Preview: Handel and the Divas, Handel House, London
A right old bunch of prima donnas
Thursday 17 April 2008
The pretty town-house where Handel wrote, rehearsed, did business, and above all heroically ate – food was his sex-substitute – is one of musical London's most charmingly unexpected venues, with weekly period-instrument concerts for select audiences of 28 at a time. It also stages exhibitions: two years ago, a show about the castrati Handel wrote for, and from next week onwards, an exhibition devoted to their female counterparts.
"Prima donna" may carry negative connotations today, but in the 18th century it was simply a technical term, deriving from the period when the dominance of the castrati was challenged by the coming of pairs of female singers, with the prima donna having the higher voice, and the seconda donna singing lower.
The Handel House's deputy director, Martin Wyatt, explains that the trigger for these shows was their desire to explore the truth of the myths which have long been circulating about what these singers got up to, and, so far as possible, Handel too. "Since there's not even a breath of scandal about Handel's behaviour, we can safely assume that he sublimated his physical desires," Wyatt says. "But we're having fun with the women."
Among the copious exhibits is a transcript of the court case in which Handel's favourite soprano, Susannah Cibber, was sued for damages by her husband on the strength of her adultery with a handsome young blade. "He let down the Turn-up Bed softly," claimed a witness. "She laid herself upon it, upon her Back, and pulled up her Clothes; her Body was bare. He unbuttoned his Clothes, hung his Bag-wig upon a Sconce, let down his Breeches, took his privy member in his Hand, and lay down upon her..."
How she sang we can never know, but Wyatt is providing recordings of the young Handelians making the running – the magnificent Magdalena Kozena, the quirky Angelika Kirchschlager, and the irresistible Danielle de Niese.
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