Feature Article – The 2011 Handel Festival in Halle, Germany

“Whatever Is, Is Right”: The 2011 Handel Festival in Halle, Germany (TKT)


The oldest one is in Göttingen and the newest one in Karlsruhe, but the largest one is in Halle, the city where the composer was born: Germany has no less than three annual music festivals dedicated to George Frideric Handel. Founded in 1922 – two years after Göttingen, the world’s oldest festival for old music – it took place only sporadically for the first 30 years, but has been an annual event since 1952. Today it is a major international music festival, drawing over 45,000 visitors to the more than 100 performances with as many soloists this year.

The three festivals are, however, not necessarily in competition with one another. At a point in time where classical music is struggling to maintain its place in our cultural life, theirs is a concerted effort in the true sense of the word. The goal is not to lure audiences away from each other but to gain new ones, to pass on the excitement about classical music. The Halle Handel Festival thus not only cooperates with Göttingen but, since 2006, has also had an arrangement with the Bach Festival in Leipzig (a city that, after all, is just 25 kilometers away!) in order to attract more international visitors.

It is an international festival in other respects as well: this year artists from over 20 countries participated. The 27 orchestras included the ‘Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’ and the ‘Café Zimmermann’ (featuring Roberta Invernizzi) and other ensembles of international renown. In turn, some productions were exported. A puppet theater version of Rinaldo will be shown in Switzerland, and Israel in Egypt: From Slavery to Freedom involved Christian, Jewish, and Muslim musicians and was also performed at this year’s Israel Festival in Jerusalem.

Naturally any effort at finding audiences must also target children. For the fourth time, a children’s festival was held on three days during the main event, and a concert for the entire family has already been a tradition in Halle. While statistics show that people who ordinarily do not listen to classic music are generally drawn to Vivaldi, Handel is sure to rank among the classical composers with the greatest potential for attracting new audiences.

The overriding theme for this year’s festival was Handel at the Dresden Court, where the composer went in 1719 on the occasion of the wedding of Frederick Augustus II, the son of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, and Arch Duchess Maria Josepha, the daughter of the Hapsburg emperor. Handel did not go there for voyeuristic reasons: his ulterior motive was to recruit singers for his Royal Academy of Music. Dresden was the cultural center of Europe at the time, and Handel did indeed manage to lure some of the best Italian singers to London.

“Ten concerts have the general theme of Dresden,” explains Clemens Birnbaum, the festival director and executive director of the Handel House Foundation. He appears to be the perfect man to realize the intention of the festival, as he not only has the scholarly background for this undertaking but also an enthusiasm that is infectious. “Our theme also includes the reception of the 18th century,” he adds, mentioning the Rosenkavalier Suite that was not only premiered in Dresden 100 years ago but also performed at the opening concert (keeping in mind that the Rosenkavalier took place in 1740) and Uri Caine, the American jazz pianist who often bases his improvisations on classical music and chose Brahms’s Handel Variations for his Halle recital.

The main focus of the festival, however, is of course the composer himself. Handel spent the first 18 years of his life in Halle. The house where he was born has been extensively restored, and along with the adjacent building it is the home of the Handel Society, the publisher of the authoritative Halle Handel Edition of the composer’s works. The Handel Museum features a design award–winning permanent exhibition, “Handel the European”. After all, at the time the composer was not George Frideric Handel yet. He was still Georg Friedrich Händel. And for a few years he was to going to be Giorgio Federico Hendel, before settling down in England. (In connection with the festival, there was also a temporary exhibit which, loosely translated, was called “Dresden’s Got Talent” – a rather silly title, as Handel wanted to hire accomplished singers rather than exhibitionists hoping to become superstars overnight.) The building is also connected to a marvelous museum of about 700 musical instruments from five centuries. Among them are such gems as the oldest two-manual Ruckers harpsichord in existence (built in 1599). Visitors can not only admire the precious instruments but also learn about instrument-building techniques, such as the development from the harpsichord action with quills to the double escapement action of the modern grand piano. What’s more, the place offers instrument conservation and restoration workshops (www.haendelhaus.de/en/).

From the Handel House, it is only a few steps to the Market Church, where Handel was baptized. One of its two organs is the instrument on which the composer took his first lessons from Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. On ten consecutive days of the festival, free organ concerts are offered at lunchtime, mostly of music by Handel and Bach, but also by other contemporaries, such as Zachow and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (whom Handel met). In a separate, usually closed room, the church also stores the death mask of Martin Luther as well as the pulpit from which the reformer delivered three sermons plus the remainders of a life-size monument made in part from his death mask. But even though Halle’s old town has been carefully restored and does actually convey a sense of history, any other historic traces of Handel apart from these two sites are vague.

When the composer visited Dresden in 1719, he attended a performance of Teofane, an opera by Antonio Lotti commissioned by Augustus the Strong. The libretto by Stefano Benedetto Pallavicini mixes fact and fiction to legitimize the Saxon dynasty’s claim to power. Gismonda, widow of the Italian king, wants her son Adelberto to leave his bride Matilda and pretend he is Ottone and marry Teofane, the Byzantine princess. Needless to say, in the end evil is vanquished and peace is restored, as everyone is reconciled. When Handel returned to London, he took the libretto with him, which was revised by Nicola Francesco Haym, who cut many political references and sharpened the conflicts between the characters to advance the story. While the plot of the opera – entitled Ottone, Re di Germania – is, of course, an exercise in the suspension of disbelief, the libretto gave Handel an opportunity to pull all the registers of human emotions that were at his musical disposal. What lies at the bottom even of such dark passions as jealousy and misguided ambition is love – and consequently, in Handel’s hands the dark emotions also sound so pure and beautiful that the opera cannot but have a happy ending. The director of the production at Halle Opera was Franziska Severin, director of Leipzig Opera. In the German tradition of Regietheater, she included modern elements – such as a cigarette lighter and an Italian coffeemaker – and had the actors mime vignettes during the long da capo arias – Adelberto and Matilda, for instance, engaged in a tug of war. These mini dramas were surely not necessary to make sense of the goings-on: Ines Lex, for example, sang the role of Teofane so naturally and gave her such disarming childlike charm that her playing with toys did not add anything to her performance or our understanding of her character. However, the dramaturgic device did help to make the production not only a feast for the ears but for the eyes as well. Why Ottone has the hots for Gismonda (Romelia Lichtenstein) may be rather mystifying, but when Gismonda and Matilda (Ulrike Schneider, singing with a wonderfully warm and touching voice) started tapping their feet at the end of Act II, this only expressed what every listener must have felt, as the joy of the music was infectious. The production will also be included in next year’s festival program.

During each Handel Festival at least one opera is performed at Halle Opera, and there is also one guest production at the theater in Bad Lauchstädt, an institution co-founded by Goethe, who also regularly staged plays there. This year it was a production of L’Anfiparnaso, a madrigal comedy by Orazio Vecchi from 1594, performed by I Fagiolini of The Full Monteverdi fame. The work is an interesting combination of the madrigal (a polyphonic secular vocal piece from the early Renaissance and early Baroque period) and the commedia dell’arte. Never meant for a scenic performance, it relies on a narrator to guide the listener through the often ribald scenes. Since even an Italian-speaking modern audience would hardly be able to follow the linguistic humor and complexities of the original, I Fagiolini used a German narrator and provided visual assistance. Some of the singers – who were only sparingly accompanied by lute and harpsichord – wore masks to perform the roles of the stock characters. This made it possible to focus on the story, as much of the humor was inevitably missed.

Impressive as the performance was, why it was part of the Handel Festival eluded me. To the best of my knowledge, there is no record that Handel was even familiar with it. How far he had come in the intervening 100 years became abundantly clear that same night as Fabio Biondi’s Europa Galante gave a concert performance of Agrippina. First staged in Venice in late 1709 toward the end of Handel’s long Italian sojourn, the opera became the composer’s first major international success. It was certainly also a highlight of this year’s Handel Festival. Europa Galante performed the opera with all the energy for which the ensemble is famous. Written by an experienced politician, the Venetian Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, at the time Vice King of Naples, the libretto supplied the perfect material for Handel to finely draw the different characters in a plot that once again deals with misguided ambition, political intrigue, and love.

Few of the arias were original compositions: Handel used over 40 previous works for this opera – not only his own, but also compositions by his erstwhile Hamburg colleagues Keiser and Mattheson, with the latter complaining bitterly about the plagiarism. (In turn, Handel also used material from Agrippina for other works, e.g., his suites for harpsichord.) But be that as it may: the fine ensemble, including the outstanding soloists, turned the evening into a smashing success. Not only Ann Hallenberg was very strong in the title role; alto Xavier Sabata (Ottone) was only the first to elicit spontaneous applause after his “Voi che udite” lament – the production was frequently interrupted by enthusiastic listeners.

The theme of the Dresden court also included a performance by the international Sarband ensemble, which is dedicated to building a bridge between different cultures. In Halle, founder Vladimiar Ivanoff, who is of Bulgarian extraction, had gathered four Turkish musicians and the guests Bettina Pahn (soprano) and Joachim Held (lute) to take the listeners on a musical journey from Persia to Turkey and Venice, and from the 14th to the 18th century. The idea of different musical influences does apply to Handel (as well as to myriads of other composers), and the reception of Turkish culture was ever present at the Dresden court, but we would be hard put to find Turkish influences in Handel’s music. The fact that he may have heard Augustus the Strong’s Turkish military band during his visit seems a far-fetched reason for including Sarband in the festival program. It might have made more sense to invite, say, l’Arte del Mondo and the Pera Ensemble, who recently released a CD which fuses Handel arias with Turkish-Ottoman music in a marriage of Orient and Occident. Perhaps – who knows? – this may happen in the future. The extremely warm and well-deserved reception given to Sarband would certainly augur well for it.

Is it possible to attend the Handel Festival without hearing an oratorio? “Inconceivable,” says Clemens Birnbaum, “to have a Handel Festival without a production of Messiah in the church where Handel was baptized.” True; but the festival also offered opportunities to listen to other works. This year’s program, for example, included a memorable performance of Jephtha, Handel’s last oratorio, the first production of the work based on the Halle Handel Edition, with the Salzburg Bach Choir, conducted by Bernhard Forck, in a packed church. (The production also traveled to the Göttingen Festival.) The libretto uses a chapter from Judges: Jephtha (Paul Agnew), about to lead the Israelite army into battle, vows that if he is victorious, the first person he sees will belong to God. That person turns out to be his daughter Iphis (Chen Reiss), who had in fact persuaded her fiancé Hamor (Franco Fagioli) to join the battle and help free Israel. As she is about to be sacrificed at the altar, an angel appears and announces that she is to live, but remain a virgin and devote her life to the service of God. The oratorio – immensely powerful in itself – becomes even more poignant when seen against Handel’s biographical background: in a cynical twist of fate, his approaching blindness forced him to interrupt his work right after the “How dark, O Lord!” chorus. And Jephtha’s attempt at reconciling his beloved daughter’s imminent sacrifice to his faith does reflect Handel’s own attempt at coming to terms with his personal fate. We know that his blindness catapulted him into a deep depression; by contrast, Jephtha expresses the utopia of attaining inner peace, culminating in the final line of that chorus. Thomas Morell, the librettist, had written: “What God ordains – is good.” Handel, gradually advancing the music from melancholy to acceptance, changed the line to: “Whatever is, is right.” The sheer beauty of Jephtha’s despair in the “Waft her, angels, through the skies” aria, which transcends language, makes you believe, if only for moments, that everything is right indeed.

It was all there: the familiar and the new, conservative and experimental productions, music spanning six centuries, puppet theater, dance, famous and lesser known artists – the only element I missed at this year’s festival was Handel’s keyboard music. This seems all the more odd as Germany’s arguably greatest Handel interpreter, Ragna Schirmer – every single one of her recordings testifies to her solid and profound musicianship, beyond any glitz – is a resident of Halle. “She is currently in Asia,” explains Clemens Birnbaum. “But next year she is going to be with us!” All the more reason to attend the Festival in 2012!

(Note: The 2012 Festival will take place from May 31 until June 10. The final program will be available in December 2011 at www.haendelfestspiele.halle.de.)

Thomas K Thornton