Fernando, Re di Castiglia, London Handel Festival, review: one strictly for scholars

The rediscovery of Handel’s operas, neglected for so long after his death, has been one of the great musical developments of our time. The realisation of the composer’s dramatic genius was slow to dawn, but is now unarguable. Today, every self-respecting opera company has Handel in their repertory, and audiences flock to stagings that are ever more adventurous (or outrageous, depending on your point of view).

At the enterprising London Handel Festival, the company Opera Settecento pushed that quest for novelty to its limits by reviving the torso of an opera that Handel began but never finished in this form. He started to set Fernando, Re di Castiglia as a story of dynastic conflict in 14th-century Portugal, brokered by the fair-minded Spanish King of Castile. But, possibly fearing this was a little too close to home just after the Anglo-Spanish war of the 1720s, he suddenly changed tack mid-composition, renamed the characters and transferred the setting back to antiquity in the Middle East.

This produced the fine 1732 opera Sosarme. So, the question is: why would anyone want to excavate the origins of this work except as a scholarly exercise?

Leo Duarte’s buoyant and bustling direction certainly made a case for the earlier piece. But it did not prove to me that anything is gained by revisiting Fernando, except acres of recitative that Handel later wisely trimmed.

This does add some detail and conviction to the plot, but as Handel reached only near the end of act two in the three-act drama before changing the story, it remains incoherent.

Typically, Dionisio (the incisive Nick Scott) has a recitative of more than 30 lines in this version, as a prelude to his splendid aria La turba adulatrice, which Handel later condensed to a single page. There is some marvellous music in the arias, familiar from what those pieces became in Sosarme. One of the best, the extraordinarily wide-ranging Fra l’ombre e gli orori (magnificently sung by Frederick Long), was imported from an early Italian oratorio, and we lose Sosarme’s final act-one aria in this version.

One had to admire the stylish and committed singing of an excellent cast: Ciara Hendrick as a bright and agile Isabella, who in this version acquires the fierce closing aria of the fragment; the outstandingly warm counter-tenor Meili Li as Fernando, especially in an exquisite duet with Susanna Fairbairn’s Elvida.

The sprightly string group were also tireless in projecting the music, though one might have wished for a little more let-up and contrast in the middle sections of the arias. For me, the most poignant moments of the evening came from the remarkable alto Jess Dandy as Sancio, who produced an amazingly moving single note in the middle of a cadenza, a still centre among all the bustle.

A fascinating rarity, then. But this is not an incomplete masterpiece (like those of Mozart and Bach) because Handel did write exactly what he wanted by completing Sosarme. So yes, worth hearing when so well performed, but definitely not a new addition to the Handel operatic canon.


The festival continues until April 18. Tickets: london-handel-festival.com

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