of nowhere as she emerged onto the balcony, wearing a sequined pantsuit that glittered as a glittering ball slowly twirled, was rhapsodic and touching in Armida abbandonata, HWV 105. Soprano Soraya Mafi, with vocal Skill and impressive athleticism – her explosive performance was more of a personalized triathlon – sang (hardly a word appropriate) Ero e Leandro, HWV 150.
To say that Claire Booth, the last of the four, stole the show from everyone is unfair: any performer, musician or dancer, could claim that honor. Her mesmerizing rendition of Agrippina condotta a morire, HWV 110 was nonetheless in a class of its own, a whole scene of shameful grief. A fully plasticized Venus with false eyelashes and a blonde wig in fur, Booth handled both lyrics and music with powerful variety, but her bravado and vulnerability when it’s all gone skinned us all. An evening that was already rich and raw became unforgettable.
The opening concert of the festival was a performance by Alexander’s feast, adapted from an ode to the music by John Dryden and first performed in 1736 at the Covent Garden Theater George’s, Hanover Square. In the 1720s, Handel was one of the early parishioners of the church. With characterful solos from soprano and famed Handelian Lucy Crowe, tenor Joshua Ellicott and bass Jonathan Lemalu, this jubilant two-part work – truly a banquet spanning three concertos – galloped along.
The rise of the cellist Sheku Kanneh Mason, from BBC Young Musician winner to global star, was fast enough to cause bystanders discomfort, until now unnecessarily. He chooses his repertoire carefully and wears the mantle of celebrity with gracious, responsible acceptance. Last Sunday he played Blochs at the Royal Festival Hall Shelomo (1917) with the Philharmonic conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. Presenting King Solomon over solo cello, this rhapsody for soloist and large orchestra, part lamentation, part sensual dance, is befitting of Kanneh-Mason’s powerful lyrical style. (Last month he made his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra with this work, which drew rave reviews.) Bloch’s subtle orchestral colors have been deftly shaded by the Philharmonic: a work that had never before seemed particularly interesting came to life here.
The orchestra brimmed and sparkled in Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1, music full of stillness and sudden attacks that can – and does – trip even the best string writing. It begins mysteriously, the clarinet slowly unfurling (beautifully played) over a distant timpani roll, until the second violins – robust and confident here – step in with an energetic reveille, setting off the symphony proper. After the concert, downstairs in the Clore Ballroom, seven members of the cello section demonstrated their skills in Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, led by Kanneh-Mason. This free event was standing room only. Classical music needs its stars. Few are willing to hang around, roll up their sleeves and try their hand at anything like this young cellist. The enthusiasm in the audience was palpable.
Star rating (out of five)
In the realms of sorrow ★★★★★
Alexander’s feast ★★★★
Sheku Kanneh Mason/Philharmonia ★★★★