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Sosarme en travesti

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Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 15:46 UK time, Wednesday, 15 July 2009

senesino.jpgThis is an opera-fest week for me with the BBC: tomorrow I'll be introducing Sosarme (1732, here in its earlier incarnation as Fernando) as part of the Radio 3 Handel opera cycle; then on Sunday it's Partenope (1730) at the Proms. As luck would have it, they were written around the same time, so I'm thinking about several of the same issues as I prepare for each.

The first, aristocratically 'directed' Royal Academy of Music had collapsed in 1728, and Handel branched out (more or less) on his own thereafter, leasing the King's Theatre with the impresario John Jacob Heidegger for the next five years. How did this move away from aristocratic control affect his artistic decisions? And what about financial considerations, given that he was no longer being bankrolled by the nobility? As so many artists since Handel's time have discovered (Mozart, for one), greater independence didn't necessarily mean greater artistic freedom: for a demanding single patron one simply substituted a more amorphous (but often equally demanding) 'general public'.

Still, Handel did stretch his wings: the story of Partenope had been rejected by the Academy directors in 1726; if it was Handel who proposed it then, he lost no opportunity in reasserting its worth after he set up business on his own, as it was the second opera in his first season. The directors probably rejected it because of its less-than-heroic plot, revolving around the love intrigues of queen Partenope: contemporaries did not think its wry take on male valour was the kind of thing Londoners would warm to, Owen Swiney suggesting it would be met with 'contempt in England'. And indeed Handel's gamble didn't really pay off, as Partenope had only seven performances in its first season.

Sosarme demonstrated a different sort of challenge, with a plot which represented rivalry between a king and his heir just as relations between George II and the Prince of Wales, Frederick, were becoming particularly strained. It may be for this reason that the original setting in medieval Portugal (when the opera was called Fernando) was changed for one in the ancient Middle East (Sosarme), with fictional characters. The audience nonetheless liked it: Viscount Percival said that it 'takes with the town, and that justly, for it is one of the best I ever heard', and it had a respectable eleven performances in its initial run.

Given that the first audience liked it so much, I am looking forward to introducing it tomorrow - albeit with its original title and character names, in Alan Curtis's 2006 recording with Il Complesso Barocco. But I think this recording is going to prove the point that the reception of Handel's operas (today as in their own day) is strongly dependent on the quality of singing and musicianship. Handel's cast featured the famous castrato Senesino in the title role, and other highly respected singers in other leading parts. And Handel wrote music that catered to those singers' talents: for example, the bass Antonio Montagnana, with an agile and powerful voice, had demanding, wide-ranging music written for him. While there is certainly some good singing on this recording (from Lawrence Zazzo, Veronica Cangemi, Max Cencic and Marianna Pizzolato), there are also times that singers (and, for that matter, instrumentalists) can't cope with the demands placed upon them. So, while it's terrific that we are able to hear a (more or less) complete cycle of Handel's operas on Radio 3 this year, I for one will be hoping that no-one treats this list of recordings as definitive...


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