London Handel Festival – Fernando

Fernando, re di Castiglia – Opera in two Acts to an anonymous libretto adapted from Antonio Salvi’s Dionisio, Re di Portogallo [new critical edition by Michael Pacholke, published by Bärenreiter; sung in Italian]

Interspersed with Oboe Concerto in G-minor, HWV287

Fernando – Meili Li
Elvida – Susanna Fairbairn
Isabella – Ciara Hendrick
Altomaro – Frederick Long
Sancio – Jess Dandy
Dionisio – Nick Scott
Alfonso – Charlie Morris

Opera Settecento
Leo Duarte (oboe)

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 6 April, 2022
Venue: St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London

Fernando won’t be found in the official list of Handel’s operas as such, but neither is it anything so exciting as the discovery of a lost work. Rather it is the first version of what became Sosarme – itself, still now one of the more rarely encountered, but underrated, of Handel’s surviving 39 Italian operas. As he proceeded with its composition over the course of the winter of 1731-2, an ongoing dispute between Britain and Spain about Gibraltar made it untenable to mount an opera about a mediaeval historical episode in which a Spanish monarch came to the heroic rescue of a spat among the Portuguese royal family – and the fact that Portugal was Britain’s oldest ally made it doubly insensitive. So the action was moved to the Median empire of antiquity and the characters’ names changed, with the title role now becoming Sosarme.

Handelians will recall that Alan Curtis recorded Fernando fourteen years ago, but without the benefit of Bärenreiter’s new edition of the composer’s original score which restores what he originally intended (before deletions and alterations) in its entirety. Leo Duarte asserts in his programme note that ‘the commercially available recording’ (he doesn’t specify which, but presumably means Curtis’s – which otherwise remains effectively the best and most complete version of Sosarme on disc) restored less than five-percent of Handel’s original music. But all that Handel did, in order to create the score for Sosarme, was simply to restructure some arias and cut a fair amount of recitative (the latter, a strategy he increasingly adopted with his opera librettos in 1730s, in any case, before even composing the music, in order not to tax the patience of his non-Italian speaking audiences in London whose interest in opera was less enthusiastic than it had been in the previous decade). As such Handel simply cut or re-ordered certain bars of music within existing movements, rather than writing whole new ones afresh. All the recitatives, arias and other numbers are substantially the same as they appeared in the finished opera of Sosarme (I have checked them against the incipits given for the latter in the Händel-Handbuch, the authoritative catalogue of the composer’s works). 

The notable differences are simply that the aria ‘Volo l’augello’ which concludes Act Two of Sosarme originally featured in the middle of the earlier Act One; and Fernando in fact does not contain the recitative and aria that came to conclude Act One of Sosarme. Lastly there is a fragmentary (sixteen-bar) version of an abandoned aria for Sancio that features the words of Altomaro’s ‘So ch’il Ciel’ but set to the music that would be used for the latter’s ‘Sento il cor’, and so was understandably not performed here. In Duarte’s otherwise laudable (but essentially academic) mission to present faithfully what there is of Fernando in this new edition, the practical result is an oddity in that it breaks off at what would be not quite the end of the second Act (of three) at a tantalising dramatic moment, and so there is only the torso of a full opera. The differences from Sosarme are really of interest only to the most committed (or far gone – yours truly included) of Handelians.

Those textual peculiarities aside, Duarte led Opera Settecento in a superbly galvanising account of the music, with an inspired cast. In the title role, countertenor Meili Li was the Spanish king, seeking to marry Elvida, the daughter of the Portuguese monarch, Dionisio. 

More than the reclamation of Handel’s original score, his accomplished, arresting singing was the real discovery of the evening: a firm, resounding evenness of tone throughout his range, sometimes softened into a warm, creamy sonority. As his beloved, Susanna Fairbairn was an ideal complement, and also impressively versatile, with her vocal sparkle – bringing a Mozartian expressiveness to the sighing broken phrases of ‘Rendi ‘l sereno’, and then more supple vigour for ‘Vola l’augello’. Together she and Li were exquisite in the ravishing duet ‘Per le porte del tormento’ – the one number which remained famous long after Sosarme had fallen into obscurity. The beautiful elaborations of their vocal suspensions in the da capo made the duet sound like a more Italianate, erotic version of the third of Couperin’s Leçons de ténèbres.

Alfonso is the son of Dionisio who has fomented rebellion in Portugal against his father on discovering that he intended to allow his other, illegitimate son, Sancio, succeed to the throne instead of him. Charlie Morris’s rich but squally vibrato caused his recitatives to sound mumbled and formless, though the altercations with his mother, Isabella, in Act Two’s duet were lively (this the only proper music given to Alfonso – and even his counterpart, Argone, in Sosarme is not given an aria in Act Three). Nick Scott gave a nuanced and finely sustained account of Dionisio (like Bajazet in Tamerlano, an unusual instance of a significant tenor role in Italian Baroque opera). That was particularly in evidence as he probed the king’s thoughts in the long recitative ‘Cosi dunque’, turning them over in his mind, before passionately projecting his statement of intent in the succeeding aria without resorting to shouting. Jess Dandy provided a compelling interpretation of Sancio, the illegitimate but favourite son of Dionisio. She sang with both powerful directness and captivating colour – somewhat like a less volatile Cecilia Bartoli in quality – with her terse despatch of ornaments in ‘Sì, sì, minaccia’ persuasively making the rhetorical points of the text.

Altomaro – who, in promoting Sancio’s position to serve his own advantage, is described as an ‘ill-intentioned politician, you serve your evil nature’ (as if we don’t have enough of those already) – was played by Frederick Long, not quite so much as a villain, but rather as the comic, scheming servant figure of opera buffa (such as Leporello). But that did not detract from his virtuosic fervour either in ‘Sento il cor’, or in the wide leaps and long notes of ‘Fra l’ombre’ (better known as Polifemo’s aria in the Italian serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo). Ciara Hendrick was a dependable musical force as Dionisio’s queen, Isabella, who uses her emotional power over her son to try to quell his feud with his father. In the absence of any complete version of Fernando, it was her vivacious aria ‘Vado al campo’ (effectively a rage aria with a characteristically Neapolitan-style thudding bass line) which ended the work in this form, as she vows to go the camp where Altomaro has deviously declared that Alfonso and Dionisio are to duel.

To provide a more satisfactory musical conclusion, the final coro of Sosarme with its pair of horns was performed, with lilting warmth, by all seven singers and the ensemble. Also to make up for the missing third Act, Duarte played Handel’s Oboe Concerto in G-minor between the two extant ones, ‘as a peace offering’ in his words – the outer movements somewhat plangent but eloquent; the second spritely; and the third played gently and lyrically on the flute.

In around twelve years of attending the London Handel Festival this was easily one of the best performances I have heard within this forum, and the competition for that accolade would mainly come from Duarte’s previous performances with Opera Settecento. He managed to make each number at least as affecting as the last, driven on by the urgent connecting recitatives, but not harried or forced. The result was an irresistible escalation of dramatic contrast and tension that precisely recreated the thrilling, unsettling emotional effect that the Baroque aesthetic aims at. If this were a more standard opera, these performers in a venue such as the Linbury Theatre or the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre would deservedly have drawn a full house for a run of several staged performances. As it was, the smaller audience for this rarity was privileged to have caught the evanescent beauty of a single rendition.

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