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.
From 30 April (0870 842 2241)
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 2 Ben Affleck asked TV chiefs to hide slave-owning ancestry, new hacked Sony emails published by Wikileaks claim
- 3 Driving while dehydrated can be just as dangerous as drink driving, study suggests
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 One Direction: Louis Tomlinson launching his own record label, has already 'signed two acts'
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
One Direction: Louis Tomlinson launching his own record label, has already 'signed two acts'
Tidal CEO leaves Jay Z's music streaming service only a month after it launched
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens: Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill admits he was suspicious of 'Star Trek guy' JJ Abrams
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate